Narnia: so what?

So there’s this huge movie coming out, and I read an essay by Alison Lurie (whom I generally love), and even a spirited defence by Brandon. All of which got me mulling something over.

I suppose I have a problem with Lurie’s piece from the moment she claims that children either love the Narnia books or hate them, since as a child I had no strong feelings about them one way or the other. I read quite a few of them at one time or another but in no particular order (except that I know I did start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). I consumed a lot of books in my pre-teen years and the Narnia series was just another one that I dipped into and out of.

I had no idea LWW was an allegory of anything. And to tell the heretical truth, although the story was fine, it didn’t spark any passion. I picked up other books in the series here and there along the way; I remember almost nothing about any of them. I think it all felt rather boringly middle-class, and perhaps the earnest pious highmindedness underlying it all just turned me off – even though I didn’t know that was what it was all supposed to be about.

Now, I would read books about middle-class children, no problem (Famous Five: yep, had fun with those. Not that I could tell you any of the plots of those books either… but I think they were all the same really, weren’t they?). Mind you, the children’s books I really devoured were nearly all about kids who might be middle class but were a sort of quirky middle class (probably with struggling writers or artists for parents, or poor clergymen, or something equally threadbare): they were the poorest girls at the local stables (or in the boarding school, where they were probably scholarship girls) – but in the end they beat all the rich kids hands down.

Pony books, more pony books, and sometimes girls’ boarding schools books. How middle class is that? I devoured them.

What worked best was a good rousing narrative where the heroine starts in the mud (it was always best if she was completely useless when she first climbed on a pony and fell straight off again, even more useless than me) with everyone laughing at her and by a mixture of unexpected talent, passion and downright hard work ends up with the big shiny silver cup. Up yours, spoilt rich brats! (Ah, Jill and Jinny, my friends.)

And I could dream that one day I might do the same.

Perhaps, then, the Narnia books didn’t cut it because they weren’t for me particularly good stories. They weren’t tales I could insert myself into, aspire to, with characters I would particularly like or want to be like. They had really very little to say to me: to my inner fantasy life, or my outer social one either.

And so, really, all I’m saying is that I wish so many people wouldn’t make so many assumptions that everyone cares about them one way or the other. Because I still think they’re mostly rather dull and vastly overrated.

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10 Responses to Narnia: so what?

  1. Generally, I agree – though by the time I read them, I had some sense of the allegory. I still resent the comparisons between atheists and murderous and idiotic dwarves.

  2. Brett says:

    “Me too” – I think I only ever read the first one, and I wasn’t into fantasy much at that age (as opposed to science fiction or mysteries). The whole wardrobe thing struck me as juvenile and made it too obviously a kids story. I don’t remember hating it though, but I obviously wasn’t enthused enough to read the other ones. Later on I became a Tolkien snob and by then Lewis had missed his chance :)

    I can’t say I realised it was allegorical either.

    PS. Yes, the Famous Five novels all had the same plot, and it can be summed up in one word: SMUGGLERS!!!! Well, close enough …

  3. As a Canadian, I found many aspects of the Famous Five and Secret Seven amusingly incomprehensible. Why did they make such a fuss about putting on their rubber-soled shoes in order to shadow people? Are not all shoes rubber soled? And why, of all things, do the criminals keep stealing lead? And from ‘lorries’ no less?

  4. Katharine says:

    No, Milan, you’re thinking of modern shoes. To show my age, not all shoes had rubber soles in the 1950s. I remember slidey leather soles, often with blakeys – certainly no use for shadowing if you were clipping about in those! And criminals still steal lead in rural areas, usually from church roofs which are not well protected, as they can get good money for it.

  5. Brett says:

    As an inhabitant of a sunburnt country, I always found the abundant heather and bracken somewhat mystifying … “lashings of ginger beer” didn’t really register either, though I understood it was something to be keenly anticipated! Still, I re-read those books until they were quite battered, so the cultural divide can’t have been too great.

  6. I think the cultural divide was part of the appeal. In particular, the apparent profusion of club houses and bonfire related holidays in England.

  7. Sharon says:

    I was reading them in England in the 70s and half of it was fairly strange to me too (eg, ginger beer: I don’t think I ever drank ginger beer as a kid: we were drinking Coke and Fanta et al. And I don’t think they ever had fridges, just larders). I think you may be right that that sort of oddness actually added to the appeal.

  8. Brandon says:

    I think the allegorical aspect of Narnia tends to slip by most people on early reading (it did by me), in part because it wasn’t written to be an allegory, and so isn’t primarily an allegory at all, but a story that has imagery with allegorical tones. In that sense they’re only as allegorical as any story that touches on a deeper vein of imagery.

    I think a lot of whether the Narnia books appeal have to do with what sort of writing one likes: for the most part they’re fairly spare in description and explicit characterization, and they don’t give much detail to the background. Rather minimalist (and intentionally so). A lot of people, even when young, prefer a richer sort of storytelling. A lot of people are turned off by the eclecticism, too (Tolkien certainly was).

    I liked them quite a bit (The Magician’s Nephew much better than LL&W); but they weren’t my usual fare. I tended to animal stories.

  9. mmmmm … ginger beer!

    Polly Toynbee has an even more acerbic piece on Narnia in the Grauniad — I think today. I saw it via Cheryl at Emerald City and am being really lazy and not linking.

  10. Sharon says:

    Polly’s piece is so OTT it’s really quite funny. She’s definitely, um, cross. But I don’t think you can really say on the one hand that British kids won’t get the religious business (and I think she’s right on that) and on the other that the film will (somehow subconsciously) ‘soften them up’ for religious conversion when they’re older – yeah, it’s that religious propaganda line again. Even if that’s what Lewis himself hoped for, you’d think the people who argue this line would notice the coincidence of two phenomena in Britain: a) massive, long term sales of said books; and b) long term decline in Christian religiosity in the population. Hmm.

    I should find the link, I suppose. But it hardly seems worth the effort.


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