Timothy's Reviews > The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
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's review
Nov 02, 2007

really liked it

I went back and actually read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time last year. (My parents read them to me when I was a kid). This is an amazing story, from one of the best English minds of the twentieth century. As a whole, this story was every bit as good as I had remembered.

That being said, however, I ran into some real problems reading this story as an adult in the 21st century. Starting with The Horse and His Boy, and culminating in The Last Battle, the issue of "Calormen" as obviously modeled on the Arab world, and their belief in the vengeful god "Tosh" as obviously modeled on the Muslim faith, is very serious indeed. I've read defenses of this--for instance, the fact that C.S. Lewis was a scholar of Medieval literature, which steeped him in a time dominated by fear of the Ottoman Empire and the ever-present threat of its overrunning Europe. Frankly, this just doesn't do it for me. At the end of the day, this story has to be read as imperfect fiction, but still with an unparalelled scope of imagination.

The other issue, of course is gender. There's the word of Father Christmas to Lucy in the first novel--"Battles are nasty afffairs when women fight"--which was totally glossed over in the recent film. And then there's the issue of Susan not being deemed worthy of living in the New Narnia, in effect, because she has become enamored with the trappings of being a mature female. This is also problematic, and there's no way around it. C.S. Lewis, like many other celebrated authors of the 20th century (Take Hemingway, for crying out loud!) seems to have some issues with integrating feminine power into his worldview, let alone his fiction.

Again, however, I think that for children, Lewis' power of storytelling and imagination far outweighs his dated (even for his own time) perspective on NonWestern cultures and femininity. The important thing is not to "censor" his work for our children, or deprive them of this wonderful story, but rather to add it to their mental tapestry, knowing its flaws, and the need for fantasy springing from other worldviews to supplement it.

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message 1: by Jesse (new)

Jesse You've made me question how fair I've been to Lewis' work. Acknowledging shortcomings and faults for what they are does great justice to the actual value of the Narnia series.

message 2: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Oh my. I never even stopped to consider what Father Christmas said to Lucy. I was perplexed about Susan's absence because she had grown up, but I never thought much of it. Now I am! I did notice that the Calormen could be Arabs and now I am definitely sure that is what Lewis modeled them after.
Well, this doesn't change my opinion on how great the books are but it will make me read them in a very different light.
Great review!

Sara McAllister The issue of Calormen troubled me a bit even in high school when I first read the books and as you noted, it's important realize the context in which the books are written. Regarding the god, Tash, it seems to me that Tash is not synonymous with Allah. Tash means "stone" in Turkish which would relate to him being a false idol. Also, Tash has four arms which would be more in keeping with the Hindu god, Vishnu. (Actually Vishnu is technically one of many manifestation of Brahman). Anyhow, my point is that I don't think that Calormen or Tash is explicitly a jab at Arabs or Muslims. In fact, there are some good things said regarding the Calormen.

Regarding Susan, I've heard the argument that Lewis was being misogynistic but I don't think it's as bad as some people try to make it out to be. I think it has more to do with Matthew 18:2-4: "He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

Being a mature woman didn't keep Susan from the New Narnia but her vanity and love of the world did.

Brad The seven books included in Chronicles of Narnia derive their classic status in the fantasy genre from Lewis’ ability to create a compelling alternate world both wondrous and familiar. However, the books contain serious flaws that must relegate them to second rate in comparison with The Lord of the Rings or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. The first flaw, one that irked me as a child reader, is Lewis’ propensity to issue condescending asides to the youthful reader. Rather than draw the reader in to the author’s confidence, these serve rather to distract. Further, they do not add to the story world but merely inform the reader of the reactionary prejudices of the author (for example regarding gender). The second flaw, which I did not notice as a child, is a strong dose of anti-Muslim propaganda, featured most strongly in A Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle. The dark-skinned Calormenes embody a catalogue of evil characteristics—slave-trading, fanatic, aggressive, treacherous, cruel—and they are clearly marked as Muslim with turbans, scimitars, and minarets. The Last Battle (the weakest story in the series) is little more than an apocalyptic scenario of the clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. That Lewis uses a series of children’s books to pursue a crude project of orientalist crusade is inexcusable. The anti-Islamic theme however feeds into Lewis’ main project: Christian proselytizing. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis presents a full-blown allegory of the crucifixion of Jesus. Aslan permits himself to be humiliated and sacrificed to pay for the sin of Edmund and is soon resurrected in greater glory. Susan and Lucy (paralleling the two Marys) wash his body and witness his resurrection. Thinly-veiled Christian symbols and arguments permeate the whole series and since this is nowhere openly acknowledged, The Chronicles of Narnia must be regarded as a deceitful tool of concealed proselytizing. Rather than make an open argument in favor of his convictions, Lewis cunningly creates a world of aesthetic and philosophic sensibilities intended to work at the subliminal level. Of course, all authors have agendas and children’s books frequently contain implicit behavioral and moral messages. However, Lewis has crossed the line, especially by mobilizing racial-religious antipathies to his project. If the series proselytized, for example, the ideology of Communism or a non-Christian religion in the same way, parents, teachers, and self-appointed guardians of children would never accept it. That said, these flaws detract from but do not negate the imaginative entertainment value of the Narnia books. In spite of my grave social concerns, I would let children read these books. But at an appropriate age I would initiate a discussion about racism, and religious and cultural chauvinism. Given the social conditions of the 21st century, I would ask children to try to imagine a fantasy world in which beings with different sensibilities and physical characteristics are able to tackle conflicts between them without demonizing or waging war on the other. Now THAT takes some imagination.

Kyle Everyone is so PC its funny. Lets make sure not to hurt anyones feelings, especially the middle-easterners who are setting off bombs as we speak. But being serious, I don't find the way the Colormen are portrayed as wrong. Look at a history book, the Muslims have a very violent history(Convert or Die anyone?). I also doubt that he meant for them to come off as evil because he also had a good Colorman. So how about we stop being so scared of offending people and face reality, bacause thats what I'm gonna do

message 6: by Willa (new)

Willa Okay, Brad, it's been a while since you wrote your comments, but I've just got to speak back to some of them.

First: "Thinly-veiled Christian symbols and arguments permeate the whole series and since this is nowhere openly acknowledged, The Chronicles of Narnia must be regarded as a deceitful tool of concealed proselytizing." I wouldn't call the symbols and arguments thinly-veiled myself. I picked up TLTW&TW on a whim with no preconceived notions about it as an eight-year-old and immediately recognized it for the allegory (even though I didn't know that particular word for it) that it was. And that you say this is not acknowledged just makes me shake my head with confusion. Lewis was writing books of Christian apologetics at the very same time he was writing these novels, so why would it occur to him to need to put a 'warning label' or some other such nonsense on his fictional works? And why does fiction based in Christianity and its beliefs have to be labeled as such? We (yes, I'm obviously a Christian, in case you haven't figured that out yet) can't have fiction that reflects our beliefs and values without it being specifically labeled as such and placed in a completely different section of the bookstore than the "normal" fiction that's safe for everyone else to read without offense? Oh, right. I forgot for a minute that that's already the way it is. I guess I imagined my own little fantasy world for a moment where people of ALL religions were free to express themselves through art without being afraid of backlash or segregation.

Second: "Rather than make an open argument in favor of his convictions, Lewis cunningly creates a world of aesthetic and philosophic sensibilities intended to work at the subliminal level." Again, I point to the fact that Lewis was authoring deeply philosophical works of apologetics at the same time and under the same name, thereby negating your statement. Yes, it's possible that people didn't then and don't now make the connection, but is he to be blamed and chastised for that? I personally don't think so.

Third: "If the series proselytized, for example, the ideology of Communism or a non-Christian religion in the same way, parents, teachers, and self-appointed guardians of children would never accept it." I would say that Philip Pullman strongly "proselytized" (just to use the same word, even though I really don't like that word, ever, in any case) to try to convince children to disbelieve in God. And yes, there was some controversy when the movie was made, but I certainly wouldn't say that it wasn't widely accepted. And it's funny, but those books aren't segregated to a separate area of the bookstore, just because they happen to reflect or be an allegory of the author's personal religious beliefs.

I don't mean to be rude, and I'm sure some of the above comes across that way, and for that I do sincerely apologize. I do admit that it makes me angry to feel that my religious beliefs are being portrayed in not just a negative light (that I can handle and do all the time), but in a way that seems to say that I shouldn't be allowed to even present it to anyone else without being afraid that I will be accused of deviousness.

Brian Hahn Message 2: by Sara, you hit it right on. Great response.

Heather I don't think Susan was "deemed unworthy" of living in Narnia (although I don't remember how it's put in The Last Battle)--from her behavior in Prince Caspian, I'd think she just didn't want to believe in Narnia. Interesting blog post on the topic: http://chrisrusso.xanga.com/478779707...

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