Thursday, October 7, 2010

Confronting a Sea of Past Admiration and Criticism

While I have long anticipated the opportunity to write about C.S. Lewis in an academic setting, now that I am actually undertaking the task I find it overwhelming. Laura Miller, in her reflections on Narnia dispersed throughout her memoir, The Magician's Book, wrote on the same conundrum that I am facing now: how can you write critically about an author and series you have so long revered?

From my childhood, C.S. Lewis and Walt Disney were figures I idealized as the embodiment of imagination. Discovering The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe through a inexpensive BBC television production from the 1980s, I practically salivated at the idea of going through a closet and coming out into another world. Narnia was not my first encounter with the fantasy genre -- I already had obsession with fairy tales, especially as dramatized in the Shelley Duvall television series Faerie Tale Theater -- but there was something about the wardrobe gateway that fed my hunger for the supernatural in a way the tales before had not done as effectively. This idea of a magic gateway was not original, as Burton Hatlen points out in speaking of how Philip Pullman was influenced by C.S. Lewis in His Dark Materials, and I did indeed have an Oz obsession for a few years that I am sure was fed in part by the cyclone that brought Dorothy to that land in that series' first book. But while my Oz obsession has faded, aside from an interest in dark revisionist interpretations of its characters that are not, as others have criticized Baum as being, so sanitary, I still love Narnia.

In speaking of my ability to criticize Lewis I do not want to simplify the situation. In the intervening years since childhood I have read a significant amount Narnia criticism, and am perhaps hyperaware of what many consider unsavory in the books. I was even excited in rereading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to discover own easily the Dufflepuds could be categorized as a culture ruined by colonial influence, a complaint which, if I had read of it before, did not stick as prominently in my memory as, for example, Philip Pullman's complaints about Susan's depiction in The Last Battle or his and others' criticism of the Caloremen culture. I am no longer an unreserved fan of Lewis, then, but because I have read so much by and about him I am almost afraid to express myself. As I weigh other opinions along with my admiration, I am at the point where I am wondering if I will ever be able to come to a conclusion on the author and on Narnia which is really mine.

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