Friday, January 6, 2012

Narnia? Not for Me

I feel like a heretic. I have just read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time, and I didn’t care for it. I have friends, grown male friends, who love the entire Narnia series and will just never shut up about Aslan, the Christ figure. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather spend my time with the Wizard in Oz.

I know that as a Catholic convert, I should like the CS Lewis series, even though Lewis was not a Catholic himself. But the first book in the Narnia series is so quaint, dear, twee that I’ve sworn off volumes 2–7. Part of the blame goes to Michael York, who read the audio version to which I listened. He did so with a plummy voice, the kind a dotty British nanny would use to talk down to a four-year-old she’s trying to coax to sleep. Still, I think Lewis would have adored York’s reading.

The Lion raises a broader question that I have wondered about for a while now.

What does it take for Christian fiction—even allegorical fiction with a possibly Christian message—to appeal to today’s secular audience? I have thought about this over the past few years while reading Sigrid Undset, JRR Tolkien, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Catholic novelist du jour, Michael O’Brien.

If a book raises hackles on the unwashed, it is unlikely to convert anyone. And so why write, I wonder, if you’re only preaching to the choir?

I think that Undset and Tolkien, both Catholic novelists, were particularly successful because their stories are divorced from anything we know today. Undset’s Norwegian novels are set in the 13th and 14th centuries, which might as well be Tolkien’s Middle Earth. On the other end of the spectrum, O’Brien writes in-your-face Catholic novels, mostly set in modern times and without disguise. I would like to see statistics on the proportion of non-Catholics who even pick up an O’Brien novel, much less wade through the 1,000+ pages of something like The Father’s Tale. I bet the proportion is quite small. I’m sure Ignatius Press, O’Brien’s publisher, is still praying for that first big crossover hit.

Greene and Waugh, O’Connor and Percy, stand somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between allegory and overt Catholic messaging. Would Brideshead Revisited ever have been a Masterpiece Theatre classic without the homosexual subtext? Hmm. Would the priest in The Power and the Glory have been as convincing without his whiskey? Probably not. Would O’Connor ever have been a darling of the literati, or Percy a BOMC author, if they had been as forthright as O’Brien? It’s highly doubtful.

But, you might argue, Lewis’s books are set in Narnia, as remote an imaginary landscape as Middle Earth. So then the problem with The Lion may not be whether it is convincing as allegory. I guess I just don’t like it.

2 comments:

  1. I'm with you. While I loved Mere Christianity, I could never read his Narnia books. My favorite of all is the Quotable C.S. Lewis.

    Years ago, I read Kristin Lavransdatter and I remember being dazzled by it and pressing it upon other people.

    As for Michael O'Brien, it seems as if he writes faster than I can read. I've read most, not all of his books. My favorite is Father Elijah. Theophillos and The Island of the World are tied for 2nd place. Both are extraordinarily imaginative accounts. I just finished The Father's Tale which did drag on. I ended up listening to it because the book was too heavy to read in bed.

    What O'Brien can do - no other contemporary writer comes to mind - is depict goodness in way that isn't cloying or sentimental.

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  2. Hey Jill, Good comments, especially on Michael O'B. I loved Theophilos and Island both, but got bogged down in the mysticism of Father Elijah and didn't finish it. Another reader said I should give it another chance, and at your suggestion I will. Will take it on vacation with me in a couple weeks. Will need a very quiet head to deal with it! :-)

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