Lesson 25: ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Broomstick’
Quibble from Miranda Brist
Hello! I'm currently a Hindi/Urdu student at the University of Minnesota with a Bachelors in Social Science and a degree in Massage Therapy. Though I just discovered MuggleNet this year, I've been a faithful podcast listener ever since.
First, I must say thanks, Keith and John! You've made my own personal three year summer (while I'm learning a language necessary for graduate school studies) a far more interesting one. You definitely put the Accio into Academia . . . because when I hear “MuggleNet Academia”, I might as well be under a spell, I have to come running!
Your most recent episode, “The Lion, the Witch, and The Broomstick” was one of my favorite yet, and it certainly could have gone twice as long as far as I was concerned. I came to CS Lewis more than a dozen years before Harry Potter, my favorite works being The Silver Chair, and That Hideous Strength, both of which I've probably read quite a bit more than the Harry Potter series (give Harry another two years and he'll probably catch up).
Having gushed for the appropriate amount of time, I must say that I was really hoping to hear more about the specific parallels between Lewis' Space Trilogy and the Harry Potter Series on the episode. All I got was a teaser! Lol.
Sure, on the surface, the two sagas seem wildly different in subject matter and style . . . that is until you get to the third book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. And I don't just mean the appearance of Merlin, or the preoccupation with the absurdities and moral questions of life at school, or even the presence of an insular "resistance" group (The Order of the Phoenix, anyone?). I think the parallels go deeper than that . . . into the themes that are at the heart of the Harry Potter series: heroism, and the big questions of Life and Death.
That Hideous Strength traces the growing conflict between two ways, two groups' approach to the gaining of immortality. One group, The N.I.C.E, uses science to essentially (and literally) cut the humanity out of a human in order to achieve a kind of eternal, machine-assisted existence; while the other, led by the mysteriously young/old Director (a reclusive fount of wisdom who seems to always be tucked away in his office, also has a wound that cannot be healed . . . Dumbledore much?) align themselves with mysterious angelic-like creatures who wish to restore the natural cycle of birth, love, and death (a kind of generational immortality).
Obviously, Lewis' group of fanatics obsessed with prolonging life by any means necessary ("grotesque" and "evil" ways included) is remarkably similar to Rowling's Death Eaters and the magical technology of Horcruxes. Both Rowling and Lewis seem to be preoccupied with ideal of immortality versus the ideal of self-sacrifice . . . both books end on an idealized domestic note . . . and yet, I think they come to rather different conclusions about the nature of heroism or their ideal role for a hero. In fact, in many of Lewis' stories, the protagonist or hero's actions are ultimately upstaged by:
(A) The actions of a higher power or Magic
(B) The forces of nature
(C) the hero's BIG FLAW
Furthermore, the best thing a Lewisian hero/heroine can accomplish/aspire to is to learn to:
Obey or listen for a higher power's command (Lucy in Prince Caspian, Jill in The Silver Chair).
Tell the truth/guard the truth or pass some important information on to the right people (Shasta in A Horse in His Boy, Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, and Jane in That Hideous Strength).
Overcome personal pride and spite (Mark in That Hideous Strength, Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Orual in Till We Have Faces).
Act as a witness to a greater plan by a higher power and try not to muss it up (the protagonists of That Hideous Strength and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Last Battle, or The Magician's Nephew).
Unfortunately, That Hideous Strength is pure Lewis in the sense that it follows the above formula to a "T". The grand climax is essentially outside of the two protagonists' understanding, sight, or participation. I say "unfortunately" because this Lewisism, although certainly enjoyable to read on a macro scale (the way a volcano might be fun to watch erupt if it's flowing in the direction of the "bad guys"), is completely unsatisfying on a micro, personal scale. I mean, what use is a hero who doesn't ever get to be heroic?
You touched briefly on the question of Lewis vs. Rowling during the podcast, and ended on a suitably fair note. How can one really compare their merits? Nevertheless, I will. Lewis is not a lesser writer, but . . . he just might be a less satisfying one. Perhaps this is because Lewis writes like a theist, and Rowling, like a humanist. One is not objectively better than the other, but the latter perspective is more likely to produce a classic hero's saga. And if Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that a good hero's saga will always fill more seats than an allegory. Don't get me wrong, I love Lewis, I respect Lewis, but I think Rowling is more satisfying as an author because she doesn't undermine her hero's journey in the way Lewis almost always does.
Because, in the end, Harry's choices matter. They matter more than anything. His role matters, and not just as a supporting player. Dumbledore does NOT step in and orchestrate the Battle of Hogwarts (though he certainly helped Harry find the tools to succeed). Because Harry must do it by himself, because he must become the sacrifice (no Aslan figure is going to step in for him), Harry's struggle and victory can be for us that true alchemical catharsis--that climactic pot of gold on the other end of the literary rainbow.