Monday, December 05, 2005

the chronicles of narnia: a bunch of arse.

Polly Toynbee's article in the Guardian about her hatred for of the Chronicles Of Narnia's 'toe-curling, cringe-making' Christian allegory struck a chord with me.

Before we start: cards on the table. My father is a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church, my mother an RE teacher. Both are, it's fair to say, more than a Little Bit Religious, and they sent me to a Convent school, and took me to church every Sunday until I was 18 and escaped to university.

Interesting statistic: that means I must have gone to church more than a thousand times before my eighteenth birthday. Since turning 18, I'd estimate I've gone about twenty times.

Anyway, it's probably pretty obvious to you (if you've been paying attention) why I don't like religion - I am militantly pro-gay rights, pro-choice and anti-being told what to think.

But, like many a child, I was not always such a contrarian on the subject. I took my first communion, I got confirmed (admittedly with a slightly-joke confirmation name, Agnes, which summed up the worst excesses of medieval religion's obsession with gore and virgins). My rebellion only really extended to occasionally refusing to say 'I do' when asked to say whether or not I rejected Satan at the Easter Service and eating the odd unconsecrated wafer left lying about. (Yeah, OK, it's hardly saying the Black Mass in my bedroom, but it felt naughty at the time...)

Actually, I think the thing I did which probably most scared my mother was claim to have had a dream vision of heaven aged about 9. As any Catholic will tell you, it doesn't do to get excited or enthusiastic about religious belief, that's best left to crazy evangelicals and other, more common, religions.

So, as you might expect, my parents were keen on improving literature, particularly that with a Christian bent - and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe duly arrived one Christmas. I read that in a day (a combination of fast reading and terminal boredom, I'd imagine) and I liked it. Might have even shed a tear or two when the stone table broke, and the little mice gnawed Aslan's ropes off.

Then I read the Magician's Nephew; liked that better - out with the fauns and the dangerous confectionery, in with different coloured magic rings, a scary Queen and the deplorable word - this was more like it.

But then, reading on over the next few months, I became more and more repulsed as my emerging egaliterianism blossomed. What happened if you weren't chosen to become a King or a Queen? That's surely much more likely, that you'll just be some pleb - and then you don't get to do anything interesting with your life, you just knock around as a bit part player. And why do you have to be blonde to be a princess? Had I been excluded from princess-dom by melanin?

Those were my first objections - now, I could give you so many more - and not just religious. For example, the blatant racism of the 'Calormen', obviously intended to be Arabs. But that's for another day... it's the religious bits that currently have my goat; and I doubt they'll let it go.

The Last Battle, the final book in the series, is a classic example of the apocalyptic hysterics that seem to affect religious writers. After some nasty business in which a talking ape convinces all the Narnians that the Anti-Christ, Tash, is the same as Good Ol' Aslan, everyone is summoned to walk through a mysterious door to test their faith (read: die).

Well, excuse me if I don't think that pointlessly snuffing it is a particularly admirable pursuit. Could they not have proved their goodness in another way? Joined a folk band? Volunteered at a local homeless shelter? That's the trouble with religious types, first whiff of trouble and they decide the best solution is to die. Honestly.

Anyway, here's the delicious: they all walk through the door and find themselves in Heaven (which manifests itself as the ability to run without getting tired. Yeah, great, eh? Tiredness or nay, endless jogging not my idea of a great afterlife). All apart from Susan. Oh Susan, silly, silly Susan. You see, she was only interested in "nylons, lipstick and invitations" and therefore did not go to Heaven and participate in the Great Celestial Fun Run.

I think it might have been a horrible coincidence that I read The Last Battle aged about 14 - about the time I too was developing a lively interest in, well, if not lipstick and nylons, then certainly invitations. And presented with the choice between hanging out with a bunch of goody two-shoes fitness obsessives for evermore, or going out on the razz and the ability to wear tights, I'm afraid I turned to the Dark Side.

So it cheered me to be reminded that one of my favourite authors, Philip Pullman, hates the Narnia Chronicles too, denouncing them as propaganda. Ironically, I came near to an epiphany last Christmas when reading the His Dark Materials trilogy - this, I thought, this is why I hate religion! All the exclusionism of "I'm going to Heaven and you're not", like God is some kind of nightclub bouncer, and if your name's not down, you're not coming in. And the endless need for hierarchy. And the total fear of human sexuality and its power.

So if you haven't read the Pullman books, imagine that I am jumping up and down inside your computer right now, begging you to read them. They are excellent - they even made reading Paradise Lost in the first place worthwhile (yes, that good).

19 Comments:

Blogger Paul B said...

Not-very-fascinating-and-fairly-well-known-fact: The stone table in the Narnia books is actually based directly on the stone table in the gardens of Merton College, Oxford, where Lewis and Tolkien both sat on long summer evenings talking about their weird fantasy worlds. In Elvish, presumably.

It'll be more famous in the future, I hope, for being the scene of the end of our Linguists' Schools Dinner, which saw two tutors and two pupils run across the lawns to avoid being sick in eyeshot of the rest of us. One of said pupils is now high up in the running of the House of Commons Select Committee. Go figure.

12/05/2005 9:20 pm  
Blogger The Grinch said...

Gah. All very good points, but I fail to see why that means I should hate Narnia. Fact is, they're bloody good books. You and Mr Pullman are falling into exactly the same trap as the pathetic, whining "christians" who boycott the Life of Brian. Great art, whether it is intended as propaganda or not, is still, first and foremost, great art. The murals in the Sistine Chapel lose none of their genius because they were painted to glorify Michaelangelo's conception of what God is - they're still bloody amazing. By the same token atheists should enjoy Narnia for being a bloody good story. Sorry to say, but I think the untrendy God-botherers have the moral high ground here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/3497702.stm. Witness Dr Rowan Williams calling for Philip Pullman to be taught in schools, followed by Pullman excoriating CS Lewis for daring to espouse a religious worldview. Who's most narrow-minded?

12/06/2005 12:12 am  
Blogger galatea said...

weeeeeeeeeeeeell (as a certain tutor might say), i just don't think that the narnia books are Great Art. They're overblown, under-plotted, obsessed with hierarchy, lazily written and as emotionally manipulative as the average Disney movie. (Look! Reepicheep's going over the edge! Cry, children, cry!)

So, yes, I am boycotting them. Boycotting is not of itself a bad thing - every single day I boycott the idea of jumping in front of a bus, say, or the principle of onyl eating food found in bins.

The difference between me and the rent-an-outrages who called for Life of Brian to be banned (ditto the Paedophile Brass Eye) is that I've actually read the Narnia books. All of them. So I feel am reasonably qualified to give my opinion on them (they're monkey balls) and suggest something better.

12/06/2005 11:13 am  
Blogger galatea said...

from today's daily mail:

"Already the squealing voices of our secular liberal elite are indignantly raised against such a monstrous intrusion into their cinemas..."

my god, i didn't realise they read this blog.

12/06/2005 12:06 pm  
Blogger leflange said...

No, but they do write it.

12/06/2005 1:28 pm  
Anonymous zeno said...

I've never read the C of N so I can't comment on them. I have read other works by Lewis that I have enjoyed immensely (when I was younger). I would agree that he isn't exactly "high art" but he is entertaining.

Personally I am not a huge fan of 5th column literature. Anything that "sublimates" a message, whether it be the Narnia books, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Ragged Trousered Philantropists, Atlas Shrugged, The Prophet or The Women's Room strikes me as being a tad dishonest.

It seems underhanded to pretend to be "telling a story" when the real motive is to proselytise. That being said, and if Barthes was right the author is more or less incidental, the work is a work in its own right and each "spectator" will have his own unique relationship with it.


My kids like Narnia... and Harry Potter... and LotR... and Dickens... and Spongebob.

Art is in the eye of the beholder.

12/06/2005 1:41 pm  
Anonymous zeno said...

... and by "sublimates", I don't actually mean sublimates, I mean "disguises"... well, it's close enough to what I mean.

12/06/2005 1:45 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

i see what you mean... in fact am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the goodness of the literature is in inverse proportion to its didacticism.

yes, george orwell is the exception. as possibly is alexander pope - although the subject of his verse is a bit incidental, i've always felt, it's all about the style of his hating, nothing to do with the hated.

perhaps it's about hiding the propaganda - the two authors above are fairly explicit about their aims being to convince you of their point of view. it's the authors who deploy a hidden indoctrinating subtext, which pre-supposes you to be too thick to engage with an actual debate, that i mind.

and leflange - was it you i collared recently and banged on to about how your job was just as unethical as mine? if not, i meant to. let's pretend that i did.

12/06/2005 2:19 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

and zeno - you're right. no one should diss spongebob squarepants.

12/06/2005 2:20 pm  
Blogger Paul B said...

Charles Dickens and Spongebob Squarepants is a slighly odd combination, however. Although I reckon Great Expectations would have been far superior if it had been set under the sea.

12/06/2005 3:11 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

actually, the witch-octopus from The Little Mermaid would make a great Miss Haversham.

12/06/2005 3:15 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

can't be bothered to make a new post, but i stumbled today across the worst website design EVER. It nearly made my eyes bleed.

Go (unless you have epilepsy): here.

12/06/2005 4:47 pm  
Anonymous random internet guy said...

I’m agnostic on His Dark Materials. Could not for the life of me work out why people thought preferring them to the Harry Potter books marked them out as a formidable intellect. I think they’re the literary equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon, good for a giggle when you’re feeling a bit adolescent, but utter tosh really. How come organized religion is fucking bullshit only dullards could believe in, but rivetingly glamorous aristocrats are our natural leaders.

By the way, great blog, hardly irritating at all and I usually agree with you.

12/06/2005 6:13 pm  
Blogger The Grinch said...

You're right, that's the very worst web design I've ever seen in my life. The first thing that amuses me is that it is for something claiming to be a University. The second thing is that it's in Nashville.

12/06/2005 7:40 pm  
Blogger Bourgeois Wife said...

I've nothing to contribute to the debate (loved Narnia books 20 years ago, can't remember a word of them), but I very much enjoyed your post.

12/06/2005 7:46 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

you'll also notice it claims to be the "Karate University".

as for the Pullman vs Potter debate, i'm blowing hot and cold like an arctic adventurer eating a curry. Love them both.

Although I like the fact that Pullman's Lyra's main ability is lying. And she's the heroine.

12/06/2005 8:31 pm  
Blogger leflange said...

Yeah, but she lies for play; not for malevolence.

12/07/2005 10:45 am  
Blogger Bourgeois Wife said...

But these are kids' books! You might as well sit on the Tube reading The Faraway Tree.

12/07/2005 11:24 am  
Anonymous Laura said...

What's wrong with sitting on the tube reading The Faraway Tree, I ask you?!

12/08/2005 10:15 am  

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