Wednesday, May 19, 2021

CS Lewis and Sexism - First Pass

I wrote Sexism in Narnia years ago, and frankly, I still like it, including the comments and links to other sites and followup posts. I I will draw from that here. But enough time has passed, enough new scholarship has emerged, and enough thinking in the back of my mind has occurred that I thought I would have a go at it. 

The short version is that most of the the accusations are ludicrous, so clearly connected to the complainants' own personal issues as to be embarrassing.  However, I think a couple of them are worth serious consideration, and hope that even those entirely unsympathetic to my point of view are not entirely unsatisfied.

I was given in April and have read in May Women and CS Lewis, from 2015. It is mostly but not entirely essays by Lewis defenders. Little was new to me, which was disappointing.  But it is nice to have things set out in rows, giving some assurance that I have not overlooked anything major. After all the obeisances to the modern gods (suspiciously like many pagan versions) have been made it is nice to tot them up and feel relief that I haven't missed any. By the way, I believe that obedience was the one great infuriating rankle for women 1950-2000, but now that they can choose political rather than personal masters it's quite different. Freudians would suspect this was equally primitive and sexual, but fortunately for you, I am not a Freudian.

Nothing upsets his critics more than Susan, so we should start there. Devin Brown's essay here is similar to his book chapter. They seem unable to refrain from extremities such as "she is sent to Hell for liking lipstick and nylons..." As this can only mean they have missed one of the central lessons of Lewis in book after book - that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside and all who remain in Hell choose it - I can't think that a logical argument is going to persuade them. It is not in the text and Lewis even seems to take some care to put boundaries on what is being said and what is not. He is not being precise for cultural reasons but for theological ones, but he is being precise and they are blowing right past that.

So the sentiment is not in the text, yet it feels like it is in the text to more than a few readers. The next possibility is that it is entirely in their heads, with males having a creepy fascination of defending the rights of 16 y/o girls coming of age, and females with a similar defensiveness about same (I covered this in my 2007 post linked above) or a hypersensitivity to any criticism of females by males. I will just say again in firm tones: Women who read are extremely sensitive about girl-coming-of-age literature and take it personally.  Pullman just hates Christianity and hates himself for admiring Narnia, But JK Rowling is not really a peer has actually not written the height of genre fantasy novels, but hybrid novels that also follow the tropes of the British school stories (boarding school children going about the campus on forbidden adventures at night) and YA romance (it is unclear what boys and girls end up together but eventually A: It is all perfect in the end or B: There are surprising pairings at the end but these are really Much Better.) She has a ridiculous overuse of Magic compared to the sparing Tolkien and Lewis, but she is undeniably clever and even original, as she weaves archetypes and stock evocatives (owls, ancient tomes, undead soul-draining) better than anyone to date.  And as she has slammed down multiple long novels with all the cliches developed fully, no one is likely to try and top her at this point. She has killed the genre.

But back to the point, she is very prickly about girls coming of age.  Because that is secretly her real genre, underneath all the Quidditch. Look, my wife read me the scene of Fleur talking to Ginny Weasley after after Bill had been disfigured and it brought tears to my eyes. Rowling does this very, very well. But that's where her heart really is.

A third possibility is that it resides in both, because Lewis has heedlessly blundered into sensitive territory and he should know better, even if he was technically inoffensive.  He has lightly slapped a person with a sunburn. There is something to that. I don't know how one goes back through the series and reworks all the signals that Susan has given that she is more likely than all the others - not just the four Pevensies - to be shallow and betray Aslan, but if I were looking over Lewis's shoulder now I would be saying "Don't have a female character be the betrayer.  Just don't. Women will take umbrage and you just won't win."  These days the male character has to take the hit in children's fantasy, as happened to poor Prince Hans in Frozen.

Whether that should apply to children's literature 65 years ago strikes me as even more suspect. Still, it's not crazy.  Lewis did sense the development of "women's issues" long before they became popular, likely because the women he was friends with were academics of independent mind. So it may not have been a blunder, but a quiet intentionality. Joy Davidman was on the scene at that point and may have pushed him to hit that button hard, after all.  Many scenes from Till We have Faces "could only have been written by a fearless woman," as her son Douglas Gresham laughs, including Redival's pretended carelessness in lying back on the grass and lifting her legs in the air before her very proper tutor while doing lessons, or the scene between Orual and Bardia's wife. I sense Joy in Lewis's holding to the task of declaring Susan's silliness.  It was exactly the sort of thing that Davidman, and other serious feminists in the old sense regarded as a betrayal of true femaleness in service to a superficial girliness. Even in the 1950s, no man would dared to write those.  So too with Susan Pevensie.

I submit that if a female writer had put this in it would be applauded as a rejection oft a modern shallowness concerned with appearances. I am not engaging in a simple gotcha of modern sensibilities being hypocritical. It is different if a man writes it.  It just is. Yet I think the quick rejection by people who are clever but not demonstrably wise is... not nuanced.

I recently mentioned that we should rightly expect great authors to transcend their eras, but I have also watched as Lewis has been skewered for not perfectly aligning with the 1980s 1990s, I'm sorry, the 2000s...I mean the 2010s. Oops, 2020s. We are hard to please.

I thought this would be quick but I am barely begun.  I am going to enter "First Pass" into the title and hid publish.  There is still much to come, especially the very interesting consideration of Jane Studdock.


Grim said...

... but if I were looking over Lewis's shoulder now I would be saying "Don't have a female character be the betrayer. Just don't. Women will take umbrage and you just won't win." These days the male character has to take the hit...

Now there’s something an aspiring devil could work with.

james said...

I hadn't made the connection of those scenes with input from Joy.

Cranberry said...

The problem is that fiction must resemble reality to work as fiction.

To be convincing, characters in fiction must be able to make bad choices. They must be able to make unpopular choices. They must be able to make realistic choices.

I have a current problem with the prevailing patterns currently popular in publishing, in which, as you say, the villain can't be female, the heroes must be female, etc.

Something that irks me is the current fad in fantasy for "powerful" female characters, i.e., women who are itching for a physical fight. In real life, anyone who is that physically aggressive is not someone safe to know. A female who is likely to physically attack others is not likely to be anywhere near the norm.

It is not a coincidence that there's the sort of character known as a "Mary Sue." Mary Sues are usually female. It isn't an advance for women to require all female characters to be either plaster saints, suffering victims of male aggression, or assassins.

As for Susan, there are people (male and female) who want to rush to adulthood. They are quick to set aside the accoutrements of childhood. "Now that I am a man, I have put aside childish things." It isn't a punishment, but a choice. Many people in modern culture choose to remain children. That's their choice--it's not necessarily a healthy choice.

When I read _The Last Battle_, I found it sad that the characters died at a young age. To be spared death in a train wreck, because you have entered adulthood, is not a terrible fate.

Earl Wajenberg said...

Reminds me: Here is a Quora essay I wrote on "the Problem of Susan" a couple of years ago:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Earl - great essay. It may gratify you to note that you hit the same key points as the Lewis scholars.

james said...

The xkcd link he included is good.

Within the context of the Narnia stories, Susan and Peter are supposed to leave Narnia and Aslan behind, in order to "know me better there," as he said to Edmund and Lucy, and explained to Peter and Susan. They may convene "Friends of Narnia" but that's not supposed to be central anymore, except as it leads them to know Aslan better in our world. It turns out Aslan had other plans for them, but the default would have been for them to grow old and saintly in our world. That wouldn't be a Narnia story.

Within Lewis' story Susan doesn't follow through with the "know me better there." Her subsequent story might involve "become like little children" and remembering Narnia again, but only as a little step--her growth would be entirely in our world, and I don't see how one could write that and tie it into Narnia anymore. (even if Narnia was still available to visit) She has had a major jolt--all her immediate family are dead and she's an orphan (not yet an adult). That might spark some reconsideration of one's life, and result in some quality time remembering the past. Still, any changes would have to play out in our world.

It seems that if you want to tell Susan's story (coming of age and coming to repentance and coming to a new path) within a Narnia-esque story, you have to tell someone else's instead, and infer Susan's story from her situation and attitude when she appears. And since Narnia is no more, it has to be some different world, with different creatures. (I suppose you could let some Narnians visit/colonize other worlds too, but what would Aslan be like in that world? Probably it's better to use a clean slate.)

james said...

(Yes, I saw the story in which Aslan visits in a dream.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think we wrote over at your site of a possible adult Susan story as a school headmistress who has a student who finds a way in to another world. It is not immediately apparent that it is Susan. Perhaps three years ago? Does this sound familiar, or have I confused this with a conversation with other people?

james said...

Yes, that was

My beloved alpha-reader is about 1/4 through and complaining bitterly that I need to "prophesy to the bones"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I just reread all of that, with some pleasure. I had forgotten my own part in it, and also forgotten my wish that L'Engle had dared insert an adult Susan into one of her books ffor an encouraging cameo appearance.

Cranberry said...

"Not yet an adult."

James, looking at the Narnia wiki, it seems she's 21 at the time of The Last Battle. In 1949, though, she's an adult, just at the average age for first marriage for women at that time. Peter, at 22, is about 2 years younger than the average age of marriage for men at that time.

The age of perceived adulthood has been slipping upward in recent decades. It is jarring to me to hear, for example, a 30 year old man described as a "young man." Nope, he's a man in his prime.

It is a shame that we do not know what happened next for Susan.

Earl Wajenberg said...

I'm glad the Lewis scholars and I agree. Yes, it's gratifying.

I have a pet idea as to what happens to Susan later. After the terrible train wreck, while she's numb with shock and grief, someone will bring her the personal effects of her family. According to the book, this should include a box of green and yellow rings that Peter and Edmund dug up in the back yard of the London house that once belonged to Diggory's family. She would recognize them. They hum faintly. If she has any sense, she'll pick up a green one first, a yellow one second.

And she'll find herself in the Wood Between the Worlds. And years of denial will fall away, and I expect some serious weeping and calling out to Aslan, and then whatever happens, happens.