Unable to sleep last night, I got up and spent two hours re-reading The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis.
I had recently started re-reading the series, based on a really awesome series of blog posts by Ana Mardoll, who is doing a chapter by chapter break down of the Narnian books. It makes for fascinating reading, because as with many such things that you love as a kid and never take a really close look at, there’s…well, a lot going on.*
Susan, always a problem, get so much the short end of the stick when you look closely that it’s…honestly, kinda bizarre.
To take another beloved children’s classic, we all mostly hate Mary in the Little House books, because Mary is very hateable. Not a problem, no question, and while Ma gets really weirdly passive aggressive and pits them against each other on occasion, still, there’s Something About Mary, and not in the good way.
Now much has been made of the problem of Susan. I knew that going in. But even as I thought that she got screwed, I did recall Susan being sort of like Mary in the books as a kid, and then I went and re-read them and actually looked closely, and…
There is a really weird dichotomy between what Susan does and how the narrator tells us to feel about it. Susan is actually a very practical, tender-hearted person who cries to find herself back in Narnia and won’t shoot to kill if she can help it. The narrator, however, appears to detest her, and even Aslan (who is really a colossal dick in many, many ways throughout the books—such is the prerogative of gods) isn’t great. We are told flat out that “Susan was the worst” and other such, when she’s…actually behaving pretty reasonably all around.
Lewis, when he gets on a roll, is a really good writer. He is fun. The were-wolf’s speech in Prince Caspian is lovely. The whole sequence with the Isle of Dreams in Dawn Treader (particularly the American version, which is a LOT better–there’s a wiki with the side-by-side changes, yes, I was shocked too) is fabulous. I even liked the discussion of various kinds of loam eaten by dryads. And I will hear no evil said of Marsh-wiggles.
And as much as I detested Last Battle for many, many, many failures, for unbounded racism and generalized despair and some “Hey, let’s shoot Bambi’s mother!” gratuitous tearjerking and “YAY! Everybody dies! Let’s all be thrilled and gloss over how Eustace and Jill’s parents and poor Susan must feel right now!”—despite all that, as apocalypses go, the end of Last Battle can stand toe to toe with Revelations any day, as far as I’m concerned. The stars falling and the damned creatures running into Aslan’s shadow and the lighting and the monsters….it’s a helluva thing.
As a kid, I recall hating the first half of Last Battle. I have, in fact, only read the first half twice (unless I blotted it out) and once was as an adult, last night.** But I know I read the apocalyptic bits any number of times, because man, that’s a scene.
He’s a fine writer.
As a narrator, on the other hand, he tries to do this avuncular thing that works pretty well about ninety percent of the time and just crashes and burns the other ten percent. He shows beautifully. His telling—when it works it works, but in some cases, you get this weird tug-of-war where Lewis-the-writer shows you a thing and Lewis-the-narrator tells you how to feel about it, and Lewis-the-narrator is flat-out wrong.
It’s…yeah. I have no idea how to even process that. I’m not sure it even can be processed—he’s the author, what he says goes, so perhaps wrong is the wrong term. But it’s weird. If you read it and decide that he’s an unreliable narrator—dude. Edmund is enchanted, abused, and NINE YEARS OLD. Eustace has been kidnapped and (while whiny) is doing exactly the right things in trying desperately to get his captors to take him to a British embassy (although he’s still a dick to Reepicheep, which is one of the unforgivable sins.) Nikabrik the dwarf is the only sane one of a bunch who are running a losing war based on astrology (and Caspian drew first!)
And poor Susan just gets screwed, from first to last, by a profoundly dickish god, presumably because Lewis needed an object lesson in The One Distracted By Worldly Concerns to go with his Virtuous Pagan and make a nice set.
I’ve often noted that writing dialog is an entirely different skill-set than writing everything else. You see this illustrated most starkly in fan fic. There are people who cannot write a book, who should never be allowed within ten feet of a book, who can nevertheless write dialog that leaves you convulsed on the floor. And there are people who can write exceedingly well who produce some profoundly wretched dialog. (Mr. King, I am looking in your direction.)
Maybe the narrator, like dialog, is a different skill than Writing The Rest Of The Stuff. Or maybe sometimes we’re just wrong about the books we’re writing. I don’t know.
That’s all. There is no moral, except I should probably not read beloved but problematic children’s books at two in the morning.
Tomorrow, my mother arrives, and then—to France and cheese! Woot!
*In fairness to Mr. Lewis, many authors might not hold up so well to a line-by-line scrutiny—but on the other hand, if they weren’t such beloved children’s classics, one wouldn’t feel the need to go over them with a fine toothed comb in the first place.
**Okay, look, I KNOW because it’s Lewis, that Rilian and Jewel are not an item, but…dude. I mean, you don’t even have to walk across the street to ship that, and I don’t even do slash.
9 thoughts on “Narnian Apocalyptica”
I only read the Narnia books in the last two years, largely due to the movies. Yes, I said that.
I hated Last Battle. All but the very end, which I do agree is at least as awesome as Revelation if not more so.
I think I might need to read these blog posts you mention….I never liked Susan all that much either, but then I’d never BE the reasonable person if I were chucked into Narnia. I’d be Lucy, right enough. And probably be killed by my own lack of healthy suspiciousness!
Oh, you should totally follow Narnia with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. It’s pretty refreshing.
I have two sets of children’s books I should reread – and because I started with rereading the Narnia I haven’t gotten to the L’Engle A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, etc.
It’s hard to go back and realize that tug-of-war; indeed, Lewis WAS telling us how to feel, but nowadays a good editor would have returned that to him with notes about “show, don’t tell,” and all sorts of other things like “We’re hearing the author too much here.” Of course, that was his goal, we were to hear the narrator like the voice of God.
I am not sure how I feel about that. I know – had heard since the films came out, about how all of Narnia was terrible and the films were going to redeem it. I always prefer books, but I am honestly troubled by how many adults read those book to me as a child, and … I don’t know how they could have missed what seems obvious now.
If that makes any sense.
Have you read Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan?” Because if you haven’t, you should. You’re not the only one who has a problem with Susan!
It’s in the anthology ‘Fragile Things,’ and it also has a re-interpretation of the meeting between Aslan and the Witch which is quite…different.
I always figured the problem was that Lewis was a man growing up in the early 20th century who just didn’t have any young women in his life. He lost his mother to cancer when he was 10; after his best friend was killed in the war, he became close (though apparently platonic) with said friend’s mid-40s mother; and he never married or, apparently, even had any long term relationships with women until his 50s.
So what that adds up to, to me, is that while Lewis loved and understood children, and was once a young man himself, he just didn’t know how to write a teenaged girl. He had no insight into how they think, what concerns them, and so on. As a result, there are “motherly” characters and “little girl” characters, but his one teenaged girl character generally hangs about in the background doing nothing much, utterly overshadowed by her big brother and little sister, and is written out of the story as soon as is feasable. Combine that with aboslutely typical 1900-1950 cultural mysogynism and it’s not hard to see how Susan got to be what she is (and isn’t).
I honestly can’t think of anything Susan does in Wardrobe or Prince Caspian that’s really important. She constantly mirrors Lucy or Peter’s point of view and could easily have been removed, with all her lines spoken by another character, except that it would mess up the symmetry of the “two kings and two queens” thing.
I really liked in the movies that they gave her a more central role, and in Caspian, gave her a little ship-tease subplot to keep her story interesting.
Thank you for this; I cannot quite articulate my feelings. Narnia exists for me on a level of emotional truth far below the reach of all my literary and critical training. You are correct; The dichotomy between writer and 10% of the narrator (the shadow Lewis?) is so very very weird. For me, Lewis as narrator can be so wrong, and Narnia so vivid, that I almost view it as an author who does not fully understand or accept what he has created – not the first nor last artist whose work turns out to be deeper and richer and open to interpretation than he himself allows, of course.
Or, perhaps, he seems like one of his own flawed characters. Lewis-the-narrator at times seems as trapped within himself as Eustace within a dragon’s skin. Yearning for Aslan to cut open the husk and set him free, to open up the cave of shadows and let him into the true world. If all creators must someday answer to their creations, we can imagine a day when Lewis himself must gaze into the lion’s eyes and be judged.
And maybe that’s it for me; just as there is a true Narnia inside the mortal Narnia, I feel as though there is a truer Chronicles of Narnia inside the flawed, of-its-time one we have to analyze. Just how little would it take to change things? A line a book?
“Your sister’s story is not finished yet”, said the lion, his eyes far away and sad, “but she is not forgotten”. But that was all he would say, while sthey walked in the sunlight of that country.
“Nikabrik the dwarf is the only sane one of a bunch who are running a losing war based on astrology (and Caspian drew first!)”
Not just that battle; the entire thing is based on astrology. Lewis was fascinated by the mediaeval Seven Planets cosmology, it comes up again and again throughout his whole (huge) oeuvre. And it turns out the Narnia books mostly map neatly onto the planets, one book per planet. Google “Planet Narnia”. There’s a book about it; I was very sceptical reading the blurb on the cover… then I read the book, and there’s no denying it. “The Lion” is mostly Jupiter, hence the odd intrusion of Father Christmas, the most Jovial character in English folklore. (Though Lewis hadn’t decided to do seven books at that point, so there’s also a lot of Saturnine influence in the character and associations of the White Witch.) “Prince Caspian” is Mars, it’s the only Narnia book with more than one battle. “Dawn Treader” is Sol — “Dawn” is a bit of a clue, and then there’s all the gold, and the dragon-slaying, and the bringing the invisible to light and banishing of darkness and nightmare. And so it goes on.
What does that have to do with Susan? Well, for one thing, the number seven is a key to the series, so if there’d been eight earth-born monarchs at the end it would have broken the pattern. “The Last Battle” is Saturn-centred, or at least the first half of it is; Lewis used Saturn as a symbol for the modern age (look at the commercially-based destruction of nature and erosion of traditional religion in the early chapters). Saturn is the god of old age, which in a child-centred series means adulthood; Susan abandons her childhood and succumbs to Saturn. That leaves her in the cold, along with the Dwarfs imprisoned in their imaginary stable and all the Narnians who turned aside at the Door. Those who do pass the Door pierce the final veil and ascend beyond Saturn into the heaven of God and the elect (the outermost crystal shell, in the mediaeval cosmology).
Why Susan rather than any of the others? Susan is the only one of the eight who shows any hint of sexuality; even if you add in Shasta and Aravis from “The Horse and His Boy”, we’re told they get married when they’re grown up so as to fight and make up again more efficiently. On the other hand, Prince Rabadash’s attraction to Susan — which, according to both Edmund and Susan, she encouraged when he was visiting Cair Paravel — is the driving problem of that book. Susan, like Jadis and the Green Witch of “The Silver Chair”, is a temptress. You might remember that even the saintly Lucy nearly falls when she discovers a spell that would make her “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals”.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Lewis. He died in 1963, too early for either second-wave feminism or the Sexual Revolution. And of course he was male himself. The whole idea of women experiencing sexuality on their own terms, and that being OK, would have been utterly foreign to him — not only would he have disagreed, he wouldn’t even have had a mental hook to hang it on. And so, when one protagonist had to fall under the influence of Saturn to fit his big schema, it had to be the one who had previously played the temptress.
I’ve gotten irked and frustrated reading the Mardoll deconstruction posts and comments, because they seemed to me all too often to lose sight of why we had all read the Narnia books in the first place. When you get a commenter saying, “A competent writer would. . . ” with the implication that Lewis was not a competent writer — well. This post, though, got the balance between acknowledging that there are problems in Narnia and remembering why many people love the books anyway just right. And was beautifully expressed, too.
“Okay, look, I KNOW because it’s Lewis, that Rilian and Jewel are not an item, but…dude. I mean, you don’t even have to walk across the street to ship that, and I don’t even do slash.”
I’m just off a reread of Mary Brown’s The Unlikely Ones, and I can’t help but think that her Prince and Unicorn pair were a sidelong commentary on Rilian and Jewel. Brown has the two very much in love, and it’s explicitly more than friendship if not explicitly sensual/sexual; and she has the Witch who curses the Prince for spurning her say something nasty like, “I wasn’t to know he was a creature-lover, was I?”
(There are a gajillion problematic bits in Brown’s book where women are pretty much always either vile temptresses, dull superstitious peasants, or, well, the protagonist. But somehow I keep coming back to it.)