Monday, October 24, 2016

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE NARNIA BOOKS” by C.S.Lewis  (written between 1949 and 1953; first published between 1950 and 1956)

            As the father of a much-larger-than-average family, I used to spend some of every evening reading to my children. They are all adults now, so this habit ceased years ago (although grandchildren are now appearing and being read to).

I persisted reading to my children well beyond the stage of picture books. Usually each child would drift away from the reading circle at about the age of 12.

This meant that I was able to read with them novel-length children’s books – or as my children called them, “chapter books”. With three or four kids squeezed around me on the sofa, I got through many of the children’s classic such as all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, all Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series, all Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did series, many of the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch and Henry Treece, all Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle series, most of the antiquated “Twins” series that was initiated by Lucy Fitch Perkins, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and The Hound of the Baskervilles, J. Meade Falkner's Moonfleet, German kids’ classics like Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives and Lotte and Lisa and Fritz Muhlenweg’s more grown-up Big Tiger and Christian, one-off classics like Walter de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s lachrymose but effective Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess and The Lost Prince and (especially) The Secret Garden, Captain Marryat’s salty Peter Simple and Masterman Ready and his more domestic The Children of the New Forest, Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and its sequels, and tons of Edith Nesbit, who I always thought was better with “realistic” novels (The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Would-be-Goods) than with fantasy (Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet etc.).

We also read many compendia of myths and legends and folk-tales; and I sometimes ventured into more challenging adult stuff. H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds. A bulky (if abridged) version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Complete and unabridged versions of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield. Lord Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (I was glad that they laughed at the foolish and predictable way Lytton polishes off his chief villain). Indeed I once (rather foolishly) ventured to read them George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, because I remembered reading it as a teenager and recalled the childhood brother-and-sister Tom and Maggie Tulliver. We made it to the end, but while the main, melodramatic plot could be followed, much of Eliot’s wordy social satire simply baffled my kids. And of course, once I had read them Tolkein’s The Hobbit, I couldn’t forego reading them all of The Lord of the Rings, which took about two months’ worth of evening reading times.

Now you mustn’t imagine that this formidable reading list was all polished off in a year or two. I am talking about reading to a large family of children over quite a number of years – and the members of the reading circle changed as older children outgrew the circle and younger ones replaced them. For this reason, there were many books which I read more than once because I was reading them to a different set of my children. I got to read the whole Swallows and Amazons series and the whole Dr Doolittle series at least twice. And I am sure that I read all of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series three times.

This was quite a special series. When I was a kid myself, I read only the first three books in the series for some reason. When I read them all to my children, I found that they were always engaged in the stories themselves and enjoyed both the humour and the action (essentials in children’s fiction). The only one in the series that caused a few yawns was The Horse and His Boy, where there seemed to be too much planning and conversation before meaningful action started.

Eleven years ago the NZ Listener ran an article which I wrote at the time the first of the Disney people’s Narnia films was released, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Since then, only two more of the proposed seven films have been made, even though they did well at the box office. It might be worth noting, however, that only one film was made of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and it bombed badly at the box office. The significance of this may be clear when you read the following article, which I reproduce unaltered from its appearance in the Listener on 3 December 2005.

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The present pope once seemed to endorse harsh things a critic said about the malign influence of the Harry Potter books and their black magic. American Protestant fundamentalists have been known to picket movies featuring wizards and witches, and regularly arrange wholesome Christian alternatives to the celebration of Halloween. Stories of magic are seen as part of an insidious new age pagan onslaught.

But one set of stories featuring a witch and magic will never be picketed by Christians of any stripe. These are the seven Narnia books of C S (Clive Staples) Lewis. The reason is obvious. Narnia was created by a committed Christian propagandist and specifically intended as Christian apologetic for kids.

This fact can upset some people.

Aged eight, I was halfway through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when an overhelpful adult took me aside and explained that the lion was really Jesus, the witch the Devil and the wardrobe this life through which we all pass to eternity. “How very interesting,” I thought, and went back to enjoying the book.

Harry Ricketts had a different reaction. In his essay “How to Live Elsewhere”, he recalls that as a child he was enjoying Narnia’s “impossible medieval world of talking animals, magic and marshwiggles” when a schoolmate explained that “the books weren’t magic really, just Christianity in disguise”.

“I felt tricked,” says Ricketts, “and Narnia permanently lost its appeal.”

This religious aspect creates a major problem for the Disney corporation and backers of the new film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham is one of the film’s producers, and was on hand to ensure that the film was true-to-Lewis. But the Disney people know that playing up the story’s crypto-Christianity might attract one sort of audience, but would smartly drive away another. Visit the film’s official website and you find no mention of Lewis’s religious intentions, even in the section giving the author’s biography. In the United States, Disney has adopted a dual publicity strategy, marketing the film one way for the mainstream audience and another for the Bible Belt.

Financially, a lot is riding on this. Upon the film’s success hang six possible sequels.

If it can be sold in two distinct ways, it’s worth asking how much identifiable Christianity there is in the Lewis opus in the first place.

Claiming justification from something Lewis once wrote to a young fan, officious publishers have reshuffled the books into a “reading order” starting with the series’ prequel The Magician’s Nephew. But it’s still best to read them in the order they were originally written and published between 1950 and 1956, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In this first one, the Christian message is overt enough to be unmissable by adults.

The four Pevensie children go through the wardrobe to the magic land of Narnia where animals talk and it is “always winter but never Christmas” because of the evil usurping White Witch. Edmund is temporarily seduced to the witch’s side by her promises of Turkish delight and other goodies. Little Lucy trusts in the land’s true ruler, the benign lion Aslan. Big siblings Peter and Susan see things Lucy’s way.

Eventually winter ends when Aslan returns, sent by the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Aslan gives himself into the power of the witch. Humiliated, with his mane shorn, he is bound to a sacrificial stone table and dies. Just as the children are lamenting, however – crack! – the stone table shatters, a “deeper magic” suddenly comes into play, and Aslan lives again for the happy ending and the defeat of the forces of darkness.

Or, in plain translation, the world is in thrall to the glamour of sin (Turkish delight). God the Father (Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea) sends his only son (Aslan) into the world. There are specific analogues for the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The sinner (Edmund) is redeemed. And, of course, Christmas returns.

This first in the series is the only one fully worked out as allegory. The four that immediately follow it are more general quests or pilgrimage stories, with the ground-rules of Narnia established and the goodness of Aslan contrasted with various perils and fantastic enemies.

There is a partial return to allegory in the last two books. The prequel The Magician’s Nephew (1955) gives the Narnian version of the Genesis creation story. The Last Battle (1956) is an apocalypse, reuniting almost all the child-heroes from the earlier books for a version of Armageddon. In this one, for adult readers at any rate, Lewis really lets rip at agnostics and unbelievers. A foolish donkey and an ape (ie, humanists) try to persuade people that Aslan doesn’t exist. They then combine belief in Aslan with belief in the pagan Calormene god Tash, saying that the one is no more important than the other. Lewis is parodying syncretistic religions and maybe expressing misgivings about ecumenism.

Among children who visit Narnia, agnostics are converted to belief, like the awful, whining Eustace Scrubb in the third book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). It’s in this book that Aslan tells a child to look for him in the human world. “There I have another name,” he says. “You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

Once you twig that Aslan is Jesus, this little speech really sums up Lewis’s intentions for the whole series.

Lewis, who died in 1963 (on the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley), was probably the most popular 20th–century lay spokesperson for the Anglican version of Christianity. More recently, he has become the darling of American evangelicals, whose websites and publications rejoice to have a genuine Oxford don validating their worldview.

Oddly enough, though, the first negative criticisms of the Narnia books came from sophisticated Christians who thought Narnian allegory was just too damned obvious. You could, they complained, see Lewis pulling the strings.

He was compared unfavourably with the 19th-century children’s writer George MacDonald who (in The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel) gently implied a Christian ethic without bashing his readers over the head.

Less convincingly, Lewis was also compared unfavourably with his Catholic friend (and fellow Oxford don) J R R Tolkien, whose works were said to be darker, more tragic and certainly more epic than Lewis’s fairy-tales. This comparison was both unfair and stupid. Lewis was specifically writing for children whereas, at least after The Hobbit, Tolkien wasn’t. (And I sympathise with Lewis’s criticism that The Lord of the Rings just goes on and on. “Not another f—ing elf!” Lewis is reported to have complained to Tolkien.)

More recently, the big attack on Narnia has come from a more militant quarter. Philip Pullman is a convinced atheist and, says his official biography, a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular -Society.

Pullman loathes the Narnia books.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is at least in part the atheist riposte to Lewis. It even begins with a little girl in a wardrobe.

In a widely reprinted interview, Pullman denounced Disney for taking on the Narnia books. Rather disingenuously he declared, “It’s not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue.” There was, he said, no genuine “love” in Lewis’s books. Sounding a bit peevish himself, he described Lewis’s worldview as “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice”.

Pullman’s own books will soon be in the works as films, and there can be no harm in talking up a little publicity by way of controversy. But taking his complaints seriously, how valid are they?

If love means the erotic attraction of the sexes, then it certainly doesn’t figure in the Narnia books. But it would be a very narrow definition of love that couldn’t comprehend the camaraderie of the adventuring children, Digory’s concern for his sick mother (in The Magician’s Nephew), or even the lion’s happy sporting with his subjects.

More serious is the charge of racism. Pullman seems to be referring to the way the Calormenes are depicted in The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Last Battle. Aided by Pauline Bayne’s original line drawings, this turbaned desert people do inevitably look like Arab Muslims. Is it racist to show them conniving with the enemies of Aslan? Possibly. Maybe Lewis was carried away by all that medieval literature of the crusading era, on which he was an expert. Yet, in the conclusion to The Last Battle, he is careful to dramatise one sincere Calormene believer in Tash going to his equivalent of heaven. True believers of any race can be redeemed, says the story. This doesn’t seem an essentially racist view, and racial stereo-types do not figure in the Narnia books (as they do, for example, in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books).

As for misogyny, Pullman doesn’t like the way Susan is excluded from the series’ conclusion because she has become worldly and materialistic. Rather fancifully, he suggests that this means Lewis is condemning her to hell. There’s also the matter of the chief representative of evil, the White Witch, being female.

In the end, the surest ground for Pullman’s criticism is the general charge that Lewis was “reactionary”.

More than once, Lewis has been described to me as “a grumpy, reactionary old sod” and I’ve been solemnly told that he was nothing like the decent chap Anthony Hopkins played in the movie Shadowlands. However true this may be, the worst one can say of the Narnia books themselves is that there are passages where dated middle-class English attitudes take over.

Before he is redeemed, we know that Eustace Scrubb is a real stinker because his horrid liberal parents let him call them by their first names, rather than politely calling them “Mother” and “Father”. The opening of The Silver Chair (1953) is notorious for an attack on progressive education. Lewis depicts a dreadful co-educational school whose woman principal believes in psychology and doesn’t practise proper discipline. The book’s happy ending has Aslan helping the heroes to rout the school bullies and restore the proper moral order – which does not include co-educational schools with women principals.

It would be possible to compile a list of similar proof-texts to show Lewis’s dated attitudes. Yet in all the Narnia books, such obviously “reactionary” material amounts at most to a few pages. Does this mean we are playing the popular game of criticising a past writer for the common, unexamined social assumptions of his age, because they don’t match the common, unexamined social assumptions of our age?

I’m tempted to wonder what unacceptable attitudes readers of His Dark Materials will detect in 50 years’ time. More to the point, I note that Lewis’s class-specific attitudes don’t necessarily spring from his Christianity. When his contemporary, the agnostic left-wing journalist Arthur Ransome, produced his own kiddies’ books (the delightful Swallows and Amazons series), his heroes were exactly the same sort of polite, mildly twee, middle-class English characters that Lewis produced. The type, incidentally, persists in children’s fiction. See Harry Potter.

Children’s books genuinely do carry a freight of values, and the freight to Narnia was deliberately loaded. But, without helpful adults to provide the exegesis, how much of Lewis’s Christianity, and his “reactionary” attitudes, would simply pass child readers by?

In our house, we left Narnia behind some time ago. I’m currently reading my younger children another story about a nice little girl like Lucy who, with the help of a friendly lion, routs a wicked witch. I suspect C S Lewis read it. It’s called The Wizard of Oz. I believe it is innocent of theological intent. As far as I can judge, my children have been enjoying it for its humour, its clear storyline, and its unambiguous conflict of good and evil. Philip Pullman might gnash his teeth and Lewis be slightly disappointed, but I think that’s what they really enjoyed about the Narnia books, too.

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