One of the problems with having a reputation as a bookish child is that many people expect you to be thrilled to receive their recommendations, which they share with you whether you have requested to hear them or not. It’s usually best to receive these encomia gracefully – these people do mean well, after all – but this can become awkward when they take the form of actual books thrust at you. And when these books are gifts, there’s not much that you can do other than accept and smile.
Thus did I receive a complete set of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia one Christmas many years ago. I had heard of them and wasn’t especially interested in seeking them out, but they were at hand and something new to read. And they were gifts, after all. So I dutifully began slogging through them.
Unlike some people, I recognized the Christian subtext fairly early on. It wasn’t disguised very effectively in the latter parts of the first volume, and it only becomes clearer as the series progresses. I tolerated it. The fantastical elements of the books were very derivative, with a lot of material taken from old fairy tales andvarious medieval traditions that I recognized from my reading, but it was stitched together entertainingly enough.
Then I came to the volume entitled The Horse and his Boy. No spoilers, but there’s a slave boy (with suspiciously fair skin) named Shasta who grew up in a vaguely Moorish country named Calormen and ends up running away to the vaguely England-like land of Narnia, where there are talking animals and dryads and dwarves and so on. At one point, Shasta has sat down to have breakfast with a group of these dwarves, and they lay out an enthusiastically-described Traditional English Breakfast, with fried sausages and fried tomatoes and eggs and bacon and buttered toast… you get the idea. The narrator emphasizes that Shasta has only had bread with oil before, and this is presented so dismissively – even contemptuously – that I was immediately brought out of story immersion.
I’ve had good quality bread with good quality olive oil, and it’s delicious. It was the first form of garlic bread, after all – using butter is a latter variation. While it’s good with butter, I knew it was also good with ‘mere’ oil. And so I immediately began to wonder why the narrator was trying to get the audience to see this as a deprivation for Shasta, and started thinking about the story instead of just experiencing it as it went along.
It seemed obvious once I started thinking: the presented breakfast was something that the intended audience (originally English children) would be familiar and comfortable with, and oiled bread would be something unfamiliar and unknown, and Lewis was trying to link unfamiliarity with a clearly implied judgment of inferiority. He was trying to get the readers to link their sense of recognition with the judgement that a thing was good, and the absence with a judgment of wrongness.
The moment I saw this, I immediately began thinking of other ways that these ideas had been associated in the book, and then in the previous books. I started examining the books as presentations of ideas, as propaganda, although that term is so loaded that I hesitate to use it. I looked at them as persuasive interaction, and what I perceived horrified me.
Take the talking animals in the first book. They’re presented as speaking various forms of common country English – mildly dialectical, but distinctly so. Despite the fact that they’re the majority of the population – the entirety of it, in fact – they insist that only human beings may be rulers in that country, and thus the children who stumble into the magical country must overthrow the Witch who has enslaved it and rule as kings and queens, et cetera. The connection of this idea with Christian doctrine was so obvious that I hadn’t looked any closer at it. But when I did, I realized that the talking animals weren’t just representing people, but a particular type of person. Commoners, basically. And the humans weren’t humans really, they were representing a class of person – hereditary royalty.
Monarchy was one thing, but setting royalty as a category inherent apart from and better than hoi polloi shocked and disturbed me. The sheer blatantcy of it… it was obvious to me why such ideas arose when kingship was passed down through inheritance, it was hardly new. But how that idea and the attitude surrounding it was snuck into the story, stealthily associated instead of being presented in the open…well, I didn’t view it kindly.
Further examination of the works of C.S. Lewis lead me to a very distinct opinion of the man and his ideas. More on that later.