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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Talking Animals - C. S. Lewis vs. Thornton W. Burgess

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I love C. S. Lewis. I think he was an amazing writer, and I have a quote from him for just about anything. Of course, The Chronicles of Narnia rank right up there as the best childrens' books ever.
So today I'm going to discuss talking animals, using Lewis and Thornton W. Burgess as examples of the right and wrong way to do it.
We've had a few of Burgess' books around our house for as long as I can remember. I've tried and tried to get through them, and I've only succeeded in finishing one; and that one I was never able to re-read. I think for my next article I'll discuss why that was, but for now let's focus on the animals.

Lewis' animals aren't human, that's for sure. Well, OK, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, some of the animals seem more human than in his later books (especially The Horse and His Boy), but the fact remains that Lewis wrote them as animals. However, these animals have consciences; they know right from wrong (whether they do the right thing or not), they have consciences, they can love, and there are certain rules that, as rational and sentient beings, they must obey. Also, to knowingly eat a talking animal is a great crime, whereas eating a regular dumb beast isn't. Basically, the way Lewis treats his Talking Animals is summed up by Aslan in The Magician's Nephew: 'Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

On the other hand, we have Burgess, who wrote a whole lot of stories about the woodland creatures. These creatures may talk, and Burgess may moralize them to death, but they might as well be 'dumb and witless'. Several years ago I picked up Blacky the Crow and read a bit of it, until I came to a certain part that's stuck with me ever since. But first, a quick bit of set-up: Blacky the crow really, really wants the eggs of Mr. and Mrs. Hooty the owls, so he devises several plans to lure the owls away so that he can get to the eggs. All his plans fail, and he ends up deciding that if he can't have the eggs, then he'll get Farmer Brown's boy to take them so that the owls can't have them either.
During all this, we're told several times that Blacky is wronging the owls by trying to steal their eggs.
Then this (emphasis mine):
Blacky The Crow isn't all black. No, indeed. His coat is black, and sometimes it seems as if his heart is all black, but this isn't so. It certainly seemed as if his heart was all black when he tried so hard to make trouble for Hooty the Owl. It would seem as if only a black heart could have urged him to try so hard to steal the eggs of Hooty and Mrs. Hooty, but this wasn't really so. You see, it didn't seem at all wrong to try to get those eggs. Blacky was hungry, and those eggs would have given him a good meal. He knew that Hooty wouldn't hesitate to catch him and eat him if he had the chance, and so it seemed to him perfectly right and fair to steal Hooty's eggs if he was smart enough to do so. And most of the other little people of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows would have felt the same way about it. You see, it is one of the laws of Old Mother Nature that each one must learn to look out for himself.
But when Blacky showed that nest of Hooty's to Farmer Brown's boy with the hope that Farmer Brown's boy would steal those eggs, there was blackness in his heart. He was doing something then which was pure meanness.
I could hardly believe it when I read that. I still can't believe that Burgess goes to so much trouble to get us to think Blacky is being mean and self-serving by trying to get the eggs. Then he completely contradicts himself by saying that, basically, it's perfectly fine according to the laws of Mother Nature (who is worshiped by the animals in all of Burgess' stories) because, hey! Everyone has to take care of himself. No, the only really wrong and mean thing that Blacky did was try to get Farmer Brown's boy to steal the eggs.
So what
is wrong, according to Burgess? These are just animals, obeying the laws of Mother Nature, so why shouldn't Blacky do as he pleases? How can he do something out of pure meanness if he's just an animals obeying the laws of nature? If it's perfectly all right for him to steal Hooty's eggs, and for Hooty to eat other talking animals in the forest, then is anything wrong at all? It's not wrong in the real world for a lion to kill and eat a deer, or even for some animal to kill another animal and just leave it there without eating it. But, just as soon as they can talk and think and reason, that's not good enough anymore. And you can't justify it by calling it 'Mother Nature's law', especially if you've been moralizing against it the whole time.

Of course, if Mother Nature is the goddess and makes all the rules, we can't say anything against it, now can we? Survival of the fittest and all that. But as Christians we can't accept that; so, if you're going to write about animals that can talk and reason, then Lewis' way should be the way you go, and not Burgess'.

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