Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"But What Does It All Mean?" Religious Reality as a Political Call in the Chronicles of Narnia

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"But What Does It All Mean?" Religious Reality as a Political Call in the Chronicles of Narnia

Article excerpt

"Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh Aslan!" cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.

"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan

--(LWW 147-8)

In an essay first published in 1946, George Orwell identifies four motives that, according to him, are always present while writing prose. The fourth of them, the political purpose, is defined as the "Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. [...] no book is genuinely free from political bias" (5). Of late, Maria Nikolajeva has pointed out that, in terms of power structures and inequality, children's literature is:

[t]he refined instrument used for centuries to educate, socialize and oppress a particular social group. In this respect, children's literature is a unique art and communication form, deliberately created by those in power for the powerless. Further [...] children's literature demonstrates a constant change of power positions: yesterday's children grow up and become oppressors themselves. (16)

Although I am reluctant to fully accept Nikolajeva's argument, for one can hardly claim all children's literature, even if didactic, to be oppressive, her argument can be used to strengthen the claim that Orwell's statement also applies to the field of children's literature. Furthermore, her reasoning stands as a poignant reminder of the social status of children as a group deprived of political power, lacking the power to change the reality it lives in. According to these premises, it is plausible to suggest that a literary work for children carries a political call, and by call I suggest an authorial motivation to awake the reader's awareness, understanding, and willingness to act upon the political implications suggested by the text. Thus, if indeed there is a call, in that sense of the word, it becomes legitimate to ask if the child reader could be its intended addressee. In a recent study on crossover literature, Sandra L. Beckett devoted a section to political allegories in children's literature (98-103). Beckett's study not only illustrates how the boundaries between what is meant for the child reader and what is meant for the adult reader are much more flexible and illusive than may appear at first sight, but also how in these texts "the social and political criticism was meant to be understood by children, although some of the deep philosophical and psychological reflections are only accessible to adults" (101).

I would like to put Orwell's thesis to test and deal with the question of whether C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, (1) traditionally held to be a didactic text removed from political issues, can indeed be considered as politically oriented. (2) Before I proceed, however, it should be noted that during the last decades the political discourse has expanded to include practically every aspect, within human life, which manifests itself in the public domain. Thus, for example, issues of environmental ethics, ethnicity, and cultural differences are considered today as political matters. These issues are now also being discussed in the study of Lewis's Chronicles (e.g., DuPlessis; Sands-O'Connor 183-84). Nonetheless, the gap which this article seeks to explore is of a much broader nature, namely, whether there is a large-scale political conceptual framework at work in the Chronicles as a whole.

In line with the common view of the Chronicles as a Christian fantasy, detached from contemporary history, in a study dedicated to the series, Colin Manlove claimed that Lewis was indifferent to contemporary history and politics, "[t]he Second World War seems to have served only the function of enabling him through radio talks to instruct people on how to get their minds above the war" (4). The apparent question is, then, are there any references in the series to events and political issues of the time in which it was written? …

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