C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is now delighting cinema audiences across the world, but not everyone is so pleased. One of its most vocal critics Philip Pullman has been particularly outspoken in his condemnation of the stories for years, calling the series, ‘one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read’, ‘vile’, ‘life-hating’, ‘nauseating drivel’, ‘loathsome’1, ‘disgusting’2, and ‘containing a view of life so hideous and cruel I can scarcely contain myself when I think of it.’3 When I first witnessed Pullman talking about Lewis I was startled at the anger with which he spoke.
Pullman first read the books as a teacher and, ‘realised that what [Lewis] was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in.’4 However, he also says that, ‘Lewis is a contradictory sort of character for me. I loathe the Narnia books, and I loathe the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision. But when he was talking about writing for children, and about literature in general, Lewis was very, very acute and said some very perceptive and wise things. As a critic . . . I rate him very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his fiction.’5
This sense of The Chronicles of Narnia containing an ‘ugly vision’ comes, for Pullman, from a number of features. At the Hay Festival in 2002, he said that the series, ‘is monumentally disparaging of girls and women. It is blatantly racist. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.’6 More recently, he told The Observer that, ‘It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue. The highest virtue, we have on the authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books.’7 He reiterated his belief that what one finds in the Narnia books is, ‘a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice; but of love, of Christian charity, [there is] not a trace.' In his view, Disney can only marketThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a great Christian film if they tell lies about it.
C.S. Lewis seems to be almost infallible in some people’s minds, and they react very defensively against any criticism of their hero or of his stories. Pullman says:
When you criticise Narnia, what you're doing, I've discovered, is not what you think. You think you're offering an opinion about the literary or moral qualities of a work of fiction. In fact, unless you offer unqualified and unstinting praise, you're blaspheming. His followers are unhinged. . . . you can't criticise C.S. Lewis with any hope of a rational discussion coming out of it.8
But Lewis was human and therefore flawed and open to criticism. And Pullman is partly right about his ‘reactionary prejudice’. However, it’s important to remember that Lewis was a man of his time. Born into a conservative Anglican family in Ulster in 1898, and being immersed for his entire working life in the masculine, reactionary environments of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, it is almost inevitable that he would reflect this to some extent. All of us are products of our age, and every writer – including Philip Pullman – brings something of the values, attitudes and concerns of the day to his or her work. So, while it is fair to draw attention to aspects of the Narnia stories which, to our eyes, seem old-fashioned and reactionary, it is unfair to condemn Lewis for not sharing our 21st century sensibilities. Indeed, the outspokenness of Pullman’s comments has made him something of a hostage to fortune: how will his own works be read fifty years on?
Besides, Lewis was deliberately drawing on classical, medieval and renaissance ideas. Like Tolkien, he believed in the wisdom of the pre-modern world, and Narnia was his attempt to commend the values of a lost age. Tolkien didn’t like the way Lewis went about doing so, but his aim in writing The Lord of the Rings was the very same – it was a concern shared by the members of their little group, the Inklings. Cristina Odone is wrong when she writes that, ‘Lewis's message is unrepentantly conservative, a 1930s vision of a hierarchical society where everyone – men and women, the middle classes and the proles – have their rightful place.’9 His vision was, admittedly, hierarchical but he didn’t want to wind the clock back to the pre-war years. Lewis wanted the world to be more like the centuries before the Age of the Machine which, he believed, gave rise to what he called the Great Divide in human history.
Let’s deal with some of Philip Pullman’s specific complaints, bearing in mind Lewis’s context and literary background.
First, while it is fair to say that The Chronicles of Narnia tend to trade in old-fashioned stereotypes about males being stronger and braver, it is an exaggeration to say that Narnia is ‘monumentally disparaging of girls’. Some have strong roles – Lucy and Jill Pole, for example, are two of the most heroic characters in the series. Some critics think the stronger roles for girls tend to come in the later books when they ‘can ride and fight as well as boys and have exciting adventures’,10 perhaps after Lewis struck up his famous friendship with the feisty Joy Davidman, whom he later married. Others argue that the female characters have more depth to them than the male ones.11
Second, I do not believe that Lewis intended his portrayal of Calormen to be racist, though it certainly does reflect some of the prejudices of his day. Lewis’s starting point in terms of the cultures within the books was his love of the north and northern cultures. Narnia itself was largely based on Lewis’s beloved County Down in Northern Ireland. County Down is ‘the area of earth,’ says Colin Duriez, ‘that Lewis regarded as closest to heaven.’12 Having constructed such a northern culture in Narnia, when it came to the creation of Calormen, he needed it to be a culture that was exotic, hostile to Aslan, and totally different in almost every respect from Narnia. The obvious solution to this is to have this other state well to the south, and Lewis probably drew on literature such as A Thousand and One Nights to flesh it out. For today’s readers, unfortunately, it does feel distinctly uncomfortable in places, but while there are echoes of Persian culture, Calormen is clearly not intended to be seen as a Muslim nation since the Calormenes worship the god Tash – a demonic creature with a vulture’s head and four arms. It is perhaps a small point, but the fact that Lewis chose to use the Turkish word for lion, aslan, as the name of his central figure, suggests that he did not have a hatred of middle eastern cultures. The difficulty with creating alternative cultures like this in fantasy literature is that is extremely difficult to avoid elements that make it appear racist. Pullman manages to achieve this in His Dark Materials – but is ‘monumentally disparaging’ of religious people instead.
Philip Pullman is particularly incensed by the end of the series, which he believes are cruel:
The things he's being cruel to are things I value very highly. The crux of it all comes, as many people have found, with the point near the end of The Last Battle . . . when Susan is excluded from the stable. The stable obviously represents salvation. They're going to heaven, they're going to be saved. But Susan isn't allowed into the stable, and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’
This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up. Maybe one day she'll grow past the invitations and the lipstick and the nylons. But my point is that it's an inevitable, important, valuable and cherishable stage that we go through.13
What Pullman fails to realise is that Susan excluded herself from Narnia by dismissing her experiences as childish fantasy. It is not that Lewis considered ‘clothes and boys’ as evil, but that they are used to demonstrate her loss of faith in Aslan. Lewis was a man who rejoiced in the stuff of this world – the unique qualities of particular place or person, or his beer and pipe (and 60 cigarettes a day!) – but he believed that this world was only part of the story, and that a preoccupation with worldly things would distract someone from thinking about the greater reality of heaven. Lewis later wrote in a letter that maybe Susan would ‘get to Aslan’s country in the end – in her own way.’
Pullman is also wide of the mark when he accuses Lewis of having some hang up about the process of growing into sexual maturity. When the railway accident happens, Susan is 21 – an adult who has already negotiated the passage of which Pullman speaks. While it is true that she is accused of being too keen to grow up, this itself reflects her embrace of all this world has to offer, at the expense of all she knows of the other world.
Pullman also sees the Pevensie children’s death in the railway accident as cruel:
Now here are these children who have gone through great adventures and learned wonderful things and would therefore be in a position to do great things to help other people. But they're taken away. He doesn't let them. For the sake of taking them off to a perpetual school holiday or something, he kills them all in a train crash. I think that's ghastly. It's a horrible message.14
First, this ignores the fact that the Pevensies reigned for fifteen years in Narnia before returning back through the wardrobe, and visited it subsequently to help in a time of crisis. Lewis could easily have given them long lives in our world, but it was time to bring to an end the story of The Chronicles of Narnia, leaving him with two choices: finish the series with some reference to the Pevensies living long lives of public service (opening him up to the accusation of a glib happy ending), or bring them into Aslan’s own country. Since this richer world beyond ours has been Lewis’s focus throughout all seven books, this seems the natural thing to do. In fact, Lewis uses this to drive home his point about heaven as the end of the story – just as Pullman separates his heroes Lyra and Will at the end of His Dark Materials in order to drive home the point that there is no life beyond this one:
There was a real railway accident,' said Aslan softly. 'Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.'
Pullman finished His Dark Materials in the way he does because of his worldview, but fails to allow for the worldview out of which Lewis was writing. Giving the children early entry into heaven is not remotely cruel within a Christian worldview which sees heaven as a reality far superior to this world. They have been liberated once and for all from all the pain and suffering of this life. Of course, with Pullman’s perspective of, ‘There ain’t no elsewhere’, this is nothing but wishful thinking. Whereas the alternative worlds in His Dark Materials are pure fantasy, Lewis believed that the alternative worlds in his stories were representative of a concrete reality. Richard Harries helpfully comments:
It's misconceived therefore for either the Christian or the atheist simply to claim the moral high ground on the basis of either believing or not believing. The fact is that for a believing Christian, the prospect of eternity will constitute a fundamental aspect of reality.
Furthermore, to be morally mature will involve acknowledging that reality and living in relation to God, the ground of our being and the goal of our longing. There are different concepts of reality, and following on from that different understandings of what it is to be morally mature. For the atheist, moral maturity must involve rejecting religion. For the religious believer, it must involve acknowledging the supreme reality from whom we draw our being.15
The other charge, that there is ‘not a trace’ of love, the highest virtue, in the Narnia tales is also a serious misrepresentation of the stories. From the first encounter with Aslan, he is characterised by a deep love beyond anything the children have ever experienced. His ultimate expression of love, of course, comes when he dies in Edmund’s place. Although he knows that there is ‘Deeper Magic’ than the White Witch realises, and that he will live again, still he endures the mockery, shame, abuse, and pain of his sacrifice. While this is a powerful echo of the death of Jesus Christ, dying in the place of all of us who are rebels against God, it does not adequately reflect the intense agony which Jesus endured. Nor does it reflect the fact that Jesus was suffering separation from God the Father as he bore our sin. Nevertheless, what greater love could there be, that he willingly dies for his betrayer? There is also the deep love which all the Narnians, and the human vistors to Narnia, have for Aslan – a love which drives them to great bravery as well as to compassion. They love each other because of the love Aslan has for them and because of their love for Aslan.
Philip Pullman’s hostility towards The Chronicles of Narnia is a very strong reaction to a mere story, even if it is perhaps over-revered by some. Yes, Lewis’s work contains some serious flaws, but the real problem seems to be that it is a story which expresses and argues for a worldview completely antithetical to Pullman’s. Sadly, his ‘paroxysm of loathing’16 feels distinctly intolerant.