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Khazad-dûm Report: January 6, 1991

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report
January 6, 1991, Topic: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Reported by Edith Crowe

Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 28 Number 3 (Whole #129), March 1991.

Khazad-dûm marked the twentieth anniversary of its first meeting by reconsidering the book that was its first discussion topic – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. A pre-meeting discussion of horror movies led David Bratman to remark, “Speaking of horror movies, has anyone seen the TV version of The Silver Chair?”, thereby providing a smooth segue into actual discussion of the book. None of those present who first read LWW (or any of the Narnia books) as adults were very impressed. The inadequacies mentioned included a poorly constructed secondary world (especially when compared with Tolkien’s); a condescending tone toward children; a not well thought out series conception; the obvious and sledgehammer quality of the Christian symbolism (again as compared to Tolkien).

Curiously, those who first read the books as children remembered liking them a great deal. None of the things others (or even they themselves) found irritating as adults had bothered them as children, or were even noticed. Irene said that something”unexplained or unexplored” about Narnia drew her in as a child, especially Tumnus. This interesting dichotomy led to a long digression on who among us had read much mythopoeic fantasy as children and who had encountered it mostly as adults, and what factors determined what one read as a child. The accusation of condescension generated speculation on how much of this was due to the authors themselves (as The Hobbit was also judged guilty, though to a lesser extent) and how much was characteristic of children’s fiction of the period. Though our knowledge of classic British children’s fiction was insufficient to draw any authoritative conclusions, we agreed that some of the condescension was characteristic of the time, despite such exceptions as the very uncondescending The Wind in the Willows. Ellie pointed out that Lewis didn’t have children and Tolkien did, and suggested the little Tolkiens might have knocked quite a bit of the condescension out when they first heard the stories from Papa.

Our rather negative view of LWW caused Chrys to exclaim that she had yet to meet anyone in the Society who liked Lewis. (She’s never been to a Mythcon.) Several members of the group hastened to reassure her that they liked other words of Lewis, and why. Though Lisa didn’t think Lewis was a particularly good world-creator, others disagreed, mostly citing the Space trilogy, but tending to agree with Ellie’s characterization of Narnia as shallow, like a stage set, compared to the great depth of Middle-earth. We decided that in the Narnian books Lewis tended to throw in things from other sources without transforming them into something uniquely his own (as Tolkien did). In the same way, Tolkien mined a deeper level for his Christian symbolism, whereas Lewis took his more “off the top”, from a more particular and dogmatic version of Christianity.

Edith wondered if the faults of the Narnian books were related to Lewis’s habits as a professional writer – doing jobs of work for money and meeting deadlines. Others asserted that Lewis did not begin to write children’s books for money, but because he wanted to get out the message of Christianity for those who wouldn’t read something obviously Christian. David observed that if that was his intention, he didn’t succeed very well; Aslan wins the day by “a legalistic trick”, knowing about a Deeper Magic than the witch does. This set off a lengthy and often abstruse theological discussion. We wondered if Aslan knew all along he was going to resurrect, what kind of sacrifice is that? Edith said that Jesus wasn’t any different – it was willingness to undertake the sacrifice, not knowledge of the outcome, that was important. She thought where the power of resurrection resided was more significant. Jesus’s was within himself, but Aslan’s sounds like it comes from without, from knowledge of the Deep Magic.

Exhausted by theology, we wondered if children perceived this as a “Christian” story if they weren’t already familiar with the doctrine. Evidence from our own reading of the Narnian books as children, and observations of children known to us, indicated they didn’t. However, they weren’t meant to; Lewis’s intention was to “soften up” the reader for the Christian message. It was clear the discussion was almost over when someone complained that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a “dumb, clumsy title” and would be more euphonious in different order. David put the kibosh on the official discussion by pointing out (with a straight face) that as a poetry teacher, Lewis was well aware of “the critical importance of the first lion.”