Sunday, December 18, 2005

An Australian Take on the Narnia Film

This is an interesting article about a) C.S. Lewis and the use of Christian Allegory, and b) how that is being negatively received throughout the world.

Get my full take here.

Here are a few quotes from the piece that caught my eye.

Clearly, nobody involved in the film was especially concerned with C.S. Lewis' allusion to the central story of Christianity. And why should they be? Isn't it a good story - one of the greatest, most primal of stories, in fact, along with the Greco-Roman and Norse myths on which Lewis also drew? Of course, it is true that Lewis did see the books as preparatory texts in Christian spirituality, easing the way for the juvenile reader's encounter with the real thing in later years.

I'm not saying I deny that statement, but I think a quote from Lewis might elucidate what the writer is thinking here ...

All Lewis is suggesting is a spirited romp with centaurs, beavers and a rather unpredictable lion: make of it what you will. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is hardly likely to deprave and corrupt nature's young atheists; most children don't even get the metaphor and, if they do, it is probably because the God-botherers already have them in iron thrall.

Mind you, I saw it right away, but as I'll write in a bit, I probably got it wrong. When I was about 12 or 13 I reread the whole Narnia collection. I remember discussing it with Fr. McElroy, the priest who brought me into Catholicism. He had an interesting nugget that I discounted at the time; Narnia is not a Christian allegory. For someone as orthodox as Fr. McElroy, the idea seemed pretty strange to me at the time ...

Now that Lewis has been signed into service by the American evangelists, however, all this is cast in the light of that disquietingly foreign religion, with its cheesy excess of good cheer, glib materialism and suspect political connections.

Any "Christian subtext" thus becomes "dodgy", as Zoe Williams has noted. The implication of that "dodgy", she wrote, is that Christianity is "inherently unsound, as if it had, without our noticing, ascended to the ranks of anachronistic wrong-headedness, like Nazism or hissing at single mothers".

Sadly true. More on this below.

It seems unfair to everyone, including - but perhaps not especially - C.S. Lewis himself. Forget those awful evangelists for a moment. Really, there is no good reason why a fantasy story should not be based on Christian narratives and iconography. Our entire culture, after all - most notably the laws of the land - derives from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world. There is no good reason why he should not recount the Resurrection, albeit using furry animals instead of humans as dramatis personae.

Good point. And it is probably forgotten that Tolkien used many of the same images but with more subtlety. Remember that Gandalf gave his life that his friends might live, and his reward for the deed, was to be brought back alive. And so on ...

So bring on the lion, bring on the minotaurs, bring on the dancing horses. Apart from anything else, the pious don certainly knew how to spin a yarn.

In any case, I found the article interesting, particularly the line about Christianity having become as much of a pariah as Nazism thanks to the actions of others. I think if it is true, those who mixed politics and religion in this country are largely to blame. And yet their insistence on it is understandable. Note that understanding a stance doesn't mean condoning it. But for years now many Christian sects have felt under siege, sometimes legitimately viewed as such and other times not. In any case, they certainly felt that as the world changed around them, they -- the bulk of the nation, seemingly -- were being left behind. Moreover, just sitting in big, cavernous buildings imploring the Supreme Being to assist didn't seem to do very much. "God helps those who help themselves" goes the line. And so they decided to take charge, take command. They embarked upon a political agenda, principally to defeat those who would make abortions flow as freely as Bacchanalian wine. Sadly, this has largely lead to a backlash that is as damaging to the cause as the involvement in politics is/was helpful.

In any case, let's turn to the notion of allegory. Are the Narnia stories, and Wardrobe in particular Christian allegories? When I was younger I certainly saw it. As the article points out, we're talking about a lion who willingly gives up his life to redeem a sinner (Edmund). If it is allegorical, it can hardly be surprising. Lewis' main focus of study when he and Tolkien met was Spenser, The Faerie Queene specifically. It has been argued by many (though not by all; cf Dr. Weiner's view, or at least the view he was advocating when I matriculated (What a lovely pompous word, mmm?) at Wisconsin) that the FQ is an allegory. Let's assume Lewis bought into that idea ... What of it? Well, it's possible it informed his writing of Narnia? Made it into an allegory as well? The only problem with this, is that Lewis denied Narnia was allegory and his own writings on FQ suggest a complicated view of that work, too.

I have come to the view late in life that Narnia is not an allegory, and Wardrobe most particularly not so. I think that much like the parallel with Gandalf, Lewis was trying to suggest a theme that ought, in his view, to run more often throughout literature. Perhaps, based on the fact he had no children of his own, it is understandably heavy-handed. Tolkien complained that when adults write for children, they often talk down to children as if they're pets or aliens, as opposed to remembering they're simply younger humans. After Lewis married and had children to take care of, his writing for children changes. Lewis didn't have the same gift that Tolkien did, that is, having children to whom one could read as the story develops ... at least not for Wardrobe, but his unsubtle approach shouldn't be misconstrued as allegory, in my opinion.

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