Harry and Edmund’s excellent adventure

Today’s blogtastic memesplosion is the anti Narnia piece in the Guardian. It’s a crock of shit.

As a former Christian I have no brief to defend the faith. However, I loved the Narnia books growing up and I still enjoy them. They’re in the great tradition of English children’s books, presenting a group of kids separated from their parents and forced to deal with magic, evil, strange new worlds, death, and their own character. I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s classics like The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and devoured the entirety of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. All of these books were written within thirty years of the turn of the century, and depict a lily-white sheltered imperial England that is completely foreign to modern children. They are not tuned to modern sensibilities, and parts of them are inexplicable or offensive today. As it happens, E. Nesbit was a Fabian Socialist and Arthur Ransome was a Communist who ended his life in the Soviet Union. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, was a red-faced beef-eating English conservative and Christian convert whose books are obvious Christian allegories.

You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy. Creation and Fall, the betrayal and crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the challenge of Islam, and the Apocalypse are all covered in the Narnia books. As children of secular humanist liberal intellectual agnostics, my brother and I read the Narnia books as pure fantasy, and only later did we learn the allegorical meaning. Certainly I was prepared for the Christian story later in life at least in part because I’d been emotionally moved as a kid by Lewis’s lion-Christ.

Polly Toynbee’s clumsy hatchet job treats Lewis and the filmed interpretation of his book the way Bill O’Reilly treats Cindy Sheehan. She’s helped by Disney’s clumsy promotion of the film using churches and churchy music, no doubt a result of Mel Gibson’s success with his emetic Passion S&M romp. They’re movie promo idiots. And the movie may well be awful. But American 21st century evangelical culture is not Lewis’s fault. The attempt to somehow make the Narnia books into a fundamentalist political statement is a failure whether it’s the churchy types or the atheists doing so. They’re children’s fantasy books with the most vanilla Christian allegory imaginable behind them. There are far more heavy-handed and sectarian things dumped on kids in this country every day, starting with the entirety of Christmas entertainment. Our whole culture is immersed in Jesus Twee.

She doesn’t like Christ as a lion and wants him as a lamb. He’s both in the Narnia universe. He’s a powerful and dangerous living God (“not a tame lion”) and also a murder victim. Lewis’s often frightening lion-God is a hint of adult spirituality for children who’ve been fed happy-Jesus in a world that clearly is more like coffee than like candy. It’s a dangerous and flawed universe, and God is not your pet.

Eventually Toynbee loses her shit completely and starts blaming Lewis’s story for Christianity itself. The best quote is Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls.. Um, that is Christianity. The rest is setup and explanation. Later, she says that …Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children’s minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy – but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism. Yes, again, that’s Christianity. It’s also adulthood, and it’s not sadistic to present suffering and guilt in a fantasy novel intended for older children and young adults. Not to do so is to insult their intelligence and maturity.

The clearest descendent of Lewis’s Narnia stories today is J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular series of novels about the young magician Harry Potter. Like Lewis’s children, Harry is fated from birth to do great things. Like them, he is taken out of the everyday world of English children into a magical one. And like them, he increasingly confronts a dark and puzzling world that has evil and sadness mixed in with the magic and joy. You don’t have to believe in sorcery to bond with Harry and his friends; you just have to be a kid or remember what it was to be one, and follow him through that discovery of grown-up successes, failures, and emotions.

In the same way it’s not necessary to believe in Jesus or in a magic world of talking animals and mythical creatures, ruled by a God-like lion, to enjoy the Narnia books. They’re about childhood and testing your child’s strength against an adult world. The religious marketers pushing Lewis’s fiction and this new film in Christian bookstores will be forgotten fifty years from now but the books will remain.

Conservative religious types will attack Harry for his witchcraft and apparently anti-Christian activists need to bite Lewis as well. The kids know better in both cases.

29 thoughts on “Harry and Edmund’s excellent adventure

    1. Most of us are…
      We just don’t get the press because we don’t do hateful, lame things like protest AIDS victims funerals or blow up women’s health clinics. The vast majority of us tend to wish those xtians would just go away and stop pretending they share a religion with the rest of us…
      mojo sends
      p.s. hail eris… all hail discordia…

      1. Hey, I was once a clown for Jesus…**
        but my personal experiences, including a year of catholic high school, teaching CCD, being raised bi-religious (I’m half-jewish), I can honestly say that the only good Christians I’ve ever known were Hindus.
        I’m not just talking about blowing things up. I’m talking about being gay bashing, sex hating, misogynistic social reactionaries. This isn’t rare in my neck of the woods. I only know 3 or 4 self-labeled christians (out of the thousands I am related to or know through church) who are for gay marriage.
        **And I really was a clown for Jesus. Were were a troupe called Gods Fools & Company and we went to retirement homes and children’s hospitals to spread the good word. The hypocrisy was mind-numbing, but I did get to have sex with a mime in a clown suit in a confessional when I was only 13.

      2. Re: Hey, I was once a clown for Jesus…**
        The hypocrisy was mind-numbing, but I did get to have sex with a mime in a clown suit in a confessional when I was only 13.
        Best. Quote. Ever!

      3. Re: Hey, I was once a clown for Jesus…**
        I actually started this journal as a search for said mime. His name is Charlie, and I learned through the grapevine that he has MS now. I always had an inclination to the silly side of naughty, and I’ve been lucky to meet others who are willing (or willing to be convinced) to join me in the fun.
        I’ve been a lucky gal in many ways.

      4. Re: Hey, I was once a clown for Jesus…**
        I should’ve said “but I did get to have sex with a mime while I was in a clown suit, while we were in a confessional when I was only 13…”

      5. Re: Most of us are…
        Actually Ford is pulling a lot of advertising from a lot of sources. I seriously doubt that Rev. Weasel over at AFA told the comity to stop buying Fords.
        I have worked in print advertising, (and in LGBT media) and it strikes me from my experience that Ford Motor Company is doing what most large comapnies do when sales are down: they look for quick cost savings, and marketing is one of those departments that ends up first on the block when the tough times come.
        Moreover, they are probably getting market reasearch that says that gays and lesbians with the money to buy Fords are probably buying Toyotas or Volvos, because at the end of the day Fords blow and are too expensive compared to better made cars.

      6. Re: Most of us are…
        I’ll concede about 50% with you on the idea that it is really just a cost cutting decision… however, appearances are everything in marketing, yes? Ford’s willingness to appear as if it is kissing Christain tail is telling, im(nsh)o. Because the ads in question were Jaquars (yeah, they can suck mechanically, but they look so niiiice). Land Rovers not so much… so maybe I’ll concede 75%.

  1. Seconded.
    The Narnia books don’t rely on Christian allegory to be good and meaningful; they possess (exclusive) value irregardless of their correlations/guiding influence.

      1. It just sounded right at the time. I was having trouble forming sentences – nothing was working correctly, and after a while I had to resort to whatever made me feel good. I see now that I could have just said “regardless”. I actually appreciate your comment, ’cause little did I know it was gnawing at my brain.
        It’s a fake word, but I didn’t make it up. I’ll add that to my defense.

      2. that’s okay – I didn’t mean anything by it – although it reminded me that when I tried to inform my father that “irregardless” wasn’t a word he hucked an ashtray at my head.
        LJ is safer that way.

      3. Re: Ashtray
        and then you probably wouldn’t have said anything to me, lest the spectre of that mug fling itself into your noggin.
        I go through cycles regarding which oft-mis-used (see, you’ve already called me one… you wouldn’t do it twice, would you?) phrase or word of acronyn I focus on not using. I’ve been making sure not to say “ATM machine” lately. I have to put myself through a little course for it about once a year. And so then irrespective and regardless took advantage of the diversion and found a nice soft place to join together and, uh, procreate.

  2. You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
    Um, you can if you really know almost nothing about Christianity! (That’s my defense. Even when prompted to re-examine him as a Christian at age 15, I missed it because I just knew nothing about all that weird culty stuff–rising again, martyr-death, etc. Thank fucking, er, fuck that I grew up in Jew York City!)

    1. Re: You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
      Arg, that chopped off part of my thing: AND it didn’t make the whole Christian thing at all appealing. The only way I could relate to it was through vampire stories. You know, he rises after dying, he lives forever, you drink his blood, etc.

    2. Re: You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
      Oh yeah, it’s all the Jews fault you didn’t read up on your own religion…? How could you now know about rising again? Ever hear of Easter? Didn’t you ever say the Apostle’s Creed?

      1. Re: You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
        Um, darlin’, you don’t know me. I am Jewish. Not my religion, nope. The delicious of combination of a Jew-centric geographic region and being a third-generation atheist (of the “What’s a god supposed to be again?” as opposed to the angry/defensive/activist type) gave me a near total Xtian-free existance for many, many years.
        And Easter is like that, too, for me. I was about 10 and went to see some movie at Radio City Hall on Easter–which for me was entirely about bunnies and chocolate–and they had bunnies and even a dancing chocolate egg, and then all of a sudden all these other (real) animals came out, and this weird guy in robes, and I was wondering why everything was themed in purple and gold because Easter, as we all know, is about pastels.
        And no one told me. So I made up a story about how it was because kids got tired of people dressed up as animals and we needed live ones, but they were very weird animals that only responded to their trainer if he wore robes, and so everyone else got into the act.
        And that maybe somehow it was related to the movie that was the whole reason we were there, about Welsh mining children–y’know, they should have more pastoral stuff and less industrialization of the country.
        A few years later in high school, someone told me that Easter was not simply a Hallmark holiday. Ya coulda knocked me over with a feather.
        So there you have it. No idea. I still don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “Apostle’s Creed” and frankly I don’t care. I still yearn to live somewhere where people (er, like you) don’t assume that everyone has a Xtian background, but since the options are pretty slim in my field I have to keep memorializing The Homeland (i.e., NYC) as profoundly (thank fuck!) Jewish. Got it?

      2. Re: You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
        I didn’t assume you had a christian background. I assumed someone who implied that NYC as a steaming pot of Jews had a christian background.

      3. Re: You can’t ignore Lewis’s religious ideas. He’s not a subtle guy.
        replace *as* with *is*…
        I really can’t type this morning it seems.

  3. This attitude always perturbs me. Lewis was clever and scholarly enough to get Jesus right, but people don’t clue in to the fact that the stark differences between Aslan and Jesus should make us conclude that Aslan. is. not. supposed. to. be. Jesus.
    You might enjoy listening through today’s edition of Talk of the Nation, which was about what makes young adult fantasy literature endure. I was driving around, so I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the whole thing yet, but it was amusing to hear that Neil Gaiman not only didn’t discover the Christian allegory until the umpteenth reading (and was angry at having been tricked, which was my reaction too IIRC), but the series was his entry point for learning about Bacchus and satyrs.
    And I’ve really got to track down the unlicensed fanfic Gaiman wrote about what became of Susan. And I would recommend investigation of “His Dark Materials”, which I think is the actual modern successor of Narnia.

  4. I must admit – I didn’t get the Jesus reference as a kid, either. I was into the pure fantasy aspect of it. As far as that goes, they were tremendous escapism.

  5. «Later, she says that …Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children’s minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy – but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism. Yes, again, that’s Christianity.»
    I infer that in the UK, Christianity has warped into some form of Angloid shintoism, where talking about all that crucifiction-and-after stuff is seen as rather déclassé (ahem Scottish), and where one prefers instead to have hymns about pastures and wisdom or something.

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