Prydain is Better for your Kids than Narnia
September 16, 2019
Like many of us who read fantasy as adults, I got my start on Narnia. My first-grade teacher read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to the class. It was wonderful. Wardrobes with new worlds hidden in them, talking animals, magic, and a classic confrontation between good and evil where evil wins—what more could you ask for?
I devoured the rest of the books, and while I thought it was weird that they skipped through different characters and different periods, the fact that they were Christian allegory went entirely over my head.
Then I re-read them in junior high and picked up on the fact that they weren’t just an allegory for Christianity, they were an allegory for a particularly loathsome form of Christianity that prioritized obedience to authority and punishment for wrongdoing over being a decent person. I was discomfited.
Then I re-read them as an adult—nostalgia is a powerful force, folks—and I wasn’t discomfited so much as I was appalled.
Narnia is racist, sexist, and authoritarian to degrees that I could never have consciously entertained as a child—even an older child.
How many times are we reminded that Aslan is not a tame lion? The threat of violent punishment is everywhere. Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia and is denied entry into heaven because she wants to be a feminine, sexual being. It’s repulsive.
Prydain is about Defining Oneself
Prydain is, from the get-go about an orphan trying to figure out who he is. At first, he tries to learn as much as possible about his parents, going so far as to abandon all his hopes for glory and nobility when he learns his father is a poor farmer.
When he learns the truth—that the farmer lied—he uses his one piece of real magic in a futile attempt to save the farmer’s life and is rewarded with the only truth about his parents anyone can ever know—that they died and there’s no way to learn their identity.
Our hero gets a bit lost at this point and goes off in search of himself. He tries various professions to find they’re far more work than he imagined, that if he puts his hand to them he’s got some ability, but that they are ultimately unrewarding. He finds one profession he desperately wants to be good at only to discover that he has no facility for it whatsoever. He deals with hardscrabble farmers, crafters, and villains.
He learns that there is value in labor he once disdained and that there is beauty in both community and solitude. He learns what it means to sacrifice something of value for knowledge he cannot use. He learns the disappointment that comes when the answers to your biggest questions are inexplicable.
He learns how to lead people in defense of their community, and he learns the agony of loss.
He learns what he values and what he opposes, which sets up his return home as a full-fledged adult and some decisions he makes in the final volume that fly in the face of traditional Tolkienesque fantasy.
We’re Just in it for the Quest Rewards
The Big Reward at the End™ is, I think, indicative of the differences between the two series.
At the end of Narnia, everyone dies and gets to go to heaven. It’s lovely. Really. Even Peter, who betrayed the others back in the first book (and yes, it’s the first book) goes to Heaven, but Susan does not. She’s no longer a friend of Narnia because she likes lipstick and—presumably—boys.
The whole thing is gross. The idea that women and girls who want to be attractive or—gasp, shock, horror—even like sex are bad and deserving of hell is incredibly asinine and sexist to the extreme.
The heroes in Prydain don’t have to die to get their reward. They are promised an everlasting life free of pain and toil. It sounds a lot like a living version of Heaven, but—and this is a spoiler, folks—the hero declines.
Instead of heaven, he accepts a mortal life of toil and pain because it’s the only way he has to honor the commitments he made to friends along the way. It’s how he lives up to the ideals he has chosen for himself.
Choice is an important theme. It’s made explicit at the end that whatever your fate may be, it’s one that you choose. You get to decide who you are. Do you want your children to follow the rules in the hope of a reward, or do you want them to do what’s right regardless?