Narnia: Identifying with the Aggressor

Narnia Recap: Lucy has stepped into the Wardrobe and found herself in the magical land of Narnia. She takes tea in the home of a faun before he confesses that he has been employed to kidnap human children. Lucy begs to be let go and the faun accompanies her back to the magical portal so that she might escape.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 3: Edmund and the Wardrobe

   LUCY RAN OUT OF THE EMPTY ROOM into the passage and found the other three.
   "It's all right," she repeated, "I've come back." [...]
   "So you've been hiding, have you?" said Peter. "Poor old Lu, hiding and nobody noticed! You'll have to hide longer than that if you want people to start looking for you."
   "But I've been away for hours and hours," said Lucy.
   The others all stared at one another.
   "Batty!" said Edmund, tapping his head. "Quite batty."

Edmund, the second youngest Pevensie, has already been rather unsubtly telegraphed to us as something of a villain -- his first recorded words in the novel, after all, are a harsh grumble at his sister Susan to stop imitating their mother, and his attitude does not improve materially from there. Now that Lucy has tumbled from the wardrobe back into her own world and is about to receive a harsh lesson in Narnia Time, Edmund will be the first and the most vociferous voice labeling Lucy insane.

Able-ism issues aside (and I apologize in advance for any able-ism of my own that may seep into this post), Edmund is not entirely without a point, even if he expresses it inappropriately. His sister has been in the adjoining room alone for something like a few seconds -- maybe a few minutes at the most -- and has suddenly come tumbling back out of the room with wild stories of magical lands and impossible creatures. (Creatures that, incidentally, Freud would have something of a field day with, given that fauns in classical literature are rather usually associated with sex and virility!) This is unusual behavior, to say the least.

This isn't just a matter of an overactive imagination putting together a vivid new world in a matter of minutes; Lucy very clearly believes her story and conveys as much with both her body language and her speech. Peter, the "good guy" of the family tries to rationalize Lucy's odd behavior while providing her an easy out of the situation -- it's all make-believe, he assures the others, isn't it, Lucy? Just a joke. Lucy insists that it's not, and the other children are forced to examine a perfectly ordinary wardrobe for a magical portal that they all believe to be impossible.

   "No, Peter, I'm not," she said. "It's -- it's a magic wardrobe. There's a wood inside it, and it's snowing, and there's a Faun and a Witch and it's called Narnia; come and see. [...]
   "Why, you goose," said Susan, putting her head inside and pulling the fur coats apart, "it's just an ordinary wardrobe; look! there's the back of it."

What can be made of Lucy's odd behavior? Well, quite a bit, actually, but we'll get to that in Chapter 5. For now, in Chapter 3, I'd like to focus on the character of Edmund as it unfolds over the next few pages.

   For the next few days she was very miserable. She could have made it up with the others quite easily at any moment if she could have brought herself to say that the whole thing was only a story made up for fun. But Lucy was a very truthful girl and she knew that she was really in the right; and she could not bring herself to say this. The others who thought she was telling a lie, and a silly lie too, made her very unhappy. The two elder ones did this without meaning to do it, but Edmund could be spiteful, and on this occasion he was spiteful. He sneered and jeered at Lucy and kept on asking her if she'd found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.

The Wikipedia entry for Edmund states the following:

   In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund is one of the main characters, at the age of 10 years old, and the character who develops the most over the course of story.
   It is implied in the book that Edmund started life as a likeable person, but then changed for the worse and began to act meanly after attending a new school. However, in the 2005 film adaptation of the book, it is implied that he is upset that their father was forced to serve in the war and that they are sent away from home as a result. In the 1988 BBC version, the reason for his change in behavior is not mentioned.

That, in a very small nutshell, showcases the differences in literary characterization between external forces and internal drives: Book!Edmund acts badly because a boarding school has made him a bad person; Movie!Edmund acts badly because he misses his parents and he is terribly upset about the war and the effect it has had (and may yet have) on his family.

It's not a secret that Lewis has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to boarding schools and schooling methods -- both of his child villains (Edmund and Eustace) are bad children because of their school situations. Edmund is a bad child because he has been to boarding school and the loneliness and isolation he has experienced there has corrupted him into a bully; Eustace is a bad child because he has been to a progressive mixed school and the lax attitudes towards discipline have spoiled him. All authors have biases, and perhaps it is fair to grant Lewis this one in light of his own personal history with boarding schools.

However, I'm honestly not sure if Lewis is projecting himself onto the character of Edmund (which would be curiously self-loathing, but would fit with the Christian themes of sin and redemption within the narrative) or if he is instead projecting childhood bullies from his past onto Edmund. From my own reading, I am tempted to think the latter case is closest to the mark. Here and there in the pages of TLWW, there are glimpses of true sympathy for Edmund, but the glimpses are few and far apart and almost always punctuated with Edmund doing or saying something particularly nasty in order to drive home the point to the reader that Thou Shalt Not Sympathize With Edmund.

And yet, I do sympathize with Edmund. I didn't, I am sure, as a child; but as an adult, it's hard for me not to see a very vulnerable child. The boy is a mere 10 years old, which is really not very old at all for dealing with the life conflicts being thrown at him. He's been separated from his parents frequently and for long stretches of time -- first at boarding school and now because of the war. If he is a brat and a bully, we have to ask ourselves where he learned this behavior, and since the in-text finger is pointed at the shadowy Boarding School, I have to wonder if Edmund's behavior isn't a classic case of identification; my gut feeling is that he has become an aggressor in emulation of his teachers or fellow students as a defensive technique against a world that keeps throwing very real and painful challenges at him.

It can be difficult sometimes for an author to write a villain, because an author's job is to essentially get into their characters' heads, dig around, and understand what makes them tick. In order to write a character really well, the author will have to avoid the cliches and stereotypes and instead understand their character as a person. Why do they do the things they do? What makes them think that way? Why do they view the world through that lens? What, essentially, makes them who they are as opposed to someone else entirely? Digging through a character's head can be difficult; it's hard not to identify at least a little with the character once you're in there, and then how do you keep writing them as a villain once you've come to understand them so well? But Lewis doesn't seem to identify with Edmund at all over the course of the novel, and he clearly doesn't want the reader to, either.

It distresses me somewhat that we can look at the same character, and where I see a hurt and frightened young boy, he sees only a nasty bratty child. It's good, I suppose, that Lewis allows Edmund to be redeemed and saved, but it's telling perhaps that I don't think the boy needs redemption. I think he needs love and stability and safety, and possibly a stern talking-to if he has trouble shaking his aggressor-identification behaviors off over time, but I don't see Edmund as a 'sinner' deserving  death. It's possible that this difference of opinion simply boils down to a difference of philosophy, yet still it surprises me that getting inside Edmund's head didn't apparently cause Lewis to identify with him at all.

   That day, when it came to the afternoon and there was still no sign of a break in the weather, they decided to play hide-and-seek. Susan was "It" and as soon as the others scattered to hide, Lucy went to the room where the wardrobe was. She did not mean to hide in the wardrobe, because she knew that would only set the others talking again about the whole wretched business. But she did want to have one more look inside it; for by this time she was beginning to wonder herself whether Narnia and the Faun had not been a dream.

And it is scenes like this one that proves that Lewis can get into characters' heads, when he wants to: in a moment of privacy, Lucy returns to the wardrobe. Not because she wants to return to Narnia, but simply because she wonders if she has in fact imagined the whole thing. The event was vivid and real to her, real enough that she can't admit to telling a story even to make peace with her siblings, but at the same time she can't reconcile what she has experienced with the world that she knows thus far. She is a seeker, and Lewis skillfully gets and conveys that.

Nevertheless, Edmund has to tromp in behind her and ruin everything with his awful awfulness.

   Now the steps she had heard were those of Edmund; and he came into the room just in time to see Lucy vanishing into the wardrobe. He at once decided to get into it himself -- not because he thought it a particularly good place to hide but because he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country.

Knowing what we know, this is pretty beastly behavior from Edmund. Lucy has had the terribly bad luck of finding a new world and then having that world vanish when she tried to show it to her siblings. She's been wearing the label of "liar" and "crazy" since then, and even though her older siblings aren't intending to hurt her feelings, nevertheless she feels understandably hurt and confused by the entire situation. Now here Edmund is deliberately planning to make it worse by following her to the wardrobe and starting the whole argument up again.

And yet, from another point of view, Edmund's behavior is not so much evil as rather understandably petty. His younger sister has spent the last several days adamantly insisting that she has found a secret magical world that only she can enter, and his older siblings have spent a disproportionate amount of time dwelling on her preposterous tales. "Could Lucy possibly be telling the truth?" they must be asking when she's not around, and "Is she sick? Should we somehow get word to our parents?" Indeed, in Chapter 5, Susan and Peter will have a very similar conversation.

To Edmund, this must be the height of annoying. There is Serious Business going on back in London and their parents could be dead or dying any minute. Instead of dwelling on the seriousness of their situation (which would at least acknowledge the situation) or finding something fun and diverting to do to pass the time (which would at least distract from the situation), they are instead spending an awful lot of time and brain power humoring this obvious fantasy of Lucy's. The youngest child of the family is getting all the attention with this ridiculous story she has concocted, and what's more she has the gall to mope around with sad eyes because PETAH WON'T BUHLIEVE HER rather than, you know, because they might all be made orphans tomorrow.

From Edmund's point of view, I imagine this would be insufferably irritating. And now Lucy is returning to the wardrobe, no doubt to concoct another "adventure" that only she can have, and the whole thing will start over again. It makes sense that Edmund would follow her to be a witness and nip this whole thing in the bud; and if it means getting a few digs in at his sister, well, it's been a rather trying week all told. It's not good behavior, but neither is it evil behavior; it's the sort of thing I would expect from a sometimes-bratty older brother as part of normal sibling rivalry.

   There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree-trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country. There was not even a robin or a squirrel among the trees, and the wood stretched as far as he could see in every direction. He shivered.
   He now remembered that he had been looking for Lucy; and also how unpleasant he had been to her about her "imaginary country" which now turned out not to have been imaginary at all. He thought that she must be somewhere quite close and so he shouted, "Lucy! Lucy! I'm here too -- Edmund."
   There was no answer.

And now Narnia Time is back in full force and even more sinister than before -- in the few seconds of Real World time difference between Lucy's entrance into Narnia and Edmund's own, minutes or even hours have passed in Narnia and this time skip has effectively separated the two children. Edmund is all alone in a cold wintery forest, and after days of calling Lucy "crazy", he has to suddenly wonder about his own sanity. Cognitive dissonance will be hitting him hard about now -- if he was right that believing in magical worlds is "crazy", then he too must now be "crazy"; if he was wrong, then his sanity will be cold comfort to him in this strange and frightening wilderness.

Lucy was rather lucky to enter Narnia when she did. The forest was dark and dreamlike, and she almost immediately met a colorful and child-like faun who treated her to a warm and cheery tea. The experience was fantastical in every way, and could easily feel like a dream -- Lucy was never confronted with fears for her sanity or her safety because she was so busy processing this strange new world that she never had time to come to grips with the impossibility of it.

Edmund is not so lucky. His forest is bright and cold and harsh. The experience isn't dreamy or fantastical; he is lost and alone in a bleak and cold wasteland. He is older than Lucy and has furthermore had quite a bit of time in the last few days to think about magical worlds and all the reasons why they don't and can't exist. He can't experience Narnia in the childlike wonder that Lucy could luxuriate in -- he is frightened, and with good reason.

When Lucy first came to this land, her experience was profoundly impacted by her first contact -- an affable and ridiculous faun carrying packages and an umbrella. Edmund, too, will have his first glimpse of Narnia deeply influenced by his first contact -- a beautiful and regal woman drawn on an expensive sleigh pulled by beautiful reindeer.

   "And what, pray, are you?" said the Lady, looking hard at Edmund.
   "I'm -- I'm -- my name's Edmund," said Edmund rather awkwardly. He did not like the way she looked at him.
   The Lady frowned. "Is that how you address a Queen?" she asked, looking sterner than ever.
   "I beg your pardon, your Majesty, I didn't know," said Edmund.

Throughout TLWW, Lewis will repeatedly remind us that Lucy is good and Edmund is bad -- and maybe this is so. But it may also be the case that when a very young child meets an authority figure in a strange and overwhelming new situation, that child may instinctively identify with the authority figure as a defense mechanism.

Edmund has already shown himself to be susceptible to aggressor identification, as with his "personality change" owing to his time at boarding school. I wonder, as we go forward, if we can really view Edmund as evil and damned, or if he isn't simply a victim of bad luck in meeting the White Witch first instead of someone a little more affable, like Mr. Tumnus.

And yet, if Lucy is "good" through a matter of random chance, and Edmund is "bad" through a similar roll of the universal dice, how does that affect this allegory of damnation and redemption?

40 comments:

Nathaniel said...

And yet, if Lucy is "good" through a matter of random chance, and Edmund
is "bad" through a similar roll of the universal dice, how does that
affect this allegory of damnation and redemption?

Easy. God condemns some people and saves others. Turns out that Lewis is one of them heretical Calvinists!

Gelliebean said...

I wonder if it can't be taken another way - more so that each of them has fallen in with the company he or she deserves?  Lucy is pretty clearly the wide-eyed faith-of-a-child innocent, for whom Narnia is a sort of mystical paradise - moreover, she could also be seen as a 'witness' to Mr. Tumnus.  Translated from the fantasy setting, it could be a Grace Livingston Hill book: a young girl is separated from her class trip in a large city, gets lost searching for them, and runs across a weathered old drunk who's had the Spirit 'softening his heart'....  She quotes her Sunday School lesson at him, provides a few pithy, precocious comments on the evil of drink, and you're in the perfect position for an altar call; the mustard seed has grown, the angels sing, and he escorts her back to her teachers who then invite him to share juice and cookies and sit in on a service.

On the other hand, Edmund is the rebellious, snarky, obnoxious boy who falls into bad company because of his disobedient ways.  He didn't enter Narnia with a pure and willing heart - he entered it as an interloper, having already rejected the 'Good News" that Lucy had been proclaiming and with his mind set on hurting the feelings of his sister (who is already pretty clearly the author's golden child).  I'd be more inclined to say that he meets the White Queen not because of happenstance, but because he's already condemned himself to her company by his attitudes and actions....  It seems to fit pretty well with the allegory as it develops later - he's the sinner, so he falls in with other sinners, enjoys things that aren't good for him (Turkish Delight and carriage rides, although it might as well be alcohol and gambling, OMG!) that wind up making him miserable and eventually in the bondage of Sin; while the well-behaved children get adventures and special treatment by Aslan.  Note that his sacrifice is to save Edmund, and not all the siblings; even though as an allegory of Christ's crucifixion, Peter, Susan and Lucy should have been in just as much need of the same rescue.

Ana Mardoll said...

Easy. God condemns some people and saves others. Turns out that Lewis is one of them heretical Calvinists!

I believe Calvinism is more complicated than that. Plus, as Gelliebean points out, Edmund *is* saved...

It seems to fit pretty well with the allegory as it develops later - he's the sinner, so he falls in with other sinners

This still seems unfair, if this is indeed the case: Edmund does not like or trust the Witch until after she has fed him enchanted food. Enchanted food has a long history in literature of controlling behavior, so it seems hardly fair that Edmund be held responsible for his actions after eating, and since he does not like the Witch BEFORE eating, it cannot just be a case of "like drawn to like".

I *can* imagine Edmund drawing the "evil meeting" card because Narnia takes a disliking to him (good idea!) but to me that means that Narnia/Aslan/TheEmperor is evil and petty to throw a 10-year-old child to the wolves, so to speak, just because they don't like his attitude.

I mean, heck, I don't like children all the time, either, but I don't wish overt HARM on them. :P It's by the merest lucky chance (i.e., the Witch is stupid) that Edmund isn't killed immediately.

Loquat said...

I wonder now if it is, in fact, necessary to break the Stone Table via Aslan's sacrifice in order to defeat the White Witch - because if it is somehow necessary, then Narnia needs one of the children to be a traitor. The Deep Magic gives the Witch the right to execute traitors on the Stone Table, iirc, so there must be some kind of magical relationship between her and it. Perhaps, as long as that rule exists, the Witch's life is bound to it and therefore she can't be killed unless the rule is abolished, which requires a major magical ritual such as the sacrifice of an innocent deity.

So why not use a native Narnian traitor for this task? The only answer I can come up with, without resorting to meta reason like "the humans are the main characters", is that Aslan (and, by extension, Narnia itself) thinks humans are simply more important. Narnians can't rebel against the Witch until they've got humans to put in her place, Narnians rebelling against their Telmarine occupiers are happy to fight for a "good" Telmarine king and only kick out the "bad" Telmarines, and even at the end of the world Narnia is still ruled by a human king with no apparent dwarf, naiad, or other non-human ancestry. So, given the choice between sacrificing himself for one of the chosen human children, or sacrificing himself for some satyr or dryad, I think it's pretty clear Aslan would pick the former, and Narnia itself would manipulate events to bring that about.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

I *can* imagine Edmund drawing the "evil meeting" card because Narnia
takes a disliking to him (good idea!) but to me that means that
Narnia/Aslan/TheEmperor is evil and petty to throw a 10-year-old child
to the wolves, so to speak, just because they don't like his attitude.


Not to spoil, but Aslan does just that to Jill in "The Silver Chair". How I hate that book, because he is so horrible to her for innocent mistakes of the sort that all children make (and she didn't even know enough to know that it would be a mistake! she was doing her best! and he condemns her for it)

Regarding sympathising with Edmund (and Eustace), when I read these books in the fifth and sixth grades, I did. Especially with Eustace in "the Dawn Treader". Those boys were being rational and logical, but the children who were playing make believe (as far as anyone knew - and how could anyone else know about Narnia?) treated them as though they were less than scum for it.

You know, looking back, Lewis and Narnia are probably a huge reason why I grew to resent Christianity, because his allegories are far too similar to what I was taught in Catholic school, yet I found the Good Children and Aslan to be cruel and horrible.

Nathaniel said...

I was being tongue in cheek. Sorry if that didn't come through.

That is a good point from Gelliebean. if the allegory was to truly hold up, then all the children would equally need to be saved. And yet Edmund is the only one who seems to need to change in the book. The others are basically treated perfect as is.

Well, at least until Susan gets a sex drive anyways.

Ana Mardoll said...

Nylons: the unforgivable sin!!

Ha, and sorry for the misunderstanding - my online sarcasm detection meter is TERRIBLE. :)

Kit Whitfield said...

I wonder if it can't be taken another way - more so that each of them has fallen in with the company he or she deserves?  

If that's the case, then we have to bear in mind that Lewis is acting as the God of this universe: he provides the characters with situations that reward or punish them and chooses to do so right at the beginning of the story. That's not so much letting justice play itself out as it is setting booby-traps and then punishing characters for falling into them. Hardly a benevolent Father. 


Where is it implied that boarding school is responsible for Edmund's bad character? Because I don't think it's accurate the school is held responsible for Eustace: his parents are blamed. To quote: 'They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and tee-totallers, and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and their windows were always open.' This is the first paragraph of the book, and if you don't think Lewis is a petty old bastard after reading that, I have to wonder why. In the second paragraph he slams Eustace because 'He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in modern schools.' Which is to say, the Scrubb family are socialists. And totally damned for it. 

The school he attends, I think, is held to blame because it shares the Scrubbs' progressive ideals (no corporal punishment, co-educational, female Head), but the real blame is on the Scrubb parents for sending him there. 

I don't think Lewis likes the 'nurture' school of thought. It's too close to the psychological theories of Eustace's school that fail to punish those who deserve it. He prefers to have it both ways: swipes are taken at institutions he despises, but characters are simultaneously punished and blamed for being influenced by them. It's another example of trap-setting, which is what drives a great deal of his plot. 

bitwise operator said...

The difference between Lucy's introduction to Narnia and Edmund's makes more sense if Narnia itself is an entity with a will, in the sense of 'the will of The Universe'. It presented Lucy with a reflection of her heart and Edmund with a reflection of his. This idea is a little rocky in light of Lewis' theology (which I admit I don't have an in-depth knowledge of), but this would be the obvious explanation were the books written by anyone else.

Also, I agree with the general consensus that Lewis is needlessly harsh toward Edmund. He is imperfect, he succumbs to temptation, he is redeemed. How is this in any way indicative of a wicked person? Why would Lewis use this as a contrast to his 'good Christian' characters? Christianity holds that humans are imperfect and need redemption, so why is Edmund the exception out of the siblings, instead of the rule?

Dav said...

I never quite understood Lewis's references to progressives growing up - it's much clearer now.  I remember wondering what open windows had to do with anything.  Wasn't England the sort of place where one could leave windows open?  It was very puzzling at the time. 

Ana Mardoll said...

What DOES the open windows refer to?

Kit, there's at least two points where Edmund's school is linked to his bad behavior - I promise to bring links this weekend! :)

Amaryllis said...

What DOES the open windows refer to?

Possibly a swipe at the "open-air" school movement? Which sounds like the kind of educational fad that Lewis would have mistrusted on principle.

Brin Bellway said...

Wasn't England the sort of place where one could leave windows open?

Should I resist the resulting urge to give my rant about Ransom's kidnapping in Out of the Silent Planet, or no?
Ah, what the hell:
[rant]
So, to recap from memory:
Ransom agrees to help a random stranger.
Trespassing in order to do so.
Agrees to come into the house of people he vaguely remembers from college.
Admits to them that if he were to mysteriously vanish, he would not be missed for weeks or months.
At this point, one of the vaguely-sort-of-acquaintances stops his previous plan of sharing a bottle of wine with Ransom. Instead, he gets Ransom a separate glass of water, prepared out of sight.
Ransom drinks it without the slightest hesitation, and is somehow surprised to find it's drugged.

There's less to rant about when one remembers the cultural differences as stated in your post. What seems to a twenty-first-century Ameri-Canadian like an utter lack of healthy paranoia is, by his own culture's standards, little to no excess naivete*. This takes care of everything but the final bit. At that point, cultural factors merely dim slightly the huge flashing "I'm Drugged" sign pointing at the water, rather than obscuring it.
The worst part is, he doesn't need to hold the Idiot Ball to move the plot. All he has to do is a: realise he is trapped and cannot escape, so drinks the drugged water knowing he has no choice in the matter, or b: attempt to escape, fail, and be physically forced to drink. All three of these options lead to the same thing, but only the original makes Ransom look stupid.

*Please excuse my lack of ability to make accent marks.

[end rant]

(I have a whole bunch of rants about various fictional topics, but I so rarely have even the slightest excuse to share them.)

Kit Whitfield said...

The difference between Lucy's introduction to Narnia and Edmund's makes more sense if Narnia itself is an entity with a will, in the sense of 'the will of The Universe'. It presented Lucy with a reflection of her heart and Edmund with a reflection of his.

But that's the point: saying 'Narnia has a will of its own' is basically saying 'Narnia is controlled by the will of the author.' Which is true of every book. It's just that most authors aren't as heavy-handed as Lewis.

But even if we accept that (which I'd personally argue is making an excuse for a failure of ars est celare artem), then Narnia's a pretty malevolent entity. It sniffs out the slightest trace of vice and immediately presents anyone less that totally pure with an opportunity to fall into diabolic enslavement. Really, Narnia is acting more like a devil than an angel with regard to Edmund: a small temptation, and he's totally trapped.

You might say it contains both Heaven and Hell, but that spiritual Rorscarch aspect doesn't square with how Lewis presents it later. In The Last Battle it's very clear that Narnia is Heaven and that damnation consists only of refusing to acknowledge its glory. But Edmund doesn't refuse to accept Narnia: on the contrary, he accepts the version of Narnia that presents itself to him. 

I think that saying 'its always ourselves we find in the sea' doesn't work with Lewis's set-up. For it to work, we'd have to conclude that the Witch isn't a diabolic presence that's intruded upon Narnia but an organic part of its whole, the yin to Aslan's yang. And in that case, having a big battle and casting her out would be unthinkable: it would be destroying the spiritual ecosystem. 

No, I just don't think it works. The idea that Narnia itself offers you what you deserve would require Narnia to be morally neutral, and Lewis is too clear that Narnia is inherently good and the evils contained in it are outside forces that need to be purged. 

If Narnia is working as a will of its own, the temptation of Edmund only makes sense if Lewis considers it morally justified to resort to punishment as a better first resort than the opportunity to take on better influences. Which he apparently does, but that's a failure as a human being and a writer: a bug, not a feature. 

Ana Mardoll said...

Perelandra! (I may be spelling that wrong from the car.)

I read that as a young adult, and I thought that trilogy was the most MESSED UP thing ever. I still do, and I read Deathlands for goodness sake.

The haze of memory is strong, but I believe two things in particular stood out at me.

One was over the top moralizing about the "cold sex" marriages where all sex and insemination takes place through sex toys for PLEASURE. And that's bad.

As a YA, I didn't see why I should get upset if the marriage participants were happy, plus this was by no means the most unhealthy view of sex presented to me - my youth pastors had MUCH weirder views on sex in my opinion.

The second thing burned into my memory is the Satan expy mutilating the space frogs and Random beating them to death with rocks.

Not only was this disturbing from a torture porn aspect, but it had much wider implications for me as a kid. I had always seen Satan as "bad" but from an ideological point of view. Lawful evil, if you will. He wanted us to follow him in disobedience to God and hell was the result, but he was misguided by pride. BUT Lewis' Satan is running on Insane Troll Logic and the result didn't make Satan MORE EVIL in my mind, it made God criminally negligent.

I mean, what the heck is God doing letting this obviously disturbed troll run around torturing innocent frogs? Lewis' god scared me WAY more than his Satan, and at that time in my life, I was not ready for that at all.

I'm always astonished when I see people recommend the trilogy online... For me, I remember finding the whole thing very uncomfortable and terrifying in a omg-this-author-is-I-don't-even-what.

Ana Mardoll said...

Kit, that was beautiful.

Funny enough, expelling the White Witch may not be devastating to the spiritual ecosystem, yet it is rather devastating to the story line. Midas is a poor substitute, and it is no surprise that Lewis eventually returns to her in Magicians Nephew. She was just too interesting a character to not go back to when the idea bucket ran low...

Brin Bellway said...

Perelandra! (I may be spelling that wrong from the car.)

Looks right to me.

One was over the top moralizing about the "cold sex" marriages where all
sex and insemination takes place through sex toys for PLEASURE. And
that's bad.


That must have been in That Hideous Strength. I knew better than to read that one.
See, the worst part about Perelandra is that it tricks you into thinking it's a decent book. Not good, but decent, and pay no attention to the fact it's taken you five months to slog through. Then, when I was near the end, I picked up Mom's bedtime reading du jour (Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, as I recall). I thought Dear God, I've forgotten what reading a good book is like.
I still thought I should see the book through, and by then I'd fallen back under its evil spell and almost went on to the third. Then I remembered reading that bit of Pratchett, and decided:
Screw this, I'm reading Dragon and Thief.

I'm always astonished when I see people recommend the trilogy online...

I'd heard enough on TV Tropes about iffy-at-best and severe sequelitis and That Hideous Book that I would never have read them if it was entirely up to me. My friend gave me the entire trilogy for a sweet sixteen present. She said they were a must-read for any sci-fi fan. I felt kind of obligated after that, especially since I suspected after a while she would start asking me about how I liked them. I had better have an answer when the questions came.

Chelsea said...

I know it can't work as an in-story explanation, but it seems like a large part of Edmund's 'sinful' behavior comes from not acting the way Lewis thinks children are supposed to act. It's not a bad idea in theory (the Creepy Child trope runs on children not acting like children should), but it really hasn't aged well, especially when combined with Lewis' fairly unrealistic ideas about what children are actually like.

Lucy is supposed to be a model of childlike innocence and naivete, so she happily walks up to a strange, clearly non-human creature and makes friends. What comes off to modern eyes as Lucy being incredibly dim ("I kidnap children." "Hurrr what?" "I kidnap children, you're being kidnapped." "I don't understand, what?") might be, in Lewis' eyes, Lucy being sweet and trusting and seeing the good in people.

But Edward is sulky. He's upset. He lashes out at his siblings. Basically, he acts exactly like a child who was in the middle of a war, who'd been uprooted from his home and sent to live at a stranger's, and who was probably very afraid for his parents would be expected to act. But that's not childlike innocence, and so it's bad.

Kit Whitfield said...

Chelsea - that's a good point. I think it ties in with Lewis's basic problem: he doesn't like reality. He'd rather believe in Narnia even if Narnia doesn't exist. And yet he has the gall to tell those of us who live in reality how think, even while he's loudly proclaiming the right to ignore or dismiss those parts of it that he doesn't want to see. 

Chelsea said...

Kit - Yeah, looking at the books with a critical eye  definitely shows that we're seeing the text through the C.S. Lewis Lens, and that he expects the reader to agree with  his take on things. While that's not neccesarily a mark of bad fiction (not every book has to have House of Leaves levels of multiple interpretation and confusion), it really leaves the books very open to doing what we're doing here, which is saying "Hey, why is Edmund 'bad' for doing this totally normal thing?" and so on.

It's actually a little ironic, since using the argument "Because C.S. Lewis says so" becomes a lot like saying "Because God says so." To our modern sensibilities, the immediate response that pops to mind is "But is there any other, good reason?"

Ana Mardoll said...

Taken a step farther with Susan in the final book: if you prefer to live in Reality rather than Narnia (which has been closed off to you anyway) then you never get to see your family in heaven.

Ana Mardoll said...

Also, "Hurrr, what?" made me laugh so hard. Chelsea, your comment was marvelous. :)

Kit Whitfield said...

using the argument "Because C.S. Lewis says so" becomes a lot like saying "Because God says so." 

Particularly because the set-up and plot of Narnia mean that his is, by the nature of his task, speaking for God. Which makes all the pettiness completely inexcusable: when you're speaking for God, you should try to keep a lid on your irritation with non-smokers. 

Amaryllis said...

Taken a step farther with Susan in the final book: if you prefer to live
in Reality rather than Narnia (which has been closed off to you anyway)
then you never get to see your family in heaven.

tghat has, of course, been debated endlessly, but I don't think it's supported by the text. Narnia, even the "Real Narnia" that remains after the death of temporal  Narnia, isn't Heaven. Lewis explicitly states that he doesn't know and can't describe what Heaven is like, the Heaven that lies "further up and further in." Real Narnia is only one pathway there; there are others, including our own Earth.

Granted, Susan will have to live out her life on this Earth without her family, and losing all of them, suddenly at one blow like that, is a pretty horrible thing to happen to her. And I agree that it was mean and petty of Lewis to leave her out of that last book, and for those reasons. But "not in Narnia" is not the same thing as "bound for Hell."

We know nothing of Susan's life after her family dies, or what happens to her at her own death. (And don't anybody recommend that Gaiman story to me, please, I'm trying to forget it.) Hers is one of the stories that we are not told.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, I didn't say "hell" because you are right - it is a touchy subject and we aren't there yet.

However, if Aslan "is Jesus" (as opposed to an allegory for Jesus), then Susan's rejection of him is not going to land her in a heavenly family reunion, at least not by SOME theologies.

There are versions of Christianity that hold that leaving Christ is worse than never coming to Him because you experienced the truth and then rejected it.

It remains to be seen if Lewis subscribes to that, but it's worth remembering that the "can you come back to Jesus" question is a major source of doctrinal friction.

(As is, for that matter, the "can you leave Jesus" question. My childhood denomination definitely held that you could; I have since run into groups who steadfastly claim I cannot be an "ex" Christian because no TRUE Christian would ever leave the fold. This is, incidentally, incredibly annoying to me.)

Ana Mardoll said...

Where is it implied that boarding school is responsible for Edmund's bad character?

Here's what made me think the school was being implicitly blamed:

“You didn’t think anything at all,” said Peter; “it’s just spite. You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.” (10.13)

When at last she was free to come back to Edmund she found him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but looking better than she had seen him look—oh, for ages; in fact ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face. (22.9)

The first instance links that school is where Edmund has been acting out (am I the only one having trouble not typing EDWARD instead of EDMUND?); the second instance calls out that "horrid school" where he supposedly started being a bad child. Well, that's my interpretation, anyway.

Kit Whitfield said...

We know nothing of Susan's life after her family dies, or what happens to her at her own death. 

Not to be clunkingly literal here, but the problem is, Susan doesn't have a life or death after the series ends because she's a fictional character. Her 'god' is C.S. Lewis, and he abandons her. He doesn't trouble to imply there are other ways to Heaven or to hold out any hope for Susan; he dismisses her with a wave of his hand. Readers may re-interpret in the hopes of finding something more generous, but if we're talking about C.S. Lewis as a writer, he leaves Susan damned for utterly petty reasons and that's where his interest in her ends. He doesn't care to consider she might be saved by other means or walk well along other paths. He condemns her, and as far as he's concerned, that's all that needs to be said: her story is, as far as he's concerned, finished. 

--



@anamardoll:disqus  - in which book are those quotations? Because if not in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I suspect him of backtracking. 

And even if so, I don't think it gets Lewis off the hook for setting Edmund a huge trap and punishing him for falling in. It smacks of a sop rather than characterisation. 

Amaryllis said...

@Kit_Whitfield:disqus : Not to be annoyingly fan-fiction-y, but we speculate about the "pre" and "post" and "outside" lives of fictional characters all the time around here. I thought it was supposed to be one of the marks of convincing fiction writing, to convey that characters do have lives of their own, beyond the technical necessities of the plot. "I am  a Gollux, and not a mere device!"

Of course, it may be that you think Lewis' characters are in fact mere devices, and I'm not sure I could argue.

Susan's story is finished within these books, but it's an incomplete story. Lewis does definitely state that souls are heading to heaven along other routes than the Narnian way. When the Pevenseys see their parents walking along a distant ridge and ask how they got there, the answer is that they were killed in the same train accident, not that Earth has had its own last-chance apocalypse. (And now I'm picturing all the worlds in the multiverse going up  in one grand finale, as they say at the fireworks displays, but I don't believe that that's implied by the text. Earth is still there.)

Now at that point, it would be natural for someone to ask, "And will we see Susan again?" And the fact that nobody does is an indication of Lewis' lack of interest in her; I agree with you about that. He doesn't care, one way or the other, so apparently everyone else has forgotten her too.

And it may be that, coming from a religious tradition where repeated failure and repentance and reconciliation are assumed, even institutionalized, I'm too quick to assume that the same option would be available to Susan, within the fictional world that Lewis created. After all, as an Anglican, he'd have a similar outlook.

I think Lewis' treatment of Susan is shabby. But I also think that all of the "Susan is damned forever for liking lipstick!" interpretations that one keeps hearing are overblown and unjustifiable. We just don't know, one way or the other.

As for Edmund's school, wouldn't Peter be going to the same school? Pevensey Major and Pevensey Minor? And even if the age difference is great enough that Peter is at prep school while Edmund is still in "pre-prep," wouldn't Peter have gone to that school first? So if Edmund's faults are down to his school, why wasn't Peter  corrupted also?

Ana Mardoll said...

in which book are those quotations?

They're both in TLWW; the first reference is prior to Edmund's major "fall" (running off to the queen) and the second is after his final redemption. A bit symmetrical, really.

It SOUNDS like Edmund is the only one who attends that school; the "that horrid school" statement sounds as though the others haven't been there (at least, to my ears). After his redemption, Edmund is hailed as something of the wisest and most intelligent of the four -- maybe he was deemed extra-smart as a kid and sent to a special prep school?

I do think that Lewis intends Susan to be eternally damned, but I feel that way because of the underlying currents of sexism and binary-ism (i.e., if you're not with us, you're against us) that in general flow through the series. I feel that some of the "well, maybe she comes back to Narnia/Aslan/Jesus" answers are more to redeem Lewis than to redeem Susan, if that makes sense. ;)

cofax said...

Someone dropped by my LJ with a link to these discussions: I hope you don't mind my returning the favor.

I think Lewis' treatment of Susan is shabby. But I also think that all
of the "Susan is damned forever for liking lipstick!" interpretations
that one keeps hearing are overblown and unjustifiable. We just don't
know, one way or the other.


No, we really don't.  I went back and looked at the text in TLB where it discusses Susan's fate, and I thought it was worth noting that the one person participating in the conversation who would clearly know what Susan thought or wanted, Peter, refuses to discuss it.  All the derogatory language about parties and nylons and lipstick comes from Eustace, Polly and Jill, none of whom can be assumed to know a great deal about Susan's inner thoughts.  Peter just says she's no longer "A Friend of Narnia" and leaves it at that.

Which, I think, leaves some room for readers who want to push back against Lewis and the attitude he seemed to have about grown women and sexuality--or at least grown women and expressions of sexuality.  We don't actually know that Susan had a falling out with her siblings (as is commonly assumed) or even that she no longer believes in Narnia, and it's a point that I cling to rather strongly, since, with Lewis dead, I get to make my own decisions about anything not set down in canon. 

Quite a number of people have written stories struggling with "the problem of Susan"; this is one.

Nick the Australian said...

That's something which particularly bothers me about that passage in "The Last Battle": all the active criticism of her comes from Jill ("nylons and lipstick and invitations") and Polly (the business about Susan having "wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll spend the rest of her life trying to stay that age"). NEITHER OF WHOM ACTUALLY KNOW SUSAN. They're not her siblings (like Peter, Edmund and Lucy) or her cousins (like Eustace). They're not close to her and they never have been. They wouldn't have even met her until after she got back from America, which was likely the point where Susan made the determination to distance herself from Narnia -- and given that the only connection they really have IS Narnia, I doubt if they'd have even met her more than a couple of times or even had a proper conversation with her.

If Susan really is making an active effort to move on from Narnia, and to properly live her life in England (along with all that goes with it -- parties, fashion, etc.), then it makes sense that she wouldn't want to participate in the group discussions the rest of them have about Narnia: she'd consider it to be living in the past, useless nostalgia, reminiscing about the good old days as their own lives in England go to waste. And if Peter et al keep on bugging her about it, the best way to shut them down would be to act as if Narnia was all a children's game -- even if she doesn't really think that, at least it'd get them to stop and to leave her alone.

Now, in that light, Jill and Polly's judgement of her looks a lot like nothing but petty sniping. Particularly Polly, who reads like an old woman clicking her tongue at these flighty modern girls.

aravind said...

@Kit_Whitfield:disqus "He doesn't trouble to imply there are other ways to Heaven"
Well, he sort of does - how they see their Parents on a distant ridge from their spot in heaven!Narnia and the really screwed up Tash-Aslan switcheroo he pulls. The first one is a pretty clear indication that Susan was damned though, since all sorts of characters are pulled out from different periods in the books in heaven!Narnia  but Susan isn't shown to be with their parents in heaven!Earth (which assumes that the rules are constant between the two worlds... which there's some indications of).

The weird Tash-Aslan thing comforted me as a child actually. The message I took from it is that good people can come from anywhere and that we shouldn't declare entire cultures or ethnic groups morally unclean. Looking back now though, it's less about goodness and divinity being beyond any particular segment of humanity's scope and more about declaring a few exceptions to a rule ("ethnic group X is bad") to unintentionally or secretly never having been "real" members of that ethnic group. That's... problematic.

Loquat said...

Didn't the Pevensie parents get killed in the train crash too, though? My admittedly faulty recollection is that everyone the central characters meet or see in heaven!Narnia has died in their own world - Susan is absent not just because she turned away from Narnia, but because she chose not to attend whatever family gathering everyone else was going to when their train crashed.

Bificommander said...

I wonder now if it is, in fact, necessary to break the Stone Table via
Aslan's sacrifice in order to defeat the White Witch - because if it is
somehow necessary, then Narnia needs one of the children to be a traitor.


Well, it makes it a good allagory for Christ then. Because if Jesus's death on the cross was completely neccesary for the great plan of saving humanity, does that mean that Judas and the Romans and everyone else was doing the duty of God? Was there any way for them NOT to betray Jesus? Would the omniscient God have arranged Jesus' comming so that he knew someone would betray him down the line? (I'm ignoring the more disturbing posibility that he outright mind-whammies people into doing evil for generousity's sake.) Or in this story, has Aslan somehow arranged for Edmund to meet the White Witch when he first gets here, because he needs one of the kids to turn traitor? Is that why Edmund gets the shaft here?

Kit Whitfield said...

Not to be annoyingly fan-fiction-y, but we speculate about the "pre" and "post" and "outside" lives of fictional characters all the time around here. I thought it was supposed to be one of the marks of convincing fiction writing, to convey that characters do have lives of their own, beyond the technical necessities of the plot. "I am  a Gollux, and not a mere device!"

This is probably just a difference of perspective, because I don't really have a fan-fiction mind. I tend to draw a line between 'interpretations the text will reasonably support' and 'ways in which the story might have been told differently if someone else was writing it', and both are fine, but speculating about the characters' lives outside the story, for me, falls uncomfortably in the middle. 

Of course, good writing does imply that the characters exist outside their moments in the story. But as you say, Lewis doesn't write like that. To me he feels like a writer who's very determined that you'll accept his presentation of the characters on his terms; his is the first and last word on the subject, and to believe the characters are subtler than he insists, you have to start adding your own imagination because there's very little in the text to support that and a lot to contradict it. 

I mean, you can write fan fiction about pretty much anything if you want, but because of that, there's a limit to what a fan-fictional speculation tells you about a text itself. If you can add any imagining you like, it tells you a lot more about the imaginer than about the book. 

So, as I say below, you could posit a fan fiction piece in which Susan isn't damned, but Lewis ain't gonna help you with it, and if we're talking about the books themselves, considering Susan saved is a massive stretch. 

--

All the derogatory language about parties and nylons and lipstick comes from Eustace, Polly and Jill, none of whom can be assumed to know a great deal about Susan's inner thoughts.  Peter just says she's no longer "A Friend of Narnia" and leaves it at that.
That is really, really reaching, though. You can twist it around to favour a personal interpretation you're more comfortable with, but you can do that with anything: that's the whole game of deconstruction. What is almost impossible to argue on the evidence is that Lewis himself was trying to imply that Susan's position was other than what the characters said it was. He's not an author who lets readers draw their own conclusions from subtle implications: he's didactic and direct, and tells you straight out whether someone is good or bad or right or wrong. If a bunch of characters on their way to Heaven say things about Susan without Lewis contradicting them, then Lewis is portraying them as in the right. 

Tim said...

Edmund is hardly damned ... he's the very person Aslan (the Jesus figure) dies to protect. Edmund is, in many ways, the Christian archetype of humanity ... not meaning to hurt anyone, but ultimately thinking mostly of ourselves, and thus vulnerable to being deceived and enslaved by dark powers (the White Witch), and needing a redeemer (Aslan/Jesus).

Why woudn't we sympathize with Edmund? He's us.

Tigerpetals said...

There's a phrase : "Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia." I can't remember who said it, just that it's in the books. So that leaves open the possibility that Susan could join her siblings when she dies. It doesn't mean she was been treated well, but it doesn't leave her damned. Of course that might depend on who said it.

Ana Mardoll said...

I keep thinking, "Oh, we'll look at it when we get there," but there's no denying it's fresh on everyone's minds now, so here's the passage and some thoughts:

---

   “Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”


---

To be honest -- and I will freely admit upfront that I'm not likely to give Lewis a pass, just based on my own biases -- the Eustace/Jill/Polly thing feels less like a vindication of Susan and more like a failure on the author's part PLUS a family loyalty thing.

I say the dialogue is a "failure" on Lewis' part because it seems to me that he is falling back on characters he has written more recently, rather than digging deeper and imagining what Lucy/Peter/Edmund sound like at this point. Eustace and Jill are major characters in The Last Battle; Polly is fresh from The Magician's Nephew, which was the story published immediately prior to TLB. Lewis is in their heads at this point, how can he not be?

On the other hand, we haven't seen Edmund/Lucy/Peter since The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Prince Caspian respectively, outside of a VERY quick cameo in The Horse and His Boy. What do they sound like now? Peter is easy: he's The Gravely Speaking High King. But Edmund's defining trait was initially as The Traitor and then as Peter was phased out he became something similar to Peter. Lucy was the plucky little girl, but now she's a woman -- a good woman, not like Susan -- and Lewis is, I think, uncomfortable with sexually mature women. (Which is why all his good females are either very young girls or very old women. Even reading TLB over, Jill seems very young in attitudes in many ways. What's her age at this point? Must research.)

So I see relying on more recently established characters as a writer crutch here, not a subtle vindication of Susan. The other reason I think that is because I think the bulk of the catty Jill/Polly dialogue stems from the mentality that it will seem less catty for the women in the group to call her out than for her own family members to do so. Good Pevenises are loyal and long-suffering, they aren't going to air dirty laundry. That's not royal. On the other hand, Jill and Polly can call Susan a nylon-wearing WHORE (humorous exaggeration!) without damaging their literary nobility, because Lewis hasn't bothered to GIVE them any. Well, that's my pre-coffee thoughts, anyway. STAY TUNED FOR THE LAST BATTLE DECONSTRUCTION. In, ah, a few years. :)

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