Last night, I began reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with my daughter. I wasn’t sure if she was ready. Our version doesn’t contain any pictures, unlike our previous chapter book, Matilda, and the dialogue is often painfully dated. I told my daughter to close her eyes as I read aloud and imagine the world in her mind. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, but eventually snuggled beneath the covers and pulled her unicorn sleep mask over her eyes.
“One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.”
― C.S. Lewis,
I love to revisit the childhood classics that have shaped my writing and my life. Over the years, I have returned to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia many times, enjoying the familiar, fantastical world of magic and adventure. But I wasn’t prepared for how different Narnia felt when I wandered through the wardrobe holding my daughter’s hand.
I first stumbled over Mr. Tumnus’ inquisition, “[S]hould I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?” I glanced at my own daughter, expecting questions, because I had forgotten how religious Lewis’ stories are. She didn’t stir, her sleep mask still firmly stuck over her gaze. I continued without comment, but I began to think about my own experiences with the series’ religious undertones. We aren’t raising our daughter in a religious household for many reasons, but I had Presbyterian pastors as parents. When reading Narnia as a child, Lewis’ dogma felt natural, normal, and somewhat boring compared to all the, well, magic. How could I focus on the allegory of Christ when actual fauns, giants, and dwarves were waging an epic battle to defeat the White Witch? All the magnificent, magical places the Pevensie children explored forced the lessons of religious morality into the background where they joined the echoes Sunday school lectures. I cared about the dragons, not the Christian doctrine, but I was used to tuning out sermons. My daughter isn’t. Should I be worried about the religious messages beyond the wardrobe?
Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia have come under fire in recent years for claims of religious indoctrination, sexism, and racism. There are absolutely merits to these claims; the 1950s were a different time, after all. Alison Lurie describes some of the problems with Narnia in her excellent article on the series stating, “In Narnia, girls almost always come second to boys. They have fewer adventures, and none, like Shasta (The Horse and His Boy) or Caspian (Prince Caspian) has a book named after her. There is no such thing as a good and strong supernatural female figure in Narnia: the principal representation of virtuous supernatural power is male, while the principal representation of evil power is the White Witch.” Philip Pullman, one of my favorite authors, is quoted as describing Lewis’ children’s epic as, “dodgy and unpleasant – dodgy in the dishonest rhetoric way – and unpleasant because they seem to embody a world view that takes for granted things like racism, misogyny and a profound cultural conservatism that is utterly unexamined.”
Does adventure in Narnia outweigh its outdated, religious lessons? In secular households, can Narnia still offer valuable messages on morality, growing up, and fighting the forces of evil without that extra dose of Protestant dogma? Sure, I can take Aslan’s proclamation that fighting is only for the boys with a well placed eye-roll. I can read Lewis’ most problematic novel of the series, The Horse and His Boy, and recognize the racist attitudes and stereotypical undertones that fill the novel’s descriptions of the “evil” Calormenes. And I can finish Lewis’ doomsday finale, The Last Battle, that trumpets how “Narnia heaven” exists only for those who reject “nylons and lipsticks” with a chuckle, knowing that Lewis’ own complicated relationships with women often bled into his writing.
But can my six-year-old daughter?
“Mom! Is that the White Witch? I bet it is. I bet she’s going to kidnap Edmund!”
We had finished Chapter 4. Sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed, sleep mask discarded on the floor, my daughter begged to know what was going to happen next. Were Peter and Susan finally going to believe Lucy? Did Edmund really meet the White Witch? What does Turkish Delight even taste like?
Generations later, Lewis’ magical storytelling is captivating my daughter, spinning dreams of snow-capped trees hiding a lamp-post that lights the way to adventure. I realized, watching my daughter get drawn into the magic of Narnia that, yes, Lewis’ epic adventure still has a place on our bookshelf. And I’m not alone. It absolutely has racist descriptions, a strong dose of Christian patriarchy, and some problematic, outdated ideas about gender, but that’s exactly how it should be. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia almost 70 years ago. Culture is supposed to change and grow. There’d be a bigger issue if it didn’t feel outdated.
And we can’t forget that Narnia is full of really great messages too: messages about honesty, bravery, kindness, and even acceptance. As Gregg Easterbrook writes in his article In Defense of C.S. Lewis, “Aslan tells Emeth that the specifics of religion do not matter: virtue is what’s important, and paradise awaits anyone of good will. This seems an up-to-date message—and a reason the Narnia books should stand exactly as they are.”
Narnia is still going to be a challenging read. The questions this book will inspire in my daughter – difficult questions about religion, faith, gender roles, racism, stereotypes, and the difference between right and wrong, good and evil – are important. But I think that’s the point. As Michael Boyce concludes in his article The Uncomfortable Racism of C.S. Lewis, “acknowledging something troubling does not mean we must abandon the things we love. Rather, we can accept them with humility, acknowledging that the author, just like us, might not have everything right either.”
“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
― C.S. Lewis,
Children ask the big questions long before we, their parents, are ready. What I love about Lewis’ work is how he chooses children, not adults, as the heroes of Narnia, and gives them the agency, ability, and tools to ask the hard questions and make the hard decisions. He doesn’t get everything right, and we won’t get everything right either. That doesn’t mean we stop writing, creating, teaching, or talking. These conversations need to continue, their messages changing as we change. I’m excited to explore Narnia’s “grown-up” themes with my daughter and talk with her about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
The best part? We get to have this adventure together in the world beyond the wardrobe.
-Elle Michael River