Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sorry, but C. S. Lewis is Kind of a Weirdo

I have lately spoken somewhat irritably about C. S. Lewis. This represents the last stage in a slow revolution in my mind. There was a time when I adulated Lewis. I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was in the fourth grade. They shaped my imagination, and even now I often find lines from them in my own stories. I discovered his religious works as a college student, at a time when I was the "disciple" of a delusional "apostle" who took me hunting for Hare Krishnas in Mexico (it's a long story) and desperately in need of some rational input. I'll not go into what made me less enthusiastic about the latter works, because I doubt many people who find their way to my blog are particularly interested in my religious opinions. But I will discuss why I've become increasingly uncomfortable with his fiction.

The long and short of it is that C. S. Lewis has a problem with little girls. To be honest, I doubt if I ever would have realized this unless I'd had a daughter of my own. People do talk about it from time to time. Neil Gaiman is a famous (and, to some, an infamous) example. But there's a tendency among some groups to revere Lewis almost as a sort of saint, and to regard any kind of criticism of him as an attack on the faith. And, beyond this, we all have our blind spots. It's part of being human. I can only say that I hope I'm becoming less blind (and more human!) over time.

In reading the Chronicles of Narnia aloud with my kids – we've read the first, second, third, and sixth (in the traditional ordering) – I've come across several passages that never bothered me before, but now seriously put me off. Here's one example that stuck out to me as we read Prince Caspian last year:
Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs. Gwendolen hesitated.
Gwendolen, we may suppose, was not dumpy or prim, and had slender legs. What a thing to write in a book that little girls might read! Even dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs! Did Lewis have any idea of how hard girls can be on themselves about such things, or how vicious to one another? I've read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his inordinately nasty boys' school, where a kind of Spartan pederasty was a routine part of the social structure (ah, the good old days), so it's hard to imagine that he was simply naïve. But I don't know. I can only speculate.

And then there's this, from The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":
"—And unhorsed many knights," repeated Drinian with a grin. "We thought the Duke would have been pleased if the King's Majesty would have married  his daughter, but nothing came of that—" 
"Squints, and has freckles," said Caspian. 
"Oh, poor girl," said Lucy.
Delightful, delightful. Imagine reading that to a little girl who has freckles and is already self-conscious about them. (For the record, when I read this book aloud, I censored this passage. As supreme co-dictator of my house, I have that authority.)

And here's the Big One, from The Last Battle, a pleasant little conversation at the threshold of the Narnian heaven:
"Sire," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?" 
"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia." 
"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'" 
"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up." 
"Grown up indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wanted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
O the humanity! Nylons and lipstick! No heaven for her!!! Here I must confess myself strongly urged to repeat Edmund's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs! And what is there in Susan's character as presented in the earlier volumes to merit this universal condemnation and head-shaking? She's a bit tiresome, yes, and a bit cowardly, too, but Edmund the traitor and Eustace the epic brat get their rehabilitations, don't they? And yet it's Susan, whose sin is wanting to wear lipstick, who loses her prospect of eternal salvation. It staggers the mind.

I could come up with similar examples in many of Lewis' other works – in The Great Divorce, for instance, where he makes it very plain which are the right sorts of women and which are the wrong sorts, and what exactly it is that's so wrong with the latter. But the examples in his books for children are, to my mind, more egregious, because of the tendency in some girls to take such little jabs to heart.

I happen to know a little girl like that. A very earnest and serious-minded girl who catches lizards and plays at being a warrior queen but who also likes to look pretty on occasion and who is deeply sensitive to remarks on her looks. Do I want her thinking about whether her legs are fat? Do I want her fretting over her freckles? Do I want her to be ashamed for wanting to grow up into a woman who wears lipstick?


What sparked this little tirade was a piece of Lewis' correspondence that I came across in trying to research another post I've been working on for almost a year now.* It's a letter written to one Jane Gaskell, who at the age of fourteen wrote her first fantasy novel (Strange Evil) and actually saw it published and favorably reviewed. (Gaskell is mentioned in Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds; she is a grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist, and went on to a career in journalism and astrology.) Lewis took it upon himself to write Gaskell a letter, in which he praises her novel faintly before tearing it to shreds. (She was about sixteen at the time, I believe; she was born in 1941, and the letter is dated September 1957.) Let's take a look.

He begins:
My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it is a quite amazing achievement – incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.
So far, so good, though perhaps a bit condescending. At the second paragraph we get to the criticism:
On the other hand, there is no reason at all why your next book should not be at least twice as good. I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man's opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in the future.
This "mention" of mistakes goes on for the rest of the letter. Lewis enumerates six points. First he takes Gaskell to task for making the "economic politics and religious differences" too much like our own world.
Surely the wars of faerie should be high, reckless, heroical, romantic wars – concerned with the possession of a beautiful queen or an enchanted treasure? Surely the diplomatic phase of them should be represented not by conferences (which, on your own showing, are as dull as ours) but by ringing words of gay taunt, stern defiance, or Quixotic generosity, interchanged by great warriors with sword in hand before the battle joins?
Fair enough, I suppose, though I think it could go either way. I do seem to recall some rather on-the-nose religious dialogues in the Space Trilogy which do at least as much to dispel the spell of faerie, but no matter.

The second point is related to the first: Lewis objects to commonplace objects in Gaskell's romance:
[E]ven a half-fairy ought not climb a fairyhill carrying a suitcase full of new nighties. All magic dies at this touch of the commonplace. (Notice, too, the disenchanting implication that the fairies can't make for themselves lingerie as good as they can get – not even in Paris, which wd. be bad enough – but, of all places, in London.)
So, (a) I'm not sure I agree with him about climbing the fairyhill with the suitcase full of nighties, which sounds just bizarre enough to be quite enchanting in its own way, and (b) um, writing letters to teenage girls about lingerie. Yeah.

The next two points have to do with the mechanics of style. Point third:
Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won't do it just because you ask him: you've got to make him.
Point fourth:
You are too fond of long adverbs like 'dignifiedly', which are not nice to pronounce.
Both excellent points. All writers would do well to adhere to them. But the next point, the fifth, is the one that really set me off:
Far less about clothes please! I mean, ordinary clothes. If you had given your fairies strange and beautiful clothes and described them, there might be something in it. But your heroine's tangerine skirt! For whom do you write? No man wants to hear how she was dressed, and the sort of woman who does seldom reads fantasy: if she reads anything it is more likely to be the Women's Magazines.
The ease with which Lewis identifies a woman who might be interested in the color of a character's skirt with the brainless, frivolous creatures uninterested in fantasy and devoted to (gasp) Women's Magazines that haunt his imagination simply takes my breath away. (Actually, lots of women like that kind of detail, and lots of men, too; Raymond Chandler, for instance, is usually pretty good about telling you, not just the color, but the material and cut of his female characters' attire.) Anyway, Lewis goes on about the Magazines:
By the way, these are a baneful influence on your mind and imagination. If you can't keep off them, at least, after each debauch, give your imagination a good mouth-wash by a reading (or wd. it be a re-reading) of the Odyssey, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, […]
Which, to be honest, might be very good advice in its way, but it's phrased in an excessively moralistic, lurid tone. ("Debauch"?)

Sixth and final point:
Names not too good. They ought to be beautiful and suggestive as well as strange: not merely odd like Enaj (wh. sounds as if it came out of Butler's Erewhon).
Here he seems to be in a hurry to wrap up. Immediately following this admonition, with no further nuggets of sparing praise, he hastily concludes:
I hope all this does not enrage you. You'll get so much bad advice that I felt I must give you some of what I think good.
     Yours sincerely
     C. S. Lewis
Again, bear in mind that this is a letter he sent to a sixteen-year-old girl who had just written her first novel. Am I crazy, or isn't it a little bit weird?


Last exhibit: "The Shoddy Lands" (1956)**, a bizarrely misogynistic story which describes a man's phantasmagoric journey into the psyche of a young woman – a reader of Women's Magazines, no doubt – where almost everything is vague and ill-defined, with the exception of daffodils, men's faces, women's clothing, and shops selling jewelry, dresses, and shoes. Toward the end he's confronted with the monstrous apparition of the girl's own self image:
The gigantic Peggy now removed her beach equipment and stood up naked in front of a full-length mirror. Apparently she enjoyed what she saw there; I can hardly express how much I didn't. Partly the size (it’s only fair to remember that) but, still more, something that came as a terrible shock to me, though I suppose modern lovers and husbands must be hardened to it. Her body was (of course) brown, like the bodies in the sunbathing advertisements. But round her hips, and again round her breasts, where the coverings had been, there were two bands of dead white which looked, by contrast, like leprosy. It made me for the moment almost physically sick. What staggered me was that she could stand and admire it. Had she no idea how it would affect ordinary male eyes?
After his return to the real world he concludes:
My view is that by the operation of some unknown psychological – or pathological – law, I was, for a second or so, let into Peggy's mind; at least to the extent of seeing her world, the world as it exists for her. At the centre of that world is a swollen image of herself, remodelled to be as like the girls in the advertisements as possible. Round this are grouped clear and distinct images of the things she really cares about. Beyond that, the whole earth and sky are a vague blur. The daffodils and roses are especially instructive. Flowers only exist for her if they are the sort that can be cut and put in vases or sent as bouquets; flowers in themselves, flowers as you see them in the woods, are negligible.
Various interpretations have been given to this story. I'll let it speak for itself, merely remarking that it seems consistent with the other things I've mentioned here, and not particularly wholesome from a psychological point of view.

Sure, I have a low opinion of the kinds of trash you find in the supermarket check-out line. I want my daughter to be formed by stuff that's worth reading, not garbage. But I also want her to have a positive view of her own body, and Lewis' weird tendency to attach moral weight to superficialities is just as calculated to make her self-conscious as any Photoshopped Cosmo cover.

The upshot is that we're on an extended (and possibly permanent, so far as my reading aloud is concerned) C. S. Lewis hiatus at our house. I continue to owe him a tremendous debt in many ways, but right now I have other things to think about.

* The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950 1963, Walter Hooper (ed.), HarperCollins, 2007.

** "The Shoddy Lands" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1956), and can be found in The Dark Tower and Other Stories.


  1. I stopped reading when you went white knight over freckles. The first part about the fat legs was a bit rude, but obesity was far less common back then. Look at really old photos sometime and notice how few fat people there were.

    But I have enjoyed many of your other blog posts!

    The recent attempts to erase Lovecraft from history may have made me more sensitive to this sort of thing as well.

    1. I'm not attempting to erase anyone from history. I'm not even keeping my kids from reading his books. I'm just not reading them aloud.

      I'm not certain how the statistics for childhood obesity compare, but I don't see how its prevalence has anything to do with the matter. You just shouldn't make fun of how kids look. It's not nice. It hurts their feelings, and sets a bad example for their interactions with each other.

      That Dawn Treader passage has a pretty girl basically saying, yes, I can see why you wouldn't want to marry a girl who squints and has freckles, the poor thing. I used to think it was kind of funny. Reading it aloud to my freckled daughter made it seem less funny.

      Thanks for the compliment on my other posts, however. I am to please, though I am a bit of a curmudgeon.

    2. Part of the issue, I think, is that the Narnia books are heavily didactic. They're not just stories written for entertainment. They aim to teach lessons. And kids tend to take it all to heart, both the bad and the good.