“That’s it. That’s the end of the very last book.”
“Cool. Can we read something else? Something better?”
This is the way the Narnia series ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.
As we put the large volume back on the shelf for the final time, I couldn’t help feeling sad. Little Bit moved on from the series so quickly with hardly a look back. I wanted to sit with it a while, grieve the ending, memorialize the story. Bitsy was already suggesting other titles, rather callously during my fragile state I might add.
Bits has yet to reference the series since its ending. Well, except for once when filling out the “hobbies and interests” section on her baseball player bio. The announcer uses the bio card to talk about the players when they are up to bat. (It’s adorable as you can imagine.) A parent of another player wearing a cross around her neck came up to Bits after a game and asked, “You read Narnia? I loved those books! I’m so glad you enjoyed them.” Bitsy smiled politely and dropped Narnia from her bio after that.
Little Bit enjoyed our talks about Narnia, but not the story itself, at least not how I enjoyed it at her age. This baffles and disappoints me in a way I didn’t expect. Even Narnia’s worst critics acknowledge the magic of the series. To Bits, the harmful elements ruined the magic.
I feel honored and overjoyed that my daughter loved our talks and continuously seeks out discussion with me on various topics. Pushing back against the harmful ideas in the Narnia series was something she excelled at as she is naturally intelligent and empathetic. It was easy sport for her to pick apart the rubbish from Lewis’ worldview. Yet it was this constant seeking out traps—those times Lewis let his elitism, racism, sexism, and religious bias contaminate the story—that made getting lost in the fantasy harder for her.
Bitsy has read many books whose writings pale in comparison to Lewis’ Narnia, yet which gave her a great deal more pleasure. Modern books are superior in this regard, or perhaps they are simply more insidious when it comes to their moral failings. In either case, children’s novels these days speak Little Bit’s language and avoid the obviousness of 1950s’ prejudices. They are safer vehicles in which to sit back, relax, escape.
I can’t help feeling that when attempting to add these stories to my daughter’s imagination toolbox, I showed her all the faults in the screwdriver and now she must attempt to use a wrench to turn screws. This is pure egotism on my part since what I found rich and fulfilling in my childhood will not be what my child finds so. For her, Harry Potter is a superior tool, one that matches the pattern on the screw heads more closely. She is her own person. I may never have tried to push her into the family business, or lived vicariously through her sports or academic life, yet here is where I feel the pull of owed expectations. I brought you into this world, daughter, and you will be enamored of magic wardrobes!
I take perverse comfort in the thought of Bitsy reading JK Rowling to her own children someday, and them picking apart the lack of diversity, the gender binary language of witch and wizard, and other things not even on my radar yet.
Little Bit has a multitude of books from our shelves, her school, and our oft-visited library to outpace and outstrip what constituted my meager offerings at her age. My literary world resembled the ruins of Charn; if it wasn’t “inspired by God” or written by ham-fisted Christian evangelicals, it was usually off-limits to me. Perhaps Narnia was so different with its mysteries, paganism, and subversion of my safe Baptist bubble that it will always mean more. Despite its faults, it showed me that third path between us and them, Christian and worldly. I needed a safe in-between: something not too foreign but not too safe.
I hope Bits will come back to these stories one day, without Mom around to impress or a bedtime to stall with questions, and she will allow herself to drink deeply and drown in these stories. I have a feeling we sacrificed Narnia on the altar of critique. Certainly, critical thinking is a skill she needs in this transitional stage of development, and I’m not suggesting she go back to being a lamb led by any author with a staff and a story. Yet I worry she will need to master simultaneously recognizing harmful elements while also appreciating good writing.
Yet, let’s be real, Narnia is problematic AF.
So back around we circle to the question that inspired this entire literary endeavor:
“Is Aslan evil?”
He kills. He hurts for his pleasure. He takes. He controls. He tortures. He is, from all accounts, a dick. If that is the definition of evil, then he is thoroughly bathed in it. The heartache inherent in this revelation is that The Chronicles of Narnia can be said to be Aslan’s story. If so, it is lessened by the association.
But I believe Narnia is more than this, just as the Bible is more than the legacy of a brutal and unintelligent God. I’d like to think so anyway. It is amazing to me that a man such as Clive Staples Lewis, mired as he was to his oppressive preconceptions, could draw readers, then and now, to Mr. Tumnus’ door, up the giant steps to Harfang castle, down the tunnels of Underland, through portals disguised as pools, and finally into an endless playground hidden forever in the one before it. Narnia inspires our imaginations despite the constraints religion placed around it like a prison.
Narnia is not for everyone. Maybe it will never be fully embraced by Little Bit’s generation who, much better than we, cannot help but to kick loudly at the parts that cause harm to those they love. However, for that evangelical Christian girl forced to abstain from worldly life and education, who is imprisoned in a religion that treats her as chattel, for that girl, perhaps these books are for her. Just like they were for me.
Escape, all you Little Bits who are less fortunate, into a world of life, dancing, imagination, talking beasts, witches, wild rides, and magic.
Don’t worry, your church won’t mind.
Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at the Chronicles of Narnia