C.S. Lewis on the Jokes and Morals in… Shrek?
C.S. Lewis was not one to appreciate the common understanding of children’s literature. He once wrote, “When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
For Lewis, there were things to learn from these stories and it would be wrong to say that children’s literature only serves to speak to children. Rather, he argued adult literature only speaks to adults:
A man, who has children of his own, said, ‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.
As Shrek turns 20, it might seem odd that a man who died in 1963, nearly four decades before its release, could be seen as the godfather of everyone’s favorite ogre. Yet, upon further inspection C.S. Lewis’ imagination and fictional land of Narnia, his sense of humor, and his morals can be seen are eerily similar to the world of Shrek to the point where selecting Shrek and Shrek 2 director Andrew Adamson to direct the film adaptations of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian appears to be less of a stretch than originally thought.
We have already seen what Lewis thought about fairy tales, but when it comes to fairy tale worlds, one of the first things viewers are made aware of in the world of Shrek is that nearly every fairy tale character ever is there. We see Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, the Gingerbread Man, Cinderella, Snow White, and so many others. In Narnia, Lewis takes English schoolchildren and introduces them to Roman fauns, Greek centaurs, a Norse snow queen, talking beavers, and even Father Christmas. This amalgamated cast of characters is what makes Narnia, Narnia, but it’s also what J.R.R. Tolkien hated about The Chronicles.
Another thing that drove Tolkien up a wall was Lewis’ willingness to sneak in subtle jokes for adults, much in the same way movies put in jokes for adults for the parent who has to sit through the movie their child wants to see in the theater, at the expense of perfect mythology. When Lucy arrives at the home of Mr. Tumnus he has a collection of books with titles such as Nymphs and their Ways. It is unlikely the 8 or 9-year old reading LWW for the first time knows what a nymph is. Lewis was also poking fun at himself as he was still very much a bachelor who had not yet met Joy Davidman.
Shrek’s adult humor meanwhile is more well known and overt, most notably in Shrek and Donkey’s repeated insinuations that Lord Farquaad has a difficult time pleasing women.
Speaking of Farquaad, it is commonly believed that Farquaad is short and that his name sounds an awful lot like “F***wad” and his castle at Duloc is a spoof of Disneyland because he is supposed to be a representation of Disney’s Michael Eisner, whom Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg had a falling out with.
Lewis was less coarse in Prince Caspian, but he did manage to get at his fellow professors when naming a character. Caspian’s tutor Dr. Cornelius asks him to open up his book entitled Grammatical Garden or the Arbour of Accidence pleasantlie open’d to Tender Wits written by a fellow named Pulverulentus Siccus. An etymological breakdown of Pulverulentus Siccus reveals that was the book with the pretentiously long title that is so common in academic works was authored by someone whose name means “dry as dust.”
While Lewis is best known for his Christian apologetics and children’s literature, his day job was a scholar in medieval literature. His magnum opus had a similarly spiffy title in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama as part of the Oxford History of English Literature series, or as Lewis simply called it: Ohel.
Of course, it would be wrong to classify Lewis as a simple joke teller or Shrek as just a collection of jokes and fairy tale characters with no moral at the end of the story.
Shrek uses humor to criticize the traditional fairy tale where Prince Charming kisses the princess, which despite them just met, is supposed to convey true love and allow them to live happily ever after. In the sequels we see Shrek and Fiona’s love for each other hold, but not they are not always the happiest of couples. Shrek reminds viewers that it is easy to fall for the good looking one, but real and serious relationships contain a good amount of awkwardness, misunderstandings, and of course, burping and farting.
While some may view jokes about the sounds and smells that come out of human beings as juvenile or the product of some Freudian urge to break social taboos, C.S. Lewis scholar Terry Lindvall — whose works on Lewis’ sense of humor, the role of laughter in Christian life, and the history of religious satire inspired this article — has different idea:
In the Garden of Eden, God placed two jokes, two grand incongruities that make us laugh even today.
The first incongruity is our own created nature as human beings. We are a mix of dust and divine breath. God breathes into humus, earth, and presto we are that amazing oxymoron — a spiritual animal. Spirit and earth make one comic being. On one side, we are related to the angels, the transcendent, the spiritual, the Amish — on the other side, we are cousins to jackals, weasels, skunks, and lawyers. The heavens and the earth are married, and the union is a marvel, a mystery, a matter for much mirth. “Of all living creatures,” notes Aristotle, “only man is endowed with laughter.”
Angels, wrote C.S. Lewis, do not see anything funny about being angels. Neither do dogs laugh at being dogs. They don’t loiter around the lamppost and fire hydrant and bark about naughty bits. Woodpeckers don’t do knock-knock jokes. Monkeys don’t human around. No chicken laughs when another asks why the human crossed the road.
What is man, O Lord? that Thou should crown him with glory, and bathe him in folly?
In other words, just when Shrek thinks he might be getting somewhere with Princess Fiona, God humbles him by reminding him of the animal side of his being as he lets out a massive burp. Donkey admonishes him, “But that’s no way to behave in front of a princess.” But, true love can love in spite of the burps and the farts and Donkey is the one who ultimately ends up being rebuked as the fairy tale princess, usually a symbol of female civility and ladylike good manners, has an animal side to her as well and she lets out a massive burp of her own. “She’s as nasty as you are,” Donkey replies.
As a brief digression, the second grand incongruity is between men and women and Lewis plays with this in how the Pevensie siblings relate to one another and in Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. In, LWW, when they need to urgently evacuate, Mrs. Beaver tries to bring her sewing machine along. In Prince Caspian Edmund and Lucy playfully tease each other about the other’s sense of direction and brains, or lack thereof.
C.S. Lewis could mock as well. For example, he once ribbed Walter Hooper and his “American euphemisms” when Hooper came to visit him one time and asked to use the bathroom. Lewis got up to help his guest with towels and other bath essentials, but, of course, Hooper meant something else.
But Lewis’ mocking and the mocking in Shrek serves a point: to correct. Both realize that mocking for mocking’s sake is abhorrent. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape writes to his apprentice Wormwood in the eleventh letter, “I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.”
Flippancy, according to Screwtape’s twisted and demonic conception of good, is the best:
Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
For Lewis, the worst jokes are not fart jokes or sex jokes, — indeed Screwtape calls those who rely on sex jokes to get their subjects to sin as “second-rate tempters” — but jokes where we laugh at what is good and virtuous.
In, LWW, the White Witch repeatedly taunts and refers to Aslan — that is, Jesus Christ — as a fool. After she kills him, she mocks him, “that the great Fool, the great Cat, lies dead.” There is no less funny attempt at a joke than mocking God and after Aslan’s resurrection, the Witch learns that the hard way.
Shrek is not a Christ character like Aslan, but Farquaad is a flippant one. When Shrek crashes the wedding between Fiona and Farquaad and confesses his love to Fiona, Farquaad’s response is to burst out laughing, “the ogre has fallen in love with the princess!” Of all the jokes in the movie, this is one we are not supposed to laugh at, because Farquaad is laughing at that which is good and virtuous: love. Farquaad cannot understand love because for him marrying Fiona is just a selfish way to gain greater political power. His punishment is to get eaten by Dragon and have her burp out his crown, essentially spitting on his monarchal ambition and providing another example of humor based off bodily functions being used to humble the prideful.
After Shrek and Fiona kiss, the next scene is their wedding with “I’m a Believer” playing to the end of the film. Screwtape, like Farquaad, would not understand, “What that real cause [of joy] is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven — a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us.”
Likewise, Donkey is a funny character, but we laugh with him and at his jokes, not his willingness to befriend Shrek and not prejudge him as a big, scary, ugly ogre. Nor do we laugh at Lucy when she readily accepts a man with goat legs as her new best friend although if that were us, we would probably run back through whatever wardrobe or middle school locker we took to get there as fast as we could.
Lewis, if he were alive today, would probably ask on Shrek’s 20th birthday, whether we laugh at Shrek the movie or Shrek the character. We would probably say Shrek, but outside of the theater, it often appears that Wormwood listened well.