Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why Prince Caspian Sucks

So, I've been reading the Narnia books to my kids. We're reading them in the proper order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, followed by Prince Caspian. Last night we started The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my second favorite of the series. (My favorite is The Magician's Nephew.) When I was a kid, Prince Caspian was my least favorite. After reading it to my kids, I now know why.

It kind of sucks.

The reason it sucks is that it's basically the same story as Wardrobe, but told in a convoluted way, with a several-chapters-long backstory break in the middle of the novel. What possessed Lewis to write it like this I can't say – I suppose it was his feeling that the boy Caspian was somehow the real protagonist, but that the story needed to be told from the viewpoint of the four children (P, S, E and L), beginning in England as in Wardrobe – but it makes it much harder for little kids to follow than the straightforward, linear Wardrobe. What's worse, the focus is split between the four children and Prince Caspian, resulting in a certain amount of narrative dullness, and there's a lot of secondary characters to keep track of for such a short book. The fairy tale manner of Wardrobe is here replaced with a more contemporary (hence, dated) idiom, with slangy bickering, and cute tongue-in-cheek jokes that have to be explained to young readers. (My children demand that every single thing they don't understand be explained to them, which makes even a short chapter a pretty long read.)

But I guess what really gets me is the self-conscious smugness with which Telmarine society is upended by Aslan, Bacchus, and the rest. Lewis had a lot of axes to grind as an author, and he really lets himself go here. First a bridge is destroyed. I guess that's neither here nor there, but what, after all, is wrong with a bridge? It's a nice stone bridge, not a nasty modern truss bridge. Then there's a girls' school. The one girl of whom Lewis approves joins the throng; the rest, who, we're told, have plump legs, all run away in fear with their mean teacher. A boy is being beaten by a man. The man then turns into a tree, and the boy runs away laughing. (Is the man his father? "Sorry, Dad, you're a tree now! Ha ha!") Then there's a boys' school, where the piggish boys who like to bully their teacher are actually turned into pigs. There's all this wine-drinking and partaking of tasty snacks and dancing and wild chanting and wanton destruction of private property.

Which is not surprising, considering that this is Bacchus, after all. You know, the Bacchus whose maenads ("madcap girls," Lewis calls them) tore the grieving Orpheus to pieces. What is slightly surprising is Lewis' decision to link Bacchus so closely with Aslan, who is (apparently) an incarnation of Christ. There's an old tradition of opposing Dionysus to Apollo, the ecstatic subhuman to the serenely rational superhuman, the bacchanalia to the logiche latreia of Romans 12:1. In The Spirit of the Liturgy Joseph Ratzinger makes the case for siding Christ with Apollo, against Dionysus. Dionysian worship, he says, is dehumanizing, an irrational intoxication that frees the votary from the "burden" of being human, leading ultimately to madness and death. It forms a closed circle, with the worshipers all facing one another, as in the Israelites' ecstatic adoration of the Golden Calf, rather than facing outward together, toward the Shekhinah of the Lord. But Lewis indicates again and again that he takes the opposite view. There is only one formal, liturgical religion in Narnia, and that is the worship of Tash the Inexorable.

Lewis, though no seer himself, comes of a long line of heterodox visionaries, like Boehme, Swedenborg, Blake, Novalis, and MacDonald, all in reaction against ossified human institutions. The Kabbalah is referenced explicitly in That Hideous Strength, implicitly in Wardrobe. Plato, the father, or step-father, at any rate, of Gnosticism, is cited on the threshold of heaven in The Last Battle. To tell the truth, I'm sympathetic toward these strands of human thought, taken in their original context. I would want to rebel against a gray and sterile state church or a tyrannical government, even if it meant going a bit overboard on the other side. I can understand the need to feel like you're escaping from the Matrix. At the same time, well, you know, we need institutions in order to live in a community. Institutions are indifferent; they can be bad or good, or, like most things human, a mixture of the two.

Well, Mr. Lewis is welcome to his views; I'm not really trying to argue for the rightness or wrongness of any particular idea here. It's just that, as a father and a citizen, I try to make the best of the institutions with which I have to deal, like the parish church, the city council, and the public school, and it's kind of demoralizing to have a book I'm reading to my kids be so very negative and subversive about it all.

More irritating, perhaps, is his handling of Susan. Here I tread cautiously, as this is a sensitive topic. I'm familiar with the Neil Gaiman story, &c., though I've never seen fit to read it, having better things to entertain myself with. But I can also see why people are bothered by Susan. She's portrayed from the very first as being whiny, craven, and tiresome. Her besetting sin is trying to be a grown-up. When she doesn't make it to the Narnian heaven in The Last Battle this is explicitly stated as the reason. Lipstick (oh horror!) is mentioned. It's a strange streak of vindictiveness that runs through the Chronicles and, in my opinion, greatly mars their innocent beauty.

Lewis was, in fact, a bit of a misogynist. I use the word in the sense that the narrator of H. Rider Haggard's She (who also happens to be a don) uses it to describe himself, namely, as someone who has little understanding of or use for females, through without specific rancor. A lot of Lewis' apologetic works (and I read them all, many years ago) single out certain personality types that I suppose struck him as being worthy of having their foibles and sins analyzed. The "womanish woman" is the type handled most exhaustively.

My daughter is a bit of a tomboy, but she also likes to look nice and practice ladylike manners on occasion. It's just part of growing up. I don't want to make her feel like she's foolish or frivolous or bad for acting like a lady. I don't really want her to be self-conscious about it at all. And that is precisely what that little remark about Susan's lipstick would do.

So, I suppose we'll have to skip The Last Battle, at least for a few years yet. I have some philosophical objections to it anyway. How I'll do it without making a big scene I don't know, for my children aren't ones to let little inconsistencies slip by, and I don't really want to go into my reasons at this point. I guess the old Blank Wall of Vague Parental Reluctance will have to come into play.

No comments:

Post a Comment