Friday, February 25, 2011

Issues With Teaching “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

C.S. Lewis's book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a popular book for middle school reading classes as well as a beloved classic of fantasy literature. It has many qualities which make it a great books for young people: magic, talking animals, battle scenes, a frightening villain, and a plucky central character (Lucy). Yet it also has aspects which are either troubling for young readers to understand or may brush up against current cultural barriers. Here we will examine several of them and come up with some good ways of addressing the for young people.

The first problem with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it is a Christian allegory. If this book was only taught in Sunday school (which it frequently is) this would present little problem, but since it's also popular in public schools, it needs to be addressed differently. Christianity becomes present in the book in two ways: direct and symbolic, and each needs to be discussed in different ways.

The direct Christian references in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begin in chapter two when Lucy has her first startling encounter with the faun Mr. Tumnus. He says after his astonished realization that Lucy is a human, “But I've never seen a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve before. I am delighted.” Mr. Tumnus could have said, “I've never seen a boy or girl before,” but C.S. Lewis used the biblical language, a reference any alert student will notice.

In a school which is supposed to be secular, how do we address this purely religious reference? I believe the first step is to make sure your students have been introduced to C.S. Lewis's biography. That way they will already have an awareness of his religious transformation from a mostly secular person to a faithful member of the Church of England, a change sparked by Lewis's good friend, the writer J.R.R. Tolkien. This faith became vital to Lewis's, character, giving him inspiration to write several religious-themed books, including The Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy. Knowing this, students should already have an awareness of Lewis's religious background and not be surprised by the reference. I suggest that Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve should be taught as poetic references too, taking away emphasis from the purely religious reference.

This mention by Mr. Tumnus does beg an interesting question: does the story of the Bible also extend into Narnia? Narnia is clearly and explicitly “not earth”, so it's odd that an inhabitant of this magical country would be so aware of it. This becomes especially odd when you realize that Narnia is less of a magical land and more of a country on another world, In other countries humans are common and dominant, so much so that the magical animals are considered myth. (See Lewis's The Horse and His Boy for more details on this.)

In chapter 10, Peter, Susan, and Lucy, en route to Aslan's camp with the two beavers, encounter Father Christmas. While I believe Father Christmas's gifts represent a custom that is pretty uncontroversial, he says a couple of things which are troubling. One, a comment about war to Lucy, will be dealt with later, but he also says at the end of the encounter as he pulls away in his sled, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” A younger reader will most likely understand this as a reference to Aslan, but there are a couple of reasons why this is not true. Firstly, if Father Christmas was referring to Aslan, why didn't he just mention the lion's name? (Indeed, in the 2005 film, Father Christmas does proclaim, “Long live Aslan!”) This vagueness also is intended as a reference to Jesus Christ, although a vague one.

Father Christmas proclaiming Aslan as the “true King” is an association that becomes inescapable in chapters 14–15 of the book. Here Aslan exchanges himself for the traitor Edmund and allows himself to be killed on the Stone Table, an ancient sacrificial altar. After Aslan dies and is reborn, an alert reader will draw a parallel between Aslan's death and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The question is, does a teacher make his/her students aware of this? My choice would be to not. While I wouldn't avoid the comparison if an alert student picks it up, that is a point where I as a teacher would begin feeling uncomfortable. At the high school level this discussion might be appropriate not at the middle school level. A discussion of this nature might make some students uncomfortable, which would distract from the actual teaching. That doesn't mean that the subject should be hushed if brought up — that might have the same uncomfortable effect for a Christian student that a discussion of the crucifixion might have for a Jewish student — but the best choice might be to avoid that discussion in class. If a student truly wants to continue the dialog about the religious aspects of the book, a one-on-one discussion might be the best choice to serve the student's needs as well as the class's.

Another issue with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the small amount of sexism. Getting back to the conversation of Father Christmas with little Lucy, when Lucy says, “I think—I don't know— but I think I could be brave enough.” These are brave words coming from a girl about eight years old. Father Christmas's answer is, “That is not the point. But battles are ugly when women fight,” an odd statement considering he had just given Susan a bow and Lucy a dagger.

It could be argued, and probably successfully, that C.S. Lewis was operating out of the gender norms of the day. A good argument for this is that while Lucy, the central character of the book (as well as Prince Caspian), doesn't engage in any actual combat, she does seem to be present during during pretty much all important events in the book. C.S. Lewis himself may not have even cared much for combat; being a veteran and survivor of WW I, that's understandable. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has two climatic moments. One is the resurrection of Aslan, which I have already described, as well as his awakening of the stone statues in the White Witch's castle. The other is the final battle with the Witch's forces, which Peter leads and Edmund assists. The events with Aslan last almost three chapters while the battle itself is two paragraphs long.

Sexism perhaps is there with Lewis excluding the girls from the battle, but the battle itself is almost pro forma. We get no sense of strategy or drama. Indeed, by the time we actually join it, it's almost over. This is no battle of Minis Tirith; it's more like a brief skirmish. Let's also not forget that until Aslan, the girls, and the awakened creatures join the battle, Peter's forces are losing. Edmund himself, after a grand gesture of destroying the Witch's wand, lays dying, only to be saved by Lucy and her magic cordial.

By the next book, Prince Caspian (I refer to the order C.S. Lewis wrote the books, not the chronological order), Susan uses her bow more successfully, beating back two Telmarine soldiers to rescue the dwarf Trumpkin. While nobody is killed in this fight, Susan does make her mark as someone valuable in combat. Is this a relaxing of C.S. Lewis's own prejudice here? The text is unclear, but at least “Susan the Gentle” goes beyond spectator to participant.

The movies The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian do a fair amount of revisionism with this point. Father Christmas's line about girls fighting in wars is taken out completely (as well, the line “Long live the true King!” is replaced with “Long live Aslan!” a change C.S. Lewis would not have appreciated). Susan kills the Witch's unnamed dwarf at the end of the climactic battle with her bow, rescuing her injured brother Edmund. This is perhaps forgivable given the modern viewers. Yet by Prince Caspian, Susan is transformed into a Narnian Artemis, killing several Telmarine soldiers in a scene not in the book.

Now as a teacher, the issue of sexism is perhaps easier to deal with than the overt religious aspects of the novel. Clearly Lewis isn't that interested in combat, so while the overt statement of Father Christmas is sexist from a modern perspective, it doesn't seem like Lewis had any prejudice against women. As well, this could be a convenient jumping off point for a discussion on women in combat, from WW II (the time the book takes place) to now. Women played vital non-combat roles during WW II, which would be an interesting point of comparison to the roles Susan and Lucy play during the book. Sine this issue is still controversial within certain circles, women today can be in the army but bot in active combat roles, I would also recommend printing out any modern article on that debate as a point of discussion.

Further discussions can include women warriors from history and literature. For readers who are already familiar with the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, an interesting comparison can be made with Eowyn, the princess of Rohan. She too wishes to fight the enemy and ends up disguising her identity to do so. In a climatic moment when Theoden, the king of Rohan, fights the King of the Nazgul, Theoden is beaten down and wounded badly. Eowyn then faces this powerful evil lord, who taunts the disguised women with the taunt, “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!” While Eowyn is severely wounded in this clash, she and the hobbit Merry (also not a “man”) defeat the unstoppable Nazgul chieftain.

One wonders if Misters Tolkien and Lewis had had a lively debate on this subject!


The Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller


  1. I agree - don't think the Narnia series are appropriate for public school teaching - for the reasons you mention, and for the very racist way that the Calormenes are depicted.

  2. I think you're both idiots if you think this novel cannot be taught in a public school. Schools are meant to be secular, which does not mean that religious themes are ignored. Dummies...

  3. Yeah, I think that's stupid too, I mean any school can teach that.