Ah, the strange joys of Narnia! How is a middle-aged feminist nonbeliever supposed to feel about this contradictory volume?
Pro: Jill Pole is a strong, active, fun, funny, vigorous girl that any reader, male or female, will be happy to have as a protagonist.
Con: Jill's old enough to be active, but young enough not to be a sexual being. Which is clearly the only reason Lewis is comfortable having her around, because:
Con: Once again, Lewis only allows grown women as characters when they're scary, evil, beautiful, and seductive in equal parts. In this volume, the villain is the brilliant, ruthless Queen of the Underworld.
Pro: Jill is a fully developed character who shows that kids can be strong and important without being paragons of virtue. One of the lines I remembered all my life after reading this book as a child is her reply to Aslan when he asks her why she was standing so near the edge of a cliff (and putting both herself and her friend in danger in the process). "I was showing off, Sir." I love how she says this, without flinching. She messed up, and there's nothing to do but own it.
Pro: Because of moments like the above, Jill is more enjoyable to follow on her adventures than Lucy. I love Lucy, but she's cute and sweet and pretty much flawless. Jill gets tired, impatient, sick to her stomach with fear, sulky, and unreasonably angry. She also knows when to fight and when to run. I can relate to that.
Con: This is the only full-length story of Jill's adventures. (The Last Battle
so does not count. More about that later. Like, in another review.)
Con: Quite aside from the relatively passive sexism of Lewis' pitting pre-sexual girls against dangerously seductive full-grown female villains, he also displays active sexism in this book. At the very end, he makes a point of pointing out that the terrible, incompetent Head of Jill's awful boarding school is a woman. Literally. "And then the Head (who was, by the way, a woman)..." Really? Well, that explains everything.
Pro: Lewis does some of his best characterization in this book. Minor spoiler: At one point, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum discover to their horror that the meat they've been eating was actually a talking
beast. Their separate reactions as they put down their forks are brilliantly described:
"Jill, who was new to that world, was sorry for the poor stag and thought it was rotten of the giants to have killed him. [Eustace] Scrubb, who had been in that world before and had at least one Talking beast as his dear friend, felt horrified; as you might feel about a murder. But Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby."
Con: Once again, Lewis backs the wrong horse, historically speaking. Jill and Eustace are together on this adventure because they go to the same school. Yes! Really! Can you believe
it? Boys and girls, attending school together! What's next???
Pro: It's kind of funny to think that someone as brilliant as Lewis could fall so cleanly into the losing camp on this issue.
Pro: Lots of Aslan.
Con: As a symbol of the Christian God, he's not at his best here. For instance, he tells Jill at the beginning of her adventures, "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia." Even as a child and certainly now, my first thought was, "Why?" If you already accept divine inscrutability as necessary or at least inevitable, this flies fine; if you don't, this doesn't help.
Pro: Puddleglum is one of the finest fantasy characters ever. His name and his "tells" are Dickensian in their genius, but he never falls into reflexive predictability. He's a weird, quirky, deeply appealing hero.
Pro: Happy ending for every kid who's ever been bullied at school.
Conclusion: Once again, Narnia is awesome no matter how old and skeptical you get.