The Chronicles of Narnia Is Starkly Sexist
The beloved children’s book series that has a darker side to it
You may remember the Chronicles of Narnia written by C. S Lewis with fond memories. The adventure story which made children all over the world rush to their wardrobe in the hopes of finding a magical world of snow, talking animals and evil witches, may not be the innocent tale you once thought it to be.
With children’s literature, it is often easy to overlook hidden meanings and ideologies when reading through your childish eyes, yet when we explore these tales as adults, you may notice a whole new story. For example, who would’ve guessed as a child that A Bear Called Paddington, was a metaphor for immigration and the distrust of foreigners? Or The Wind in the Willows, which draws on social class and the divide between the landed gentry and the working class?
This is why children’s literature is so interesting, as most of the stories we adored as children have multiple layers. The top layer is the version we understand as children, the innocent, delightful and magical tale. The layers that are hidden underneath can explore a wide range of ideas such as gender, race, social expectations and relationships.
Most books written for children are didactic- they aim to teach a lesson. This can be a great thing, as children may subconsciously absorb positive ideas on how to be kind, forgiving, accepting and so on. However, this can become dangerous, as children can absorb information from these stories, that may be harmful. As adults, we have so much power and authority over children, we dictate what they eat, what they read, what they wear.
It so happens, that some adults with somewhat skewed morals and ideas of the world are the authors of the books your children adore. They believe that they are feeding children important information on how they should be, and because the message can be concealed behind a wonderful and fun tale, the dangerous lesson can be missed by the adults, yet absorbed by the child.
C. S Lewis is a misogynist. It is no myth or assumption- it is a fact. He once said that “there must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands” (Lewis 93), set in the firm belief that the male in a relationship must be the dominant force.
It may be immediately concluded that Lewis is a ‘misogynist’ (Hilder 1), which is ultimately reflected within his novels and has been commented on by critics such as Monika Hilder in her text The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Concerningly, his texts become a tool in order to impose his patriarchal ideology- obtruding a didactic message of how women should behave onto a post-war society. It becomes rather troubling, that this text remains popular in the children’s literature canon, despite its toxic ideologies surrounding gender.
So let’s explore the novel The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for the stark instances of gender prejudice and blatant sexism which is apparent to an adult reader.
First of all, we have Susan. The mother of the group, the one who has to look out for her siblings in the absence of parents. She is the constant voice of both reason and responsibility: “it’s pretty cold. What about putting on some of the coats?” (Lewis 42). She is transforming into her inevitable demise as a mother who is trapped in the confines of domesticity, in the same way, that her brother Peter is maturing into the patriarchal figure.
Then we have Lucy, the innocent and compassionate young girl, whose naive need to trust and be kind to others, lands the rest of the siblings in trouble. She is passive, compassionate, and her heroism is constructed on her desire to do good and help others, which may be directly contrasted against Peter’s heroism, which is displayed through valour and the defeating of enemies
She can be seen as both the Virgin Mary figure yet also as Eve. She was tempted by Mr Tumnus’ hospitality and friendship and this ultimately led to their downfall.
So here we see Susan, who is demanding, and authoritative, and then we have Lucy, the stupidly naive girl whose lack of intuition let her be fooled. We are not off to a good start, are we? Already, Lewis is basing his two main female characters off of negative stereotypes, ones that are incredibly overused. Either a woman is smart, yet uptight or she is whimsical and playful, yet naive and easily tricked.
Then we move on to the boys. Peter is valiant and heroic, the perfect older brother, who looks out for his younger siblings and saves the day with his glinting sword. Edmund is somewhat of an abnormality as also resembles the figure of Eve, he was tricked by the snow queen and lured with treats and was not brave, heroic or strong. He was cowardly and selfish.
You can view Edmund as a warning from Lewis on the dangers of straying from the traditional ideals of masculinity. We adore Peter, the typical depiction of a strong male, yet we chastise Edmund who appears more typically ‘feminine’ in his actions.
Natasha Giardina, the writer of the essay ‘Elusive Prey’ within the book Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth, and Religion in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles says that the children are
“Obviously preparing for their future adult roles: Susan is motherly, and Peter is a born leader and taken together, the four of them appear like a microcosm of the idealized 1050’s family”.
This text was written in the wake of the Second World War, a time when society and life were in tatters. People were adapting to a life post-war, which saw a substantial loss of men who died fighting for their countries. This meant that women had to step up and take many of the jobs that were previously reserved for men. It was a time that was just before second-wave feminism and one that saw women becoming stronger and take on more ‘masculine’ attributes.
For a misogynist like Lewis who believed that men should be dominant over women, this was a complete nightmare. So what did he do? He wrote a children’s text that contained characters which stuck to very rigid gender roles, in the hopes that he would mould the younger generation under his ideas of how men and women should act.
Take the beavers, for example, Mrs Beaver is initially introduced to the reader as a “kind-looking old she-beaver sitting in the corner with a thread in her mouth working busily at her sewing machine” (Lewis 54). Sewing has been an age-old symbol of domesticity- a very female hobby. By portraying Mrs Beaver at a sewing machine in her introductory description, Lewis is using her character to represent his feminine ideal, parallel to a traditional archetype.
When the Pevensie children arrive at the Beaver’s dam, the girls are immediately separated from the boys, in order to aid the Beavers with their tasks. Whilst the boys aided Mr Beaver with catching the fish (hunting being a traditionally masculine task), the girls were “helping Mrs Beaver to fill the kettle and lay the table and cut the bread and put the plates in the oven to heat and draw a huge jug of beer for Mr Beaver” (Lewis 54).
Not only are the girls expected to aid in the task of domesticity, but they are also expected to provide for the patriarch, Mr Beaver. Through Mrs Beaver, Lewis ridicules women, by constructing her character as foolish, which is highlighted when the group are on the run from the White Witch, and Mrs Beaver asks: “I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring” (Lewis 73). He depicts Mrs Beaver as being preoccupied with her role of domesticity, which is at the cost of her intellect.
The last instance of sexism that I will explore from this novel, is when the children meet Father Christmas. The gifts they receive alert the children to their roles within Narnia, whilst also reminding them of their place within a conventional society, whereby gender boundaries are commonly enforced.
Peter, the aspiring patriarch of the Pevensie family, is given a sword which was “just the right size and weight for Peter to use” (Lewis 78), yet Susan is gifted a bow and arrow, which she is told by Father Christmas that she must use “only in great need.” He said, “for I do not mean you to fight in battle” (Lewis 78).
The presents represent typical expectations of both men and women. The men are meant to be strong, they are needed to protect the women, using violence and force if need be. The women are not ever expected to be strong or brave, they are meant to sit by and allow the men to do all of the valiant work. Lucy is gifted a potion which is to be used to heal, which is another very traditional stereotype of women.
Women are healers, they are meant to stay home whilst the men are out being heroic, yet are expected to pick up the pieces when the men return injured. Their form of heroism is much more passive than the form which sees men in battle.
Through this novel, Lewis has clearly set out his ideas on gender, which shows a very misogynistic view that women are passive, weak and naive, whilst men must be strong, courageous and gallant.
It is important to observe what we are giving our children to read, as children’s books are not always as innocent as you once perceived them to be. They should not be censored or hidden from children, yet read along with a conversation. Let your children read the Narnia books, but tell them that this is not how all men and women must act and it is ok for girls to be brave and strong, whilst boys can be the healers of the world too.