I walk around with a map in my head. Or at least I try to. I have driven in Tokyo, Manhattan, Vancouver, Kobe, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, and–most terrifying of all–Wales. There were times in the wilds of Japan or BC that I got a bit mentally confused, twisting up and down mountainsides and valley on the way to some shrine or hipster organic food colony. And I once took a wrong turn walking through London. But generally, I have inherited from my father a pretty good sense of mental geography, and not just a little luck.
Honestly, though, a lot of that good navigation is preparation and good map-reading. Making wrong turns, even with an internal compass, is tiresome and wasteful. Plus, the National Institute of Made-up Statistics (NIMS) says that 31.3% of fights in the car begin with this sentence: “I’m not lost! I just haven’t figured out where I am yet!” So a lot of that map-in-my-head instinct is frankly a commitment to having the right tools at hand. The hunches and risks of an internally compassed guide are usually working hand-in-hand with a map or a pretty good app.
My wife does not share my sense of direction. She has become a pretty good map reader over the years, and we are an excellent team during a road trip. But after a decade in our south-facing home with the sun rising to the east and setting on the west, leaving beautiful golden warmth in our front porch, if I say “the north side of the house” she still hesitates. I don’t think she is terribly unusual among urbanites of our age. I am the one is out of step by saying things like “the north side of the house” when front and back would do just fine.
And in an age of apps that walk us from the unknown wilds to our cozy destination in a few easy steps, what good is the map inside my head, really?
For King Edmund the Just of Narnia, though, this compass-deficit is a boundary-line between girls and boys in all worlds. Prince Caspian is a book of wanderings, a wilderness echo of the biblical book of Numbers, where the choice to ignore the directions of Lucy will lead the heroes into a longer, more dangerous journey. Before the Pevensies and Trumpkin the Dwarf find their way to Lucy’s point of view, however, Edmund drops one of the more petulant sexist moments in the series:
“That’s the worst of girls,” said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. “They never carry a map in their heads” (Prince Caspian, ch. 2).
The irony of Edmund criticizing Lucy for her sense of direction is one of the critical foundations of an entire book that is about leadership. Peter and Susan refuse to submit to Lucy’s leadership, and they find themselves lost in a way that could be–perhaps is–fatal for some faithful Old Narnians. The entire book critiques Edmund’s sexism on precisely this point, and Alicia Burrus notes that “Jill’s marked competence” in The Last Battle–Jill Pole goes on to become a strong marksman and an excellent scout–is a kind of rebuke to Edmund’s tiresome beliefs about boys and girls (“Gender Differentiation and Gender Hierarchy in C.S. Lewis,” 30).
As Monika Hilder notes in The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Edmund is not the only character that goes to easy “girl” stereotypes to limit Lucy’s leadership. Susan calls Lucy the “worst,” “naughty,” and someone who has “no right” to lead the group. Hilder is right in noting that one of the challenges of Prince Caspian is for the characters to recognize the wisdom of Lucy’s leadership. Instead, they are looking around hard for classical, masculine models of leadership–the brawny, woodsy kind of leadership where people know the points of the compass even if they can’t spot the ultimate Guide: Aslan.
It is intriguing that when Lewis slides into the text with his own voice, he is not as confident as the boys in his books. “It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of the compass,” Eustace Scrubb says to Jill Pole when she can’t point him east. While Lewis says that Jill doesn’t have a compass in her head, he admits that “I don’t know about girls in general” (Silver Chair, ch. 1-2). He probably didn’t know, and perhaps still doesn’t.
Plus, for all Edmund is dismissive of girls for getting turned around in a woods, before he ascended to the throne at Cair Paravel, he had his own difficulty with directions. Beyond the fact that the entire first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is about the moral compass that people carry around in their heads, Edmund had a wee bit of trouble about simple directions. After following Lucy into her “make-believe” country inside the wardrobe:
He jumped in and shut the door, forgetting what a very foolish thing this is to do. Then he began feeling about for Lucy in the dark. He had expected to find her in a few seconds and was very surprised when he did not. He decided to open the door again and let in some light. But he could not find the door either. He didn’t like this at all and began groping wildly in every direction; he even shouted out, “Lucy! Lu! Where are you? (ch. 3).
He couldn’t find the door? How big is a wardrobe, if it really is a wardrobe? No bigger than a cart horse or a young elephant. Edmund mocked the girls for getting confused in untamed wilderness while he got lost in a 4’x8′ wardrobe.
Perhaps that bit of irony is a wee bit too easy. And we don’t even have to wait for the deeper resonances of the book as a whole to punch back against Edmund’s childhood chauvinism. He makes his complaint about “the worst of girls” living in mental maplessness, and Lucy shoots back without missing a beat:
“That’s because our heads have something inside them,” said Lucy (Prince Caspian, ch. 2).
It’s a zinger, and Edmund deserved it. But Lucy’s answer is really a kind of reverse sexism, isn’t it? It occurs once more, as the adventurers are on the edge of a brawl on Goldwater Island (later Deathwater Island). As Kings Edmund and Caspian–really good friends in unenchanted places–are near to blows, Lucy cries out:
“Oh, stop it, both of you,” said Lucy. “That’s the worst of doing anything with boys. You’re all such swaggering, bullying idiots – oooh! -” Her voice died away into a gasp. And everyone else saw what she had seen (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, ch. 8).
Just as Lucy falls precisely into Edmund’s trap of talking about the “worst” of the other sex, Aslan appears on the hillside, silencing them of their petty words.
When we think about sex and gender, there are really troubling things in Narnia. There are individual bits, like Father Christmas‘ weird statement about women at war or all those fat-legged girls and piggish boys in Prince Caspian. Some of those moments require close rereading, though. I think Susan’s exit in The Last Battle is inelegant and false to the series, and Lewis’ symbols of lipstick and parties is a tiresome trope. However, I think there is more going on. And a closer reading of Mrs. Beaver will put accusations of “fussiness” in another light.
While there are some things to be concerned about when reading Narnia to kids today, two things are worth noting.
First, there is a lot of interesting upside-downness in Narnia that really challenges how we understand power. The leadership thing and Lucy, for example, shows how quickly we are to value traits we think of as manly (like map reading and swords) and how easily we ignore traits we think of as womanly (like healing and spiritual vision). The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book where Lucy shows steady wisdom and judgment, even when other characters lose their ability to lead. This maturity, and the humble growth in characters like Eustace, Edmund, Jill, and Digory, is critical to the way that Lewis changes the rules of the game in Narnia.
Narnia is a place where tears, friendship, curiosity, hope, obedience, and humble courage are prime values and key tools for success. Frankly, we think some things are sexist or problematic because we have bought sexist and problematic ideas about power and leadership with us into Narnia.
Second, I wish that Lewis was even more transformed in Narnia by his own upsidedown spirituality. After showing great leadership and wisdom in Prince Caspian–and taking great risks–Lucy is not invited into the council of the king. She is not valueless in the revolution, but as a result the entire council misses the wisdom she can offer–wisdom only Lucy can offer, the wisdom of a girl, a woman, a queen, and someone with particularly acute spiritual perspective. It is the wisdom of an especially Aslanic tang, but Caspian’s court will miss that wisdom in a moment of great need. More than once in Dawn Treader that wisdom saved them or enriched their experience.
The roles in Narnia often fall along gender lines. I don’t know why this would be surprising for a male author in the early 50s who never had sisters or a mother, whose primary companions were his brother and fellow dons, and who worked in an almost entirely masculine environment.
I am not condemning, nor am I defending. Instead, I am suggesting that if Lewis could see the transformative vision of his own upsidedown spirituality enough to let it infiltrate all of Narnian leadership, so much would have been gained–both for the children in Narnia and the boys and girls reading the books then and today.
Unfortunately, the mental map Lewis had of gender and sex roles was more powerful than his own curiosity and spiritual perspective that liked to play with those roles in unexpected–and often prophetic–ways. It is a loss in a fine series. Because, after all, boys and girls–readers, writers, and adventurers of all kinds–walk around with all kinds of things in their heads.