Reclaiming the “Discarded Image”: Guest Review of Dr. Monika Hilder’s The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

by Elizabeth on January 21, 2013

Last year, I had the great honor of writing the preface for a new and fascinating book by a delightful scholar. Unfortunately, since I wrote the Preface, it might be in poor taste for me to write the glowing review I would like post so that everyone would check out this fantastic contribution to Lewis Studies. So instead, I recruited my friend and fellow Narnian, the brilliant Ralph Lentz, to review the book. He produced this amazing essay, which I am proud to share. I believe his talents may be just as useful in English as they are in the History Department. We may steal him yet. Enjoy!

Reclaiming the “Discarded Image”:
Monika B. Hilder’s The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
A Theological Review by Ralph E. Lentz II, Appalachian State University

C. S. Lewis wrote, by his faith and his studies, from a pre-Modern thought-world that was not schizophrenic—from a world that did not divide faith and reason, the natural and supernatural, fact and value. As a Medievalist, Lewis had digested the Whole, from Thomas Aquinas’ notion that grace perfects nature, to Nicholas of Cusa’s idea of the “coincidence of opposites.” In her brilliant new book The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (Peter Lang, 2012), Monika B. Hilder reveals Lewis’s dedication to this pre-Modern, orthodox Christian vision of an integrated world of beautiful paradox. And, following Lewis, she does it in a wonderfully imaginative and subversive way by focusing on what she calls “theological feminism” (12, et passim.). Through her analysis of all seven books of the Narnia series, Hilder demonstrates how Lewis, far from being chauvinist and misogynistic (as some critics have charged), actually challenges the pagan conception of power based on force and the twisted image of sexuality that it supports. In contrast, Lewis’s use of “theological feminism” points to “another City”[1] where the “sword between the sexes” has been cast away, and where the contraries of Male and Female can become one without confusion or contradiction (cf. Genesis 2:24). A model of careful analysis, comprehensive scholarship, and eloquence, the book itself merits a substantial review—particularly in light of its theological implications. Hence the purpose of the present essay.

Hilder immediately addresses Lewis’s many critics and their charges in her introduction. Stella Gibbons, Doris T. Myers, Margaret Hannay, Sam McBride, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling, among many others have leveled serious criticisms against Lewis’s depictions of females in the Chronicles of Narnia series. (2) They object to Lucy and Susan’s absence from physical combat in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They censure Jill’s non-participation in the fight against the serpent-witch in The Silver Chair, and Lewis’s apparent chauvinistic commentary through her thoughts: “‘I do hope I won’t faint—or blub—or do anything idiotic’” (2). J. K. Rowling has condemned Lewis for Susan’s seeming apostasy and damnation because of her teen-age discovery of fashion and sexuality in The Last Battle(2).
Yet Hilder’s careful explanations of the symbolism of the characters in the Narniad demonstrates that these charges of sexism against Lewis stem from Modern critics’ univocal (and hence literalistic) reading of the Chronicles and their own un-conscious adoption of pagan gender roles. In other words, the problem of sexism in reading Lewis’s work lies not in him or his generation, but rather in our post-Christian and Neo-Pagan culture. What is perhaps more problematic is that Modern and “Post-Modern” Christian readers stumble over Lewis’s gender metaphors. It is a sign of forgotten and/or discarded orthodoxy, and one which I believe Hilder helps to overcome through her philosophically and theologically informed literary analysis. Thus her thesis: . . . perhaps C. S. Lewis’s views on sex and gender have so far been largely misunderstood, offering a complexity that defies cultural assumptions. Moreover, perhaps he imagines a theological feminism so radical that it even repairs some of the blunders of contemporary discourse on biological sex and gendered identities. . .” (4, italics in original). As Hilder demonstrates throughout her book, this “theological feminism” is distinctly orthodox, pre-Modern, and Christian. It is this which enabled Lewis to subvert Modern Neo-Pagan gender constructions, but which also so confounds his critics and admirers alike.

The brilliancy of Hilder’s study is her insight into Lewis’s employment of “theological feminism.” She defines theological feminism as a view of gender hierarchy as “a metaphor for the ideal relationship between ‘feminine’ humanity and the ‘masculine’ divine.” (12) “Gender hierarchy” as opposed to the Enlightenment ideal of Equality is itself quite controversial, yet Hilder’s historical and theological contextualization of this ancient metaphor shows that it is not the scourge of sexual harmony as proclaimed by Modern critics. She situates Lewis’s “theological feminism” within the context of the two heroic models of the West—that of “classical heroism” and “spiritual heroism” (6). (Here is my one criticism of the work: Hilder’s use of “classical” instead of “pagan.” While the former sounds more “neutral,” it was not—it was “pagan” through and through. Elizabeth Baird Hardy’s preface does address this concern, however). From Homer and Virgil the West inherited notions of the hero as “the strong,”[2] the mighty, the beautiful—but also the enraged and cool killer—Achilles and Aeneas, respectively(cf. 7). To the brute force of the poets, Pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero added the “heroic” virtues of the mind: reason, autonomy, and aristocratic excellence, which were only attainable by the Liberal Man of antiquity (cf. 7) .

In contrast, “Spiritual heroism in the biblical tradition of centeredness in God is the lesser known and lesser understood Western heroic ethic” (7). (This may be the supreme understatement of the book). The virtues of spiritual heroism are “imagination, interdependence, passivity, care, submission, truthfulness, and humility” (7-8). They are the values the Pagans deemed weaker and feminine. As Hilder points out, the virtues of spiritual heroism often go unrecognized because “[u]nlike classical martial valour exercised in order to establish worldly power through brute force, spiritual heroism requires inner valour in order to establish the kingdom of heaven through humility” (8). And yet, as anyone who has read The Chronicles will attest, Lewis obviously delighted in acts of martial courage, strength, and skill primarily by his male characters. It is at this point that the carefulness of Hilder’s analysis becomes particularly important. For what she shows is that Lewis’s “theological feminism” is not to be confused with Modern feminist theology. Whereas the latter at its best aims at equality, and at its worst seeks to “masculize” femininity so that women may become full participants in aggressiveness, violence, and all forms of Modern sublimated warfare, the former holds onto hierarchy with distinct complimentary roles for the two different sexes. Hilder reveals how Lewis’s “Theological feminism”—like all Christian orthodoxy—marries opposites without confusing them, and without denying their “contrariness.” Thus just as Christ is both fully God and fully Human, so too Lewis’s “theological feminism” enabled him to characterize Medieval Christian knights as both fully fierce (Male) and fully meek, “demure, almost. . .maidenlike” (Female) (10) . This paradox, what Nicholas of Cusa called the “coincidence of opposites” unique to the Christian Triune God, is what animated Lewis’s images and metaphors.[3]

After the Introduction, each chapter analyzes one book of the Narnia series, and Hilder applies her paradigm of “‘Masculine’ Classical Heroes” and “‘Feminine’ Spiritual Heroes” to illustrate Lewis’s subversion of Modern Neo-Pagan gender constructions. For instance, the White Witch / Jadis, whom critics have used to argue for Lewis’s misogynistic association of evil with women, is shown by Hilder to actually exhibit the male characteristics of pagan heroes. She is tall and beautiful, yet “‘cold’” and “‘stern’”; she hates “. . . all things ‘feminine,’ for example, smallness, humility, and love.” (22) The White Witch is characterized by “. . . deceit, rage, and desperate courage” (23). She in fact demonstrates all the characteristics of a Greek or Roman goddess—Homer’s Hera, or Virgil’s Juno. With them and the heroes of the epics, she “seeks to objectify, possess, and devour others” (23). Before his redemption by Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund embodies pagan heroic “virtues.” Like Achilles or Agamemnon, “[h]e is consistently self-seeking, spiteful, and deceitful” (25). Likewise, Jill , before believing in Aslan, is given to “male” pride, self-centeredness, and aggression.

Hilder points out that critics have tended to view Jill as a “stronger” female character than either Susan or Lucy, and therefore as evidence of Lewis’s “maturing” views on sexuality. (82) She rejoins: “But in what sense is Jill stronger? Perhaps in self-assertion through anger? She shares this trait with Edmund in the first story, and Eustace in the third. . .” (82) This belies the fact that many modern “feminist” critics esteem Jill’s un-redeemed proclivity to pagan anger—(what St. Augustine un-masked in The City of God as one of their “splendid vices”)—more than her later infusion of Christian feminine spiritual virtue. This is indicative of modern feminist critics wish that Lewis’s female characters on the one hand be more aggressive and violent—more traditionally male, traditionally heroic, in other words—and on the other hand, as with Susan, more traditionally female—fully sexualized and aestheticized. In this light Modern feminism reveals its un-conscious enthrallment to pagan gender constructions: one almost hears Homer calling, “Let Susan become Helen, let Lucy become Achilles”—or perhaps Artemis/Katniss? . . . Yet Hilder’s brilliant analysis of the characters of the Narniad demonstrate that in Lewis’s thought and writing, “[b]iological gender . .. is irrelevant to the identity of a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ hero” (79-80). This is supremely true of the center of all the Narnia tales—Aslan.

Like John’s subversive and paradoxical image of a slaughtered yet living triumphant Lamb (Rev. 5:6-14), Lewis’s image of a massive and meek Lion frustrates the rigid dualities of Pagan and Modern gender thought. Aslan is an image of Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites”: “He is both ‘good and terrible’ at once”; “good but not safe;” “good but ‘wild,’ not ‘tame’.” (27-28) Unlike Pagan heroes, Aslan overcomes force and evil not with more force and violence, but by laying down his life as a sacrifice for those he loves. This “feminine” action is disgusting in the Pagan and Modern paradigm of “masculine” heroics. Hilder rightly comments, “Aslan’s motionless surrender, without anger or fear, but only some sadness, only enrages the Witch and her rabble, as if they sense something of what they cannot yet know: the patient grace of true royalty which will undo their classical hatred” (29, with my emphasis). Indeed, as Hilder points out, all victories in the Narniad come not ultimately through martial skill or valor, but rather through “. . . the cosmic joy centered in the person of Aslan” (55). Here is a gem that is too often forgotten in Evangelical Christianity’s approach to today’s culture wars. That many Christians even think in terms of a “culture war” is sign of the loss of confidence, joy, and humor shared by our Fathers and Mothers in the faith who lived in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Lewis, as a “dinosaur,” (as he once referred to himself), re-discovered the lost treasure of Christian symbolic discourse and discreetly permeated his works with it. Monika Hilder has given readers of the Narnia series a much needed key to unlocking this lovely universe. For what so many Evangelicals find winsome in Lewis’s work is his pre-Modern, pre-Reformation, pre-schizophrenic Medieval orthodoxy and the metaphors and symbols it used to convey the Beautiful Whole—and to point to the “Invisible Visible”[4] Three In One God. Lewis’s generation had purposely discarded this image of God and His creation; the wisdom of Augustine, Aquinas, and Cusa seemed ill-suited to the god and mechanical universe created by Descartes, Newton, and Darwin. Hilder has helped today’s readers understand the power and beauty of Lewis’s symbols in The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It is a book that deserves a wide reading in our universities, seminaries, and homes. For it is a book that not only aids in re-claiming the analogical literary symbolism of pre-Modernity, it also supports the reclamation of that other discarded image: the imago dei which was made “both male and female” (cf. Gen. 1:27).

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[1]See St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans and John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2006), Chapter 12, “The Other City: Theology as a Social Science.”
[2]‘η ρων (hē rōn, “the strong,”), from which we get the word “hero,” never occurs in the New Testament.
[3]On Nicholas of Cusa and the “coincidence of opposites,” see Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, translated and introduced by H. Lawrence Bond (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).
[4]On the “Invisible Visible” God, see Nicholas of Cusa’s “On the Vision of God” in Bond, and Johannes Hoff, The Analogical Turn: Re-Thinking (Post-) Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, forthcoming 2013).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

wayne stauffer January 27, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I’d like to buy a copy of this book. Could you provide purchasing information?

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