Opinion, Socio-theological babble, WoW

Late to the party: Narnia, Lewis, Gender (1)

Admiral William H.P. Blandy and his wife cut a...

Image via Wikipedia

A little while back the WoW blogosphere exploded into a sort of mushroom cloud of discussions around questions of gender, the real world and the Warcraft world, a discussion bookended by pewter’s original post and Tamarind’s oh no, not again.  Like a Tellar-Ulam hydrogen bomb, the big initial blast served as ignition for a monstrous secondary explosion, and I get the impression that a lot of readers and authors are pretty sick of the topic for now.  This naturally makes it the perfect time for a new post!

During the discussion, Larísa mentioned offhand two examples of children’s fantasy fiction which have played a really big part in my life – CS Lewis’ Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea corpus.  I would like to take this opportunity as a rabid fanboy of both to gently explore the role of gender in the works of these two authors in a way which perhaps doesn’t reach the same conclusions as Larísa did.  I think this is a valuable pursuit because, just like World of Warcraft, these two authors created fantasy worlds for entertainment and exploration and populated them with typical fantasy themes, characters and stories.  However both authors take these familiar components and do unexpected, atypical and wonderful things with them so that what we are left with is a meta-narrative which is both satisfying and challenging.

If WoW is to learn to be a more authentic and entertaining world, I can think of no better examples to look to than Lewis and Le Guin.

Today I’m going to focus on CS Lewis and Narnia.  You don’t need to have read the books to understand what follows, though beware there may be some minor spoilers if you do intend to read them in the future.  I’m starting with Lewis for two reasons:  Firstly, I don’t think many people would be surprised at someone saying that Earthsea is ground-breaking, but I know a lot of folks think that Narnia is backward and “old fashioned” and wouldn’t expect it to contain much value for informing gender exploration.  Secondly, because Lewis’ works lasted me from my earliest attempts at reading all the way through to my present-day final year of undergraduate education and I’m still going back to them with wonder and awe.

Disclaimer: I am not Paul Charles Smith and this is a blog that’s normally been about elemental shamans or gripes about 10-man raiding or whatever.  I realise that for some readers this sort of post is going to be a bit annoying and that my own qualifications as a literary critic are minor.  But this is not literary criticism, it’s about gaining an entry point into and a context for a series of questions and issues which can be very confusing and overwhelming if we simply plunge straight into the middle of them.  Similarly it’s not about Lewisian scholarship, it’s just about the effect that these authors’ works had on a specific person – me!

Wall breakers (because this is a big wall):

  • Excursive: Why stories?
  • Lewis in my life
  • CS Lewis
  • Main characters in Narnia
  • Conclusions

(I won’t be upset if anyone wants to just skip to the conclusion and still comment.)

Excursive: Why stories?

I should explain why I place so much importance on stories.  As I see it, through a story, we are for a time taken away from our own world and into another.  In this other place, our own concerns – both those we are aware of and those that weigh on us without us realising – our own preconceptions, our own agendas, everything that we get bogged down in and confused by in our day-to-day slog through reality, can be set aside, and we can be free to explore with innocence and openness and safety.  Even if this is not what we enter a story to do, a good story that causes us to experience another reality, another perspective, another story beyond our own will inevitably influence our lives.  That safe place, that other place, can become a context which frames and gives voice to thoughts and feelings that may be hard to make sense of in the busyness of reality.  A story is a sort of vicarious reality in which we gain a perspective impossible in daily life.

This is why fantasy is so important, because it lets us step out of ourselves without expectation or requirement and experience something else, something so alien there is little danger of it touching our sore spots and yet so familiar that we feel comfortable and safe there.  Just as pictures can say far more than a thousand words, so stories can express and explore experiences, thoughts and feelings far more thoroughly and concretely than a work of abstract theory.

Lewis in my life

Before I begin looking at Narnia itself, I should, in the interests of full disclosure, talk a little about the place of Lewis’ literature in my life.  I didn’t grow up as a fan of the Narnia books.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe bored me a little and I didn’t think it was particularly well-written.  Other books held my attention far more, but for some reason I kept coming back to the Narnia series and re-reading them as I grew up.  Just before my early teens my growing fondness reached critical mass and I finally fell madly in love with them… just in time to discover Tolkien and think that actually all this Narnia stuff is pretty childish tbh.  The various Narnia film and TV adaptations didn’t help because they all seemed to be a colossal exercise in missing the point – only I didn’t know what the “point” might be that they were missing.

Tolkien?  Well, he didn’t last – the movies were the last nail in that coffin – and I eventually came back to Narnia, cynically expecting to find it childish and backward and silly and being quite astonished when a read-through of the complete series left me feeling (a) like I was childish, backward and silly to expect the books to be childish, backward and silly and (b) like I was missing something really big about the books – some metaphor or meta-narrative which would make sense of the way they made me think and feel.  I got ahold of some of Lewis’ other books – the Cosmic Trilogy (as brilliant as it is flawed) and some of his apologetic and personal works – and found them equally bizarre and, for lack of a better term, incomplete.

At University some studies in narrative theories helped me put into words what was going on when I read Narnia, and a guy called Michael Ward published an excellent book called Planet Narnia which confirmed my suspicions, gave my whole “Lewis mystery” some much needed background and context, and opened up a convincing possible governing schema for the Narnian world.  Hence my own journey through Lewis and his Narnia has been one of ambivalence, fondness, cynicism, renewed interest and finally thorough appreciation with both academic and personal basis.

It’s through the lens of this history and acknowledged appreciation that I now review the way gender appears and works through his stories.  To start with, a quick note about Lewis himself before I move on to summarise the main characters the series gives us.

C. S. Lewis

Image via Wikipedia

CS Lewis

Lewis was one of those really fascinating characters whose apparently well-adjusted normal life sort of obscures the fact that the way he got to that seemingly normal life was anything but normal.  And even the picture of a typical bachelor Oxford don isn’t really accurate, as he was so active in so many spheres of both academic and public life and – as anyone who watched Shadowlands will be aware – had his fair share of odd relationships, the most famous of which was with American writer Joy Gresham.  Lewis did most of his writing between the late thirties and mid fifties, so in many respects was a product of this era in British culture and thought – but he was also deeply affected by a passion for medieval literature and culture, especially through authors such as Chaucer, Spenser and Dante.  He saw in these works and worldview a beauty and elegance which, despite being demonstrably factually untrue, was nevertheless in some way valuable and special, and it is this cosmology which influenced both his Cosmic Trilogy and his much later Narnia series.  Indeed Michael Ward’s argument (which I find very convincing) is that Narnia is a sort of embodiment of Lewis’ passion for medieval cosmology, communicated through narrative rather than proposition for precisely the reasons I gave above under “why story?”.

There’s an odd circular argument that I’ve seen a lot of in Lewisian criticism, that goes like this:

1a. Assume Lewis was a bigot.

2. Therefore, we should interpret his portrayals of gender as bigoted.

1b. Because his portrayals of gender can be interpreted as bigoted, Lewis was clearly a bigot.

Ipso facto ergo sum!

If, by contrast, you look at Lewis’ life and thought and works and assume that actually he was a very intelligent person who was trying to work through a lot of difficult stuff in his head, it opens up a way of interpreting the characters in Narnia which (a) is a lot more organic and (b) actually corresponds to the impressions I got from the books when I first read them without knowing anything about Lewis or Lewisian criticism.  That is to say, I find the “bigoted” interpretations rather bizarre and eisegetical, but I also understand how reading the books in certain contexts could lead to those interpretations even in people who came with no agenda.  Unfortunately the assumptions with which we approach a work will influence how we perceive it, which means that I must also acknowledge that yes, I approach the works with my own assumptions and no, I cannot be sure they are the “right” ones.  I do think the weight of argument is in my favour, but then I’m biased 🙂

Main characters in Narnia

I think I know a post is starting to jump the shark when, after 1500 words, I consider starting a sentence with the word “anyway”.  But anyway.  Here’s an assessment of the main protagonists that appear in the Narnia stories, with an eye on the gender side of the equation.


The Pevensies

From the trailer to the recent LWW movie, four actors doing a good job of looking really unattractive!

Peter: One of the four original children that star in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the eldest among four siblings.  Peter’s actually just sort of there in the stories – his role is never particularly pronounced or emphasised.  He has a difficult relationship with his younger brother and feels the burden of being expected to be “in charge” because of being the eldest and being male – in other words, societal expectations thrust an unwanted role on him, and he learns both to accept this role (by eventually becoming High King) and to subvert it (by actually sharing the leadership with his siblings and leading through service rather than domination – at one point he even says “I think Lu [his youngest sister] ought to be the leader, goodness knows she deserves it”).  This leads him into some arguments and tricky situations but eventually he accepts a role as High King of Narnia and leader of the army that fights the White Witch.

In this battle, Peter is not actually the hero – instead it’s his younger brother Edmund who manages to stave off total defeat and Peter ends up duelling hopelessly against the White Witch until Lucy and Susan, Peter’s sisters, arrive with Aslan and reinforcements.

In Prince Caspian, Peter once again gets thrust into this somewhat unwanted leadership role and makes some difficult decisions that end up being a bit of a disaster.  Eventually he fights a duel with the enemy leader, Miraz, which he fully expects to lose and almost does – until Miraz trips on a stone and decides to feign death so his lieutenants can use it as an excuse to attack the Narnians.  And even then the whole duel business is just way to buy time for Aslan and his sisters to act.

In The Horse and His Boy, Peter’s only mentioned in passing as being off on the northern border fighting giants.  The book couldn’t be less interested in him.  He comes back in The Last Battle to fulfil his ceremonial role as the High King of Narnia by closing and locking the door on the ended world, but here even he bows to honour the first king and queen, King Frank and Queen Helen.

Throughout, Peter is shown as someone who tries to take into account what other people think while still living up to his responsibilities as the leader-designate, and as someone who is very aware of his own failings and shortcomings even though he sometimes gets annoyed with other people.  The end of LWW shows Peter finally as the jovial High King (“the Magnificent”), first among equals, and while the joviality moves out of sight until the last pages of The Last Battle, the equality of Peter with his fellow kings, queens and even subjects is never lost from sight.

Contrast this to Varian Wrynn.

Susan: Ah, Susan, the one character who did more than any other to convince the world that Lewis was a misogynist.  This is because Susan’s character eventually stops believing in Narnia and instead, Lucy tells us, is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipsticks and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”  Lady Polly adds “Grown-up, indeed – I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

How is this interpreted as being misogynist?  Susan happens to be a female; Lewis’ point is that she has a false idea of maturity and what it means to grow up, not that there is anything wrong with being her age or female or interested in nylons and lipsticks and invitations.  The clear implication here is that it is because she has devoted herself to these “silly” “grown-up” things by denying her childhood roots that she is being lamented.  What’s more, there is no likewise appearance of a Susan-type problem anywhere else in the books, so if this was Lewis’ impression of women – grown up or otherwise – why is it confined to two paragraphs of dialogue in the penultimate chapter of the final book?

In LWW, Susan is often arguing with Peter, but in many respects is the voice of true reason – what an adult would say in the same situation.  This fits in with what we just read.  Susan in many ways comes across as more responsible than Peter, but unlike Peter she never manages to conquer her own fears and uncertainties in quite the same way.  Her appellation at the end of LWW is “the Gentle”, which I think is meant to show that she has at this point gotten over her snappish, insecure divisiveness and reached a sort of peace with who she is which enables her to be effective as the eldest of the Queens.  And yes, she is clearly the most traditionally feminine of the women in Narnia.

This is really interesting because the people I’ve heard be most scathing of traditional Western cultural stereotypes of women are feminist authors.  And here we have a situation where the most traditionally feminine character ends up being the least sympathetic in the whole series and eventually is the only one who abandons Narnia.  If she was the only important woman this could look pretty bad, but instead she’s one of a myriad of female characters – and as such I think if anything the statement here is very progressive: in the end, Susan lacks the courage to be who she is and just conforms, and falls away as a result.

Her appearance in The Horse and His Boy could be said to support this, but I don’t think it does.  You see in this book, Susan comes to a foreign nation’s capital to court their prince, who has already visited her in Narnia and been most charming and courteous.  When a guest in his palace however, she realises that the guy’s a total jerkwad and decides there’s no way she’s marrying him.  This puts her companions in great danger because the nation is incredibly powerful and only maintains a somewhat uneasy peace with Narnia, and she fears that the prince will simply take her by force and lie to the Narnians back home.  But first off, Susan’s journey to Tashbaan (the capital) is never presented by the book as being a bad decision – when criticised, she defends her choice based on how the guy genuinely seemed to be a good bloke and it would have really good long term effects on the relationship between Narnia and Calormen.  Secondly, she doesn’t just passively give in and get married for some misguided notion of the good of her kingdom – instead her whole crew contrive a cunning plan to trick the Calormenes and escape to sea.

Most of the time, though, Susan plays second fiddle to Lucy and other female characters.  I think this shows how uncomfortable Lewis was with her as a character, probably precisely because she was so close to this feminine stereotype.  Rather, his real fascination is with Lucy.

Contrast this with Lady Jaina Proudmoore.

Edmund: Edmund is many people’s favourite character in Narnia and for good reason.  He starts out a bit of a rotter; though the book is sympathetic to his plight, hinting at his fears over his father’s safety and insecurity over his own place in the family as neither eldest nor youngest, it also doesn’t go so far as to excuse his behaviour.  After turning traitor he comes good and ends up heroically sacrificing himself in the battle with the White Witch.  Subsequently he is always a supporting character in both senses – never the main focus of the story, and always there to help out the other characters.  In LWW and PC he stands behind his brother Peter, the guy who victimised him earlier in the book, submitting to and supporting his authority while still managing to be his own person (and to influence his brother in the process).  This is, I should note, a traditionally passive, feminine role being filled by the book’s most sympathetic male character.  In Voyage of the Dawn Treader we see Edmund have a moment of brief villainy, but so do all the characters in that scene.  In PC it’s noted that he’s actually a better swordsman than Peter, and in HHB it’s Edmund who leads – from the front – both the escape from Tashbaan and the attack to break the Calormene siege of Anvard.

In some senses Edmund ends up being stereotypically male – a strong, warrior, leader type – but he’s also shown as far less “doughty” (he is the superior swordsman through grace and guile rather than brute force) and far more intellectual than Peter (his appellation is “the Just”), always supporting the latter’s authority, and even being capable of relating to people on a very deep, intimate and sympathetic level.  Edmund’s treacherous past and occasional indiscretions secure his status as a very real and flawed character.  Above all Edmund is shown as the great encourager, gently but firmly standing up for the downtrodden, even when they’re jerks and he’d rather not.

Compare to WoW’s most idolised male character, Thrall, and his deputy, Garrosh.

Lucy: Lucy is the first character we see finding the magical world of Narnia, and from this early start it’s clear she’s the one the author likes the most.  Lucy can barely do anything wrong in LWW and only really starts to become more nuanced in the sequel, PC.  Despite being the youngest Pevensie child and a girl – there are definite Tomboy-esque aspects to Lucy’s character, but she’s clearly not a Tomboy – she remains, in my opinion, the most important character throughout the series.  I’ve already noted that alpha-male Peter acceded to Lucy’s leadership early on their trip through the Wardrobe.  She plays a similar prodding, motivating role throughout the adventure there, and is finally described at the climax to LWW as “the Valiant”, possibly the most jovial expression of royalty in the book.

Let’s think about that appellation a bit.  A criticism levelled at Lewis is the statement by Father Christmas that “battles are ugly when women fight” and that “I [Father Christmas] do not mean you [Susan and Lucy] to fight in the battle”.  Yet Susan is given a bow and a quiver and becomes a great archer, and Lucy is given a dagger along with her healing potion.  None of the gifts, not even Peter’s sword, actually sees any great use in the stories – and in fact both Lucy’s potion and Susan’s horn end up being more important than any of the weapon gifts.  I wonder if there is some metaphor for Lucy’s role in the story in that combination of dagger and juice of the “fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun” (a location that is very significant in VDT!)?  But regardless, despite not fighting as part of the standing army in that initial battle with the White Witch, Lucy becomes known as “the valiant” – a word which goes beyond simple general courage to encompass valour, risk taking, battle-worthiness.  In fact in HHB, Lucy is right there with Edmund in the army that comes to break the siege of Anvard.  She fights in that battle as an archer and is described by the most over-the-top and macho character in the book as “as good as a man, or at least as good as a boy”.

How much of these statements are Lewis’ carefully couched precisely worded view on gender roles, and how much is the language of the culture subverted into a new and challenging context?  Father Christmas says that Lucy isn’t to fight in the battle, yet it’s Susan and Lucy who have the more significant role in the story of LWW – because what Peter and Edmund do is essentially a diversion the book barely even mentions in passing (unlike the movies which tend to fetishise the battle itself) while Susan and Lucy stay with Aslan through his hour of weakness and death, stay to see him come back to life, and accompany him to the Witch’s castle to break down its gate and free the captives within.  In PC it’s Lucy who first sees Aslan and later leads the group to him, again it’s Susan and Lucy who go with Aslan to do the really important job of waking up the trees and ending the cultural tyranny of Miraz (examples: freeing an honest and free-thinking schoolgirl from her domineering mistress and tell-taling classmates, relieving a tired young female teacher of her class of nasty boys, saving a young boy from a beating by his father, healing the mother of a young girl who was very ill).

Lucy is the only significant female character in VDT, a story which is – because of its naval premise – filled mostly with male characters.  Yet again her role in the story is pivotal, and she has the opportunity to reveal new struggles and flaws and be fleshed out more as a character.  The story also has an interesting scene where Lucy has the chance to become “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals” – surely an iconic fantasy theme when it comes to female characters – yet that idea is presented as being very destructive and terrible, and Lucy eventually rejects it.

Of all the characters in Narnia, Lucy is the most “spiritual” and yet also the most active, feeling everything deeply and passionately yet acting with common sense, intelligence and skill.  She has the closest friendship with the deity Aslan and the closest affinity to the world of Narnia.  Though it takes her a while to get really fleshed out as a character, this is more because she’s skirting the border of Mary-Sueville than because she’s a woman, and she really ends up enjoying the best character development out of the original 4 children.

Contrast Lucy with Tyrande or Sylvanas.  The latter two come off looking more like the White Witch than like Lucy.

Eustace and Jill

After the 2 boys 2 girls team of the first two books (LWW and PC), VDT introduces a new male character without a new female one: Eustace.  Eustace is a miserable sod presented as being vain, petty, a bit stupid and generally uncritically accepting of everything his ultra-modernist parents ply on him while – ironically – accepting their criticisms of the past.  Eustace is a general nuisance throughout VDT until he gets turned into a dragon – a fate which many boys in fantasy stories would eagerly desire, but which for Eustace works out fairly poorly.  It’s when he’s a dragon that he finally becomes a sympathetic character.  He cries a lot, and this is presented as human and genuine rather than as not something boys should do.  He starts learning to value his companions and trying to be helpful and useful.  Eventually he has a dream-like encounter with a mysterious lion and becomes a human boy again, from which point on he is (mostly) a changed man; immediately after this experience he has a touching heart-to-heart with Edmund.

In The Silver Chair, Eustace is back, and this time he’s very much the Lucy of the story – it’s no coincidence that TSC is the first story in which Lucy doesn’t appear.  He’s more flawed and nuanced than Lucy and he’s certainly not your typical alpha male hero (all he manages in battle is nearly injuring some friendly dwarves and breaking Caspian’s second-best sword into bits).

But in TSC, Eustace is joined by a new female character – Jill, who we are introduced to crying behind the gym at school.  Remember, we’ve already seen Eustace shed his fair share of tears – and it’s Eustace who comes up to Jill and befriends her… albeit rather ineptly.  Jill has a bit of a temper tantrum at him but they end up in Narnia through an odd series of events, and Jill’s hubris eventually nearly gets Eustace killed and sets into motion a chain of events which both constitutes and yet threatens the main plot.  Jill is, in TSC, very much what Eustace was in VDT or Edmund was in LWW – we now have a female character going through what the male characters were doing in previous books, even as we have a male character going through what the female ones were doing in previous books.  Through the course of the story she naturally comes good and when we next see her in TLB, she’s an accomplished girl scout and archer: in the final battle at the stables she shoots several enemies dead and is repeatedly commended for her prowess by the King… whose name, incidentally, is King Tirian 😀  Tirian thinks so highly of Jill that he puts her at the front of their little expeditionary force as the scout and point-(wo)man, and she ends up being one of the last of the defenders to fall to the Calormene troops.

In other words, by the end of TLB Jill is pretty kick-ass and impressive as a character without having reverted to a simple manly-woman warrior stereotype or even to the ‘just another soldier’ type we encounter so brilliantly in the Thomas Covenant chronicals by Stephen Donaldson.

Polly and Digory

The Magician’s Nephew was the second last Narnia book – a prequel to LWW written before TLB – but I’m dealing with its characters before The Horse and His Boy’s because, as with the Pevensies and Jill and Eustace, its protagonists are British.

Digory is the eponymous Magician’s nephew but is a bit of an anti-hero in the book.  He meets, befriends and plays with his neighbour Polly, and the two of them end up being tricked by his Uncle into a mysterious “Wood Between the Worlds”, from whence they find their way first to the apocalyptic world of Charn and then to the newly-created Narnia.  Digory comes across as a bit of a villain at first, as he’s the one who forces Polly not to interfere with his awakening of Jadis, he’s the one who falls victim to the evil queen’s charms, he’s the one who ultimately is responsible for sending her to Narnia and he’s the one who has to struggle with the dilemma or whether or not to steal a fruit that will heal his dying mother.  Eventually he makes the right choices (of course!) and things work out for the best – and he apologises to Polly for being a jackass.  Polly’s role in the story is at least as significant as Digory’s and in the end she comes across as the stronger character.

Meanwhile, two other Brits show up in the story – King Frank and Queen Helen.  King Frank is a simple London cabbie who is asked if he wants to stay in Narnia, and he replies he’d never want to leave if his wife was there – and bing, just like that, his wife appears in her work clothes with apron on and sleeves rolled up and soapsuds on her hands, and they’re together made King and Queen of the new world.  I love how his wife is depicted as an actual person who was in the middle of doing something important when she was magically yanked into the world and not as some simpering fantasy bride in a flowing dress and jewels.

Shasta and Aravis

And now we come to my favourite book in the Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy.  As with all the previous Narnia books except VDT, we have an equal weighting of human male and female protagonists – one each in this case – but we now also have a male and female horse starring as main characters too!  This time, the characters are all “native” to the fantasy world rather than being middle class British boys and girls.  And again, the girl Aravis is far from your typical fantasy stereotype: she’s strong, clever, eloquent yet terse, and arguably far more heroic than the country bumpkin (and white) Shasta who she begrudgingly ends up travelling with.  Aravis’ mare Hwyn is gentle, compassionate and scared-yet-brave, but Shasta’s stallion Bree is arrogant, aloof and – in the end – rather cowardly and ashamed of that.  In addition to these diverse main characters we have a vast array of supporting characters of both genders with important parts to play in the story.  All four main characters get significant development and a lot of story time devoted to them, and despite the “main” main character being Shasta we do still see what the other characters are doing while he’s off on his own.  And these scenes are no less important than Shasta’s scenes.

HHB has been criticised along with TLB because it presents the white-skinned Narnians as the “good guys” and the brown-skinned Calormenes as the “bad guys”.  Again, this is criticism I don’t understand because there are clearly good Narnians and bad Narnians, good Calormenes and bad Calormenes.  Aravis, arguably the most appealing character in HHB, is a Calormene and a woman.  I won’t say any more on the topic because I’m thinking about gender rather than race, but there is of course much more to be said.


Publicity art for the upcoming VDT movie adaptation. What's Jadis doing there? o_O

Narnia does of course have its fair share of villains, some of whom are presented as entirely villainous and some of whom are more nuanced.  I won’t spend a lot of time here, but let’s make some quick notes:

Jadis / The White Witch is an ambiguous female villain, very strong and powerful, as dangerous with a sword as with her magic wand and not your typical witch figure in the slightest (you’ll see what I mean when I discuss Le Guin in the next post).  Interestingly enough, white is the Western colour  associated with female purity which is why it’s used for wedding dresses – and it’s white which is the colour which characterises her oppressive reign.  Other than that there’s nothing matriarchal about Jadis, she’s just a typical villain who happens to be female.

Miraz the Usurper is the surprisingly sympathetic male villain of PC, who is ultimately betrayed by his also surprisingly sympathetic lieutenants – Sospespian and Glozelle.  He’s actually a fairly typical middle-aged male king in the mould of Henry VIII or Edward I, but in the world of Narnia typical kings are not very much admired and so he has to go.

There’s no particular main villain in VDT, but the bureaucratic governor Gumpas comes close – a petty and passive character who engages in minor oppression and general civic laziness.  He is dethroned by a very masculine man overturning his table, lifting him out of his seat and setting him down before the King, but I don’t think it’s his manliness which is in question here – instead, it’s his bureaucracy and ineffectiveness, his supporting of pirates and slavery, and his patronising attitude which is criticised.

The villain in TSC is someone we might call the Green Witch, though for a long time she seems to be co-villain to a rather insufferable black knight.  The Green Witch is far more subtle and “feminine” than Jadis was, using the brainwashed black knight as the figurehead to deflect attention away from herself.  Of course she turns into a snake and dies.  (It never helps.)

HHB’s villains – well, there aren’t really any true villains here.  There’s a reckless prince infatuated with lust who learns a bit of a lesson, a somewhat cynical and disturbing old emperor-type who’s smart enough not to pick fights with violent uncivilized foreign kingdoms like Narnia, and some minor characters who play villainous roles to certain characters.  None of them are presented as pure villain in the way that Jadis was.

TMN has, once again, Jadis as the chief villain, though partnered rather nervously for a while by Digory’s Uncle Andrew.  Andrew is a ridiculous and obvious parody of chauvinism and capitalism and the way he tries to treat Jadis like a lady while she tears through nineteenth-century London is hilarious and incisive.  The book emphasises this once again in its final pages to show just how pathetic and, I suppose in one sense, harmless Andrew really is.  But it’s also careful to show just how much damage Andrew’s foolish behaviour causes.

In TLB, the villains are once again approached rather sympathetically and our perception of who the top bad guy is changes several times until it’s made totally irrelevant by the end of the world.  This time, though, they’re all male.


I can’t believe how long this post has become – if you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me.  I hope it’s been made clear just by looking at the characters themselves how balanced and nuanced Lewis’ portrayal of gender in these children’s stories really was, and how gently yet thoroughly subversive and challenging it was to the culture of the day – even while the fantasy world itself was, like fifties Britain, explicitly patriarchal.  There are very few simple or one-sided characters in Narnia, very few pastiches or parodies or stereotypes that escape unscathed.  Every story features significant and organic roles for both male and female characters without making a big deal of their gender (or race or age or anything else).  It’s subversively inclusive throughout, challenging especially notions of ageism and modernism but also more subtly those of sexism and racism.  Controversial in-character statements like those by Father Christmas or the fate of Susan as reported in TLB stand out precisely because they’re so unusual in the context of the stories.

WoW, by contrast, paints its characters in broad and simple strokes: Wrynn and Garrosh, Sylvanas and Jaina, even characters like Thrall and Kael’thas come across as fairly one-sided.  And of course, WoW is vastly dominated by stereotypically masculine male characters doing stereotypically masculine things.

I won’t offer an opinion of the value of WoW’s approach, but I do think that Lewis’ way of deliberately and carefully including a variety of genders, ages, classes and races into his stories – stories which have stood the test of time – is something to look up to and, indeed, aspire to.  Next to Narnia, WoW seems … well, a little silly.  If you think it’s unfair to compare WoW to such a literary giant, remember that the Narnia books are marketed as children’s stories about children doing stuff which is important to children, so if something looks silly next to it then it probably is.

Next time on Late to the party: Earthsea, Le Guin and the journey of gender therein.  Don’t worry, it’ll be much briefer!


15 thoughts on “Late to the party: Narnia, Lewis, Gender (1)

  1. I’m glad you posted 🙂
    This was a really interesting read 🙂

    Posted by Issy | September 10, 2010, 10:40 pm
  2. This was an amazing read to a huge Narnia fan as I was. I read my first set of books until they fell into pieces and had to buy another one. I read it to my kids as well, of course (and found that the language was far more oldfashioned than I could recall, it wasn’t entirely easy to read aloud, but yet I enjoyed it immensly.)

    I loved Narnia and I still do. I think you’ve really made a good effort to see it from a positive point of view, interprating all for the best. And being such a fan I can sympathize with it.

    Still I think I come to a slightly different conclusion than you. I can’t look away from the fact that it’s only “natural” that the men shall fight and the women pat the lion on the back, that Peter is the King and Lucy is not, she can never be anything but cheerful and lovely. Not powerful. And the racism… come on. I found it so strong that I hesitated to read the Horce and His boy to my children. Not only because of that, but because it also – in my opinion – is the by far weekest book in the series. I think that book is full of the stereotype that the good guys are the white ones from the north and the bad guys are the dark skinned ones from the south (with a lot of muslim/arab influences… I suppose it feels modern in that way considering the current situation in the world.)
    Don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE Lewis, he did a great job for his time, he’s not by any means the worst example from the fantasy genre. But I don’t think you could really could consider the series a splendid example of equality, a world where women are given the same chances to have leading roles and gain power as men.

    Anyway: again: thanks for this overview. And I’m so looking forward to see what you make of LeGuin. I too grew up with the Wizard series and I loved it deeply, especially part two, which indeed was very much woman oriented. Overall LeGuin is a fantastic author. I read a lot of her SF back in the days.

    Posted by Larísa | September 11, 2010, 10:09 am
    • Hey Larisa, thanks for the comment. I think I’ll still have to disagree with you unfortunately, but I do have some reasons 🙂

      Re: Racism, the fascinating thing is that if you read Lewis’ other works – written before Narnia – he is very outspoken against precisely the sort of racism, imperialism and culturalism which people accuse him of employing in HHB. The story for HHB – especially if you take into account Ward’s theory of the Mercurial governing schema – requires a country other than Narnia. As it’s already been established that Narnia is full of white British people (literally, all the Narnians are descended from actual Brits) and later white European people (the Telmarines), I’m not sure he’d be seen as any less racist if he populated Calormene with blonde-haired blue-eyed people and set it to Narnia’s north, making it a land of Fjords and Moose.

      The Calormenes are, actually, a far bigger, more impressive and more accomplished civilisation than Narnia, which is a very unusual sort of racism. And the Calormene villains are presented so sympathetically and personably that while we could try to blame their culture or their personalities or their deity for them becoming the antagonists of the book, we can’t really blame their race. This is a point highlighted in TLB where the villains are mostly Narnian animals and one of the heroes is a young Calormene soldier.

      So for the racist argument – especially if Ward’s schema is correct – I again see a situation where modern-day tensions influence our interpretation of what was originally quite innocent, creative and even anti-racist.

      Re: Gender, one thing I forgot to mention was how little role battles play in Lewis’ work:
      TMN: No battles, none whatsoever. There’s a bit of a scuffle involving Jadis and a lamp post but both children are required to pull her back to The Wood.
      LWW: The “big battle” at Beruna is, as I’ve said, only given a few measly paragraphs. It’s not presented as glorious or interesting, just that Edmund did something heroic at last.
      HHB: The battle at Anvard features Lucy fighting alongside Edmund. Aravis and Bree are both portrayed as competent at war whereas Shasta and Hwyn aren’t.
      PC: None of the children play any significant role in the rout of the Telmarines, but Peter has a duel with Miraz which the book makes a point of giggling about how silly it is and the point of the duel is to avoid a big battle. With Mars as the governing schema this is particularly significant.
      VDT: Again, no real battles here except the Sea Serpent – a battle which is won by pushing it off the ship; Eustace tries to hack at it in a manly fashion but only manages to break his sword. They think they’ll have to fight plenty of times but they never really do.
      TSC: No battles, but a skirmish with the Green Serpent which is won by the chivalrous Prince… but only after the Marsh-Wiggle stamps out the fire.
      TLB: A climactic battle at the end… which the Narnians lose. Jill is there fighting alongside Eustace.

      What this says to me is that Lewis didn’t glorify battles in the same way that Tolkien or other fantasy authors might – given the tiny amount of page-space they occupy across the 7 books it really seems like he couldn’t care less about them and probably thinks they’re rather silly. Remembering that Lewis fought in the trenches of WW1 and was injured by a German shell – the same sort of experiences which caused Sassoon to write his famous anti-war poetry – it doesn’t seem surprising that he’d avoid proper war in his books. Battles never really seem glorious in Narnia, they always seem hopeless and grim and to be avoided as much as possible.

      In light of that, the one character who says that he personally does not intend for two girls to participate in one particular battle doesn’t, to me, scream AUTHOR SEXISM!!! – rather it’s almost like Lewis is taking a knowing wink at the attitudes of his time and then rendering them utterly irrelevant. People would probably expect their children’s books to keep nice little girls out of horrible battles and Lewis accommodates rather nicely while still totally subverting the idea of battle as a glorious (and male) pursuit anyway.

      I also think that Lewis rather downplays the whole “kingly power” thing, emphasising the responsibility and duties of rulers over any sort of glory or authority, and having his kings get put in situations which don’t make them look particularly regal and expose just how powerless they really are. Again, this is a strong theme in his earlier works and especially remarkable in light of the Jovian schema which Ward argues guides LWW.

      So to return to your penultimate paragraph: I don’t consider Lewis an example of a world where women are given the same chances as men – Narnia is explicitly patriarchal along the lines of early 20th century Britain or medieval Europe. But working within this world, Lewis still manages to challenge and subvert the norms and assumptions people would bring. He doesn’t change the world, but he does change his characters – so that by the end, his characters are not a justification for sexism but rather a justification for equality.

      That is why I think it’s so clever – he maintains a setting people are comfortable and familiar with, that “safe place” I talked about, yet within it places transgressional and daring characters and stories.

      This is all the more remarkable because, given Lewis’ fascination for medieval thought, he would be steeped in a culture which has specific and established ideas of what properly constitutes male and female essence (esp. scholastic and neo-classical philosophy). And he manages to express what he sees as the value of this culture’s worldviews while still providing believable, diverse, sympathetic characters of both genders and many races/species. In WoW we see a recent and consciously modern fantasy world that totally lacks these sorts of characterisations despite being, in theory, a rather more egalitarian world.

      Posted by Charles | September 11, 2010, 1:34 pm
      • You are very well articulated and it’s a little bit hard to argue… I just have to once again say how much that Santa Clause thing pissed me off back in time when I read it. I sort of slipped over it. Because it set the gender roles so definite, once for all.

        This said I’ll give you right that some of the female characters are fine. Like Polly for instance. And I agree on that within the limits of the time he was living in he did a great job and tried to expand the female role as far at is was possible at that time.

        Looking at WoW I can’t help thinking that the genre seems to be standing still in some aspects. Is it so impossible to consider a fantasy world with female faction leaders, where it’s as natural to have a queen in charge as a man?

        It seems to go very deeply. Eventually it will change, but it takes time. And yeah, maybe Lewis actually was one of those who broke new grounds. For all the details that still bug me, he probably did.

        Posted by Larísa | September 11, 2010, 1:58 pm
      • Sorry, it’s not my intention to shut down argument 😦 I don’t often get the opportunity to write about stuff like this without needing boatloads of references and strict word limits (which is probably a good thing 😀 ) and I probably get a little carried away!

        One thing I am very aware of is that I read Narnia as a man (or, well, a boy). As a man, I found that Narnia and similar books forced me to look at women as equals or possibly even betters – they were shown to be at least important and intriguing as men. It was characters like Lucy and Aravis and Jill that prevented me from finding characters like Eowyn or even Galadriel satisfying or compelling. So, reading as a male, Narnia made me ask questions of the status quo even as it appeared to be a world which upheld it. Narnia and similar books that I read while very young helped expose the poverty of other works which had more stereotypical and prejudiced presentations of gender and race.

        I can understand how, reading as a woman, incidents like the Father Christmas one could be really upsetting, and the fact that the whole series is couched in the sexist language of the culture would also be difficult to get past. While as a male I believe Lewis subverts the whole male-glory culture and actually gives women many of the best roles, if you’re a woman looking for role models then perhaps Narnia is not the place to look.

        Or at least, perhaps not Narnia alone, as it was in the context of other more explicitly egalitarian works that I found Narnia to be challenging.

        Posted by Charles | September 11, 2010, 2:34 pm
      • I’m just so surprised and glad to read something from a WoW player who is as enthusiastic about those books as I am. It’s a little bit unexpected.

        This said I’m just as a big Tolkien fan, re-reading the books every 3 years. It’s interesting though how Lewis managed to make a world come alive without being as wordy as Tolkien or his copycats. Being brief is an art.Although sadly forgotten these days when writers seem to be payed per word.

        Posted by Larísa | September 11, 2010, 4:48 pm
  3. An interesting read, even though I kind of phased out halfway through the protagonist part. I haven’t read Narnia myself, I honestly can’t tell you why, but I guess reading LotR thrice and almost learning the Belgariad and the Malloreon by heart could have something to do with it. (On that note I now want to analyse those books like you’ve done to the Narnia ones, although there are only three female main characters, one of them is motherly in the most dull way, one is mostly a whiny kid/fanatic mother and one exists as a way to introduce drama with the hyper-religious fanatic guy. So that’s that then.

    Where was I? Oh yes, you wrote something. I do agree that one of the interesting things about fantasy/sci-fi is the exploration of gender, culture and society that really isn’t possible to the same degree in other genres. And I just might go get the narnia books when I get back home again, if not earlier, you’ve gotten me interested.

    Posted by clavicus | September 11, 2010, 4:38 pm
  4. Wow. Fantastic post 😀

    I’ve been a Narnia fan since early childhood and have read the books countless times, but I generally avoid analysis of literature that’s close to my heart to avoid the post-dissection loss of charm. However, I think you’re spot on in your discussion of the character development throughout the various books. Lewis was indeed a complex man who wrote a number of other extremely interesting and well-thought-out books, both fiction and non-fiction; have you read any of them?

    I haven’t read Planet Narnia, but I may try to find it. Having been aware from the beginning that the entire series is an allegory, I’m interested in Michael Ward’s interpretation; from your (admittedly very brief) synopsis, I’m not sure I necessarily agree with it, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions before actually reading it.

    I notice you said that HHB is your favourite of the books. Did it start off that way (out of curiosity)? I found that I didn’t enjoy it at first, along with TLB…but both have grown on me over the years 🙂

    Anyway! Rambling, will stop.

    Posted by eightpaws | September 16, 2010, 12:44 pm
    • Thanks for the comment! Rambling is fine, after all I do a lot of it myself…

      I don’t want to get bogged down in discussion of the finer points here, but I will briefly mention in passing that I don’t think the allegory most people assumed Lewis was using in Narnia is the allegory he was actually using (if allegory is even the correct word). Likewise the reason I tried to minimize references to Ward is to minimize the temptation to get sidetracked discussing him – so I’ve not even attempted to do his theories any justice in the post and I strongly recommend reading the book if you want to investigate them further.

      I’ve read a lot of Lewis’ popular nonfiction books and some of his other fiction, most notably the Cosmic Trilogy, the first two books of which were some of my favourite regular holiday reads in my early/mid teens. I recently re-read the whole thing and then went straight into Narnia (this was before reading Ward but after becoming aware of the basics of his theory), and I did feel that Narnia was a more mature, well-realised and comfortable exploration of the same kinds of themes. Or, maybe not so much exploration as exposition. I’ve not read his more academic works but Ward quotes from a lot of them in Planet Narnia, which was a large part of the reason I found that book so worth reading!

      Re: HHB: I think it feels like the most traditional fantasy work, because we have in-world characters doing in-world things without the same overarching grandeur of the other plots. We also get to see three of the Pevensies grown up and being the kings/queens we were told they were at the end of LWW. Also I think the story progression and narrative style is really wonderful, especially taking in all the vivid and opposite environments of desert/forest or city/tomb etc, and the characters and cultures throughout are really well developed and presented – especially the supporting characters. It felt like the most coherent and polished of the stories to me as well as just being a really enjoyable yarn, and I guess I picked up on that very early on.

      It’s uh, probably worth mentioning it’s one of the few books that features a genuine honest-to-goodness battle scene so that may have had something to do with it too 😀

      But yes, I read the entire series as soon as I was old enough to, and it was HHB that I enjoyed most even at that first reading. Dawn Treader and Silver Chair were a more distant second place and I preferred TLB to TMN, but LWW and PC were the books I read least often and thus, I suppose, enjoyed least. Nowadays it’s still the book I’d most like to read again.

      Posted by Charles | September 16, 2010, 1:25 pm
  5. I haven’t time to finish reading this amazing post at the moment, but I did want to comment with one thing.

    […] I eventually came back to Narnia, cynically expecting to find it childish and backward and silly and being quite astonished when a read-through of the complete series left me feeling (a) like I was childish, backward and silly to expect the books to be childish, backward and silly […]

    Lewis once said “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.”

    It’s still one of my favourite quotes, and holds true for pretty much any young adult book I actually enjoyed when I was in the age range. I still enjoy many of them (Gail Carson Levine’s fairy tale retellings, The City of Ember, and yes, the Narnia books, among others).

    Posted by Apple | September 16, 2010, 6:47 pm


  1. Pingback: Late to the party: Earthsea, Le Guin, Gender (2) « Planet of the Hats - September 11, 2010

  2. Pingback: Oh My, Kurenai » Links for Thursday - September 15, 2010

  3. Pingback: Quietly and without fanfare « Planet of the Hats - October 21, 2010

  4. Pingback: How Star Wars was my creative lifeline and a creative trap | Sihmmulacrum - September 19, 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Get emailed about new posts!

Join 27 other followers

We write about

%d bloggers like this: