As part of my reflection on the strength of Tolkien Studies projects of late, and on the heels of a series where I am trying to encourage strong Lewis studies books, I decided to share some of the good and useful Lewis studies books of the last decade that were not necessarily highlighted by major awards or media releases. I began the imperiously named “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” series by talking about various helpful and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies. I then followed up with resource-filled posts on “C.S. Lewis Biographies” and “Literary Studies“–including an extra piece on Lewis and Dante–which was followed by a discussion on “C.S. Lewis Reception Studies” last week.
- Part 1: C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life
- Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies
- Insert: Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality
- Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis
- Part 4: C.S. Lewis Reception Studies
- Part 5: Recent and Foundational Studies on Lewis and Gender
With this piece, I want to tilt the study a little bit and unroot myself from a focus on recent work to focus on a perennial question in Lewis studies. The fact that Kat Coffin’s 2019 guest article “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” is one of the top 5 most read pieces in almost every week is testimony to how keenly readers feel the questions of gender in Narnia. This Susan piece, combined with the article that spurred me to invite Kat to write for A Pilgrim in Narnia (my own “Girls, Boys, and the Maps in Their Heads: A Reflection on Narnia“) and my follow-up post to the Susan piece (“8 Questions about the Problem of Susan Narnia Debate, or How to Read Well“), have been read more than 20,000 times. While the conversation sometimes makes some people anxious, the question of Lewis and gender is deeply meaningful to many reader.
And, we have to admit, “Lewis and gender” is a topic fraught with tensions, littered with work of sub-par value, and–for those who take the questions seriously and who are willing to read well–profoundly valuable as an entry point to Lewis studies.
Indeed, I cannot think that there is an area of Lewis’ thinking and life that is more scrutized than this one. While Lewis was an Edwardian Oxbridge male thriving within a male-centred academic environment, studying largely male-centred classical, medieval, and renaissance literature, and writing often in modes defined in that period by male writers (fantasy literature, sf, literary criticism, apologetics)–and, indeed, a figure who for most of his life had no sisters, mother, wife and very few women students, colleagues, and peers–a student who truly attends to the question of Lewis and gender will discover that Lewis’ understanding of gender is complex, nuanced, and at times surprising. Neither glib designations of misogyny nor hallowed elevations to sainthood gets to the truth of the way that Lewis thought about women and men, gender and sexuality, in his teaching, his fiction, and in the various spaces of his personal life.
In this piece, I am offering something akin to a classic literature review (with pictures, because I like pictures of book covers). I have left most of the in-text conversation to the side, using the character of Jane in That Hideous Strength to highlight some of the views. In the manuscript that I am editing on my screen right now, I argue the various positions and press scholarship for a closer reading of Lewis’ life and writings. In this post, however, I will mostly present the ideas of the critics as they appear in history.
The First Generation of Critics on Lewis and Women
As early as the first volume dedicated to Lewis after his death 1963, critics brought concerns about Lewis and women in his public work. In an otherwise glowing article in publisher Jock Gibb’s 1965 collection, Light on C.S. Lewis, Stella Gibbons admits that there is “much of the ‘crusty bachelor’” in That Hideous Strength. The protagonist Jane, Gibbons claims, is subjected to gender-role moralizing that shows in Lewis an attitude that is “narrow and unkind.” This cautious criticism begins a strong re-assessment of C.S. Lewis and gender from the 1970s to the current day, predominantly by women Lewis critics.
Though it is rare that scholarly critiques are unmitigated in their condemnation, some early criticisms of Lewis’ work are pointed and often personal. In 1976, Margaret Hannay writes that “St. Clive” has become an
[Evangelical] authority on almost every aspect of Christian life and doctrine, including, unfortunately, the ‘place’ of women. The more Lewis’ works are used to enforce the idea of the domination of men and the subordination of women, the less attractive these works become to … intelligent men and women….
Though this concern may have more to do with how Lewis is used by readers—an ongoing concern, for now in 2021, Lewis’ writings are being used to support anti-vaccination conspiracies in North America—Hannay describes the “chauvinistic elements which have irritated so many women.” Perhaps the first critic to offer a developmental hypothesis in Lewis’ thought, Hannay argues that through his encounter with powerful women later in his career, like poets Dorothy L. Sayers and Joy Davidman, Lewis’ view changed from fairly typical period chauvinism to a more open and egalitarian perspective. While she provides other examples, Hannah sees this growth especially in the character development, setting, and narrative of Till We Have Faces (1956) as it stands in great contrast to his previous adult fiction like That Hideous Strength (1945), and in his late-in-life nonfiction works like The Four Loves and A Grief Observed. Hannay believes that Lewis’ Oxford reputation for women-hating was undeserved in real life, though he deservedly gained such a reputation in his WWII-era science fiction and his editorial writings about the roles of women.
In the fourty years of scholarship since, many critics have wanted to defend Lewis against charges of misogyny and sexism by demonstrating positive or counter-stereotypical roles for women and girls in his writing as well as Lewis’ positive relationships with women. These critics include Kathryn Lindskoog, Corbin Scott Carnell, Nancy-Lou Patterson, Karla Faust Jones, and, more recently, many of the popular-level essays in Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key’s edited volume Women and C.S. Lewis (2015). While a few scholars chose to ignore what readers identify as problematic moments, many of the essays of the 1970s and 1980s were trying to look seriously at the problematic parts of Lewis’ most public work and either contextualise the materials or interrogate earlier readings by discussing egalitarian, contrasting, or hopeful currents within his life and writing.
Lewis Masked and Mirrored in Kath Filmer’s Analysis
Kath Filmer’s 1993 monograph, The Fiction of C.S. Lewis: Mask and Mirror, marks a turning point in the field as she offers the first book-length feminist critique of Lewis’ thought. Filmer is disturbed by various resonances within Lewis’ fiction and “the misogynist and the chauvinist beliefs” embedded in his work. Filmer proposes that Narnian evil is distinctly feminine, with the White Witch as the prime example: “a self-deceived, self-worshipping creature,” a blood-thirsty “devouring goddess image” that represents “the negative and fearful aspects of femininity which seem to have had a profound influence upon C.S. Lewis.”
One of Filmer’s focal points is the character of Jane in That Hideous Strength. At the end of the novel, Jane is retired of her role as seer: “You will have no more dreams,” Dr. Ransom, Pendragon and Fisher-King says to her by way of parting benediction, “Have children instead.” Jean Graham suggests that this moment confirms that Jane’s “redemption” is bound up in
“taking care of her husband and bearing children in submission to Mr. Fisher-King.”
While Alicia Burris admits that Ransom’s parting words “seems to be referring to the visionary dreams that Jane has throughout the novel” and not “dreams” in the sense of personal ambitions, she suggests that “it raises the question as to whether Jane must give up all personal dreams for the sake of her marriage” and whether “scholarly dreams are inappropriate because she is married and must therefore restrict herself to the domestic.” Burris is here in conversation with Gretchen Bartels, who analyses what she calls Lewis’ “theoretical dislike of the emancipated woman” as it is paired with his “theological understanding of gender.” Burris concludes her analysis of That Hideous Strength suggesting that here we see the deepest problem of Lewis’ sexism:
“The Problem of Jane, which supersedes the Problem of Susan [in The Last Battle], is that for Lewis’s theology to map onto Jane’s experience, she must give up her status as an emancipated woman and instead dwell in the domestic sphere.”
While critics like Bartles and Burris use these moments to reveal Lewis’ real philosophy of gender, Filmer takes her interpretation even further. Filmer claims that Jane “aligns herself with the spirit, if not the actuality, of the evil at Belbury,” which is the pathway for Lewis’ female characters that are not virgins. The climax of Jane’s development comes when she “is ready to submit sexually to her husband” in a way that is paradigmatic of all female submission to the male. Filmer concludes that in making the scene a moment of revelatory light, Lewis is being dishonest, for he is not truly suggesting “the triumph of the good” but “the triumph of the male.” In Jane’s character, then,
“we are treated to a brief but telling glimpse … of the misogynist and the chauvinist beliefs that so taint his spiritual vision.”
The word “misogyny” is ambiguous in Filmer, used for any development of a female character with a negative character trait as well as for the deepest, most problematic aspects she reads in Lewis’ fiction. It is unclear if Filmer simply means “sexism” by the term or if she thinks that Lewis actually hates women (as the etymology and earlier usage suggests). Focussing upon Lewis’ fiction and setting aside, at least for the monograph, his nonfiction and biography and his theological commentary, Filmer argues that Lewis’ fiction masked and mirrored his own monstrous misogyny, however defined. In the case of Jane, the inequity of her character development in Filmer’s analysis is because Lewis has a personal, suppressed “preference for things masculine” rather than a coherent theological understanding of gender that is open to criticism on its own terms.
Many critics have, on the surface, ignored Filmer’s arguments, though Monika Hilder (discussed below) and Nancy-Lou Patterson have taken the time to respond. In responding to Filmer’s “monstrosity” thesis, Patterson critiques Filmer’s approach to Jane on methodological grounds: in particular, Filmer fails to distinguish who is speaking in the text, and in what context. At one point, Filmer asserts that
“there is no attempt to show women … who are simply intelligent and highly competent.”
This is “simply not true,” Patterson rebuts, showing through text analysis that there is only one unintelligent and another incompetent character who ultimately align themselves with Ransom’s company, and both are men (Tom and Mark, each of whom arrives after the climactic battle). Patterson argues that the heroes of St Anne’s in the text are “individual, feisty, independent, fully developed” resisters of the N.I.C.E. who live “cooperatively in the presence of a leader with whom they have cast their common lot,” and who “are constantly engaged in consultation, discussion, analysis, shared life, group participation, and mutual aid.” After all, Patterson reminds readers, Ransom himself admits that obedience is
“more like a dance than a drill—specially between man and woman where the roles are always changing.”
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, the Christian Scholar’s Review Symposium, and a Second Generation of Lewis Gender Critics
These early gender considerations of Lewis and Filmer’s book created the foundation for a wide-reaching conversation that began in the 2000s. Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride published Women Among the Inklings (2001), following up with a later paper focusing upon females and combat in the fantasy of Lewis and Tolkien. In the same period, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s 2004 C.S. Lewis Lecture at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, heightened the conversation. This piece was particularly important as it created the foundation for vigorous debate on Lewis and Gender in a colloquium issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review in 2007. The special issue centres on two arguments, one by social scientist Van Leeuwen about Lewis’ developing egalitarianism, and one by philosopher Adam Barkman on Lewis’ fundamental hierarchicalism, with responses from leading Lewis scholars.
Van Leeuwen’s reworking of her keynote lecture concurs with Hannay’s thesis by suggesting a developmental pathway for Lewis, moving from a traditionalist, androcentric hierarchicalism and essentialism rooted in classical and medieval archetypes toward an intriguing and inviting near-egalitarianism in his late-in-life thought. In this article and her follow-up book, A Sword Between the Sexes (2010), Van Leeuwen argues that although they were often idiosyncratic, diverse, and not altogether consistent, many of Lewis’ views of gender
“can be explained at least partly by his historical and personal circumstances.”
Van Leeuwen demonstrates a series of clarifications, reversals, and deepenings of views, particularly in later books like Till We Have Faces, The Discarded Image, The Four Loves, and A Grief Observed. As these works are lesser known, many readers continue to carry around a false
“portrait of Lewis as the unchanging defender of gender stereotypes and gender hierarchy.”
In the monograph, Van Leeuwen extends both her data on Lewis’ life and work and her critique as a social scientist. She carefully considers Lewis’ understanding of sex and gender, looking at contextually implicated, literary, and idiosyncratic views of gender roles, hierarchicalism, sex stereotypes, and equalities. Though Lewis purported to represent a “mere Christianity” in his teaching, Van Leeuwen argues that many of his views are not representative of most Christians in most times and places. As a result, his personal beliefs as a public intellectual unintentionally blur his message—and in a way that until this very day bends the gender conversation in American Evangelicalism, the community of Lewis’ most committed readers.
In considering Lewis’ adult relationships with women and putting Lewis in conversation with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and author Dorothy Sayers—two other contemporary Oxonian Christian public intellectuals—Van Leeuwen suggests that Lewis was “A Better Man than His Theories,” living authentically and generously with women students, friends, partners, and mentors while continuing to hold some hierarchal and essentialist views. Van Leeuwen demonstrates that in providing his readers with “generalizations” about women and men, he claimed universal experiences despite never having looked for evidence of that universality. While Lewis is effective against materialist reductionism, he carries his own untested Cartesian-Aristotelian-Jungian dualism that bends his views of gender and the social scientific enterprise. Beyond the social scientific critique, and though she never mentions Filmer, Van Leeuwen’s thesis is the precise opposite of Filmer’s, who argues that “there was no marked change in Lewis’s attitudes and beliefs.”
The Christian Scholar’s Review colloquium included a second keystone paper, Adam Barkman’s “‘All is Righteousness and there is no Equality’: C.S. Lewis on Gender and Justice.” While Van Leeuwen is working as a social scientist, specifically a psychologist, Barkman is working as a philosopher, placing Lewis in conversation with Aristotle and 20th-century systematic theologians of what he calls “Christian orthodoxy.” He provides a focussed survey of Lewis’ ideas of gender, celebrating Lewis’ presentation of what he thinks biblical-historical hierarchical Christian belief should be:
“[A]lthough men and women can both achieve the same level of spiritual excellence and may have the same cognitive powers, they are not equal in spiritual essence (which includes function) and may not be equal in spiritual value.”
By “spiritual essence,” Barkman means “the inherent nature of a given thing.” Though he admits the conclusion is “repugnant” to some, including progressive Christians and conservative Evangelicals who want to assert ontological equality, Barkman’s paper is meant both as a defence for reading Lewis this way (against the readings of scholars like Van Leeuwen) and for the idea that Lewis’ hierarchal Aristotelian position is “in line with orthodox Christianity” and is of “contemporary worth.”
The remainder of the journal colloquium includes respective replies by Van Leeuwen and Barkman and responses by several Lewis scholars. Largely agreeing with Barkman on Scripture, Van Leeuwen clarifies Lewis’ view of Scripture and notes that
“Lewis made no appeal to the Gospels to defend his theory of gender archetypes and hierarchy, for the simple reason that there is nothing clearly there to draw on.”
This point is the foundation for one rail of her critique of Barkman: that his use of “selective Pauline texts … in attempting to read his Aristotelian/medieval cosmology back into Scripture, the younger Lewis” was in grave error regarding trinitarian and incarnational theology. This error is Barkman’s as well, Van Leeuwen argues, and it is one that Lewis left behind as he
“finally acknowledged the confessional non-negotiability of Nicene Trinitarianism.”
Barkman’s response to Van Leeuwen is to emphasise his criticism of her developmental thesis
“because she fails to look at all the evidence, but also because she shockingly ignores Lewis’s biblical reasons for believing in gender hierarchy and gender essentialism.”
Barkman argues that a systematic reading of works from the last decade of his life show continued gender essentialism and hierarchy, and responds by showing such evidence in light of biblical links in Surprised by Joy, Till We Have Faces, Four Loves, Grief Observed, and Discarded Image.
In response, Doris Myers disagrees with Barkman on the logical flow of his argument: that
“the Bible teaches gender inequality; C. S. Lewis believed the Bible; he therefore believed in gender inequality throughout his life.”
Myers draws out two frequently occurring problems in Lewis studies: Lewis’ chronology and his biblical hermeneutics. On the latter point, Myers wishes that scholars were cognizant of the particularly Anglican approach to Scripture of Lewis’ time. Most of the respondents share Myers’ concern that readers are not clear about Lewis’ biblical hermeneutics. Joe Christopher argues that “Barkman is presenting only part of a complexity” and that Van Leeuwen has not fully appreciated the way Lewis roots gender in Scripture and myth. Harry Poe presses both Van Leeuwen and Barkman on the period of Lewis’ formation regarding thoughts on gender and hierarchy, and agrees with the developmental thesis, since “Lewis changed his mind in small matters and in great.” Poe is convinced by Van Leeuwen’s quotation of a passage in A Grief Observed that demonstrates that Lewis eventually grew in his understanding, even if he did not achieve full Pauline mutual submission:
“In one paragraph, Lewis smashes the essentialist/hierarchical theory to bits…. Here Lewis describes a perfect egalitarian relationship of equals in which both play different parts over the course of the relationship.”
Poe argues that Barkman conflates Aristotle’s hierarchicalism and orthodox Christianity and thus fails to note Lewis’ growth as a person, including his shifting understanding of St Paul and marriage, and his redefinition of “headship” as “rooted in voluntary suffering and self-giving rather than in an essentialist Aristotelian hierarchy.” Furthermore, Barkman’s definition of Lewisian-Aristotelian “essence” is, according to Poe, fundamentally opposed to Lewis’ view of the fall of humanity.
Concluding the print-colloquium, Diana Pavlac Glyer notes the clearest result of the discussion: an acknowledgement that
“Lewis’s views on gender, like his views on most things, are more complex than most people realize.”
Glyer’s essay seeks more precision, such as with Lewis’ complex language and ideas about feminine and masculine, female and male, and women and men as terms. Glyer believes that despite his complexity, depth, and sometimes surprising definitions, Lewis’ gender-loaded terms of quality are problematic: Lewis uses the term “masculine” as “an umbrella term for strength, initiative, courtesy, protection, frankness, and chivalry, and ‘feminine’ to mean tenderness, responsiveness, tact, and beauty.” Dissatisfied with the “thinness” of abstract language and the “splintered” nature of contemporary word usage, as Lewis is an imagistic thinker, Glyer argues that more study is needed.
Glyer agrees with Van Leeuwen and others about development in Lewis’ ideas and the importance of contextual reading. Glyer is not certain, however, that his basic commitment to essentialism changes much in his life. Still, Glyer argues that it is important to look at the quality of Lewis’ term-usage, noting an essential egalitarianism within an unequal world, a more well-rounded view of human personality than one might immediately suppose, a literary interest in his use of gender and sex language, and a softening of an increasing sophistication in his use of gender language—all rooted in a “deeply ingrained pragmatism.” Given Lewis’ particularity, scholars must be careful about drawing universal or theoretical implications. Emphasising the need to understand the integrated reality of Lewis’ life and thought to contextualise his ideas properly, Glyer concludes with a methodological suggestion:
“[W]e will not do too badly if … we seek to follow his example: to advocate unity, to admit liberty, and to practice love.”
This journal colloquium was part of an ongoing scholarly conversation about the oft-discussed views of Lewis and gender in literary criticism. Theologian Ann Loades’ articles in 2010 on C.S. Lewis and gender evaluate Lewis’ view on the ordination of women, Lewis’ British context concerning women (Edwardian culture, Oxford, WWI, etc.), and his use of gender as metaphor and as part of his worldview. In conversation with Van Leeuwen, Loades demonstrates the transformation of gender-tagged language that was endemic to his world and his usage. Loades contrasts the patterns of masculinity in Lewis’ experiences of abuse in boarding schools with Lewis’ own much more creative, generous, and capacious views. Loades distinguishes between Lewis’ theoretical play of ideas and what is deepest in his work. In those deeper wells, in particular on the Christological level, Loades suggests that readers “need not follow CSL either in the ventures of his imagination or of his opinions,” but notes that
“his understanding of Christ offered a most significant alternative to the cruelty, violence, intimidation, self-seeking, and manipulative behavior of which he was so critical….”
The muscular masculinity of his culture is contrasted with Lewis’ Pauline Christology as a “most significant alternative” that
“captures something of what he believed about the importance of forgiveness and self-sacrifice in human life.”
Rather than dismissing the problematic aspects of Lewis’ work, Loades looks for inversive or transformative moments in his life and writings. Lewis’ Christological inversion of gender characteristics is significant, Loades believes, as it is pinned to
“Lewis’s portrayal of the loving, self-denying, endlessly crucified Christ.”
This link can be positive or negative, and the “regrettable” aspects Loades records are often problematically gendered. Regardless, Loades argues that it is Lewis’ lived experience that most clearly demonstrates the critical importance of his imitatio Christi spirituality as it transforms the ideas of masculinity he received from his culture. Though Van Leeuwen, Hannay, and Poe each suggest that Lewis’ view of marriage relations transform dramatically by the late 1950s, as seen in A Grief Observed, Loades finds even in his earlier views on marriage something quite striking. Recognising that in marriage his love should look “most like a crucifixion,” Lewis models his understanding of a cruciform posture in spiritual life where one becomes “not merely Christlike, but more ‘feminine’”—a view Loades intensifies by noting Lewis’ self-sacrificial care of the dying Joy Davidman. Elsewhere, she argues for a Lewisian view of “Christ-likeness” bound up with a “normative mutuality of give-and-take” that cannot ever be one-sided. Where Lewis fails theoretically, Loades suggests, is in weighting this Christlikeness on one partner’s roles, in suggesting that self-death for the other was the normal posture for the male alone, for “[b]oth may be Christ-like if either is to be.”
Deeply interested in what she calls “theological feminism” is Canadian literary critic Monika Hilder, whose 2002 article, “The Foolish Weakness in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy: A Feminine Heroic” is subsequently worked out in a trilogy of books on Lewis and gender, offers a transformative vision of Lewis’ life and work. In dialogue with the critics discussed above—including Filmer, whose book clearly invited response but is often ignored–Hilder’s approach to Lewis’ entire corpus argues that rather than a developmental thesis (so Hannay, Poe, Van Leeuwen, and to a certain extent, Loades), Lewis is operating with an embedded system of gender thought that requires a rereading of his entire project. Hilder develops a framework which she describes as a “feminine heroic” that exists with remarkable consistency throughout Lewis’ work. As readers have become increasingly conscious of how gender stereotypes and assertions of sexual hierarchies have contributed to the suffering of women historically, Lewis’ playful, medieval-soaked imagistic approach to gender might suggest damaging exclusivities. Granted that history of abuse and exclusion, Hilder argues that by contrast, Lewis
“uses gender metaphor … to convey spirituality in a surprisingly gender-inclusive way.”
Rather than merely confirming historical sexism, within his often dangerous and troublesome play with literary ideas of sex and gender Lewis offers pathways to women’s liberation and relational interdependence by subverting the values embedded within misogynistic gender assumptions.
In particular, Hilder demonstrates that
“without exception, Lewis extols as heroic qualities that which Western thinking has gendered as ‘feminine.’”
In contrast to “masculine” heroic qualities that tend to be valued in literature and culture in the West, Lewis inverts these values by highlighting a spiritual feminine perspective in his fiction. Hilder contrasts a classical “masculine” heroic model with a spiritual “feminine” heroic model to develop a concept of “theological feminism” in Lewis’ work. The result is that gendered characteristics within the classical masculine heroic model are subverted, inverted, and transformed into more deeply rich feminine-spiritual heroic traits in the characters and narrative development of his fiction; reason is twinned with and superseded by imagination, autonomy by interdependence, activity by passivity, aggression by care, conquest by submission, deceit by truthfulness, and pride by humility. Without blindly valourising Lewis, and with particular attention to detail, Hilder treats with great care the grand experiment of gender imagery that saturates Lewis’ work, revealing a theological feminism that gives cultural-critical energy to a new image of liberation and joy.
Hilder demonstrates that the shining values of Lewisian heroes take up the dramatic figure of the feminine-spiritual hero, engendering a spirit of imagination, interdependence, thoughtfulness, truthfulness, humility, and a wise understanding of human relationality. That is, feminine-spiritual heroes know when to rely on friends, when to submit to greater authority or wisdom, and when to take a stand. In the Ransom books and Narnia, some of the greatest moments include the recovery of the character from a masculine-classical model to a feminine-spiritual one, including Lucy’s recovery of trust, Eustace’s and Edmund’s loss of self, and Mark’s and Jane’s conversion from independent, flailing, self-doubtful masculine characters to humbled-yet-robust feminine heroes receptive to connection.
In her analysis, Hilder attends to classical-masculine traits as they are teased out in the overarching narrative of the independent, self-reliant, hubristic hero of strength in the classical model often reproduced in speculative fiction. She then contrasts this narrative with the creative, imaginative, sensitive, self-surrendering, humble (feminine) hero of spiritual imagination. Though each of the “spiritual heroes” in Lewis’ task has his or her own classical heroism to overcome and repent of, Lucy is perhaps the greatest example in the corpus of the spiritual hero. The anti-Lucy, then, must be the White Witch—not a stereotype of the corrupt, immoral crone, but a classical image of masculine leveraging of power that fails in the face of self-sacrificial love. Lewis thus redraws a picture of what a person of strength and valour looks like, pitting Lucy against the White Witch or Uncle Andrew.
Hilder, therefore, offers an immanent critique of Lewis readers who have too quickly judged gendered characteristics by their own masculine classical expectations of heroic strength. In integrating Lewis’ entrenchment in gendered identity markers rather than demonising them or explaining them away, Hilder demonstrates that Lewis subverts the primary classical masculine trope of the hero with a new vision for understanding human being in the world. While the classical hero strikes out alone to actively carry out violent conquest according to his proud certainty, Aslan is the spiritual hero who humbly submits to the violence, receiving it unto his body in love. There can be no greater contrast between the power principle of classical hero stories than Aslan in his passion. Yet Aslan’s self-abdication taps into a “deeper magic of humility,” a spiritual story “of death to greater life.” Hilder argues that Aslan is paradigmatic of a medieval feminine spiritual hero that defines the truly heroic in his fiction, and thus is a feminine character in Lewis’ critical inversion. These inversions are what John Bowen calls the
“little-known spiritual secret in Narnia.”
Hilder uses this framework to work through the catalogue of Lewis’ fiction. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with its theme of royalty and “becoming yourself,” the four Pevensie children move along individual paths towards certain truths about leadership, “a high and difficult calling,” and
“spiritual heroism [that] is a transformative and lifelong commitment.”
In taking on the mantle of leadership, “the Pevensies grow into ‘feminine’ spiritual heroes” in contrast to the “‘anti-royal’ nature of the ‘masculine’ classical heroic ethos in the White Witch” and those who have chosen her side. Each character in Narnia, Hilder argues, “wrestles with the opposing heroic paradigms and experiences the life-or-death drama that unfolds” in their ultimate transformation into a spiritual-feminine hero. Prince Caspian, for example, “flees the heritage of Telmarine ‘masculine’ imperialism for the true Narnian kingdom of ‘feminine’ spirituality” and must learn to “be at peace with this paradox” of leadership strength in weakness. Whether in Aslan’s Stone Table sacrifice, Edmund’s moral quandary, or the Narnian resistance against tyranny, an imaginative, cooperative, receptive, empathetic, truthful, humble, self-sacrificing spiritual posture is the definition of faithful Narnian leadership. Each character learns to adopt this posture in order to find their Narnian transformative courage—whether it is the courage to assert one’s own convictions, the courage to confront a friend, or the courage of battle and adventure.
Hilder’s argument for the feminine spiritual inversion in Lewis’ work cuts across some of the conversations about Lewis and gender. In an intriguing response to “the Problem with Susan,” Hilder suggests that Susan’s rejection of Narnia for lipstick and parties is not a judgement against the feminine in the text (or against sexuality in general) but Susan’s particular rejection of a feminine heroic for masculine societal expectations for “grown-up” women. Beyond gendered symbols of growth, Lewis viewed the desire to reject childish realities for adultish things as “a mark of really arrested development.” Thus, Hilder argues, Susan turns to lipstick and parties not as an expression of adult femininity but as a rejection of the Narnian childlike posture of transformative power. As noted before, Jill takes up traditionally male roles in The Last Battle in being an excellent scout and marksman. In Hilder’s argument, these are “noteworthy” traits. That Jill takes up these male-patterned skills with excellence, however, is “beside the point of what constitutes her spiritual heroism,” which is the
“tender and firm commitment to Narnia.”
This pattern of humility, loyalty, and feminine spiritual response continues in other parts of Lewis’ fiction. Ransom in outer space must learn to surrender to Maleldil’s will and submit his mind, fears, will, and body in order to become a heroic instrument of transformation:
“Ransom’s ethos of ‘feminine’ surrender, paradoxically, is what empowers him with unparalleled courage against the foe.”
In extensive contrast of the “‘masculine’ classical heroism posed in the N.I.C.E. and the … ‘feminine’ spiritual heroism developed in the community of St. Anne’s,” all the characters of That Hideous Strength have to decide “whether to choose self-reliance or obedience to the divine.”
Ultimately, Hilder challenges readers in the expectations they bring to the text. Because we
“tend to read ‘gender’ through the lenses of classical heroism, … we tend to misread Lewis’s representation of gender” and “miss much insight into the spirituality that Lewis’s application of gender metaphor offers.”
In challenging the reader, Hilder’s interest is partly to counteract “a deep-going epistemological chauvinism” in Western culture that results in “the double cultural marginalisation of both spiritual heroism and femininity.” Hilder is offering a feminist analysis that is also a feminist self-critique and an opportunity for seeking greater gender freedom:
“My argument is that a rereading of Lewis’s affinity with hierarchical cosmology … [is] a living picture of spiritual liberation which the socio-political paradigm misses.”
Lewis’ “theological feminism,” the grand inversive revolution of power matrices in Hilder’s terms, “convey[s] spirituality in a surprisingly gender-inclusive way” as it subverts “typical gender discourse in ways intended to challenge and to liberate from chauvinism.”
Whither Lewis and Gender Studies?
Not all Lewis critics find Hilder’s argument convincing, as we see of Barkman above, who looks to Lewis to restore gender hierarchies, essentialism, and complementarianism. Critiquing theses of inversion from another angle, Laura Lee Smith argues that
“even if we admit that Lewis was engaging in a countercultural theological feminism,… we should not expect feminists to embrace Lewis as a long-overlooked ally.”
By contrast, Evangelical “Jesus Feminist” Sarah Bessey intimates this inversive argument, asking readers to imagine that “Aslan is on the move” as she speaks of a growing spirituality of Christlike egalitarianism. This Aslanic egalitarianism is
“destabilizing old power structures” and moving outside of sacred cells to be with misfits, rebels, courageous lovers, the vulnerable, and those deemed “not worthy enough or right enough.”
No single reading of Lewis’ understanding of gender and sexuality will be convincing to all.
I do not know if Hilder has won the day or if it is coincidental, but it appears that there is a détente of sorts in Lewis studies. While public intellectuals like Philip Pullman continue to critique Lewis for his views, and while girl and women readers often speak with dismay about their experience of reading about Susan’s fate in The Last Battle or dismissive sexism in That Hideous Strength or The Screwtape Letters, the heat seems to have been turned down on the question since Hilder’s trilogy of books has appeared. The largely positive and thoughtful tone of Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key 2015 edited volume, Women and C.S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today’s Culture, shows how there can be a fruitful conversation about Lewis’ life and works when we ask questions like, “how do girls read Narnia?”, “how did Lewis grow in his understanding of gender?”, “how did Lewis’ friendships influence his thought?”, and “how can we understand the complex and difficult moments in his fiction and lectures?” And we continue to see thoughtful reflections from women scholars and writers, including Edith Humphrey’s chapter “Sacrament and Essence, Masculine and Feminine” in her 2017 study, Further Up and Further in: Orthodox Conversations with C.S. Lewis on Scripture.
I know that there is some madness in suggesting that we might be coming to a point of thoughtful precision and evidence-based conversation within what is certainly the most dynamic moment of change in perspectives on gender in this generation. Perhaps there is a method to the madness, as Kat Coffin’s very reasonable resistance piece to both blind defences and sweeping erasures of Narnia, “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?,” has been read broadly and shared positively by leading social media figures in both egalitarian and far-right movements.
Who knows how this might turn out?
However, I suspect that scholars, critics, intellectuals, influencers, and essayists who are interested in C.S. Lewis and gender will go in one or more of several directions:
- the question of gender within transgender conversations;
- a consideration of how Lewis might be a somewhat surprising partner in ongoing women’s liberation discussions (such as the recent MeToo movement);
- “queer studies,” both generative and critical;
- a masculinity studies approach;
- evidence-based studies of who women and girls read Lewis; and
- studies that work to integrate Lewis’ views about gender with his philosophical, political, theological, or social thought.
My own work sits largely in the last category. I have provided “A Bibliography on C.S. Lewis and Gender (Secondary Sources),” which lists more resources for the eager scholar who would like to continue the conversation. For those that do, I suggest that there are 8 key questions that we need to ask and answer when reading Lewis (and many other figures) well on questions about gender.
- What is the Distinction between Sexism and Misogyny? (i.e., can we be clear about our terms rather than use words as weapons?)
- How do Biography and Public Works Fit Together? (this is actually a pretty sophisticated problem of historiography and biography-writing)
- Is Lewis’ Theology of Gender “Merely Christian”? (i.e., in what ways are Lewis’ views unique?)
- Did C.S. Lewis Grow or Change in his Views?
- Have we Negotiated the Personal Heresy (i.e., can we distinguish between Lewis’ views and that of his characters and narrators?)?
- When Society Changes and Books Don’t, How Do We Prepare Readers for Troubling Aspects?
- What are Authentic Ways to Read a Text?
- How do we Read Authors from Other Times and Places?
Related to Lewis and gender, in this Signum Symposium in Fall 2019, as an extension of my course “C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex,” I hosted a discussion on “C.S. Lewis, Gender, and The Four Loves.” I use Lewis’ lecture series and book, The Four Loves, to structure this “open class.” The book is provocative and in many ways on the mark, but also troubling and problematic to many readers. Spending time with the difficulties, I believe, can be a fruitful exercise.
 Stella Gibbons, “Imaginative Writing,” in Light on C.S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: HarperCollins, 1965), 93. Gibbons also feels the character of Mrs Beaver is too stereotypical of a fussy woman, 93.
 Margaret Patterson Hannay, “‘Surprised by Joy’: C.S. Lewis’ Changing Attitudes Toward Women,” Mythlore 4, no. 1 (1976): 15. See also Margaret Patterson Hannay, “C.S. Lewis: Mere Misogyny?”, Daughters of Sarah 1, no. 6 (1975): 1-4; Doris T. Myers, “Brave New World: The Status of Women according to Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams,” Cimarron Review 17 (1971): 13-19.
 Hannay, “Surprised by Joy,” 15.
 E.g., Kathryn Lindskoog, “C.S. Lewis: Reactions from Women,” Mythlore 3, no. 4 (1976): 18-20, where she challenges Barfield’s claim of misogyny directly by appealing to women’s experiences in reading and affirmational moments in Lewis’ life and writing. See also Lindskoog, Mere Christian, 20, and Lindskoog’s entries in The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, ed. Jeffrey D. Schultz, and John G. West, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) on “Sex” (429) and “Women” (429).
 Corbin Scott Carnell, “The Meaning of Masculine and Feminine in the Work of C.S. Lewis,” Modern British Literature 2 (1977): 153-159. Carnell’s conclusions here are part of the assumptions in his Bright Shadow, esp. 167-169, 124-127.
 From a Jungian perspective, see Nancy-Lou Patterson, “Guardaci Ben: The Visionary Woman in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and That Hideous Strength,” Mythlore 6, no. 3 (1979): 6-10 and Mythlore 6, no. 4 (1979): 20-24; Patterson, Ransoming the Waste Land, 227-33.
 Responding to Dorothy L. Sayers’ question, “Are Women Human?” in Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), 106-116. See Karla Faust Jones, “Girls in Narnia: Hindered or Human?” Mythlore 13, no. 3 (1987): 15-19.
 Kath Filmer, The Fiction of C.S. Lewis: Mask and Mirror (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 27. See also Cath Filmer-Davies, “C.S. Lewis” in The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology, edited by Andrew Hass, David Jasper, and Elizabeth Jay (Oxford University Press, 2007), 655-668.
 Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 110.
 Lewis, THS, 380.
 Jean E. Graham, “Women, Sex, and Power: Circe and Lilith in Narnia,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 29, nos. 1-2 (2004): 37.
 Alicia D. Burris, “Gender Differentiation and Gender Hierarchy in C.S. Lewis” (BA honours thesis, Georgia Southern University, 2014), 25.
 Gretchen Bartels, “Of Men and Mice: C.S. Lewis on Male-Female Interactions,” Literature & Theology 22, no. 3 (2008): 324.
 Ibid, 334.
 Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 100.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 25-26.
 Patterson, Ransoming the Waste Land, 145-176.
 Ibid, 261. This is the primary argument in Lewis’ discussion with Tillyard in The Personal Heresy.
 Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 88.
 Patterson, Ransoming the Waste Land, 269.
 Lewis, THS, 149; see Patterson, Ransoming the Waste Land, 269-270. Beyond Narnia and That Hideous Strength, Filmer is probably not alone in reading Lewis’ character Peggy in “The Shoddy Lands” as a female “embodiment of petty selfishness and greed” that taints Lewis’ spiritual vision (Film, Mask and Mirror 90).
 Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride, Women Among the Inklings: Gender, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams (London: Greenwood Press, 2001).
 Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride, “Battling the Woman Warrior: Females and Combat in Tolkien and Lewis,” Mythlore 35, No. 3/4 (2007): 29-42. See also Ernelle Fife, “Wise Warriors in Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.” Mythlore 25, nos.1-2 (2006): 147-162.
 Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “A Sword Between the Sexes: C.S. Lewis’s Long Road to Gender Equality,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36, No. 4 (2007): 392.
 Ibid, 414.
 See Derrick, Fame.
 Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, A Sword Between the Sexes: C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates (BrazosPress, 2010), 109-138. In a similar vein, close friend of Lewis and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, admitted to the New York C.S. Lewis’ Society in 1972 that on the theoretical level Lewis could very well be considered a misogynist, though he was not a misogynist in his personal life, Green and Hooper, C.S. Lewis, 213-214.
 The central work of this critique is in Van Leeuwen, Sword, 139-165.
 Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 3.
 Adam Barkman, “‘All is Righteousness and there is no Equality’: C.S. Lewis on Gender and Justice,” Christian Scholar’s Review (2007): 416-417.
 Ibid, 417.
 Ibid, 417.
 See in more detail Van Leeuwen, Sword, 64-70.
 Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “What Did Lewis Say, and When Did He Say It? A Reply to Adam Barkman,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 439.
 Van Leeuwen, “What Did Lewis Say?” 440.
 Ibid, 444.
 Adam Barkman, “‘We Must Go Back to Our Bibles’: A Reply to Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen,” Christian Scholar’s Review (2007): 445.
 Doris T. Myers, “Lewis in Genderland,” Christian Scholar’s Review 34, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 456.
 Joe R. Christopher, “Gender Hierarchies and Lowerarchies: A Response to Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and Adam Barkman,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 463.
 Harry Lee Poe, “Lewis and the Ladies,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 472.
 Ibid, 475.
 Ibid, 473.
 Diana Pavlac Glyer, “‘We are All Fallen Creatures and All Very Hard to Live With’: Some Thoughts on Lewis and Gender,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 477.
 Ibid, 477.
 Ibid, 481.
 Ibid, 483. Cf. Christopher, “Gender Hierarchies,” 468.
 E.g., Jennifer L. Miller, “No Sex in Narnia? How Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’ Problematizes Lewis’s Narnia,” Mythlore 28, nos. 1-2 (2009): 113-130; Emerson, “Innocence as a Super-power,” 131-147.
 Ann Loades, “On Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 162.
 Ann Loades, “C.S. Lewis on Gender,” Priscilla Papers 24, no. 1 (2010): 19-20.
 Ibid, 168-170; Loades, “Lewis and Gender,” 20-23.
 Loades, “Lewis and Gender,” 22-23.
 Ibid, 23.
 Loades, “On Gender,” 170.
 Ibid, 170.
 See Ibid, 173, n. 43, where she references PoP, 36, and Four Loves, 128-129.
 Lewis, Four Loves, 121.
 Loades, “Lewis and Gender,” 23.
 Loades, “On Gender,” 170.
 Ibid, 170.
 Monika B. Hilder, “The Foolish Weakness in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy: A Feminine Heroic.” SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review 19 (2002): 77–90; The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Studies in Twentieth-Century British literature 10. New York: Peter Lang, 2012; The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy. Studies in Twentieth-Century British Literature 11. New York: Peter Lang, 2013; Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender. Studies in Twentieth-Century British Literature 12. New York: Peter Lang, 2013.
 Hilder, Feminine Ethos, 6.
 Ibid, 8.
 Feminine Ethos, 29.
 John P. Bowen, The Spirituality of Narnia: The Deeper Magic of C.S. Lewis (Regent College Publishing, 2007), 85.
 Hilder, Feminine Ethos, 21.
 Ibid, 21-22.
 Ibid, 40.
 Ibid, 45.
 Lewis, “On Three Ways,” 25.
 Ibid, 153.
 Hilder, Gender Dance, 61.
 Ibid, 85-86.
 Hilder, Feminine Ethos, 159-160.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 19.
 Hilder, Gender Dance, 6.
 Laura Lee Smith, review of Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C.S. Lewis and Gender, by Monika B. Hilder, Mythlore 34, no. 1 (2015): 167.
 Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women (Howard Books, 2013), 15.
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