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June 11, 2001 Issue Full Text
Trouble in Narnia

The C.S. Lewis estate will seek authors to add to the world's most popular series of children's books

by Colby Cosh

THOSE who have read C.S. Lewis' books for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, will recall the gentle Aslan, the great lion who is the redeemer of Lewis' imaginary world. And they will perhaps recall how the series ends: the final book, The Last Battle, relates a terrible sequence of events which begins when a donkey is persuaded to wear the skin of a lion and to pretend to be Aslan. Telling the genuine article from the real thing is not always easy, a centaur tells us. After all, "The stars never lie, but Men and Beasts do."

In recent years, many literary donkeys have dressed in the skins of lions. Sometimes, they co-opt literature's most hallowed franchises: at least two people have written "sequels" to Wuthering Heights, and Alexandra Ripley sold innumerable thousands of copies of Scarlett, her skilful but wretchedly false postscript to Gone With the Wind. At least one of these takeoffs--Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre--has been generally deemed to have merit of its own. But one must beware the moral and legal issues posed by more recent classics. When an Italian journalist rewrote Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita from the viewpoint of Lolita herself, she was legally bound to pay a royalty to Nabokov's son Dmitri and publish the book with a cranky foreword written by him.

The easiest way around such requirements is to secure the permission of an author or literary estate, and so much the better if it is their idea in the first place. It is thus now with C.S. Lewis's enchanted land of Narnia. Last month, the C.S. Lewis Company, trustees of the rights to Lewis' characters and books, announced that new books in the Chronicles of Narnia are to be written by contemporary authors and published under the HarperCollins imprint. Simon Adley, managing director of the company, says the estate is seeking out "established children's fantasy writers" capable of treading on hallowed Narnian ground.

Their search will not be easy, for no other books are quite like Lewis' tales of seven English children who blunder into an alternate universe where animals speak, pray and wage war. Aside from the Chronicles, Lewis is best remembered as a Christian apologist, and the Narnia books are deeply Christian: while not expounding Christianity in any immediately recognizable form, they explore the theme of redemption through sacrifice. They are as good an introduction to the religious frame of mind as any books ever written; Lewis said that his goal in writing the Chronicles was to imagine another world, with its own distinct saviour in the form of a lion.

The 65 million copies of the books that have been sold testify to his success. So are the attentions of a large and devoted band of Lewis acolytes and scholars; and their reaction to word of "new Narnia books" has been as disapproving as such good-natured people can possibly manage. On MERELEWIS, the Internet mailing list devoted to the author, queasiness is apparent. "There is no literary good to be done here, but only profit to be maximized," wrote list maintainer Debbie Walheim; another correspondent called the announcement "a bloody travesty." Others pointed out that the estate, which now seeks to "add to the tradition," has suppressed unauthorized writings set in Narnia and even Web pages devoted to the existing books.

Kathryn Lindskoog, an author who has investigated the handling of Lewis's literary patrimony, noted that the massive authors' syndicate United Media signed a deal last year to market "plush toys, gifts, stationery...and apparel categories" featuring the Narnia imprint and characters.

The potential for commercial tainting is obvious, but others hold out hope that high-quality Narnia books can be produced by new authors. They are sympathetic to Lewis' two stepsons, Douglas and David Gresham, but it is unclear how much of the C.S. Lewis Co. the pair now own or control. Douglas, who lives in Ireland, still acts as a spokesman for the estate on occasion; however, the April announcement was made by Mr. Adley, who said he wished to avoid "what I call the Pooh situation--in other words, exploitation of the books."

"I haven't personally been happy with the way the company has handled the Lewis legacy," says Edie Dougherty, secretary of the C.S. Lewis Society of Southern California. "I worry that 'new' books will dilute Lewis' achievement. What if someone picks up one of the new ones first, before they've been inoculated by reading the original seven?" Let us hope that a hundred years hence, Men and Beasts are still able to recognize the true Aslan when they see him.

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