Politics & Policy

The Lion King

C. S. Lewis's famous wardrobe.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 5, 2005, issue of National Review.

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…

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John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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