Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion'
Children won't get the Christian subtext, but unbelievers should keep a sickbag handy during Disney's new epic, writes Polly Toynbee
Monday December 5, 2005
Aslan the lion shakes his mighty mane and roars out across Narnia and eternity. Christ is risen! However, not many British children these days will get the message. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe opens this week to take up the mantle left by The Lord of the Rings. CS Lewis's seven children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia, will be with us now and for many Christmases to come. Only Harry Potter has outsold these well-loved books' 85 million copies.
How suitable that one fantasy saga should follow on from the other, despite the immense difference between the writings and magic worlds of these two old Oxford dons. It was JRR Tolkien who converted CS Lewis to Christianity during one long all-night walk that ended in dawn and revelation. Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.
This new Disney film is a remarkably faithful rendition of the book - faithful in both senses. It is beautiful to look at and wonderfully acted. The four English children and their world are all authentically CS Lewis olde England. But from its opening scenes of the bombing of their Finchley home in the blitz and the tear-jerking evacuation from their mother in a (spotlessly clean) steam train, there is an emotional undertow to this film that tugs on the heart-strings from the first frames. By the end, it feels profoundly manipulative, as Disney usually does. But then, that is also deeply faithful to the book's own arm-twisting emotional call to believers.
Disney is deliberately promoting this film to the religious - it has appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the Christian message behind the movie in British churches. The Christian radio station Premier is urging churches to hold services on the theme of The Gospel According to Narnia. Even the Methodists have written a special Narnia-themed service. And a Kent parish is giving away £10,000 worth of film tickets to single-parent families. (Are the children of single mothers in special need of the word?)
US born-agains are using the movie. The Mission America Coalition is "inviting church leaders around the country to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film". The president's brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, is organising a scheme for every child in his state to read the book. Walden Media, co-producer of the movie, offers a "17-week Narnia Bible study for children". The owner of Walden Media is both a big Republican donor and a donor to the Florida governor's book promotion - a neat synergy of politics, religion and product placement. It has aroused protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which complains that "a governmental endorsement of the book's religious message is in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution".
Disney may come to regret this alliance with Christians, at least on this side of the Atlantic. For all the enthusiasm of the churches, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ bombed in Britain and warehouses are stuffed with unsold DVDs of that stomach-churner. There are too few practising Christians in the empty pews of this most secular nation to pack cinemas. So there has been a queasy ambivalence about how to sell the Narnia film here. Its director, Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame), says the movie's Christian themes are "open to the audience to interpret". One soundtrack album of the film has been released with religious music, the other with secular pop.
Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. Most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion. After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn't say what Easter celebrated. Among the young - apart from those in faith schools - that number must be considerably higher. Ask art galleries: they now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what "agony in the garden", "deposition", "transfiguration" or "ascension" mean. This may be regrettable cultural ignorance, but it means Aslan will stay just a lion to most movie-goers.
All the same, children may puzzle over the lion and ask embarrassing questions. For non-CS Lewis aficionados, here is a recap. The four children enter Narnia through a wardrobe and find themselves in a land frozen into "always winter, never Christmas" by the white witch, (played with elemental force by Tilda Swinton). Unhappy middle child Edmund, resentful of being bossed about by his older brother, broods with meanness and misery. The devil, in the shape of the witch, tempts him: for the price of several chunks of turkish delight, rather than 30 pieces of silver, Edmund betrays his siblings and their Narnian friends.
The sins of this "son of Adam" can only be redeemed by the supreme sacrifice of Aslan. This Christ-lion willingly lays down his life, submitting himself to be bound, thrashed and humiliated by the white witch, allowing his golden mane to be cut and himself to be slaughtered on the sacrificial stone table: it cracks in sympathetic agony and his body goes missing. The two girls lay down their heads and weep, Magdalene and Mary-like. Be warned, the film lingers long and lovingly over all this.
But so far, so good. The story makes sense. The lion exchanging his life for Edmund's is the sort of thing Arthurian legends are made of. Parfait knights and heroes in prisoner-of-war camps do it all the time. But what's this? After a long, dark night of the soul and women's weeping, the lion is suddenly alive again. Why? How?, my children used to ask. Well, it is hard to say why. It does not make any more sense in CS Lewis's tale than in the gospels. Ah, Aslan explains, it is the "deep magic", where pure sacrifice alone vanquishes death.
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.
Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored. But Tolkien disliked Lewis's bully-pulpit.
Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".
Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.
Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory." Well, here's my huff.
Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move", he writes: "Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..." So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.
Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.
Worth mentioning: I live in Oxford just a few miles from where Mr. Lewis first got the idea for H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine",...and even closer to where he first drafted letter 17 from "A Severe Mercy" (the one that deals with Islam). -JAZ