Friday, March 13, 2015

C.S. Lewis Redux: On Your Knees and Forget the Fees

In her ongoing takedown of C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, Ana Mardoll noted a peculiar declaration made by Lewis's co-protagonist Eustace Scrubb. Eustace had been a liberal atheist in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but during and after that story he became an "Aslanite," and decided to regard his involuntary voyage with King Caspian as an ennobling religious adventure. Early in Silver Chair, meeting with a potentially helpful "Parliament of [Talking] Owls," Eustace felt obliged to tell the conclave that he was "the King's man" and suspected them of conspiring against the king. Mardoll interpreted this as an assertion of privilege - male, human, and class privilege (trifecta!) - and I think that's an insightful finding. I would like to add, though, that Lewis was also weighing in against deliberative, representative bodies, against parliaments of all kinds, and in favor of kings and royalists.

Lewis had been increasingly willing to display his royalism in the Narnia novels. He had inserted a billet-doux to monarchy into Voyage of the Dawn Treader, remarking that the Pevensie children's return to Narnia "was as if King Arthur came back to Britain...And I say the sooner the better." The rest of that novel's plot, as Mardoll observed, Lewis predicated on the right of kings to place their personal whims above the needs and safety of their own people. Well before writing the Narnia novels, though, Lewis had matured in a Britain whose elite viewed democratic government with suspicion and the monarchy as, if not irreproachable, then at least an exalted estate unjustly threatened by Parliament. England's Parliament had fought two civil wars with kings in the 17th century, toppling one and beheading another, and had subsequently taken control of the royal purse, the armed forces, and even the terms of the royal succession. Meanwhile, Liberal and Tory politicians took turns crafting the myth of a patriot king, a monarch who stood above politics and truly represented the national spirit. This image, as Walter Bagehot and Douglas Adams observed, helped distract the public from the colorless men who actually held power, but it also slowly undermined the respectability of Parliament. Small wonder that an elitist like Lewis, or one of his mouthpiece characters, would consider a parliament grubby, furtive, and disreputable, little more than a band of (WAIT FOR IT) Owl-iver Cromwells.

In his earlier work, Lewis made an even more explicit case for monarchy than he did in the Narnia novels. In his 1943 essay on "Equality," Lewis described monarchy as part of God's plan for the world, a plan based on the due subordination of all lesser mortals to their superiors: of men to kings, women to men, students to teachers, and animals to humans. What made this plan unworkable, the amateur theologian argued, was the Fall: after Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge, corruption entered the world, power decoupled from divine right, and one could no longer safely grant unrestrained authority to anyone. Rights, whether or subjects or women or animals, came to replace divine right. But both civil rights and liberal participatory government were, to borrow Paine's phrase, "the badges of lost innocence." Both were necessary, but only in the sense that clothing or medicine were necessary; neither nourished the spirit or contributed to individual happiness. Personal and spiritual fulfillment, Lewis argued, could only come from private subordination: the self-abasement of worshipers before their gods, the admiration of commoners for royalty, the submission of women to their husbands. No-one can know true happiness unless he, or especially she, learns to grovel.

This last point helps illustrate why Mardoll and other readers have found the Chronicles of Narnia so problematic. Lewis's medievalism, his monarchism, his love of irresponsible privilege and an authoritarian God, and his contempt for women (like Susan Pevensie or the Head of Eustace's school), are of a piece. Equality and democracy are, he feels, ugly necessities, and those whom Lewis considers inferiors should acquire the habit of subordination, learn to kiss their chains in private even if they don't display them in public. It is not enough that subject peoples obey their betters - they must also learn to love them. The two are, indeed, one and the same thing, even in the realm of physical love: in that 1943 essay, Lewis argues that women cannot find sexual fulfillment unless they are dominated by their husbands.

Far be it from me to offer marital and relational advice to half the world's population, beyond acknowledging that that there is a fetish for just about everyone, and that there is almost certainly a constituency, though probably not a large one, for Fifty-Shades-of-C.S.-Lewis cosplay. The difference between me and Lewis is that he knows, absolutely, what will appeal to all women in the bedroom, what the best way is to manage all children's schools, what form of government will make everyone happy, and what kind of deity is the best and only one. Such moral self-confidence may make one a productive writer or preacher, but it makes for a lousy teacher and adviser. It probably also makes one a lousy human being.


Above right: King George, C.S. Lewis's secret boyfriend.
Above left: C.S. Lewis gets the knout out of the bedroom cupboard.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Good News from Narnia

I am pleased to report, belatedly, that Ana Mardoll has resumed her extended critique of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia with a chapter-by-chapter commentary, already well advanced, of The Silver Chair. This is exciting news to Your Humble Narrator, as this fourth volume of the Chronicles was my favorite of the series. As Mardoll explains, it's the one that most closely resembles a "Tolkienesque" adventure story, with fell wildernesses, fearsome giants, a mysterious underground city, and unlikely heroes seeking a lost prince. It is one of the few C.S. Lewis novels whose heroes I like, probably because Eustace and Jill were raised as liberal atheists and Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle is reliably gloomy and curmudgeonly. It is also just as morally problematic as its predecessors: Lewis remains monstrously unkind to his heroes, and his Christ-analogue Aslan is even more of an authoritarian, unhelpful As-hole (so to speak) than usual.

I am particularly glad to share this news because Mardoll had announced last fall that she was withdrawing from blogging, due to a spate of online bullying that had become intolerable. I am glad that she has bravely chosen to re-engage and apply her critical intelligence to the Narnia books, which we too often  recommend to children without understanding the many morally toxic lessons that Lewis wants them to learn. Personally, I can't wait for Mardoll's deconstruction of The Last Battle, the most blatantly racist and misogynist volume of the series.