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.