My greatest disappointment in 'The Screwtape Letters'
was that Lewis was not able to demonstrate what made his good people good or his bad people bad. The closest he got to defining goodness was that you could tell the good people from the vague aura of light that surrounded them--and which even shone in their cat. In this book, the cat is much bigger.
Aslan had no character, he was just a big, dull stand-in. Lewis often tells us how great he is, but never demonstrates what it is that makes him great or impressive. Sure, he helps the kids, but all that makes him is a plot facilitator. He also has his big Jesus moment, but that has the same problem as the original: if he already knows that there will be no lasting negative outcome, how much of a sacrifice is it, really?
But then, Aslan isn't based on the original fig-cursing, church-rejecting, rebel Jesus, but the whitewashed version. Like Mickey Mouse, Jesus started out as an oddball troublemaker with his fair share of personality, but becoming the smiling face of a multinational organization bent on world domination takes a lot out of a mascot, whether your magic castle is in California or Rome.
Such a visible figure must become universally appealing, universally friendly and loving, lest some subset of followers feel left out. And it's this 'Buddy Christ' tradition from which Aslan springs. Devoid of insight, wisdom, or charm, Aslan is just here to do all the things that our protagonists can't do.
This also beggars the question: why didn't Aslan just take care of all this stuff long before the kids arrived? Why did all the animals and fairies and giants have to suffer the pain of an endless winter? We're never given any good reason Aslan had to wait for the kids--since in the end, he does it all on his own, anyways. Sure, Lewis mentions something vague about a prophecy, but in fantasy, prophecy is always a bandaid authors stick over their plot holes: 'Uh, the shlubby nobody is a hero because the prophecy says he is--he defeats the ultimate evil because the prophecy says he can'
The only thing the kids do is help run the battle, but this is only necessary because Aslan is absent, and he's only absent because the kids screwed up, meaning the entire thing would have gone off without a hitch if they had never showed up in the first place.
In that regard, I have to say Lewis did an excellent job boiling down Christianity into a fable, and leaving the problem of evil
completely intact. Some readers suggest that Aslan lets the queen take over to teach the kids a lesson, but is it really worthwhile to let all the inhabitants of a kingdom suffer a century of misery just to teach a few kids about the true meaning of friendship?
The villain is just as poorly-constructed, and seems less concerned with defeating her enemies than with being pointlessly capricious. She manages to trick one of the children, but instead of taking advantage of this fact, she immediately makes it clear that she tricked him. I mean, how did someone that incompetent take over in the first place?
Selectively stupid characters are silly and convenient, especially as villains, because this completely undermines their role as foil. It is impressive when characters overcome challenges, but not when challenges simply crumble before them. The children are lucky the Queen was more of a fart-stealing Old Nick
than a Miltonian Satan, otherwise they never would have stood a chance.
It is interesting to look at how many Christian authors have tried to reconcile their faith with complex fairy mythologies; not that Christianity doesn't have its own magical fairy tales
, but these other traditions are not exactly compatible. Dante has Virgil lead him through hell, the Buddha was made into a saint
, holidays were given new meanings (even if they often kept old symbols and names
), and magical monsters were also given a place in the new faith.
In the Middle Ages, monks compiled 'Bestiaries'
, which described the roles of dragons, unicorns, and real animals in Christian synbolism; there were even century-spanning debates about whether dog-headed men were descended from Adam
. These books were rarely accurate, but allowed Christian theology to adopt many stories and superstitions from earlier periods; for instance, the connection between unicorns and virginity or the belief that pelicans fed their own blood to their young, in imitation of communion
So Lewis' attempt to take myth and adapt it to a Christian cosmology is hardly new--there is a long and storied tradition explored throughout the Chivalric period and recognizable today in books like The Once and Future King
, but Lewis doesn't do a very good job of reconciling these disparate mythologies.
Like most Protestants, Lewis' religion was a modern one--not magical and mystical, but reasonable and utilitarian. He did not draw on the elaborate, convoluted apocrypha of hallucinatory monsters and miracles that mystics obsess over, instead, he made a small, sane, reasonable magical world--which rather defeats the point. It is unfortunate that many of today's readers think of Lewis' writings as defining English fairy tales, since his late additions to the genre are not original, nor are they particularly well-executed examples.
Many authors have come to the genre with much more imagination, a deeper sense of wonder, and a more far-reaching exploration of magic. We have examples from Kipling
, Lewis Carroll
, and even modern updates by Gaiman
. Lewis, like Tolkien, may be a well-known example, but both are rather short-sighted, and neither one achieves as much as the many talented authors who came before.
I'm not saying Lewis is bad, merely that he is unremarkable, and is hardly preeminent in fantasy, or even in children's fantasy. However, I do think his fundamental message is a bad one, even if he didn't realize he was creating it.
In all his worlds, all his stories, he takes the sorts of people he dislikes, defines them as 'evil', then sets himself apart from them. There is no attempt to comprehend or to come to mutual understanding. I cannot respect a book which encourages people to vilify what they don't understand and to call isolation righteous. If any worldview deserves the epithet of 'evil', it is the sort of willful, prideful, self-indulgent ignorance Lewis displays.My List of Suggested Fantasy Books