Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Anna Caughey on Lewis and Tolkien

Beginning with Philip Pullman’s incendiary critique of the Chronicles of Narnia in The Guardian in 1998 (online here), Anna Caughey posed the question why, if the Chronicles and the compositions of C. S. Lewis’s fellow Inkling Tolkien are as disempowering as Pullman and others have suggested—a reading that Anna doesn’t dispute—they experience such enduring popularity with all sorts of readers. Anna’s paper built upon Peter Hollindale’s concept of 'childness' (as a state in which the child continuously negotiates his or her own subject position in dialogue with various messages from the external world) to propose the idea of 'compulsory childhood': a state in which the external world imposes limitations on the child subject, preventing this negotiation from taking place. She demonstrated the ways in which Lewis and Tolkien, in both their critical writing and their fiction, dispute the 'pigeonholing' of the child as either an idolised or denigrated Other of the adult, suggesting that despite suspect gender, race, and class politics, Lewis and Tolkien actively empower the child (and the child’s analogue, the small person) in their stories. Rejecting the idea that children should be contained and protected, both authors depict a masculinity in which there is a level of emotional freedom absent from, say, the boys' school story: one in which moments of vulnerability are permitted to even the strongest of Lewis’s male heroes (Peter crying post-battle isn’t at all a ‘girlish thing’ for him to do). Moreover, Anna suggested that in the character arcs of Merry and Pippin, as well as Peter, both authors represent a liminal space between childhood and adult masculinity: an opportunity for characters to shift back and forward between the respective pleasures and responsibilities of adulthood and childhood, rather than the straightforward opposition between these categories entailed in ‘compulsory childhood’. Of course, female characters are not given such an opportunity to shift between adult and child selves—Susan’s famed fate in The Last Battle being a case in point—and Anna proposed ‘circumlegation’, or reading around, as a possible solution to the problem of why, considering the portrayals of femininity in these books, they continue to draw so many female fans.

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