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Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia

An Introduction

By Alexis Record ~

Magic spells, witches, and my devotedly conservative Christian parents are okay with it?

Wow!

I had a lot of restrictions growing up in the 80s and 90s during the height of my experience with evangelical culture. Leaders in our religious tradition considered many books, types of music, and television shows to be influenced by the devil. Anything with witchcraft, magic and other “satanic” powers were forbidden. Smurfs had a wizard so it was satanic, Power Rangers used “powers” and therefore was too magical, and Ghostbusters had ghosts which my mom considered demons. Only the Holy Ghost was allowed in our home.

Yet when it came to The Chronicles of Narnia, Christian propaganda in the form of children’s stories, all of the sudden magic and witchcraft were sanctioned.

I was at my friend Amanda’s house from elementary school the first time I saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle live-action movie. Splinter had been kidnaped and the turtles were fighting to save him, but they didn’t know where he was. One night they all concentrate on the giant rat until he appears as a spirit in their midst. Amanda’s mom paused the movie at this point, made eye contact with me, and said, “I did not remember this being in here. Please don’t tell your mother.”

I went home thinking I had sinned.

Kicking Foot soldiers, and putting Shredder through a garbage compactor was all fine, but the moment those darn turtle kids used the power of love in a séance -- now we were in evil territory. It makes sense that violence was okay with my religious parents considering violence is plentiful among most of the Old Testament stories we’d consumed from infancy. If violence was truly bad, why would God order so much of it in the Bible and then command his people to tell their children about it (Deuteronomy 11:19)? If it was in the Bible then it was holy. End of story. (I even went to a Christian ACE school where beating children happened regularly.)

Aron Ra made a good point about the difference between magic (bad) and miracles (good) in Christian thought in his latest book, Foundational Falsehoods: “The only difference between miracles and magic is who does it. A boat may be considered a ship if it’s big enough. When a rich man is neurotic, we call him eccentric. When a V.I.P. is murdered, it’s an assassination. When a god performs magic, he’s working miracles.”

If the exact same concept can be considered sin depending on where, how, or by whom it is performed, then I have to acknowledge how hard it was for my parents to navigate what exactly was off-limits. For example, the brain-twisting our family did in order to accommodate Rainbow Brite (she’s using color “technology”), Care Bears (God made them that way; they could be angels), and The Legend of Zelda (video game magic doesn’t count as real magic) was baffling. Of course, I am dearly indebted to my family for every logic-bending exception that enriched my childhood. 

Of course, childhood is itself magical because magic is anything formed in the imagination, and who is more imaginative than a child? That’s probably the reason there was rarely a children’s program that was entirely devoid of magical elements in my youth. That is one reason why I dearly loved The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis’ tales were allowed under the guise of being Christian metaphors used to help children understand the weightier parts of the theology they inherited. Many of my friends from similar restrictive religious backgrounds had the same wondrous experience with those stories, feeling and experiencing magical worlds for the first time. (The only other books I remember reading at this time besides the Bible was the gruesome Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim’s Progress, both abridged for the young reader to handle.)

I finally got to journey to a far-away land, meet interesting creatures, and go on adventures. All that, and it didn’t count as sinful to boot!

I also have to hand it to C. S. Lewis and how he paints a word picture. I can still imagine transforming into a dragon, falling into a picture frame, and feeling the bottom of a wardrobe turn from wood to snow.

Christian propaganda in the form of children’s stories, all of the sudden magic and witchcraft were sanctioned.Fast forward a few decades and I find myself with a daughter of my own who, like most kids, loves magical stories. We just finished reading the entire Harry Potter series and wondered which magical tale would be next. We read The Hobbit, but I had to stop often and explain the extant language or complicated themes. We only got one chapter into the first Lord of the Rings book before realizing it was much more of the same and a bit too much for her. She’s nine. Then I remembered the first set of children’s tales I had really been drawn into when I was around her age. I borrowed the massive novel from my aunt that contained all seven original books bound together, and we dove into the first tale of a Witch (always capitalized), magic wardrobes, and talking animals. It felt like I was coming home to old friends after a long time away, and my real-life Lucy was sitting next to me.

Even as my heart was pumping excitement, my brain was jumping higher and higher hurdles around problematic paragraphs I had once accepted without question. My daughter, whom I’ll call Little Bit, stopped me to ask a clarifying question here and there, and I realized that she was shocked by some elements of the book that I had simply taken for granted at her age.

Two questions she asked particularly struck me and inspired this little blog series:

“Is Father Christmas a bad guy?”

and

“Is Aslan evil?”

Little Bit has been taught how to think critically about what she is reading by her experienced teacher, atheist mom, and Christian dad. When I was her age, I was told what to think, but never how to think. Since the stories of Narnia were based on the stories of the Bible, a book I was taught never to question or disrespect, I absorbed my Narnia fare with the same reverent, unquestioning consumption.

As I read aloud and she interrupted with her thoughts, I noticed she was testing the characters by her sense of right and wrong, and found some of the heroes wanting when it was clear the author meant to communicate they were good, holy even. The more I read, the less I was convinced Aslan is good. In fact, he can be quite evil as we will see, and hold some characteristics that no child should accept.

It’s with a bit of trepidation that I forge into unfamiliar territory by analyzing these moralist fables I know so well, grappling with their darker elements (racism, sexism, prejudice), and confronting their arbitrary code of ethics. While I will always appreciate The Chronicles of Narnia for its role in my childhood, it no longer holds a place of unquestioning reverence in my heart.

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