Listen Up, Readers! Emperor Palpatine and the Redemption of Milton

For the longest time, I could not stand to read two particular authors. Any time someone mentioned their names or quoted from them, I would shrug and roll my eyes. These writers are John Milton and C.S. Lewis.

The latter I couldn’t like on principle. I started disliking him in high school when I began reading the Harry Potter series, and a conservative Christian teacher recommended Lewis, not because he was a better writer than Rowling but because his Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical. Lewis wrote about the Christian story, don’t you see this? Later, I became tired of defending my love for children’s fantasy to Christians by using Lewis and Tolkien as the standards of good art that I gave up on these authors altogether. Other Christians have written wonderful works of literature. Why don’t we laud their merits? Writers like Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Bunyan, Milton—

Oh, wait, Milton is the second guy I can’t stand. But I couldn’t like him on taste. I just never got into Milton. What’s so special about this guy? So, he wrote about the fall of man? Is this another Christian allegory or sermon masquerading as “good literature”? You could imagine my chagrin when I had to read Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost in grad school.

Then, I had to teach Milton to my high school students. I almost considered skipping him. But I had already neglected too many others, and my responsibility to these students dictated that I at least expose them to important authors, even if I did not like them.

We had excerpts of Paradise Lost in our textbook. A fellow teacher recommend my students read the selections aloud. I knew they would do better listening than trying to wade through the language, so I turned to YouTube for help.

And I found the greatest version of Paradise Lost ever. This rendition, slightly abridged in some places, was actually a BBC radio broadcast. The show had a main narrator and different actors to represent the characters. Oh, and Ian McDiarmid, the actor who plays the evil Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars fanchise, voices Satan. Very apt, no? I gained a new-found appreciation for Milton because of the experience. McDiarmid’s Satan was deliciously manipulative and appropriately conjured feelings a contempt and disgust for Milton’s main antagonist. The author’s genius with language also became more apparent as the narrator and actors read his epic with fluidity and clarity. My students also enjoyed the audio and stated they would not have understood the text if they had read it to themselves. I myself look forward to reading to the entire work in the future, if anything but to hear the slippery voice of McDiarmid.

Now, we’re studying The Screwtape Letters, and we are using audio. Joss Ackland is a enticing Screwtape. Most importantly, I have grown in my appreciation for Lewis. There are certainly aspects of Christianity and the war between Heaven and Hell for the souls of men that I have hereto never seen before. Now, I want to read — or listen — more, to add to my List of books works that not only broaden my love for literature but strengthen my faith. And I chuckle at the irony — to gain a new respect for two Christian authors I hated, all I did was listen to the devil.

War in Narnia: Fortifications–the Trenches of Narnia

When considering how Lewis’s wartime experience might have affected his depiction of conflict in Narnia, a more physical comparison presents itself when turning to the question of fortifications in Narnia.  While most often thought of as residences for the various personalities of the world, they are also intended to serve a more militant purpose.  Cair Paravel, Jadis’s Castle, Anvard, the small towers Tirian, Jill, and Eustace use in The Last Battle are all designed to be comfortable and yet are also strong points from which Narnia and her allies can defend their lands.  Viewed from the general context of the Great War, it is interesting that Narnians exhibit a peculiarly British attitude towards fortifications and their use.  Unfortunately, in all but one example, they have reason to regret this.

 During World War I, the Germans tended to build more complex trenches and then wait for their opponents to come to them.  They could afford this luxury since, as they occupied French territory, they could expect their enemies to attack in an attempt to drive them out.  The Allies, on the other hand, tended to take less care in trench construction for the simple reason that they never planned to stay in them long.  British General Haig remained fixated on restoring movement to his army, believing that each new attack would be the one to break the German line.  As such, British trenches were often less complicated and less well equipped.  While the Germans hauled in tons of concrete and steel and wired their trenches for electricity, the British (and to a lesser extent, the French) tended to make do with the bare necessities and constantly came out of their trenches to attack their enemies.

There could hardly be a better general description of Narnia’s construction and use of her strongholds.  A number of them are rather simple in design and exhibit none of the post-crusades refinements of the high middle ages.  While readers are not given much information on the specific defenses of Cair Paravel, both Anvard and the Witch’s Castle lack even a moat (In Jadis’s defense, a frozen moat would do little good, but a dry moat would be practical).  While these oversights cost the Witch in her war with Aslan and Cair Paravel in its last defense, Anvard is able to survive by the timely arrival of reinforcements.  Had Edmund’s army been delayed, the lack of a more in-depth defense would have allowed Rabadash and his force of Calormens to batter down the gate with little more than a tree (The Horse and His Boy 178-179).

This lack of strong fortifications seems to have been due to the fact that, like the British, the Narnians preferred the offensive when provoked.  Narnians—good and evil—very rarely actually fight from behind their prepared works.  They are constantly coming out of them and fighting in the open, where their defenses do not benefit them in the least.  While Aslan thinks that Jadis might withdraw to her castle to face a siege in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she actually attacks Peter’s army directly.  As a result she loses when reinforcements are freed from her undefended home and overwhelm her in a sudden rush (164-176).  In Prince Caspian, while Dr. Cornelius talks at length about the defensive advantages offered by Aslan’s How, once Caspian’s army occupies it he repeatedly launches sorties to attack Miraz’s forces on open ground, where the Telmarines obviously have the advantage.  The battles usually end in stinging defeats for Caspian, who eventually relies on Aslan and an army of reawakened trees for victory(85-93).  Only at Anvard in The Horse and His Boy do the defenders actually put their advantages to good use, and even there they emerge from the castle walls to go on the attack at the first opportunity (175-185).

Lewis himself never explained his reasoning on the issue, and so it is now impossible to push this claim to an absolute conclusion.  To do so would be to fall into the age-old trap of biographers who somehow think that they know their subjects better than their subjects knew themselves.  Yet, there is a strong correlation between the way Lewis’s own people utilized their trenches in the war in which he participated and how the Narnians themselves used their closest equivalents.  In this, the Narnians seem to be distinctively British, as indeed Lewis was himself.

The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010.

Sources referenced:

Lewis, C. S.  The Horse and His Boy.  New York:  Collier, 1970.
________.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  New York:  Scholastic, 1987.
________.  Prince Caspian.  New York:  Collier, 1972.

Posts in the War in Narnia Series:

  1. C. S. Lewis the Soldier
  2. World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
  3. Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
  4. Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
  5. The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
  6. The First Experience of Battle
  7. Wounds and the Wounded
  8. Corpses?  What Corpses?