Today, 16th of October, the classic children’s novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe celebrates its 70th anniversary. The novel written by C. S. Lewis was published in 1950. Originally illustrated by Pauline Baynes, to whom undoubtedly we own the images we have when we imagine Narnia. Happy Narnia Day!
I remember reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time when I was around seven years old. I had the fortune to read it some years before the 2005 film adaptation by Walden Media was out. As a kid what interested me was the world of Narnia, I loved every single creature and the story. It was not when I grew up as an adult and started to study literature when I learnt that the books allude to Christian allegory, and worst of all, that C. S. Lewis disliked women in the academia and had neglected some female students. At first, I was afraid that that could change the perspective I had about the books. But then, I remembered J.R.R. Tolkien’s words about biographies, that they are not relevant for understanding a book and that it is not a good idea to research the author’s life
(I am sorry Tolkien, I love your works with my life and I had to read your bio and letters; I know you didn’t like Narnia, didn’t like allegories of any sort, and accepted women in the academia).
To commemorate the anniversary of a book I loved on my childhood, and I still enjoy if I ignore the already mentioned facts, I am going to discuss three of some of the most iconic moments from The Chronicles of Narnia where gender, especially regarding women, might be not really seen as problematic as we may believe. I know that most scholars consider the C.S. Lewis’ Christian background, I am not going to consider it here.
I. Because you are a girl!
One of my favourite characters from The Chronicles of Narnia are Polly and Digory. Interestingly, unlike many stories where women are supposed to get married, here, Polly Plummer remains single, and despite she grows up and gets old, she returns to Narnia.
In The Magician’s Nephew, Polly and Digory often discuss the characteristics girls and boys have, especially when they fight. For example, one of the most interesting dialogues between them is the one they have when they try to decide whether they should ring or not the bell that lately will wake up Jadis, the witch. Polly believes that ringing the bell is a bad idea:
“That’s all you know.” said Digory. “It’s because you are a girl. Girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about people getting engaged”. “You looked exactly like your uncle when you said that”, said Polly. “Why can’t you keep to the point?” said Digory. “What we’re talking about is-” “How exactly like a man!” said Polly in a very grown up voice; but she added hastily, in her real voice, “And don’t say I’m just like a woman, or you’ll be a beastly copy- cat” “I would never dream of calling a kid like you a woman” said Digory loftily. “Oh, I am a kid, am I?” said Polly, who was now in real rage. “Well, you needn’t be bothered by having a kid with you any longer then. I’m off. I’ve had enough of this place. And I’ve had enough of you too – you beastly, stuck up, obstinate pig!”.
Now, here in the excerpt, we can see that Digory mentions that being a girl involves negative qualities, but it is important to notice that Polly does not assume Digory’s description of her gender as true or right. Instead, she recalls that Digory sounds as his uncle Andrew, which readers might remember, a silly, wicked and old fashioned man. For this reason, it is not that Digory is saying a fact, he is a reflection of what society taught children to think of girls, but Polly insists on telling him that what he is saying is not something correct but what his uncle would say. Additionally, when she tells him not to call her a woman, it is not because she is neglecting her gender, but because Digory would use the same useless argument again.
This dialogue might be unnoticed for anyone, but it is very important in the book we are commemorating today, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Despite The Magician’s Nephew was published five years after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Digory is the well- known professor Kirke who owns the wardrobe that allowed the Pevensie to enter to Narnia. Interestingly, when Lucy tells the tale about the other world inside the wardrobe, he does not treat her like an ignorant. We can assume that it is because he has been in Narnia himself, but it is a girl, Lucy, who seems to be telling a lie to her brothers and sister, and Digory defends her asking: “How do you know that your sister´s story is not true?” And even more, he does not think of Lucy being mad, or pretending or lying, there is no reference to gender either. It seems that Digory grew up well and considered Polly’s words.
II. I think I could be brave enough
Anyone who has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will not forget when Father Christmas himself appears to give some peculiar gifts to Lucy, Peter and Susan. There is a dialogue that might leave the readers a little bit confused. Susan receives a bow and a horn, about the first one, she is told that she will not need it on battle because she is not going to fight, on the second one, she is told that she will need to call for help
(a classical book where women are in distress). Then, it comes Lucy’s time to receive her gifts, the dialogue is the following one:
“In this bottle there is a cordial made of the juice of one of the fire flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun. If you or any of your friends is hurt, a few drops of this will restore them. And the dagger is to defend yourself at a great need. For you are also not to be in the battle” “Why, sir?” said Lucy. “I think – I don’t know – but I think I could be brave enough”. “That’s not the point” he said. “But battles are ugly when women fight”
Lucy is described as brave from the beginning of the book, we know that she has the courage to enter into Narnia, to stand still despite her brothers and sister did not believe her. And she is also the one who insists that they must save Mr Tumnus. Despite not being involved in a battlefield, it is Lucy the one who starts the adventure. Her fight is not a physical one, but against the constant reminding that she is little. Also, interestingly, we do not get a detailed description of the battle, we can assume that it is because it is a children’s book, but the horror of the battle is remarked over any other sort of description. Additionally, if Lucy and Susan had been in the battlefield, none could have helped Aslan to rescue the rest of the Narnians.
III. She is no longer a friend of Narnia
Readers of The Last Battle can remember that from the four Pevensie children mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan does not go back to Narnia. This decision by Lewis has been criticized by well known authors nowadays like J. K. Rowling and Philp Pullman. The full quotation in C. S. Lewis book is the following one:
Sire,’ said Tirian, when he had greeted all these, ‘if I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?’
‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’
‘Yes,’ said Eustace, ‘and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, “What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’
‘Oh, Susan!’ said Jill. ‘She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.’
‘Grown-up indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘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.’
‘Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,’ said Peter. ‘Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.
Rowling pointed out that it seemed to her that Susan is left behind because she found sex; Pullman arrives at a similar conclusion as Rowling. Others suggest that it is a Christian allegory of denying faith. For me, Susan’s problem, as it has become known, has to do with society and women.
Feminist studies and authors, such as Simone de Beauvoir had proposed that a woman is constructed by society and men are the ones who have established how we women are supposed to be and behave. Helene Cixous has noticed that for so long society has sexualized women as an object of desire for men. Virgine Despentes alludes to the fact that women are constantly told how their bodies are supposed to be, and how beautiful they should be. Just take a look at the art produced by the Greeks which has been the main ideal of women in European art history. Even more, media, publicity which started to gather more importance in the times when Narnia was written, after the second world war, showed very sexualized women with cherry lips.
It did not seem to me that Susan was excluded because she found what being a woman means. To me, it is the other way around. Polly and Jill stayed true to themselves, they did not follow society ideals in women. They did not choose to follow the image society had crafted over women to follow about their own identity. In contrast, Susan did follow, she decided to walk the path of the socially constructed woman. We just need to remember the dialogue between Polly and Digory, there was a strong image and prejudice on women’s attitudes.
Even more, it is Polly who remarks in the dialogue from The Last Battle, that Susan did not grow up but “to race on to the silliest time of one’s life”, that is teenager’s years, but hadn’t society in those times believed that women were supposed to be pretty and young forever? Polly in fact suggests that the problem is not growing up, so it seems to me that Susan’s problem has nothing to do with faith or sex, but rather, following the plastic and make believe ideas society have built on women: the one that has to be pretty, have a full day social life to exhibit herself, that golden age of women that media, especially publicity had expanded in everyone’s head. Pop art cannot be ignored, nor the ideal woman presented in those images, which was the role model every single girl was supposed to follow. Which, of course, was moulded on a fake image of happiness.
Now, about growing up and denying her childhood, Susan also seems to follow the socially accepted image of women. Children are savage, while a woman was supposed to be not involved in children’s games directly. We cannot forget how women were denied to bring up their own children because they had to be there only for their husbands’ needs. What is more, they could not be running around, laugh so much, joke, no. They had to be beautiful and passive objects to look at.
So far we have reviewed three iconical moments regarding gender in The Chronicles of Narnia. Despite C.S. Lewis might be playing with fire with the dialogues and the words he uses, they can have positive interpretations, that might not necessarily match his own ideas. We will ever know exactly what was his original intention, but that is something great about literature, it has a context we cannot ignore, but also its meaning changes with time. I am sure many readers will continue enjoying The Chronicles of Narnia as much as when they came out for the first time. And, now that Netflix bought the rights, it will certainly become popular again. I will continue enjoying the books as when I read them for the first time. So, I wish you a happy Narnia day!
✶⋆Do you have any comment’s respecting Narnia moment’s that involve gender, specially women?