‘What is the answer to an argument turning on the belief that two and two make four?’
‘The answer is, “You say that because you are a mathematician.”’
- The jailor and Master Parrot, in ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress,’ C. S. Lewis
This book (‘The Skeleton in the Wardrobe’, by David Holbrook, 1991) is a gloriously silly ‘debunking’ of C. S. Lewis’s mythos. It must have been a great deal of fun to write, but anybody who takes it seriously has lost the good of the intellect. It serves as a complete piss-take on the whole Freudian enterprise, and could hardly have done it better if that had been the author’s intention. Unfortunately I do not intend to cherry-pick especially silly bits of Mr Holbrook’s book for your amusement: you must go and find it yourself if you are keen.
Mr Holbrook has one main point which is perfectly valid. There is too much violent conflict resolution and nowhere near enough non-violent conflict resolution in Lewis’s fiction for works that explicitly set out to be Christian. The problem is that Mr Holbrook cannot state this and build a well-rounded argument to demonstrate it. Being a psychoanalytical type, he does not know how to argue in anything but an ad hominem way, and feels he must thoroughly discredit all of Lewis’s incidents and images by hypothesising the psychopathologies that led to their creation.
It is obvious that Mr Holbrook is deeply unhappy about C. S. Lewis’s use of violence, which he feels to be strongly at odds with his understanding of the Christian ethos. In the first chapter he highlights two episodes that he finds particularly disturbing. These are the humiliation of the Telmarine civilians at the end of ‘Prince Caspian’ and the similar humiliations of the staff and students of Experiment House at the end of ‘The Silver Chair’:
‘The first house they came to was a school: a girl’s school, where a lot of Narnian girls, with their hair done very tight and ugly tight collars round their necks and thick tickly stockings on their legs, were having a history lesson…’ (Prince Caspian, p.170)
This lesson (it is dull history) is being conducted by a Miss Prizzle who is punitive towards her pupil, Gwendolen, among others. A row interrupts her.
‘Wild people such as she had never imagined were crowding round her. Then she saw the lion, screamed and fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs.’
What are we supposed to make of this? The Bacchanalian, it seems, is being revived, with Aslan-Christ’s help: ‘nature’ replaces sterility and tedium. But what is Miss Prizzle’s offense and that of her ‘dumpy’ girls, that a Christ figure should frighten them so? Some kind of liberation is going on, but what is its goal? Gwendolen hesitates.
‘”You’ll stay with us, sweetheart?” said Aslan.
Instantly she joined hands with two of the Maenads who whirled her around in a merry dance and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing.' (Holbrook’s italics)
How much may she take off? Why is she excused from being a victim? How far can a Maenad go? Surely in some historical periods the Maenads went into frenzies, inflamed by drink as servants of a Bacchanal? Did they tear people to pieces? Did they perform religious sexual acts? How seriously can we take all this and what does it signify?
‘Most of the gang were there- Adela Pennyfather and Cholmondely Major, Edith Winterblott, “Spotty Somer, Big Bannister and the two loathsome Garret twins. But suddenly they stopped. Their faces changed, and all the meanness, conceit, cruelty and sneakishness almost all disappeared in one single expression of terror. For they saw the wall fallen down, and a lion as large as a young elephant lying in the gap and three figures in glittering clothes with weapons in their hands rushing down upon them. For, with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running like mad, crying out, “Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair!” (Silver Chair p.205, Holbrook’s italics)
It would be interesting to hear those who commend C. S. Lewis on his straight Christianity, on this method of dealing with enemies, even supposing them to be as mean and bullying as Lewis does. How are problems of prejudice, justice, and tolerance implicitly offered?
The head of the school has hysterics and goes to the police; but Aslan restores the wall and when the police arrive they find nothing except the head ‘behaving like a lunatic’. So, in the interests of Christian triumph, even Christ, apparently, is willing to lend himself to the destruction of evidence and perversion of justice.’
Mr Holbrook finds the behaviour of Aslan in these incidents, and the behaviour Aslan elicits and evidently approves of, offensive and confronting. He seeks explanations for it in Lewis’s psychopathology, at extravagant length.
Mr Holbrook ought to know where to look for the true explanation of this behaviour. It is in the Christ of the Gospels. If Aslan is to be an image of Christ, he needs to include the image of Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, cursing the barren fig tree, driving the demons into the Gadarene swine, saying ‘I come not to bring peace, but a sword,’ and damning Korazin and Bethsaida. He cannot simply be an image of the aspects of the Christ of the Gospels that 20th century Westerners find inoffensive. He is not to be a ‘tame Prophet’. He must also reflect these violent and chaotic aspects of Christ, the very ones that Bertrand Russell finds so odious in ‘Why I am not a Christian.’ If Mr Holbrook had a bit more chutzpah he would have gone straight for the main game and written a book psychoanalysing Jesus, instead of wasting his time with C. S. Lewis.
I will now put on my postmodernist hat.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that Mr Holbrook knows what he is talking about. Let us assume all of his wild Freudian extrapolations happen to be completely, inerrantly true. Now, if we know all the ghastly and embarassing psychopathology behind a particular image or incident in a novel does that mean that the only meaning of the image or incident is the psychopathological one? I think not. I gladly grant Mr Holbrook the freedom to create such a reading. If he claims that such a reading is imposed on him by the author, I will say he is abdicating his readerly responsibilities as co-creator of the text. If he attempts to impose it on me, I will say he is an arrogant authoritarian twit.
I am within my rights to read the Narnia books as if they were an allegory of the relations between labour and capital during the Great Depression; I can read them as if they were intended to be Buddhist allegory, rather than Christian; I can read them and pretend that they were written by William S Burroughs and derive their piquant charm from his psychopathology. Or, I can follow the author’s suggestions as to the meaning he intended them to have.
At the end of the first chapter Mr Holbrook asks a series of rhetorical questions:
‘Is it true that the world is full of threatening figures against which one must continually strive? And is it true that the only hope one has of winning against these powers is by frightening, threatening, controlling, or destroying them? And hardening oneself to do so?’
Well, duh! Not long before Lewis wrote these stories, a great nation in the centre of civilised Europe was busying itself making soap out of people and throwing children alive into furnaces. While he was writing them another great European nation was busily starving, bludgeoning, and freezing tens of millions of people to death in a network of prisons. Edith Winterblott and the loathsome Garret twins are clearly not monsters on the same scale as Stalin. But what they lack, chiefly, is merely the apparatus of a totalitarian state. They could be Stalin, given a chance, and they are clearly types of the sort of people who make Stalin possible. They are just smaller, on the same scale of a child at school, and hence the proper targets for the righteous anger of a child at school.