Friday, December 16, 2005

The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

Andrew Adamson (director), the chronicles of Narnia: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, general release

The new Disney film, the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, the first of the chronicles of Narnia, is currently enchanting children and adults at the cinema… and has led to the opening of a new front in the war of words between christianity and its critics. When I first read C.S. Lewis’ the lion, the witch and the wardrobe as a child I fell in love with his magical world of talking animals, centaurs and fauns, the wicked witch and a land where it is always winter, but never christmas. It is the story of four children from 1940s England, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy who discover the door to a magical land through a wardrobe, help to overthrow the wicked witch and ultimately become kings and queens of Narnia. Like many fans of the books, and, no doubt, many of the children who go to see the new film, at the time I was blissfully unaware of the christian subtext that has been the cause of controversy.

C.S. Lewis was converted to christianity by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and took to the faith with the zeal that only a convert can. He wrote a series of essays and books on the christian faith, notably mere christianity and the screwtape letters, in which an apprentice demon writes about his misadventures in tempting mortals. Lewis was outspoken about his faith and it was very important to him, and as such had an impact on his writing. Christian groups in the US have seized upon the new film as the answer to their prayers in combating what they see as the decline of their faith, particularly amongst the young. It has been promoted as a kind of anti-Harry Potter, good and wholesome and devoid of demonic influences and moral grey areas. Churches are encouraging their followers to block book tickets and persuade youth groups to go and see the film. Disney has colluded with this, working with a christian publishing company to promote the film in churches in the UK, and their partners in the film, Walden Media are owned by a major republican party donor. On the other side of the divide, journalist and outspoken secularist, Polly Toynbee has lambasted the film, warning us poor unbelievers to have a sickbag on hand for some of the scenes; and celebrated children’s author Philip Pullman, whose sophisticated trilogy, his dark materials, explores themes of theology, spirituality and philosophy, has denounced the Narnia books as racist and sexist christian propaganda, describing them “one of the most ugly and poisonous things [he had] ever read”. Even Tolkien purportedly was uncomfortable, and critical of what he saw as Lewis’ sermonising in the books.

So far, so straightforward. It would be easy to dismiss the chronicles of Narnia as crude christian propaganda-by-stealth, sneaking the gospel under the wary radar of children by dressing it up as an ‘innocent’ fantasy story. Some fans of the series have bent the stick the other way however, downplaying the religious themes and claiming that they are incidental to the stories. Both attitudes are mistaken, and frankly, do a grave disservice to both the chronicles of Narnia themselves and to C.S. Lewis’ faith. The christian fundamentalists may be looking for a vehicle to promote their faith, and the anti-christian lobby a means to criticise christian moralising; but if that is what they want the chronicles of Narnia to be, then in this correspondent’s opinion, both sides have backed the wrong unicorn.

Without a doubt, there are scenes and themes in both the books and the film that closely parallel christian mythology. The most obvious of these is the death of Aslan, the eponymous lion of the title, who corresponds to Jesus. He lets himself be sacrificed on a stone table by the white witch, in order to absolve Edmund of the ‘sin’ of betrayal. He is humiliated and shaved before the execution, and afterwards his corpse is wept over by Susan and Lucy. The stone table then splits in two, and Aslan is reborn. The parallels are obvious. However, despite both christian and anti-christian commentators seeking to present Lewis as being a stereotypical believer, and the chronicles of Narnia as being his attempt to proselytise to children covertly, Lewis was anything but a clich├ęd christian, and the Narnia books are more complex than mere propaganda. Lewis used the word ‘supposal’ to describe what he was doing with Narnia. Having invented this fantasy world, he ‘supposed’ what form Jesus would take in this world, and what form the christian faith would take. The end result can certainly be read as a form of christian apologia, and Lewis wrote that he hoped that he would introduce readers who might otherwise be resistant to aspects of christian belief, but the chronicles of Narnia are not merely christianity dressed in unfamiliar clothes, but are instead a children’s fantasy written by a devout christian, using a time-honoured device within the genre of speculative fiction, that of playing the game of ‘what if…?’, of exploring the consequences of what would happen if this was real or if that event happened.

Far from being a narrow-minded fundamentalist, C.S. Lewis’ christianity was thought-provoking and off-beat. The best example in this context is Lewis’ atypical view of paganism, which is certainly at odds with many of his fundamentalist christian supporters. He regarded paganism and christianity as having much in common, and seemed to consider pagan religions as being a kind of nascent form of christianity, arguing that it was easier for a pagan, already capable of faith in a higher power, to become a christian than it was for an atheist (Lewis wrote the Narnia books in the 1950s, at the same time that modern paganism was being reinvented and gaining followers following the repeal of the anti-witchcraft laws). This blurring of the boundaries between these traditionally opposed faith traditions can be seen in the chronicles of Narnia, where Lewis not only uses creatures from Classical, Norse and Teutonic mythology such as centaurs, dryads, fauns and dwarves, and the gods Bacchus and Silenus, but also a number of the themes in the books are arguably derived from pagan religions as well. For example, Peter is knighted ‘wolfsbane,’ because he defeats the wolf Morgrim, which echoes stories from Norse and Teutonic sagas, notably the story of the chief god, Odin fighting Fenris-Wolf at Ragnarok, the last battle. The figure of the white witch arguably corresponds to the Norse crone-goddess, Hel, who ruled over the icy afterworld Niflheim. The idea of the cyclical wheel of seasons, with winter being replaced by spring, is found in virtually every agrarian culture, for instance in ancient Greek mythology, winter is when the goddess Persephone is in the underworld, and spring begins when she returns to the surface. The theme of resurrection is similarly widespread, for example in the Classical mystery cults of Mithras, Zagreus and Orpheus, and the Norse legend of Odin dying and being reborn in order to gain knowledge of Ragnarok. Lewis’ conscious borrowing of these themes is not simply a cynical attempt to conceal his christian message, but rather is integral to his faith and his promotion of a magical view of the world in opposition to what he saw as the soullessness and reductionism of secular modernity.

Undoubtedly, a great deal of the criticism levelled at Lewis is wholly justified. The man was a sexually repressed, middle class Irish academic, who had spent decades in the seclusion of the Oxford colleges and who was writing in the 1950s. His social attitudes were representative of this background, and are reflected in his writing. Hence, the Narnia books are sexist, with women playing a subservient role; they are sexually repressed (in the last book of the series Susan is excluded from the analogue of heaven because she is interested in boys and make-up); and they are deeply deterministic, authoritarian and parochial, with the children becoming kings and queens apparently simply because an ancient prophecy says that “two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve” are fated to do so. The portrayal of the children is also idealised - they are every middle-class parents dream - whereas in reality, as the rather more knowing fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett observes, “children mostly argued, shouted, ran around very fast, laughed loudly, picked their noses, got dirty and sulked. Any seen dancing and skipping and singing had probably been stung by a wasp.”

And yet, despite all of this, the books and the new film are deeply enchanting, and are enjoyed and often loved by children, who by and large do not become right-wing christians as a result of their exposure to Narnia. The appeal could be explained away by dismissing the chronicles of Narnia as sheer escapism, but this is too pat an answer. Fantasy is routinely described as escapist, and as the anarchistic science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock has said, “jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.” But I would argue all good fantasy has the potential to inspire its readers to try to escape the jail of class society (and despite their faults and the conservative politics of the author, I would defend the Narnia books as good fantasy). In the film, Peter says “we’re not heroes…” and Susan jumps in with, “…we’re from Finchley.” But despite this, the children take the difficult decision to oppose the wicked witch and try to do the right thing. Lewis contrasts the fatalistic ‘grown-up’ response of accepting things as they are with the ‘childish’ optimism that you can change things for the better and it is the right thing to do. This underlying message of the chronicles of Narnia is naive but it is an uplifting and positive one, and to my mind this is the reason behind the timeless appeal of the stories.

The new film is a worthy retelling of the stories. Disney resisted the temptation to update the story or transfer it to the US, instead remaining very faithful to the books. Director Andrew Adamson has also managed the difficult task of preserving just the right amount of christian subtext, without suppressing it all together (which would miss the point) or exaggerating it in order to increase the appeal for the christian lobby (which would equally miss the point). The film was filmed in New Zealand and had a predictably huge budget, so as you would expect it is a visual treat and the special effects, the backdrops and the climactic battle are simply breathtaking. At the same time however they have managed to keep something of the naivety that is part of the charm of the books, with little known actors playing the main roles, including a particularly striking and imperious performance by Tilda Swinton as the white witch, and minor roles played by stalwart british actors Ray Winstone, Dawn French and Jim Broadbent. The film is well worth going to see in my opinion. Cynics may think it kitsch and moralising, but I found the lion, the witch and the wardrobe charming and uplifting.

An edited version of this review can also be read in the communist party of great britain's paper, the weekly worker, which is available online at: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/605/narnia.htm

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