Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Narnian Women, Part 1: "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

No attempt at a feminist analysis is going to succeed in unearthing a feminist politics in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. It has become received wisdom that Lewis was a misogynist, though a devoted reader will observe a slow, but definite evolution in his attitudes towards women, especially after he began his complex romantic relationship with Joy Davidman Gresham, but even in his first nonfiction book, The Allegory of Love, published in 1936, Lewis offers a marvelously empathetic and brilliantly compassionate analysis of Chaucer's Cryseide, a character for whom he has pity, recognizing that she is 'unlikable' because she can't overcome her vulnerability. By 1956, the year he married Gresham, Lewis published an astoundingly gorgeous and combatively transgressive retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, narrated from the perspective of Psyche's hideously ugly, but deeply sympathetic elder sister, Orual. That same year, the last volume of The Chronicles was published, though it had been completed several years earlier.

The first volume of The Chronicles, published in 1950, was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though Lewis, ever the busy bee, had already written three of the seven books. The project began in 1939 when Lewis and his brother Warnie were saddled with three evacuee children from London. For the first time, Lewis was spending considerable time with children, all three of whom were girls. The two old bachelors were at their wit's end, with no idea how to entertain these kids, but it was natural for Lewis, who had been writing stories in the fantastic mode since his early childhood, to turn to writing fiction as a solution to the woes of precipitous and un-wished-for surrogate fatherhood.

In striking contrast to his earlier science fiction trilogy, which had few female characters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has many, including two of the four protagonists, two of the supporting characters, and the villain. The gender politics of the novel are not simplistic, but rather rooted in medieval conceptions of manhood and womanhood, as expressed in the ancient literature that Lewis studied as a scholar. The split between male and female is absolute and inviolable: Narnia is entering its Golden Age and the demarcations between good and evil, summer and winter, love and hatred, man and woman, are clearly marked. Men and boys are expected to fight battles, protect the innocent, defend their honor, and wield swords; women and girls are expected to nurse the wounded, offer succor to the despairing and fearful, devote themselves to the will of Aslan, and wreathe the victors with garlands. "Battles are ugly when women fight," Father Christmas opines, as he presents Lucy with a dagger to be used only in self-defense. However, a certain transgressive anarchy lurks in the Narnian world: there are only four human beings, the four Pevensie children, and these rules apply to them, but far less clearly to the other creatures of Narnia.

Lucy Pevensie, the youngest of the four children and the first to enter Narnia, later known as the Valiant, proves, beyond all other humans who enter Narnia, the most unswervingly loyal to Aslan. Her faith alone holds steady, no matter what she encounters, while all others, even her brother Peter, the High King, experience moments of doubt, or even disbelief. In this way, Lucy is the model of girlhood in the Narnia universe. The qualities that dominate her character are her truthfulness, her readiness to forgive a wrong, her bravery, her impish sense of merriment, and her total incapability of either breaking her word or betraying a friend. However, Lucy is not a paragon: in this first volume, she shows an impetuous imprudence and needs to be restrained by wiser heads and her trustfulness is worrisome to her elder brothers and sister. Lucy is a rather miraculous imaginative achievement for the monastic old bachelor. In her, Lewis gives us a little girl who feels utterly real, and whom anyone might want to befriend.

Her older sister, Susan, the only one of the human children to enter Narnia to be lost to it at the close, shows signs even in this first volume that her faith will prove weakest. Already, she plays the mother to her siblings, an attitude that indicates her overeagerness to put aside childish things. Many have interpreted this as Lewis's condemnation of female sexuality, but even a cursory reading of, for instance, The Allegory of Love, assures us that Lewis was hardly inclined to condemn sex. Rather, the problem with Susan is that she is seduced by conformity, not adulthood and not sexuality. She follows the crowd and is prepared to give up her belief in Narnia, to dismiss it as a game of pretend, in order to be accepted. Throughout all of Lewis's fiction, the conformist impulse is consistently censured, bad from every perspective, not only because it eviscerates faith, but because it is a fundamental betrayal of one's inner life. Her beauty, her tendency to vacillate, her changeability, all these qualities mark her as a feminine ideal, a Guinevere, and it is she (though notably not Lucy) who at one point must be physically rescued by her brother Peter from the predation of the wolf Maugrim. In this first volume, Susan is still unspoiled and her prudence, concern for her siblings, cheerful helpfulness, and pity for the wounded cause the Narnians to dub her the Gentle.

If we understand Aslan as a Christological figure, which many do, though this is not required for a lucid interpretation of the story, then Lucy and Susan are childish counterparts of Mary and Mary Magdalene, staying close to the lion in his martyrdom and joyfully celebrating his resurrection. Their status as children represents their innocence and lack of guile or power-hunger and thus they are fit to rule and usher in the full Narnian spring. Their virtues are those extolled by the medieval poets and their vices are those of children. Lucy and Susan are the models of Narnian womanhood in the Golden Age. 

The White Witch, also known as Jadis, is not human, but she is unquestionably female and styles herself as a queen. Her pallor not only associates her with winter, but indicates a certain vampiric quality . Traitors are her "lawful prey" and it is her right to draw traitors' blood. Her reign of winter also recalls Dante's lowest circle of Hell, where traitors are doomed to everlasting imprisonment in ice and where Judas is forever gnawed in Lucifer's gaping mouth. Lust for power, unrestrained fury, vengefulness, spitefulness, and cruelty are the traits that dominate the Witch's personality. These same traits are, in later volumes, the qualities of evil men. Although the Witch is beautiful, it is a terrible, awe-inspiring beauty, utterly unseductive. While Lewis offers clearly differentiated models of goodness for men and women, evil muddies the waters: the Witch's opposition to Aslan casts her out of any acceptable paradigm of womanhood. Her femaleness is dissolved and rendered indistinct as a result of her total submergence in evil.

There are two more female characters, one a very positive figure and the other somewhat negative. Mrs. Beaver, with her husband, is the children's key ally in their flight towards Aslan, who, they hope, will rescue their treacherous brother and release Narnia from her wintry enchantment. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver become the Pevensies' guardians. Mrs. Beaver is welcoming, kind, cautious, and protective. She is constantly preoccupied by the all-important task of feeding her loved ones and ensuring their comfort. That is, she's a cozy, consoling maternal figure, someone who can brighten a long day's march with a thermos of tea, but not someone who will be useful when it comes to battle or politics. She is typical of mother figures in Lewis's fiction - that is, idealized, but largely ineffectual - and it is tempting, though Lewis would object as he did not believe in literary analysis via biography, to see in this an ambivalent longing for the mother who died when Lewis was only nine.

The last female character in the book is not Narnian at all. She is Mrs. Macready, the old professor's surly housekeeper who dislikes children and scolds them for being underfoot. Her failure as a maternal figure renders her unsympathetic and she is unable to conjure up the slightest shred of compassion for the four children who have been sent far from their parents and who, daily, must wonder whether they still have a family to go back to in London. Since Mrs. Macready is, of course, not Narnian, she is very much part of the mundane human world, engrossed in its petty concerns. That being said, her role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is crucial: she unwittingly herds the children into the wardrobe, as they try to evade her and her guests. In a way, as sour and unpleasant as Mrs. Macready is, the children have cause to be grateful to her, for without her, there is no Narnian adventure.

Since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe narrates the birth of Narnia's Golden Age, it is also the volume that, more than any other except perhaps The Magician's Nephew, which narrates the birth of the Narnian world, reveals an idealized, almost utopian fantasy world. While Peter and Edmund, kings of Narnia, come to be known as the Magnificent and the Just, Susan and Lucy, the two queens, are the Gentle and the Valiant. Grown up, the Pevensies mirror the paragons of Malory's Arthurian romance or Chaucer's epic of Troilus, but there is a crucial, indeed radically modern element that differentiates them. The Pevensie children are not of noble birth; their nobility, their fitness to rule, is expressed through their actions and their faith in Aslan. Overall, while Lewis does not offer feminist models, he creates a model of Narnian womanhood that rests on medieval conceptions of the nature of a noble lady, while permitting that model flaws and agency, particularly as far as her faith is concerned. In the world Lewis created, a girl's hand of friendship is as powerful as a witch's enchantment.

No comments:

Post a Comment