December 5, 2005
THE LION KING
JOHN J. MILLER
When Lucy Pevensie says that she has walked through a wardrobe and discovered a new world called Narnia, her older brothers and sister don’t believe her. But little Lucy insists. By the fifth chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the classic book by C. S. Lewis, two of her siblings begin to worry that the poor girl has lost her head. So they approach Professor Kirke, who is looking after them during World War II. “There are only three possibilities,” he says. “Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
It turns out, of course, that Lucy really is telling the truth, and it isn’t long before all the Pevensie kids have traveled to Narnia. Untold numbers of readers have followed them there — more than 85 million copies of the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia series are in print — and millions more will join them starting on December 9, when a film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reaches theaters. The movie’s commercial potential is huge. If Narnia weren’t by now one of the great brand names in 20th-century children’s literature, its backers might have pitched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Hollywood as a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of the Christ. That’s because it is both a fantastic adventure story and a profound expression of Christian belief. Because of this, Lewis’s famous tale not only stands on the threshold of blockbuster success, but also holds the potential to become the next great battleground in the culture wars.
Narnia certainly has its enemies. One of them is the White Witch, the fiendish creature who brings perpetual winter to the land. Another foe, in our own realm, is best-selling children’s author Philip Pullman, who has described the Narnia series as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” (Pullman has explained his own motives for writing books for kids this way: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”) The Narnia movie may not deserve to generate controversy, but there can be no doubt that it will, especially from the quarters that objected to Mel Gibson’s interpreting the story of the crucifixion. Watch for Pullman to go on a new round of opportunistic Lewis-bashing, the New York Times to print hand-wringing articles about Narnian theocracy, and the ACLU to threaten litigation against public-school teachers who read the book to their students or encourage them to see the movie. When Florida governor Jeb Bush chose The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the centerpiece of a statewide reading program, a columnist for the Palm Beach Post pounced. Frank Cerabino complained about “this cabal of Christian commerce” and added, “We’re opening up the public schools to some backdoor catechism lessons.” As this manufactured controversy unfolds, there will be crude references to the author’s odd personal life, which included a lengthy relationship with the mother of a close friend — the source of endless gossip and speculation and controversy. Others will reproach Lewis for letting the word “darkies” appear in the Chronicles (he was a racist!), accuse him of preferring his male characters to his female ones (he was a sexist!), and theorize about why he spent most of his life as a bachelor and enjoyed the company of men (he was a closeted homosexual!). The attacks will begin from the moment movie reviewers — not an especially conservative group of people — file their first dispatches. The entire assault may prove relentless.
That’s because the Narnia stories are much more than meaningless entertainment for children. Some readers have said that the stories are Christian allegories — i.e., literary representations of Biblical events. Lewis denied this, but he did call them suppositions: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.” And so Aslan comes into Narnia as a talking lion, suffers and dies for the sins of a child, and rises again. Most grown-ups understand what’s going on here, even if many of the kids who listen to this as a bedtime story don’t have a clue.
Clive Staples Lewis, of course, was the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century. He was born near Belfast in 1898; he died at the age of 64, on the same day JFK was shot. None of his contemporaries could compete with his wit, intelligence, or influence, and arguably none has matched him since. He spent most of his adult life as a professor at Oxford and Cambridge, and by the 1930s he had established his reputation well enough that he was handed the prestigious assignment of writing the third volume in the Oxford History of English Literature. It covered the 16th century and took years to finish — frustrating Lewis so much that he wondered whether the pronunciation of its acronym, “Oh Hell,” was more than a coincidence. Yet many Lewis aficionados consider it his finest work. Today Lewis is revered as a popularizer of the Christian faith who also produced some literary criticism; in truth, Lewis viewed himself as an academic who wrote about religion on the side.
He certainly possessed a remarkable vocation for it, in part because as a young man he had succumbed to atheism. Just as some of the most penetrating critics of Communism have been ex-Communists, Lewis’s own period of irreligiousness equipped him with a disarming ability to explain and defend the principles of Christian life and thought. His conversion did not spring from a sudden epiphany, but was more like what his brother Warren called “a slow steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness of long standing.” It was, above all, a carefully considered decision. His friend J. R. R. Tolkien, a fellow Oxford professor and an orthodox Catholic, was instrumental in coaxing him along. (Lewis returned the favor: Tolkien once said that he never would have finished The Lord of the Rings without his friend’s unflagging encouragement.)
The writings of G. K. Chesterton also helped sway Lewis, especially Chesterton’s observation that when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he was revealing himself to be either a crazy or a phony — or, in fact, the flesh-and-blood Son of God. This insight would have a profound effect on The Chronicles of Narnia and their depiction of Lucy’s initial comings and goings through the wardrobe. Before that, however, it would help Lewis craft one of the most famous passages he ever wrote about his faith.
During World War II, Lewis delivered a series of radio broadcasts over the BBC. These were eventually collected in a book, Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular titles. In one of its short essays, Lewis noted that many skeptics are willing to call Jesus “a great moral teacher” but unwilling to accept his divinity. Lewis held a dim view of this position:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
It is a jarring passage — by no means an iron trap of logic (it is conceivable that a madman might utter wise words), but surely a line of reasoning that forces clear thinking. Protestant evangelist Josh McDowell has called this set of choices — Jesus as liar, lunatic, or Lord — the “trilemma.” In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Professor Kirke presents the Pevensie kids with their own trilemma as they consider Lucy’s talk of Narnia. Call it “liar, lunatic, or logic.” Before long, the children enter Narnia together and the older ones apologize to their sister for disbelieving her story.
As it becomes clear to them that Lucy is neither a liar nor a lunatic, Lewis’s grand purpose begins to emerge. After asking Lucy’s forgiveness, the Pevensies wonder where they should go. A robin flies into sight and offers itself as a guide. One of the kids questions whether they should follow it. Could it be leading them into a trap? “That’s a nasty idea,” says Peter, the oldest. “They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read.” As Jonathan Rogers points out in The World According to Narnia, “This is the first instance of a theme that recurs throughout the Chronicles: The children know what to do because they have read the right imaginative stories.”
Yet Lewis worried that the right imaginative stories were in short supply. (Another subtle theme of the Narnia books is the inadequacy of British schooling.) “There is too little of what we really like in stories,” Lewis once told Tolkien. “I am afraid we shall have to try to write some ourselves.” In offering Narnia, one of his main goals was to save children from his own fate of falling into the snare of disbelief. Lewis believed that a powerful sense of compulsion spoiled his religious upbringing. “Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?” he once asked (in what was for him an uncommonly stilted passage). “I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings.” Then he continued: “But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency.” If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then Narnia is the continuation of Sunday school by different devices.
And so each of the books in the series contains elements of Christian instruction: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe confronts the challenge of belief and introduces the concepts of sacrificial death and resurrected life; Prince Caspian describes a period of corruption and restoration; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader includes a baptism scene; The Silver Chair recounts a descent into hell; The Horse and His Boy takes on the problem of unbelievers; The Magician’s Nephew offers a creation story and reveals the origin of evil; and The Last Battle depicts the end of the world. Many children who encounter these stories miss the analogues completely. That was all right by Lewis. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination,” he once said. So when Professor Kirke explains why Lucy’s reports of Narnia might be true, Lewis isn’t hoping that kids will think of Chesterton. But he does hope to create the conditions for them to gain a sophisticated understanding of their faith, when they’re ready to grasp it.
The miracle of the forthcoming movie may be that its producers didn’t try to distort Narnia beyond recognition. There have been attempts to do this in the past. During the 1990s, for instance, Paramount owned the film rights to The Chronicles of Narnia and began to develop a script for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Moving the book’s setting from wartime Britain to modern Los Angeles (and replacing air raids with earthquakes) was the least of its flaws: The Pevensie children apparently entered Narnia not through a wardrobe but through a swimming pool, and the White Witch tempted Edmund not with Turkish delight but with cheeseburgers and hot dogs. Worst of all, Hollywood proposed that perhaps Aslan shouldn’t be killed. That would have represented a literary sacrilege, like rewriting The Passion of the Christ so that Jesus doesn’t die. “Some of these ideas really shocked me,” says Douglas Gresham, a stepson of Lewis and an executor of his estate. “Ultimately these scripts were never made into movies because nobody really wanted to make them.” One of the key factors must have been the concern that an unbowdlerized version would be seen as little more than Christian propaganda. Indeed, even HarperCollins, the publisher of Lewis’s work, has felt the urge to neuter Narnia. Four years ago, it announced plans to release a new series of books based on Lewis’s characters. “We’ll need to be able to give emphatic reassurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology,” said a memo that was leaked to the media. Lewis fans gnashed their teeth, and HarperCollins had the good sense to shelve this rotten idea.
By 2001, Paramount’s rights to Narnia had lapsed. Walden Media, a Boston-based company headed by Michael Flaherty (who briefly worked for National Review in the early 1990s), bought them from Gresham. One of Walden’s strategic aims is to take outstanding children’s books and turn them into films. In the last two years, it has produced Holes and Because of Winn-Dixie; next year will see the release of a live-action Charlotte’s Web. (For The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and its budget of more than $150 million, Disney ultimately became a co-financier.) Refreshingly, Walden has embraced Narnia’s Christian themes. The movie is true to the book in almost every way. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a short book, so it’s easy to get everything in,” says Flaherty. The film actually contains several helpful flourishes. It provides extra historical context for the German bombing of London and the evacuation of city children into the English countryside. (At one point, a news broadcast plays over a radio in the background, and the voice belongs to Gresham — a thoughtful tribute to his stepfather’s own wartime commentaries.) In the book, Father Christmas makes a joyful appearance in Narnia; in the movie, the scene closes with Lucy gently scolding her older sister Susan, “I told you he was real.” Lucy is blessed with an extraordinary gift of faith, a quality that allows her to accept the reality of Narnia when her older and supposedly wiser siblings won’t. Her new line, which she doesn’t speak in the book, actually enhances the story in an understated but compelling way.
Unlike the works of other literary giants, which are often more admired than read, C. S. Lewis’s writings have had an increased readership owing to the widespread acclaim. Yet Lewis is not great because he is popular; he is popular because he is great. His greatness has been ignored by some, especially in English departments. Others have scorned it. Such assessments won’t change this winter, as Narnia achieves its highest level of public exposure. Instead, opinions of Lewis are bound to intensify. But the larger effect will be positive. Lewis enthusiasts massively outnumber Narnia’s naysayers. Their ranks will swell, as moviegoers become book readers and book readers dust off an old favorite. And a new franchise may be born, as Hollywood becomes excited at the prospect of six moneymaking sequels. It seems hard to believe, but the importance of C. S. Lewis will increase rather than diminish. As Professor Kirke tells Lucy’s brother and sister, when they come to grips with the possibility of worlds beyond our own: “Nothing is more probable.”