Wednesday, April 12, 2006

As "Narnia" Hits our DVD Players...

Note: Since the DVD of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” has just appeared, it seemed worthwhile to post a response to Adam Gopnik’s “Prisoner of Narnia,” which appeared in The New Yorker on the 21st of November last year. (See Incidentally, I sent this to the editor, but it didn't make it to print.) Gopnik himself was anticipating the release of "Narnia" in the theatres. In re-reading my response, I see that my style is a bit more contentious than usual. Nonetheless, I’m still committed to my criticisms—and more importantly, to the wider discussion of what C.S. Lewis is up to in writing Narnia. So here it is….

Presumably, it would have been easier (and shorter) for Adam Gopnik to offer the following summary: “I enjoy C.S. Lewis’s literary scholarship and imagination. I reject his religious commitment, and my judgment of his work mirrors exactly these preferences.”

This succinct account might have saved the reader enough time to examine an excerpt from Gopnik’s new children’s book, "The King in the Window," and then to discern whether his fiction offers cures for the ailments he diagnoses in Lewis’s "Chronicles of Narnia." It might also have prevented The New Yorker from tarnishing its reputation as a gold-standard for fact-checking. For example, Gopnik credits another novel to Lewis’s corpus, "The Screwtape Letters" (which instead is a series of articles first printed in an English religious newspaper) and erroneously calls his final book, "A Grief Portrayed" (instead of "A Grief Observed").

I would like to have assumed that Gopnik’s factual errors represent the veneer and not the wood itself. Unfortunately, when Gopnik continues to call Lewis’s "Narnia" books “allegories,” I wonder if he’s simply being hard-headed or doesn’t understand the difference between John Bunyan’s Christian in the Slough of Despond and Lewis’s Aslan dying at the Stone Table. Allegories have a one-to-one correspondence between the character, place, etc. and the thing allegorized. Certainly, Aslan functions as a Redeemer for Narnia, but Aslan does not equal Jesus in the Gospels. For example, there is no birth scene, Aslan never preaches anything like a Sermon on the Mount, he dies for just one individual instead of the whole world, and there’s no crucifixion. If it’s an allegory, Lewis missed crucial details. It’s probably better to agree with Lewis’s own numerous statements—along with his friend, Tolkien—that their books are not allegories.

In fact, an antipathy to allegory formed a common bond between these two authors. Gopnik writes, “Tolkien hated the Narnia books… because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse” Close, but perhaps only as close as the connection between Mark Twain’s “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Tolkien did find his friend’s books, like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," incomplete in their mythological rendering of a secondary world, or to use Tolkien’s term, “sub-creation.” Why, after all, does Father Christmas appear in the midst of "Lion"? Any sensitive reader of Lewis can find agreement there. But Tolkien didn’t disdain these books because they were allegories. He disparaged their being hastily written and therefore inconsistent in creating an alternative world.

There’s much more to say, but I will note only two additional problems with Gopnik’s article:
1. He depends uncritically on A.N. Wilson’s spectacular, yet highly flawed, biography (and Wilson’s own reliance on the spectacular, yet highly flawed, psychology of Freud).
2. He names the faith of Lewis “an Anglican creed,” thereby misrepresenting Lewis’s ecumenical and orthodox “mere Christianity.

Lest anyone think that I find nothing redeeming here, I would hasten to add that Gopnik’s article possess both flashes of insight and stylistic beauty. He writes, for example, that after the death of Lewis’s wife, “his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like…. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.” And, yes, Lewis is certainly not perfect: Narnia does contain some racist (and misogynist) overtones.

With so much talent, it’s concerning that Gopnik’s misprision of Lewis prevented him from writing something much better. Consider this sentence: “It seemed like an odd kind of conversion to other people, and it still does.” An attentive editor would write in the margin, “Which people? Please support this criticism with specifics.” But no one apparently has. Nor has Gopnik bothered to provide support for his disbelief that anyone as intelligent as Lewis could find the Christian faith intellectually compelling. (I will refrain from trotting out the plentiful examples of intelligent Christians, but they do exist, alongside the scores of obtuse believers and non-believers alike.) Accordingly, Gopnik asserts that for Lewis, faith was “a cell of his own invention.” To make that kind of claim, Gopnik would have to omit the important historical fact that, before his conversion, Lewis’s work was heavy-handed and dreary. Only after his conversion does his scholarly and popular work express imagination and creativity.

There is more to say, but I’ll close with this: Lewis and Tolkien felt that fairy tales were too substantial to be consigned only to children. Gopnik’s article leads me to wonder whether literature is too important to be left to literary critics.


Van Fundy said...

I read the same article and was miffed at the unquestioned assumptions Gopnik brought to the article. Please see my very brief counter to one point--Gopnik's assumption about Lewis' conversion--at It was posted yesterday, April 12.

GCootsona said...

Thanks for your reply. I checked your blog--a little "Severe Mercy" is probably the necessary antidote for too much Gopnik!