Saturday, 19 January 2013

Explaining the internet to C. S. Lewis

I always loved the Narnia series as a kid. It took a back seat when I read The Lord of the Rings, mind you, but it never fell off the bus altogether. I read the Cosmic Trilogy and the Screwtape Letters in due course. Then, as a teenager, being nerdy and a Christian, I got heavily into C. S. Lewis’s apologetic writings – I think his argument for the supernatural in Miracles (the relevant chapter is reproduced here, and I’ll deal with it in depth in an Imponderable some time) may have delayed my atheism by about five years. Lewis became one of my heroes, and I strove to emulate him. Various people have been kind enough, through the years, to praise my writing for its clarity; they have Lewis to thank.
During that time, I got into the habit of having imaginary conversations with C. S. Lewis. This isn’t so unusual. I tend to have imaginary conversations a lot with Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker or whoever I’ve been reading lately (though mainly only non-fiction; I don’t do this with Terry Pratchett). But I read so much Lewis that it became ingrained. When I became an atheist, the conversations became distinctly more adversarial, but they continued. More recently, having known Lewis first as a fiction author and then as an apologist, I’ve rediscovered him all over again as a literature theorist; possibly the last professional literature theorist to write intelligibly.
And Lewis keeps coming into my head, whenever I see or hear something that he would remark upon. But now there’s a twist. A large amount of my life is spent on the internet. Nearly all the things I read that I then chat with Lewis about, I read on the internet. So now, our conversations always start with me trying to explain to him how computers and the internet work. And when I say “start with”, I mean that’s usually as far as they get before I’m distracted by some practical consideration. I really do wonder what he would have thought of the internet. Lewis was not a big fan of science and technology, but I think he might have made an exception here. He felt that the “modern age” was descending into a grey, culturally ignorant shabbiness, neglectful of art and language. But his “modern age” was the early-to-mid-20th century, before the electronic revolution brought art and music and knowledge undreamed-of into our homes and now, even, our pockets. I like to think it would have given him hope.

Studying Narnia

It’s become popular in the blogosphere to go through a big (fiction) book or series chapter by chapter, analysing and commenting on character developments and foreshadowings and what not as you go. I’ve seen it done for The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, and as a matter of fact it’s currently being done with the Narnia Chronicles by one Ana Mardoll. Partly because it’s already being done, and partly because I doubt I have the stamina, I’m not going to do a chapter-by-chapter. I do intend to do a book-by-book run-through, though.
Now, I’m no C. S. Lewis. I didn’t take English beyond high school, and I spent very little of my teenage years reading classic poetry, so I won’t be pulling out all the allusions to Spenser and Milton and Dante that I gather are sprinkled throughout the Narnia books. I did do a small amount of “deconstruction” during my time in cultural anthropology – the one kind of literary analysis that I know for a fact Lewis never did. You never get told, in so many words, how to deconstruct things, because telling people things in so many words is the sort of thing that gets deconstructed. But I did come up with a simple method that stood me in reasonable stead in my Anthro papers.
First, you go through your text and find arguments where they’ve skipped a step, and need what are called “bridging premises”. A simple everyday example: “Those clouds look dark, so I’d better get the washing in” is missing a premise or three. We haven’t spelled out “Dark clouds bring rain; rain makes things wet; I want the washing to stay dry,” because we assume everybody knows all those things without being told. Our conversations would look very strange, and run to Entish length, if we made all our bridging premises explicit; so there are always plenty such gaps to be found in any text. (Perspicacious readers will find one in that very sentence.)
But the original sentence in my example says nothing about rain. The only bridging premise which is justified on the basis of the sentence alone is “If there are dark clouds about, it is better to bring the washing in” – any further inference calls upon theory (in this case, meteorological theory) not found in the text. So the next step in my deconstruction method was to find premises (“underlying assumptions”, I called them) that made sense of the text as a whole. Deconstructionism in general takes a vaguely Marxist view of human interaction – that people identify both themselves and others as members of groups, and that their main motivation is power and legitimacy for their group. Therefore, whenever a text allows multiple different “underlying assumptions”, you pick the one that best fits that pattern.
Notice the implications of that last step. Deconstructionists often claim to discover colonialist, Eurocentric, or patriarchal assumptions underlying the texts they examine. In fact deconstruction is all too often a matter of inventing such assumptions; just as the supposed witches of the sixteenth century “confessed” to the witch-hunters’ lurid sexual fantasies. Perhaps that’s going too far. I don’t wish to equate deconstructionists with theocratic police or torturers, and the accusations they make are at least not superstitious – colonial and patriarchal systems, unlike witchcraft, do exist and do inform a lot of people’s world-views, Lewis’s included. My point is that it takes more than preconception to find them.
The reply of the deconstructionists will usually include the phrase “death of the author”, due to Roland Barthes. Barthes (according to his Wikipedia page) thought that, if you’re trying to understand a text, you’d do better to look at the context of social norms and conventions surrounding it, and the previous texts on which it draws, than to consider its writer. The author has no God-like control over its meaning – the reader can choose to interpret the text in any way that seems right. Barthes appears to have thought only bourgeois people would have a problem with that.
Postmodernism is never as ground-breaking as it likes to suppose. Lewis, the literary critic, anticipated just such an approach to the old texts he studied:
I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words... they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date – if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds – then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended. What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his... Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste.
Studies in Words p. 3
Not that Barthes advocated reading texts without regard to changes in the meaning and usage of words; but Lewis’s point remains – the “death of the author” is more a matter of the supremacy of the critic.
We are all authors now. Over the past fifteen years a code of etiquette has grown up among us about the way to treat real-time textual communication. And one of its rules is that interpreting someone else’s Facebook status or blog post any way you please, without reference to its author’s intention, is simply rude. Such insensitive interpretations are therefore ruled out of court from the beginning. I can see no reason why they should be brought back in just because the original author is absent, even permanently, from the discussion.
This doesn’t mean – as I’ve been reminded – that “intention is magic”. Of course anyone setting out to communicate has a certain degree of responsibility as to the content of their communication. If everyone misunderstands what you said, then you probably said it wrong. But it has to be a two-way street. For any snippet of language, including a text, there are two things that can reasonably be called its “meaning”: what the author intended by it, and what most of the audience are likely to understand from it. So if you’re going to go around announcing that Talking Beasts must have been discriminated against in Narnia because there was only one non-Human on the Dawn Treader, you’d better check whether that’s what the author meant, because most readers of the text don’t get that impression (as compared to, say, the racist overtones in the descriptions of the Calormenes).
Agreeing on a comprehensive theory of literary success would hardly enhance the livelihood of literary critics, but one major component, after “Is this interesting?”, must surely be “Is the author’s intended meaning the one understood by the reader?” – with an important caveat. As time goes on, not only do the meanings of words change, but so do people’s social attitudes. I’ve blogged about this before. The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle were not racist by the standards of the 1950s. Personally, I would think that if you can explain to a young reader that gay and queer mean “cheerful” and “strange” respectively in the Narnia books (both words come up fairly often), then you can explain that people back then were a bit more suspicious of foreign cultures than we are.
So why was there only one non-Human on the Dawn Treader? I had no trouble thinking up a consistent in-world reason that didn’t involve discrimination. You’ll remember that there was no navigation and no ship-building in Telmarine Narnia; Caspian’s voyage was the first for over a thousand years. The ship-builders must have been hired from the island nations of Galma and Terebinthia, where – if I recall correctly – they don’t have Talking Beasts (or Dwarfs, or Centaurs, or any of the others). They would not, then, be accustomed to building ships that could easily accommodate sailors of a very different size and shape to Humans. But I don’t think that was what Lewis intended.
The fact is that Lewis didn’t bother much with consistency between books in a series. At the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he pretends that the book is a piece of consciousness-raising about a real interplanetary voyage, and makes out that the protagonist’s name, Elwin Ransom, has been a pseudonym all along. Then in the sequel, Perelandra (published in some places as Voyage to Venus), a fairly important plot-point-cum-thematic-message hangs on the fact that Ransom is his real name. Nor did he keep many of his old notes around for comparison. This was how he managed to churn out the entire Narnia series in less than half the time it took J. R. R. Tolkien to finish The Lord of the Rings, which may be one reason why Tolkien didn’t like Narnia much. But a deeper reason is surely the two men’s very different approach to realism in fantasy.
To Tolkien, the whole business of writing fantasy was to construct an internally coherent “Secondary World” with its own consistent rules. That’s why The Lord of the Rings took him so long; every detail had to fit into the whole, down to which branch of hobbits Sméagol was related to and where the name “Gamgee” came from. Lewis didn’t consider background consistency to be essential to a story. He distinguished between Realism of Presentation, which he defined as “the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail”, and Realism of Content, which is when a work is “probable or ‘true to life’”. A work can have one, or both, or neither, and still be great.
...“Let it be granted” that Lear divided his kingdom; that the “riche gnof” in the Miller’s Tale was infinitely gullible; that a girl who puts on boy’s clothes becomes instantly unrecognisable to everyone, including her lover; that calumnies against our nearest and dearest, even when uttered by the most suspicious characters, will be believed. Surely the author is not saying “This is the sort of thing that happens”? Or surely, if he is, he lies? But he is not. He is saying, “Suppose this happened, how interesting, how moving, the consequences would be! Listen. It would be like this.” To question the postulate itself would show a misunderstanding; like asking why trumps should be trumps... That is not the point. The raison d’etre of the story is that we shall weep, or shudder, or wonder, or laugh as we follow it.
An Experiment in Criticism pp. 65–66
Background consistency seems to belong to Realism of Content. Lewis pointed out elsewhere that some very good stories lack it, citing Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:
But why should the characters be disguised as animals at all? The disguise is very thin, so thin that Grahame makes Mr Toad on one occasion “comb the dry leaves out of his hair”. Yet it is quite indispensable. If you try to rewrite the book with all the characters humanized you are faced at the outset with a dilemma. Are they to be adults or children? You will find that they can be neither. They are like children in so far as they have no responsibilities, no struggle for existence, no domestic cares. Meals turn up; one does not even ask who cooked them. In Mr Badger’s kitchen “plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf”. Who kept them clean? Where were they bought? How were they delivered in the Wild Wood? Mole is very snug in his subterranean home, but what was he living on? If he is a rentier where is the bank, what are his investments? The tables in his forecourt were “marked with rings that hinted at beer mugs”. But where did he get the beer? In that way the life of all the characters is that of children for whom everything is provided and who take everything for granted. But in other ways it is the life of adults. They go where they like and do what they please, they arrange their own lives.
To that extent the book is a specimen of the most scandalous escapism: it paints a happiness under incompatible conditions – the sort of freedom we can have only in childhood and the sort we can have only in maturity – and conceals the contradiction by the further pretence that the characters are not human beings at all. The one absurdity helps to hide the other.
On Stories pp. 13–14
Narnia is full of “realism of presentation”, evidently with the intention (and this, at least, is masterfully executed) of making the magic seem vivid and real:
Hamlet is not faced with a ghost in order that his reactions may tell us more about his nature and therefore about human nature in general; he is shown reacting naturally in order that we may accept the ghost.
An Experiment in Criticism p. 66
But it is quite devoid of “realism of content”, including (I’m afraid) background consistency. When Lewis puts only one Talking Beast on the Dawn Treader, or quietly puts the Bridge of Beruna back after making all that fuss about Aslan freeing the River-God from it, or has Calormen ignore centuries of opportunity to annex Telmarine Narnia from the sea, or introduces a new  player  race late in the series that appears in no other book, or makes the Talking Mice chivalrous knights in one story and timorous beasties cowering in fear of a dressed-up donkey in another, we pretty much just have to roll with it. I’m not so sure I agree with Lewis’s approach here. I have the kind of imagination that pursues minor characters and world-building details backstage to see what happens to them, and the inconsistencies in Narnia frustrate this something awful. It’s like trying to picture one of Escher’s impossible buildings from a different viewing angle.
All that being said, I think we can divine a number of subtexts in the Narnia stories. Many, of course, are fully intentional. Others represent particular obsessions or fixations of Lewis’s which he may not have been fully aware of, but which return repeatedly through his works and are clearly present in the Narnia texts. We must insist on a reasonable standard of evidence for these subtexts; I think, at minimum, we need to show either that they were intentional, or that they can be clearly identified as a recurring element in Lewis’s thought. And when things come up that spoil the stories for us, like the taint of racism in the two Calormene books, I think we have to take Lewis’s social and cultural context into consideration before we condemn them as an artistic (or moral) fault as such.

Once a King, Always a King

C. S. Lewis mostly succeeded in keeping his Christianity from biasing his scholarship, but it confronts us on every page of his fiction. He always said that he wrote his stories by seeing pictures in his head, and the “morals” came later. This is evident in his two extant unfinished fiction works, titled The Dark Tower and After Ten Years by their editor, which had not reached the theologizing stage when they were abandoned. But it is equally evident that he needed the theological messages to glue his images into plots.
A minor point here, but one that will arise repeatedly. The Narnia books are often called “allegories” of Christian doctrine, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They are not. Lewis was an expert on mediaeval allegory, and his first work of prose fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress, is allegorical: every character, every location, every incident, stands for some specific idea or concept in the real world. In Narnia, it is not so. As Lewis told some American children who had written to him,
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books “represents” something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself “Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia”; I said “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.” If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. So, the answer to your first two questions is that Reepicheep and Nick-i-brick [sic] don’t, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like R, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like N.
Letter (May 1954) to a Maryland fifth grade class, Letters to Children pp. 44–45
Another child wrote in a series of guesses as to which Christian stories each Narnian event represented.
All your points are in a sense right. But I’m not exactly “representing” the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying “Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or ‘the Great Emperor oversea’) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, have been like?” Perhaps it comes to much the same thing as you thought, but not quite.
  1. The creation of Narnia is the Son of God creating a world (not specially our world).
  2. Jadis plucking the apple is, like Adam’s sin, an act of disobedience, but it doesn’t fill the same place in her life as his plucking did in his. She was already fallen (very much so) before she ate it.
  3. The stone table is meant to remind one of Moses’ table.
  4. The Passion and Resurrection of Aslan are the Passion and Resurrection Christ might be supposed to have had in that world – like those in our world but not exactly like.
  5. Edmund is like Judas a sneak and a traitor. But unlike Judas he repents and is forgiven (as Judas no doubt wd. have been if he’d repented).
  6. Yes. At the v. edge of the Narnian world Aslan begins to appear more like Christ as He is known in this world. Hence, the Lamb. Hence, the breakfast – like at the end of St. John’s Gospel. Does not He say “You have been allowed to know me in this world (Narnia) so that you may know me better when you get back to your own”?
  7. And of course the Ape and Puzzle, just before the last Judgement (in the Last Battle) are like the coming of Antichrist before the end of our world.
Letter (June 1960) to “Patricia”, Letters to Children pp. 92–93
Politically, Lewis was a Burkean conservative – not a capitalist particularly (he fumes, in places, about profiteering and advertising), but firmly and proudly bourgeois, and very suspicious of anything revolutionary:
Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power.
“A Reply to Professor Haldane”, On Stories p. 76
(J. B. S. Haldane, the famous Marxist evolutionary biologist, had criticized the political philosophy apparent in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.) Lewis’s conservativism can be partly attributed to the fact that, in his time, it was conservatives who sought to preserve the natural world and protect animal welfare, and liberals and the Left who wanted all the rivers dammed and the forests harvested and the animals cut up for science. But only partly, and the remainder has everything to do with his Christian faith. Lewis’s belief in God was the centrepiece of his broader belief in hierarchy. He supported democracy in practice, but for reasons 180 degrees removed from James Madison’s pithy saying that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary”. Here is Lewis’s clearest statement of his political philosophy, but you will find it throughout his works, and especially in the Narnia books.
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.
That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen... patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality.
“Membership”, The Weight of Glory p. 168
I’m pretty sure Lewis doesn’t mean, by “patriarchal”, what I would mean by it. He means rule passed down from father to eldest son. But you’ll notice that the authority of “husband over wife” appears on that list. Lewis openly advocates husbandly authority in Mere Christianity, on the grounds that there can be no majority in a democracy of two, so somebody has to have a casting vote if negotiation breaks down – an argument so specious that it can’t possibly have been his real reason, because any fool can see that all the partner with the casting vote has to do is to hold out, declare negotiation breakdown, and get his way every time. I’ll spare you his argument for always giving the husband the casting vote; it’s no better.
I cannot for the life of me see why a society of “unfallen” beings would be more authoritarian than ours. Surely if everyone were invariably motivated to do right, that would remove most of the need for authority? Granted, some people might not be as wise as others, but surely – if no-one was selfish, spiteful, manipulative, obstructive, or dishonest – many heads would be better than one? And how on earth (or anywhere else) would “patriarchal” authority guarantee wise policy?
Indeed, it would seem to contradict another of Lewis’s oft-revisited ideas: that we all instinctively recognise good and evil when we see them, and if we dislike the good it’s because it challenges the evil in us. The point arises in Narnia when Edmund (as yet unredeemed) feels horror at the name of Aslan, when Eustace calls Lucy’s healing cordial “beastly stuff”, and in many other places, as we’ll see. But if we all know good from evil at sight, and if we were unfallen and didn’t dislike the good, then why would we need anyone else to tell us what to do?
Since Lewis’s religious-political ideas twine all through his fiction, we’re going to need some way of dealing with them critically. Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of radio plays based on the Gospels, The Man Born to be King, during World War II – a work Lewis much admired. Here’s her argument from the introduction to the print publication:
A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms; an illogical theology lands one in illogical situations; an ill-balanced theology issues in false emphasis and absurdity. Conversely, there is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself. Any theology that will stand the rigorous pulling and hauling of the dramatist is pretty tough in its texture. Having subjected Catholic theology to this treatment, I am bound to bear witness that it is very tough indeed. As I once made a character say in another context: “Right in art is right in practice”; and I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance.
Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born to be King p. 19
So that principle will be my guide during the read-through; that is to say, I will judge how well the stories work as stories first, then launch critiques of the theological ideas from any artistic faults they give rise to. I give you fair warning: Christianity is not necessarily going to come out on top.

The Problem of Pain

There is another, still more problematic motif haunting Lewis’s works. It has been noted before, by a psychoanalytical critic named David Holbrook. Holbrook’s theory to explain it (let me say up front) is so much pseudo-scientific burble, but the phenomenon he has noted is quite real. I refer to Lewis’s evident delight in making unlikeable characters suffer pain and humiliation, apparently for the reader’s moral instruction or even mere amusement. He had a defence ready:
Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, On Stories pp. 39–40
But this won’t do. For a start, you can write about battles and monsters without glorifying the killing. Look at Tolkien’s works. The Lord of the Rings is the story of a war, and the protagonists have to fight, and when they do they fight bravely. But they don’t rush into battle against all precaution like Corin in The Horse and His Boy; they don’t fight duels to prove a point like Peter in Prince Caspian; they don’t seek vengeance or honour at the cost of bloodshed like Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You couldn’t put Gandalf’s “Many live who deserve death, and some die who deserve life” speech in the mouth of a C. S. Lewis character. And Tolkien never invites us to laugh at his characters’ humiliation, as Lewis does with Trumpkin, Eustace, Bree, Rabadash, and Uncle Andrew, and I don’t think that’s an exhaustive list.
It goes deeper. Lewis was a Protestant, or at least he joined the Church of England despite having many Catholic friends, but he believed in Purgatory until his death. Here he is in his posthumous work on prayer (formatted as a series of letters to a fictitious friend “Malcolm”):
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” – “Even so, sir.”
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more.
Prayer: Letters to Malcolm p. 108
And in his one book set entirely in the afterlife, The Great Divorce (the title refers to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell), multiple “ghost” characters, visiting from the dingy streets of Hell, have to suffer shame and agony to cure them of their worldly obsessions before they can be accepted into Lewis’s clothing-optional Heaven. Pain as a moral purgative crops up in books by Lewis as predictably as barefoot women in shows by Joss Whedon.
Here’s a curiosity. Lewis was of course well aware that words change their meanings over time – he wrote a whole book on the subject, after all. But some of the changes, he maintains, are regrettable, and in particular words may be said to “die” when they become mere synonyms for good or bad (one thinks of awesome in our own time). Here are a couple of passages. Notice carefully, if you will, the one word he chooses as a casual example both times.
That is always the trouble about allowing words to slip into the abyss. Once turn swine into a mere insult, and you need a new word (pig) when you want to talk about the animal. Once let sadism dwindle into a useless synonym for cruelty, and what do you do when you have to refer to the highly special perversion which actually afflicted M[onsieur] de Sade?
“The Death of Words”, On Stories p. 107
Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for “very”, tremendous for “great”, sadism for “cruelty”, and unthinkable for “undesirable” were verbicides.
Studies in Words p. 7
Lewis picks the same word elsewhere when he’s on this topic too. You might start to wonder what’s up. Or, perhaps, you might start to wonder whether this blogger is finding mares’ nests (as Lewis would have called them) to blacken his name. Either way, you’ll get your answers in They Stand Together, the collection of Lewis’s letters to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves. Collecting them for posterity in his old age, Greeves scribbled heavily over a number of passages from 1917, but he didn’t reckon on Lewis being famous enough to justify the expense of fluorescent photography to uncover the deletions. Here are some excerpts; in charity we must remember that Lewis was eighteen at the time, and that the days of feminist consciousness-raising were over fifty years off. And that he doesn’t seem to have made any serious effort to realize his fantasies. Some will also think it relevant (I don’t) that Lewis was not a Christian at this point.
“Across my knee” of course makes one thing of positions for Whipping; or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes. This position, with its childish, nursery associations wd. have something beautifully intimate and also very humiliating for the victim.
28 January 1917, They Stand Together p. 159
As to the other point I often think [William Morris] must have been a special devotee of the rod. Do you remember in the “Well at the World’s End” where a man at the Birg of the Four Friths says that the advantage of slave girls as opposed to wives is that we need care nothing for their ill humours “so long as the twigs smart and the whips sting”? That sentence is dragged in quite unnecessarily and is exquisitely worded.
...I think your father and mother should be shot for keepin’ you in that hole, while the only other member of your family whom I am interested in [Arthur’s sister Lily] could be punished in an other way – to the general enjoyment of the operator, and to the great good of her soul.
31 January 1917, They Stand Together p. 161
By the way, what do you mean by the whip in music? At any rate the mere sound of a whip doesn’t affect me in the least. There’s no special virtue in a whip – hundreds of other methods of mild torture are just as good.
20 February 1917, They Stand Together p. 169
But as to that lady, I remember that you did not agree when I suggested her as a suitable subject for the lash, on that eventful night. But surely now that you have seen her again you must agree with me. Is she not absolutely perfect from head to heel – and moreover the necessary part of the body – one of the most beautiful parts anyway – shaped with an almost intolerable grace? The gods – whom I’m always abusing – certainly produced a masterpiece in her; even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education. Ah me!, if she had suffered indeed half the stripes that have fallen upon her in imagination she would be well disciplined.
28 February 1917, They Stand Together p. 171
I hope you are right as to the possibilities of my finding my particular kind of love. Butler tells me that the person to read on my subject is a Frenchman of the 17th century called the Visconte de sade; his books, however, are very hard to come by.
3 June 1917, They Stand Together p. 188
Many of these letters were signed “ΦΙΛΟΜΑΣΤΙΞ” (Philomastix, i.e. “whip-lover” in Greek). Lewis stopped writing like this after he came back from the trenches, not because he had seen enough of suffering but because sexuality was fleshly and he wanted to escape from the confines of matter. At least that was what he said to Greeves; there’s also the fact that he had begun a long-term affair with the widowed mother of one of his soldier comrades.
Holbrook’s daffy Freudianism aside, it seems plausible that Lewis’s sexuality took this course in response to the vicious treatment he received at the hands of the deranged Robert Capron, headmaster of Wynyard School (“Oldie” in his autobiography Surprised by Joy), from the age of nine to eleven. And there are some very oblique hints in The Four Loves that he and Joy Davidman enjoyed some consensual play of this kind during the brief years of their marriage. That Lewis had this particular sexual fascination is not a problem for me. That he fooled himself it could function as a character-building moral stimulus, and put it into children’s books as such, is.
Another frequent theme of Lewis’s is death-and-rebirth, which he combines with the ascetic Christian idea of “mortifying the flesh”. Perhaps surprisingly in the light of the aforegoing, he did not mean self-flagellation or anything physical at all. The idea was to put one’s sinful nature (including and especially the sex drive) to death by prayer and abstinence, not so that it would disappear, but so that it would be reborn with its sinfulness washed out. There’s a particularly graphic example in The Great Divorce, where the lustful thoughts tormenting one man appear as a lizard on his shoulder, its tail flickering “like a whip”, whispering in his ear. A fiery angel kills the lizard with the man’s consent (causing excruciating pain in the process), and then –
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man – an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
The Great Divorce p. 101
The naked man then mounts his golden stallion, with its huge glossy buttocks, and rides off into the mountains (up to Heaven proper). So, if you hold the belief that conversion to Christianity causes one to be reborn as a new person, and if you also think Lewis was right about the salutary moral effects of pain, I suppose you might argue that his sadism was reborn as part of his moral outlook. Since I don’t believe either, that isn’t a path I can take.
But I would be remiss to let this subject go without acknowledging that Lewis was, by all accounts, an unusually kind, polite, and good-humoured human being. Yet he was forever bemoaning his own sinfulness; in the divine hierarchy he put himself somewhere near the bottom of the human race, identifying with Aristotle’s “natural slaves”, and when he advocated pain as a moral corrective, he tended to name himself as an example of someone who needed it. I can’t help thinking that his sadistic fantasies were probably the “sin” he was referring to.
One more thing. Most of the Narnia books have centaur characters in them somewhere. Lewis consistently describes them as noble and beautiful, and they all seem to be stargazers and seers. Others have followed him since: J. K. Rowling’s centaurs are straight out of Narnia. But Lewis departs, drastically, from the traditional concept of the centaur, which is to say a crazed drunken rapist – the horse part representing the “lower” or “bestial” drives of human nature. Lewis was not a man to go chopping and changing mythological symbols because it seemed like a good idea at the time; this means something, and I think the Great Divorce passage is a clue. The centaur is like the new-created man, but in such full command of his (unfallen, sanctified) “horse” that it is in no way separate from his self. And that calls to mind the passage in St Augustine, one of Lewis’s most admired Christian thinkers, where he says that you can tell human sexuality got broken in the Fall because men no longer have voluntary control over their penises, to fulfil the command to “be fruitful and multiply” without all the pother about arousal and orgasm that distracts you from worshipping God. What that all means in the context of the Narnia stories I will explore when I read through the books – except for the stargazing, which I’ll get to below.

“Don’t Talk Like a Grown-Up!”

Actually, sadism is not the only abused word Lewis returns to repeatedly. Another is adolescent. The devil Screwtape blesses it as a means for convincing his nephew Wormwood’s “patient” that his Christianity is “just a phase”. Age, Lewis argued, matters far less than we think. He argued the point at length more than once.
The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose... Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?... A taste is childish in the bad sense not because it develops at an early age but because, having some intrinsic defect in it, it ought to disappear as soon as possible. We call such a taste “childish” because only childhood can excuse it, not because childhood can often achieve it. Indifference to dirt and untidiness is “childish” because it is unhealthy and inconvenient and therefore ought to be speedily outgrown; a taste for bread and honey, though equally common in our salad days, is not...
Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this – with youth’s characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so much importance to being adult and instils a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?
An Experiment in Criticism pp. 71–73
To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, On Stories p. 34
The deconstructionists I have read are all very concerned about the likely effect on society of the texts they are criticizing. I think they worry too much. When I read The Jungle Book as a child, Kipling’s disciplinarianism went right over my head; all I saw was a boy running naked in the forest with his animal friends, that being my own life’s ambition at the age of seven. Lewis, too old and on the wrong side of the political divide to have heard of the doctrine of the Blank Slate, neither hoped nor feared that his works would have any effect on society at all. He hoped chiefly to entertain, and at best to make difficult religious ideas engaging.
The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized; we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm; we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.
“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, On Stories pp. 42–43
You might well wonder how Lewis squared this attitude with his authoritarian spiritual beliefs. Arguably, it might square fairly well: if parents have authority over children by virtue of parenthood, there’s no need to grant them authority over children by virtue of age. And it is very evident in Narnia. From beginning to end, Lewis treats his child characters as fully responsible human beings. The protagonists are entrusted with battle plans, rescue missions, crucial messages; again and again, the fate of Narnia is in their hands. In most of the books they drink alcohol with no ill effect. On the few occasions when adult characters treat the children as children – when Trumpkin doubts the Pevensies’ usefulness in the war against Miraz, when King Edmund forbids Corin to join the battle at Anvard, when Uncle Andrew scolds Digory for approaching Aslan, when King Tirian tries to send Jill and Eustace home because they are too young to be put in harm’s way – they are always wrong. Narnia embodies every child’s fantasy of being taken seriously as an individual, which is something you usually have to wait for until you’re twenty-five or so, or forget altogether if you have any known mental disabilities.
I think we need to bear this in mind whenever we feel that Lewis is being too harsh on characters who are “only children”. One of the many ways that our society marginalizes children is by treating their lives and interests as minor matters, including trivializing violence, abuse and betrayal by their peers with words like “bullying” and “tattling”. In Narnia, where children are taken seriously, immoral acts by children are taken seriously too. I think Lewis is often needlessly harsh, as much of what I’ve already said should make clear; but not because he judges children as adults, that being a consequence of his consistent treatment of child characters throughout the series – he’s harsh on adults as well.
Meanwhile, the phrase “grown up”, with or without a hyphen, with very few exceptions indicates foolishness or cynicism. In Narnia as elsewhere, Lewis makes his disapproval of the contempt for youth no secret. Those actively trying to be “grown up” are wasting their time and being silly. Here we have the beginning of a resolution to what Narnia scholars have called the Problem of Susan, which I’ll discuss in proper depth in the read-through.
Lewis also defended his choice to have the Pevensies grow to adulthood in Narnia, then return to childhood when they went home. To one child he argued:
As I say, I think you are right about the other points but I feel sure I’m right to make them grow up in Narnia. Of course they will grow up in this world too. You’ll see. You see, I don’t think age matters as much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12; so I don’t feel it v. odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England.
Letter (September 1953) to “Phyllida”, Letters to Children p. 34
In fact this point sticks in many readers’ metaphorical throats, not just the deconstructionists. Narnia may take children seriously, but Our World (as Lewis calls it throughout) does not – unless Our World isn’t actually, you know, our world. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie treats this more believably, with Edmund, who has after all led armies to victory before, lying about his age in the hope of fighting the Nazis. Although, when you think about it, he’s lying by making himself much younger than he really is, since (counting time spent in both worlds) he must technically be nearly thirty. Also – puberty twice, anybody?
Before leaving this topic I should also note Lewis’s suspicion of the notion of scientific and technological “progress” – not that he doubted it was happening, but that he doubted it would solve all of humanity’s problems, and in particular he did not agree with the general mid-twentieth-century idea that technology as such made one society better than another in all ways that were important. Proponents of that idea frequently used the metaphor of growing up to describe progress. Lewis’s objection is precisely in line with his idea of “growing up” in general – the need to discard the things of our youth, or of past periods in our culture, is pathological. That was one of the signs that society was going senile. Or, as he sometimes put it, falling under the influence of Saturn.

The Seven Heavens

This is the part where you’ll think I’m deluded. Believe me, when I first picked up Michael Ward’s book I thought he was deluded. By the time I put it down, I had changed my mind.
Those of us who were Harry Potter fans and active on the internet seven or eight years ago will remember the huge storm in fandom, before and after the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, over the romantic pairings between the main characters. Some fans were convinced, with fervour no short of religious, that Harry and Hermione were destined to fall in love, that their love would encapsulate the whole meaning of the series, and that there were clues planted through the first five books that made this clear. Exactly what the clues were I never could quite make out – I was too busy reading the actual dialogue, which pointed unmistakably to a Ron-Hermione relationship – but I gather they had something to do with mediaeval alchemy. I remember chiefly the hilarious expostulations of the Harmonians (they called themselves “Harmony”, from a portmanteau of Harry and Hermione’s names) when they learned, or in many cases refused to learn, that they had been wrong all along. Before them was the theory that Albus Dumbledore was the adult Ron Weasley; time travel was involved, but again the hypothesis rested on the supposed “clue” that the seven moves of the chess game in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were a summary of the seven books.
So, in general, I’m suspicious of “hidden meaning” theories in popular literature. Four main things convince me in this case. First, unlike the Harry Potter hidden meanings, Ward’s proposed schema is very much un-hidden in the author’s other works. It appears throughout his scholarly, apologetic, and fictional writings for thirty years. Though it was a classical and mediaeval belief, supplanted at the very beginning of the scientific endeavour, it had, he said,
a permanent value as [a set of] spiritual symbols – to provide a Phänomenologie des Geistes which is specially worth while in our own generation.
“The Alliterative Metre”, Selected Literary Essays p. 24
That was in 1935; his last scholarly work, The Discarded Image, published posthumously in 1964, had exactly the same message. Second, Ward never claims that the books are to be read as puzzles with clues, as if the characters and story were unimportant; quite the contrary, the hidden meaning is to be found in the atmosphere, the “look-and-feel” as software designers say, of each work. Third, there are more than a few points which Ward has missed, but which fit his plan perfectly.
And fourth, his idea explains so much. Why does Father Christmas appear in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Why are there so many forest gods in Prince Caspian? What sort of theme unites all the different islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Why does Aslan (usually such an interventionist god) stay aloof in his own high country in The Silver Chair? Why isn’t Shasta a child from Our World in The Horse and His Boy? Why is the comic-relief villain an amorous fool in The Magician’s Nephew? Why does Susan abandon Narnia in The Last Battle? I can and will answer all those questions, and all of my answers will begin with Ward’s schema.
To do that, however, it’s going to take me the whole read-through; it’s not something I can unfold in a couple of paragraphs. So first, I have to decide what order to do that read-through in. I’m not particularly interested in the debate over what’s the “right” order to read Narnia in. The numbers you see on the backs of many editions, placing them in in-world chronological order, came from Lewis’s reply to one child who wanted to settle an argument with his mother (who thought they should be read in the order they were published):
I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion, I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. I never keep notes of that sort of thing and never remember dates.
Letter (April 1957) to “Laurence”, Letters to Children pp. 68–69
Many who prefer the publication order – and I must say there is a sort of gradual revelation of the Narnian world that you lose by reading The Magician’s Nephew too early – argue that Lewis was merely indulging the child. I’m not so sure; true to his philosophy, Lewis had no qualms about correcting children on other questions (like whether Narnia was an allegory), as you’ve seen above. However, precisely because Lewis didn’t plan the whole thing out beforehand, I think it best to follow the series in the order it was published, so that we can watch Lewis’s thoughts developing. Lewis may not have kept notes, but his publishers did; the order of publication is pretty much the same as the order of writing except that The Silver Chair was written after, but published before, The Horse and His Boy. If Lewis had planned the whole series from the beginning, and assuming Ward is right, which I’m sure he is, the first book would have had the “look-and-feel” of The Silver Chair; the second, that of The Horse and His Boy; the third, that of The Magician’s Nephew, and so on.
It is time for the reveal. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both wrote articles explaining how early mediaeval Germanic alliterative poetry worked. Tolkien included a chunk of Beowulf to illustrate the points he was making. Lewis wrote a whole poem of his own in the metre. I’ve formatted it to make the structure of the lines as clear as possible. Here it is. Here is the great theme that he returned to throughout his life’s work. Here is Ward’s schema for understanding the Narnia books. Here is The Planets.
Lady Luna,
in light canoe,

By friths and shallows
of fretted cloudland

Cruises monthly;
with chrism of dews

And drench of dream,
a drizzling glamour

Enchants us – the cheat!
changing sometime

A mind to madness,
melancholy pale,

Bleached with gazing
on her blank count’nance

Orb’d and ageless.
In earth’s bosom

The shower of her rays,
sharp-feathered light

Reaching downward,
ripens silver,

Forming and fashioning
female brightness,

– Metal maidenlike.
Her moist circle

Is nearest earth.

Next beyond her

Mercury marches; –
madcap rover,

Patron of pilf’rers.
Pert quicksilver

His gaze begets,
goblin mineral,

Merry multitude
of meeting selves,

Same but sundered.
From the soul’s darkness,

With wreathèd wand,
words he marshals,

Guides and gathers them –
gay bellwether

Of flocking fancies.
His flint has struck

The spark of speech
from spirit’s tinder,

Lord of language!
He leads forever

The spangle and splendour,
sport that mingles

Sound with senses,
in subtle pattern,

Words in wedlock,
and wedding also

Of thing with thought.

In the third region

Venus voyages...
but my voice falters;

Rude rime-making
wrongs her beauty,

Whose breasts and brow,
and her breath’s sweetness

Bewitch the worlds.
Wide-spread the reign

Of her secret sceptre,
in the sea’s caverns,

In grass growing,
and grain bursting,

Flower unfolding,
and flesh longing,

And shower falling
sharp in April.

The metal copper
in the mine reddens

With muffled brightness,
like muted gold,

By her fingers form’d.

Far beyond her

The heaven’s highway
hums and trembles,

Drums and dindles,
to the driv’n thunder

Of Sol’s chariot,
whose sword of light

Hurts and humbles;
beheld only

Of eagle’s eye.
When his arrow glances

Through mortal mind,
mists are parted

And mild as morning
the mellow wisdom

Breathes o’er the breast,
broadening eastward

Clear and cloudless.
In a clos’d garden

(Unbound her burden)
his beams foster

Soul in secret,
where the soil puts forth

Paradisal palm,
and pure fountains

Turn and re-temper,
touching coolly

The uncomely common
to cordial gold;

Whose ore also,
in earth’s matrix,

Is print and pressure
of his proud signet

On the wax of the world.
He is the worshipp’d male,

The earth’s husband,

Arch-chemic eye.

But other country

Dark with discord
dims beyond him,

With noise of nakers,
neighing of horses,

Hammering of harness.
A haughty god

Mars mercenary,
makes there his camp

And flies his flag;
flaunts laughingly

The graceless beauty,
grey-eyed and keen,

– Blond insolence –
of his blithe visage

Which is hard and happy.
He hews the act,

The indifferent deed
with dint of his mallet

And his chisel of choice;
achievement comes not

Unhelped by him;
– hired gladiator

Of evil and good.
All’s one to Mars,

The wrong righted,
rescued meekness,

Or trouble in trenches,
with trees splintered

And birds banished,
banks fill’d with gold

And the liar made lord.
Like handiwork

He offers to all –
earns his wages

And whistles the while.
White-feathered dread

Mars has mastered.
His metal’s iron

That was hammered through hands
into holy cross,

Cruel carpentry.
He is cold and strong,

Necessity’s son.

Soft breathes the air

Mild, and meadowy,
as we mount further

Where rippled radiance
rolls about us

Moved with music –
measureless the waves’

Joy and jubilee.
It is Jove’s orbit,

Filled and festal,
faster turning

With arc ampler.
From the Isles of Tin

Tyrian traders,
in trouble steering

Came with his cargoes;
the Cornish treasure

That his ray ripens.
Of wrath ended

And woes mended,
of winter passed

And guilt forgiven,
and good fortune

Jove is master;
and of jocund revel,

Laughter of ladies.
The lion-hearted,

The myriad-minded,
men like the gods,

Helps and heroes,
helms of nations

Just and gentle,
are Jove’s children,

Work his wonders.
On his wide forehead

Calm and kingly,
no care darkens

Nor wrath wrinkles:
but righteous power

And leisure and largesse
their loose splendours

Have wrapped around him –
a rich mantle

Of ease and empire.

Up far beyond

Goes Saturn silent
in the seventh region,

The skirts of the sky.
Scant grows the light,

Sickly, uncertain
(the Sun’s finger

Daunted with darkness).
Distance hurts us,

And the vault severe
of vast silence;

Where fancy fails us,
and fair language,

And love leaves us,
and light fails us

And Mars fails us,
and the mirth of Jove

Is as tin tinkling.
In tattered garment,

Weak with winters,
he walks forever

A weary way,
wide round the heav’n,

Stoop’d and stumbling,
with staff groping,

The lord of lead.
He is the last planet

Old and ugly.
His eye fathers

Pale pestilence,
pain of envy,

Remorse and murder.
Melancholy drink

(For bane or blessing)
of bitter wisdom

He pours for his people,
a perilous draught

That the lip loves not.

We leave all things

To reach the rim
of the round welkin,

Heaven’s hermitage,
high and lonely.


  1. "The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle were not racist by the standards of the 1950s."

    I have a problem with this, what's racist is racist, what's sexist is sexist, these things don't change with the standards of the time. There are no "standards" for what's racist, merely a tolerance to racism. And this tolerance didn't really change much from the 1950s to now, most white people now are completely fine with racism, as they were back then, and people of color are not, as they weren't back then. When you say racism wasn't so much of a problem back then, you betray that you're really only counting how white people stood by it.

    I understand what you're trying to say, that the racism you can find in these books was something white people felt so comfortable with and they were so accostumed to listen only to themselves talk, that you find you can't judge a white man so harshly for it as you would today, where the voices of people of color are harder to ignore and so you imagine it takes more effort than it once did to be as racist. I agree with that.

    1. Thank you for understanding (and you're absolutely correct that this part reflects my white privilege). I should mention too that this was my first Narnia post, and when I wrote it I had very little idea of how deep the misogyny in the series goes. If you read through the blog series you'll see my attitude gradually change.

  2. "The deconstructionists I have read are all very concerned about the likely effect on society of the texts they are criticizing. I think they worry too much. When I read The Jungle Book as a child, Kipling’s disciplinarianism went right over my head; all I saw was a boy running naked in the forest with his animal friends, that being my own life’s ambition at the age of seven."

    I don't disagree, there certainly is a lot of paranoia over kids being ruined by media. Heck, even adults, if they're from the lower classes. I mean, did you know middle class women were once concerned working women were being "degraded" by their reading choices? Look at this:

    "This time the outcry was not against women reading in general, as it had been earlier, but specifically directed against women who read “degraded” literature. Critics such as Stowe feared that this new genre represented a nation in moral decline. For the middle class, the dime novel became a site of struggle as they sought to impose middle-class gender norms on the working class and to curtail new gender developments among the working class that allowed women unprecedented freedom in selecting and dating potential partners." - The American Women's Dime Novel Project

    But in defense of the deconstructionists, I think it's safe to assume that this kind of stuff didn't fly over their heads. Like I remember reading Gulliver's travels when I was 8 (I think) and though I did focus on the interesting travels and places, the biting satire against humanity and Gulliver's misery that culminates in him rejecting all society did make a strong impression on me. I also remember very much noticing that the nerdy characters from cartoons (I was a dorky kid) were always the laughing stock whose company no one (especifically the protagonist) actually enjoyed.

    So I think this is one of the rare cases where the golden mean applies. ;)

    PS: I loved the Jungle Book too, and didn't wear clothing inside the house for years on end, to my babysitter's chagrin. lol =)