I woke up Sunday morning in an absolutely awful mood – a straight week of rain, friend group drama, the deep and existential dread that pervades all otherwise unburdened moments of our brief lives, my cat was mad at me, etc. – and decided to put the feeling to good use before it went away by rereading the Chronicles of Narnia.
I loved Narnia as a kid. My parents can testify how beat-up our copies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Voyage of the Dawn Treader were by the time my brother and I were done with them; I loved the Witches, I loved the Satyrs and Naiads and Dryads, I loved the lamp-post that grew in a forest, I loved Cair Paravel, I loved Reepicheep the Mouse and Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle and Trumpkin the Red Dwarf. I loved Susan’s magical horn which called help to you wherever you were, and Lucy’s healing cordial, and Digory Kirke, and Eustace Scrubb even if he was a prig; I loved the talking animals, and the majestic kings and queens, and the knights and battles. We owned four of the Narnia books, and I must have taken the other three out of the library about a hundred times.
I didn’t know they were about Jesus, of course, at the time. More precisely: I didn’t know they were about Christianity, and meant for little Christian children, as a way of thinking about Christianity in a childlike way. It was a genuine shock to me to discover that pairing a Lion with a Lamb was a religious image; it was a shock to discover that an innocent “son of the King of Kings”, killed and restored to life, was a religious image.
You’ll have to forgive me – I was about six when I first read them, and about nine when I found out. I cared more about witches and magical creatures than I did about Aslan, and besides, how was I supposed to know what these Christian things were? It was the twenty-first century, and I was allowed to reach the age of nine without being intimately familiar with the Christian Bible.
C.S. Lewis’ Professor would probably say to that, “What do they teach them in these schools?” But I suppose he’d be pleased to know that I was well familiar with Christian imagery and philosophy and thought by the time I was sixteen. You can’t pass a high school English class if you aren’t, no matter how secular your school is. Times change, but canon is canon.
Yes, I sound bitter. Yes, I’m bitter now. Yes, I was bitter then, and yes, it hurt to find out that it was about Christianity, and it hurts, and it’ll hurt tomorrow; it hurts, even though it is a children’s book, because it is a children’s book, because I loved the children’s book, and because it did not love me back. Because I loved the Western canon, and because the Western canon did not love me back. It hurts that Aslan is Jesus because it hurts that Gatsby works with Meyer Wolfsheim because it hurts that Fagin is “the Jew” because it hurts that they only celebrate Christmas at Hogwarts – always winter, and never Hanukkah.
It hurts because it was not meant to hurt. It hurts because C.S. Lewis did not write Narnia in order to convert me to Christianity – there is nothing in there which tells little Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist girls that they ought to accept Aslan-Jesus. It hurts because the Narnia books are not for little Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist girls. It is for Christian children, to teach them about Christianity in a childlike way, because they are the ones who need to know about Narnia, because one day they will find their way to Aslan’s country.
In most of the stories I read, boys were the heroes, and girls were there to be rescued princesses or dead queen mothers or evil stepmothers. That didn’t hurt; it still doesn’t. I could pretend to be the boy heroes, which was good; once I got older, I could read Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede and Gail Carson Levine and The Golden Compass, I could be a princess who saved herself, which was better. Once I got even older, I learned to stop trying to be a princess and start being a witch, and that was best of all.
But Narnia was different, because I was not allowed to be in the story, because I will never be allowed to be in the story. Because if I am allowed into Narnia, Narnia has no meaning, it falls apart. It would be as if they started letting Muggles into Hogwarts; it would be as if they started letting grown-ups into Neverland. Because that is what the eternal outsider is, the token, the wandering Jew: never the heroes of the story, not really, not in the stories that matter, not in the stories that stay with you.
(I have ignored, up to this point in this piece, the literary comfort of my whiteness. Narnia is viciously, violently, indefensibly racist and Islamophobic; in at least two books, the main villains are the Calormenes, a horrifying amalgam of every despicable and untrue European story about the Middle East. C.S. Lewis is not alone in this; nor are Middle Easterners. It is so jarring to me to be shut out of Narnia because Middle-Earth and Neverland and Hogwarts and every once-upon-a-time from my childhood are full of people who look exactly like me, who speak my language with my vocabulary and my cadence, whose customs of eating and dressing and sitting and sleeping and speaking I would recognize from my own present or history, who would identify me as one of their people. Narnia is one of very few of our shared fictional worlds where I cannot be a hero; this puts me among an unfairly lucky few people on this Earth for whom this is the case.)
I read all seven books in three days. I had missed Narnia. It shook me badly, to realize how much I had missed it. I hadn’t wanted to.