The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. ★★
Like The Golden Compass, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as part of my job as a course tutor for a college first year seminar on gender and leadership in young adult fantasy. This context obviously effected my experience of the book and this resulting review.
I should also probably mention that while I’d never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before, I knew quite a bit about it going in. For most of my childhood my family went to an Episcopalian church (think the American version of Church of England), and they loved this book. I remember being shown the old animated movie and attending a two person play (the actors represented different characters with different hats) put on in the church’s cafeteria. I remember it being stressed that not only was C.S. Lewis Christian, he was specifically Anglican, and it was something the church was really proud of. So while I may not have read the book, I came in knowing the rough shape of the story.
But since everyone kept telling me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I naturally refused. What can I say? I’ve always been stubborn. Therefore, I don’t think I have the childhood nostalgia that a lot of people have for The Chronicles of Narnia. And since I haven’t read the rest of the books in this series, my comments on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s presentation of gender and leadership will be focused solely on this book.
But before I get into anything else, I can see how children could love The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Even reading this as a twenty year old college student, I could feel the magic and appeal of Narnia from Lewis’s descriptions of a snow crusted world. And The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is very much a kid’s book. It’s fairly thin, and there’s not a whole lot of complexity to it (which made it much less fun to analyze than some of the other books the class read). So yes, it’s probably unfair of me to judge it as an adult reader, but just remember that experiences are subjective and star ratings are ultimately meaningless.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, and it falls in line with the gender norms of that era – i.e. it’s pretty straightforwardly sexist. The most notable example is Father Christmas telling Lucy and Susan that battles are ugly when women fight (and not just ugly in general?), and there’s other, more subtle instances as well. Like how the beavers follow 1950’s/40’s gender norms to an almost comical degree. Mr. Beaver goes out fishing to provide for the family. Mrs. Beaver cooks and cleans, and she gets a sewing machine from Father Christmas.
The class spent a fair bit of time discussing Lucy and Susan. Lucy is the more active character; she discovers Narnia, she’s depicted as brave and strong willed. Susan’s a wet blanket without much characterization and whom the other children accuse of trying to mother them. What does the contrast between the two say about gender in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Lucy falls into less gendered patterns than Susan, but is it because she’s younger? Is the implication that when girls grow up, they become like Susan? And is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t have any answers, but they’re questions I find interesting.
Jadis is another character who falls into some old gendered tropes. She’s beautiful, alluring, and evil. There’s an element of the Temptress archetype to her, but she’s also sort of a perverted mother figure – she beguiles Edmund by wrapping him in furs, feeding him sweets, and promising to adopt him. The dissonance between these two roles was strange, and it goes to show how much of her character relates to her gender. I think if she were an evil king instead of an evil queen, we’d get a very different book.
The class also spent some time discussing leadership, the difference between a good leader and an effective leader (Jadis certainly wasn’t good, but she was possibly effective), and whether or not Aslan was really a good leader. As one of the other students pointed out, he doesn’t really do anything. He sacrifices himself for Edmund and he’s got some magic breath, but does that make him a good leader? And why was he waiting around for these four random children? Why not just save Narnia himself? “Because prophecy” is not a good answer.
I struggled with what I was going to say about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I mentioned earlier that it feels thin, and I stand by that. It wasn’t much fun to read as an adult, and I didn’t enjoy the analysis as much as I have with some of the other YA fantasy books the course is doing.