Kat Coffin’s brief article last week on “The Problem of Susan” is the hottest post of 2019. “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” has been discussed in the blog comments and in various forums, sometimes with a certain degree of heat and not a little frustration (I’m pleased with the discussion on this blog, though a friend said I sounded abrupt … I didn’t feel abrupt!). The post has received comments from leading Lewis scholars through to Lewis fans, from long-time readers and first-time commenters.
I have entered that conversation in small ways, but I was mostly curious about how it played out. I am working on a theory of reading based on C.S. Lewis’ own approaches that is meant to challenge current trends while also responding to the way we think about texts and authority today. Based on the comments, my challenge of contemporary theory will interest some, but won’t go far enough in challenging what seems like a lot of silliness and not a little impertinence among those who teach and write about books today–particularly in activist, university, and church circles.
Since that theoretical bun is still in the oven, and because I am still eyeballs-deep in editing my current project, a “spiritual theology” of C.S. Lewis, I wanted to respond in a longish but breezy note, laying out what I think are some of the key questions about how we approach a problem like Susan . These questions, I think, also cover other problems in reading, such as:
- when Lewis introduces a Christian concept that readers find troubling or inviting (like questions of predestination, God and time, universalism, etc.);
- when he plays with gender ideas that we find offensive or odd in light of the current age (such as his distinctions between sex and gender, his SciFi play-time with what gender can mean, his confirmation and bending of hierarchy, the ways he upsets or confirms tiresome sex-defined roles, etc.); and
- when our culture is going to produce readers who simply cannot read the words of the past the same way (like Lewis’ rampant use of “gay” and “make love” in Narnia, or how an American reader simply cannot read “black man” or “black dwarf” and not bring in racial terms Lewis wouldn’t have had access to, or how the literary foundation of our education has changed and we no longer share the same stories behind the stories).
In my view, Lewis is a tremendously relevant writer because he gives us engaging stories, rooted so deeply in literary, classical, and biblical soil-beds that they have the potential to transform everything we see about life. I think Narnia is “radical” both in the old sense of rooted and the new sense of disturbing and revolutionary. Lewis, I believe, offers Christians who read his work a way out of their current cultural quagmire in a way that will deepen their faith and decrease the disrepute the Anglo-American church has brought upon itself in the world. But to see it we have to become better readers. These questions are tuned to this particular argument—the Problem of Susan—and to Narnia, but they can be adapted for any reading of a past writer.
This will be a different question in other discussions, but I am amazed that no one stops to ask what we even mean by terms like “sexist,” “misogynist,” “egalitarian,” “hierarchy,” “democracy,” “feminist” and the like. Does “misogynist” mean “woman-hater” as the term presumes, or are we using it differently? Do critics of Lewis mean that he actually hates women, or that his text invites hatred toward women? We need to define what we mean if we want to mean anything.
What was curious to me was how many people in online forums responded to Kat’s post by saying “Lewis was not a misogynist.” Intriguingly, Kat was offering a feminist defence of Lewis, so it means these folk have been primed for a fight about this term. The term is used as a weapon, at times, for silencing authors who no longer fit in our dominant understanding of morality. But other sides can weaponize words too. How often is the word “feminist” used for male-bashing, hardline, tunnel-visioned radical readings? That’s about as true of feminism as reducing “evangelical” to money-hoarding, gay-hating, sex-obsessed, prejudice-troving troglodytes.
And beyond all this, the term “sexism” is worth thinking about. I would have defined sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women” growing up, but the term has changed. We recognize anti-male or anti-boy sexism now, and we are much more in tune with the systematic sexism of our world—how the system seems bent against one sex or (more recently) the other. To say that Lewis is “sexist” under the old definition is not that surprising. He uses stereotyping frequently, and believed at times in certain gender roles. Future generations will say the same of us in ways that we can’t see now. It isn’t a very interesting term. But the emerging definition about ideology and worldview is worth talking about intelligently.
Good Lewis scholars work hard to integrate biography and public writings. When they do this well, they come up with different responses. Most male biographers don’t feel much need to bring up sexism or gender concerns, but women critics are really engaged in the question. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen argues that Lewis is a “man better than his theories,” who has theories about hierarchy and gender but treated women with equality and respect. Monika Hilder is pretty convincing in arguing that Lewis’ fiction is entirely about rethinking gender categories in a surprisingly subversive way that brings fresh air into the conversation.
There are not-great examples too. Kath Filmer is one of the most intelligent readers of Lewis I have read, but her method is terrible. She says that Lewis masks and mirrors his own fears and prejudices in his fiction. Intriguing idea. But she offers no biographical support to make her argument stand on evidence, and no other way to weigh her argument except her own assertion of the facts. On the opposite side, William Gray’s work shrinks Lewis across the decades, integrating biography and fiction to offer a psychological reading of a little boy looking for his lost mum. It’s a pretty weak result.
These imbalances in bio/writing integration show we need to be good, strong readers of Lewis. So if someone says, “passage A is clearly about X, Y, and Z,” we have ways of testing that claim outside of the reader’s own analysis.
This is a tough one. One of the most awkward passages in Mere Christianity—a classic now, and a book that has transformed thousands of lives—is his treatment of husband-wife roles in chapter 16. Lewis offers there a separation of legal (state) and religious (church) marriage that is certainly not a view held by all Christians in all times—Lewis’ definition of “mere Christianity.” What about his particularly reading of male headship in marriage? Is that the centre of the faith and the avoidance of side issues that Lewis desired for his project? And although he talks about “universal charity” in that chapter, he makes very non-universal statement, like his “foreign policy” role for men because women fight for their family against the world, but the “function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.” What local nonsense in a book meant to be a “ubique quod ab omnibus” teaching.
If Michael Ward is right about the medieval background to Narnia—and in that point he is on the mark—then we have to ask about how his restoration of specifically medieval hierarchy in Narnia and the SciFi books is meant to be universally Christian. Add to this his gender play in the Ransom Cycle and we have serious questions for Lewis about his “merely Christian” views of sex and gender.
In his most popular writings, Lewis is invested in this particular view of marriage with male as head and secretary of foreign policy, while women submit to their husbands and operate and the secretary for national defence. Lewis found hierarchy beautiful and worked that idea into his work. Some flavours in a recipe, though, are delicate: too much crème de menthe can ruin the whole batch. We are bound to ask about hierarchy, gender, and sex roles because Lewis talks about them everywhere.
But is there a change? In 1939-42 he can write,
“whether the male is, or is not, the superior sex, the masculine is certainly the superior gender” (A Preface to Paradise Lost).
He can talk in Mere Christianity about male headship in marriage, where equality cannot work. But by the time he is writing his memoir in 1960 about his relationship with a woman who loved and challenged him, he writes:
What was H.[Joy] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me (A Grief Observed).
So when we say, “Lewis believed X,” we need to make sure that is something that hasn’t grown, deepened, lessened, or otherwise changed in him. His ideas of forgiveness deepen, and he seems to have been adapting his understanding of science and faith as the decades moved on. Before we pronounce judgement, we need to be clear.
The Personal Heresy was a book Lewis co-wrote that argued that when we read, we cannot presume that we know the poet through the poetry. There are some limits to Lewis’ view. Virginia Woolf reminds us that the fact that we know so little of Shakespeare tells us a lot about Shakespeare. Yet, he must have been a funny person. He was well-read and bright, and must have bridged some degree of space between the aristocracy and the streets. Poems and novels are not complete masks of an author.
But neither are they always mirrors. Lewis reveals himself everywhere in his fiction, but should we read the smoking room, clubbable, academic sexism of Screwtape as Lewis’ own? Some have, and I think they completely misunderstand: Lewis uses sexism in The Screwtape Letters precisely to show the self-delusion of Screwtape. What about the gender roles in That Hideous Strength? or the complete reversal in Till We Have Faces? or the growth of characters in Narnia, so that Lucy moves from healer to warrior, and Jill becomes a brilliant scout? Are these Lewis’ own beliefs about restriction and liberation?
Maybe, but you better do some work to make sure you are misrepresenting the character’s point of view for the author’s.
I think this is a discussion we have to have in culture. Lately, the ALSC has decided to dig up the bones of Laura Ingalls Wilder and posthumously burn her as a heretic. Leaving behind this whitewashing of the catastrophic European and North American treatment of indigenous peoples, and forgetting the Personal Heresy for a moment, what do we do when we are reading aloud to a child and there is something terrible on the page? As parents and educators, we are always negotiating this. I read Morte Darthur and Huckleberry Finn aloud to Nicolas when he was young, and in each book I moved past a couple of moments because of violence or words that I don’t feel comfortable saying.
There is violence and racism that past cultures have found normal or problematic enough to talk about—sometimes working as prophetic correction of our own ideas. But words like “gay,” “make love,” “queer,” “black,” “dark,” “white,” “hysterical,” and dozens of others have changed in forms. We can bemoan the verbicidal nature of our age and the way that activists like conservative Christians or anti-racists or feminists or Marxists transform these words. But the fact of word evolution remains.
So an open question remains about how we as teachers, parents, literary critics, uncles, aunts, grandparents, good neighbours, social media engagers, and good-book givers deal with texts when words have moved on. I strongly suggest that Jill Pole did not have sex with a bunch of giants in The Silver Chair, but kids giggle when that bit is read. The “black dwarf” of Narnia refers to beards, but that term cannot be read today in the same way when almost all black dwarfs are evil or rebellious in Narnia.
To read well means, for those of us inviting others to read, to do something in preparing readers. What is that something?
There is sometimes pushback on my blog because I continually use methods of reading that make readers of the great tradition of Western literature uncomfortable. In particular, on the Problem of Susan, I invited a feminist critic to say of Susan what I could have said, but I wanted her critical point of view and her experience as a woman to speak to the piece. This use of reading theory frustrates some of my readers.
I won’t defend my use of critical tools here. But I want to acknowledge their critique with what I think to be a verdant question: What are authentic ways to read Narnia (or any particular text)? I think there are inauthentic ways, methods of reading that grind against the texture of the text-world. I don’t believe that every reading is valid—though Lewis argued that the reader’s response is critical to how we talk about these things.
So I think that when someone offers, say, an Eastern Orthodox reading of Narnia, or a feminist critique, or a consideration of political values, it is worthwhile for them to talk about why this reading resonates with the text.
On the Problem of Susan, there really are questions that are open. When he finished The Last Battle, Nicolas (now 14, and a good reader) asked at the dinner table, “Is Susan Pevensie in hell?” I quipped back, “What? Because she missed a train? Some train!” But that child reader has intimated—with many children—something jarring in the text. So I’m glad we can talk about this, and I hope critics of Lewis don’t see Kat’s post as a sheer, naïve defence. I think it is a good reading, and I would take it further on that line.
Why is this not an active question in culture and university? The presumption for Laura Ingalls Wilder is that if she said terrible things about native peoples, we just put her in a box and drop her off the wharf. L.M. Montgomery will be next: I can point out the passages but won’t. Virginia Woolf, the most important feminist of her generation, said terrible things about women in her fiction, has truly troubling passages about black and other colonial peoples, and didn’t like “feminism.” Is she the next light that should be extinguished by the smart folks of our day?
I’m not going to provide the full answer here for this point. I am very much engaged in a fight against racism and sexism. I teach about Canada’s (and the UK’s) terrible treatment of our aboriginal peoples here. Yes, it is bad in the US, but Canada’s policy to “kill the Indian to save the child” combined with Britain’s boarding school system to create childhood torture chambers for myriads of children. The church in Canada may never recover for what we have done, and I want us to recognize when authors of the past contribute to terrible, terrible things.
But I am very uncomfortable with how we are reading books from cultures that are not our own. How much abuse by colonialists, educators, anthropologists, activists, health workers, and missionaries has come about because we have treated people from other cultures as needing to be civilized—to be brought into the light of our own views? In reading people from other times and places, have we forgotten that hard-won lesson?
The current witch-hunt (and wizard-hunt) against distasteful authors of the past and in other places completely undercuts the liberal-progressive desire to transform our social space into a place of freedom and beauty. In this puritanical moment of social shame, it is a hypocrisy that might undercut our entire quest for justice and liberation.
So this question is essential to reading.
I don’t care at all for Laura Ingalls Wilder, or whether some people crucify Montgomery or stone Woolf in the streets. And if people want to read Narnia as a text of oppression, all the power to them. Or defend Lewis, believing that he should face no scrutiny or hard questions. Narnia has been joy for many millions and liberation for uncountable legions of readers young and old, and has created brilliant conversations of depth the world over. Whatever. Read away as you like.
But consider reading well, please. There really are bad feminist readings of Narnia, as there are bad Christian readings and hasty considerations of race, gender, and social formation in many of our great works. Attend to the text, use evidence to support your views, read in a diverse community that will say to you “here your vision is limited,” and communicate your findings well. There is the text, attend to it.
Some of Lewis’ own work is a distraction. I think the Susan treatment is both inelegant and inorganic to Narnia as a whole, breaking the “once a queen of Narnia, always a queen” principle in the text. But the magic of Narnia is much deeper than that moment. Likewise, his “foreign policy” approach to marriage has caused millions of Christians (and readers who tossed the book at this point) to miss what is his absolutely central perspective in Mere Christianity: “a thing will not really live unless it first dies.” That’s right there in the “Christian Marriage” chapter and would transform not only our own marriages, but our whole families, friendships, churches, neighbourhoods, and governments, if we could only see it.
I believe that Lewis invites a revolutionary perspective that challenges contemporary culture and offers a deep critique of Christians today. If we could only see it. My hope is that thinking about these eight questions will make us better readers so that we can see the vision Lewis has of what life is really about.