It’s impossible to exaggerate the impression the Narnia books made on me when I discovered them as a child. I adored them so much that when my mother suggested reading The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe as a bedtime story for me and my little brother, I vetoed it, and made such a fuss that she gave up. I didn’t want my brother to get into Narnia, I wanted it all to myself. Aslan would certainly have growled at such a selfish little beast, but my brother simply went and read the stories on his own.
Immersed in the world of Narnia, I longed to go there myself and almost believed it was real. “I think you’re meant to feel that way,” said my mother, and tactfully said no more. I didn’t know that Aslan was supposed to “be” Jesus. The Christianity in the books went clean over my head until I got to the end of The Last Battle, and then I didn’t like it. Children are literal readers who don’t go looking for hidden meanings. A child sees a whole different story: that “deep magic from the dawn of time” works just as well as a myth or fairy tale: an icy Snow Queen curses the land of Narnia with eternal winter and a golden lion brings back the spring.
Taking Lewis to task for killing the children in the railway accident at the end of The Last Battle, Philip Pullman has accused the books of sending the message: “Death is better than life, boys are better than girls, light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people, and so on.” These criticisms cannot be dismissed out of hand, but, in fact, as a child I wasn’t disturbed by the railway accident (an off-stage event with zero emotional impact), and I could see that, successfully or not, Lewis was trying to show that death is a doorway to more life.
The reason the book really troubled me was because everything that happens in it goes wrong. Narnia comes to an end! Aslan doesn’t look like a lion anymore! I didn’t want the new Heaven and the new Earth and the new, improved Narnia, thank you all the same; I wanted the old one.
As for the charge of misogyny, it is usually based on what happens to Susan – exiled from Heaven for a catalogue of sins that amount to “being a teenager” – along with some regrettable jibes at fat-legged little girls and female head-teachers. But this is to ignore the strength of characters such as Lucy, whose shining love for Aslan makes her one of the great “good” characters of fiction; and it is she and Susan, not the boys, who witness Aslan’s death at the Stone Table and share the happiness of his resurrection.
Then there’s fiery Aravis of The Horse and His Boy, riding for Narnia in her brother’s armour to escape a forced marriage, and confident, practical Polly of The Magican’s Nephew, and Jill Pole, who stands alone out in front of King Tirian’s small group of supporters, shooting her arrows at the Calormene army in The Last Battle.
As a little girl in the 1960s, accustomed to fictional slights such as “cry like a girl”, “run like a girl”, “behave like a girl” and so on, I revelled in Lucy’s integrity, Aravis’s lordly glamour, Polly’s tough common-sense and Jill’s courage and ability. These girls were more than a match for the boys, and I could tell that Lewis liked them.