Why I hate C.S. Lewis

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.

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15 Responses to “Why I hate C.S. Lewis”

  1. Thanks for this. Really.

  2. I confess I never got into C.S. Lewis’ fantasy works.

    I mostly read his Christian apologetics.

    Oh, wait… that’s fantasy.

  3. Good read, by the way.

  4. schm0e Says:

    occluded sun indeed — for you appear to be so blind as to be in complete darkness.

    you think CS Lewis was putting down *olive oil?* and you wrote a blog about it?

    If you’re over 18 you’re doomed. If you’re under, there might still be hope for you, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    anyone who goes through such an effort while being so completely off base is truly lost.

  5. schm0e Says:

    He was complaining about margarine, Einstein.

  6. Keith Says:

    I identify completely. The Narnia books were assigned summer reading when I was a kid and I hated them. Worse were the people who would rhapsodize about how great they were.

  7. michelle kuse Says:

    C S Lewis is brilliant. It is my opinion he has read a good deal of St. Thomas Aquinas and brings his ideas to light with his perspective but in no way do I agree with the article above.

  8. ‘But’ implies a contradiction with an earlier statement and is entirely inappropriate in your comment.

    As it happens, I am actively contemptuous of Aquinas as well, so your comment doesn’t particularly cause me to doubt my existing conclusions. But you’re welcome to your opinion.

    (See what I did there? That’s how it should be used!)

  9. Amy of Escobar Says:

    Where is the “More on that later” I was promised?
    Also, for the record, Tolkien beats the pants of Lewis any day.

    • Coming… I’ve had a very difficult- well, now that I think about it, it’s been a hard few years. And I haven’t had much time for blogging.

      I hope to restart soon.

      • Amy of Escobar Says:

        It’s been some hard years for me too.
        Haven’t read the blog but I’ll be tuning in. I’m essentially a “protesant”-ish Christian ex-evangelical who is pretty fed up with the church’s incessant praise of Lewis.

  10. etomaria Says:

    Seems like overkill to waste time and energy hating an author because he has a worldview or philosophy that doesn’t line up with your chosen worldview/philosophy. Also, as indicated in The Magician’s Nephew (maybe you didn’t read that one?), humans were put in charge, which would be (at least so it seems to me) why they’re considered the singular ruling group. Sort of like God, animals, and humans. But if you aren’t Christian (and I don’t know whether you are), perhaps you reject that as well? He is, though, at the least being consistent.

  11. Trynet Olsen Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the author on this. As a pre-teen kid I saw the very old BBC adaptations and I really loved them, not really seeing the Christian imagery, but then again I grew up in a very secular family.

    Later, when I was about 13, my younger sister was given a set of the books and I tried to read them. I was shocked at the propagandistic tone, the blatant Christian conservative attitudes and the, pretty much stuffing down the reader’s throat of Lewis’ ideals.

    These things did, indeed, come to a head in “A Horse And His Boy”. Both the horrendously racist descriptions of the “non-English” culture, but also why the oldest Pevensie (sic) sister wasn’t allowed back to Narnia and had effectively been sentenced to death in a train wreck: she had become interested in MAKE UP (shock) and NYLON STOCKINGS (horror), and BOYS! As a young boy at the time myself I certainly hoped this was a message girls my age would not take up. Luckily they didn’t.

    As a reply to Etomaria over here, though, this, at least for me, has nothing to do with Lewis having a different opinion. It has everything to do with him writing propaganda. And what’s worse: propaganda aimed at Children! That’s where it sticks in my craw.

    • etomaria Says:

      Well, I mean, let’s get our terms clear here. What is propaganda? It’s materials used to further a cause. Good causes make use of it, bad causes unfortunately also.. So. Your disapproval of his propaganda stems from your disagreement with his philosophy, naturally you dislike his furthering his worldview, you don’t find it valid! I dislike moral relativists’ shrugging off all things real, true, and good, but here again this is because I reject their worldview as invalid and think indoctrinating children especially is negligent, irresponsible, and damaging. But I think that I would not want to devote an entire post to why I hate them. (I don’t actually hate them, but they do aggravate me, though that’s mostly irrelevant)

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