Magazine article The Spectator

War of the Worlds

Magazine article The Spectator

War of the Worlds

Article excerpt

The long-awaited premiere of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has brought the critics out in force, thick as snowflakes in a Narnian winter. C.S. Lewis, according to writers and critics as eminent, intelligent and humane as A.S. Byatt and Alison Lurie, is sexist and racist; his imaginary world is sadly derivative; and, worst of all, his writing is informed by specifically Christian beliefs.

The most vociferous of these critics is, of course, Philip Pullman -- a children's writer of genius, whose darkly blazing secularist trilogy will surely be read, like The Chronicles of Narnia, for many generations to come. The Narnia series, he claims, enshrines 'a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice'.

Feminists are apt to complain that the boys do the fighting (though Queen Lucy the Valiant rides to war to defend Archenland against invasion, and Jill twangs a lethal bow in The Last Battle);and that no book is named after a girl, though we have Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy (imagine the outcry, however, if a girl had been owned by a mare). Surely, though, it is far more important that the centres of consciousness are almost always female: Lucy is our heroine, through whose eyes we see Narnia and the Dawn Treader, though Jill takes over in The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.

Lewis's most 'sexist' blunder, of course, is that he makes Peter, not Lucy, High King. It is possible, of course, to point out that in endorsing 'patriarchal' primogeniture, Lewis was no more than a child of his times. One could speculate as to how Pullman might be vulnerable to attack in the future. Speciesism, perhaps, if the animal rights activists win their revolution:characters in His Dark Materials have visible, separate souls, daemons in the form of animals -- but why should the evil characters have daemons in the form of serpents, wolves, frogs, beetles and the like? Vicious anthropocentric prejudice, of course. (In this brave new world, revisionist critics will hail Kipling as a revolutionary pioneer:

Kaa must be one of the only good serpents in literature. ) As a six-year-old, however, I did feel, quite passionately, that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was horribly Unfair. The girls got to ride on Aslan; the boys didn't. I would still much, much rather ride upon the living gold of a vast galloping lion than be crowned High King.

Perhaps this is largely a difference between the sexes -- though even in an allgirls junior school, I knew that there were some who wanted to be made Milk Monitor and some who didn't.

Racism is harder. The dark-skinned Calormenes, smelling of onions and garlic, are villains -- or, rather, their culture is seen as evil. They are courteous, civilised and deeply cruel. Their economy is based on the slave trade; and they, at least, believe in the inferiority of women. Poor silly, girly, tittering Lasaraleen is the product of a society in which women are chattels and playthings.

At some level, doubtless, Calormen represents not race but religion -- Islam, presumably. Yet Lewis is more open-minded than he might seem. The only obviously doctrinal passage that I noticed and positively liked as a child is the parable of Emeth, the Good Calormene. He goes through the door of death unconverted;

but learns that virtuous deeds performed in the name of Tash are rewarded by Aslan, while any 'cruelty' done in the name of Aslan is service accepted by Tash. It is a liberating, anti-doctrinal doctrine, inclusive rather than exclusive.

There are harder charges to answer, however. Many critics have described Lewis's imaginary world as second-hand.

His centaurs, fauns, dryads, monopods, dwarfs, giants and Father Christmas are a job lot, lifted from classical and Nordic mythology (where, though, do the gloomy Marshwiggles come from? ). Certainly, there is little to match the blazing originality of Pullman, whose best inventions -- like his armoured bears: savage-clawed, metal-working mercenaries -- are magnificently realised. …

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