Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reading Between the Narnian Lines: Spewing Vile, or Finding Hope?

A few days ago, while looking for Narnia News, I found a blog post on TalkingPointsMemo.com about an anthology of short stories written by Neil Gaiman, comic book author, fantasy novelist, and the head script writer for the movie Beowulf. The blogger, know as "Doc Nebula," apparently enjoyed all but one story, saying it was "unconscionably vile."
If you love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA even a tiny little bit, even the merest fraction of how much I love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, then you mustn't read this story, because if you do, you will want to find Neil Gaiman and trap him in an aquarium slowly filling with overused motor oil while hitting him over the head again and again and again with a large hammer. Or, better, a small hammer; one just large enough to hurt quite a lot without actually knocking him unconscious or killing him. That way he stays alive in constant pain until the distilled petroleum product slowly fills his lungs and he drowns horribly with much the same smell in his nostrils and taste in his throat as dinosaurs floundering down into tar pits did... I have never really understood, on an emotional level, the concept of 'blasphemy' until I read this story, and now, I can also understand the Spanish Inquisition, and not the one with the comfy chair, either.

Wow. Tell us what you really think, Doc.

Well, I was convinced. I needed to read this short story to see if it was really that bad. It seemed providential that NarniaWeb had just posted the second part of Devin Brown's Keynote Address from this year's annual Inklings Society Conference. This part of “Are the Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?” is titled "Susan—No Longer a Friend of Narnia," and Gaiman's short story is "The Problem with Susan."

Actually, the story isn't badly written. But the worn-out fallacies about God relishing our suffering and death, and the bestiality in the dream sequences, are certainly not endearing. I do not condone Doc Nebula's proposed punishment, but I do understand the sentiment.

Why is it that so much vile has been spewed against this part of The Chronicles of Narnia? I can understand it when it comes from those who despise Lewis and his Christianity. But this was from someone who spoke as the Guest of Honor at the Mythopoetic Society's Mythcon in 2004 and claims to love the Chronicles. The problem seems to be an assumption about Lewis's views of sexuality and growing up—presumed views that certainly do not come out of the text.

Susan's absence from Narnia in The Last Battle is not because she has grown up and developed the natural interests of girls her age. It is because of the sins of vanity and unbelief. She talks of Narnia as a child's fairy-tale, and is only interested in superficial things. Whether this vanity and unbelief will become enduring traits is yet to be determined. She has not been permanently excluded from Heaven; she has not yet died. As Brown puts it in his address:
At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy asks Aslan, “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?” he promises, “I shall be telling you all the time” (247). From this we may conclude that after the last chapter of The Last Battle, Aslan will continue to tell Susan and the other characters still in England the way they can reach his country.

What is not clear is whether she will listen. But Aslan is speaking even through the accident. One thing that Gaiman touches on in the short story is that Susan would have had to identify the bodies of her siblings and parents. This is a part of life, and certainly Lewis did not gloat over it—he does not even mention it. Aslan is certainly not gloating over Susan's loss.

Death is real, and needs to be faced. In our society where someone besides family members prepare bodies for burial, we have learned to avoid death's reality all too well. Most of us have nothing to do even with the death or butchering of our own food. We understand little of what it means for another living thing to give its life for us to live. In those rare times when the reality of death does pierce through society-erected barriers, it is God's gift to us to help us think about what is truly important. The bitterness toward God that the retired professor (who is, or represents, Susan) expresses in the story is unjustified. God is not gloating over Susan's pain, but is seeking to reach her.

A little over a year ago, I suggested that a little "spark" between Susan and Caspian might be a good thing. After all, "the problem with Susan" is not that she is attracted to boys—that is a natural part of life.
Adamson has said that one of the prevailing themes in the movie is “the passage into adulthood.” Part of growing up is learning to relate to the opposite sex. It has been reported that in the movie, Caspian and Susan flirt with each other. The reaction by fans of the book seems to be overwhelmingly negative to these reports. “This can’t be; it doesn’t line up with what happens in the other books.” I happen to disagree. Although there is no hint of flirting in the book, I think this might be a good thing. Let me try to explain.

As I’ve indicated before, Lewis does not provide much detail, so it seems appropriate to “read between the lines.” I think this is a good read. Here is an exiled prince (at the height of puberty) with no human companionship except the four Pevensies. Among them is an attractive girl about his age who is obviously cultured and refined. It only seems natural to me that there would be some kind of “spark” between them. ...

We do know that Susan is left behind in this world in The Last Battle, but we do not know her final fate. She has put her social life (lipstick and nylons and invitations) above her belief in Narnia, but what effect will the death of her siblings have on her? Will she be restored much as Narnia is restored in Prince Caspian? I suspect we will still be left hanging when the movie series is completed—unless they decide to read between the lines…

Unlike so many of the detractors, I prefer to find hope between the lines.

"The Problem with Susan" was first published in 2004 in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy (ROC, an imprint of The New American Library, Penguin Books). It is also in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman (2006 William Morrow).

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