Challenge: Narnia Week, Day 5

Status Report:

  • Book: A severely used copy of the 2001 The Chronicles of Narnia omnibus by HarperCollins. The plastic on the cover is peeling. I say this appreciatively.
  • Books Read: 6/7
  • Pages Read: 662/767
  • Progress: 

Whoa. I finished The Silver Chair yesterday morning and The Last Battle last night, and I am so glad I saved The Horse and His Boy for last–that was heavier and darker than I’d expected. I’m going to need something happy (and then, of course, a little breather from fantasy, because my brain feels like it’s developing some sort of mana burn). Spoilers abound, folks!

The Silver Chair introduces us to Jill Pole, the last of the eight English people who come to Narnia in times of great trouble. She goes to school (of course, a very strange, “modern” school that even serves soya bean sausages–seriously, what is it with Lewis and vegetarians? All the other stuff I can basically understand) with Eustace Scrubb, introduced to us in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Jill’s adventure in Narnia occurs in the wild lands to the North, and it reminded me more of traditional English folktales than Narnia. While there’s that definite flavor of Narnia (Eustace gets a fantastically heartsick moment when he encounters Caspian as a doddering man on the edge of death) at the beginning, the north is full of man-eating giants and an elegant evil woman known only as the Woman of the Green Kirtle. It’s all very Arthurian, save for the actually delightful Puddleglum–a Marsh-wiggle whose pessimism makes him the most cheerful of his people. I thought I’d grow sick of him, but his harsh (if cheerful) view of reality can be downright charming, and certainly saves the children. Like Prince Caspian, it’s quite slim–but I think it’s an equally interesting way to enter Narnia as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, especially since the world is a little firmer here than in that one.

As you may have guessed, I’ve raced through The Silver Chair to get to The Last Battle. Prior to this challenge, all I knew about The Last Battle was this–Susan gets ripped off, a unicorn with a bloody horn appears, and something bad happens. But I wasn’t prepared for how dark it is.

As Lewis himself put in one of his last letters, The Last Battle is the end and Last Judgment of Narnia–the Antichrist is a very selfish Ape, who forces his donkey friend to pose as Aslan for his own ends; which, it turns out, are the same ends as the invading Calormen (and I will get to them in a second). Religion and death plays a large part in The Last Battle–there’s a small scene with several dwarves, now intending to take Narnia for themselves, that shows how their lack of belief in Aslan harms them. The Pevensies (save a lipsticked Susan who denies the existence of Narnia) and all of Narnia find themselves in heaven, imagined as the purest form of Narnia possible; for they’ve died in a train crash and the end of the world, respectively. The novel starts off with a unicorn goring someone–but never once does it abandon the tone aimed at children fond throughout the novels. I’m oddly pleased by this. I was not raised religiously, which, like anything else, has its benefits and drawbacks–one of the drawbacks being that I didn’t have a framework to hash out my own mortality with as a young girl. To see it dealt frankly but kindly in The Last Battle is refreshing and, I think, useful to young children pondering their mortality.

But this is all in a context that considers other religions and even other races bosh. The Calormen are cruel, haughty, and dark-skinned, turban-wearing invaders–Pauline Baynes’ illustrations tends to depict them as Turks. They believe in a cruel god named Tash, who turns out to be a sort of Satan figure opposed to Aslan. When Emeth, a good-hearted and devout Calormene, finds himself in paradise, Aslan explains that because he did good deeds, he was always doing them in the name of Aslan. Naturally, I find this problematic–as Aslan is the incarnation of Jesus in Narnia, any religion that doesn’t include Aslan is the wrong one, particularly the religion of the racial Other. (But, of course, exceptions can be made for the “good” ones.) The Horse and His Boy stars a Calormene girl, but I don’t hold out much hope.

And, then, of course, there’s the infamous problem of Susan, mentioned by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and addressed by Neil Gaiman in the short story, “The Problem of Susan”. As a friend of mine put it, “Susan gets to live!” I like Susan, particularly the latest film adaptations’ version of Susan. I’m quite glad Susan survived her siblings and other English-Narnian ambassadors, though I’m sure it will tear her up inside until it’s her time to go–but I was a bit perturbed by how she was written off. Lucy and Polly despair of her for being interested in traditional trappings of femininity (lipsticks and nylons) and boys (invitations), which is the most commonly cited fact, but also because she no longer believes in Narnia–which I can easily read as a grown Susan questioning her faith as she explores her sexuality. Since this falls out of the Aslan-required faith, Susan is excluded from Narnian paradise. I need to read The Horse and His Boy to get the entire picture (Susan plays a part as a desirable possible bride in that book) of how Lewis treats Susan, but, just like the Calormen, I don’t hold out much hope for something different. (Incidentally, I cannot wait to read “The Problem of Susan”.)

Well, I’ll try and get through The Horse and His Boy today to round out the series–I think I definitely need some cheering up!

If you’re participating in Narnia Week, don’t forget to add your posts to the Mr. Linky! And don’t forget about the #narniaweek hash tag on Twitter. Thanks!

11 thoughts on “Challenge: Narnia Week, Day 5

  1. Gosh, I don’t remember soya-bean sausages in my umpteen re-readings of The Silver Chair! Perhaps that’s me being lazy and skipping over that part? The Silver Chair is probably my favourite of the Narnia books – I like the way Eustace and Jill bicker, and their relationship with Puddleglum, and the help they get from unexpected places (as well as the really scary bits). I’m still unsure about the ending, though – Lewis’ prejudices showing strongly, I feel.

    I think Lewis would have seen vegetarianism as a bit cranky, and perhaps it was a convenient short-hand at the time of writing for “oddness” in a bad way.

    • It’s quite fleeting–the children and Puddleglum are enjoying proper sausages, unlike the soy sausages they get at their school, at some point.

      I’m harping on the vegetarianism because I was pretty much prepped for everything that Lewis doesn’t like–except that.

  2. During the Q&A portion of Lev Grossman’s Decatur Book Festival talk about his book, The Magicians, he and Laurel Snyder actually talked about the “Susan Problem” and how they read what happened with her. I can’t remember everything they said, but I wish I did so I could tell you what these awesome people thought.

    It’s always been problematic for me that he chooses “feminine” things as if they in themselves are bad, and I could go on and on about how Susan was socially into what she became, how we can’t really blame her for what society has done to her, and blah blah blah. I read the whole Susan thing as growing up and materialism is bad, but I like your reading of it too. And there’s a book about Susan?

    • Not a book, a short story–”The Problem of Susan” is collected in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, which is pretty available if you want to pick it up.

      I do get the “materialism is bad” vibe, but I also think Susan should get a chance to explore–the poor girl is probably pretty messed up after growing up into a confident, beautiful Queen and then turning back into a child. She deserves some fun.

  3. As I was saying, I barely remember The Silver Chair at all! I must not have reread that one as much….probably because I didn’t like Eustace (or Edmund…I wasn’t a very forgiving child, lol). I’m quite curious to revisit it!

    Also, I can’t wait for you to read Laura Miller’s book. She talks about a lot of this stuff. 🙂

  4. I’m guessing that Lewis knew some vegetarians with a superiority complex–but that’s just a guess. And I just loved Puddleglum; I think I have a little Puddleglum in me 🙂

    And I’m finding it fascinating to read your perspective because I come to the books from a different background (brought up in church but didn’t read these until college, aside from TLtW&tW). So I also discovered them more as an adult reader but one who accepted the basic Christian worldview behind the books. Coming from that perspective, the whole business with Emeth was hugely liberating–the idea that the Christian God might honor service toward another God was a huge perspective opener. I realize Lewis’s view is still limiting, but it’s way more open than that of a lot (but by no means all) of the evangelicals who have embraced him.

    • You’re quite right–I think my concern over the depiction of the Calormen spills over into the religious aspect. The tenet is a good and fine one–but I’m still perturbed by the fact that apparently there are only two Calormen in all the world that are good people (Emeth and Aravis, respectively).

  5. I also do not remember the soya-bean sausages. C.S. Lewis could be so weird sometimes. But I do remember likening Puddleglum to Eeyore in my mind, and that not helping to make The Silver Chair less terrifying. :p

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