A few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could achieve anything like the commercial liftoff of that other film embraced by Christians, The Passion of the Christ. Controversy sells, and The Passion had about it an alleged whiff of anti-Semitism. “Narnia,” based on the beloved children’s books, has no such thing, but it turns out that the movie’s whiff of Christianity alone has been enough to stoke a roiling prerelease debate.
C.S. Lewis, the late Christian apologist and Oxford don who is the author of the seven-book Narnia series, has been the subject of critical, even contemptuous, pieces in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. The press coverage of the movie has emphasized how a (tiny) proportion of its marketing budget has been directed at–gasp!–Christians. The British author Philip Pullman has said the Narnia books are based on “reactionary prejudice,” and the British paper the Guardian attacked the stories for representing “everything that is most hateful about religion.”
For anyone who has been enchanted by the stories (100 million copies sold), this reaction must be bizarre. Who is afraid of C. S. Lewis, and why?
His frank Christianity has a lot to do with it. To put it in terms of the current war over season’s greetings, the Narnia books aren’t “happy holidays” kinds of stories, but instead verily shout “Merry Christmas!” (Father Christmas is a character in them.) Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien, also a believer, thought Lewis laid on the Christian allegory too thick. But it is also Lewis’s sensibility that irks the elite guardians of a culture that so treasures skepticism and irony. In the Narnia stories, Lewis is making the case for the opposite, for a child’s openness to what might seem impossible to the narrow “adult” mind.
In the story, four children enter through a wardrobe into a parallel winter world, Narnia, where Aslan the lion, who is the Christ-figure, and the White Witch do battle. The most important influence on Lewis’s work was his concept of “joy,” the sense of longing for a world beyond and more marvelous than our own. He always found that literature and myth best captured this sense, and the key moment in his conversion was when Tolkien convinced him that Christianity was “true myth.”
Lewis and Tolkien wanted to reinvigorate the powers of the imagination so it would be primed to detect the hints of a higher and deeper reality–”further up, further in,” as Lewis put it. A theme of the Narnia books is that the children instinctively know the right thing to do because, as Lewis scholar Jonathan Rogers explains, “they have read the right imaginative stories.” Lewis and Tolkien undertook their project against the grain in a mid-20th century that was an age of desiccated rationality.
We have gotten more desiccated since. Now everything tends to be viewed through the postmodern trinity of race, gender and sex. British fantasist Philip Pullman has said the Narnia stories are racist since the villains are dark-skinned. What does he make, then, of the aptly named White Witch, who represents Satan? Then, there’s the charge of misogyny and a sexually repressive Puritanism.
The New York Times Magazine essayist regrets that Susan, one of the children, is denied salvation at the end of the series “merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick,” because in other words, “she has reached puberty [and] become sexualized.” That’s not it at all. The point is that, as one character says, Susan “always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” For Lewis this meant losing the capacity to be childlike, with its guileless receptivity to wonderment and joy.
The Christian signposts will be lost on many viewers of the movie, who will simply relish a good yarn and its accompanying wonderment and joy. Lewis critics should relax and experience some of it themselves.