This blog post is born from some pondering that I did as I wrote up a different post over on the Just-Us League blog. The post itself was about hope in the fantasy genre, and if you’re interested, please drop by and give it a read; it’s short but touches on a topic I consider to be of importance.
While writing that post, I found myself thinking about how much of fantasy literature we often consider “naïve” or simplistic in theme and scope. This holds doubly-true in middle grade and YA books. I’ve had more than one discussion with a person where the Chronicles of Narnia are waved aside as “too positive” or “too light” (light in the sense of lacking substantive meaning).
And maybe those opinions are correct. Maybe. But I am also reminded of the first time I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the fifth grade. I was truly shocked that Edmund would betray his brother and sisters. Yes, of course we can debate how much he understood about what he was doing (and that debate shall be revisited in a moment), but to my young self, it was pretty clear that no good was going to come out of Edmund bringing the others to the White Witch, and that Edmund himself not only knew this, but wanted this.
Those of us who are familiar with the story probably just accept as a given that Edmund did what he did. But when I was ten years old, I had never before encountered a book aimed at children where one of the main characters would do something so despicable. That sort of thing–selling out ones own siblings for sweets–was something I’d expect in real life, not in fiction.
What didn’t strike me at the time but what I have thought about in later years, is the implication of what Edmund’s betrayal meant. His betrayal meant that Aslan had to suffer and die. Yes, I understood that when I read the book, but I didn’t understand that until later. Edmund’s actions nearly destroyed all hope in Narnia. That’s some heavy stuff for a kid’s book.
What makes it heavier? Well, let’s discuss whether or not Edmund truly understood that he was betraying his siblings to their deaths. Oh, yeah, because that’s what is at stake. This is a book about a human-esque woman who wants to kill children. But that’s not even my point. My point is that Edmund seems to have understood he would ascend while his siblings would suffer, but when he returns to the queen, he appears genuinely unaware that she wants to kill Peter and the others. Yet, despite Edmund’s ignorance of the true ramifications of his actions, he could have cost the very future of Narnia.
Seriously. This is a book that tells children that what you think is a small wickedness may expand into a sin almost beyond redemption. I’m not debating whether or not I agree, but I am saying that this is a heavy subject to introduce in a children’s novel. Then again, this is a children’s novel where the kids are expected to kill people in combat. We’re accustomed to that scenario in MG literature now, but were we always?
At the end of everything, however, hope remains. Edmund’s betrayal both compels Aslan to sacrifice himself and bring about the breaking of the White Witch’s power in a profound way. Aslan’s sacrifice transcends even the Deep Magic and instead calls upon a magic older and deeper still.
All of this because a boy would sell out his siblings for candy.