Fractured Fairytale

Readers will soon have an opportunity to revisit the talking beasts, mythical creatures, and strange realms of C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Publisher HarperCollins plans to issue a new series, by contemporary authors, that will be set in Lewis’s fictional universe.

While the fairytale trappings will remain, however, Lewis’s efforts to infuse his writings with Christian principles will vanish. The results will probably disappoint Lewis’s fans. Indeed, the HarperCollins’ record reveals that it’s happy to market politically correct, poorly written pap to feed off the success of classic works of children’s literature.

Since 1994, HarperCollins has issued a series of sequels and prequels to the “Little House on the Prairie” books. The 8 original books, read-aloud favorites since their initial publication between the early 1930s and 1950s, cover about 20 years of a homesteading family’s life on the late-19th-century western frontier. While Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name appears on the books’ covers, her daughter Rose Wilder-Lane — a distinguished journalist and founder of the libertarian movement — deserves the credit for writing them. As University of Missouri professor William Holtz shows in his book “A Ghost in the Little House,” Wilder-Lane transformed her mother’s shapeless childhood reminiscences into children’s classics by rewriting them in the third person, rearranging events, and infusing her own political views.

Roger Lea MacBride, Rose’s “adopted grandson” and the Libertarian Party’s 1976 presidential candidate, received the copyrights when Rose died in 1968. He helped to create the popular television series and revised an unfinished manuscript to create a 1973 book about Laura’s early married life. Later, MacBride wrote four sequels himself. His daughter and HarperCollins’ editorial staff finished four more books, which appeared under his name after he died. Since 1998, authors Melissa Wiley and Maria Wilkes have continued the series with prequels about Laura’s ancestors in Scotland and early America.

Just as Lewis presents a vivid imagining of Christianity’s fundamental beliefs in a fantastical world, the original Little House books tell lively stories of frontier life centered around important conservative and libertarian themes: self-reliance, Jeffersonian natural law theory, the value of entrepreneurship, family values, the right to keep and bear arms, and the importance of local institutions. Wilder-Lane even wanders into elevated political theory. Attending a Fourth of July Celebration in “Little Town on the Prairie,” Laura reflects on the meaning of the day: “The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty,” she thinks. “Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.” Similar reflections on topics ranging from firearms to family punctuate the series. Indeed, Wilder-Lane’s hatred of large institutions proves so intense that she implies that it’s better to risk death than rely on them for survival. “The Long Winter” — arguably the best of Wilder-Lane’s original books — romanticizes a winter when Laura Ingalls’ family nearly starved to death. The narrative reflects a strong distrust of any institutions beyond one’s own family and community.

The original Little House books offer much to displease the czars of political correctness. The series assumes a respectful, but hardly worshipful, attitude towards American Indians. All other significant characters, however, are white. And while women sit at the center of the narratives, they stick mostly to the role of cooking and cleaning, entering the work force only to pursue professions such as teaching — and then as a precursor to marriage.

To his credit, MacBride did try to preserve his “grandmother’s” strident political messages. MacBride’s first two books about Rose’s life actually play up the value of individualism a bit more than the other Little House books, but they ignore Wilder-Lane’s hatred of large institutions. While MacBride has a decent eye for historical detail, his efforts to imitate Wilder-Lane’s prose style are clunky, and his repetitive subject-verb-object sentence construction is tiresome. In any case, MacBride, who joined the Republican party in the early 1980s, never fully replicates Wilder-Lane’s expositions on natural law for pre-teens.

The more recent books, however, lack even the modest charms of those books published before MacBride’s death. These poorly told stories ooze with political correctness and substitute vague prattle about challenging authority for hard-core libertarian virtues. “On the Banks of the Bayou,” one of the later books published under MacBride’s name, devotes much of its length to worthy but preachy accounts of the abysmal treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and its presentation of labor organizers is almost wholly positive. While the former concern probably does reflect MacBride’s beliefs, it’s too blatant and didactic in comparison to the original books’ measured tone; the latter, however, is simply egregious. While Rose’s involvement with socialists does have a historical basis, neither MacBride nor the mature Wilder-Lane cared much for labor unions.

The more recently published books I have managed to find are even worse: Melissa Wiley does not even know how to tell a story. Her first book, “Little House by Boston Bay,” supposedly a historical novel about Rose’s ancestors, provides a rather detailed description of daily life on the verge of the revolutionary war, but ends mid-course, just as a family friend goes off to war. Though blandly PC, the new book offer no real discernable political views at all. Wilder-Lane, who once co-wrote a book positing the Founding Fathers, Abraham, and Muhammad were the only authentic advocates of freedom in all of human history, would not have approved.

Admittedly, in creating the new, politically correct Little House books, HarperCollins avoided raising a lot of eyebrows. Wilder-Lane’s quirky political and religious views, after all, have very few advocates on the modern political and cultural scene. Lewis’s humanist approach to Christianity, on the other hand, has won widespread acceptance from a broad range of modern Christians, ranging from Catholics to evangelical Protestants. While anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity can see his passion for his faith, Lewis makes his points with subtlety, sophistication and wit; even non-believers can appreciate his intellectual heft.

Nonetheless, HarperCollins appears horrified at the idea that someone might think of Jesus while reading the forthcoming Narnia books. “We’ll need to be able to give emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology,” wrote a HarperCollins executive in an internal memo leaked to World magazine and The New York Times.

In fact, if the new Little House books are any indication, financial disappointment awaits anyone at HarperCollins who might be dreaming of riches from the new Narnia books. While the publisher continues to release new Little House books, indicating that they’re probably profitable, the books appear to underperform the originals in the marketplace. Even Wiley’s newest book — just a few months old — sits well below all of the originals on Amazon.com’s sales lists.

Children’s literature that doesn’t appeal to adults rarely endures, because teachers and parents don’t see any need to transmit it to the next generation. The newer Little House books, devoid of the libertarian philosophy, lyricism, and strong narrative flow of the originals, have nothing to offer adults. Sure, children can still pick up some facts about life in the past, but they’re unlikely to revisit the books as adults.

A non-Christian version of Narnia wouldn’t even offer this much. Lewis used Christian morals and scriptural narrative to add sophistication and depth to stories of sorcery and talking beasts. Whatever faults Lewis suffered as a literary craftsman, the sophistication of his underlying message redeems his works. Judging by HarperCollins’ track record, sophisticated is the last thing the new Narnia books will be. Don’t be surprised if twenty years from now, no one remembers the return trip to Lewis’s fictional world.

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