Unbelief and Imagination

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.

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31 Responses to Unbelief and Imagination

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    I’ll probably have more to say on this later, but a correction: Susan isn’t with the others at the end because she isn’t dead. Lewis made this clear in a letter to a reader in which he said that “perhaps she’ll come to Narnia in her own way.” It’s easy to see why people draw the inference you did, but it was just a narrative slip on Lewis’s part. Interesting, though, how the story of how Lewis Sent Susan To Hell won’t go away, though there have been many, many attempts to correct the misconception.

  2. hestal says:

    I read a lot of science fiction when I was a boy. I tried to read some of Lewis’ stuff in the 1940’s. Didn’t like it. Too much silly fantasy for me.

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    “He says that he’s brought the Pensieves to Narnia. . . ” REALLY?? Now THAT would be cool!

  4. Tom Scudder says:

    Incidentally, it’s a few more than eight people total – the humans in Prince Caspian were descendents of (if I remember this right) caribbean or possibly South Seas pirates who had slipped through a portal into the world of Narnia.

  5. Jesse A. says:

    I always read The Last Battle as you do, with Susan dilberately excluded from the afterlife, though not neccesarily among those who end up in Aslan’s shadow. Susan’s problem is not simply “lipsticks and nylons” as you (and to be fair, Lewis) put it. Nor, I think, is it misogyny, though I understand why one might read it that way. She is not with the others because of what it that those accesories to adult womenhood represent. Susan lacks imagination. She becomes, as she grows up, an unbeliever. Lewis could just as easily had Peter grow up with an interest in “fine cigars and single-malt scotch,” to use examples which are just as reductive of adult masculinity as “lipsticks and nylons” might be of adult feminity. Susan’s sin, whether it consigned her to hell or mere oblivion, unbelief. Christianity as I understand it (and I am not a Christian, so take this as you will), is primarily about faith in God’s love for humanity, a love so powerful he died for us. If you don’t believe, you really are not saved, in Lewis’ system. And Susan didn’t believe. Though he may have expressed it in reductionist terms, I really do think that Susan became a non-believer, and that is the reason that she was excluded at the end.

  6. David Chudzicki says:

    Isn’t there that bit in the Magician’s Nephew about how it used to be much easier to travel from our world to the others? I agree with the criticism, though. Still good stories.

  7. Mary says:


    I think I got that right reading as a child, but it still seemed very hard on Susan to me: her three siblings, two of their adult friends and her parents are all killed in the same train accident, and two of their friends (Jill and Eustace) have also just disappeared a day or two previously never to be seen again. It didn’t feel like any kind of narrative inevitability that killed her parents, just Lewis’s desire not to have the believing Pevensies suffer any grief into their afterlife. It might be that she’ll come to Narnia later, but it will be by a much harder road than that other unbeliever Eustace, who just had to endure a few weeks as a dragon.

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    Mary, I guess I think that’s just sober realism on Lewis’s part: some people do in fact come to religious belief via a hard road, or because of that hard road never come to belief at all. It doesn’t seem to me a bad thing to indicate that.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Good point on the Telmarines. Forgot about them: a whole bunch of pirates. So ten Brits and pirates.

    Alan, you can’t argue that Susan just isn’t dead yet: the Platonic Heaven of The Last Battle contains everything that ever will be, of necessity, the way I read it. If Susan’s not there yet, she never will be. Maybe she’s not in Hell, sure, but she’s not there either. Which I think is indeed Lewis’ conviction that God cannot reward unbelief. Though on the other hand, look at Emeth: one’s faith can be misnamed but as long as it is in the right thing, one will find God.

  10. djw says:

    When chatter started up about the movie, I was rather startled by just how little I remembered any details about the books, despite the fact that I loved them a great deal as a child. I *do* remember being absolutely furious about the treatment of Susan, though, which seemed (and seems) casually cruel and arbitrary. Agreed completely.

  11. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, whaddya mean *I* can’t argue? I’m just telling you what Lewis himself wrote. I’m informing, not arguing. You can then go on to say that his claim is inconsistent with his own imaginative universe, if you wish. (But then, as you say, it’s not a very consistent imaginative universe to start with.)

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Where did he say Susan is yet to die and therefore cannot appear in Heaven?

  13. Alan Jacobs says:

    “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end — in her own way.” (from a 1957 letter, in C S Lewis: Letters to Children).

  14. Simon Shoedecker says:

    You are so perceptive and intelligent that I’m dismayed you’ve fallen for this crude interpretation of Susan. “Lipsticks and nylons” are not Susan’s flaw; they are her particular manifestion of a phenomenon Lewis wrote about often (e.g. the dedication to Lucy Barfield of The Lion): the person who casts aside her childhood capacity for wonder and imagination in a desperate (and, Lewis thought, rather childish) desire to seem “grown-up.” As Polly says in The Last Battle, “I wish she would grow up,” i.e. stop being so disdainful of childish things.

    There’s a long and very good discussion of Susan, and what Lewis meant by her, here.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Alan, I’m talking mostly about what the books themselves say, since I’m trying to grapple with the ways I read them as a child and the flaws I ended up holding them accountable for. So a later letter doesn’t necessarily change that experience of them. However, I’d also say that letter doesn’t entirely change my reading even now. For one, there is “silly, conceited young woman”, which to me feels not that far from lipsticks and nylons. For another, there is the (to me as a child, rather appealing) vision of Heaven as Platonic: if you take that seriously, then Lewis’ Heaven has to contain everything that it is going to contain, past, present, future, though there is also obviously the paradox that it has a temporal dimension (you go upward and inward, worlds within worlds): the dead who are already there obviously experience the arrival of the newly dead as an event, and Lewis describes life in Heaven as a story, which implies temporality as well. I would just observe that this clashes somewhat with other aspects of his Heaven, that it is supposed to contain everything good.

    But ok: maybe Susan can still find grace. If I were going to put something on my own personal list of attributes that a “good Christianity” has to have, it’s some version of purgatory: I find the idea of a loving God who can allow infinite damnation for sins committed in a finite lifetime, where no salvation can be achieved from damnation, fairly repugnant. Any whiff of that in Narnia is a turn-off for me, especially for what seems the minor sin of narcissism (or losing one’s ability to imagine, see below…)

    I understand what Simon is pointing to, the argument that Susan is a person who has lost the ability to imagine, and that this is her sin. But I do honestly think there is the tinge of misogyny in Lewis’ description of her: everything he has to say about her in the books and elsewhere is very strongly feminized. I don’t think this is a radical thing to suggest about either Lewis or Tolkien, that for most of their lives, they had some rather cloistered, awkward and occasionally unpleasant views of women. At times, that’s actually a source of appeal in their works, esp. Lewis: it is one of the things that makes the Narnia books feel so eccentrically boys-own at various moments.

  16. Alan Jacobs says:

    As I said in an earlier post, Tim, I have no quarrel with you if you want to say that CSL’s treatment of Susan is inconsistent with his imaginative universe. I also said that, in light of his later comment, Lewis made a real “narrative slip” in treating Susan’s absence from Narnia the way he does — after all, many people read the story the way you do. I was just making one simple point: the oft-repeated claim that Lewis sent Susan to Hell is incorrect. (But it will keep bouncing around for the foreseeable future because it fits so nicely with what many people would like to believe about Christians like Lewis.)

    While I’m in Correction Mode: there is no version of Christianity which features a purgatory of the kind you describe — that is, as a second chance to get it right. In Catholic teaching, Purgatory is for the redeemed and only for the redeemed, who must ready themselves for the presence of God. The damned go straight to Hell and have no second chances. (Interestingly, though, Lewis imagines a kind of second chance for the damned in his theological fantasy The Great Divorce; so he may well have had more sympathy with your position than many orthodox Christians would.)

    Finally, while Lewis may have been misogynistic — he certainly held some very traditional views about women, though not all the traditional views (he was, for instance, unusually supportive of female faculty at OXford and Cambridge) — just as a matter of sound critical practice, I would argue that you can’t say that about any writer on the basis of his treatment of just one character. You need to look at the larger picture, you need to see if there is a pattern.

  17. If you haven’t already read it, the short story “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman (in the anthology _Flights_, edited by Al Sarrantino) is the best thing I’ve read on the “problem of Susan.” And I’m not a Gaiman fan in general.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    Fair enough, Alan. I especially agree you can’t infer an author’s general position from a single character.

    I also grant your point about Purgatory, except to note that the redeemed who are in it who must be prepared for the presence of God are there because there is something not quite right about them, something unfinished, yes? But quite right that the damned are the damned, which might well be one of the three or four places at which I would be permanently unprepared to be a Christian myself no matter how attractive I found other aspects of it. A God who accepts that some must suffer infinite suffering for finite sins seems, well, evil to me. That is a huge can of worms to open, I know, and not a point unique to me by any means, but it’s something I really cannot work myself around.

  19. Ralph says:

    My recollection is that Karl Barth somewhere speculated that the end of history is delayed precisely because it is the purpose of G_d to redeem the whole of the creation. Any judgment that sends a part of it to eternal damnation falls short of that and would eternally frustrate the will of G_d. In that scheme of things, one could say that history, itself, is purgatory.

  20. Simon Shoedecker says:

    To find “a tinge of misogyny” in Lewis is merely to say that he is not perfect. I wouldn’t make a major criticism out of a tinge. Lewis didn’t have the imaginative insight into grown women as he did into men and children, and he admitted this. (His essay on Friendship in The Four Loves is – he says quite explicitly – about male friendship as he’s known it. He suspects that female friendship works differently, but points out that he doesn’t really know.)

    The Andrew Rilstone article I linked to in my previous post presents internal evidence from The Last Battle that Susan isn’t dead.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a good article. I’m going to post over there in comment on it. The one thing I disagree with fairly strongly in the article is that if some have made too much out of “nylons and lipstick”, Rilstone makes too little, or offers what is to me an unconvincing interpretation that it’s just about Susan being enamored of postwar consumer goods.

  22. hektor.bim says:

    There are a couple of ways to discuss the “problem of Susan”. One way is to talk about the effect it has on one reading it as a child. For me as a child, it was clear that Susan was excluded from “heaven” because she had incorrect thoughts. I also thought it deeply strange that all of these people could so effortlessly throw away their other lives and merge into heaven. The lack of concern about Susan’s fate was also deeply worrying to me. It cemented the problems with “The Last Battle” in my mind and combined with the obvious relish Lewis displayed for destroying Narnia. I don’t think it is really possible to argue directly with this interpretation. I’ve talked to a number of other people who read the Narnia series as children, and they had similar reactions. If this isn’t the impression Lewis wanted to give, then it is clear that he made a mistake, because it has come out strongly to so many people. For a children’s story to mislead or annoy children in vast numbers must be counted as a mistake.

    With more thought and study, the problem of Susan can be explained away or at least mitigated, as is done in the link mentioned. I however, find the mention of “nylons and lipstick” to be objectionable regardless, precisely because it is unnecessary. There really isn’t a good reason to deny Heaven to Susan, aside from making a theological point. This is where the real problem for me arises. The Narnia books are ultimately subordinated to the idea of making theological points, and the integrity of the world as a whole suffers. Lewis is almost happy to destroy Narnia, and that is tragic. There shouldn’t be joy in destroying your own creation.

    As to the other charges against Lewis, the blatant racism and cultural superiority of the “Horse and His Boy” is hard to counteract. I don’t have any idea how they are going to film that movie without pissing off a great many people, which is too bad, because despite that, it is my favorite, obviously for other reasons.

  23. bostoniangirl says:

    Hmmm, I think that Lewis wanted there to be seven new kings and queens, because seven is a cool number with special significance in a lot of neoplatonic thinking. If Susan had been with them, it would have been eight.

    I didn’t like the part where people got condemned to hell, but the hell of the dwarves seemed very real to me as a Christian. It was self-inflicted separation from God and an inability to see the glories all around them.


    In addition to the Telmarines, the Pevensies, Digory, Polly and that lot, there was also the first king of Narnia who was a cabby.

  24. billmcn says:

    Like a lot of people, I first read the Narnia series as a child and completely missed the allegory. When I reread it as an adult, I was struck by how front-and-center the Christian elements are, but this did not force a reevaluation of the books on my part. Even literature whose charm lies in the creation of a wholly self-contained world must draw on some aspects of this one to give it resonance, and a literal belief in Christianity is ultimately no more relevant to my appreciation of Lewis’ books than my feelings about pagan northern European myths are to my appreciation of “Lord of the Rings”. Besides, much of my experience of Narnia has come a sheen of childhood misconception. On my first time through, I mentally mispronounced the lion’s name “Alison” for reasons I cannot recreate. And at least as shocking as the whole religious angle was to pick up the paper a few years back and read about the Chechnyan separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. I’d always assumed Lewis had just made that name up.

    If Christianity has had little effect on my appreciation of Narnia, Narnia has had an effect on my appreciation of Christianity. I grew up secular, without even some early childhood wrestling with religious faith. Though culturally familiar, Christianity is ultimately like Islam or Hinduism to me: a set of alien beliefs that I can at best understand intellectually, as an outsider. At this point, my childhood enthusiasm for what turns out to have been a pretty overt Christian allegory is about as close to Christian faith as I’m ever going to get. It may not be much theologically speaking, but my warm memories of this enthusiasm gives me a little bit of empathy that I might otherwise lack. If (as I seriously doubt) C.S. Lewis intended Narnia as a sneaky way of indoctrinating unsuspecting children into a religious worldview, it worked for me in some oblique way. And for that I’m grateful.

  25. Endie says:

    Even if Susan had died at the same time as Susan, Peter and Edmund, I find it hard to believe that Lewis would have sent her to “hell”. The fate of the dwarves (which to be honest, I always found the most disturbing part of his allegory in terms of overtones) is more likely. That said, I’ve been trying to write about the Toynbee article in the Guardian all morning, and I just kept seeing her in the stable with the dwarves.

    Lewis is steeped in Plato, and nowhere more so than in the Last Battle (not even in Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet). Susan’s fate, if she never changed, would surely not be anything so medieval as “hell”. Just never getting to travel further up and further in…

  26. Endie says:

    >> 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

    One other bit. As someone mentions, there have been other travellers to Narnia. But the wood of the worlds shows a very large number of worlds exist, and no doubt Aslan has his role in each. Those are, though. other peoples’ stories.

  27. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s actually interesting to me that Lewis and Pullman both run into trouble in their series when they allow the allegorical/theological points to overrun the fiction, both in the culminating works of their series. I think there’s a larger point about imaginative fiction in that: don’t let axe-grinding overwhelm your world, your characters or your story.

  28. beelerspace says:

    Lest we forget that Narnia was not written in the all-enlightened world of 2005. Is it fair to take a piece of literature published in the early 1950s and anachronistically stretch it to comply with our own value systems? I am not asking for excuse, but rather a cultural-contextual interpretation.

    Secondly, Susan’s “sin” was not that she became a woman, but rather that she became an adult. Like nearly _all_ childrens stories, Narnia is noticably absent of adults. My guess is that Lewis mentions Susan’s not at the whim of an overarching religious system, but his deeply held belief that children, and people, desperately need imagination. If anything, Susan’s fate is propoganda for storytelling, not hell-driven Christianity.

    Finally, regarding racism, Lewis makes a rather marked turn towards uncharacteristic universalism at the end of the Last Battle by letting a Telmarine into “heaven,” despite his unwavering adherance to all things Tash. I assure you that the phrase Aslan speaks, “What good you did in Tash’s name, you did in mine, what evil people do in my name they actually do in Tash’s” (or something) is more problematic for most Christians than the lipstick and nylons is for non.

  29. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that Emeth’s inclusion in Aslan’s heaven is one of the more interesting moments in the series, in religious/ethical terms.

  30. emschwar says:

    I posted this quote on UD’s blog, but it seems more appropriate here, actually:

    When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
    — C.S. Lewis

    I believe Lewis saw Susan as someone who was so very afraid of being perceived as childish that she pretended to be what she thought of as grown up, whilst simultaneously missing the point that the true adult is someone who is not afraid to be themselves, even if someone else might think it childish.

    As others have pointed out, Lewis likely felt Susan’s *exclusive* need for nylons and lipstick was a symptom of this childishness masquerading as adulthood– not that the items themselves were bad. An analogy can be drawn here to 1 Tim. 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all evil….”, which is often misquoted as, “Money is the root of all evil.” In both cases, it’s not the things themselves that are problems; it’s only when someone pushes Jesus*cough*Aslan out of first place in their favor that they become problematic.

    As far as Emeth going to Heaven, I’m pretty sure it was Cardinal Newman who, when asked if there really was a Hell, said that indeed there was, but that didn’t necessarily mean that God had ever actually sent anyone there. Dissembling? Perhaps. But at least one pretty darned huge hunk of Christianity has held out the possibility– possibly more; that’s the only one that pops to mind off the top of my head.

  31. abstractart says:

    I think it’s pretty clear that because Narnian history is so long, and so *much* of Narnian history is kept out of sight in the massive time jumps we make through the Chronicles series, that Lewis left plenty of room for other, undocumented instances of contact between their world and ours. The scene in The Last Battle where Eustace comments on how Narnia always seems to be on the verge of destruction when they visit and the King informs him of how many millennia of history and how many ages of beauty and grace the English Children have missed precisely *because* of their time-hopping was one of my favorite parts of the story.

    Lewis in a later letter wrote that he had no objections to people writing their own stories about travels to Narnia and that he’d purposely left plenty of “hooks” in The Last Battle — time periods and events that are only referenced, not explained, whole geographic regions in the world of Narnia that we’ve never explored — to make that possible. It’s pretty clear that there’s more to Narnia, and more, even, to Narnia/Earth interaction, than the Pevensies are ever allowed to see; that was one of the major themes of Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader, taking these kids who’d been legendary kings and queens and somehow thought they *owned* Narnia and showing them there was a lot more to it than they thought. (The en masse migration of the Telmarines to Narnia, the wacky weirdness in the Eastern Sea, etc.)

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