- October 13th, 2010
Before I say anything else…my dog up there looks sort of like Aslan, doesn’t he? Don’cha think? Hmn?
No? Well, screw you…heretic.
So okay, this weekend, for my Sunday night just-before-bed treat, I read Neil Gaiman’s beautiful, disturbing story “The Problem of Susan.” It’s a meditation on a particular element of Lewis’s Narnia books, the idea that Susan, the second-oldest of the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, was essentially banned from Paradise (Aslan’s Country) because she became more interested in “lipstick and nylons and invitations.” J.K. Rowling, bless ‘er ‘eart, put this more pithily as “because she became interested in sex.”
It’s something that’s bothered other writers—and doubtless many a reader—as well. Philip Pullman got really mad about it. I didn’t actually agonize over the matter when I read the books as a kid, but I do definitely remember noticing it. Poor Susan, I thought. It didn’t seem fair. Kind of mean, actually.
Yet, I kinda/sorta understood what was going on there, and when I recently ran into these comments by other writers, I was kinda/sorta surprised. After all, the Narnia books, if not actually Christian allegories, as some have labeled them, are informed by a profoundly Christian mentality. I’m not a Christian myself (I’m ex-Catholic, which many Christians, I have learned to my relief, believe doesn’t qualify), but in the nondenominational services my wife drags me to every Sunday, I’ve learned one thing: it’s not about the World. It’s about God. God, God, God. Christ, Christ, Christ. Bible, Bible, Bible. It’s not about watching Law and Order or some nice bloody anime on the Funimation Channel (the wife and I like Claymore lately), or reading Borges or unwinding with a glass of wine and some cool jazz. Or with lipsticks and nylons, I guess. You have to be thinking about God and working on your relationship with God every day AND NOTHING ELSE or you’re gonna end up with Susan Pevensie in…well, I guess the nondenominationals would consider it hell, though as far as I’m concerned if they’ve got girls in nice nylons there, it’s probably not all bad.
So, to reiterate, I got all that, slow as I usually am. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I considered it a part of the books (like Aslan’s betrayal, death & resurrection) that could be ignored if you didn’t like it. But as I say, a lot of others don’t accept Susan’s fate and don’t especially feel like ignoring it. Some, like Neil Gaiman, embody their irritation or ambivalence in a story. Others, like Pullman and Rowling, will talk about it, in articles or interviews. And many, many others will just be deeply, wordlessly angry. Or hurt. Or unhappy.
A co-worker of mine, at my Beloved Day Job, got into a conversation with me when the first Narnia movie came out a few years ago. She’s Jewish, and loved the books as a kid…and apparently she had only just heard or read that the books were considered “Christian.” It may sound surprising that she’d only just heard this, but after all, most of the stuff about Narnia-as-Christian-doctrine is encountered in CCD and Religion in Literature classes. You’re not as likely to hear about it elsewhere and if you’re in another faith, and haven’t reread or thought too much about the books in your adult years…yeah, I can see it.
Anyway, my friend was—I think quite rightly—as angry about this as Philip Pullman was about Susan. Because on some level they were HER books (just as all books belong to everyone who loves them), and here she was being asked to believe that Aslan was Christ. Right after she’d just gotten through Christmas, too.
So what we’ve got here is a bunch of people who, when they are really brought face to face with the “Christian” elements of Narnia, respond with—perhaps not rage, but with an immediate irritation. A negative response. I find that very interesting. Most Christians probably would see it as another example of the all-pervasive “political correctness” that’s Ruining the World. But I suspect there’s something deeper going on.
It should be pointed out...there are a lot of elements of the Narnia books that just do not jibe with Christianity…especially the Evangelical God-God-God flavor. I mean, the Son of Man is a talking lion…right there, we sort of part ways with Pastor Mike and his crew down at Reston Bible. The Biblical notion of man having dominion over animals is completely overthrown by all these talking animals…I mean, you’ve got three-foot-tall mice who talk like Sir Walter Freakin’ Raleigh. And all the various fauns and nymphs and giants and witches…but see, that’s part of what’s made the books so popular. We WANT to talk to animals in the same way we want to fly. We want castles and monsters that need fighting. We want magic and beauty. We might, dare I say it, want a little lipstick, maybe the odd invitation. We DON’T want everything being doled out to us and regulated by the God-God-God people.
If Aslan is Christ, he’s a medievalist’s version of Christ, he’s a King you don’t just worship mindlessly, but serve…not in any abject way, but with all the strength and wisdom and abilities that YOU have and have grown in yourself over the course of your life. In the Nondenom services that form such a large part of my wife’s happiness, union with Christ is essentially about groveling. With Aslan, you get a sword. Guess which one I’d pick?
Lewis said that in order to be good Christians, people might first need to be good pagans. I think that’s fantastically interesting. It just goes to show you that religion—even when confined to Christianity—is an enormous topic, as big as the human beings who created it. And you know, I find that immensely reassuring.
So...seriously. My dog. Aslan...? Eh? Eh?