Finding a Feminine Theology in C. S. Lewis's Narnia
Whether or not fantasy is your shtick, you'd have to bury yourself into a rather large hobbit hole to hide from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, reignited in the 21st century by filmmaker Peter Jackson, or the recent movie adaptations of the Chronicles of Narnia. As Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis returned to the pop culture spotlight, they spurred Christian commentaries such as Walking with Bilbo: A Devotional Adventure Through The Hobbit, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and Finding God in the Land of Narnia.
As we re-examine favorite Protestant thinker C.S. Lewis, though, we're confronted with an aspect of his writing that can make some evangelicals uncomfortable: his portrayal of women. My own experience with this uncomfortable situation was exposed when the best defense I could muster to a male colleague's complaint of Lewis's backward-looking chauvinism was a weak shrug and a mutter about historical context. After all, the girls in Narnia are prone to tears, less than independent, and do not embody the qualities of traditional heroes; therefore, Lewis must be a sexist, right?
Probably the loudest bit of piffle about "the sexist Lewis" started around the 1990s with biographer A.N. Wilson, who complained about Susan's treatment in The Last Battle. Years later, literary critic John Goldthwaite asserted, among other things, that "Lewis feared women and disliked them categorically." Following that, Philip Pullman – moderate that he is – added his two bits: Lewis was "monumentally disparaging of women," claimed Pullman; in fact, "he didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all."
We've since probably read of J. K. Rowling's – scholarly to be sure – acerbic comment about Susan being sent to hell because she became "interested in lipstick ... [and] found sex." As if these were not enough, my favorite, perhaps because of my argument in this piece, is from another critic, Kath Filmer. She stated that what "disturbed" her most about the Narnian Chronicles was how "ultimate good is depicted as ultimate masculinity, while evil, the corruption of good, is depicted as femininity." Really? Lewis was attempting to depict the corruption of good and downright evil as something specifically – gasp – feminine?
Enter Monika Hilder's deeply challenging and compelling interpretation of Lewis's presentation of gender, specifically in Narnia. In her latest book,The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, she does not approach and defend Lewis's depiction of gender from a conventionally understood feminist perspective; rather, by pointing to the disturbing assumptions underlying the traditional model of gender criticism, Hilder makes a convincing case that Lewis was not a sexist, and instead was consciously presenting a "radical theological feminism" that actually liberates us from our sexism.
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