Tuesday, December 27, 2005
John J. Miller: Xmas in Narnia
December 22, 2005, 8:47 a.m.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Aslanmas?
If ever there were a case for taking Christ out of Christmas, it's arguably in Narnia.
There is no Christ in Narnia — there is only Aslan, the lion who dies for the sins of others and returns in glorious triumph. So instead of Christmas, shouldn't the Narnians celebrate Aslanmas? And shouldn't Lewis have left Father Christmas out of his books entirely?
This is more than just a rose-by-any-other-name semantic dispute, because it goes to the heart of a fundamental criticism that many people level at The Chronicles of Narnia: The books are full of maddening inconsistencies.
When we first encounter Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, we learn that a permanent winter has descended upon the land. This creates a problem later in the story, as Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead describe in their new book, A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe:
Another friend [of Lewis's], poet Ruth Pitter, recalled with pleasure her good-natured "win" over Lewis, when she caught him in a textual error in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: where did the beavers obtain certain foodstuffs (e.g., potatoes, flour, sugar, oranges, milk) for the dinner they provided for the Pevensie children, given that it was winter and (by Lewis's own setup of the story) no foreign trade was allowed? According to Pitter's memory of the conversation, Lewis had no answer and was "stumped."
Maybe the food was smuggled into Narnia from Calormen, a country to the south. But that's pure speculation. And even if this were the case, it is a flaw on the part of Lewis: A good story doesn't create puzzles for readers; it answers questions before they're even asked. Lewis is perhaps under a special obligation to explain the food, given that the feast with the beavers is one of the most sensual passages in the book. Where did those big rodents get their chow?
The beavers create other problems as well. "There's never been any of your race here before," says Mr. Beaver to the Pevensie kids. As we learn later in the series, however, this isn't true. Perhaps this can be chalked up to Mr. Beaver not knowing any better. Yet his statement is actually the result of Lewis not knowing any better. When he started writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he did not plan to compose six sequels. Later books suffer from some near-sightedness that found its way into the first one.
Gee, Toto, I Don't Think We're in Middle Earth
Narnia simply wasn't prepared with the meticulous attention to detail that J. R. R. Tolkien lavished upon to Middle Earth. And Tolkien famously criticized Narnia as an awkward mishmash of a world. It must have pained him to do so: He and Lewis were not only colleagues at Oxford, but also personal friends. Tolkien played a key role in Lewis's decision to become a Christian, in what is probably one of the most significant conversions of the 20th century. The author of The Lord of the Rings might not have finished his own masterpiece but for Lewis's unflagging enthusiasm and encouragement. So he probably would have liked to return the favor and cheer on Lewis in the writing of Narnia. Yet Tolkien was a relentlessly honest man and he could not hide his antipathy for the Narnian project: "I hear you've been reading Jack's children's story," he told a mutual friend. "It really won't do, you know!" (To his buddies, Lewis was known as "Jack.")
Perhaps Tolkien was jealous that Lewis could whip out seven books in seven years — the man wrote at a delirious speed, and Tolkien couldn't have kept pace even if he had tried. Yet his critique of Narnia contains both substance and merit. Tolkien believed that Lewis veered too close to Christian allegory. Lewis denied this, calling his tales suppositions: "Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened."
Maybe you have to be an English major to care about the difference between an allegory and a supposition. Tolkien's primary objection to Narnia, however, raised another issue entirely. He thought that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was an irritating blend of different cultural traditions: centaurs and fauns from the Greeks, dwarves from the Norse, and so on. And that's even before we get to this strange business about Jesus, Aslan, and Father Christmas.
Lewis was a great borrower, and it drove Tolkien bonkers. In Perelandra, a science-fiction book published in 1943, Lewis makes a reference to "Numinor." This was meant as a kind of tribute to Tolkien, who wrote of the "Numenor," which was a kingdom of Middle Earth. Note the slightly different spelling, which may be the result of Lewis being sloppy or thinking the word's root was "numinous." Whatever the case, it was not in keeping with Tolkien the philologist's carefully crafted linguistics. It was a dabbler's error, the sort of dumb blunder that Tolkien strove to banish from Middle Earth.
The Numenor-Numinor controversy is of course an exceedingly small thing for casual readers of Tolkien and Lewis. The introduction of Father Christmas into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, on the other hand, is obvious and jarring, even if you don't compose elaborate letters from Father Christmas every year (as Tolkien did). Shouldn't St. Nick just stay on our side of the wardrobe?
Perhaps. But he does play an important role in Narnia. Lewis has a wonderful line early in the book about how the White Witch has made it "always winter but never Christmas." If we cross out the Christmas half of it, the line doesn't carry nearly half the punch: the witch doesn't seem nearly so terrible, nor does the plight of the Narnians seem quite so grave. That's especially true for children, for whom Christmas is a time of magical importance. And the arrival of Father Christmas presents the first clear evidence that the tables have turned against the witch. "I've come at last," he says to the Pevensie kids. "She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The witch's magic is weakening." With that, the spell over Narnia begins to break.
It is of course possible that Lewis might have accomplished the same trick, from a narrative standpoint, without importing Father Christmas. It is also perfectly legitimate to stand with Tolkien and declare that Father Christmas has absolutely no business sledding around a fantasy world in which there is an Aslan but not a Christ. But perhaps this misses the point. The Chronicles of Narnia, after all, are written for children. My own kids love the Father Christmas scene, and I suspect that on some level they grasp its real meaning. To say that it doesn't belong in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is to argue against the actual experience of countless readers who also have enjoyed it and grasped it. In the end, it may in fact be a very grown-up kind of critique — sober and logical, but blind to the imaginative sensibilities of kids. Can you picture an 8-year-old who would care about the spelling of Numenor/Numinor? That's a discussion for adults — and even then, only for adults of a very certain type. Narnia, by contrast, is a great big fantasy playground — and as Lewis makes clear throughout the Chronicles, grown ups can't go there. So maybe Father Christmas is a kid thing, and you just wouldn't understand.
So is it Christmas or Aslanmas in Narnia? Maybe we should just leave it a mystery, like the beaver's food. Or we could call it Xmas, using "X" in the algebraic sense of "solve for X." But let's remember that most kids don't like algebra either.
If you've made it this far, it probably means that you haven't yet suffered from Narnia fatigue. Here are three other pieces I've written for NRO on C.S. Lewis and Narnia: a general appreciation, an argument on the order in which the Narnian books ought to be read, and first impressions of the new movie.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..