So Why Is She the White Witch?


Philip Pullman, whose book I can't finish, has been turning thumbs down on Narnia author C.S. Lewis for some time. With the Disney movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe scheduled to beat the adaptations of Pullman's His Dark Materials books into theaters, Pullman is turning up the heat, calling the Narnia series "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice" notable for their "absence of Christian virtue." (This last bit from the anti-religious author is clearly meant to be ironic.) Writes Hit & Run reader Paul Wilbert, who hips us to the news:

I haven't read Narnia since I was a kid, so don't remember enough about it to comment on Pullman's views one way or the other…

I must say that "reactionary" is one of my favorite words. Like the abuse of "liberal" by the American right, you can tell a lot about somebody by those words he choses to describe someone with whom he disagrees.

I don't know if reactionary is the right term, but ostentatiously traditional seems like an apt description. A good question is why so many luminaries of the Anglo-Catholic revival were pretty straightforward bigots—by which I mean more than just that they tweak politically correct sensibilities. Lewis saw the battle for Heaven as a battle with the dark-skinned east. G.K. Chesterton believed Jews were running the world. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are where I learned the worst thing you can call a guy is "swarthy." (Tolkien may have been somewhat more sympathetic toward Jews, especially short Jews.) In Evelyn Waugh's world, there's nothing more hilarious than a cannibalistic African chieftain wearing a tophat and trying to pass himself off as a gentleman.

There's no natural connection between these guys' Christian traditionalism and their distaste for people of other races. Nor is any of this a knock against their writing. I'd like to see some acknowledgment that racism is a big part of what makes some writers good. T.S. Eliot is an interesting poet because of his anti-Semitism, not in spite of it. Chesterton's novel The Flying Inn takes swipes at the absurdities of Islam and thus creates a weirdly prescient vision of a multicultural UK where progressives and reactionaries unite to form a pleasure-hating superstate. Instead of hiccuping apologies, actors playing Shylock and Fagin could get more mileage from engaging the full hatred their creators wanted to express. (I understand Ben Kingsley does something like this in the new Roman Polanski joint, which I haven't seen.) Giving free play to racism allows writers to engage their own horrors in ways that would never pass in the classroom.

Easy for you to say, Cavanaugh! you say. You're not on the receiving end of that bigotry. True, with some exceptions: If it weren't for Eliot I wouldn't understand that my "apeneck" is really the result of my lousy genes. (Unlike, say, the superior genetic makeup of a sexless anglophile pansy obsessed with masking his roots in the Show Me State.) "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" just would not be an interesting poem if it weren't infused with Eliot's pity and horror of a stupid Irish slob.

I don't expect studies of the aesthetic value of bigotry will take off anytime soon, but consider the sort of mealymouthed talk you get when you don't engage this argument: In one of the comments on the BBC's story on Philip Pullman, one reader takes the author to task for "falling into the trap that so often catches the unaware. That of judging past authors using the values of today." This is ridiculous. The Narnia books were written in the 1950s, when the American Civil Rights movement was in full swing and the tide of anti-colonialism was sweeping the earth. What timeline are we using, where a person living in the fifties would not be aware of racism and imperialism as topics worth having an opinion on? (On the issue of imperialism, by the way, G.K. Chesterton, the godfather of twentieth-century Anglo Catholicism, was on the side of the angels.)