The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Starring Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell
Length 140 minutes
The Pevensie children, Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy (in age-order), enjoy exploring the Professor's enormous house and find a lone wardrobe in an otherwise empty room. While using the wardrobe as a hiding place during a hide-and-seek game, the youngest sibling, Lucy, retreats further back until she walks out into an entirely different, perpetually snow-covered world called Narnia: where it is always winter but never Christmas. At a strangely placed lamppost she meets a Faun named Tumnus who quickly befriends her after learning that she is a human, a "Daughter of Eve." Later, at his place, he admits that he was told by the White Witch (the self-proclaimed, cruel "queen" of Narnia) to enchant and hand over any human he ever found. The Witch can turn folks into stone statues with a stroke of her wand. Tumnus, risking his own life, urges Lucy to return to her own world. Lucy's brothers and sister don't believe her when she returns.
The youngest brother, Edmund, discovers Lucy's credibility when he stumbles into Narnia. While seeking Lucy, he meets the "Queen of Narnia," the White Witch, who seduces him with treats and a promise of more treats and kingly power if he brings all of his siblings back to her castle. Lucy finds him, thrilled that he too has found the other world. But when they return, Edmund denies the truth to spite his sister. The eldest brother and sister, Peter and Susan, consult the mysterious and wise Professor about the problem. In The Magician's Nephew, the out-of-chronology sixth Narnia book, the Professor is revealed to have once been young Digory, one of the two first children to discover the other world (via a magic Ring and along with a girl named Polly), but his knowledge of Narnia is only subtly hinted in Lion. He convinces Peter and Susan to consider who is more apt to be trustworthy: Lucy or Edmund. When Susan says, "Well, it can't be real, logically," the Professor replies, "Logic? What are they teaching them at these schools?"
Afterward, when all of the children hide in the wardrobe from the stern housekeeper, they begin an amazing adventure in Narnia. Tumnus' disobedience has been discovered and he has been taken away by the Witch's secret police (a pack of wolves) and turned into stone. The Pevensies befriend Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and learn about the great Lion Aslan. Meanwhile, Edmund (in hopes of cashing in on what was promised to him) sneaks away to report his brother and sisters to the Witch. Word that Aslan has returned and is working against the Witch's magic is spreading - and Peter, Susan, and Lucy must decide how they fit into the entire scheme of reclamation and goodness against evil. Aslan's magic thaws Narnia and hope stirs. Disillusioned about the Witch, Edmund is rescued from her clutches, but she requests audience with the Lion and demands Edmund for the lawful blood payment for betrayal, citing the Deep Magic she and Aslan are beholden to. Instead of allowing Edmund to pay for his sin, Aslan offers himself as blood payment. Lucy and Susan watch in horror while the Witch kills the Lion on the sacrificial Stone Table. But when morning comes, Aslan rises again, stronger, more vigorous than ever, to lead Narnians against the Witch and her scum once and for all.
Context: Who Are We (To Know)?
"And homeless longing vexes me
- C.S. Lewis, "In Praise Of Solid People" - Spirits In Bondage 1919
Once upon a time, the mythic quality of God-belief bothered me because it seemed indefensible against so-called fact and logic. But I was buying into a mistaken regard for myth instead of realizing that mythopathy (for the most part) is not a hindrance to true knowledge. Rather, it is a help: stark evidence of Humanity's unshakeable yen for Purpose and Grace, glory beyond dust. One can easily fall victim to the increasing fragmentation and ultimate despair of the modern age by accepting the polarization of so-called Reason and Finalities, Intellect and True Meaning. I've learned to see things such as faith, myth, ontology, teleology, and theology not as ethereal, unreasonable wisps relegated to metaphysical/philosophical fiddling. I've developed a deeper respect for myths in general, deriving from them confidence in Godly Purpose instead of doubt - just as the known and contemplated relative insignificance of planet Earth (influenced by Cicero's Dream of Scipio, etc.) did not discourage the Ancients or Medievals from wrongly rejected anthropocentrism.
The more I read, the less the Old Worlders seem mentally and spiritually infantile. Part of the deconstructive, obliterating abuse of modern physicalist "philosophy," materialism, and art (usually spiked by dogmatic, strict evolution and accidental causation) is the lie of the grunting Missing Link, the subsequent centuries of general ignorance, the exaggerated darkness of the "Dark Ages" and "naive" Middle Ages (that were actually a fairly consistent transition into the Renaissance), and the downplaying of Christian scientists' contribution to the Scientific Revolution and beyond (Francis Bacon, Kepler, Newton, Pascal, etc.). Ancient African history, Arabic scholarship, the awesome wonders of the Egyptians, and the rise of the Greeks and Romans and Asians show deep, deep insight, creativity, and expertise that has been with Humankind, I believe, since its inception.
Many "enlightened" folks tend to bash Christianity's Savior basis by pointing to the recurrence of the dying/resurrecting god motif in multiple religious and Pagan traditions, as if echoes of such are proofs against its possibility. Motif/notion recurrence is also present in the spectrum of creation myths. For instance, the African Bushmen told of Kaang, Lord of Life who created a primary tree, let out the first man and woman, then other people and animals. Humans were told not to start fire, and Kaang left the world on that honor. The sun set; the humans became cold and fearful and started a fire; the animals scattered. This is why humans and animals are no longer in accord. The original, central tree appears in many creation myths. The old Caddo Indians of North America told of pre-creation darkness and seminal light provided by a Great-Father-Above; the Hindus told of Vishnu's and Brahma's order out of nothingness; Northern European myth involves a pre-creation emptiness (Ginnungagap). Shared or paralleled stories doesn't mean that the idea behind is silly. Near-sighted "enlightened" - and mistaken believers - fail to understand that this recurrence is not a blight but a reinforcement: evidence of the motif's innate power and the ultimate profundity of the injection of God into space/time/history (via the Jesus Person in Christianity's case).
Various myths exhibit celebration of and thirst for Essence beyond existence (sorry, Sartre), for Meaning within and beyond material. Perhaps this is why Dostoyevsky wrote in 1876: "I am an incorrigible idealist; I am seeking sacred ideals; I love them, and my heart thirsts after them because I have been so created that I cannot live without sacred ideals." In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells his brother, "I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built upon this longing..."
In a cynical age that takes total doubt as smartness, such recurrence and Pagan/theistic myth in general cannot be properly appreciated. This is why medieval authors are so often scorned as chimps wielding Classical and Biblical pistols rather than as serious thinkers and artists. C.S. Lewis writes in The Discarded Image that the modern genius "feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance...But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance." That built-in significance was a positive, Purpose-affirmative symptom in humans rather than playful stupidity. Judaism often mentions God's imperceptible mystery and simultaneous nearness and farness - but it assures the faithful in God's Presence and purpose through an unbreakable Covenant. The very dust and mountains are measured and weighed by God, according to Judaism; God is responsible for the foundations of the earth. As early as the Tragedians, minds moved toward what we recognize as "modern" angst. Tragedy generally portrayed cycles of vengeance and blood consequences with death as the final arbiter, however Sophocles and Aeschylus still included a sense of cosmic justice. By the time the Sophists gained clout and popularity, mockery of absolutes and so-called superstitions were in notable motion. Euripides enhanced precarious chance and the playthingness of brief humans, blessing drama with deeper psychological exploration of grim experience.
In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal summing up of the plight of perceived purposelessness amazingly foreshadows the flotsam-existence dilemma that spiked in the 20th Century and continues strongly today. The following illustration of a man lost in meaninglessness is from Pascal's Series III in Pensees (translated by A.J. Krailsheimer):
"I do not know who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself...I do not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying...I see terrible spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that...All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade...All I know is that when I leave this world I shall fall for ever into nothingness."
In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, John Galt declares, "By refusing to say 'It is,' you are refusing to say 'I am'...When a man declares: 'Who am I to know?' - he is declaring: 'Who am I to live?'" [Ayn Rand stopped short of God-belief and vehemently opposed all religion and mysticism as irrational and evil. Her morality appeal, however, doesn't necessarily contradict a deity, I think, with all respect to dear Rand.]
Now that everything is scorned as stupid or fruitless or game for meticulous parsing, reduction, and blasting, including our very faculties (that somehow allow us to know that we can't know and that there's really nothing to know), exploration of various mythologies and religions rarely involves a sober goal of becoming acquainted with a higher Design or a knowable Divinity. That is for mere children: on par with Santa Claus or invisible pink unicorns. There is no wonder or spirit, no Shekhinah, no real guidance. So-called Progressivism claims to have surpassed the propensity and need for such contemplation and symbology. If most of the fairy tales reflect each other's silly images and ideas then any fairy tale is cancelled - and certainly has no relevance to reality any more than abstract, anthropomorphic mental simplicity.
Today we're accustomed to snobbish dismissal or derision of spiritual/theistic/moral matters as beyond the range of reality, as extra-reasonable, as mere imaginary constructs and irrational games. Said Dostoyevsky:
"[I]n science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred."
Generally, Purpose, morality, faith, and even freedom are exiled from the tangible, quantifiable, wholly physical realm "down here." We may call "down here" nature or, more negatively, the machine. Humans as well as rotting pinecones are just part of a blind process or cycling, swirling isness. So, all in all, whatever occurs in this isness lacks special value - unless some judgment, some evaluation, some non-just-isness applies. Strict materialism reduces humanity, deflates human esteem, and needs to borrow from something other than materialism to at least provide an illusion of direction and worth and law. "They that deny a God destroy a man's nobility, for certainly a man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature," said Francis Bacon. Combining the material with the Other raises humanity's importance. I'm reminded of a pertinent Eric Hoffer bit in The True Believer:
...God turned clay into men, while the absolute despot turns men into clay.
Lady Philosophy, in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, illustrates this by analogy with human uprightness:
The human race alone lifts its head to heaven and stands erect, despising the earth. Man's figure teaches...that you who look upward with your head held high should also raise your soul to sublime things.
In a purely closed physical system, a chancy, "natural" array of processes, where do things like morality and freedom and love (qualities akin to a fish knowing it's wet) really fit, unless there are such things realized and enabled from outside the machine, from a sensibility or source that is not only transcendent but is communicable and real? Everything is reduced to accidental process (a word that itself can't avoid the connotation of purposeful direction) and thus belittles the human individual into flotsam on cosmic happenstance. Hope is a far cry from Juvenal's lines in his thirteenth Satire (translated by William Gifford):
There are who think that chance is all in all,
That no First Cause directs the eternal ball,
But that brute Nature in her blind career
Varies the seasons and brings round the year.
These rush to every shrine with equal ease,
And, owing to none, swear by what power you please.
In Satire Fifteen Juvenal foreshadows the previous lines from Boethius' Philosophy:
...That moral sense, denied to creatures prone
And downward bent, and found with man alone.
For He who gave his vast machine to roll
Breathed life in them; in us a reasoning soul...
Would-be reformers, seekers of correction despite Chance (whatever the hell that is) through only manipulating the process, end up working against human dignity. It's a weird situation: Utopians may unrealistically believe that Humanity is perfectible but they often disrespect Humanity so much as to treat it as moldable, expendable raw material. Dostoyevsky noted in 1873: "In making the individual dependent on every flaw in the social structure...the doctrine of the environment reduces him to an absolute nonentity." Anthony Burgess wrote in The Novel Now: "Accept that man is imperfect, that good and evil exist, and you will not, like Wells, expect too much from him." And since we're slapping H.G. around, let's include a line from Joseph Conrad: "Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable."
Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer addressed the metaphysical/philosophical plight of modern man in The God Who Is There: "The downstairs has no relationship to meaning: the upstairs has no relationship to reason." Modern man suffers under "a non-unified concept of knowledge." Oddly, I find Objectivist (and staunch atheist/anti-mysticist) Ayn Rand in agreement on a lot of Schaeffer's (and C.S. Lewis') points. I always say that Rand didn't go far enough in her philosophy. She fell short of God-belief and misunderstood the concept of reliance on such a belief as weakness. Rand wrote in "Art and Moral Treason":"
When formal philosophy tells him [a child] that morality, by its very nature, is closed to reason and can be nothing but a matter of subjective choice, this is the kiss or seal of death on his moral development."
John Gardner said as much:
"To admit that there are no finalities is to put the spirit out of business; to say that finalities are a matter of personal assertion is to make the spirit's business insignificant."
And we mustn't exclude Karl Jaspers:
"'There is no God,' cry the masses more and more vociferously; and with the loss of God man loses his sense of values -- is, as it were, massacred because he feels himself of no account."
The foolish split between humanity's "higher" concepts and the isness down here (the divorce of heaven and earth) factors into the disrespect for or missed-point about myth and how anything smacking of myth gets spitefully or (at least) condescendingly transferred to the Bullshit Vault. This spite and condescension is commonly directed at Christianity (and its adopted Judaic aspects) mainly for its central reverence for the crucified and resurrected God-Man. Even Lewis admitted that he once found it easier to appreciate such Pagan myths than the Judeo-Christian. This is what I call Exotic Prejudice. (It's mostly fuelled by fadists who mistake minority tendencies as automatically "cooler.")
"Ho ho!" folks say. "Plagiarism!" they cry. "What's so new about a dying and resurrecting hero or deity? Look at Mithraism and Zoroastrianism! Look at pre-Christian Osiris, Dionysos, and Attis! Look at the Norse god Odin! Look at all the sacrificial rites and blood-payment traditions! Persian apocalyptics, Orphism! The solar myths! The African Hottentots' Heitsi Eibib! The Chinese (virgin) Great Mother bore a son who died and came back to life! Jesus is no more than a Jewish rebel wrapped in a cultish cloak of these myths and rituals." In other words, the myth quality of the Christ scenario is used to debunk its actuality and uniqueness. Yes, the dying/rising blood-sacrifice motif manifests throughout diverse human history. And Anatole France made a great point in saying that "if fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." But, in this case, is a repeated, transcendent concept really "a foolish thing" because it's mythic and recurring?
"True Myth" In the Machine
"In making a myth, in practicing 'mythopoeia,' and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller...is actually fulfilling God's purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"Myths which are believed in tend to become true." - George Orwell
"When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened,
and now here I am in the middle of one!" - Alice, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland
A colleague of mine recently asked how I make a connection between the existence of a God and the causality of morality. He said that such an assumption was like thinking that pouring water on a floor would make it dry. I replied with a question: "What if pouring water on a floor made it WET?" And then, bouncing off of the metaphor: "What if that's the way it is in our existence: that a God enables such a thing as morality?" I admit that this idea is based on Tolkien's and Lewis' spiel about the mythopoeia of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection: God chose to do it this way. Lewis' now-famous term, "myth become fact," comes from this idea. "The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe ["good conclusion"] of Man's history," wrote Tolkien. The writer chose to go into his own book; the apparent machine caught in the fallen process of space/time was interfered with by a mythopathic Creator who confounded all of history (and upset calendar measuring) by realizing what had been till then a recurring myth, a nagging and irresistible, foreshadowing imagination.
The so-called logical thinker may scoff at such a prospect, relying on the same old, threadbare "skepticism" that attributes belief beyond microscope slides and linguistic analysis as mere extrapolation of either naive primitivism, religious opiates, or wishful thinking. Even Plato omitted poets from his utopian Republic. This overrated (and over-feared) diagnosis is amazingly summed up by the deceitful Queen/Witch of the Underland in Lewis' The Silver Chair (the fourth book in the Narnia series). The protagonists - Prince Rilian, Jill, Scrubb, and Puddleglum - are being lulled into her enchantment to disbelieve the existence of Narnia above and the existence of a light-giving sun. (Coincidentally, Karl Marx called religion "the illusory sun".) The Witch, in a perversion of Swedenborg's true Correspondences, seductively says:
"You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You've seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it's so called a lion...[L]ook how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world...Put away these childish tricks...There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow."
Isn't this a sharp illustration of the soul-killing "enlightenment" lie that can be analogized to the dwindled wonder of adulthood? I'm reminded of the dedication to Lewis' goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis realizes that Lucy will mature faster than his fairy tale, but he hopes that she will rediscover the book when she's "old enough to start reading fairy tales again." Repeat that phrase: "old enough to start reading fairy tales again." Curious! Sometimes one must come full-circle to realize that which he/she once mistook as folly.
Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot says: "There is something else here [in religious sense], and there will always be something else - something that the atheists will forever slur over; they will always be talking of something else." Mistaken, obsessive logic can impede further discovery and knowledge. Remember what the Professor said when Susan doubted Lucy's story as unreal: "Logic? What are they teaching them at these schools?" To return to the passage above about the Underland Witch's enchantment, Puddleglum snaps out of the trance for a moment and shatters the Witch's argument by simply saying, "There's Aslan."
Think of myth as the entire act of flying a kite: grasping the spool, the extended string, the wind-blown kite itself. There's a connection and a distance, an elusive wavering but a correspondence, a proper handling for successful flight as well as leeway. The kite "joins" sky and ground, lets the earthbound person project into lofty heights. Jung calls myth the "intermediate stage between unconscious and conscious cognition." Natural and supernatural link, as in a Tintoretto painting. Myth is primal, a knowledge before knowledge, "a womb with a view," as Joseph Campbell put it.
C.S. Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, saw a peculiar magic in myth that corresponded to reality rather than pure fantasy. "It is the myth that gives life," he said. He treated mythic recurrence as "the marriage of heaven and earth." (Judaism teaches that Moses justified heaven-risen Shekhinah to the earth, restored the former closeness of the Presence.) Shared motifs and sacrificial/resurrecting gods "ought to be there." Abstraction, analysis, and philosophizing distances us from the real kernel. Lewis believed that we tap into concrete reality more through myth enjoyment than academic discussion. When "into" a myth, as the useful slang goes, we may be feeling the glorious reality without realizing exactly what we are knowing at that very moment. Like children, we're lost in the finding, I like to say; we're "catching the groove" without thinking about the music composition or the dance moves. According to Lewis, the instant we shift from experiencing an experience, we think about it - and a chain reaction of abstraction or distancing of course occurs:
"The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter reality, the less we can think...You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction."
In order to tap directly into the principle, we must surrender ourselves to the myth's storyness. And when it comes to Christ, the dying deity myth manifests into actuality, becomes fact - while also remaining as myth. This central, strikingly weird and miraculous bit Lewis inherited from Tolkien, who said, "Man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his thoughts into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals." So perhaps this mythic recurrence is a stubborn resurfacing of the reality of a dying god (with the bonus of expiating Humanity's indebtedness to Death) achieved through the God-Man Jesus who Dostoyevsky considered to be the only salvation for fallen Man. And the awesomeness of the true story is its mythopoeia, its apparently incredible nature, the ultra-strange and confounding choice that God made in showing us Grace. Humanity cannot be without tale-telling; it is related in this inexorability. Thoreau wrote in A Week On the Concord and Merrimac Rivers:
"The very nursery tales of this generation were the nursery tales of primeval races...This fond reiteration of the oldest expressions of truth by the latest posterity, content with slightly and religiously retouching of old material, is the most impressive proof of a common humanity...All men are children, and of one family. The same tale sends them all to bed, and wakes them in the morning...To some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography..."
This may strike many folks as little more than a fun way of "playing" with myth and truth. Admittedly, the concept initially seems too convenient and fantastic to be cogent. But could that not be the very worth: the unlikely playfulness, fantastic, storyness of it all? Water spilled on a floor makes it wet; the story of God and Humanity is the Myth of myths! Humans were so obsessed with telling tales that God made their heads spin by acting tale-like. The prospect is exciting even if not believed, I guess many would admit. Perhaps that's what's so powerful about the idea and the placement in mythic context. Lewis wrote:
"A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it."
Such a statement may mortify a staunch Christian. But I see what Lewis must have meant. No surprise should come from generous feats and Christlike gestures being done by non-Christians, which not only shows that the particular observation needn't be there for goodness to happen but shows a feelingness about goodness that needn't always be thought out, religiously identified, abstracted in order to be. The philosopher Berdyaev noted that "the Providence of God was active not only in the Hebrew people, but also in all the peoples" (translated by Fr. S. Janos). It often just happens - not by accident or whim or by social conditioning. It's almost as if we can't help but fall into that groove once in a while (more or less), just as behavior as if purpose and direction truly existed cannot be long avoided. Consider our creative faculties. We can achieve grand accomplishments, produce amazing works of art, dramatize our own existence in countless ways, mold the natural world without always ruining. Many would attribute this relentless spirit of creativity to our being made in God's image. Humanity is haunted, if you will, by an unshakeable Godlikeness: from mural paintings to surgery, from symphonies to hip-hop, from architecture to filmmaking. The artist Romare Bearden wrote that Christ's life "is one of the greatest expressions of man's humanism."
G.K. Chesterton writes, "And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box...was nearer to the secret of [Christ's birth] and knew more about the crisis of the world than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalizations." Brennan Manning says in The Ragamuffin Gospel: "By and large, our world has lost its sense of wonder. We have grown up...Our world is saturated with grace, and the lurking presence of God is revealed not only in spirit but in matter...We must rediscover the gospel of grace and the world of grace." Glory abounds in the most unlikely of places, through unexpected media: from the Missa Solemnis to a Coltrane sax solo to the Ramones' "Howling At The Moon," from a cat's eyes to the eyes of a lover, from a Frank Lloyd Wright edifice to a baby's first spoken word. I've felt the Joy of God in songs by The Doors, in the poesy of atheists, the expert cinema of Bergman or Kurosawa or David Lynch. I call this Second-hand Grace. Beauty bursts; Purposeful delight shines; Life breaks through. In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima claims, "All creation and all creatures, every leaf is striving to the Word, singing glory to God, weeping to Christ, unconsciously accomplishing this..."
Of course, creativity mixed with fallenness produces sleek warheads, police-state surveillance, art travesties and unhealthy synthetic foods and almost limitless evils. The boggling thing about the dark side of the production line is the good foolishly or even unknowingly sought in the badness. The core of our hearts is a magnet for the good - good often unclearly and dangerously seen - that seems to elude us at every turn. The maniac dictator doesn't work his evil for the sake of evil, but derives some real or apparent good from his sins: comfort, fame, a sure place in historical posterity, luxury, pride, and so on. In other words, perhaps the Good is the norm, the Principle, and what we mistake as Humanity's typical nature (deceit, greed, and war) is actually the universal exception, the accident, the abnormal.
Both Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books are often mistaken as allegories. Especially now that Lion has been released as a popular film, the convenient parallels and church programs are exploding with "this-is-this" and "that-is-that" appreciation of the story. Both Lewis and Tolkien, however, made a point of not composing the books as allegorists. Rather, they preferred to write good stories. Tolkien was interested in "sub-creation": using his scholarship and fantastic talent to meticulously and rapturously construct his own world, Middle-Earth, as his own contribution of an English mythology. Although Christian aspects pop up here and there (particularly with Gandalf's victory over death and his transformation into Gandalf the White), he feared that his saga might be taken as merely Christian allegory - or political allegory. (Folks have speculated that the Ring might represent the atom bomb even though the books were basically complete before the damned thing debuted.) Pre-Christian aspects also abound in the Rings books, but Tolkien also didn't want the books to be mistaken as neo-Pagan fads.
The Narnia series originated with Lewis writing a story for his goddaughter. "Everything began with images," Lewis explains in Of Other Worlds, "- a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent Lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them." What he says next rings a bell about Second-hand Grace: "That [Christian] element pushed itself in of its own accord...I think He just insisted on behaving in His own way." What began as a fairy tale ended up showing the Passion happening in a fairy tale land; quaint ideas blossomed into a seven-book epic, a melting pot of mythic fun with poignant Christian elements. Anna Popplewell, who played Susan in the Lion film, put it best: "The messages that [the Narnia books] convey and the things that they're about are really timeless."
So The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not allegory. Symbols/representations do not neatly fit into recognizable molds. If you want straightforward allegory, read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Aslan is very much like Christ, but there are many other elements that don't directly add up to Biblical sources. Edmund is like Judas (at least what is written of him) in that he betrays the secret company of the Beavers and his siblings after dinner - but he is unlike Judas in his repentance and salvation. He is also like Adam and Eve in being seduced by the promise of good food and increased clout. And he is a representative of corrupt Humankind that is in need of God's mercy. Once someone thinks they've nailed a wholly Christian tale, they stumble over the appearance of Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus) or Nymphs, Dryads, "Bacchus himself," Incubi, and other things superfluous to Christian mythology. Lewis plays with diverse imagery, symbols, and stories. At the beginning of The Magician's Nephew, the narration sets the time back when "Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living on Baker Street" and E. Nesbit's fictional children, the Bastables (of The Story of the Treaure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods) were active.
Susan can slightly represent a "Doubting Thomas" (especially in a later Narnia book); Lucy can be the faithful believer; the wardrobe can be "the marriage of heaven and earth," the spiritual portal to Truth, the Way. The Witch can be taken as Lucifer or even the feared Antichrist; the Stone Table stands as both a crucifix of sorts and an ancient sacrificial altar; the rejection and murder of Aslan can be the too-harsh repudiation of heaven by so-called enlightenment and the enduring power of truth despite suppression; the victory over winter and love of nature are both pertinent to agrarian ritual/pantheism and the death-resurrection myths. (I'm reminded of the Persephone/Demeter deal - and Edmund's partaking of the Witch's Turkish Delight seems as damning as the forbidden pomegranate seeds, only Aslan's magic saves Edmund from essential Hades for all time.) The Magician's Nephew involves a tree that bears a magic Apple of Life that saves boy protagonist Digory's mother's life back in our world rather than spoiling an Eden. Digory plants the Apple core in the yard and from it springs an extraordinary tree that produces apples superior to all others on earth:
"But inside itself, in the sap of it, the tree (so to speak) never forgot the other tree in Narnia to which it belonged...[T]here was still magic in its wood."
Notice that the tree can be us: sown by God, akin to heaven-stuff, related to Grace yet hazy and not quite connected. Feelings like memories attract us toward some otherness. Something more than the cogs of the machine is in our "wood." And our fruit becomes more vivid and good when we tap into that higher vibe.
It's no wonder that after a storm breaks the special, Narnia-related tree when Digory (now the Professor) is a grown man, the wood is used to fashion the very wardrobe: the entrance into vaster possibilities, holier realizations. Or might it represent the accumulative nature of humans' sense of the numinous, the historical nature of myth and belief? For instance, I cannot ponder Christianity without pondering its big brother Judaism. The traditions are inseparable, and I think it's a mistake and a disservice to ignore or reject the related theologies. Perhaps one can view Christian elements as variations or permutations on certain themes. Those who believe in Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jews' anticipated "Anointed One" (משיח or messiah) may view this development in much the same way as the split wood of the Narnia-related tree was made into the magic wardrobe.
Lion isn't a religious tract. It is primarily meant to be enjoyed. Mind you, as before mentioned, Christian elements are unmistakably there. (Tolkien reportedly found the Narnia books to be too heavy-handed in that area, by the way.) Delving too deliberately, too academically, into each nook and cranny, however, ruins the mythic power. In his Letters To Malcolm, Lewis gives advice on how to take the Bible: "Never take the images literally...Trust the purport of the images everytime. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies." He went on to say that "the footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slagheaps. Hence what they call 'demythologizing' Christianity can easily be 're-mythologizing' it - and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer."
"A God Manifest" or Breaking The Matrix
"Eliminating Christ you eliminate the unattainable ideal of beauty and good from mankind."
- Dostoyevsky in a letter, 1854
Lucy: "Can nobody help us?"
Mr. Beaver: "Only Aslan."
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe book
Jill: "I daren't come and drink."
Aslan:"Then you will die of thirst."
- The Silver Chair
Ever notice our ambivalence about martyrdom? It's both laudable and frustrating. Something about fateful or willing sacrifice of a person for the sake of another person or people strikes an ultra-sensitive, common chord. Obviously modern books and film are saturated with the idea. Star Wars Episode 4 has Obi Wan Kenobi struck down by Darth Vader, only to become more powerful afterward (like Tolkien's Gandalf). The more recent The Matrix features Neo, the prophesied "One" who will redeem Zion and the resistance against the deceitful machines and their Agents. Neo is fatally shot but beats death, gaining a special ability to manipulate the very program of the Matrix. Supernaturally gifted John Coffey (an interpretable Christ figure down to the J.C. initials - like The Grapes of Wrath's Jim Casey) in Stephen King's The Green Mile is executed by the State for a crime he didn't commit. He has special powers, but seems willingly trapped in prison and a death sentence (a point Spike Lee misunderstands as "Magical Negro" offense). His undeserved, grisly death somehow stirs healing in Paul Edgecomb's life. Even William Faulkner couldn't resist the familiar imagery of blood sacrifice by Joe Christmas in Light In August. Irving Howe calls the symbolism "cloudy", but I'd call it familiar, resounding.
These (and countless other) stories please and touch us deeply; and they have varying degrees of similarity to Christ. (We can leave the origin similarities and parallels between Pythagoras and Jesus for another discussion.) Obi Wan Kenobi amounts to no more than yet another immortal Jedi; Neo stumbles unknowingly into his heroic destiny, needing to be urged into and taught to deal with his fate (while Jesus is the knowing God-Man before his crucifixion); Joe Christmas hurls himself into racist madness and lynching for the sake of his own social repudiation and sick desire to be slain.
Besides Osiris and others, perhaps the most striking pre-Christian Christ-like myth figure is Dionysos (or Dionysus). He is an incarnate god, associated with wine, born of Zeus and a virgin human (Semele), killed and resurrected, and even the impetus for crazed women (the Bacchae) to tear apart male flesh and eat it (in violent "Eucharist" similarity). Some lines from Euripides' The Bacchae are excellent examples of the Dionysos/Christ relevance (from a translation by Minos Volanakis):
"A God, in mortal shape."
"A God Manifest."
"This Dionysus, born into mortality."
Teiresias: "The son of God born to the virgin,
Bringing the counter-gift to bread: wine."
In The Destiny of Man, philosopher Berdyaev stressed the common thirst for redemption in pre-Christian man: not necessarily for salvation from evil alone, but from the very distinction between evil and good, from the moral scale that traps us (due to sin) in this mortal, tragic struggle:
Redemption is the meeting with the suffering and sacrificial God, with a God, i.e., Who shares the bitter destiny of the world and of man...It is necessary that God Himself should...take upon Himself the consequences of pain and evil...
It is no wonder that Tolkien and Lewis considered Jesus' earthly fate to be a fulfillment or culmination of the precedent myths. Tolkien wrote that "the Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history." Lewis wrote, "[T]he Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things'." Jung writes: "For it is not that 'God' is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. It is not we who invent myth, rather it speaks to us as a Word of God."
Berdyaev thought that myths foreshadowed the redeeming Christ and that the ancients had "a thirst for...eucharist." "[I]n paganism there was a suffering god, a redeemer god, a god torn asunder by the powers of this world, which after dying and being resurrected grants life to those who commune with his mysteries...The idea of a god incarnated into a man was an idea familiar to the savages." (Of course, reverence for animal-like or demonic divinities is the usual primitive inclination.)
Arnold Hauser wrote about the naturalistic, effigy-like animal drawings in The Social History of Art: "The animal which was to be conjured into life was intended to appear as the counterpart to the animal in the painting." Perhaps this is a good way of thinking about the belief that Christ was a effigy conjured to life, a fictional sacrifice actualized, "myth become fact" that broke the former mythic cycle. Christ is a once-and-for-all New Man, the mythic fact of God, the historical point of the New Creation. Chinese Christian philosopher and martyr Watchman Nee wrote: "Resurrection is God's new starting point." For Jews, this New Covenant is yet to happen. In Jeremiah it is written: "Behold, the days are coming, says G-D, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." (Moses' Covenant is brought to fruition rather than entirely replaced.)
Above all, the image of Christ is of a God stooping, so to speak, so low as to take the heat for sin instead of unworthy humankind (He stoops to conquer, to riff from Oliver Goldsmith). Keep in mind that Jesus is truly a scapegoat. Scapegoats (to use the inaccurate translation of the Hebrew azazel) were the goats chosen to be laden with the people's sins and sent away. The concept of God choosing to settle a score through an excruciating (notice the derivation from cruciare: to crucify), human death is quite extraordinary and dazzling. And it claims to have changed the universe forever, to have accomplished a new order. Christianity peculiarly claims that the Deal is already done. It points to Jesus' mortal death and resurrection as a historic fact in the past that rendered the victory a timeless ripple, so to speak: something within time that defied time and ensured eternal life. "It is finished" are the famous words from the near-dead Christ. What a strange and undeniably intriguing notion despite one's belief. "In the depths of time, time itself intersects with eternity, our world intersects with another world," says Berdyaev.
If the Christ idea smacks of a good story, it does so because it is a good story. It is saturated with significance, purpose, grandeur and drama. And it's intriguing by its concern for a deity caring enough for apparently pusillanimous, wretched beings enough to go through such a dramatic and glamorless ordeal for their sake. On one hand, many doubters scorn the idea for its improbability based on Humanity's relative worthlessness (akin to the speck-in-dumb-space low self-esteem modern man tends to sickly wallow or masochistically revel in). For instance, 1st-Century Epicurean apologist Lucretius blasts any supposition of gods giving a flying fig about humans as pure folly. Why would such beings ever do anything on our behalf, he asks. On the other hand, many doubters are so puffed with pride and illusory self-reliance that necessary Redemption is insulting to them. Treating it as noble destiny, novelistic and fantastically unraveled, is missed. Kierkegaard, however, marveled at what he called the "absolute paradox". There's compelling richness in the concept's outrageousness. Perhaps this is what prompted Tertullian to write that Christ's death is believable due to its very absurdity and that the Resurrection's impossibility makes it plausible.
In the second book of Lewis' space trilogy, Perelandra, a philologist named Ransom is sent to planet Venus, also known as Perelandra, to counter the seductive wiles of devil's tool, Dr. Weston from corrupting the Queen and causing a Fall from Grace: A Voice tells Ransom that his name is not accidental. This sets Ransom to wondering: "To connect the name of Ransom with the act of ransoming would have been for him [Ransom] a mere pun...He had been forced out of the frame, caught up into the larger pattern. He knew now why the old philosophers had said that there is no such thing as chance or fortune beyond the Moon." His name was a predestined significance - even before his ancestor Ransoms and the term "ransom" for demanded payment existed.
For Narnia, the Christ figure (if one insists on allegorizing despite Lewis' preference for story qua story) is Aslan the Lion, the "son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea." He is both the founder and savior of Narnia. Proverbs 28:1 (NAS version) says that "the righteous are bold as a lion." (Satan, however, is also referred to with lion imagery.) In Lion, the mythic grantedness of Aslan's mystique is described thus: "At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his insides." As told in The Magician's Nephew, Narnia was established with creative music "out of the Lion's head." Aslan let out his breath and said, "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak..." Genesis 2:7 says that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."
As in Genesis, a tree is also central to the land's origin, as it is in the parallel creation myths mentioned earlier. Aslan tells the Narnians to "guard this Tree" so that it may shield them from the plotting Witch. Like the Eden story, the fruit is deceptively attractive, "the fruit is good, but [those who eat it] loathe it ever after." This might be the "World Ash Tree" that the White Witch later refers to in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which obviously refers to the Northern European myth of the ash Yggdrasill. The Witch mentions the spear on the Tree that signifies the prescribed law of the Deep Magic that demands blood payment for betrayal.
Curiously, Yggdrasill is set in the universe's center (a popular motif). The God Odin is willingly hung on the tree, pierced with a spear, dies and comes back to life. This ritual death/resurrection is common imagery in Shamanism. Odin says in the old Havarnal poem: "I know I hung on the windswept Tree...given to Odin, myself to myself." Though this may be more familiar through later translation, Odin's words echo the idea of a God knowingly sacrificing Himself to Himself, so to speak. But in Odin's case, and in many other such cases, the god undergoes suffering and death in order to gain esoteric knowledge, special runes specifically. Trees are Knowledge; Siddhartha found Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
Then there is the tree as symbol of Preexistent: as Christ was the Word before Man took breath or as the Narnia tree predated Narnia itself. I'm reminded of the old Holy Rood legend which is partially derived from the Jewish Books of Adam and Enoch. Eve and Seth, hoping to save a dying Adam, implore a Heavenly angel to give them lifegiving oil. The angel gives them 3 seeds: cedar, cypress, and pine. Adam expires, so Seth puts the seeds under his father's tongue. 3 roods or crosses (grown from the seeds) grow from Adam's burial and remain into the days of Moses. Moses uses the roods to sweeten bitter water. Much later, King David attempts the same, but a tree grows from the water. Wood from this tree is later used to construct Christ's crucifix.
J.J. Bachofen, in his "Sanctum and Sacrum," explores the earth-internal femininity and into-the-light, active "male principle." The soil is fertilized by the phallic source, then the phallus materializes as a tree:
"That is why the tree, as in the Bible, becomes the tree of life, and why according to Philostratus, the Lydians, starting from the same idea, believed the trees to be older than the earth which bears them."
The most poignant aspect of the tension between Aslan and the White Witch is the reordering of order and how absolutely angry the Witch is with being trumped. Beowulf's minstrel's song about creation incenses Grendel greatly. God's creativity and life-affirmation offends the Evil One, reminds of the ultimate victory over Death and corruption in the long run. The Old Creation, the Old Law is abandoned; the coveted property loses its value since a New Earth is due. Therefore, in Narnia's case, the Witch's always-winter/never-Christmas reign is terminal; she races against inevitable checkmate. She sees the thawing, fears the loss of her freedom to do as she pleases. "Aslan is on the move." Even her dwarf knave tells her, "Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan's doing!" Despair is necessary to dash hope, ideas of redemption, belief in Spring and Summer and the sun. But Evil's lease on despair-production is contingent. As Watchman Nee put it: "God's primary concern is no longer with [the old creation] but with the second and new creation...In the old, Satan has absolute dominion."
The White Witch's only recourse is based on an outdated claim. She confronts Aslan and demands Edmund's blood for his betrayal "Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?" she challenges. "[T]he magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill." She points to sulking Edmund. "That human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property." (Emphasis added.) This is the prescription on the spear in the World Ash Tree. Similarly, the Chorus in Euripides' The Bacchae sums up the Old, cyclically corrupt order: "Justice is balance...Death is the only corrective."
I can't help but think of the multiple avatars of Hinduism's Vishnu. Vishnu's fourth avatar is what Ninian Smart calls "a betwixt-and-between figure": part lion, part man. As Smart shows, Vishnu acts as defense counsel for a disciple named Prahlada, who is abused by his evil father. Since Prahlada's father is immune to punishment by animals and men, Vishnu's hybrid incarnation serves as a loophole. Aslan the lion (who is so like a human hero, of course) is able to negate the Witch's power; Jesus the Christ is a hybrid of sorts: the God-Man. (Rather than Edmund's mitigating counsel, however, Aslan is more appropriately a ransoming agent - the ransom payment literally.)
Obeying the authority of the Deep Magic, Aslan offers himself in lowly Edmund's stead. He, like Christ agrees (with great sadness), to be slain on the Stone Table as the boy's ransom. After the Witch's ghouls and scum beat and shave and bind the great beast (who is "good and terrible at the same time" and had paws that "could have been the death of them all"), the lie of despair is in full bloom: the once regal Lion is now pitiful and wretched. Scum exclaim, "Why, he's only a great cat after all!" and "Is that what we were afraid of?"
This belittlement is akin to the reduction of human existence to insignificance or absurdity. By robbing men and women of the importance of being in God's image, limitless disrespect for humans can be justified. This is evident in collectivist regimes, unscrupulous capitalist societies, in so-called Christian monarchies and parishes and states - wherever God's relevance is replaced with human ambition's priority. What is needed to manipulate masses and individuals? An idea of necessary control, of personal inadequacy, of doubt against potential salvation produced in various manners (whether through "religious" tricks or secular programs). In a sense, this coincides with the debunking of so-called "ignorance," superstition, magical and mystical and mythical essences.
In one of the richest savior-mythic films, The Matrix, Neo ("the One") is rescued from the Matrix's illusion and shown reality. After training and enlightenment (veering from the Christ scenario), he taps into the ability to not only fight the almighty Agents (guardians and disseminators of the Matrix lie against reality and slavery to...the machine) but to defy death itself. For the entire adventure, Agent Smith refuses to call the hero Neo; he insists on referring to him as "Mr. Anderson," since that is his Matrix-given name, his false name, his illusory name. In one of the final skirmishes with Smith, Neo asserts his true nature: "My name is Neo!" The reduction ruse fails. The old order of the Matrix is now threatened by a new type of man, a virus (in a sense) in the program. When Neo is shot several times at point-blank range, an agent checks his pulse and confirms death: "He's gone." This parallels both the passing of Jesus on the cross and the murder of Aslan by the Witch's blade on the Stone Table. But Neo's pulse returns (kickstarted by a loving kiss) and he stands to show the aghast Agents that he is impervious to death. Before they let loose a barrage of bullets at him, he simply says, "No," and stops the bullets in mid-air with an outstretched hand. When Agent Smith starts hand-to-hand combat with Neo this time, Neo's moves are so effortless as to seem nonchalant. The lie is asunder. And, in Christ fashion, Neo later gives the Matrix controllers fair warning: "I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you." (The film contains too many Christ-like references and symbols to cover here.)
The White Witch's reliance on the Deep Magic only goes so far. Her great illusion is not all-powerful. Claiming victory (mainly by showing Narnians that Aslan can be slain) right before dealing the Lion the fatal stab, she says, "...despair and die." (Emphasis added.) After the evil ilk clear out, Susan and Lucy (like the Marys' mourning at Jesus' tomb) witness Aslan's victory over Death, and he explains that the Witch's "knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time." There is a deeper magic that says if "a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards." In the Christian Bible's Corinthians 2:6-8 (NAS version), there is a passage about this deeper thing, "a wisdom...not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory." Like Neo, Aslan says "No" to the blood cycle, the despairing program. Hermann Cohen insightfully points to precursors of the idea of renewed relation, particularly in Aeschylus' Orestian story: "But the goddess liberates [Orestes] only after deposing the old law. Properly speaking, Athena liberates not so much Orestes as Athens and its law."
the Witch has turned countless Narnians into stone, seemingly achieving a
lifeless finality with her power, Aslan corrects this (reverses death)
with his redemptive breath. I'm reminded of God's words in Ezekiel
37: "'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to
In a sense, the Narnia books (like Lewis' superior space trilogy) seem to be the believer author's wishful thinking about how the real story of God's New Covenant with Man might have been. It is plain that with Aslan (inarguably a Christ figure) and in Perelandra, that Lewis imagined how Redemption might be manifested in other worlds. In Narnia, Christ became a Lion. He honestly met questions of alien life by suggesting that maybe need for Christ's sacrifice is peculiar to our world. Or, as he addressed in "Religion and Rocketry," if other beings fell from Grace, then "there might be different sorts and different degrees of fallenness."
Lewis also stresses Christ's uniqueness despite previous messianic similarity. In A Grief Observed he writes: "[The Incarnation] leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins." And G.K. Chesterton: "No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas."
Full Circle: Got Myth?
"I believe in a better world for you and me." - The Ramones, Brain Drain
Mere allegory would ground the story and reader too much, disallowing a wondrous tale to freely unfold. If the reader is constantly identifying or trying to identify who or what stands for who or what in a story, the immediate magic is diminished or lost altogether. The story becomes an exercise, a task - much the same way religious speculation can become a separate thing prone to boredom and dispute. Some of the power vanishes with analytical chopping or refusal to just accept the presence. Lewis harkens to the Orpheus/Eurydice myth. Leading Eurydice through the underworld, Orpheus must lead her by the hand without looking back at her. If he looks back, she vanishes. As the 11th Century's forefather of Tibetan Buddhism, Gampopa, noted, unstirred water is clear.
When I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my wife before seeing the film, I found myself on the verge of weeping when I came to the willing sacrifice of Aslan to the White Witch and her ghoulish minions. The scene crushes me every time I read it. As I fought to read coherently, I noticed that my wife also had tears in her eyes. If I may be so bold as to speak for her, I must say that in the moment of the beating and mockery and ritual murder of the great Lion we weren't necessarily saddened by a conscious connection to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. We were in Lewis' myth; we were mourning Aslan's suffering - and feeling its correspondence. We were subconsciously touched by what we believe to be fact. Afterward, she and I reflected on the Christ analog, of course. But during the drama reading we were convicted by Aslan's Passion. This is what Lewis must have meant: We weren't knowing what we were feeling (beyond the fairy tale), we were feeling the feeling! But the felt feeling was a pre-knowing - or a mid-knowing rather: a thrilling search for something already familiar but not ruined by the deflation of a search's end. Chesterton says "mythology is a search". Truth is both the inspiration and the destiny of the search.
A similar, mystical experience is shown in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Narnia book. Lucy reads from the Magician's Book and discovers a story with an elusive whole but with lingering details and lasting significance:
"It went on for three pages and before she had read the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too...'That is the loveliest story I've read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years."
But magic disallows turning the pages back. Lucy forgets the story except for small details, and from then on rates any other story as good if it "is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book." Eastern philosophy scholar Alan Watts recounts in a lecture (circa mid-1960s) how a friend responded to a borrowed book of Zen tales. The friend said, "Gee, I didn't understand a word of it but it cheered me up enormously." This automatic effect echoes Lewis' observation on the general unpretentiousness of medieval poetry: "We are at first hardly aware of a poet at all...the story seems to be telling itself."
"It's a strange experience to have a life-long dream slowly come true before your very eyes and to see it not only coming true but exceeding your own expectations." - Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis' stepson and co-producer of the Lion film
I usually expect to be disappointed by films based on books I adore. That way, the letdown is less harsh. (Come to think of it, this is my modus operandi for life in general. But that's for the shrink and me and to discuss.) Film adaptations of Stephen King books/scripts have tended to fail, except for Misery, Dreamcatcher, and Storm of the Century (It and The Stand were disgraces compared to the masterpiece novels). The From Hell film was shameful, diluted trash that had no business being associated with Alan Moore's graphic novel; the few Crime and Punishment attempts were proof that Dostoyevsky cannot be properly rendered to cinema (though Richard Brooks' The Brothers Karamazov in 1958 was a laudable attempt despite its crappy changed conclusion). I once had mild interest in The Lord of the Rings, and found slight appreciation of Peter Jackson's films - but I was mainly distracted by a desire to slam Sam Gamgee with a skateboard and see Gollum throttle Elijah Wood - er, Frodo - in his sleep. Let's not even get into poor tries to put Faulkner or Victor Hugo to film. Too painful for me.
I can't say that I expected the worst from the Narnia film. I figured that it would be acceptable if the writers and director remained loyal to Lewis's rather straightforward story and imagery (that left little room for loose interpretation). When the TV trailer premiered and I saw Aslan, my confidence rose. Like Lewis, I feared that the Lion wouldn't be done in a credible manner. The 1988 Marilyn Fox version did a decent job with existing special effects, but the last few years were indeed ripe for a carefully composed Aslan. The CG in the current film is both believable and awesome. After all, Aslan is the most important character, at least in regard to appearance and presence. The fur is superb - and relieving, since Aslan's fur is a major detail about the great Lion throughout the book. And his face can be, as Lewis writes, "both good and terrible at the same time." So, despite Lewis' refusal to consider any live-action productions of Lion because Aslan would end up as some silly puppet or worse, I think special effects technology has reached a point where a worthy CG Lion is possible. (He's up there with Ang Lee's Hulk and some of Revenge Of The Sith's Yoda work.)
For those worried about who enabled this film to come to fruition, Douglas Gresham, son of Lewis' dear wife Joy, is co-producer. And, as far as I know, many of the production/director team were intent on delivering a loyal, respectful version of the book. The director, Andrew Adamson, certainly has the imaginative credentials from doing the Shrek films. Donald McAlpine, the cinematographer, worked on films from Parenthood to Luhrmann's brilliant Romeo and Juliet to 2003's stunning Peter Pan. The music was good in that it was the kind that was effectively there but not very noticeable.
The actors and voices were, if not right on, not disappointing in the least. Georgie Henley played a cute and radiant Lucy, William Moseley grew on me as a decent Peter (whose quick maturation and arc are credible), Skandar Keynes is an unexpected but accurate Edmund. I was particularly impressed with Anna Popplewell as Susan (pictured below). She's not only awkwardly adorable (blue eyes and Scarlett Johansson lips), she sells the character's logical caution and reluctance. I hope to see Popplewell in future films. She has the potential to bloom into a beautiful leading lady. James McAvoy as Tumnus the Faun surprised me. From brief trailer clips, I feared that he'd be yet another, stereotypical, overdone, queered-up character a la Ruby in the crappy The Fifth Element or a grating buffoon like Jar-Jar Binks. McAvoy plays Tumnus quite closely to the Tumnus in the book: quirky and sensitive but not "over the top." As for voices, though Liam Neeson is becoming a replacement Sean Connery (almost invariably an authoritative, know-it-all older guy that chicks dig), his voice blessed Aslan's composite role. Michael Madsen and Sim Evan-Jones as Maugrim and Wolf, Rupert Everett as Fox, and Ray Winstone as the voice of Mr. Beaver are golden.
Next to Aslan, the White Witch is my second favorite achievement. The somewhat androgynous yet sexy Tilda Swinton is perfect for this role, hands down. Swinton played a stylish, feminine nymphomaniac in Female Perversions, a controlling, masculine hippie leader in The Beach, a persuasive executive For Lucid Dream in Cameron Crowe's masterpiece (and superior) remake Vanilla Sky, a gender-bent man in Orlando, and a gender-ambiguous Angel Gabriel in Constantine. Her natural paleness is a plus before the makeup even goes on for the bloodless White Witch, and her alternating seductiveness and ferocity hit center target.
The major modification to the book was the opening scene establishing why the Pevensie children are sent to the country. Viewers are thrown right into the midst of bomber planes over London then led down into the frightful experience of the family. The Pevensies flee to their bomb shelter and Edmund risks his life by running back to the house for a picture of his absent father. Peter drags him to the shelter, scolding him for his stubbornness. This sets up Peter's harsh authority over his brother as well as Edmund's headstrong tendencies and unhealed emotional wound. The following scenes emphasize Edmund's bitterness a bit heavy-handedly, but the pacing and acquaintance with the children are fine. Although the scenes of house exploration didn't live up to my imagination from the book (too few revealed rooms and passages), the important parts about the wardrobe succeed in giving the magic furniture its proper weirdness.
An array of pleasing elements follows. Tumnus' legs are done well. (The sheer strangeness of a human head, arms, and torso attached to goat legs takes a while to get used to, but they become believable - down to Tumnus tapping the snow off his hooves before entering his home.) The unfulfilled enchantment of Lucy scene is comprised of just the right amount of child-molester creepiness and reluctant obedience to the Witch feel to it. And as Lucy gazes into the fiery hearth, falling into Tumnus' spell and hallucinating various creatures, the roar of the Lion snaps her out of it (a clever device not used in the book). When Edmund first encounters the White Witch (believing her to be the Queen of Narnia and a nice lady), he is warmed by a rich drink; but when the grouchy Dwarf lackey tosses the empty goblet away, it vanishes. This underscores the unreality of the good taste and temporary comfort evil offers for allegiance. The goblet's tangibility is as brief and conditional as the Witch's feigned kindness. Edmund quickly sees her true colors when he fails to deliver what she wants, and he becomes an abused slave to her instead of the king she said he'd surely be. The horrifying scene of Aslan's surrender to the Witch at the Stone Table is wrenching. A focus on his sad eye as scum cut and rip out his hair is more crushing than a session of blows could be. And I found the choice to show the Witch wearing Aslan's shorn mane in her headdress for the final battle to be quite clever and poignant.
I found the timing of the film's release to be more than a convenient cashing-in for the film company. Lately the hyped buzz about "the war on Christmas" had been in the news and around water coolers. The stupid baby-out-with-bathwater cases of forbidding specific Christmas wishes were just as bad as the silly insistence that the soulless marketplace that supposedly ruins the holiday anyway should shout the word "Christmas" from every aisle. The problem that Narnia was always winter and never Christmas seemed appropriate for the current buzz - and it is a sobering depiction on how dull our culture would be without its annual prominence (despite what Scrooges and non-believers say). It's a spirit that counts much like a myth that directly touches. I'm reminded of G.K. Chesterton's words:
"The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why."
The most surprising plus in experiencing Lion in the theater was the audience, oddly enough. Usually the rest of the theater audience is a nuisance to me: noisy, inconsiderate, dull-witted, and hardly more than potential idiots to sit in front of me or gab or grunt or munch behind me. And though I adore children, they're not adorable in theater settings. But this room for Lion was packed full with kids ranging from 2 or 3 to 15. I resigned myself to the fact since my desire for them to see this film over some of the other trash that's out there being passed as "children's" entertainment was so strong. I ended up quite pleased. Children absorb and grasp more than we might think. I was thrilled to be among rapt girls and boys, to hear gasps and laughs, to feel the absolute belief in the immediate story by these unpretentious, honest humans. One little girl, hardly more than 3, watched Edmund slip away from the Beaver's house and said to her mommy, "He's going to the Witch's house." She followed the film all the way through - though the wolves caused her to hide her eyes more than a few times.
Ah, the wolves. The Witch's wolf goons will surely scare the Turkish Delight out of young children. Lewis figured that fear is something we - children included - must all deal with constantly, so the portrayal of the wolves should be no exception, I guess. They growl, pounce, stalk, and snap quite frightfully, so parents be warned: possible nightmares ahead.
I tend to dislike battle scenes in films, and the fight for Narnia didn't appeal to me any more than the boring scraps in Lord of the Rings and countless other films did. I suspect that Lion's was drawn-out due to the lingering popularity of Rings and the fact that humans (even young ones) seem to be suckers for stylized violence. (Hell, football still fills stadium seats and couch-potato homes.) The book treated the battle rather cursorily, while the film capitalizes on it too much. Andrew Adamson, the film's director, noted that "[Lewis] would talk about the food in great detail and then breeze over a huge battle." I found noticeable focus on "freedom-fighting" appeal to be rather cheap. Tumnus for instance, insists that he opposes the Witch "because I believe in a free Narnia." YAWN. The story is much bigger and deeper than a mass-movement/war epic. Though Lewis was certainly not averse to so-called "moral" war as a necessary evil, he didn't write much about the decisive battle in the book. I did like the added line spoken by Aslan after the slaying of the Witch: "It is finished." No explanation for that is needed.
Bottom line, however, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe meets my approval. Above all, it successfully brought Aslan to life - in his genuine character and majesty. Lewis, dare I assume, would be proud. By film's end, I rejoiced in the story's salvation: There is a Narnia, an Overworld, a sky, a sun, an Aslan! When the ghouls clear away from the Stone Table and Lucy and Susan mourn Aslan's death, the cinematic realization of this wonderful story is fully alive and touching. I remember thinking, THIS is what I've been waiting for. THIS is the moment that gripped me as a child. Next comes...the mice. And sure enough, the mice come. They gnaw at the bonds that tie down the Lion's pitiful carcass. The mixture of myth and fantasy stirs up Aesop's "The Lion and the Mouse": the lion sparing a mouse and the mouse eventually returning the favor by freeing the great beast from a net by chewing away the rope - and still later extracting a thorn from the lion's paw. Here I am, I marveled, feeling like a child again. Here I am: seeing all that I had imagined! Next comes...ASLAN!
And I turned with the theater of anxious children and the forlorn Pevensie sisters...and there he was!
At the end of Lion (both the book and film), the Pevensie siblings grow to distinguished, royal adulthood in Narnia's different time plane. During a hunt for a White Stag, the king brothers and queen sisters happen upon an overgrown lamppost. It is, we know, the very lamppost where child Lucy first met Tumnus the Faun so many Narnia-years ago. King Edmund dismounts and marvels at the strange, half-remembered thing: "[T]his lamp on the post worketh on me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were a dream, or in the dream of a dream."
In The Matrix Morpheus tells novice Neo, "You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me."
This sounds like the interred but powerful recognition that Lucy felt for the story in the Magician's Book in Dawn Treader, that Puddleglum evoked to save he and his friends from the Underland Witch's spell, that worked in my wife and me as we shared the Aslan sacrifice scene. This is the sign and call of the Deeper Magic, the "true myth," the warm presence of Eurydice in Orpheus' hand. This is, perhaps, the fantastical but actual message of the Creator who says, "Trust me. You're my children and I've written a grand fairy tale just for you. I hope that you'll realize this and enjoy the story."
review by David Herrle 1/2006
Recommended reading (and some sources for this review):
The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis
The Grand Miracle by C.S. Lewis
Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis
"Sanctum and Sacrum" by J.J. Bachofen
The Destiny of Man by Nikolai Berdyaev
Escape From Reason by Dr. Francis Schaeffer
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
The Nature of the Universe by Lucretius
Pensees by Pascal
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