Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Monday, April 03, 2006

More thoughts on Narnia

Well, I have now finished the entire series, so I can kvetch about it. I wasn't crazy about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but I actually did enjoy the middle books. On the whole, the less Lewis preaches, the more I enjoy him. I also read the Twayne’s Masterwork Series companion and The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide by Peter J. Schakel, which I found very useful and perceptive, although both of them seemed determined to ignore (for the most part) things that I found problematic.

Although some of his criticisms of the series are a bit too sweeping, on The Last Battle I have to agree with Philip Pullman. It seems to send some really horrible messages, and I just hope that a lot of kids don't pick up on them. First, there seems to be a tinge of the Victorian sentimental "good children dying young" meme. Secondly, dark-skinned people (also known as "Darkies") are just bad by nature, and only one of them, evidently, is worthy of heaven (or the Narnian version of it). Thirdly, in the first book Edmund was ready to betray his siblings to certain death and is forgiven; in this one Susan is presumably cast into the outer darkness for being a normal teenage girl. (One essay I read suggests that she may still have a chance, but the implication is there.) None of the "good" people seems more than mildly disturbed by this - shades of the saints enjoying a ringside seat watching the suffering of the sinners in hell, or it is more "out of sight, out of mind"? There is also no indication that they will ever be reunited with their parents, who were also killed in the train crash, and that doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Ain’t family values grand?

In the meantime, do any readers spare a thought for poor Susan? Her entire family has just been wiped out and as she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” she doesn’t even have the comfort of thinking of them in heaven. What happens to her afterwards could make a wonderful book.

I have seen several defenses of Lewis against Pullman’s charge of misogyny, but they all seem to miss the point. For the most part his female children aren’t too bad, but he seems to have a real animus against adult women. OK - some people would say against adults in general, with the exception of Frank the cabby and his wife in The Magician’s Nephew, but only the female villains are truly menacing on a metaphysical level.

One thing that annoys me really has nothing to do with Lewis himself, but with some of his adoring legions of followers. There seem to be as many non-Christian, mythological elements in these books as there are in Harry Potter (Bacchus?), but hey, that’s OK - presumably because they subordinate themselves to Aslan, while the Harry Potter books are denounced as “Satanic.”

I found what to me is the best explanation so far for my position on the HP side of the Harry Potter/His Dark Materials-Narnia divide (to the extent that there is one - I am aware that a lot of people enjoy all three series) in a book called Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics From Cinderella To Harry Potter by Alison Lurie:
In Narnia, final happiness is the result not of individual initiative and enterprise, but of submission to the wisdom and will of superior beings. Misbehavior can be forgiven if it is sincerely repented...

One complaint that both [critics] make against the Potter books is that in them evil and good are ambiguous and shifting. Apparently harmless or innocent characters turn out to be working for dark forces, and wicked-looking characters are revealed to be messengers of light. In Narnia, on the other hand, good and evil are clearly distinguishable...

The world of Narnia is simple and eternal: goodness, peace, and beauty will eventually triumph. The world of Harry Potter is complex and ambiguous and fluid. And in this, of course, it is far more like our own world, in which it is not always easy to tell the ogres from the giants. When we choose books for our children, do we want them to teach obedience to authority or skepticism, acceptance of the status quo or a determination to change what needs to be changed?
(I would modify Lurie’s “obedience to authority” to “unquestioning obedience to authority,“ since I don’t think she is arguing that obedience in itself is a bad thing.)

A couple more curmudgeonly views can be found here and here.

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