So The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has arrived, and in its wake, much as I would have expected, a fairly vigorous undercurrent of debate about C.S. Lewis and Christianity, both on weblogs and elsewhere.
So far the smartest comment is also one of the briefest: Brad DeLong’s November 11th observation that Lewis’ Christianity may not be the preferred Christianity of many non-Christians, but it’s a recognizable form of the religion nevertheless. I agree that there’s something fundamentally unsettling about non-Christians lining up to tell Christians which version of their religion is the correct one. On the other hand, that’s what having scripture is all about: if Christianity were merely the ineffable, uncommunicable, sublime, private experience of an interior communion with God, a Christian would be perfectly justified in telling anyone who wants to second-guess that to buzz off. But it’s also a collective, systematic, institutionalized religion with a powerful social presence, a deep history, and holy texts which lay out the content and practice of the faith.
So it’s ok to observe that Lewis’ Christianity as developed in the Narnia books is a sort of theological jambalaya (or if we’re going to stay British, a trifle with a lot of strange things in it). It’s even ok to find his mix of religious elements distasteful in some fashion distinguished from a general opinion of Christianity. On the other hand, if you really had a “favorite” form of Christianity, you’d probably actually be a Christian, so let’s not get too silly about what non-believers are entitled to demand.
In my case, I don’t especially think about it much. I read a lot of books as a child, took a moderate interest in Catholicism for a brief intense period when I was eleven and twelve, an far more intense anti-Catholicism and agnosticism afterwards, and was at least aware of the content of Christianity more generally for most of my childhood. But honestly, I ripped voraciously through the Narnia books as a wee one and didn’t even realize that they were in any sense Christian until The Last Battle, when the religious content starts flashing in neon lights.
So what was I seeing if not Christian allegory? Basically, fantasy and Englishness, the latter in a somewhat twee, eccentric form that felt to me like it was in the DNA of modern fantasy. (Another thing I never knew as a child: Tolkien and Lewis like, actually knew each other. Me, I just thought this was how British fantasy writers sounded as a whole. Doubtless that’s part of why China Mieville and Philip Pullman find the Inkling crowd so annoying: this is the specific heritage that they’re trying to shuck off.)
As a consequence, though, it seems terribly weird–even borderline foolish–to see someone complaining about the Pevensies getting crowned at the end of the film, as if this is some kind of outrageous reactionary elitism. It’s a fantasy trope–being the chosen one, being crowned, being the heir to the throne or gifted with innate magical powers–that runs right down to the core of the genre, especially in children’s books. The Chronicles of Prydain, The Dark Is Rising, So You Want to Be a Wizard, Harry Potter, and on and on. You could (and some have) write off all fantasy as a whole for that and other imagined sins. But that is precisely the reason that people who want imaginative culture to perform instrumental ends, to deliver this and that message, to carry this and that burden, to correct this and that social ill, usually write such shitty imaginative work (if and when they trouble to at all).
What makes Lewis relatively innocent, even of the (fairly indisputable) charge that his depiction of pseudo-Muslims practically oozes racism and condescension, is the simultaneous strangeness and typicality of his fantasy, that it contains so many familiar elements, the grammar of the genre and its folkloric roots mixed in with so many eccentrically composed or combined gestures of religious teaching. It takes a meanness of spirit to read Narnia as outrageous theological or cultural error, just as it would to read Wind in the Willows and complain that it was a polemic on behalf of English social hierarchy. You have to take these books simultaneously too seriously and not seriously enough in order to just breeze past their peculiar company on the road to some secular or political jeremiad. Or maybe it’s just that unbelievers who are aggressive about their unbelief have some bigger problem with imagination as a whole: it all seems so unseemly in the face of Real Life, perhaps.
The major sins I held Lewis accountable for when I was a boy were world-building ones (apparently, I’m not alone: this was always Tolkien’s complaint about Narnia as well). Once I understood who Aslan was meant to be (I enjoyed it more when he was just a enigmatic, luminescent force within the stories) then suddenly Aslan’s ways become more than divinely mysterious. He says that he’s brought the Pensieves to Narnia so that they may know him better in their own world. Presumably this is so that knowledge can have an impact on other humans: he implies as much to Digory and Polly in his remarks on the fate of Charn. But given that none of the children live into adulthood, this seems truly odd. Most other world-crossing fantasies imply that world-crossing happens all the time, that many children (or adults) may be so blessed. But the God of Narnia seems rather slothful in how he dispenses his magical mystery tours of all creation: in between Narnia’s birth and death, only eight British children, a horse, and a cab-driver and his wife get to visit. Heck, even Oz gets more traffic from America alone in a few years than that. Most fantasies of this kind allow the possibility of wish-fulfillment, that anyone might be the next to cross the worlds into fairyland. Lewis’ world ought to be the most so: the ferryman who carries souls from here to there is omnipotent and omniscient, with all time and space at his command.
The other thing I couldn’t easily forgive as a young reader was Susan, especially after I finished The Last Battle. I grasped readily enough that when you lead your characters into a Platonic afterlife and one of their number is missing, then that character is in the Bad Place (along with all the others who went into Aslan’s shadow). That seemed then cruel for the mere sin of lipsticks and nylons; it seems now infuriatingly misogynist, a picture made all the more convincing by Lewis’ own sex life.