The Lion, the Witch and the Obvious Meaning of the Text

Aslan’s roar will shake Narnia to its foundations today as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fills the big screen. My own roar is nowhere near as impressive, but I will nevertheless roar it at anyone who still claims he is just one more talking lion. I’ve long said some people should be prevented from owning tools, not legally but through social pressure, because their home-repair work is infallibly as ugly as it is structurally unsound. And I increasingly feel that many surprisingly literate people should be shunned if they do not either avoid books or, if they must read them, do it quietly and avoid offering grotesquely inappropriate opinions.

Consider recent bickering about whether C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories are Christian. I confess that as a child I missed the connection entirely. (Lewis once said their goal was “a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.” I guess it worked because I’ve always aspired, like Puddleglum, to live like a Narnian even if there is no Narnia.) But once the analogy was pointed out to me I never doubted it. And if the filmmakers have not made a faithful adaptation, in both senses, it will be through deliberate vandalism or wilful blindness. This is no generic fairy tale with a few clumsy Christian metaphors tacked on; the whole thing is built on sin, repentance, sacrifice and redemption.

Hollywood frequently mucks up adaptations on purpose. For instance, when the hero of the classic Victorian novel The Four Feathers quits his regiment right before it is sent to Sudan, his friends and fiancee, wrongly thinking he had advance warning, accuse him of cowardice. In the recent film version with Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger, he did have advance warning and was bravely anti-war. Evidently the makers of the Narnia film are not going to scribble a moustache on Aslan in that manner. So what is all the argument about, other than perhaps disingenuous marketing?

Apparently many people manage not to realize books mean stuff. In college I knew a very bright guy and avid reader who claimed he’d sped-read the strange fantasy novel Voyage to Arcturus. No doubt he had passed his eyes over the text. But when I asked his interpretation of the most blatant symbolism he merely shrugged, as though reading fiction were some giant form of solitaire, a silly pastime.

If books have nothing to do with life, why would living beings be interested? Even pulp fiction has a simple message, about virtue downing a few stiff drinks and then conquering vice (or not, but if you read that sort of thing you are to blame). Conflicting interpretations of more subtle works are likely given that life is complex. But not failure to realize anything is going on.

Even Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s generally superb The Rebel Sell deplores the countercultural desire to “find Middle Earth or visit the Great Old Ones in the ‘spaces between the stars’,” as if J.R.R. Tolkien were not a great Christian writer and H.P. Lovecraft a rabid atheist. Recently the editor of a prominent Christian magazine lumped together P.G. Wodehouse, Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. Put down the book and back away slowly.

It’s like the debate over whether Mel Gibson’s The Passion was anti-Semitic. The question was vital because true Christianity cannot blame the death of Christ on “The Jews,” but for long centuries Christian teaching failed to discourage anti-Semitism while Christian tradition often actively encouraged it. But after watching The Passion I found myself wondering, with all the time people spend plunked in front of a screen, can’t anyone watch a movie any more? Most commentators seemed to sense the presence of theology, but had no idea what to do next.

Right before I saw it, someone sent me a column criticizing Mr. Gibson because “none of the Gospels describe Caiaphas, the high priest ... taunting Him on the cross, but most of those watching the film don’t know it.”

Oh oh, I thought. It sounded like not just a historical clanger but a gratuitous, malevolent rubbing in of the Jewish association. I spent the whole film worrying about this scene. Then it came. Caiaphas showed up, mocked Jesus, saying if you’re the Messiah prove it by getting down off the cross, and as he walked away Mel Gibson had Christ repeat “Forgive them father.”

So the director deliberately distorted the Gospel account to shout from the rooftops that the Jews shouldn’t be blamed. I didn’t see any commentator make this point. Pro or con, good enough or not, I could see an argument. But how could neither critics nor supporters mention giving Christ an extra line expressly for this purpose? When you watch a film or read a book you’re meant to engage in considered judgment of the moral issues, not emote randomly. And when C.S. Lewis has the Stone Table crack it’s not because it was a bad reno job.

Narnia is Christian right down to the letters on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-the-Sea. Its message may be good or bad, and the film well or badly done. But if you consider the existence of the message debatable, well, a high squeaky Raaaaaahr to you.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson