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Bowdlerizing C.S. Lewis

June 19, 2001

During the Victorian era, the prevailing delicacy of the age inspired Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister to edit Shakespeare’s plays to make them suitable for “family reading.” All off-color jokes and sexual matter were removed. The word bowdlerize entered the language as a synonym for militant prudery.

Today it appears that a new species of bowdlerization is afoot. It seems that HarperCollins has acquired the right to republish C.S. Lewis’s seven classic children’s books about the land of Narnia — and to edit out their Christian content. Apparently the idea is to reshape the stories on the model of the hugely successful (non-Christian) Harry Potter stories, and to market toys based on the Narnia characters, also on the Potter model.

In a leaked HarperCollins memo, a corporation executive offers “emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology.”

[Breaker quote: Can Aslan be 
secularized?]It’s almost unbelievable. De-Christianizing the works of one of the greatest Christian authors of the twentieth century? The Narnia stories owe their artistry and power to Lewis’s way of infusing the Christian message into simple tales about children and a lion named Aslan. The lion, an awesome and thrilling character, represents Christ.

How Aslan can be suitably watered down for secularized “family reading” remains to be seen. Any such attempt is bound to destroy the point and energy of the Narnia books. You might as well try to edit God and Satan out of Paradise Lost.

Usually we revere a great author’s intentions and artistic integrity; but when it comes to Christianity, such considerations may be sacrificed to higher values, such as “multiculturalism” and — oh yes — money.

Lewis would be outraged and sickened by this compromise of his work. Are the keepers of his estate willing to sell him out to the very secularist forces he fought with all his genius? Can they betray his trust so shamelessly?

Maybe editing Aslan down to modern scale is a job for the Jesus Seminar, which is devoted to editing the Gospels by deleting any sayings that sound too Christian. One excellent reason for believing in Christ is that after 2,000 years he is still as troubling to the conscience as he was in his own time. If he can be reduced to a bland moral teacher, whose doctrine is indistinguishable from modern political platforms, he becomes much safer and easier to sell. Whole denominations are based on adapting Jesus to the Latest Thinking.

Lewis’s fictional adaptation of Christ is another matter. Aslan is not a watered-down substitute for Christ, but a spiritually challenging figure who conveys, even to adult readers, some of the wonder of the Original. He seems to be more than the flesh of HarperCollins can bear.

Lewis always insisted that a good children’s story can’t be just a dumbed-down version of a story for adults. It has to be a good read for adults too. He liked the analogy of a string quartet, which uses fewer of the orchestra’s resources than the symphony, but is just as demanding in its own way. Children, in fact, are more apt than adults to stop reading a story when they find it dull.

This respect for children made Lewis a great children’s author, as well as a great author for adults. I never read the Narnia stories until I was in my 20s, and I was overwhelmed by their inherent power. I still reread them, as I reread Lewis’s other works. They are all of a piece.

The notion that any editor can “improve” Lewis’s works is a presumption worthy of the Bowdlers. But in an age that regards nothing as obscene, the energies of censorship are turned against unseemly expressions of Christianity. One wonders whether the unexpurgated Narnia stories will remain available. Perhaps there will be an adults-only edition?

Aslan’s message to children (and adults) is a stern but loving one: You must change. This sets the Narnia stories apart from all the children’s books that are merely adventures, with merely external foes and monsters, however dangerous or malevolent or spooky. In Narnia, no enemy can truly threaten a child without the child’s spiritual cooperation.

Has this profoundly Christian message been lost on the Lewis estate?

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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