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The Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview

The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy - The Lion, the Witch, and Worldview, The Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, Volume 15, Open Court Publishing, 2005, Chicago, La Salle, ISBN - 13:978-0-81269855-5, Ed. Gregory Basshar and Jerry L. Walls.


The popular culture and philosophy series is an interesting project. The scheme is to take a major work of popular culture and have philosophers write essays of commentary upon it. The results are often interesting; for philosophers even the most barren rock is a fertile field for ideas.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview is divided into four parts. Part I (5 articles) is entitled Farewell to Shadow Lands: Believing, Doubting, and Knowing. Part II (8 articles) is entitled The Tao in Narnia; Morality and the Good Life. Part III (4 articles) is entitled Further Up and Further In; Exploring the Deeper Nature of Reality. Finally, part IV (5 articles) is entitled The Deepest Magic: Religion and Transcendent.

In many respects each author grinds his or her own axe. One thing about the work as a whole is that nowhere does the knife of criticism cut very deep. Perhaps the sharpest critique is that of Karin Fry, No Longer a Friend: Gender in Narnia.

A good part of the charm and the irritation of the Narnia series derives from the particulars of Lewis's personal life and his relative inability to reach beyond them; his Christianity is suffused with his parochial prejudices. I once remarked that Lewis confused being an English gentleman with being a Christian. In retrospect that may be a bit inaccurate; I'm not really competent to judge what an English gentleman might be, particularly one of Lewis's vintage. Whether or not Lewis or not was a gentleman he lived within the atmosphere of the academic old boys club. Within his point of view the cultural feminine is fundamentally alien.

Karin Fry points out that in Narnia Evil (capital letter evil) comes from witches who use their beauty and seductiveness, e.g. (p161) " Like all witches, the Green Witch uses her beauty, and connives in order to get what she wants, turning men away from the Christian cause of Aslan." Femininity as a source of temptation is a recurring theme within Christianity that Lewis imports into Narnia. Of course, in response one can argue on Lewis's behalf that Haggard's She is part and parcel of the tropes of fantasy, and that Lewis was just writing within the tradition. Equally well one can argue that Lewis is responsible for the tropes he honored.

Karin Fry's major focus is the character and treatment of the girls, and Susan in particular. In summary she writes (p66):

"... While the other heroic girl characters overcome their feminity and reject its corrupting aspects, Susan is unable to. Even though Aslan says that 'once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen' (LW, Chapter 17, p194), Susan is dethroned. While there are some feminist aspects to the way in which the other girls are able to succeed, Susan is excluded because she is too feminine. Like the Witches, she may have too much feminine power, or has allowed her feminity to corrupt her in some way. Generally speaking, the picture of the ideal believer in Narnia is a masculine one, where the female characters need to get over their feminity in order to succeed like the boys. Because the Susan remains in her stereotypically feminine role and possesses all of the worst aspects of being a woman, she cannot not progress on the spiritual path, and so is excluded from he heavenly land of Aslan. In these respects, the Chronicles are indeed 'unfriendly' to the feminine."
What are these worst aspects of being a woman? In short, being pretty, liking boys and parties, and being interested in clothes.

Angus Mengus wrote a long article entitled Why Eustace Almost Deserved His Name: Lewis's Critique of Modern Secularism which apparently gives Lewis's critique full faith and credit. The article begins:

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it" (VDT, Chapter 1, p. 425). Lewis doesn't say this merely because Eustace is an insufferable prig. Eustace is Lewis's portrayal of the thoroughly modern secularist, someone who views the world as a storehouse of physical stuff which science can use for human progress, but who rejects or ignores the ideas of spiritual reality and objective moral values.
Precisely - Eustace is Lewis's portrayal of the thoroughly modern secularist. Mengus appears to take it at face value. The portrayal is worthless. The reason is that an author who is also a polemicist can load the dice. The good guys are brave and noble (with human flaws of course) and assent to the party line; the bad guys are insufferable prigs or equivalent and dissent from the party line. Lewis does this with great enthusiasm. For example we are told that Eustace's parents are cranks who are into things like wearing a special kind of underclothes. (In his bio paragraph Mengus admits to wearing a special kind of underclothes which raises the suspicion that his tongue may have been in his cheek.)

This sort of thing is a shuck. One can find cranks and crackpots among the religious as well as among the secularists. Similarly, there are good Christians who are insufferable prigs. In 21st century America it is the Christian right that views the world as a storehouse of physical stuff to be used for progress (Science and the Christian right don't seem to be on speaking terms) whereas those with profound respect for the world (in so far as the Greens deserve that description) are largely secular. Usw. In many respects Lewis was a dealer in straw, constructing straw men and knocking them down. He went through a lot of straw in his portrayal of "secularism".

One of Lewis's favorite devices was the false dichotomy (usually in the form of a trichotomy). Perhaps the most famous is his argument that Christ did not give us the option of regarding him as a great moral philosopher. Lewis's argument is that either Christ was who he said he was - the son of God - or else he was mad. Now there are any number of other possibilies, e.g., the reports of what he said are unreliable, and that he was legitimately deluded. Be that as it may, one can be mad and still be a great moral philosopher. Indeed, there are some who say that madness is a necessary precondition for being a great moral philosopher.

Lewis plays off the same trick in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the Professor helps Peter and Susan try to understand whether Lucy was telling the truth about Narnia. This trick is at the heart of the Socratic method in Plato, and is analogous to the 'forcing' technique used by 'mind readers'. Gareth B. Mathews cites this trick with approval (and no apparent perception that it is a trick) in Plato in Narnia.

One of the chapters that I found particularly interesting was the chapter by Kevin Kinghorn entitled Virtue Epistemology: Why Uncle Andrew Couldn't Hear the Animals Speak. According to Kinghorn in 1980 one Ernest Sosa created the field of virtue epistemology. Among other things epistemology is concerned with knowledge and belief and in particular with the issue of when are beliefs justified.

The conventional approach is to attempt to explain what counts as a good way of acquiring beliefs. Beliefs acquired in a good way are justified beliefs. A notable feature of this approach is that the person holding the beliefs is, so to speak, invisible. Virtue epistemology focuses on the person holding the belief; a belief is justified if it resulted from an appropriate intellectual virtue. Kinghorn cites four such virtues - "Such a person:

  1. will value truth for its own sake;
  2. will not believe things simply because she wants them to be true;
  3. will not allow fear to dictate what she believes;
  4. will recognize her own limitations as a seeker of knowledge."
Uncle Andrew lacks all of these virtues. This, however, does not explain why he couldn't hear the animals speak. To arrive at this, Kinghorn moves from virtue epistemology to Lewis's thesis of spiritual blindness.

Lewis was concerned with the question of why people don't see the "truth" of God. The odd thing is that Kinghorn does not raise the question: Was Lewis's belief in God a justified belief. Perhaps he wanted us to arrive at that question on our own. He wrote:

Lewis notes in a number of his writings, much of the evidence we have today for the central Christian claims about Jesus Christ comes in the form of testimony from the New Testament eyewitnesses and near-contemporaries. In this sense, the evidence for Christian truth rests on a kind of faith - specifically, a faith in the credibility of certain human testimony. Yet faith, Lewis believed, also produces its own authenticating evidence. Sin blinds, and faith opens our hearts and minds to God's gracious presence in our world, and in our lives.
In essence Lewis says that he believes because he believes; faith is its own evidence. Is this not an example of lack of virtue number two, believing things simply because he wants them to true? One can even take the view that Lewis created fantasies in which his beliefs and theories are true as a way of validating them.

There are many interesting articles in the book. One thing that is notably missing is that are no analyses from a non-Christian perspective. One of the striking things about the Narnia chronicles (and Lewis's fantasies generally) is that one does not have to be a Christian to enjoy them. Why is this? What is the root of Narnia's charm? Perhaps this is not a question for philosophers. And, yet, perhaps it is. If there are truths in fantasy, what is the nature of those truths? Are they not simulacra?


This page was last updated January 1, 2008.

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