Reviews 2013

C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia

C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. Michelle Ann Abate and Lance Weldy (eds.). Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 210 pages. $23.00 USD (paperback).

One marker of a literary classic is that, at any point, much more can still be said about it than has already been said. This is certainly true of The Chronicles of Narnia as seen from new angles by the ten authors in Abate and Weldy’s collection. Aiming to explore the past place, the present status, and future importance of Lewis’s bestselling series, the collection does not disappoint. Its four sections—‘Text and Contexts,’ ‘Applications and Implications,’ ‘Adaptations and Meditations,’ and ‘Conflicts and Controversy’—offer a range of thought-provoking chapters, and most of their arguments are truly innovative. The collection opens with Weldy’s informative ‘Introduction’ and ends with a 9-page ‘Further Reading’ section that offers the editors’ overview of some of the key critical texts on Lewis and the Chronicles—a necessarily limited but thematically organized selection especially helpful for graduate students and those fresh to Lewis studies. The main body of the collection, however, will please even a seasoned scholar.

Having recently encountered more diatribes against Lewis than positive evaluations of his work, I was pleasantly surprised to find the collection even-minded and unprejudiced. Weldy’s acknowledgment that the popularity of Narnian stories is ‘not limited to Christian circles’ (5)— that the Chronicles are a landmark fantasy series of the 20th century and have had ‘a lasting influence on popular culture’ (8)—are thus echoed in many chapters. Rachel Towns’s essay on how, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, liking British food and following traditional gender roles are signifiers of goodness whereas preferences for foreign, fancy food and breaking gender roles are markers of evil and corruption is well-argued and convincing. Melody Green’s chapter on how The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe employs the scapegoating mechanism described by René Girard brilliantly demonstrates how profoundly the Witch-Aslan conflict reflects the dialectics of scapegoating. Green’s brief examination of movie adaptations which jettison collective responsibility—but which also diminish the role of community and its civic responsibility—is a perceptive comment on the shift in values and understanding that have occurred since 9/11. Keith Dorwick’s discussion of Lewis’s representation of ‘redeeming education’ as a hands-on, experiential Imitatio Christi draws on a wide body of Lewis’s non-fiction and adds a new appreciation of The Chronicles as a voice in the ongoing (and rising?) protest against systems of education that kill imagination, curiosity and the spirit. Nanette Norris’s eloquent reading of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as a narrative response to trauma and dislocation in WWII England builds a phenomenal case for imaginative literature as a site where articulation and subsequent healing of trauma can occur—a healing ‘available for all children who suffer possible trauma’ (71)—especially that arising from betrayal and/or loss. In much the same spirit, and informed by Lewis’s articulations of why post-war children need fantasy, Joseph Michael Sommers’s Bakhtinian reading of the Chronicles offers a behind-the-scenes tour of Lewis’s mythopoeic operations on collapsing cyclical mythic and linear historical time into a teleological and eschatological one. Rhonda Brock-Servais and Matthew B. Prickett’s chapter on post-2005 textual adaptations of the Chronicles for young readers chimes in well with Aaron Clayton’s examination of the Narnia video game: both demonstrate that all these recent adaptations—essentially movie tie-ins—build on the Walden Media/Disney film(s) rather than on Lewis’s novels, restructuring or erasing their key characteristics in order to meet standards of contemporary family entertainment and marketing. Gili Bar-Hillel’s examination of how Lewis and Pullman employ the Judeo-Christian stories about Eve and the afterlife—as well as how they both choose God and Christ as their protagonists—is yet another powerful argument for affinities between works of these two excellent fantasists. Jennifer Taylor’s thoroughly-researched chapter on how what today may appear as Lewis’s racism in the series was in fact his conscientious attempt to overcome the ubiquitous post-imperial racist attitudes of his times is a multifaceted gem. I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand how the Chronicles, in modern reception, are the victims of Lewis’s (and other fantasists’) success in transforming public attitudes toward racism. Finally, Susana Rodriguez’s examination of the Chronicles as structured on the pattern of ‘a potential girl’s adventure transformed into a boy’s story’ (188) where boys are allowed to subvert traditional masculine expectations, but desexualized little girls are expected to conform with traditional feminine roles spells out some of what makes many modern readers uncomfortable about Narnia.

Much as I appreciate the collection and the passion with which the chapters are written, some among them have gaps and blind spots too. Thus, Town’s essay fails to mention food rationing and shortages in post-war Britain (until 1954), which made delicious descriptions of sumptuous food and availability of sweets in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe mean much more to their original young audience than they do to a contemporary snickers-(over)fed one. Dorwick ignores the bildungsroman context of the Chronicles that frames what he calls ‘the double pattern of experience and instruction’ (66) prevalent in the series. Sommers could have drawn more on studies of Lewis’s mythopoeia such as those by Verlyn Flieger, Jared Lobdell, and my own One Earth, One People, whereas Bar-Hillel, original as her chapter is, argues as if there were no earlier studies that compared the two authors, completely ignoring key texts such as those by Naomi Wood, William Gray, Daniel Hade and Marek Oziewicz. My small issue with Rodriguez, finally, is that even though her claims about the ‘façade of [gender] equality’ in the series are convincing (189), she seems not to fully appreciate how bold Lewis was, by the standards of the 1950s, in his attempt to push at gender role boundaries, for example by allowing boys/males adopt traditionally feminine functions of being, as Rodriguez acknowledges, ‘generative, restorative forces while also performing traditionally masculine roles’ (193). Ursula Le Guin’s first three Earthsea novels—the first of which was published 18 years after The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe—can be accused of using many of the same gender patterns that Lewis did although Le Guin, a female author, was even at that time incomparably more liberal than the traditionalist Lewis. Also, as Brock-Servais and Prickett’s chapter illustrates, even post-2005 textual adaptations, so bold in eliminating Lewis’ theology and manipulating other elements of his narratives, are curiously shy to revision stereotypical gender roles. Thus, accusing Lewis of what today seems as gender prejudice is inescapably anachronistic and is always done at the price of ignoring the realities of his time.

These small reservations aside, Abate and Weldy’s collection is an indispensable book for all interested in Lewis and fantasy as such. In line with the New Casebooks series goals, C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia offers brilliant original essays that will sure provoke heated discussions in the classroom and open our eyes, again, to the complexity and modern relevance of The Chronicles.

Marek Oziewicz
University of Minnesota, USA