Reflections on Oz and Narnia
By Keith Allen

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Reflections on Oz and Narnia
18 March, 2008 (originally posted on Blogger, 23 January, 2008)

As a child, I read both L. Frank Baum's Oz books and C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, and I loved several of the titles from each series. Now, as an adult who is soon to be the father of a daughter, I am made to wonder why it is that I am so eager to share the former with her but not the latter.

Baum was a gifted story-teller, but, at his best, Lewis was just as good, perhaps even better. Lewis's prose style is, on the whole, better than Baum's, and Lewis was not afraid to include dark elements in his tales, something few children's authors will do today - including Baum.

So, why is it that I so unreservedly prefer Baum to Lewis?

First of all, while, at his best, Lewis might have been the better story-teller, he is at his best only in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The book is often thrilling. It's filled with moral crises, affecting moments, and real dangers. What child won't be hot with anger when Edmund lies to Peter and Susan about having gone to Narnia? What child won't feel sympathy for the poor Mr. Tumnus when the protagonists discover that his house has been ransacked and the charming faun has been arrested? What child won't be touched by Edmund's redemption, and what child won't be on the point of tears when Aslan is killed by the Witch? The book is marvelous.

Then, what's my problem with it? The problem is not, for the most part, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself, but with its successors. Both Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy are fun, if flawed, adventures, but the rest of the Narnia books range from mildly amusing to painfully tedious. The Last Battle and The Magician's Nephew, in particular, are didactic bores.

Lewis's subordination of his narratives to his ideological agenda really is the worst of his problems. Instead of simply allowing his doctrines to infuse his narrative (as he does in the first book), the narratives of many of the later books are shaped to teach his doctrines. As a result of this, several of his books read like sermons, and are just as dull. As I said, when he's at his best, Lewis is a good story-teller, but, when he's not, he's just inept. In a work of art, there is no fault worse than being boring.

Oz, in contrast to this, is never boring. Baum does not try to teach his reader anything, except by implication. He tells enchanting stories filled with a bewitching diversity of magical beings. As a child, I was enthralled by Baum's creations. When reading, in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, about the underground land of the Mangaboos, with its cold vegetable people and their glass houses, or the silent land of the wooden gargoyles, or the cave of the dragonettes, I felt as though I had been transported to those places. Virtually all the other Oz books did the same. Even while writing this, I feel excited just by remembering the pageantry of Ozma's birthday party in The Road to Oz and the strange transforming magic Mrs. Yoop used on the protagonists of The Tin Woodman of Oz. The books are so filled with imagination that they're like incantations capable of spiriting the reader away. As I said, I can, to this day, still feel their enchantment. If I have a complaint about them it is that I would, sooner or later, have to rouse myself from the intoxication they produced in me and return to this humdrum world. That, of course, is a complaint that compliments the books instead of condemning them.

In all fairness, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did much the same thing for me, as did Prince Caspian, but the other books, by and large, never had that magic. Lewis's imagination, sadly, seems somewhat limited. He rarely gave in to sheer flights of fancy. But then, his point was to teach, not to entertain.

Nonetheless, there is one element of Narnia that Oz lacks. Narnia can be a dark and fearful place. There are monsters there, werewolves, giants, and other fiends, that can threaten the protagonists. It is relatively rare, especially in the later Oz books, for the heroes actually to be threatened with physical harm. In Narnia, people can be killed. As a child, I found the dangerousness of Narnia exciting. It was scary, in a good way. Oz never had that deadly intensity. It was a world of marvels, but it was rarely a world of dangers.

At least, however, the heroines of Oz do not become heroines by killing their enemies. Dorothy does kill the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but she does so inadvertently. The Nome King is never killed, though he is repeatedly defeated. Other antagonists, like General Jinjur in The Marvelous Land of Oz, even turn out to be decent people in the end. Most, moreover, are defeated by the protagonists' intelligence or by some stratagem. Cleverness is more likely to make a person a hero in Oz than is lopping off an enemy's head. I can't complain if a child should learn that lesson.

Even so, I am not a believer in the notion that art should teach. Art is one thing, and teaching is another. The former allows a person simply to relish the beauty of a thing. The other has a function: to impart information. A poem can be read over and over again, its beauty appreciated as new each time, but a didactic work is useless once the information in it has been committed to memory. What person is going to review his multiplication tables once he knows them? After information has been learned, it need not, unless forgotten, be learned again. If a person does review a book on multiplication after he's learned how to do it, then it is because he enjoys it, not because he's getting knowledge from the work.

Admittedly, didactic elements are often included in artistic works. They can even add to the value of a work. It is quite possible, after all, for such elements to enhance the pleasure a person takes in the work. Of course, it is still the relishing of the beauty of the work, which is enhanced by these elements, that makes it art. The didactic content is successful only insofar as it contributes to a person's appreciation of the work.

All that said, when an author (or any other artist) has included didactic elements in his works, I have to ask whether what is being taught in his book ought to be learned. As an adult - who does not consider a work of fiction to be a valid source of knowledge on any subject (other than itself) - I can read a book that teaches something questionable and still enjoy it. If I am deciding what a child should read, or what should be read to a child, I need, however, to take into account the fact that the child might not be as discriminating as I am. The child might actually pick up from the book attitudes that are not commendable.

Unfortunately, what Lewis teaches in his Narnia books is often objectionable.

The child will learn, in that series, that there is one true religion, and that other religions are merely lies taught by monstrous demons (I am not making this up; look at The Last Battle). While there are times when decent persons are deceived by the teachers of these false deities, for the most part, the adherents of these are presented in a very negative light. For example, the inhabitants of Calormen (a land outside Narnia that is clearly modeled on the Muslim world) are cruel, violent, arrogant to their subordinates, and slavish to their betters. They are repeatedly contrasted with the free, honest, and decent folk of Narnia. Sadly, though this sort of xenophobia is not prevalent in the earlier Narnia books, it pervades the later ones.

One particular comparison made between the heathens of Calormen and Narnia's Christians (who are so in all but name) is, however, very amusing. Lewis mentions that the poetry of the former land is dull and didactic, while that of the latter is about mighty deeds and exciting adventures. It's fairly amusing that what Lewis himself is writing falls into the former category. Perhaps he ought to have read The 1001 Nights for some story ideas. It's full of exciting adventures that can be appreciated in their own right, not for what they teach.

Sadly, this negative depiction of non-Christian religions (and of non-European peoples and cultures) is hardly the only objectionable element in the Narnia books.

Although a number of Lewis's main characters are female, I can't say he handles them well. They are very traditional. Lucy, in the first book, does find the entrance to Narnia, but she doesn't go on to fight to save that country. Her brothers do so while she and her older sister Susan basically act as nurses to the injured male heroes.

This problem doesn't end there. For one thing, the first book centers around the conflict between a female tyrant, the Witch, and the rightful, male ruler of Narnia, Aslan. There's even a weird comment in The Last Battle about how Susan is lost to Aslan by being interested in cosmetics and the like. I guess women who like to make themselves attractive are just a bunch of hussies. No wonder Aslan hates them.

As much as I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I do not want my daughter learning that Christianity is good, other religions are demonic lies, non-Europeans are generally villainous (as is made obvious by their dark skin), and women really ought to rely upon men. I want to teach my daughter to be open to any culture, while still being critical, to know that all people are equal, and to know that, as a woman, she doesn't need to rely on anyone but herself.

The Oz books, happily, do not present the same sort of questionable material.

Before going on, however, I must, in all fairness, admit that there is some objectionable content in Baum's Oz. There is, for instance, a painfully racist episode in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, in which the characters visit the country of the Tottenhots. These beings, who are parodies of Africans (and who are drawn by John R. Neill, the book's illustrator, as such), hardly provide children with an image a parent would care for them to retain.

This sort of thing is, happily, rare in Baum's works and, it has to be said, is a reflection of the attitudes of his time. What is more, the Tottenhots are not depicted as being villainous. Their depiction may owe much to archaic prejudices, but it is without malice. Baum might have been ignorant, but he was not hateful.

Actually, on the whole, his books are wonderfully accepting of others. Diverse characters and people appear, and, as outlandish as they are, they are rarely condemned. There are certainly villains. There are even whole peoples that are villainous. For instance, in The Emerald City of Oz, whole tribes of evil fairies, the Whimsies, the Growleywogs, and the Phanfasms, are mentioned. These, however, are exceptions. I might note that the most frequently used antagonist of the Oz books, the Nome King, rules a people who, though enemies of Oz, are never really shown as being wicked. Their king might be a scoundrel, but they are not themselves fiends.

Oz is filled with a variety of unusual folk, and though some of them may be trying, they all have their place in that magical land. Just look at the court of Oz's ruler, Princess Ozma. It's inhabited by several young girls from America, a hungry tiger, a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, a stick figure with a pumpkin for his head, a tin man, a highly magnified (but thoroughly educated) insect, a former vagrant, a one-legged sailor, and so many more odd individuals I can't list them all. If there's one overriding message of the Oz books, it's that a person should accept himself for who he is and others for who they are. I doubt if I could come up with a nobler message.

If that message were not commendable enough, there's another that runs through the Oz books that is nearly as good. In fact, as the father of the daughter, I might even say it's just as good. Over and over again, the protagonists of these tales are girls or women. Unlike the helping females of Narnia, the women of Oz always take center stage. They're not meek beings who require the protection of males. They're spunky, independent females who save the day on their own. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it's Dorothy who saves her male companions, not the other way around. When Dorothy herself is saved in Ozma of Oz, it's not by a male, it's by Princess Ozma, another girl, and when two cities on the edge of Oz are about to go to war in Glinda of Oz, it's Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda who restore peace.

Females, in fact, are generally dominant in Oz. The country's ruler is a young girl, Ozma, and it's most skilled magician is the sorceress Glinda (who, by the way, teaches the Wizard real magic -he'd previously just been a charlatan). There's something to be said for the impression a young girl could get from this. Instead of learning to depend on a man, she might just realize that she's capable of standing on her own. Maybe she can rescue the prince instead of needing him to rescue her.

Now, I do not mean to imply by this that men are not treated fairly by Baum. The Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and countless others are certainly brave and loyal. There are more than a few admirable men in Oz. Happily, they don't demand that the women of the country hide behind them so that they can save the day. As it turns out, both men and women can be heroic in Oz.

Although several of the Narnia books have their virtues, I have to admit that the Oz books are better. Not only are they better literature, being filled with feats of the imagination and not having their narratives subordinated to didactic elements, but they are also far better for children. In Baum's world, girls can be just as heroic as boys (a lesson both boys and girls should learn), and everyone, no matter how strange he or she may be, has a genuine innate worth.

By Keith Allen

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