Classic Remarks: Is Susan’s fate in C.S. Lewis “The Last Battle” sexist?

Lewis’ message is that we should all look at Susan, see ourselves, and shuddering turn from folly to wisdom.

Susan Pevensie’s fate in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle has been criticized for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist or is Lewis trying to do or say something else?

[Obviously, there will be SPOILERS for the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, and by extension for some of the previous volumes.]

lewis-last-battleThe scene in question comes at the end of Chapter Twelve of Lewis’ Last Battle. Our heroes—Tirian the last King of Narnia, the Earth-children Jill and Eustace, and a few loyal friends—come unexpectedly face-to-face with the most legendary visitors to Narnia: Diggory and Polly, who witnessed Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the original Pevensie children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—minus the oldest sister, Susan. Aslan had told them all at the end of previous adventures that they would never again come into Narnia, for they had grown too old. The reason for their apparent return is revealed in later chapters, but at the moment they are merely glad to be back. But Tirian immediately has a question for High King Peter:

“If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly, “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that way. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

So what’s actually happening here? What’s the big deal about Susan being absent when her siblings are present? For one, the heroes are not actually in the Narnia they had known, but rather are in the perfect, Real Narnia that is but a province in Aslan’s country—that is, Heaven. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy have died in their (“our”) world and gone to Heaven, but Susan isn’t with them. Why not? Well, for one, she hasn’t died yet—the others died in a train crash, but Susan wasn’t with them. Dying on earth is usually a prerequisite for passing to the afterlife. For another, she wouldn’t have been with them anyway because she has wholly rejected Narnia and all it stands for. This is where some people start having issues. But first, let’s glean some information about Susan from the scene.

Observations about Susan’s choices from the scene in question

  1. susanpevensieShe denies her own character growth. Susan is a major player in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, not to mention having actually reigned as a Queen of Narnia for some ten years or so. She was known as the Gentle, an epithet not likely to be awarded to someone who is cold and disinterested in her subjects. Yet despite her old love of Narnia, and her years of caring dutifully for it, Susan now treats it all as a made-up game. It’s a very serious thing when someone denies the reality of their own history. In this case, Susan also rejects the lessons and character growth she had once obtained from those experiences.
  2. She talks down to her relatives who try earnestly to remind her of the truth. It’s not enough that she insists her own real history wasn’t real, she also insists that her brothers, sister, and cousin didn’t have the experiences they claim. She talks down to them about their “funny games.” Have you ever tried to remind someone of something very serious from your shared history, only to have them deny that it ever happened or make it out to be something silly and unimportant? It’s the mark of a person in self-denial.
  3. susan-pevensie-bbcShe seeks her sense of self-worth in superficial things. In Narnia she became a woman of power, beauty, and wisdom. She proved worthy of all of these, and was loved and praised by both her subjects and her equals. She knew how to love, to trust, and to not be superficial. But confined to England, she regresses and throws all that away. She distances herself from her family and from her former glory and wisdom. And once she denies that Aslan and Narnia exist, she must also deny what Aslan gave her: womanhood of the highest form. She threw it out, but still feels the ache in her soul, and she scrounges around trying to fill that hole with all the wrong things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nylons, lipstick, and invitations (to parties, one presumes), but nobody would say that it’s healthy to seek one’s sense of self-worth in those things. Susan has forgotten that there are more important things in life.

Now to the criticisms some have of Lewis’ handling of Susan here. Frankly, I’ve always been a bit shocked that such a controversy even exists. Even as a kid, the above observations were readily apparent to me, and clearly served as a warning to all readers, not just young women. But some critics think otherwise. It’s been suggested that Lewis is punishing Susan for being a strong woman seeking to enjoy her sexuality, who only rejects blind faith and is beginning to think for herself. Essays have been written attacking Lewis for this. Famous authors such as J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman have expressed this idea. Even thinking about the controversy makes me mad, because it all completely ignores the text. You can read the “offending” passage above for yourself. I explained what it means in context — please read the whole series for yourself and see if I’ve represented it fairly! I still have not heard a single argument to convince me that the character of Susan is somehow being unfairly or misogynistically treated by her author C.S. Lewis. There’s simply no evidence for the criticisms, which nearly always immediately leave textual analysis in favor of character assassination (of Lewis) and sometimes a political agenda. The criticisms seem to come out of wilful, even malicious, ignorance.

lucy-pecensie-2008
Queen Lucy the Valiant
Lewis a sexist? For mourning Susan’s loss of wisdom and strength that she once had? For showing her little sister as continuing in wisdom, her little sister who in Narnia has the epithet of “the Valiant”? Throughout the entire series, Lewis’ female characters are realistically human in every way that the males are. They are strong as often as the males, and weak as often. Wise as often, and foolish as often. They may not be portrayed as the same as males, but why should they? If men and women were quite the same we would not be having this discussion. But Lewis portrays men and women as God made them: as equal in value. As real people, not political agendas.

Remember that it’s not just her young relatives (and Jill) who criticize her choices, but also Polly, who by this time is an old woman full of years and wisdom. Old Polly deduces that Susan has lost her sense of proportion. She’s in danger of wasting her life, judging herself by society’s standards of beauty and popularity rather than the absolute standards of truth, honesty, and love.

How could Susan, in this state, return to Narnia? Even if she had died in the train crash with her siblings and parents, she could not be forced into a realm she denies completely. Aslan can’t claim her as a faithful servant if she rejects him as king.

susan-pevensie-anna-popplewell

This has always seemed a sage warning to me. Clearly it’s a warning for all people, not just young women. Any of us can forget what’s most important in life and seek our self-worth and meaning in unworthy things. Rather than nylons, lipstick, and social invitations, perhaps our weakness is for nice cars, or attractive romantic partners, or being thought cool. Or maybe we put too much importance in watching movies, playing games, or getting Internet fame. Or maybe we even place books, philosophy, and blogging higher than hard work, loving others, and serving God.

Lewis’ message is that we should all look at Susan, see ourselves, and shuddering turn from folly to wisdom. Unfortunately, I think some readers, male and female, have indeed seen themselves in her, but have reacted by angrily trying to defend their current lifestyles rather than trying to find and confront their own follies.

But there is hope for Susan, even as the Christian gospel gives hope to all humanity! Even by The Last Battle’s glorious end, all those from our world who are in Aslan’s Heaven are only those who have died in our world already. Susan has not yet died. And while she lives, there is hope for her to return to her first love: the spiritual truth and love of Aslan (Jesus). Consider how in one fell moment she has lost her entire family! A tragedy like this will force her to confront the deeper things in life she has been running from: sorrow, pain, love, and memory. The walls she has constructed to keep out her family and the greater truths of life may be broken down. If she lets herself be broken by this terrible loss, she may yet be remade into her better, stronger self.

There is hope that Susan might once again return to Narnia and her family, the Real and Heavenly versions, this time as a woman grown-up in truth, ready for an eternal reward! It is a hope available to all of us, men, women, and children, who yet live upon the earth.

Continuing with Classic Remarks, Question 6 asks “Which March sister from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is your favorite and why? Do you agree with the way their lives played out?” Once again I must bow out, as I’m not familiar enough with the story or the women of that famous book. One day I hope to rectify that oversight. But for now I will pass over to Question 7. Next on Classic Remarks, I will discuss:

Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Should we continue to stage it?

Merry Christmas from the World of Literature

King Arthur lay, at Camelot upon a Christmas-tide, with many a gallant lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. There they held rich revels with gay talk and jest; one while they would ride forth to joust and tourney, and again back to the court to make carols; for there was the feast holden fifteen days with all the mirth that men could devise, song and glee, glorious to hear, in the daytime, and dancing at night. Halls and chambers were crowded with noble guests, the bravest of knights and the loveliest of ladies, and Arthur himself was the comeliest king that ever held a court. For all this fair folk were in their youth, the fairest and most fortunate under heaven, and the king himself of such fame that it were hard now to name so valiant a hero.

~Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century), translated by Jessie L. Weston in 1898

THEN stood the realm in great jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been king. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should to London come by Christmas, upon pain of cursing; and for this cause, that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm. So the Archbishop, by the advice of Merlin, sent for all the lords and gentlemen of arms that they should come by Christmas even unto London. And many of them made them clean of their life, that their prayer might be the more acceptable unto God. So in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul’s or not the French book maketh no mention, all the estates were long or day in the church for to pray. And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus: — Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. Then the people marvelled, and told it to the Archbishop. “I command,” said the Archbishop, “that ye keep you within your church and pray unto God still, that no man touch the sword till the high mass be all done.” So when all masses were done all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword.

~ Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Chapter V

It was Christmas night and the proper things had been done. The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar’s head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and capons—but no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had  been plum pudding and snap-dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one’s fingers, and as much mead as anybody could drink. Sir Ector’s health had been drunk with “Best respects, Measter,” or “Best compliments of the Season, my lords and ladies, and many of them.” There had been mummers to play an exciting dramatic presentation of a story in which St. George and a Saracen and a funny Doctor did surprising things,[1] also carol-singers who rendered “Adeste Fideles” and “I Sing of a Maiden,” in high, clear tenor voices. After that, those children who had not been sick from their dinner played Hoodman Blind and other appropriate games, while the young men and maidens danced morris dances in the middle, the tables having been cleared away. The old folks sat round the walls holding glasses of mead in their hands and feeling thankful that they were past such capers, hoppings and skippings, while those children who had not been sick sat with them, and soon went to sleep, the small heads leaning against their shoulders. At the high table Sir Ector sat with his knightly guests, who had come for the morrow’s hunting, smiling and nodding and drinking burgundy or sherries sack or malmsey wine.

~ T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Chapter XV, 129.

“Come on!” cried Mr. Beaver, who was almost dancing with delight. “Come and see! This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is already crumbling.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Beaver?” panted Peter as they all scrambled up the steep bank of the valley together.

“Didn’t I tell you,” answered Mr.  Beaver, “that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!”

And then they were all at the top and did see.

It was a sledge, and it was a reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you se people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 106-107.

And of course, the original:

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

~ Luke 2: 1-20, NASB.
A most glorious and Merry Christmas to you all!


[1] What a fantastic episode of Doctor Who this would make!

Book Meme 2012 Week 3: Magnificent Villainy

Topic: Which literary villain is the best?

 Even acknowledging the great diversity of ways a villain can be a good character, and the difficulty of finding a paragon of one such Way that can be judged higher than those of other Ways, the shortlist for this topic was easy to compile. The reason is simple: the best villains embody something that we instinctively realize as something we are Against, and thus the most powerfully-written or conceptualized baddies will become reference points for other evils we encounter, both in literature and real life. They are Memorable.

But different kinds of villain are Memorable for different reasons. The Golden Bookwyrm lays out three main criteria: slimeballness, cunning, and malicious intent. For Jubilare and Terpsichore, the best villains are the ones that are preeminently effective; perhaps so much that even after their defeat they retain a nightmarish power to influence people and invade a readers’ dreams. For Thalia and EmilyKazakh, the villain may not even think of himself or herself as evil, and may even masquerade as a member of the “good guy” team. For Urania, the best villain must be uniquely integral to the story’s plot and atmosphere; if you replaced him with another personality, the story would be fundamentally altered.

All these are common and excellent factors for making a villain great, but I think the most important is the one Urania mentioned – it must be impossible to imagine the story without them!

That doesn’t narrow my shortlist at all, though. I initially thought of Emperor Brandin, from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, who is magnificently complex and terrifying, precisely because his evil does not prevent him from being wise and genuinely caring for his people. One of the scariest parts of the story is when our heroes realize that the conquered citizenry are beginning to love the brutal tyrant, and may not support a heroic rebellion, instead letting Brandin get away with a grievous psychological war crime. His charisma, both in the book and as it extends to the reader, is considerable. But he is not quite archetypal enough for this post.

Then I thought of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a review of which has been in the works for a few months now…*guilty cough*), whose literary greatness is proven by his continued popularity, but whose main weakness in this category is that he ends the story rather humiliated and ineffective, and wouldn’t stand much of a chance against any of the other villainous candidates. Not enough to stop him from being near the top of my list, but enough to give me an excuse for passing him over just now.

In fact, I nearly had to just copy Urania’s post, for when she chose Captain Hook, it seemed so blindingly obvious that for awhile I could contemplate no other choice. Dastardly villainous and always entertaining, Hook truly is an archetypal figure from children’s nightmares, who is perfectly suited to his story. After all, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?

Indeed, my final choice is one I consider to be Captain Hook’s equal in Magnificent Villainy. She haunts you and the protagonists long after her initial defeat, she can use subtle manipulation and brute force equally well, and she nearly wins by charisma alone. Yet what wins her this topic for me is how well she represents the nature and end of Sin.

She’s the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

What else can I say about the White Witch, the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia? She’ll wrap you in furs, serve you hot chocolate, and persuade you to betray your family to their deaths. She’ll nearly turn you to stone if you forget to call her “Your Majesty,” unless you have something she wants and don’t yet suspect her, whence she will abruptly act in a convincing manner both motherly and seductive – a disturbing combination when you realize it, but the danger is that many, like poor Edmund, don’t realize it until it’s too late. She even drove Father Christmas out of the world! Now that’s evil for you, folks.

Oh, and she also destroyed her entire homeworld by the uttering of a Deplorable Word, out of mere hatred for her sister. She would rather be queen of a murdered planet than live without power over others.

Her archetypal power comes from how well she embodies the nature of sin. Not only is it corrosive, hateful, and greedy, but it’s lonely, conniving, and desirous of appearing good. The White Witch looks attractive: her face is beautiful, her clothes stylish, her manner sometimes quite flattering and understanding. Her determination and strong charisma can be deceptively appealing even while you’re aware that she’s cold and cruel to her core. Yet one would be a fool to take her at her word, or to let themselves near her at all. She loves nothing, not even herself. She tries to salve her hatred with rebellion against everything good, against everything Aslan created. She wants to possess what she herself could not create.

Yet for all her rebellion and power, she is still bound by heavenly laws. She takes Aslan’s life in exchange for Edmund’s, but cannot prevent this from leading to Edmund’s salvation and Aslan’s resurrection. For all evil is but a cringing, pathetic thing in the light of the holy God. The White Witch, for however “cool” she seems when we read the books or watch the exciting movie adaptations, is really a desperate, dying, disgusting creature, incapable of anything good. She has lost from the beginning. It was written in the Deeper Magic by Emperor-Over-the-Sea Himself.

On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5

Unfortunately, this will be my last post in Lewis’ book, at least for the time being. Why? The book is due back to the library tomorrow and I’ve already renewed it twice. But weep not, my friends! For this is one of the more important chapters for understanding what people like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (hereafter grouped together as the Great Trio) meant when they spoke of myths and fairy stories.

You see, it’s so dreadfully hard to define the word myth, in its deepest sense. Obviously we are not using the word to mean merely “an untrue story,” as you hear the Mythbusters use it. We are using it closer to the cultural sense: the Greek myths, the Egyptian myths, the Scandinavian myths, the Chinese myths, and etcetera. And yet, not completely in this sense. The Great Trio tend to accord the kind of story called myth a reverence and awe which I do not see in many of the stories I read in my classics and ancient history courses. The story of Ares and Aphrodite getting caught, mid-coitus, in Hephaestus’ net and exposed to all the deities of Olympus seems more akin to a medieval fabliau than Eros’ wooing of Psyche.

And indeed, Lewis himself admits this disconnect:

If we go steadily through all the myths of any people we shall be appalled by much of what we read. Most of them…are to us meaningless and shocking; shocking not only by their cruelty and obscenity but by their apparent silliness—almost what seems insanity. Out of this rank of squalid undergrowth the great myths—Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, the Hesperides, Balder, Ragnarok, or Ilmarinen’s forging of the Sampo—rise like elms.

Those great myths—the ones we remember most strongly and poignantly—clearly have a different nature than their lesser cousins. They are retold in endless variations, they are alluded to in poetry and literature, they become reference points even in everyday speech, and they provide subjects for art all through the ages. The thing is, we can find similar kinds of stories that have been written even in recent times, by specific authors rather than anonymous cultural entities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for one, and A Christmas Carol for another. We might call these stories “mythic,” because they share a certain nature with the great myths.

But what is this nature after all? While acknowledging the difficulty and even subjectivity of myth, Lewis puts forward five characteristics all its types have in common:

  1. They are “extra-literary.” Meaning, their power lies in the plot or the central idea, and not in the particular words used to tell the story. Those who encounter the myth of Eros and Psyche separately from Apuleius, Robert Graves, Thomas Bulfinch, and C.S. Lewis will nonetheless have a shared mythical experience; the power the story works on them will be much the same from these various sources, so long as the plot is preserved. But those who encounter the same story through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet encounter only the same plot, not the same power, because the words of Shakespeare and the style of Baz Luhrman dominate the plot.
  2. They carry the weight of inevitability. Their power may be in their plot, but not in plot twists, suspense, or surprise…at least not in the conventional sense, where wondering how a story will turn out is most of the fun. But myths do not grow stale after you know the ending. They are meant to be contemplated, or meditated on. They are meant to work on you long afterwards. In fact, sometimes a myth is just an idea, not an actual plot at all. “The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story. The Hesperides, with their apple-tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Herakles to steal the apples.”
  3. We don’t relate much to the characters. Not in the way we do when reading a novel or a play, certainly. We do not go into their heads, nor feel their innermost emotions. They are less specific people, and more universal representatives for the human race. Oh, they may have personality traits – they need not be blank slates. “The story of Orpheus makes us sad; but we are sorry for all men rather than vividly sympathetic with him, as we are, say, with Chaucer’s Troilus.”
  4. Myth always has a supernatural or magical element.
  5. The mythic experience is always grave and serious in some way. It may be joyful or sorrowful, warm or cold, but it is never comic.
  6. And not only grave, but numinous. It is awe-inspiring and awful in the original sense. It feels weighty and important, both in general and to us personally, and no allegorical explanation of it will fully satisfy us (or should not). A true myth reminds us of the spiritual realm, which is larger than us.

Looking at this list, Lewis and I both notice the same thread running through it: he is describing myth based on its effect on us. The application of the label myth to any particular story must then have some element of subjectivity to it. Imagine the tip of an iceberg. We know there is a great something floating beneath the arctic waves, and but we are not concerned with it. We are concerned with the tip itself as an object worthy of contemplation. Likewise there is much that can be said about the psychology behind mythical stories, why they affect us and how they have developed, and those studies are fine. But they are irrelevant here. We are concerned with how people read, and specifically with how they experience stories. And a lover of a myth loves the myth no matter how he receives it, even if it is through a bad storyteller.

But wait! Didn’t Lewis earlier accuse unliterary readers of attending exclusively to the plot and ignoring the words by which the story is told? Yes. But the lover of myth uses this “procedure” where it is appropriate, and only because the very nature of myth provokes it. Of course, a myth can be told through superlative literature. Frequently they are. And,

…[the lover of myth] will then delight in that literary work for its own sake. But this literary delight will be distinct from his appreciation of the myth; just as our pictorial enjoyment of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is distinct from our reactions, whatever they may be, to the myth it celebrates.

But an element of subjectivity remains. And here comes one of Lewis’ most important warnings:

We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book.

Some books are more likely to produce excellent experiences than others, but two people may read the same book, and one enjoy it only as entertainment, while the other walks away deeply moved and forever changed.

Unliterary Readers: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Reading of the Unliterary

Each art is itself and not some other art.

Words mean things in a way that musical notes do not. So while the best appreciation of a symphony may be to attend to the intricacy of the notes themselves, even apart from the subjective meanings they suggest to the listeners, we cannot say the same of a book. We cannot just pass our eyes over the shapes of ink on a page and call that reading; we must attend to the meanings and connotations—both objective and subjective—of the words.

The first note of a symphony demands attention to nothing but itself. The first word of the Iliad directs our minds to anger; something we are acquainted with outside the poem and outside literature altogether.

Lewis makes an important side note about poetry at this point. The idea that “a poem should not mean but be” is ridiculous, he says, as I have always asserted. The words must mean if they are to have value. Lewis says this even applies to Nonsense poetry. The silly words of Lewis Carroll, in their context, suggest real creatures and noises and textures. Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” is not the same as “arose is arose is arose.”

Next, Lewis notes five primary characteristics he has observed in unliterary readers; that is, those who use books instead of receiving them.

  1. They read only for the Event, to find out “what happens next.” They only read narrative, and once read, they discard it. The worst are those who only care to read the news, desiring to read of events they think are real, but are not happening to anyone they know. (Note that Lewis is not criticizing the reading of narratives or the news – merely a certain attitude!)
  2. They have no literary ear. They are deaf to both the beauties and “cacophonies” of certain phrasings. This is especially horrible with academics, who are very well-read. “They will write of the relation between mechanisation and nationalisation’ without turning a hair” (29).
  3. More generally, “they are either quite unconscious of style, or even prefer books which we should think badly written” (29). The really good, unqiue writing demands too much of them. They prefer Flash Gordon to H.G. Wells. Or in modern terms, Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Eragon to The Lord of the Rings.
  4. They dislike much dialogue, preferring more pictures and action. Now, I think Lewis is too generalized with this point. It seems these days that the unliterary often prefer lots of dialogue—so long as it is bad, clichéd, and accompanied by wild action or slapstick comedy. Many good and great books favor prose over dialogue, just as many great films are also light on dialogue (and I’m not just thinking of silent films, though those are included). But his point still stands. The unliterary prefers not to think about what he is reading, and wants only to absorb and vegetate. Intelligent dialogue and prose make a claim on his energies that he is unwilling to grant.
  5. They demand swift-moving narrative” (30). Common condemnations of other works include “it’s too slow” or “it’s too complicated.” And I admit fully that I share Lewis’ disdain for such people. Their complaint is different from a considered critique that a book is too slowly paced or too boring in that it is an excuse to not really consider the book at all. They will resist enjoying a book solely because it doesn’t work hard enough (by their standards) to grip their wilted attention spans.

Point 3, about style, interests Lewis the most. It’s not that the unliterary reader enjoys bad writing because it is bad. He hardly even notices it. To be conscious of style means to take the words themselves seriously, but the unliterary reader cares only for the Event. Writing that really tries to describe specific things, people, and ideas demand more of his attention than he wants to give, but clichés absolve him of this obligation. He wants everything to be instantly and shallowly recognizable: “My blood ran cold” is the descriptor he prefers to fear over, say, a more complex observation by Dostoevsky, or even another metaphor that is still concise but so specific as to make the reader remember his own fears.

Unless we are fully attending both to sound and sense, unless we hold ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us, we shall not have these experiences. Unless you are really trying to look through the lens you cannot discover whether it is good or bad. We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

See, good writing knows when to use many words and when to use few words, but an unliterary reader cannot tell this difference. So he may read a detailed landscape by D. H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck and find them too much to handle, but then think that Thomas Malory was being stingy with words when he wrote: “he arrived afore a castle which was rich and fair and there was a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.” The unliterary reader wants a degree of sensationalism so he can pretend he is imagining without doing the actual mental work.

They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’. This is partly because their attention to the words they read is so insufficient. Everything has to be stressed, or ‘written up’, or it will barely be noticed. But still more, they want the hieroglyph—something that will release their stereotyped reactions to moonlight (moonlight, of course, as something in books, songs, and films; I believe that memories of the real world are very feebly operative while they read).

As a writer, I can say this is a particularly important, but difficult, point that Lewis is making. The temptation is so strong to write stereotyped descriptions and characters: the hills always verdant and rolling, the clouds fluffy and white, the mountains jagged and majestic. These adjective are true, but they are generic, and do not describe the uniqueness of a this hill, these clouds, or that mountain. But to achieve the better writing means to imagine better. To understand just what is important about the thing I am describing; why is it here, why am I putting it in this place of the story, how does it affect the other things in the story, and what memories and emotions are attached to it?

The Few and the Many: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 3

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.

 Chapter 3

How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music

By way of expanding the uses of his theory, and of providing more varied examples, Lewis begins noting how the “many” tend to approach visual arts and music in a way that prevents them from being really experienced.

His observation on art boils down to this: that most people like pictures and paintings primarily for the subject or scene rather than for the artistic expression. If the painting is of something they like – a pastoral scene, an energetic battle, an alluringly unclad woman, etc. – then they will like it better than a superior painting that is of a scene that does not inherently interest them – say, a still life, or a portrait like the Mona Lisa. So it is that Lewis himself, as a child, loved all the illustrations of Beatrix Potter because he loved anthropomorphised animals, but made no distinction between her good illustrations and her hasty, ill-drawn ones. Used this way, art is reduced to the value of a toy or a religious icon.

While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.

His observation on music is similar: the many invariably go to music which either provokes a social response (dancing, humming, clapping) by an infectious rhythm or melody, or which incites strong emotional responses and daydreams. Or all of these, of course. Lewis believes that nearly all of us start in the many with regards to music, and only begin to appreciate it with time and some musical education. We listen to most music just for the tune or rhythm, usually failing to notice and appreciate all the wonderful choices in arrangement and performance. And the more we focus on the images and emotions that a song conjures up for us, the less we notice the actual music itself.

As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can’t tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just ‘pipes’, all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic.

Now, as Lewis has warned before, these popular uses of pictures and music are not inherently bad or wrong. Keats looked at the black figures on a piece of ancient pottery and was inspired to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that was very good. “But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art” (18), if that was his only reaction to it. And to deny the “organic,” emotional responses to music would be not just foolish, but utterly insane!

To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have ‘the salt tear harped out of your eye’ is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The conoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling…But they don’t hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favourite lines of verse to ourselves. [emphasis mine]

I interject quickly to say that I don’t think Lewis is denying that musical people will ever hum and whistle a tune while listening to the song, but rather that they are always sure to take time to listen to songs with their full attention, in order to pick out all its notes and unique details. Their enjoyment becomes “impregnated with intelligence.” We could even say that it is informed enjoyment, and “far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear” (24).

With art and music, as with books, we should open ourselves fully to what the artist is doing with his particular art. We must try to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudices—not of all thought or opinions, certainly, but of our own demands for what we want the piece of art to be.

We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus…by emptying out or own [emotions and opinions regarding the mythological characters of these Roman deities]. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (19)

I studied classics at university, and I can tell you that I really don't like Mars or Venus, or their Greek counterparts Ares and Aphrodite. But this painting is beautiful.

But the good spectator–like the good reader–is not passive. He receives a work of art for what it is, in order to learn what its own terms are, so that he may see more accurately what it is. Once these terms are understood, he may decide that they are not worth his full employment.

So we draw a distinction between good and bad approaches to art. Good art can possibly be used for unworthy purposes, but it encourages a good, intelligent approach. On the other hand, “a bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.” Try gazing for a long period at a painting by da Vinci or Jacques Louis David; you will be drawn into it, marveling over little details, a line here, the colors there, the shape and composition of the whole. But try the same experiment with a poor painting or drawing, and you will find there is no real substance to concentrate on. You will likely even find that the more concentration you give it, the worse the picture appears, as all its artistic faults become apparent!

That is the heart of Lewis’ argument, and one of the most important passages in the book. Another easy example for us to consider is film. Most people go to the movies just so they can turn their brains off and have various emotions pricked and tickled while they watch attractive people doing things they find attractive. They actively resist movies that try to demand more of them as viewers, or that have elements that don’t conform to what they know they like. But if I had never sat down to watch Citizen Kane to humor my dad’s interest, I never would have discovered what a fantastically entertaining movie that is, in addition to it being a fantastically intelligent and insightful one. Had I never agreed, however reluctantly, as a kid, to watch a boring-sounding movie about a girl and some geese, I never would have experienced the beauty of Fly Away Home.

But back to books. I admit that I very rarely read a book that is not fantasy or history-related. Other books simply interest me less. I know my comfort zone (and pretend it’s some kind of expertise), “what I like.” And, ultimately, this is detrimental. Now, because I have known of this danger for years, I do try to mitigate its effects. Every so often I step aside to read a nonfiction book, maybe even one that has nothing to do with writing or history. And while I think all my literature classes from fifth grade through university could have used more great fantasy literature, I am also grateful that they forced me to read novels I never otherwise would have considered: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime & Punishment, even The Scarlet Letter. Even the books I disliked gave me experiences I could not have had otherwise, and thus played some role in enriching me.

I leave you now with a good piece of music to Listen to and consider in enjoyment.

Can you think of a painting or piece of music which, by paying long and considerable attention to it purely for its own sake, you were able to enjoy it more fully?

“False Characterizations”: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

False Characterizations

Having used the terms “the many” and “the few” to refer to the two broad groups of readers – those who use books for some purpose and those who receive each book for what it is – Lewis immediately points out the many false connotations the terms may have. We must not think of “the many” as the uneducated common man, the “rabble” whose perceived illiteracy some critics think “must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilization” (5). Rather, these people may have in other aspects of their life – moral, psychological, or pertaining to knowledge, adaptability, great skill, or wisdom – an excellence and care that they simply do not extend to literature. And the literary (Lewis begins to use the term again), “include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent” (6). To assume that any person who does not read a book in the best way is somehow inferior in other areas of their life is wholly wrong, and Lewis is right to condemn this prejudice.

In fact, many of the people we most expect to be authorities on literature may not be true bibliophiles – that is, lovers of books. Lewis expresses sympathy for professors who, to keep their jobs, must continually publish articles “which must say, or seem to say, something new about some literary work; or of overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep’. For such people reading often becomes mere work” (7). He tells an anecdote about a fellow colleague, a professor of literature, who, just after having given a tiring exam to his students, was annoyed that Lewis wanted to discuss one of the great poets who was a subject of the exam.

I must pause here to reflect on myself. Many of my classmates would be so sick of a certain book or author whom we’d had to study that they expressed shock or annoyance if I wanted to keep talking about it. It’s completely understandable, because literature courses tend to make reading books a chore and an obligation rather than a joy.

And to Lewis’ point about reviewers I can most certainly relate! It was amusing to read his remark, as I have had to take certain steps to guard myself against falling into this trap; that is, the trap of reading books primarily because I feel an obligation to review them for my blog. My goal with this blog is not to review every fantasy or sci-fi book I read or movie I watch. Sometimes I purposely don’t review a story, and for a variety of reasons: maybe I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it, maybe it’s too exhausting to think about, or, often, I’m happier just absorbing the experience of it without having to analyze it. About a week ago I watched (again) one of my favorite movies, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Each viewing is as wonderful as the last, excepting the peculiar magic that first viewings and first readings have. Yet I chose to savor the experience, let it work its own way with me, rather than immediately set down to dissect it. I love it so much that I’m sure I will review it eventually, but out of an overwhelming desire to share it, not out of obligation.

Lewis notes other reasons people read a lot yet are not literary in his sense of the word.

  1. There are, as above, those who are professional readers. Reading and analyzing books is their job, and they are in danger of viewing books merely as fodder for their essays and theories than as worthy objects in their own right.
  2. There are status seekers, who read only what is fashionable with a certain group in order to be accepted by them.
  3. There are the devotees of culture, who read in order to improve themselves. This is an interesting group, because such a person is, in a sense, trying to discover what treasures the books hold. However, he is still using the books for a purpose other than themselves. He is likely to stick only to the authors that he has been told are great, and “makes few experiments and has few favorites” (8). This man is not a fool, and he can get much good from reading the right books. But Lewis likens him to a man who plays sports only for the health benefits and not for any joy inherent in the act of playing.

There is nothing wrong with discussing books for one’s job, or with reading a book that is popular, or with seeking out books you think will do you good. Many of us do the latter all the time, and that can be fine and good. But if these are your main reasons for reading, if when you read a book you will only see these things you look for and nothing else, then you are missing something. In all these examples the reader is focused on himself rather than on the book.

One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and universities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.

For these reasons Lewis does not use the word serious to describe literary people. I’ve been tempted to use the word myself when describing An Experiment in Criticism to other people, but stopped myself for the same reasons Lewis has: the word has two meanings, and the one most commonly assumed is the last one we want.

It may mean, on the one hand, something like ‘grave’ or ‘solemn’; on the other, something more like ‘thoroughgoing, whole-hearted, energetic’…The serious man, far from being a serious student, may be a dabbler and a dilettante. The serious student may be as playful as Mercutio. A thing may be done seriously in the one sense and yet not in the other (11).

It is a terrible thing to approach all literature gravely and solemnly, yet any of us who remember English literature classes in school can relate to the examples he gives. Lewis remembers student essays which gave no indication of the comedy and joy in Jane Austen’s novels, or in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is one reason I majored in history instead of literature, even though stories have always been my chief love. I love reading and discussing the books assigned, but rarely did I enjoy writing essays where I was expected to analyze some theme or literary device. By studying history, I was able to read the literature and put it in the context of its time and culture, and to love it more for its own merits rather than for what it supposedly says about “the human condition.”

When I write my reviews, I do not ignore the themes and literary devices of the stories. But my goal is primarily to find out what the writer is saying, and to receive that as best I can. Some stories offer up their key themes as a gift to the reader and viewer. Other stories don’t, and for those I try not to force upon them themes that are not there.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ book. Though I have thought many of the same things many times before, it is helpful to have him clarify, offer examples, and occasionally challenge me. I fear that many of my past readings were unfair to the books, especially to those I read for school. How many authors have been wronged by my unreadiness to hear what they had to say? This is not to imply that every book I have disliked in the past was worthy of my attention. But, looking back, I think there were many that had much good that I did not see, because I was too wrapped up in my own preferences to listen to another mind, another heart, expressing itself.