Story Pile: Narnia, Pt 1 — The Pevensiad

There are seven books in the Narnia series of books, created by one C S Lewis. The books have a narrative order and a publication order, and they have a clear distinct arc from the beginning and creation of the world of Narnia and the eventual end of that world. They are profoundly Anglican stories, focusing on an alternate world, one of many, alongside our own, which is meant to have many of the same constants as ours.

Like our God and his incarnation, Jesus.

In this, he’s a lion, named Aslan, who is also sometimes God. Like I said, it’s very Anglican.

Odds are good that you haven’t thought much about Narnia much at all, as an adult. They’re works that have a lot of cultural presence and their metaphors and references work as sort of background radiation for my generation, especially thanks to them being widely distributed public library style books which even got TV Adaptations and big-name Disney movies (remember those).

They’re fantastically twee books, children’s books from a particular era of storytelling that kind of … don’t… like… children?

When you view the books series as a whole, I see five basic groupings in the story, starting with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the book that follows directly upon the end of that one, we have the first predominant chunk, The Pevensiad.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the basics. Four British children, siblings surnamed Pevensies, leave London to avoid the actual Blitz, and spend time with a relative out in the country. While there, they find that the home has a wardrobe that lets them travel to an alternate reality, known as Narnia, which is a magical kingdom with mythological creatures like satyrs, a frozen palace of an ice queen, talking animals and actual Santa. What follows is a familiar retelling of a Jesus story, where one of the children betrays the others, then Aslan, who is definitely not Jesus, no really, sacrifices his life to buy back that kid’s … eternal life? Or whatever? And then it turns out that Aslan can’t be sacrificed in this way because he’s perfect and sinless, and so he comes back to life, showing that his sacrifice was meaningless, and also, something that the enemies should have already known. The kids side with the immortal and unkillable superlion, win the day, become kings and queens of Narnia, reign for a hundred years, and then step out of the wardrobe having lost no more than an afternoon spent playing.

So did it really happen?

(Yes, it did, and the trauma of this experience is never meaningfully addressed).

Prince Caspian is the story of their return to Narnia, where a few years passing in our world resulted in centuries passing in Narnia – 13 to be precise. They go back, having been called there by Aslan in a decidedly obtuse and cruelly unhelpful way, and find that they, and their disappearance from Narnia resulted in a political power vacuum, because all these monarchs left the world without leaving behind no heirs. Yeah, they didn’t want to address that particular idea. Anyway, Narnia is now fully occupied with humans, who uh, descended from human pirates that took over a part of Narnia that was formerly occupied by humans who were ‘so beastly’ that Aslan ‘struck them dumb,’ and now a bad human king is in charge, but good news, we can replace him with a good human king, his nephew Caspian, who has Goodness, and therefore will be a Good King.

What ensues is a story with basically one meaningful action in it – one of the Pevensies duels the evil king, and wins, but he cheats, and a riot almost breaks out, but Aslan shows up and intervenes, putting Prince Caspian on the throne and then the bad humans get sent back to uh, our world?

Now you may notice I’m not talking much about characters or personality throughout these two books, because when you get down to it, the story presented in the Narnia books is fantastically personality-deficient. Lewis really shot himself in the foot with giving himself four characters to write when we can clearly tell he only kind of cares about one of them and the rest are plot scaffolding for the rest of the narrative to build around.

If you’re curious, these four Pevensie kids are Peter, who could not be more Default if he tried, Edmund, who exists to betray his family for turkish delight, once, and doom Aslan (but don’t worry, he’s fine), Lucy, the protagonist, and Susan, who knows what she did. The Harlot. These four characters have a largely interchangeable voice and move around as a sort of tarball of vague emotional perspectives. Susan and Lucy are defined mostly by following Aslan around and being impressed with things, and Peter is Noble And Brave and doesn’t do much outside of the predetermined dueling or swordfighting.

These characters are bland and mushy, which is funny, because this series also features Reepicheep, who will get talked about more, later. I lump these stories together because they are very much stories ‘about’ the Pevensies. This is complicated a little by the Pevensies being characters who largely exist just to roll around Narnia, breathing into it its peculiar kind of ‘personality.’ These are your introductory narratives, your learn-the-rules stories of Narnia, in which you learn that humans are special, Narnia is very much like how an Anglican views our world, that odd mishmash of very industrial, rules-based, god-does-not-intervene do-what-you-should tedium, but also, God is real and alive and walks in our world and does things like curse schoolkids by turning them into pigs for being bad listeners.

There’s room to make all kinds of political inferences or interesting analysis from what these stories present as important, but I think the most important one is that CS Lewis didn’t like the idea that the Narnia stories were allegory. His belief, as expressed, was that he was writing science fiction – that there was no reason in the rules of science that the things presented in his story couldn’t happen the way they did. Aslan was not an analogue or allegory for Jesus, he was just Narnia’s Jesus. And that made sense, after all, if God was infinite and mattered to all worlds, than he had to have offered salvation to all creatures in our world (as you find in his other space-faring books), he clearly had to set up salvation in other worlds as well. It couldn’t look exactly the same as it did here, because the story of Adam and Eve happened here.

This is something that theologically makes a lot of sense, but it also kind of requires you to view people say, in Africa, as alien creatures less important to God than, like Martians, but let’s just say that that particular lollipop has always been a bit fuzzy for Christian fiction.

Still, Lewis may have thought he wasn’t writing allegory, but why would he be right about that? That’s a silly idea. Lewis was always notoriously fussy about his inspirations, one of those people who insisted that any of the obvious things you could observe in his work were wrong, because he didn’t get his ideas inspired by external sources, and they all just sprung out of his head.

This sets us up: We have Narnia, we have the importance of humans in it, we have royal families and of course, we have a world where JESUS LION protects THE ROYAL FAMILY.

Are these books good? Nnnnno? LIke, you may be surprised if you go back and reread them and see just how weak these books are. There are a lot of words, but paragraph upon paragraph is spent examining the mental state of people who are largely not thinking about much of anything at all. My favourite example of how weak the storytelling in this book is is that during the fight between Peter and Miraz – a duel between a king and the man who would be king – it is not described by the narration, but instead by Edmund, who at this point is a piece of wallpaper Peter keeps around, talking to an old man who isn’t paying attention.

There’s always more, of course, I am summarising two books with a wafer thin plot in each. There’s a lot more of writing that’s about events, stuffing them full of things, without actually making those things inside them interesting. But there’s this one quote that I want to point out:

“Battles are ugly when women fight.”

This is a line that’s said early on, before the major battles of the story happen. I’ve seen takes on it that it’s just a mournful thought. It’s just a reflection of how CS Lewis himself, a veteran of World War I, may have felt about wars and their fighting, the idea of total war being offensive to him and wishing to instead see battles as they were before the industrialisation of the military. Back in the day, when battle lines were met and winners and losers went one way, and drummers sat patiently for their ransoming by the victors. After all, this story does show both Susan and Lucy shooting arrows into battles, and Lucy does get involved in… let’s be polite and say she is present for fights later on.

I’ve also seen the take that this isn’t meant to be an opinion of an expert, of someone wise or necessarily in a position of authority to judge people’s actions.

Thing is, this line is said by fucking Santa Claus.