Monday, December 05, 2005

C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and the perils of allegory

I am told that, during the Labour leadership election that followed the death of John Smith, people working at the BBC got into the habit of referring to John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Tony Blair as the lion, the witch and the wardrobe.

While I enjoyed C.S. Lewis's Narnia books when I was young, I was never mad about them. Looking at them today, there is something twee about them, while the BBC dramatisations in the late 1980s were oddly charmless.

Polly Toynbee, in this morning's Guardian, has no time for Lewis or his books. But then she has no time for religion either:
Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass.
That's the real trouble with God: he may distract people from the New Labour project.

In a good book an underlying allegorical purpose adds richness if it does not get in the way of the story. In the first few books in the Narnia series Lewis largely achieve this. It would be quite possible for a child to enjoy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe without any knowledge of Christ's life.

In America, where Lewis has an extraordinarily inflated reputation as a theologian and philosopher, many hope to use the new film of this book to bring people to the faith. As Toynbee argues, this is unlikely to happen in Britain where church-going has suffered a deep decline. If the film means more children have some familiarity with the rudiments of the Christian faith, that will not be such a bad thing.

The trouble comes when the underlying purpose of the book overwhelms the surface story. This happens later in the Narnia series, so much so that the last book - The Last Battle - is unreadable and morally very dubious if you do struggle through it. Characters are banished to eternal darkness for minor faults and, in Susan's case, simply for growing up.

But then this is always a danger with children's literature. T.H. White, who was an incomparably better writer than Lewis, decided towards the end of The Once and Future King that the message of the Arthurian story was the necessity of pacifism. He therefore returned to The Sword in the Stone (the first book in the sequence, which was certainly intended for children even if later ones are more adult) and rewrote sections of it, worsening it in the process.

Ironically, you can find the same fault in Lewis's greatest contemporary disparager - Philip Pullman. I enjoyed the first two books of His Dark Materials in part because of their ambiguity. Even at the end of the second book one was not clear which side was good and which was evil.

The third book had no such quality. There was far too much didactic writing to show us the wonders of evolution by natural selection, and when we get to the establishment of the Republic of Heaven the book feels like something out of the Soviet era.

I was reminded of the Marxist A.L. Morton's The English Utopia. This survey of the poor of England's vision of a better world through the centuries, published in 1952, ends with a paen of praise to Comrade Stalin and him dams, which are making the deserts bloom and building paradise on Earth.

So take your children to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Even go to see it yourself. But if anyone manages to make a film of The Last Battle while keeping true to the original book. I'll be amazed.

1 comment:

lifelongreader said...

Some interesting points there Jonathon. I am reading The Subtle Knife at the minute, so I will bear in mind what you say as I read it now.