Kennedy's 'C. S. Lewis Overflow'
C. S. Lewis's characters with character
Jonal entry 1009 | July 4 2007
From the first page of any of C.S. Lewis's children's novels it's apparent that there's a qualitative difference between them and the stories we read and see onscreen these days. Generically, I think you're likely to think, "character," as in, "these characters have character," something usually lacking in the protagonists ("heroes" is so 1950's) these days.
Lewis scholar Doris T. Myers writes in C.S. Lewis in Context that by the late 1940s Lewis detected a disturbing trend in the approach to teaching English in schools for elementary and middle school ages in England. In a phrase, it was the revaluing or, more correctly, the devaluing, of the language. The new textbooks were saying that all "value judgment" language in literature was no more than the writer's personal opinion. But Lewis perceived (in The Abolition of Man) that if the trend continued children would be denied their humanity. In a phrase, their humanity would be abolished, hence the book's title.
In that book, Lewis argues for the Tao, which is Chinese for "the way," and he defines it as the common values all humanistic communities in recorded history have shared. Taoists, the Jews of the pre-Christian era, the Egyptians of the time of the pharaohs, Greeks and Romans in the time of their mythologies and classical philosophers, and Christians since the First Century have basic assumptions about what is just and right in human interactions, also known as ethics.
The values are things like not murdering fellow human beings, preserving the life and limb of your neighbor, giving what you'd like to be given in return, and so on. But later in the little book, Lewis comes up with one word that seems to cover them all: Duty. All civilized peoples have recognized certain duties toward their fellow human beings, and even toward the animal kingdom and the planet or environment. Duty is considering what's right, and doing it.
That's what you notice on the first page of any of the Narnia books Lewis wrote. The children are what Christian commentators and Lewis himself would call "pre-Christian." They've probably been taught some Bible stories and some basics about Christmas and Easter, but even both of those annual events may have more to do with legends like Father Christmas and celebrating spring in the minds of Lewis's child characters, than doctrines about Christianity.
But though such stories predispose children toward the faith of their parents, this doesn't play in the lives of the children in the novels until they get into their teen years. Instead, they learn that being a responsible human being is doing your duty toward your sister and brother, your parents, grandparents, and playmates at school. When you're given a job to do, you do it as best you can, and that could be the plot summary of every of the Narnia tales.
G. K. Chesterton, one of Lewis's own writer heroes, said that one of the problems with democracies is that the dead have no vote. In other words, liberalism (the secular humanist foundation on which democracy is based), has no stake in preserving what our late fathers and mothers wanted for and from us; they don't vote, so democracy has little interest in any sense of "tradition." So when "innovators," as Lewis calls the rewriters of the English curriculum, propose brave new worlds, liberals are impressed. What's new is what's best, right? It's one of the things all young generations accept (Lewis himself, until his mid-twenties), so it must be true.
So if "duty" can be removed from the stories on, for example, the "new" Family Channel over at Disney-ABC-TV, children can be depicted using obscene language to the delight of their parents, having sex ("it's only natural") by age 15, and stories are never about doing what's right, these days, but what's "happenin." It's more about being accepted in the in-crowd at school, overcoming prejudice that might bar you from that acceptance, and getting through your elders' thick skulls why that's the most important thing in life, not some nebulous exercise of "duty."
It's not just at the ABC Family Channel, of course; virtually none of the children's programs on mainstream TV today are interested in duty, in right and wrong, about tradition and personal improvement. Writers who've broken into doing scripts for such shows, whether cartoons for Saturday morning or Nicoledeon or evening "family" situation comedies, report that the rules have changed. Duty is out. Acceptance of anything, especially if it's something your grandparents were raised to think antisocial or improper, is in.
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