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The Narnia Dilemma

I, like many generations of children before me, grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of high fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis. I absolutely loved them – Narnia was a world much more weird and wonderful than our own. To imagine that such a universe existed just behind the doors of a wardrobe, could be reached by the touch of a magic ring, or was concealed in a painting of a ship, made it that much more accessible. With the books on my nightstand, I dreamt of talking mice and seas of lilies and castles by the sea.

I will also be the first person to point out the many controversies surrounding the books. C.S. Lewis converted to the Church of England in his thirties, and was a well-known Christian apologist. He wrote in of Aslan: “he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’”. He even elaborates on the parallels between the books and Christianity:

The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion etc the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after corruption.
The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement.”

And so on and so forth.

It doesn’t end there. Most of The Horse and His Boy is set in the country of Calormen, whose people “have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people”. It isn’t such a stretch to imagine them as Lewis’s version of Arabic peoples. Oh, and they worship, among other deities, a god named Tash, who has the head of a vulture and four arms, and is the demonic antithesis of Aslan. Perhaps Lewis is trying to make a statement about Islam, too.

Even as a kid, I thought that Lewis’s description of Eustace Scrubb’s family (introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) was strange. They were republican, pacifist, vegetarian, and never drank or smoked. Moreover, they’re presented in a negative light, as Eustace is an extremely unpleasant and priggish character at the beginning of the book. The portrayal of such qualities as negative traits is a poor social attitude, characteristic of Lewis’s time.

Feminism? These books don’t score too well on that front, either. In The Last Battle, when the “good” characters in the books enter Aslan’s country, Susan Pevensie does not join her siblings in the “Narnia-within-Narnia”. Susan is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, as she is interested “in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Susan’s fate has been widely controversial, with authors such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman in this area. Of course, one could argue that there are other female characters in the books who are written in a more positive light, such as Lucy, but there is still a problem with dismissing “nylons and lipstick and invitations” as “silly women things”.

So, yes, The Chronicles of Narnia are problematic. Does that mean I don’t cherish them anymore? No. It’s okay to like something, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, even if there are issues with its dogma and social attitudes. Despite the blatant religious subtext, the racism, the misogyny, they were an important part of my childhood, and back then, they were simply magical.

References and further reading:
Martindale, Wayne; Root, Jerry. The Quotable Lewis.
Ford, Paul (2005). Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperCollins. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-06-079127-8.

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Zhanpei is virtually unpronounceable by most of the English-speaking world (as substitute teachers can attest), so you can call her PeiPei (pronounced like "pay") or just Pei. She's a 16-year-old high school junior and is way into science, cooking, art, and high fantasy literature.

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