George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”: The Animated Movie with a Note by ChrisC

C.S. Lewis once observed that with

“every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion.”

It’s a somewhat cruel fate that’s familiar to anyone who likes old books, and the authors who made them.  If the process Lewis described is something close to a norm, then the fact that any piece of old literature is able not just to survive, but stay alive on some level of public awareness, however small, is something of a minor miracle in its own right.

Take the case of George Macdonald.  Neither the name nor face is familiar to pop-culture at large.  He doesn’t even turn up in a search of Google Trends on his own merits.  That’s a pretty good indicator that his reputation at the moment is less than a blip on the radar.  By all measurable standards of cultural awareness, Macdonald is the type author who should have been consigned to the same crack of oblivion described above.  That makes it something of an unaccountable paradox that hundreds of C.S. Lewis fans the world over should still carry something like a memory of the writer around with them.  The sole reason Macdonald still has for being around seems to stem largely from the efforts of Lewis, and maybe even Tolkien, to keep his name circulating as a kind underground phenomenon in Inkling fandom.

This whole state of awareness on the margins of pop-culture creates a strange situation.  If you try to introduce a thoroughgoing postmodernist individual to a work by someone like Macdonald, the result, from what I’ve observed is something very much like a form of culture shock.  It’s not just a question of having to wrap your mind around the language.  It’s more like what would happen if one human being began to perceive another standing right beside him as he were an alien from a whole other planet.  It’s a question of the way people think and how many gulfs can exist between Macdonald’s thought and what is considered the norm of our own day (at least until it’s not).

This was a lesson brought home when I made two discoveries.  The first was that there exists an actual mid-90s adaptation of Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.  The second and more surprising find was that some awareness of it existed at a semi-popular level.  It seems modern fandom was paying just enough attention to it for several requests for someone, anyone, to make a video review of it.  The review itself, made by a vlogger named Dominic Noble, can be seen below:

Before getting to my thoughts about the adaptation itself, I kind of want to pause and see if it’s possible to review the reviewer.  The reason for this is because of the way his own conclusions can tell a perceptive viewer a lot about not just the film, but also of the critics own views about art and what he thinks it means or should mean.  The reviewer himself seems to typify the ideal figure or model of a member of modern fan culture.  He likes the popular arts, especially those of the major franchises out there.  I’ve even watched other videos where it’s clear he’s a major Potterphile.  The real info to zero in on, however, is how he thinks about the art he likes, and why is that?  Again, his own artistic views seem to form a perfect model of all that is currently acceptable as the proper outlook for a contemporary fanboy (at least up till the point where these outlooks begins to shift, after that it’s anyone’s guess).

What’s notable about his views is the very nature of their critical aesthetic limits.  This becomes apparent when Macdonald’s own style of thought and writing comes into play.  As Lewis himself was at pains to make clear, Macdonald was, at its most basic, a mythopoeic writer.  That in itself means there is an entire structure of philosophic thought connected to the author’s literary practices.  It’s a fair enough bet that most readers of this site are fans of Lewis, Tolkien, and maybe even Macdonald to the point that we’re all able to go out of our way to try and learn what it was that made each of these authors tick, and where the stories came from.

There’s no denying it can be a rewarding experience. However, what becomes clear on a viewing of Noble’s reactions to both the Macdonald adaptation and its source material is that what we are witnessing is a critic with no grounding in Macdonald’s thought processes.

This is important, because without this essential background information in mind, Noble is unable to properly understand and engage with the material on the meaningful level Macdonald (and the rest of the Inklings, for that matter) had in mind.  I’d like to argue that what the footage above shows is something of a revelation.  We are seeing the limits and parameters of the ability of an audience member to grasp the content of the creative material that is placed before him.  His entire reactions are defined and demarcated by what he doesn’t know, as much as by what he does.  It is this lack of necessary information, what E.D. Hirsch Jr. referred to as cultural literacy, which acts as the main hindrance to his enjoyment of the story.

Macdonald once observed that a person cannot read whatever he wants into any given story, merely whatever he can.  The old author then went on to wonder if maybe this meant the other person’s reading was better than his.  At the risk of sounding disrespectful where no slight was intended, I think Dominic recording his own reactions is just the sort of response that helps us give an answer to a question Macdonald asked two whole centuries ago.  The answer seems to be that sometimes, more often than not, the lack of a necessary amount of cultural literacy does not in fact make someone a better reader.  Sometimes all it does is just serve to close off some of the valuable reading material from those who may, at least on occasion, need it the most.  What we are left with is the important question of how much literacy any given audience member needs in order to be able to understand any given work of art on its own level, the one in which it was meant to be contemplated and enjoyed.

As for the adaptation itself?  On the whole, I’ve got to call it perfectly harmless.  Is it possible to do this material on a Game of Thrones or LOTR style budget?  No doubt.  However I don’t see what that has to do with Macdonald’s story, or how much of a difference it makes.  The dramatic action or artistic gesture remains the same, no matter which angle you choose to view it from.

In that sense, I think the adapters did fine on their own.  They were able to keep all the major plot points, and thanks to this attention to the essential details, the story itself remains intact.  What changes there are seem minor enough to the point where I can’t imagine Macdonald objecting at all when, say, Irene is given a bigger role to play in the story’s main events than she had in the novel.

As for the animation itself, I’m going to commit a bit of blasphemy.  Image and their angles seem to be the major thing everybody is hung up on at the moment.  For some reason, this whole obsession is one that just never managed to catch in my imagination.  It’s really the words and their proper ordering that I always come away concerned about.  Looked at from this perspective, the animation itself is workman-like enough to get the job done, if that’s your thing, but it’s not that important.

The film adaptation is something I’m willing to give a more or less passing grade on.  It’s not the Citizen Kane of fantasy movies or anything.  However it does have this sort of old school retro charm to it that I sort of like.  It’s the kind of film I would have channel surfed across after coming home from school on a weekday afternoon, the type of special feature that gets sandwiched between Wheel of Fortune and a rerun of Cheers.  I just thought I’d turn this stuff over on account of it seemed like just the kind of material for this site.  With any luck, some readers will come away with a new favorite.

ChrisC is the proprietor of the Scriblerus Club blog site.  It’s a place where the past is dug up, with a different perspective on books and films.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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55 Responses to George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”: The Animated Movie with a Note by ChrisC

  1. Pingback: George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”: The Animated Movie with a Note by ChrisC | Aquila et Infans

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! I agree that cultural literacy is very important in understanding any artist work. I, myself, found this to be true in my recent reading of The Brothers Karamazov. I knew there was large swaths of it that I was missing simply because I didn’t understand the milieu out of which Doestevsky wrote. My edition had helpful footnotes which pointed to some of the other cultural ideas and writers that Doestevsky was addressing in his book, but I know that I could have had a deeper experience in reading the novel if I had a better grasp of all of that to start with.

    As for Macdonald himself, I will admit that I haven’t read much of him, and what I did read I struggled through. However that was many years ago so I would like to give him another shot. As it happens I just finished listening to a wonderful set of two podcasts about Macdonald found over at the Hutchmoot podcast which certainly inspired me to have another go at Macdonald. It’s wonderful to hear people who actually know and love an author speaking about him/her, it always gives me a prod to try that author’s works myself.

    Anyway, great post, thanks for making me think once again!

    PS here’s the link to that podcast if you are interested. There is part one and part two, I would highly recommend both of them.The link is for part one. The speakers narrow in on the theme of “hospitality” in Macdonald’s life and works, which is really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • L.A. Smith says:

      ARgh…sorry readers. I pressed “post” on that comment before I checked my spelling…Dostoyevsky is the proper spelling! OOPS. I knew what I had there was wrong but was just writing my ideas and meant to go back to correct it before I posted. Heh. So sorry!

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Lots of spellings out there – I just encountered another one in Arthur Ransome’s fascinating Autobiography!

        Liked by 1 person

        • ChrisC says:

          L.A. Smith,

          Thank you for the kind words. On the subject of Cultural Literacy, I really didn’t know anything about it myself until I was indirectly directed towards Hirsch’s book. Once I picked it up, it helped explain a lot of the ways a lot of how and why the fan community saw the stories they either enjoyed or hated the way they did, or had to. Before finding out about Hirsch, I was just left with questions about what made any given person off the street believe what they did about the art they consumed. Hirsch was a great help in figuring a lot of things out.

          I found out about Hirsch through reading another book by a student of C.S. Lewis’s. Hirsch’s name was brought up in a dedication contained in Alastair Fowler’s “Kinds of Literature”.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. salooper57 says:

    Interesting post. If anyone wants to understand what make Macdonald tick, I would suggest the “Unspoken Sermons” are essential (though difficult) reading. The themes one finds in the sermons one also finds in the fiction. Or, perhaps, it is the other way round.

    Thanks for the post.
    (Oh, by the way, there is a line about Macdonald saying something two centuries ago – must be a misprint.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’d agree (and extend it to his other two volumes of published sermons, The Miracles of Our Lord (1870) and The Hope of the Gospel (1892) ) – and I’m confident that one of ways a lot of those of us who have a sense of, and love for, his work, beyond the three ‘children’s novels’ and the fairytales, is thanks to Lewis’s MacDonald Anthology, where we did – and new readers can – encounter lively selections from those sermons, that stir us to read more.

      Since MacDonald’s first major work of fiction, Phantastes, appeared in 1858, “two whole centuries” is stretching it a bit, though ‘more than a century-and-a-half’ is merely accurate for anything quoted from it… (whew, how time is flying – I must have been reading him for more than 40 years, already! – and it’s only about four-and-a-half years till his bicentenary).


      • ChrisC says:

        D.L. Dodds, 57,

        My apologies for that faux pa. I’ve never had a head for numbers. My system of counting was to start from the 21st century and count backwards from there to the 19th. The fact that I still got it wrong is one of the many tell-tale signs of this limitation.

        Sorry about that.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, a happily-thriving current ‘medium’, the audiobook, allows (in my opinion) a superb opportunity to get acquainted with The Princess and the Goblin thanks to the unabridged version for LibriVox by the late Andy Minter:

    (For what it’s worth, the first result YouTube gives me when I search for

    The Princess and the Goblin audiobook

    is an upload of the complete recording of Andy Minter’s version at the channel “Audiobooks for SMART Kids”, with 13,190 ‘views’ in four-and-a-quarter years (and the second result is another upload of the first third of it, with 11,130 ‘views’ in seven years) – admittedly less than movie as linked above, with 3,203,433 views in five-and-a-half years… What all those numbers mean – my checking on ’em counts as a ‘view’ – and what those listeners and viewers who ‘went the distance’ variously made of the experience, are, of course, other questions.)


    • Wow, that’s kind of funny. I haven’t read the audiobooks for MacDonald except once in Lilith, which was weird. I listened to some of the Unspoken Sermons (mentioned by Shayne above).


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’m having fun re-listening, now – and rediscovering what fun Andy Minter had imaginatively supplying different dialectical accents for the different characters (Curdie sounds like a Scot)!


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Trying to find some more information about the Princess Irene opera for which Anne Ridler wrote the libretto (so far, without success), I have, however, stumbled upon a poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘The Princess and the Goblins’, retelling in her own distinctive way the story in three mini Dantesque cantos of 7 tercets and a final quatrain each! And a ballet choreographed by Twyla Tharp in 2017 for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet!

    IMBD tells me Jackanory dramatized four MacDonald stories, beginning with The Princess and The Goblin in 1971 – and reminds me that I’ve never gotten around to watching Shirley Temple’s 1961 version. Checking the cast of the animated one (which I do not recall seeing), I find Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, who had played Lewis and Joy in the original 1985 Shadowlands , playing the Princess’s King Papa and her Great Great Grandmother Irene, here!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I now see the Tharp ballet version premiered in Atlanta some five or so years earlier – with the interesting note “20 years in the making as described by Tharp”:

      Twenty years takes us back to around the time of the animated version’s release…

      By the way, I wonder how long The Princess and the Goblin has been in Puffins? – the earliest I found was 1964 as I worked my way through the first 150 of 794 results at WorldCat (where I also found Dent issues from 1949, 1965, and 1970, and Collins from 1956 and 1970). I was fascinated to see the Puffin edition “Introduced by Ursula Le Guin” in the illustrations above (I’d like to catch up with that intro, someday). The WorldCat also brought up her Words are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016), with ‘George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin’ among its diverse contents.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love books that are introduced by other authors. Le Guin is cool, and Lewis is used in Phantastes which was published after he died.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Yes! Reading this, I got trying to think what, if any, book of MacDonald’s was introduced by Chesterton (who wrote a lot of introductions for a lot of books!), and going searching, soon encountered this quotation from his introduction to Greville MacDonald’s biography of his parents, George MacDonald and His Wife (1924), “I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin” – !

          Here’s the whole thing:


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I ran into Sylvia Plath’s retelling transcribed online. Trying to follow it up, I found this interesting post by Peter K. Steinberg, who notes it was written on 19 February 1955 (when she was 22), and selected by her for inclusion in a “manuscript book” collection called Circus and Three Rings:

      This is the most information I’ve found in a quick search: sadly (though not surprisingly in so compact a post), there is no explicit detail about its textual (and publication? – since “not all of the poems are published”) history – but I have not followed the links in the bibliography to see what light they may shed.


  6. Sandicomm says:

    This movie absolutely terrified me when I was younger. Since the video came out in 1994, I was probably around 5 or 6 when I saw it. As the reviewer noted, it came with a very, very long infomercial about the calling card–which I didn’t understand the purpose of, because who lets their child go out by themselves in early 1990s New York City–but I was absolutely delighted with the Great Grandmother and her costume, and tried so hard for most of the movie to figure out of it was the same actor in the commercial and the film and how they got her costume to be so perfect. The scene where Irene gets separated from her nurse and a hand reaches out of the ground to grab her ankle absolutely terrified me, and I think we had to stop the movie for a day or two before I decided i was brave enough to watch it. When I found the book and its sequel in a bookstore as a teenager–by that point, I had read Lilith and his short stories, not sure if I had read his best book, At the Back of the North Wind, yet–I snatched them up but still broke out into cold sweats when I encountered parts that I vaguely remembered from the film. In truth, watching the review still gave me a small anxiety attack. I suppose the lesson of the film in the American dub was, in the words of the infomercial, to find a “kind stranger” to help you find a phone to call your parents or caretakers, but the idea of being separated from them was too scary for me to fathom. Now that I know more about MacDonald, the lesson would be to have faith to keep you safe from the devils in Hell.

    As for cultural literacy, I don’t think it’s necessary unless you are delving into a serious, academic critique of the work. I am Jewish and I absolutely fell in love with Narnia and the Space Trilogy as a child. I loved the atmosphere, the world, the talking animals, the adventures, and, of course Pauline Baynes’s illustrations. But when I read LWW, “always winter and never Christmas” meant not going to my grandparents’ house to see our family and friends and have a big dinner together (like so many assimilated Jews and other non-Christian immigrants, my family loves everything about Christmas except the Christ part). By the time Lewis is practically hitting his readers over the head in Dawn Treader with the whole, “Who on our world is represented as both a lion and a lamb” thing, I was like, “I dunno, the month of March?” When I found out that the books were all Christian allegories, I felt so betrayed. The books I loved very most in the world, that inspired me so much and gave me such an escape, were not for me. As an adult, I feel that the inaccessibility clouds my reading more. Lewis’s writing for adults assumes that all of his readers are lapsed Christians as he once was and only if they rediscover wonder, they will discover the very obvious, objective truth that Christ is real. His children’s books assume that the reader goes to Sunday school at least once a month and maybe with the help of Narnia they will want to go more, and never be in danger of losing their faith as he did.

    But for the audience that doesn’t have an Oxbridge education, can’t read Latin, barely knows the New Testament’s greatest hits, and appreciates Christ’s teachings but knows that his existence is not an objective truth for everyone? When reading Lewis, there are times when I wish I could hop in a time machine, shake him by the lapels and tell him that his “unassailable” logic, while immensely comforting to Christian readers, is based on a premise that is ultimately false to a good chunk of the planet. Until I read Lewis’s biographies, letters, etc. I could not read him with cultural literacy, and in many ways, I still don’t. But I can still be an active reader, I can still appreciate the morality; the actually universal truths of goodness, kindness, and nobility; the prose, the generosity of imagination.

    If we are afraid of understanding art without a full cultural understanding, then we would just abandon any art that was not made in our lifetimes or cultural milieu. All art has universal truths, and ultimately that is what we as scholars, critics, and even casual consumers appreciate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ChrisC says:


      Thanks for the interesting history on your relations with Lewis’s writings. Also, your memories of the movie above are pretty good, if I’m being honest. I agree with what you say about art having universal truths, however I almost want to interview a caveat.

      You say you were brought up Jewish. If that’s the case, then am I correct in assuming you learned a lot of the Torah growing up? If so, than I’d argue that is the exact kind of grounding in cultural literacy that I am talking about. While it is true that MacDonald’s religious thinking is not the same as yours, you both share one element in common. You were both raised in traditions shaped and molded by Judaism. Hence there is a bringing up in certain ways of thinking that similar, if not identical. Nonetheless, I’d it was a grounding in a form of literacy in which MacDonald wouldn’t have been as comprehensible without it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sandicomm says:

        Hi Chris!

        I was raised Jewish, but I wasn’t all and still am not all that observant. We’d go to temple for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the beginning and end of the Jewish New Year) and we’d celebrate Passover and Hannukah, which was nowhere near as important as Christmas. I think Christians have a term for people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter–Christmakers? That’s pretty much us. My great-grandparents were eager to assimilate, almost to the point of cultural erasure, so in the sense that I grew up in a predominantly Christian culture that often features angels, devils, heaven, and hell in cartoons and popular media, then yes I have some cultural literacy. In addition, the fact that I am white, middle class, and have an Ivy League-level education (I majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies thanks to Lewis and Co.), I also have cultural literacy in Lewis’s and MacDonalds’s worlds.

        There is a book I’ve been meaning to read, Re-Enchanted by Maria Sachiko Cecire, that details how Lewis and Tolkien’s ideas of teaching English literature (and Christianity) shaped modern fantasy literature. It also addresses how colonialism unwittingly permeated their work, and what it would take for fantasy literature to be accessible to those who have been left out for far too long. This interview about the book ( had a passage that really struck home to me: “There’re so many levels to enchantment in reading these texts. A lot of it has to do with sublime experiences, and this feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, but also being special within that framework. But often that specialness is a form of privilege, and that privilege comes at the expense of other people, and if you pause and think about it, it’s really uncomfortable really quickly—or if you don’t come from that background and you’re reading these kinds of texts, maybe you figure it out with a shock at a certain point, or you detect it early on and are not interested in these texts at all.”

        I can’t really fault the Inklings for being racist, classist, sexist, etc., etc. They were products of their time, and very few people can see beyond their cultural limitations, even if they are as brilliant and imaginative as our favorite Oxford dons. This idea of cultural privilege is the flip side of cultural literacy, particularly with Lewis’s writing, where he specifically crafted works for a “general audience” that entirely resembled him. To be sure, this is a great source of humanity, humor, and wisdom in his writing and it’s one of the many things I love about his prose, but reading his fiction can be an almost schizophrenic experience to me. I can read and enjoy the books, but there’s always a running commentary that whispers, “I don’t agree with this, this point is a huge leap in logic, how did I pass this sentence by when I was younger and just accept it?”

        My parents were older, and my mother fed us on a steady diet of E. Nesbit and other, Victorian-era children’s writers. It was only inevitable that my sister and I would discover and love Lewis and Tolkien. We were instinctively aware of such values as “character” and “individualism” that were foreign to my classmates whose parents were yuppies, and that made Narnia, Madeleine L’Engle’s books, Redwall, and other fantasy books very accessible. Everyone at school thought my sister and I were huge nerds, but Harry Potter, which is written in the same exact vein, was such a crossover hit that it became an exception.

        This Youtube reviewer, Dom, is probably a product of a similar secular and post-modern education as I am, the sort of education that Lewis would have absolutely detested according to That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man. He loves Harry Potter, which, like Narnia, also has vague Christian undertones. Has Dom noticed the Christian subtext in the books? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a superfan and dissecting the books and movies to death. Maybe his cultural literacy/competency of the Harry Potter franchise is higher than for The Princess and the Goblin because Harry Potter is a contemporary book with a contemporary mindset? I don’t think cultural literacy is all that essential to consuming a piece of art. Maybe it isn’t even necessary for critique–we all bring our unique identities and cultural competencies to any work that we read–unless one is claiming to be an expert.

        Annnywaaayyyyy apologies for writing a whole novel, your post just accidentally stumbled on something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

        –Sandi/ Ceci

        Liked by 1 person

        • Dear Sandi/Ceci, I love the novelesque response. Thanks so much. ChrisC is more qualified to talk about cultural literacy, but I have thought.
          I hear this from time to time, that people feel betrayed when they discover the Christian elements in Narnia. Not often, but enough to pay attention to. It surprises me. I mean, it’s not like a conspiracy, right? The books are obviously what they are.
          I grew up as a heathen lad with now suspicion, but as an adult convert to Christianity, I can reverse manufacture experiences too easily. So I’m not a good case. But I never felt betrayed when I discovered a secret environmental message in a text, or that there is hidden Mormon stuff in Twilight or Orson Scott Card’s work, or that Philip Pullman is writing an atheist tale to deconstruct Narnia, or that Le Guin’s Earthsea develops into a pretty strong feminist story (despite her attempts to suppress it), or the philosophies in the great dystopias by Orwell and Huxley (Lewis mimics this, but his That Hideous Strength is an important dystopia but not a great one), or the Greek tales or action movies for this sense of manliness that I loathe. So why be upset with Lewis, who is just sharing things that are important to him in ways that he liked?
          I have been thinking that Lewis engenders this feeling of betrayal because he 1) writes engaging, intimate, creative tales that draw us in; and 2) he has the symbolic content very near the surface of the story.
          But there must be more. That I’m trying to figure out.
          But my masters thesis was on Antisemitism, so I’m sensitive to your story. Jewish people have a special relation to the Christian message, so it is not benign. I can walk by a Hare Krishna at the airport or a street preacher with green hair and a megaphone or an Orange parade or a Shinto shrine and feel nothing in particular. But cult member children shudder at the Hare Krishna, liberal North Americans at the street preacher, older Catholics at the Orange Hall, and American war vets from internment camps at the Shinto shrine.
          So Jewish people, before the holocaust and especially after, will have an intimate response to Christian symbols, stories, and spaces.
          So I wonder to what degree being Jewish is part of that “betrayal.”
          These are statements, not questions, but I would love your response. I want to get to the heart of why Lewis, especially, is privileged in that feeling of betrayal.


          • Ceci says:

            Hi Brenton!

            I actually was thinking of pitching this discussion to you as a personal essay for your guest essayist series when I first found your blog.

            I can only speak for myself when I describe the “betrayal.” As I already said, my family really wasn’t that religious. In fact, my mom is now a Unitarian Universalist, and if you want to see an extended comedy routine, check out one of their Christmas services, where they bend over backward to try and explain why Christ is so significant but also no the Son of God. My dad claims that his only god is Ronald Reagan. My mother’s parents were atheists, my father’s parents were somewhat observant, but didn’t exactly go to temple after week and were perfectly happy to eat ham. In short, my family is not especially beholden to our Jewish identity, except for the stray Yiddish word.

            When I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had also started realizing that 1) Christianity was totally different from Judaism (the only Christians I knew were the 4 or 5 students in my grade and my babysitter) and 2) Christmas was not really our thing. While she was setting up a Passover seder, I asked my Nana why we celebrated both Passover and Christmas. She looked taken aback, then slowly said, “Well, we celebrate both because we believe Moses and Jesus were real people.” I guess that’s as good of a justification as any. Fortunately, no one in my family was in any way caught up in the Holocaust, as far as we know. My great grandparents and my grandfather, who was born in Ukraine, came to America during the pogroms or the Russian Revolution, and were at least spared the Nazis’ brand of anti-Semitism.

            I would say that reading Lewis made me a more spiritual person. I believed in God more than my twin sister did, I was more interested in religion. Somewhere in the cultural zeitgeist, I picked up that Christians hurt Jews and that made Christian things “bad.” I think that between the ages of 8-11, children start noticing and exploring their identities, and feel particular anxiety when they encounter things that don’t “belong” to them. This is the age when we start to see girls defining themselves in opposition to boys, and children from all genders start clinging to the stereotypes that have been assigned to them at birth. In my case, I grew up in a neighborhood that happened to be culturally Jewish (there are more Jews in New York City than in all of Israel). There were plenty of churches and I vaguely knew what they were, but I didn’t really understand what they were for, until I began to understand what Christianity was, which was basically everything Judaism was not. In 4th and 5th grade, I really had a crisis of faith. Was I a good Jew if I loved these overtly, obviously Christian books? There wasn’t any pressure from my family or my community, or culture in general, it was pressure that I put on myself.

            I think maybe the other reason the Christian undertones in Lewis’s fiction come as such a shock is because the Christianity is so integral to the narrative that it is inextricable. I don’t have the exact quotation at my finger tips, but I remember Lewis saying something about how he first wrote LWW to subconsciously incorporate all that he loved, and as a Christian, he made a Christian book. That’s fine, write what you know and all that. But it is impossible to remove the Easter story from LWW’s plot. On the other hand, you can ignore the Christian subtext in LOTR. Frodo’s martyrdom is a common enough theme in literature that it doesn’t read specifically Christian unless you know how important Catholocism was to Tolkien. In The Last Battle, you can’t enter the platonic, post-Judgment Day Narnia unless you believe in Aslan, and there is no getting around the fact that he (and Maleldil in the Space Trilogy) is the Son of the Emperor Over the Sea. Narnia and Calormen, which represent Christianity and Islam (or, at least, a very Orientalist vision of Middle Eastern culture that contains Islamic and polytheistic elements) are fully realized, but Archenland, which lies in between and whose bloodline springs from twins a la Jacob and Esau, is unimportant and unimagined. As I said in my last comment, the entire framework of Lewis’s logic, story building, and world building, rests on the unassailable truth that Christ is real and every talking animal, wood sprite, and hnau we encounter in his fiction knows this as a fact, while humans are portrayed as ignorant and need to discover this truth themselves. There is no room in Narnia, Malacandra, or Perelandra for nonbelievers, but there is room for Christians who want to become more devoted.

            As an adult reader, I’m more generally annoyed by Lewis’s casual anti-Semitism. Examples: Mark writing anti-Semitic propaganda in That Hideous Strength, which somehow doesn’t merit any mention of the Holocaust despite the fact the book is written and published between 1944-45, and a journalist friend of Warnie’s did tell the two Lewis brothers about the concentration camps in the early 40s, as per Warren’s diary; Lewis saying his cousin looked like a “Jewess” in Surprised by Joy, which was published in 19-freaking-55 and overseen by his formerly Jewish wife; or Lewis referring to one of his schools to a concentration camp. Like, high school sucked for me too but it wasn’t as bad as a literal death camp. A few years ago, I discovered his most political essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” which hysterically posits that Christians could someday succumb to the same type of genocide as Jews. I think it’s frustrating that someone who is otherwise so generous, so brilliant, so kindhearted has no problem appropriating Jewish pain. That is much more hurtful than knowing I can never go to Narnia.


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Here I go again, ‘partnering myself’ into a conversation – this time, to try to attend to some annoyance points in the last paragraph (and doing that all the way down below, as new comment, where the page is wider), though whether productive of consolation or consternation or…?


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            To stick a tangential oar in these deep waters, I wonder whether there is anything distinctive about the Narnia books, in this respect, among Lewis’s fiction? I’m not sure how many people I’ve encountered personally or in writing, who have felt betrayed or angry in some such respect where Aslan is concerned – but I wish I had kept track of who and why and asked about it further where that seemed interpersonally possible! I know there have been what seems like a fair number. (One was an atheist friend who finally got me reading Tolkien’s fiction!) But I cannot immediately think of any examples of people with similar responses to the Ransom cycle (not – at least for the moment – counting Christians who think Lewis is more broadly dodgy, hair-raising, occult, blasphemous, etc., in various of his fictional works). I think, for example, of Perelandra, chapter 5, with, first Tinidril saying “My spirit praises Maleldil” with its echo of St. Luke 1:46 echoing 1 Samuel 2:1, and, within a page, Ransom referring (as I take it) to St. John 11:35 when he says, of death, “Maleldil Himself wept when He saw it.” “Maleldil” masks and reveals analogously to “Aslan”, though here there is no distinguishing as between “Emperor” and “Aslan” (!). But I cannot recall similar dismay at “Maleldil”. Have I simply missed (or forgotten?!) encountering it? Or is there widespread ‘readerly’ difference? – but, if so, why?


            • Ceci says:

              I don’t know how many Narnia readers immediately go on to read the Space Trilogy. I read both series pretty closely together, so I think the mythology and the aesthetic had a very deep impression on me. The Christian themes didn’t come as much as a shock since they’re pretty much on the surface in P and THS.

              Maybe the other reason the undertones come as a shock to readers is because Lewis will chuck in elements from various mythologies, and the assertion that Christianity is the only faith that matters becomes incongruous?


              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Belated thanks for your substantial food for thought here, about distinctions between the Space Trilogy and Narnia, and above (15 May, 7:26 pm) about broader similarities in Lewis’s fiction, such as “the Christianity [being] so integral to the narrative that it is inextricable” and “the entire framework of Lewis’s logic, story building, and world building, rest[ing] on the unassailable truth that Christ is real and every talking animal, wood sprite, and hnau we encounter in his fiction knows this as a fact, while humans are portrayed as ignorant and need to discover this truth themselves”! And for the panache (if that’s no inaccurate word) of what Brenton calls your “novelesque response” in all your comments!


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Hmm… having now watched the “Lost in Adaptation” episode, I think I’ll have both to reread the book and watch the movie before I can fairly ‘Criticize the Critic’… I liked that Dominic Noble ended by recommending both the film to those who enjoyed the book and (I’d say, more importantly) vice versa. And it sounds like he has a god number of valid, perceptive criticisms of losses in adaptation – again, without his being merely dismissive. One cannot, to quote the linked MacDonald essay, apply “Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly” to his critiques. Crazily enough, I still have not caught up with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and so can only wonder how Dominic Noble’s enjoyment of his work may affect his approach to MacDonald. It’s interesting that the second-to-top comment (at the moment), by Redrally, takes him (in what seems a friendly tone) to task for a failure of historical understanding – or appreciation, to be concurred with and expanded upon by two replies, by bar1scorpio and Miriam Barattoni Equiclicker (q.v.). Yet he obviously has historical interest and background, exemplified by his remarks on “gentrification” (3:15-46). But there is a problem here, which, interestingly enough, seems critiqued in a work published a decade after The Princess and the Goblin, Also sprach Zarathustra: “‘Formerly all the world was insane,’—say the subtlest of them, and blink. They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their raillery” (First Part, Prologue, 5). ‘Our intellectuals’, as George Grant (who, with Eric Voegelin, has shaped my reading of Nietzsche) glossed them in the second half of the Twentieth century. Dominic Noble is not merely dismissive, yet there is what seems an insufficiently reflective or self-critical interpretative confidence vigorously at play.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ChrisC says:

      D.L. Dodds,

      Good points. My own concern is that, without the necessary level of literacy, all the good points listed my prove insufficient if what you term an insufficient level of critical self-awareness isn’t at play.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. dtrichards says:

    Thanks for the callout on George Macdonald, Brenton! As you can tell from my avatar, he’s a hero of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Aonghus Fallon says:

    ‘As Lewis himself was at pains to make clear, MacDonald was, at its most basic, a mythopoeic writer.  That in itself means there is an entire structure of philosophic thought connected to the author’s literary practices.’

    This is a valid argument, Chris – but you never really clarify how an understanding of MacDonald might inform somebody’s reading of ‘The Princess & the Goblin’, or (by extension) what exactly they miss out by not knowing anything about MacDonald.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ChrisC says:


      In saying that MacDonald was a mythopoeic writer, I meant that his work operates under roughly the same principles and literary practices as Tolkien and Lewis. Namely, there are a great deal of Christian themes and ideas that structure the way MacDonald told his stories. Granted, these are not ideas that everyone is convinced of. The trouble is this doesn’t seem to erase the issue that understanding MacDonald’s beliefs is a necessary part of being able to understand the full meaning of a work like “Princess and the Goblin”. In order to do that, then readers would perhaps have to turn to essays like “The Fantastic Imagination”, or the “Unspoken Sermons” in order to gain a clearer picture of MacDonald’s thought as it applies to fiction.

      The catch there is that even if the reader goes up to that level, they still left with the decision to either accept or reject the terms MacDonald lays out for his own literary works.


      • Chris, is your point about Christianity or about deeper resonances? For example, can Hayao Miyazaki in Japan be mythopoeic?


        • ChrisC says:

          Prof. Dickieson,

          Good question. Perhaps its a Big Question, at that. I can also see this being controversial in some ways. I would argue that, yes, sometimes it is possible for other artists to reflect mythopoeic themes and ideas here and there in their work, in the same manner of older poets like Virgil. For me, it goes back to the concept Lewis described in “Abolition of Man” as “The Tao”, the universal sentiments that transcend cultures and create a sense of shared humanity, regardless of any social or ethnic boundaries. In that sense, yes, Miyazaki can be considered mythopoeic.

          Looked at from that perspective, my point encompasses both Christianity and resonances. A good book on this subject is “The Hidden God” by Cleanth Brooks. He argues that eve writers like William Faulkner could, on occasion, refract those resonances in his written works.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I think that linked MacDonald essay ties in here nicely, too – and a remark of Lewis’s, replying to Sister Penelope in a letter of 20 February 1943, “we rearrange elements He has provided. […] And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings.”

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks David. And Chris, I didn’t know about that Cleanth Brooks book, so I appreciate the link. I suppose my Lewisian answer to my own question is that if the truly mythic is born out of the divine-human-creation interface, then mythopoeic work would appear in all kinds of contexts.


  10. Aonghus Fallon says:

    “But there must be more.”

    I guess the core problem with the LWW is that it starts out as one sort of book and ends up being something quite different? Most portal fantasies involve children being transported to some other world where they are regarded as heroes and end up saving the day, and that seems to be the story direction for the first half of the LWW. Except the children don’t really save the day – Aslan does. Susan and Lucy have no real role other than as passive witnesses to his crucifixion. Of the four, the person who has the most influence in terms of outcomes is Edmund, in his role as a latter-day Judas.

    So somebody growing up in a deeply religious household, somebody who’s lost their faith and who re-reads the book in adulthood, might feel that – with the benefit of hindsight – they were being indoctrinated. This is pure speculation on my part. I should add that I don’t think it was ever Lewis’s intention to indoctrinate anybody.


    • Ceci says:

      No, definitely not. If he was an evangelist, it was only to other Christians. Of course, he just assumed everyone was a Christian who wasn’t willing to admit it…

      Also, I’m a little confused about what it would mean to be a mythopoeic artist. Every artist has moral themes they want to express, and work with archetypes to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their preference or subconscious. Miyazaki definitely celebrates Japanese culture—after all, he nearly saw its distraction in WWII and the subsequent American occupation—but he isn’t exactly proselytizing Shintoism, or even a Japanese way of life to non-Japanese audiences.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        One place Lewis discusses his understanding of being a mythopoeic artist is (appropriately enough!) in the Preface to his MacDonald anthology (1946): “What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art – the art of myth-making – is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words [italicized] at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version – whose words [italicized] – are we thinking when we say this?’ This discussion strikes me as making the comparison between book and animated movie all the more appropriate, and I think some of the things Dominic Noble notes as losses in adaption might well be characterized as ‘mythopoeic deficiencies’ in the film compared with the book (even if we viewed them as ‘versions’ in comparison more than as ‘source’ and ‘adaptation’, and with little focus on the differences in ‘mythopoeic medium’).

        Interestingly, the earliest reference I can find in a couple Greek dictionaries to any such word is to ‘mythopoios’ as used by Plato in The Republic (377B, in Book II, which the 1883 Liddell & Scott gloss “making mythic legends”). Paul Shorey translates the passage “‘Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?’ ‘By no manner of means will we allow it.'” Lewis, by contrast, seems to be attending to “stories fashioned” and “the art of myth-making” in some sort of ‘neutral’ sense in the passage quoted, with no attention to didactic purpose or moral, intellectual, or spiritual dangers comparable to Plato’s, though both Plato and Lewis seem to assume some (so to put it) ‘great affective power’ in ‘myth’.

        (In my relistening to The Princess and the Goblin – through chapter 27 at the moment – I am finding much to enjoy in the words, the play with registers of style, the reflections on words, not least ‘princess’ and ‘ king’, though I suppose I could reflectively distinguish this from the ‘action’, the ‘telling’ from the ‘story fashioned’.)


        • Ceci says:

          So in what way is mythopoeic writing different from engaging in Jungian archetypes (sometimes I admittedly know very little about). I only ask because Brenton asked if Miyazaki was a mythopoeic writer/animator. I would say no because his stories are very idiosyncratic and are generally inspired by Japanese folklore as opposed to directly referencing them.

          I also wonder if it’s even possible to be a mythopoeic writer in the age of copyright protection. I know Lewis always encouraged his young readers to write Narnia fanfic, but if anyone tried to publish it professionally the Lewis Estate and Disney would have a lot to say about it!

          Maybe the closest thing to mythopoeic art that we see in pop culture today is Star Wars. George Lucas basically took Hero With a Thousand Faces (more Jungian archetypes!) and split it into three movies, but arguably any of the Star Wars movies, books, etc. he wasn’t directly involved in are the best the series has to offer.

          Going back to Noble’s review, I suspect that he missed the book’s mythopoeic qualities because McDonald intended his audience, Victorian children who were forced to go to church every day, would subconsciously link the underground-dwelling goblins to devils, and Irene’s faith in her great-grandmother to religious faith. The film version is pretty much a literal adaptation, but probably missed the explicitly religious undertones. Then there’s the third barrier that the film was probably translated from Hungarian to English, so who knows if the film’s mythopoeic qualities, if any, were actually lost in translation.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I haven’t read much Jung (yet?), either – or much Joseph Campbell (though I did hear him, interestingly and excitingly, though variously unconvincingly, lecture on Dante, in person). And I have a sense that there is a lot more Twentieth-/Twenty-first-century thought and scholarship about myth and mthopoeia that I haven’t tried, though I have enjoyed reading a fair bit of Eric Voegelin on the subject (including all of Order and History). Voegelin sees Plato’s own mythopoeia (such as the myth of the cave in The Republic) as complementary to his dialectics (and vice versa). So, I would say Jung and Campbell have developed approaches to thinking about mythopoeia, but I’m not convinced that their ‘archetypology’ (so to call it) is ‘the’ explanation of what’s going on in either what would seem ‘folk myth-making’ or deliberate authorial ‘myth-making’.

            MacDonald was one of those (like – and, I think, with – Mark Twain) working on developing good international copyright provisions in the Nineteenth century, but, indeed – what a business it is today! I’m not sure how circumspect and aspiring ‘mythopoet’ would have to be to avoid the danger of claims and lawsuits – unless clearly ‘re-telling’ out-of-copyright material – and, probably, even then…

            Star Wars is a fascinating example, not least for all the freedom and flexibility Lucas provided for authors writing Stars Wars novels and computer games, back in the day, also with an eye to ‘canonicity’ of their contributions, but that has changed like crazy since Disney bought the rights.

            As to Miyazaki, he’s a famous name to me, but looking over his works as listed in Wikipedia, I think the only thing I have any direct experience of yet is some of his Moomin adaptations!

            I wonder how far we can go with Lewis’s discussion of a story distinct from specific tellings of it? (I’ve just read Arthur Ramsome’s autobiography, which has some fascinating observations about his approach to retelling Russian folktales, and his debt to hearing someone who grew up in Jamaica retelling Anansi stories she heard as a girl.)

            I’ve really got to try that movie – a Hungarian-Welsh-Japanese co-production, so I read! I really liked Noble’s noting (in the book) the goblins relations-by-descent to (other) human beings, but think him much too hasty and imprecise in putting things in terms of ‘genocide’! But I need to see if he’s right in taking the movie to task for being slapdash about killing (in a way I would say MacDonald is not, though his ‘Christian universalism’ seems far from explicit, here). He was fair and clear about not having read the sequel, which is also no part of the film (though I will keep my eyes peeled for any signs of hints hoping for a second film), but I’m thinking I should reread The Princess and Curdie, too.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ceci says:

              “I wonder how far we can go with Lewis’s discussion of a story distinct from specific tellings of it?”

              I think this runs into the danger of abstracting stories to the point that they become archetypes, and then the interpretation is entirely dependent on the analyst’s cultural literacy (just to bring this thread all the way back to ChrisC’s orignal post!) For example, almost every culture has a Cinderalla-type story, which belies just how ancient this story type is. In “The Uses of Enchantment,” Bruno Bettelheim, inspired by “Hero With a Thousand Faces”, uses Freudian technique to analyze symbolism in fairy tales. Supposedly the foot is a phallic symbol while the glass slipper, unimaginably fragile yet perfectly shape, is a yonic symbol so the whole trying on the shoe thing is a stand in for reaching puberty or losing one’s virginity. Of course, it’s entirely possible that this narrative event (and whatever other form it takes in other versions of the story) is meant to be a stand in for a coming of age ritual, the original ceremony long forgotten from whichever society initially began telling and spreading the story. Bettelheim’s interpretation is inherently flawed since it is purely from a Western perspective, and I imagine feet are not considered phallic in other cultures, but he is correct in that every variation of the story revolves around a rite of passage. Thus, the Cinderella story retains significance to many cultures even though it is entirely divorced from cultural context, which goes back to my original point way, way up at the top of this thread that it is possible for a casual audience to receive and critique a piece of art without having any cultural literacy. If one wants to interrogate an artwork in an academic way, then cultural knowledge is necessary, otherwise one is speaking purely from ignorance. (Obviously, folklorists have to operate from a place of some ignorance, oral culture being what it is.)

              As for “The Princess and Curdie,” I don’t remember the plot but I remember liking it more but maybe it helps that it wasn’t overshadowed by a terrifying animated version. As I recall, Curdie and Irene are teenagers and Irene has a bit more agency in her story.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dominic Noble’s video got me trying to pay sharp attention to goblin history and (so to put it) sociology in my re-listening/-reading, and left me thinking I was noticing all sort of Lewis and Tolkien connections I had not noticed before – though, for all I know, lots of people may have written about them all, long since… It’s also sharpened my sense of – is it only word choice and style? – or also narrative/mythopoeic style? I still haven’t watched the film adaptation, but his freeze frame and labelling of Irene’s expression at one moment as “addicted to murder” had me laughing out loud like several commenters. Even without seeing the film, yet, that scene as far as he shows it seems a good example of loss in adaptation and comparative mythopoeic weakness. In the book, Irene not only never encounters the goblin Prince face to face, but shudders rather than smiling when she hears Curdie report seeing some goblins “swept up drowned” (ch. 31). It seems one example of a pattern of subtlety in MacDonald’d prose, and, in particular, of engaging attention to, yet not spelling out, all sorts of things. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just add, Dominic Noble’s lively style of brief summary got me looking out for things, but seemed to miss important accents, when I did (e.g., in ch. 32).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Taking up Ceci’s points (on 15 May at 7:26 p.m.) of annoyance experienced as an as adult reader, with “Lewis saying his cousin looked like a “Jewess” in Surprised by Joy, which was published in 19-freaking-55 and overseen by his formerly Jewish wife”. These points have gotten me trying to reread parts of Surprised by Joy with a degree of care and pondering over details which I see I have too seldom shown… In chapter III, Lewis (giving no last name and only first initials) describes his three older Ewart cousins, daughters of his mother’s “first cousin and perhaps […] dearest friend”, saying “all three were strikingly handsome”. He clearly means justly to speak well of them, in doing so, and (I would say) somehow briefly to communicate ‘identifiable’ impressions of each, though (I think) boldly, as when he says of the middle sister, “There was in her face something of the delicate fierceness of a thoroughbred horse” (!) But he starts with “the eldest and gravest”, first saying she “was a Juno,” then in apposition, “a dark queen” – but going on “who at certain moments looked like a Jewess.” Would this annoy equally if, after “queen”, he had quoted from Byron’s Hebrew Melodies “She walks in beauty, like the night”, or said in further apposition, “an Esther”, or said something like (but better written than!), “a dark queen who at certain moments had what I think of as a distinctly Jewish beauty”?

    This includes wondering how much the annoyance involves the broader matter of the ‘-ess’ ending. In the first, 1912 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, its entry includes, among examples “authoress &c. (author &c. now preferred)”. But one of its joint editors, H.W. Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford, Clarendon Press,1926), under “Feminine Designations”, devotes a whole double-columned page’s worth of text to “a counter-protest”, defending the ending in ‘authoress’ and elsewhere, calling for “indulging in real neologisms” to produce many more such forms, and giving “short selections” in three categories, “A, of established feminine titles, B, of recent or impugned ones, &, C, of words unfortunately not provided with feminines” – and including ‘authoress’ under B, but, under A, ‘Jewess’! I am not attempting to reduce Lewis to Fowler in the matter of this complicated suffix controversy (how complicated even today, a look at the current Wikipedia article, “Actor”, vividly shows), and, worst of all, I am sadly ignorant of its contours in “19-freaking-55” in the UK or the US (thinking of any Americans – even, perhaps including Joy Davidman? – who got to read this, prepublication), but, for what it is worth, I quoted Fowler from a 1950 reprint. (And “Jewess” is there in the American paperback Surprised by Joy reprint I bought in 1980 – though the Narnia books, by contrast (and for whatever reason) have different versions of the text in the original UK and US editions.)

    Something this attempt in rereading with close attention to details in Surprised by Joy has got me wondering is, when is Lewis presenting something in terms he remembers thinking in at the age described, and when is it ‘the 1950s Lewis’? In this case, might there be written or visual sources that made the schoolboy Lewis see his beautiful older cousins then, in 1908-12, in terms of Juno, Valkyrie, queen, thoroughbred horse, and – !

    More than enough for one comment! I hope to return for the astonishing chapter II of Surprised by Joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ceci says:

      I was curious so I decided to search for a history of the word and found several articles from the early 2000s from Jewish blogs about whether or not the word deserved a revival. The word “Jew” did not appear until the Middle Ages and was intended to be derogatory (educated people tended to refer to Jews as “Hebrews” but eventually “Jew” and “Jewish” became too widespread to ignore). In a website called Jewess (!) Kylie Ora Lobell writes, “Though it was not originally used as an offensive term, Jewess today is seen as derogatory for two reasons: The word Jew is sometimes used as a slur, and the -ess is outdated and not feminist. Many women prefer to be called Jewish women, just like female poets want to be poets and not poetesses, as they were once called….
      “The term Jewess came into being as early as the 1300s. One Bible translation from 1388 contained the sentence, “Timothe, the sone of a Jewesse cristen.” It showed up again in another Bible translation in the 1500s, and then in a book by English writer Samuel Purchas in 1613. Sir Walter Scott used the word Jewess 76 times in his 1812 book “Ivanhoe” in both negative and positive contexts. He called the main character Rebecca “lovely” and “beautiful,” but also said she was a “sorceress” and sent her to be burnt for ‘witchery.’…
      “As anti-Semitism grew in America and the world at large in the middle of the 20th century, Jew was deemed and used as an offensive term. Jewess fell out of style, too, as did many –ess words after the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.” (

      Unclear how the word would have been received in 1955 (it’s a shame I can’t ask my grandparents!). I suspect that it was considered a genteel but old fashion word, much like “Negress” (ugh) was falling out of fashion in favor of the word “colored.” However, the word, as uttered by a gentile, contributes to a benevolent stereotype, and that can all too quickly lead to caricature and worse. To specifically use the word “Jewess” when countless other adjectives were available would no doubt connote some sort of dark beauty to the reader–maybe brown, curly hair, dark eyes, olive skin, a prominent nose–but also serves to somehow exoticize this cousin, as if Jews were a particularly rare flower and not normal people who were normal citizens of the UK and Europe. It’s bad enough that the modern Israeli government looks at non-white or non-European/American Jews askance, or that, when my Orthodox Jewish boss interviewed me for my job, he was surprised to learn that I was Jewish despite my red hair and green eyes. We know where these stereotypes come from, sadly aided by the invention of print media. Maybe the whole thing was supposed to be a wink to Joy, saying that he always liked sassy brunettes, or perhaps, as I said before, it was meant to evoke some sort of exotic quality. Either way, it was a very deliberate choice with unfortunate consequences.

      Again, apologies to ChrisC and Brenton for bringing this commentary thread waaaaayyy off track. My job is almost impossible to do remotely, even if my company had the cash on hand to pay me, so I have way too much funemployment time on my hands.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow – thanks for all the word-history detail (and reflection)! I find I did not look far enough in another direction. In the Biographical Appendix to Volume I of Lewis’s Collected Letters (2000), Walter Hooper includes lots of quotations from Warren Lewis in the Lewis Family Papers as transcribed and annotated between 1933-35, including about members of the Ewart family, where the one about the eldest daughter begins “She was a handsome woman of a dark, almost Italian type, with an air of dignity which she acquired early in life…She was very near to the Edwardian ideal of the beautiful woman”. Adjective rather than noun, Italian rather than Jewish, but with the same “dark” specification – maybe to distinguish between other types of stereotypical Italian or Jewish beauty (red-haired, blonde?)? Interesting – mix? – of ‘exotic’ and “Edwardian ideal” which “ideal” I imagine must include normal people who were normal citizens of the UK and Europe.

        That last point did somehow get me wondering about how usual familiarity with Jewish people or people of Jewish descent would have been in Northern Ireland at the turn of the Nineteenth to Twentieth centuries. Maybe not uncommon? I now see there’s even a Wikipedia article, “History of the Jews in Ireland”, which notes, “the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, an Ashkenazi Orthodox community, was established in 1870” and “The first minister of the congregation was Reverend Joseph Chotzner, who served at the synagogue which was located at Great Victoria Street from 1870–1880 and 1892–1897. Later spiritual leaders at the synagogue included Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1916–1919), who later become Chief Rabbi of Israel. His son Chaim Herzog, who became the 6th President of Israel, was born in Belfast.” And it has a link to Sir Otto Jaffe’s article, which includes that he “was elected Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899. As mayor, he launched an appeal for the dependants of soldiers fighting in the Boer War, £10,000 was raised. On 5 March 1900, he was knighted at Dublin Castle by Lord Cadogan, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1901 he was High Sheriff of Belfast, and in 1904 he was again elected Lord Mayor.”

        An inherently worthwhile tangent, all of this, I’d say, however far-ranging!

        Liked by 1 person

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  14. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Taking up the matter of extreme language in talking about how his school ‘sucked’ (and schools in general too often suck)… The vivid first-person present-tense first paragraph of Chapter II of Surprised by Joy switches half-way through to past-tense reflection ending, “the putting on of school clothes was, I well knew, the assumption of a prison uniform.” In the fourth-last sentence of paragraph three, Lewis refers to the landscape of England “from Fleetwood to Euston” as “imprisoning”. The he begins paragraph four by saying of “the little town of” Watford “let us call it Belsen”, repeating this use as replacement town name later in the paragraph, and again in paragraph 14 in referring to “the church at Belsen.” He never replaces the name of Wynyard School with an analogous specific pseudonym – but in paragraph 10 first refers to it synedochically as “Belsen”, the school being then in the city of Watford as the camp(s) later in the German village of Belsen. But before any of this, the chapter is entitled (with the name repeated as running title to head every page), “Concentration Camp”. Is this merely mind-boggling insensitivity? Why might someone who had shown himself so aware of difficulties of effective communication ten years earlier in his talk, “Christian apologetics”, do this?

    Is the title indicating something the nine-year-old Lewis was – or might have been – thinking as he went off to boarding school, like “prison uniform”? Was Lewis, who was one-and-a-half when his Uncle Hugh died in South Africa during the Boer War, and three-and-a-half when the Treaty of Vereeniging ended it, clearly aware of the controversies over British concentration camps throughout much of his childhood? Might he have read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s defense of them in The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902) of which his Wikipedia article writes, “The latter work was widely translated, and Doyle believed it was the reason he was knighted (given the rank of Knight Bachelor) by King Edward VII in the 1902 Coronation Honours”? And, in choosing to refer to Belsen, how detailed a sense of the complex history of the camps there – including the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp ( where the Haganah even managed to send in agents who held clandestine military training there in December 1947) – might he have had? Whatever the answers, he is not explicit about any such thing in either case.

    Between his reference to “prison uniform” and the landscape as “imprisoning”, he has written, of England, “When we disembarked […] I found myself in a world to which I reacted with immediate hatred.” The next sentence puts this in terms of the classical ‘inferna’– and Dantean Inferno: “The flats of Lancashire […] to me […] were like the banks of Styx.” The following sentence makes this emphatically Christian: “The strange English accents […] seemed like the voices of demons.” Orwell’s 14 April 1944 Tribune column springs to mind, in which he suggests contemporary Christian belief in Hell “has no reality”, “is a sham currency”, noting “Even very devout Christians will make jokes about Hell. They wouldn’t make jokes about leprosy, or R.A.F. pilots with their faces burnt away: the subject is too painful.” What are we to make of this example of extreme imagery by Lewis, amidst the others? More than four-fifths of the way through the chapter, discussing his father’s failures at “domestic discipline”, Lewis speaks of his “fatal bent toward dramatization and rhetoric”, adding “I speak of it the more freely since I inherit it”. Is the extreme imagery some kind of implicit demonstration of this? If so, it still seems very – even bewilderingly? – strange, as it stands.


    • Ceci says:


      In an effort to combine two different but related discussions:

      Re: Jewish presence in Belfast, considering that a Jewish community settled in Belfast in the 1870s (or, at least, was large enough to establish a synagogue; it’s always possible there was a small Jewish community there already, but they were not large enough to form a synagogue. It only takes 10 people [for more conservative and Orthodox Jews, 10 men because eyeroll] to perform services and a house of worship is not always necessary) seems very late to me. There have been thriving Jewish communities in the Americas and the Caribbean since the late 16th century, so settling in Belfast in the 1870s seems very late to me. I wonder if these families were escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe. The fact that Belfast elected a Jewish a mayor, and one who had acquired a title at that, speaks to how quickly and successfully this community was able to assimilate and enmesh itself in the city’s society. It would also be a rare example where Jewish people were treated better than other Christians (ie, Irish Catholics). It’s possible that Lewis’s father would have dealt with some Jewish community members in his work as a solicitor, but I suspect that, as in so many cities, Jews would have been restricted to certain neighborhoods, whether or not these ghettos were intentional. I can’t imagine that Lewis would have had much contact with Jewish people as a young child or team; his memoirs do not indicate that he and Warren spent much time in the city proper, and if there were any Belfast Jews who moved the suburbs they probably wouldn’t have been welcome to reside in Lewis’s neighborhood.

      As for Warren’s description of his cousin as “Italian,” I’m not sure if that’s really all that much better. E.M Forester’s near-contemporary Italian novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and, of course A Room With a View, treats Italians as half-wild Lotharios who are barely civilized enough to appreciate the Roman ruins their ancestors somehow managed to build. I am not sure about the UK, but Italians really weren’t considered “white” in the Americas until around World War II. Not to get too much into contemporary politics, but there’s a reason why people of Irish, German, Italian, and even Greek descent are happily welcomed into white supremacist groups, while Jews, who arrived in the Americas at the same time, are their targets.

      Describing their cousin as “very near to the Edwardian ideal of the beautiful woman,” also makes sense. Looking at Edwardian fashion plates–easily my favorite period in fashion history–all of the models and celebrated actresses (often one and the same in this period), are all curvaceous, raven haired beauties, as can be seen in this postcard of Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow: Warren and Jack were trying to convey something somehow exotic about their cousin, and the fact that she was “almost perfect” makes me wonder if she had an olive complexion as opposed to being “fair.”

      As for Surprised by Joy, I found a version on Project Gutenburg, so no page numbers, but in the second paragraph of Chapter 15, Lewis writes, “My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question. My training was like that of the Jews, to whom He revealed Himself centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol.” I think this is an interesting idea, since it encapsulates mythopeic literature, i.e., Lewis’s and Tolkien’s belief that all pre-Christian mythology contains echoes and reflections of the “true” religion, which is revealed in the story of Christ. But to call Sheol “shadowy and featureless” implies that this definition of the afterlife is somehow inferior to Heaven and Hell as opposed to merely being different. Judaism is not especially concerned with the afterlife, assuming there even is one, since the emphasis is to practice Jewish ethics during life and working to make the world a better place for future generations.

      Later in the chapter he writes, after trying to reconcile his youthful fascination with paganism (and its persistence throughout human culture) and his newfound religion, “Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream. Where was the thing full grown? or where was the awaking? (The Everlasting Man was helping me here.) There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity. Everything else was either a preparation for, or else (in the French sense) a vulgarisation of, these. Whatever you could find elsewhere you could find better in one of these. But Hinduism seemed to have two disqualifications. For one thing, it appeared to be not so much a moralised and philosophical maturity of Paganism as a mere oil-and-water coexistence of philosophy side by side with Paganism unpurged…. And secondly, there was no such historical claim as in Christianity. I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion–those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them–was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this.” I have never understood this claim that Hinduism does not have a “historical claim,” especially since it is one of the oldest religions on the planet, and has learned to sit easily with Buddhism, which is around the same age as Christianity and whose creator also goes through a similar arc as Christ within his life on earth. Does he simply mean that Hinduism did not have the same cultural impact to his Western eyes as Christianity? I also understand in this passage that he isn’t saying all Jews are “narrow [and] unattractive”, just the ones who are portrayed in the New Testament. But this paragraph serves to contrast these Jews with the grossly generalized pagan rituals he attributes to Hinduism (“temple-prostitution, sati, cruelty, monstrosity”), and, unfortunately, the description of Jews in the New Testament is the root of all post-Christian anti-Semitism, and an “experienced” literary critic couldn’t fail to notice that.

      I also seem to recall there is a letter where he refers to Jews as “poor bastards who don’t know any better.” I thought this sentence was in Surprised by Joy, but it’s not, and my version of Letters of C.S. Lewis (the one Warren edited, not the Walter Hooper) version only has proper names and nouns in the index, so I don’t know if that sentence is in there either, or if it was quoted in a biography or something. We also see in That Hideous Strength, where Mark writes two propaganda pieces, one aimed at the proletariat with obvious anti-Semitism, and one aimed at the intelligentsia designed to provoke more subtle prejudices, that Lewis seems to blithely ignore the Holocaust–even though THS takes place after 1945, it was written and published between 1944-1945, which would make this joke maybe A Little Too Soon.

      I think, unfortunately, the way he writes about the Holocaust, and, to some extent Jews, is an example of prejudice and wild insensitivity from a person who was otherwise warm, generous, and kind. I can only conclude that from this passage and from his essay “Is Progress Possible?” he was more fascinated by the Holocaust as an illustrative tool than actually engaging in the full impact and meaning of the event. I don’t think Lewis was anti-Semitic in the cartoonish sense that he illustrates in THS, and we know that he was always kind to Jewish colleagues and friends (I remember reading in one biography that he tried to move heaven and earth to get kosher meat for David, who did not want to convert) but he was a product of his society, which still relied on racism, misogyny, ableism, xenophobia, etc, just as ours does today. We can’t blame beloved historical figures for not being able to rise above their culture, as much as we would want them to do so. In many respects, Lewis was able to see beyond race and imperialism and anti-Catholicism to envision a more just, pan-Christian theology (and even, in THS, he seems to be arguing for a sort of religious/nationalist self-determination with Logres and the Indian society Ransom’s relative belongs to), but we also see plenty of negative ideas in his writing as well, including sexist and classist comments. Lewis was an extraordinary person in so many countless ways, but honest criticism also needs to acknowledge his rare moments of shortsightedness too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:


        You have raised a lot of good questions about late Victorian and Edwardian Belfast and the UK to which I do not know the answers. I have not even tried to follow up the Wikipedia sources for Sir Otto, yet, but assuming the facts given are correct, he had a fascinating life: born in Germany, emigrated at 5 of 6 to Belfast, went to school first in a coastal village in the metropolitan area, then in Hamburg and Switzerland, then “From 1867 to 1877 he lived and worked in New York” (so, ages 20/21 to 30/31), then returned to take over the family business from his older brothers and “built it up to become the largest linen exporter in Ireland”, but (having served as German consul at some point!) only “became a naturalised citizen in 1888” (age 41/42) – and was Lord Mayor eleven years later.

        In the context both of representing St Anne’s Ward for the Belfast Corporation and being a member of the Belfast Harbour Commission, he presumably had professional contact with Albert Lewis (27 years his junior), who was a solicitor for the latter, and police court prosecuting solicitor for the former. And, finally thinking to turn to the index of volume I of the Collected Letters (!), I find Sir Otto’s younger son, William, described as “a friend of Albert Lewis”, who attended a party at the Ewart’s on 21 December 1914 together with Lewis and Albert, where the guests dressed to represent novels, with William as “a black African with a white line down it – Across the Dark Continent” (according to a Ewart aunt!). The few references suggest both William (born in 1883, so 20 years Albert’s junior) and Sir Otto were well known to the Lewises, Ewarts, and Greeveses, and Sir Otto a visitor at the Lewis house.

        Among other things, he also set up a company in 1910 which ended up making munitions during the Great War, in which his elder son (33/34 in 1914) served in the British Army, yet was accused by somebody of being a German spy (though he’d given up his German citizenship some 27 years earlier!). Warren notes “Sir Otto and Lady Jaffé left Belfast and settled in London” as a result of the family being “subjected to a cruel and stupid social persecution on account of its German origin”. Sir Otto’s father, after some 14 or 15 years in Belfast, had established a synagogue with 55 members while he was in America, which grew to over a thousand during his first 26 years back in town, and at some point he became its “life-president”. Was he unusually successful? And what of the other thousand members of the congregation? But in 1901 the population of Belfast was 346,500… (I should try to follow up in the other volumes of Lewis’s Collected Letters…)

        I had forgotten those exact details in chapter 15 of Surprised by Joy. Lewis had clearly (at whatever point) taken up a certain modern scholarly interpretation of “Sheol” and of some kind of gradual revelation to Israel (paragraph 3). I think (though I have not tried to look up where he says more about this) that that the attention (in paragraph 7) to “historical claim” is seeing the history of Abraham, Israel, and Christianity being concerned with the ‘historicity’ of the people and events (including revelations and miracles) in ways Hinduism is not concerned with the ‘historicity’ of (for example) Krishna and Shiva and what is told about them. The characterization of “narrow, unattractive Jews” – the Evangelists and other Disciples and Apostles and first, Jewish, Christians (!) – setting things down in “artless, historical fashion”, “too blind to […] mythical wealth”, is striking. Whose negative expressions are these? Those of the (so to say) still ‘smart-ass’ Lewis of the late 1920s, not yet humbly joining them and fully accepting their ‘historical’ narratives and claims? Still ‘identifying’ with a ‘culture’ of those who see things that way? Somebody still a lot like Mark Studdock as he concocts the fake news and then writes it up for different audiences in THS (6.3)?

        I think in THS Lewis is implicitly taking the Holocaust seriously and expecting his readers to do so, too, in a way that Mark Studdock is shown by explicit contrast not doing – yet. But, in letting Mark think he can successfully appeal to anti-Semitism among some of the readers of the “more popular” newspaper, as well as to anti-Christian (as well as anti-Jewish), anti-“financial” (not exclusively ‘Jewish financiers’), anti-intellectual, and anti-lawyer prejudices among some readers, I think Lewis is realistically admitting the possibility that such an appeal could have (some) success in post-war Britain, despite all that was known by then of the Holocaust (following on Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg Laws, the constant Nazi anti-Jewish rhetoric) – and perhaps about Soviet anti-Semitism, too.

        In any case, I’m sure you are quite right about honest criticism needing to acknowledge his moments of shortsightedness or worse, however rare, or even, not so rare – and I think he would agree.

        I will hope to say something about his essay “Is Progress Possible?” separately. (I will also add that I learned from I’m not sure who anymore, that he was happy for David to have a mezuzah on the door-frame to his room at The Kilns (the room in which Lewis later died), and (which I heard from George Sayer, and which I hope I am not muddling) that he got in touch with Philip Roth for advice and help in finding a Jewish university for David, and ended up succeeding with Yeshiva University, in New York.)

        Liked by 1 person

  15. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I could kick myself that I have never yet looked up the whole series of five “Is Progress Possible?”articles published in The Observer in the summer of 1958, when I was near a good library where I could have done so easily. Now, I’m not even managing to find out who the other three contributors were, in addition to C.P. Snow and Lewis. Nor can I discover more about Snow’s contribution – the most important of the others to read first, since it appeared a week before Lewis’s and he is referring to it repeatedly in a way that leaves me feeling I’m only hearing half of a conversation. But, working with what we have: in paragraph four, as counter-suggestion to the idea of “people becoming, or likely to become, better”, Lewis lists (1) U.S. use of an atomic bomb, (2) the brutal misbehavior of members of the “Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve” between 1920-22, (3) the Nazi Gestapo, (4) the Soviet secret state police from 1923-34 (unless he’s using the term loosely of what its Wikipedia article calls its being “reincorporated into the newly created all-union People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) in July 1934, becoming its Main Directorate of State Security (GUGB). It subsequently became the more widely known Committee for State Security (KGB)”), (5) the general practice of “brain-washing” (with or without implicit accent on what Wikipedia describes as its original use “to describe the coercive persuasion used under the Maoist government in China”), and (6) “the Russian slave camps.”

    All of these clearly illustrate what he begins paragraph seven by calling “the changed relation between Government and subjects”, with a term formally applicable to the UK, “subjects”, but which already suggests how all sorts of ‘Governments’ view their citizens, as well – and plays seriously with philosophical ‘subject’/’object’ language at the same time. Taking up some point of Snow’s about “our new attitude to crime”, he rapidly develops his critical analysis by saying, “I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers.” He continues to develop the “common element” in paragraph eight with emphatic attention to dehumanization: “the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, they were a disease in society.” However unique the Nazi mass-murderousness, it has shared perilous features with other contemporary understandings of societies and governments. “If society can mend, remake and unmake men at its pleasure , […] rulers have become owners.”

    In paragraph 17, saying “I dread government in the name of science”, he continues, effectively returning to a couple of his first examples, “Perhaps the real scientists may not think much of the tyrants’ ‘science’ – they didn’t think much of Hitler’s racial theories or Stalin’s biology. But they can be muzzled.” In the preceding paragraph, he gives other examples of “not liking the pretensions of Government […] to be pitched too high. I don’t like the medicine-man’s magical pretensions nor the Bourbon’s Divine Right. […] I believe in God, but I detest theocracy.” If any Government “adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord’, it lies, and it lies dangerously.” Between the sentences already quoted from 17, he says, of “the particular pretension which the hopes and fears” which a given age renders “most potent”, “It has been magic, It has been Christianity”. And in paragraph 18, he reiterates two of these examples: “Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers – a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians – a Church that can save us from Hell”, adding, “Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again.”

    All this is the context of his saying, in paragraph nine, “One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory ‘cure’?” As far as I can see, he is actually engaging in the full impact and meaning of the Holocaust, here, and in that of the other, often mass-murderous acts of tyranny he names (and of the indiscriminate mass-killing character of nuclear weapons), and not appropriating Jewish pain – or that of those killed or grievously abused by Soviet, Chinese Communist, British, various Christian, or other regimes, or at Hiroshima. Nor, as far as I can see, is he, in the first place, positing that Christians could someday succumb to the same type of genocide as Jews – “the Straightener” of his hypothetical compulsorily ‘curing’ Government, in saying, “We’re healing you” seems more like O’Brien to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: there’s no explicit suggestion of an alternative of ‘having mercifully to “put him down”, if he can’t be cured” ( though he does (in paragraph 11) say, of the “leaders” of the “modern State”, “We are less their subjects than their […] domestic animals”).

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