On CS Lewis: Lions, Witches, and Criminal Punishment

I picked up a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the other day. I was surprised, to start, at how short it was; you could read it in a dedicated afternoon. I think I expected something much different going in. I had heard so much about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien that I sort of assumed that the Narnia books would be quite similar to Tolkien's works. They are not.

Lewis's work is squarely aimed at children. This is not a bad thing, and the spareness of the prose is something of a relief compared to Tolkien's dense descriptions. At the same time, I felt as though I wasn't nearly as drawn into the fantasy as I have been with most other fantasy novels. Perhaps I would come to love the land of Narnia and the Pevensie children more if I read the later novels, but it feels as though the only character in this book that we get any sort of insight into is Edmund. It would be nice to get to know the characters a bit better. Instead, Lewis rushes from plot point to plot point as quickly as possible so he can cover all the allegorical bases.

As for the allegory... Well... It's very odd. Everyone I've talked to who read these books as a kid has said that they didn't feel ministered to, and quite enjoyed the books on their own merit. And certainly large parts of it seem to be enjoyable on their own. But then you get to the parts about Aslan. While reading it, I felt as though if I didn't know Aslan was Jesus, I would just think he was a big Mary Sue. Think about it; everyone's talking about how great he is, there's an aura about him that causes everyone to love him, he magically solves everyone's problems, and despite the danger he puts himself in he can't really be killed. Thanks to Lewis's economy with descriptions and characterization, we don't really know why everyone loves him or why he's so wise, we're just told he is and everyone acts as though it's true.

Further, large parts of the book don't seem to make sense if you don't know that it's an allegory and what it's supposed to really mean. The parlay between Aslan and the White Witch seems particularly incomprehensible. All the talk of Deep Magic and the White Witch owning all who commit treason and Aslan not even considering circumventing the laws of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea seems like it would be quite obtuse when read without outside context. But if you go in knowing that Aslan is Jesus, the White Witch is Satan, and the Emperor-beyond-the-sea is the Father part of the Trinity, it all makes sense. So I'm curious, to those who read it without knowing of the allegory, whether it all hung together well on its own. And, I should add, I leave open the possibility that this all makes sense and gets explained within the context of the books in later Narnia novels.

Despite all this grousing, though, I quite enjoyed the book. It's refreshing to have a plot that moves so quickly; I've grown accustomed to much longer books that contain less plot than this one, bogged down with ponderous prose and endless descriptions. At some point I'll probably buy the omnibus edition of all the Narnia books and read through that. For now, though, I quite enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It gives a pretty significant return for a relatively small investment of time.

I also owe Lewis an apology. In comments below I'm afraid I mischaracterized an argument he made in one of his political writings. This was not a conscious misconstrual; it had been some years since I'd read it and I recalled his argument being rather different than it was. You can find the piece I was talking about here.

It's interesting; I read that piece before I had done much serious study of the theory and practice of criminal punishment. After a lot of subsequent coursework on the subject, I find myself far less inclined to disagree with him than I was when I first read the piece.

Lewis's main argument, which I tend to agree with, is that the problem with purely humanitarian visions of punishment is that they are, paradoxically, inhumane to those upon whom they are inflicted. The humanitarian vision, as Lewis characterizes it, is that people commit crimes because of a mental illness. They are products of society, or their upbringing, or whatever. The goal of our system of justice, then, should not be punishing criminals for moral transgressions; rather we should attempt to reform them, to cure them of their criminal tendencies and turn them into good citizens, fit to become productive members of society.

The trouble as Lewis sees it is that this not only drops the bottom out of a sentence (a hardened criminal could theoretically be cured and released within a week for even the most heinous of crimes) but extends the ceiling of a sentence to infiniti (a petty criminal might never be considered cured, and therefore could spend his life in prison for shoplifting from a convenience store). When we have a justice system premised on a moral theory, there is a need for a rough correspondence between crime and punishment. A small transgression deserves an equally small punishment. A grave crime requires a serious punishment. But when you remove the moral dimension and treat crime as a disease to be cured, there's no longer a need for correspondence between crime and punishment. You can always justify keeping the criminal within the correctional system so long as he is still diseased and still needs to be cured.

These are the points on which I largely agree with Lewis. He, however, held very radically skeptical views on the value of expertise (only the natural sciences should be permitted, and even then treated with caution. Social Science in all forms is an abomination, because it is not man's place to know the intricacies of Man, God's greatest creation. All forms of meddling with the natural order of things will inevitably lead to evils). Because of this, he felt that the humanitarian view of punishment had no place whatsoever in criminal justice. I tend to disagree; I think there's a place for reformation and rehabilitation of criminals, but it should be a secondary factor and always subject to certain constraints based in morality and human rights. Non-coercively attempting to get a criminal to reform his way of thinking to be more amenable to society is fine. Forced therapy to get a criminal to, for instance, change unsavory political views is not fine.

It's this last point where Lewis goes off the rails. He worries that soon Christianity will be deemed a mental illness, and Christians will be rounded up and forcibly reformed of their disease. This isn't entirely unfeasible, but he's arguing in bad faith. That's the sort of thing you would see in places like Soviet Russia and Maoist China, but there are very fundamental differences between that sort of hard-core utopian Leftism and the more moderate liberal democratic leftism of the sort Lewis was arguing against. It's an unfair argument in the same way that it is unfair to dismiss an argument from a Christian perspective by invoking the fear of inquisitions. Within the political context that the argument is being made, the worst-case scenario being spun is neither feasible nor intended by the opponent that the argument is made against.

So I'd recommend Lewis's Narnia books, and caution that, while there is merit to the political writings, they should be approached with a healthy skepticism.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Zach published on December 15, 2005 7:55 PM.

Card Game Thing-Where-I-Talk-About-It: Gloom was the previous entry in this blog.

Sick is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04