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Revisiting Narnia : Fantasy, Myth and Religion in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles (Smart Pop series) by Shanna Caughey
Review by Edward Carmien
Benbella Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1932100636
Date: 28 October, 2005 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

One might presume this book is warranted by the splash being made by the big-screen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but Lewis is of import to religious thinkers in general, as noted in the November 7 issue of Time. Today, notes Time's David Van Biema, it is "Evangelicals who hold most of the Lewis conferences and write most of the Lewis books."

It is no surprise, then, that writers with a strong interest in the religious aspects of Lewis' work predominate here. Many, such as lead essayist Charlie W. Starr, teach at institutions with a link to organized religion as part of their name, such as Kentucky Christian University. For most, such as Starr, there is no inherent advantage or disadvantage with this affiliation. For some, such as the oddly-named (yet sure-nuff a real person) Vox Day, the religious perspective seems to help generate such gems as "Their [golden age science fiction writers] antipathy towards all forms of traditional religion in favor of a dogmatic faith in the scientific method cast science fiction into an artistic ghetto from which it has not yet even begun to escape."

Even Day, who also claims that contemporary fantasy generally goes "horribly awry," makes an interesting contribution by observing that religion in fantasy (unlike any real world religion) tends to represent a galactic balance between good and evil that must be maintained. It is unfortunate he does so by citing Zelazny's Amber series and thereby conflating chaos with evil and order or law with good.

That Shanna Caughey is a senior editor at BenBella Books and has no other apparent link to the subject is, I guess, why Revisiting Narnia has no discernable focus beyond Lewis' Narnia novels in general. Her introduction is short and non-critical. To her credit, however, her collection contains a wide array of diverse and reputable fiction writers such as Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel's Legacy series), Nick Mamatas, Sarah Zettel (most recently of the Isavalta series), and others. Academics are well represented, of course, and they along with those impossible to pigeonhole make this text an energetic and worthwhile addition to the Smart Pop series.

Chief among the curveballs (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) is Peg Aloi and her contribution, "The Last of the Bibliophiles: Narnia's Enduring Impact on the Pagan Community." Aloi is insightful, fun, and thought provoking in turns, an opinion it is quite possible I hold because we are both apparently of the "Not Menopausal or Mid-Life Crisis-Y yet, but No Longer Prone to All Night Games of Risk Fuelled by Jagermeister, Either" demographic.

In no particular order, other highlights include Natasha Giardina's evocation of the 'Palace of Memory' in her "Elusive Prey" article, subtitled "Searching for Traces of Narnia in the Jungles of the Psyche." Kansas State University's Naomi Wood suggests that "the imaginative satisfactions of Narnia potentially subvert any easy correlation of Narnia with Christian life and may even subvert belief in Christianity itself," an interesting idea, given the source text under discussion.

Of the twenty-five contributors, many have written about Lewis and Narnia before, another laudable trait of Revisiting Narnia. Martha C. Sammons observes that it is we grownups who need fantasy tales instead of kids, not surprising as she also authored A Guide Through Narnia. Other luminaries include James Como, a founding member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society and Ingrid E. Newkirk, founder and president of PETA, who writes about Narnia as vehicle for perceiving animals as equals.

Academics seeking "the usual suspects" will find them—Cathy McSorran's "Daughters of Lilith" addresses feminist issues in the Narnia series, while Louis Markos provides a touch of the lit crit in "Redeeming Postmodernism: At Play in the Fields of Narnia." One of the more thought-provoking pieces is "Greek Delight: What if C.S. Lewis Had Been Eastern Orthodox?" in which Nick Mamatas outlines the many differences between the two main trunks of Christianity via the "what-if" of his title.

With all due apologies to authors I haven't yet named, such as Bumbaugh, Zambreno, Stabb, and Duriez, it is a grim fact of life that all reviews must come to an end sometime. Sally Stabb's piece, for example, "Most Right and Proper, I’m Sure..." while on the surface about manners is really an insightful glimpse into the Edwardian British culture that spawned Lewis.

Comparisons to Tolkien? Check. Discussions of allegory? Check. "When I was a kid and read the Narnia books" anecdotes? Check. While traditional scholars will find the text a bit light, it is my belief that present day scholarship is well served by texts such as Revisiting Narnia of BenBella Books' Smart Pop series and related titles coming out from other publishers. Call me populist, but scholarship that is incomprehensible to so-called common readers of the source text (Narnia, in this case) limits itself to a nearly-useless tiny audience. Scholarly (if that is truly the right term when so much quality material is contributed by those who are purely fiction writers) work that is also accessible is of much more use. Libraries, both those associated with institutions of higher education and others, such as local public libraries, that provide access to fantasy and science fiction texts would be well-served to offer texts like this to their patrons.

In short: Like Narnia? Read Revisiting Narnia. You won't like it all, but you’ll see new depths in Lewis' series. Guaranteed.

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