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Revisiting My Thoughts On Narnia In The Context Of Jo Walton’s Among Others

I posted my review of Among Others a couple of weeks ago and whilst I wasn’t particularly keen on the book as a whole, there were parts that I absolutely loved, such as the quote about double standards I included in my August round-up.

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What I loved most was the commentary on Lewis’s The Last Battle. I once wrote a rant about that book; I stand by it still today. I found the book almost intolerable and felt tricked, betrayed, and I’m rather glad I read it as an adult because I think if I’d decided to finish the series when I first starting reading it, at around age 10 or so, the impact would’ve been greater. Maybe not because of the association of make-up with low morality as that would’ve likely breezed over my head – I wouldn’t start experimenting with make-up until my teen years – but certainly the sudden deaths and previously benign and powerful Aslan showing up and saying ‘oh yeah, you’re dead’ would’ve disturbed me no end. I might’ve missed the fact he was Jesus but to kill the characters and not let Susan into Heaven? I think any child would be confused by that.

Anyway, to get to the topic, I found Jo Walton’s commentary on Lewis excellent and in my opinion spot on. I loved how she commented on it in a ‘to hell with that’ attitude, in a way that would surely relieve the feelings of anyone, perhaps especially girls, who have been affected by it. This, for example (though I’m not saying anyone would be affected to this degree):

I’ve had periods for two years. I was afraid they’d stop me being able to see fairies, but they made no difference at all, whatever C S Lewis thought about puberty.

Of course Lewis doesn’t speak of periods – if make-up scared him then periods must’ve been worse – but here Walton points to the general feeling one gets when they read The Last Battle, that the boys can sail straight on in to Narnia and Lucy can because she’s young, listens to the boys, and can yet be saved from ‘nasty’ things – in fact she’ll never even be tempted by them, she’s pure now, forever – but Susan can’t. Peter was older than Susan, but he’s fine.

Though Walton does bring a sort of ‘them and me’ thread into her book:

Now Gill has pointed it out to me, I noticed the girls on the bus passing around a forbidden lipstick and giggling. They remind me of Susan…

It’s not a ‘proper’ division of characters, of personalities, but Mori is never one of those girls. By this Walton isn’t saying that Mori’s perfect, what she’s doing is showing differences and perhaps explaining the differences Lewis applied to Lucy and Susan. At the same time, though Mori is no friend of these girls, there is something more in Walton’s words than any slight meanness – Walton shows how trivial what Lewis intimates is. The girls at Mori’s school may not be particularly nice (it could be argued Mori isn’t nice either, of course) but they’re not particularly harmful either. And certainly they’ll grow out of that giggling if given the chance, the chance they’ll likely get simply by growing up, the chance Lewis does not seem to want to give to Susan because he wants to infer she’s awful and not a candidate for change.

Moving away from the one book to Narnia as a whole:

Lewis meant Aslan to be Jesus. I can sort of see it, but all the same it feels like a betrayal. It feels like allegory. No wonder Tolkien was cross. I’d have been cross too. I also feel tricked because I didn’t notice all this time. Sometimes I’m so stupid – but Aslan was always so much himself. I don’t know what I think about Jesus, but I know what I think about Aslan.

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Walton sums up several points. Firstly that a child is unlikely to see the subtext unless shown or unless they know a great deal about the Bible and happen to be very very clever. Secondly that it can feel like you’ve been tricked and somewhat betrayed. Tricked because you thought you were reading a nice straight out fantasy, a children’s book. Betrayed because you thought you were just reading a fantasy and that was all there was to the book and that that’s a very good thing. (I’d say the way Lewis includes Christianity in Narnia suggests a book you expect to study in your latter secondary school/high school years. Yes, a child will understand it if told, but it reads as the sort of book you should be working out for yourself… which you have the faculties to do in your teen years, not as a child.) And if you’re reading this book as a child and it’s been written for children and you don’t ‘get it’… you might feel a little silly. Thirdly the sudden, if you weren’t expecting it, blending of Jesus and Aslan. Aslan was always powerful but he’s a lion, king of the jungle, and not obviously Jesus who isn’t exactly taught as someone to love but fear. (God was a different matter, but it’s past tense in Christianity and Jesus, as a human, is written differently.) Yes, Jesus is God and God is Jesus and thus Jesus is all powerful like Aslan but he’s… different.

I still can’t forgive Lewis for his allegory. I understand now why Tolkien said in the prologue that he hated them. You can’t take something that’s itself and make it stand for something else. Or you can, but you shouldn’t push it. If I try to think of it as a retelling of the gospels, that diminishes Narnia.

I think it diminishes the power of the books, too. I read Tolkien and saw the films without knowing he’d done the same as Lewis – inserted Christianity into the text. But when I was told and looked back on it I liked it; it is, to use Walton’s thought, never pushed on you. It’s there for the taking but you’re free to interpret it in your own way, to apply your own values to it. And this, I think, makes it worth a lot more than Aslan rising again on the third day.

I appreciate Narnia now perhaps more than I did a few years ago. The distance between me and my reading is enough that I can study it better, if not completely objectively. And I appreciated Walton’s commentary. She says what others have said, brings her own thoughts to the table, adds to the discussion. She can help the jaded reader, too.

But I’m still looking at Narnia as 6 books and conveniently setting aside 7. Lewis makes me question everything enough that I wonder if the fact there are 7 books is because 7 is the holy, perfect, number…

Have you read Narnia? How did you feel about the ending?


Alex (Sleepless Reader)

September 14, 2015, 1:27 pm

I must read this!

I’ve read Narnia for the first time this year (born & raised in a non-English country) and was appalled at some things, but The Last Battle was especially hard to swallow. I wonder how I’d feel if I’d read it as a child – would I feel as outraged on Susan’s behalf or at the whole “congrats, you’re dead!”?


September 15, 2015, 1:18 pm

I’m with you–Walton redeems the silliness of Susan not being able to go because of lipstick. Mori’s wondering whether she’s too old for fairies and noticing the girls with the lipstick points out a more useful division–the noticing sort of adolescent, and the fitting-in sort.

April Munday

September 15, 2015, 9:35 pm

I, too, put off reading The Last Battle until I was in my twenties, but I’m a Christian and I knew what was coming. I always knew the books were allegory; Lewis said they were allegory. He was an expert on allegory and even wrote a book about it.

Susan wasn’t condemned for wearing lipstick, but for what it represented. She had denied the truth of what she had learned as a child. You’re right, though, Charlie, you do have to know what’s really going on to understand it.

I didn’t feel in the least cheated when I got to the end, but it is the one I least enjoy rereading because of the pain of getting there.

Jenny @ Reading the End

September 17, 2015, 2:02 pm

I’ve never understood the feeling of betrayal about reading the Narnia books. I never got that feeling, although I read the books when I was quite small and didn’t spot the religious subtext until years later. I think they work very well as adventure stories whether you’re aware of CS Lewis’s Christianity or not. And to me, yes, Lewis’s faith influenced what he wrote, but every author’s ideology colors what they write ALWAYS, and people recognize that and don’t get upset about it. I dunno.

That said, The Last Battle is hot garbage and I never reread it. Blech. :p



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