It's been years since I allowed myself the pleasure of rereading the Narnia books. And now I have two pleasures in reading these books: enjoying my old childhood joy, and analyzing the writing itself.
One thing I remember noticing even as a child is the absolute dearth of femaleness. I don't mean female characters per se: in terms of having someone to care about and directly identify with, there's always a female child as well as a male one. (Everyone loves Lucy.) I mean that Lewis seems not to have understood that where there are sons, there must be mothers.
(Belated warning: There will be spoilers. These books are over 60 years old, and there have been movies made of some of them. If you're over the age of 18 and you haven't read the Narnia books yet, clearly you have no plans to. Which I think is a shame, but hey, you're the boss of you.)
Getting back to what I was saying about motherless sons: I'm speaking in a strictly biological sense, and boy howdy
does Lewis seem to be squeamish about the strictly biological. When young prince Caspian is forced to flee into the wilderness, he befriends and allies himself with the talking beasts and magical creatures who have gone into hiding since the invasion of the Telmarines. (Excellent name, btw. Lewis is as gifted at naming as Dickens was.)
In the course of this delightful search for what's left of the magical beings of Narnia, who does Caspian meet? There are dwarves and dwarf-folk -- descendants of dwarves who are part-human. All of these are male. It feels as if dwarves would have
to marry humans in order to carry on the race, since we never, ever, ever
about female dwarves. Probably because in Lewis' world, women are beautiful and good, or beautiful and evil, or ugly and evil; but they're never ugly (or even just ordinary-looking) and good. And the fact is, female dwarves wouldn't be gorgeous to human eyes. Lewis seems uncomfortable with this.
(To be fair, so was his good friend, Tolkien. Terry Pratchett seems to be the first major writer to tackle the issue of female dwarves, and he does so delightfully in the Discworld novels.)
So: lots of dwarves. All male. Who else? Three talking bears, all male. A giant squirrel, male. Glenstorm the centaur and his three sons. Um, male. Probably because centaurs are always portrayed as bare-chested rather than clothed, and Lewis goes along with that. Having a female centaur would mean having a topless woman or introducing the idea of centaur fashion, and Lewis seems uncomfortable with that. So we have a centaur with three male children and a wife who either died or keeps herself decently tucked away, which seems distinctly un-centaurlike. But okay.
(The centaurs even offer refreshments to Caspian and his friends: oatcakes, and wine, and cheese. Boy-centaurs who cook are more okay to Lewis than female centaurs who do anything.
Not that I'm bitter.)
Who else? Twelve talking, fighting mice. All male. Several other talking animals, all male. (Unless Hogglestock the Hedgehog is female, which I sort of doubt, but I guess it's possible.) Fauns -- male. And a giant. Male.
As I said, I remember wondering even as a child where the mothers and daughters and wives were. You kind of can't carry a species on without them. But Lewis is determined to manage somehow.
You'd never know from reading this review so far that I love
these books. I do. They're humorous and moving and just plain terrific stories. So many lines of dialogue have stuck with me over the years. I love it when Trumpkin the dwarf finds the Pevensie children and is awkwardly explaining that, well, he and his band of rebels had been hoping for some serious military
help against the evil King Miraz when they decided to call back the four ancient rulers of Narnia: "I suppose you are the four children out of the old stories," said Trumpkin. "And I'm very glad to meet you of course. And it's very interesting, no doubt. But -- no offence?" -- and he hesitated again.
"Do get on and say whatever you're going to say," said Edmund.
"Well then (no offence)," said Trumpkin. "But, you know, the King and Trufflehunter and Master Cornelius were expecting -- well, if you see what I mean, help. To put it in another way, I think they'd be imagining you as great warriors. As it is -- we're awfully fond of children and all that, but just at the moment, in the middle of a war -- but I'm sure you understand."
The contest that follows, in which the children courteously invite the dwarf to compete with them in fencing and archery (and absolutely trounce him) is as delightful to read now as it was when I was a kid. It's such
a joy to have a book in which children are active, competent, skillful characters. I think that's why these books continue to be read and enjoyed. Plenty has changed technologically in the years since they were written, but kids still love having the chance to be heroes. And the Pevensies are ordinary
kids who get to do amazing things.
Now: another thing I noticed this time around that I also puzzled over as a child was how odd some of Aslan's behavior is. Unless you specifically know that his rules and actions are a metaphor for Christianity, his choices are baffling. Why when he came to lead the children to the right path to reach Caspian did he put Lucy to the test that way? He tormented all of them with his elusiveness, and for what?
Plot-wise, it makes no sense. If you know that it's "really" about having Christian faith, it clicks. Especially if you understand that some believers (certainly Lewis was one of them) are firmly convinced that people who say they don't believe in the Christian God secretly do, in their deepest heart of hearts. Here's Susan, talking to Lucy about Aslan:"I really believed it was him -- he, I mean -- yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir-wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I'd let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and -- and -- oh, I don't know."
I don't know either. I'm too straightforward to be able to make much sense of that sort of thing.
Again, these stories are strong enough to stand up to their own weaknesses. I loved them then and I love them now. But it's fun to take a keener look at them now that I'm a so-called grownup.