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Oct 14 2011

Freethinking in YA Land or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Narnia

-Guest post by The Ginger Waif.

 

For my first Christmas, I received a handsome boxed set of all seven Narnia books. It should be noted that I was born in October, and the gift was first wrapped by my gleeful parents and then unwrapped in front of a two-month-old baby. That was how we did things in my household, but despite their very sensible attitude toward books and many other important subjects, my parents are distinctly in the believer category. They’re the sort of liberal, pragmatic Catholics who don’t do or mean any harm, but I was sent to a religious school and reared with a rather in-depth education on all things theological (which is, of course, the perfect way to get an atheist at the end of twelve years).

So how’d I fail to notice until around middle school that C.S. Lewis’s fantastical opus is intended to be approximately 100% Christianity by volume?

I exaggerate a little bit. I did notice that Aslan was a magical awesome guy who had a father living somewhere distant who no one ever saw or had any information about. The conclusion I came to, however, was that Aslan and Jesus should have a club to discuss their similar situations, not that one was meant to stand in for the other. It was only much later that I pieced together that Eustace’s dragon-transmogrification was supposed to be Saul’s conversion or that Aslan’s country was supposed to be heaven or… Well, actually, I have no idea what’s up with Puddleglum. But we’ll leave that aside.

Narrative obtuseness isn’t among my vices. I was and am addicted to retellings and twists on myths and fairy tales. I could certainly tell at a tender age that the assorted flood myths were pretty much the same idea spun all over again, for instance, and I never had any trouble grasping that, say, The Lion King is Hamlet, albeit with a pronounced uptick in lions (which seems to be the way to dress up a story). But what connection was there between the fantastic land of Narnia and all that stuff from my religion classes?

Within the confines of the story, Aslan is real. Aslan actually turns up and saves things with his majesty and leonine greatness. Aslan actually doesn’t seem to be omnipotent (probably not something that Lewis intended), removing the insurmountable challenge of the theodicy*. That magical tree he has Digory plant only keeps Jadis at bay for a hundred years, for instance. He seems to have to stand around being lame and useless unless certain criteria are fulfilled, but when he does get there, he’s there to save the day. Aslan usually pulls off being cool by standing around and saying things and getting his human minions to do the dirty work, so he’s kind of a jerk, objectively. Aslan may be god for the purposes of the story, but he’s a solid character with flaws and weaknesses. Also he’s friends with Santa. Jesus never even met Santa. So there’s that.

I’m sure the estimable zombie Lewis would object if he were here, but I’d like to see him defend his position. His Narnia is actually a much gentler and more welcoming world than most Christianity would have it. Narnia’s gleefully Manichean and its deities are reasonably well-developed personalities with motivations and justifications, which is much more fun and appropriate to a fantasy book, if not a world religion. Women have agency, the wicked are redeemable, and respect for the world and curiosity are paramount virtues.** Faith in the powers that be gets you results, as best the powers that be can manage, and there’s something really touching in trusting Aslan, as opposed to pathetic. Because Aslan’s actually there and will actually come save you. Physically. With roaring and golden mane flying and lion hugs. Aslan’s your friend and your hero, even if he’s kind of a butt about it sometimes. Narnia resembles the actual implications and realities of Christianity not at all. And in the end, it’s a wonderful story.

And how’re we doing on explicitly atheist fantasy lit for kids? I suspect I’ll be drawn and quartered for this, but Philip Pullman? No. The Golden Compass will never be freethinker Narnia. There’s some neat worldbuilding and such, and some of the baddies are genuinely creepy, but the plot is choppy and badly executed, the characters are flat, and there’s nothing remotely special in the writing. And frankly, Pullman’s got none of the charm and all of the racial- and gender-based failboating I said I wasn’t going to talk about.

It’s nice to have a message, but the tale’s still all in the teller. Yeah, Narnia is intended explicitly to be a Christian story. Even where it’s not precise allegory (I actually have no idea what A Horse and His Boy has to do with anything except talking animals), it’s informed by a Christian worldview. So’s the LoTR universe as a whole and Star Wars and most of the Western Literary canon after the middle ages or so. I’ll take a good story over ideological purity on this matter. And I think what makes Narnia good despite itself is that it Most Christian fantasy fiction is laughably bad, of course, because it actually holds to a Christian premise.

In his attempt to convert, Lewis ends up quite defanging his own argument. The only reason Narnia is so deeply, enduringly lovely is that it resembles the world as imagined by Christianity not one bit.

*If you haven’t previously buried yourself in weird philosophical questions for recreational purposes like I have, theodicy refers to the problem inherent to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God figure. You’ve probably come to the conclusion yourself. God can’t be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. It’s really got to be two of the three at best.

**Please do not take this as a blanket endorsement of Lewis’s values. He was an old, wealthy white dude raised the turn of the twentieth century and a product of his time. His flaws in thinking, especially as regards race and gender, are an entirely different and mostly irrelevant discussion.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Konradius

    The only reason Narnia is so deeply, enduringly lovely is that it resembles the world as imagined by Christianity not one bit.

    I don’t agree! The Narnia world is exactly as christianity imagines the world to be. It’s just the difference with the real world, which is nothing like Narnia, that deals the deathblow to the argument.

    Or was that what you wanted to say?

  2. 2
    speedwell

    I usually date my deconversion from the morning I realized I was an atheist. But the start of the process was really more than twenty years earlier, when a ten-year-old steeped in Narnia and Perelandra wondered about the very things you’re saying in this blog post, and sighed that the God of the Bible was much different from Aslan in all the ways that mattered most (and to add insult to injury we did not share the world with talking animals). Later, the deconversion experience itself would include, among many other elements, a tiny element of resentment of the Bible for not actually keeping the promises Christianity held out of a loving, involved God who would actually show up and help little girls in trouble.

  3. 3
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Ahhh, Narnia
    I have a wonderful, boxed, seven volume edition, too, but my story is different.
    Since my parents are neither English-speaking nor christians, the first contact I had with Narnia was the BBC series* that came on TV one christmas.
    I must have been rather small when I watched it, because later I could only remember the name “Narnia” and that I liked it.
    It was only many years later that I found out that there are books out there.
    I found the christian analogy shallow. It didn’t work on many levels, say, like Frankenstein which has a rich methaphorical depth.
    But I thoroughly enjoyed the stories and the characters, Lucy especially. And I think that Puddleglum is simply great.
    Especially in that book and the Horse and his Boy I was wondering if Lewis hadn’t just taken a vacation from writing christian fantasy and simply enjoyed writing fantasy.

    *I actually bought it some time ago, with the beavers being humans in a beaver-costume

  4. 4
    martha

    When I was a kid the same parents who bought Narnia for their kids also bought Ursula LeGuin’s Earth Sea trilogy. I remember seeing them on the same page of some Catholic book catalogue. My parents gave me mine for Easter. Funny thing, ULG is an atheist and The Tombs of Atuan is as anti-religion as you can get. I suppose it slipped by because the religion the poor heroine escapes from looks a bit pagan. I remember finding an essay by ULG years later in which she talked bemusedly about the Christian ministers who beat a path to her door after she wrote those books.

    (If curious, please read, don’t watch. The movie versions of these books are dreadful.)

  5. 5
    GreaterThanLapsed

    I’ve only ever read the Narnia books as an adult, but I completely agree with you.

    I disagree about His Dark Materials, however. I read those years ago, and I re-read them periodically because I love them so much.

    In any case, I’m not sure how important it is to have explicitly atheist books for young people. When buying things to read with my daughter, who is 8, I am far more concerned with finding books that have good stories, that have interesting characters (especially girl characters), and that encourage curiosity and imagination. For example, we’re currently reading Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles together, and my daughter has been reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane on her own. My partner and I try to just make sure that we talk to her about what she is reading.

    Honestly, I think it’s even more important for parents to not shy away from buying non-fiction for children. My daughter LOVES the Basher science books and Maybe Yes, Maybe No, and the last two books I got for her were a couple of Bill Nye books on science/experiments. I’m planning on getting The Magic of Reality (Dawkins) and The Young People’s History of the United States (Zinn) for her at Christmas time this year. Too many people think that children are bored by non-fiction, and I think they sell kids short.

    Regardless, I guess I would say that in many ways it’s less important WHAT kids read and more important THAT they read–and that they learn to love reading and learning.

  6. 6
    UrsulaMinor

    I am not 100% sure I agree with you on Narnia – mostly because I read them as a teenager and did not like them at all.

    Perhaps it is because I was not their intended audience, perhaps I was too old, or perhaps I was raised a little to secularly. I loved fantasy, but I also loved worlds that had rules and followed them (in imitation of reality, I suppose). All I could remember thinking was what total bullshit it was that they weren’t allowed back into Narnia because of lipstick.

    His Dark Materials had the complete opposite effect. I found them much more interesting and challenging.

    I think what struck me most was the complete opposite attitudes the two had to growing up. In Narnia, growing up basically meant closing yourself off to magic forever – to become hard and impenetrable. For Pullman, growing up was the start of a journey in getting to know yourself – not closing yourself off from fantasy, but engaging with reality, which sounds the similar, but is actually different.

    Granted I only read some of the Narnia stories because they irritated me so much, and I read His Dark Materials at least 3 times. But I read both without prior awareness of their religious themes, mostly because religious themes were completely foreign to me as a teenager. To me, my problem was less “Christian Allegory” as it was the perception that becoming an adult – or having adult desires means you are forbidden from experiencing anything cool ever again (which, I suppose IS a Christian theme; asking to many questions or ‘sinning’ is a get kicked out of heaven card).

  7. 7
    martha

    I’ve got to agree with both sides. Lewis was the better writer in terms of turning in a story that hung together in satisfying way, but the whole ‘growing up (escpecially growing into a mature woman) excludes you from Narnia’ thing sucked. Pullman’s universe is healthier for the brain.

  8. 8
    freemage

    I couldn’t even finish His Dark Materials; I bailed about halfway through Subtle Knife or whatever it was, because there wasn’t a single character that I didn’t want to stab through their face for being too stupid to live. I loved the concepts, enjoyed the themes, but the characters and plot just left me thinking that global annihilation was probably the best bet.

    And it takes a LOT to make me hate something that has armored, talking polar bears with flame catapults. Seriously, I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

    I think the bit that finally said, “I’m outta here,” is (SPOILER ALERT) when the previously awesome cowboy balloonist proceeds to fail utterly to use the Chekov’s Gun he was given to summon the witch, until it’s too late for her to do him any good at all, but just at the right time to screw everything up for everyone else.

    Also, Lyra’s skill at lying was, frankly, a classic “Informed Ability”–the actual lies she tells in the books shouldn’t have fooled the idiot schoolboy, let alone a thinking adult.

    Narnia has issues (particularly on race/religion, and the whole treatment of the Calormen), but it’s still ten times the craftsmanship as Pullman’s drivel.

  9. 9
    Lauren Ipsum

    I liked His Dark Materials, although the ending so broke my heart that I don’t think I’ll reread them.

    Narnia was… okay. I remember enjoying LWW as a child, but I didn’t read the other books until the recent movies started coming out. The early books are okay, the later ones are lame, and The Last Battle was terrible. “Stupid” and “depressing” had a big fight to the finish for that book.

    Greek myths! Give the young ‘uns Greek mythology! You can find versions tailored to every age level, sanitized or not as you prefer. And the sooner the kids grasp that not every culture believes the same monotheistic myths, the sooner they’re off down the road of critical thinking to atheism. That was certainly my gateway.

  10. 10
    andrea

    Even though you can probably chalk up some of Lewis’ misogyny to his upbringing, it seems to be a Christain thing. Ooops, you put on lipstick, you are kicked out of Narnia.

    and i agree on Golden Compass, not very good, pity.

  11. 11
    Lockwood

    I first read the Narnia books over break between 3rd & 4th grade. I enjoyed them at the time and several subsequent rereads. Tht series & LOTR were read & discussed in college fiction writing class, and really felt as if Lewis was batting me about the head with his heavy-handed symbolism. I won’t read it again.

    If you’re not familiar with George McDonald, most of his stuff is also Christian allegory nestled into fantasy- though the God/Jesus character is played by the fairy godmother, which seems pretty progressive for 1872. If you can find a copy of this, I highly recommend it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Princess_and_the_Goblin
    The edition pictured at the link is the same one I read as a youngster!

  12. 12
    cnjnrs

    I just want to thank you for making me want to read these again. (I haven’t in about two decades.) I don’t know if it will actually succeed in making me like them again (I had a lot of trouble with the overwhelming christianity in the movies), but it’s worth a shot!

  13. 13
    efrique

    I’ve been asked whether I worry about my kids reading Narnia.

    I just laugh. They can read the bible, too, if they want.

    I also took them to all the movies, and the movie makers don’t shy away from the various books’ Christian themes there either.

    I pointed out to them there were Christian themes. They’re neither fascinated nor put off.

    Star Trek has humanist themes – indeed, it’s almost relentlessly humanist. Any story comes with background views – we shouldn’t fear them, as long as we’re not so gullible as to simply accept the author as speaking truth outside their own universe.

  14. 14
    P Smith

    Even without the religious claptrap, “Narnia” was nonsense. I spent my teens reading practically every fantasy novel (a D&D addict at the time) and Lewis’ tripe was the worst. This item echoes my feelings as a teen:

    http://atheism.about.com/od/cslewisnarnia/a/jrrtolkein.htm

    If any fantasy novel series deserves a new movie, it’s Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” or some of Michael Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” characters. Most people prefer Elric, but I found that series too over-the-top. I prefer the Corum sextet, even though it seemed Moorcock was making the plot up as he went along.

    .

  15. 15
    Tai

    “how’re we doing on explicitly atheist fantasy lit for kids?”

    Not to well, I might add! During my arduous conversion from years of having my brain run on Jesus 2.0, I decided to fill the niche with a novel of my own aimed to teach YAs to believe in themselves and to trust in their reason and intuition.

    Great blog, Dana.
    If you’d like to check out my book, here’s the link.

    The Land of Intuit
    http://books.google.com/books?id=TneM-RO8QaUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+land+of+intuit&hl=en&ei=UEnBTu-ID-Lq0QHWhPzCBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CEkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

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