Sunday, February 3, 2008

Will the Real Misogynist Please Stand Up?

C. S. Lewis has frequently been criticized for his supposed prejudices. I have always had a hard time understanding this. Even while he was alive, Lewis was accused of being a misogynist--of having a prejudice against or hatred of women. Kathryn Lindskoog, who wrote several books about Lewis, had been told in the 1950's (by Dr. Clyde Kilby, no less) that Lewis was a woman-hater. Her meeting with him on July 20, 1956, while she was taking a summer graduate course at the University of London, showed otherwise. Unlike his portrayal in the 1994 movie Shadowlands, Lewis was not a "shy, socially inept man." He had a a fabulous sense of humor (He has been called the personification of "jovial."), and Lindskoog describes him as "the kindest man I have ever met."

Some have criticized Lewis's attitude of women in warfare. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy are told to stay out of the battle because, as Father Christmas says, "battles are ugly when women fight." However, in The Last Battle, Jill Pole does play a major role in the fighting. In fact, the women (or girls) in The Chronicles are strong, important characters, not just window dressing. In A Horse and His Boy, Aravis runs away from her home country to escape an arranged marriage. Susan is praised when she rejects her betrothed after she finds out what he is really like. In The Last Battle, Susan is (indirectly) criticized, not for acting like a woman, but for her vanity (which men can be just as guilty of).

The women in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials are also strong, important characters, but they also tend to be a bit stereotypical. The witches in the trilogy seduce men, but would rather really live apart from them. There are no male witches. There seems to be a parallel between the White Witch in The Chronicles, who uses her charms to bewitch (or try to bewitch) young men to her side.

Lyra is portrayed as a strong, independent woman in The Golden Compass, but there is a subtle change in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The leadership role is very much transferred from Lyra to Will. Lyra sees him as someone she can depend on when the Aletheometer tells her that he is a murderer. At this point Lyra sounds like a subject for Dr. Laura's 10 Stupid Mistakes Women Make to Mess Up Their Lives. I can just hear it: "Bad boys and the women who love them--next time on Montell Williams." To be fair to Will, he has killed in self-defense without intending to, but the Aletheometer does not make that distinction. Lyra is not setting an example here that I would want my daughter or granddaughter to follow.

Perhaps Pullman is trying to contrast Lyra with Mary Malone, a main character in The Amber Spyglass. Mary's name (M-alone), as well as the title to Chapter 7 ("Mary, Alone"), imply an independent spirit. Here is the ultimate strong woman of science who goes off by herself to save the world. Pullman often uses aloneness as a theme. Lyra and Will, although they have each other, at a critical point realize they have no one else to help them. They are like Frodo and Sam--if the "quest" is to be done, they will have to do it. Of course, in both tales there are those behind the scenes working to assist their success, but for their task, they are on their own.

The difference in The Chronicles is that Aslan is there, even when he cannot be seen. Pullman's universe has "Dust" to tell them what to do, but after that they are on their own. In Pullman's universe, Hope is in man. For C. S. Lewis, the Hope is in Aslan--in the Son of the Emperor Over the Sea--the Son of God.

Some helpful links:

2005 Article at on criticism of C. S. Lewis be for the release of the first Narnia movie; see also the comments, especially #53

Kathryn Lindskoog article about meeting C. S. Lewis

Review of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis

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