Maybe I wasn’t alone among fans of C. S. Lewis when I feared that the modern concept of in-your-face girl power might make the trip through the wardrobe in the new Hollywood adaptation of the first novel in the Narnia series. Think The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Would Susan and Lucy join their brothers in combat, smiting the enemy hip and thigh? But luckily I had no need to fear. Somehow, Narnia proved invulnerable to politically correct notions of gender.
In the book, the possibility of the girls wading into the fray is raised and then dismissed. Father Christmas gives Peter a sword and shield and Susan a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a horn, but he makes it clear that the bow is no invitation to fight alongside her brother.. “You must use the bow only in great need, for I do not mean you to fight in the battle.” His gift for Lucy is a healing cordial and a dagger. He tells her, “If you or any of your friends are hurt, a few drops of this will restore you. And the dagger is to defend yourself at great need. For you also are not to be in the battle.”
Hesitantly, Lucy tells Father Christmas she may have what it takes. “I think–I don’t know–but I think I could be brave enough.” Father Christmas will have none of this: “That is not the point. . . . battles are ugly when women fight.” This line was too much for director Andrew Adamson. In fact, he thought it was–wait for it–sexist. Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, tried to retain such lines, but to no avail. According to World Magazine, Adamson told Gresham: “C.S. Lewis may have had these dated ideals, but at the same time there’s no way I could put that in the film.”
Sexist? Dated ideals? The West is in big trouble if the ideal that boys become men by sacrificing for women is dated and sexist to boot. But here’s the funny thing. Gresham, who played a big role in shaping the book’s adaptation, lost the battle, but he must have won the war. One of Lewis’s more heterodox friends, Owen Barfield, spoke of “saving the appearances.” When institutions and ideas change, he argued, only the surface stays the same. Here, however, the opposite happened: The appearance wasn’t saved, but the underlying reality of the story remained intact.
Lucy and Susan do not take sword in hand and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter and Edmund. With a well-aimed arrow, Susan kills the White Witch’s right-hand dwarf, who is preparing to finish off a wounded Edmund. This scene isn’t in the book, but it isn’t outside of Lewis’s vision. The bow and quiver weren’t an invitation to a front row seat in battle, but they weren’t to hang on the wall as pretties either. In fact, this scene is very much in line with the Susan of the later novel Prince Caspian, wherein she demonstrates her prowess with the bow when she rescues a dwarf from two encroaching soldiers.
Likewise, in the movie, the female warriors all appear to be among the archers on the cliff. I haven’t run into many female centaurs, but those with bows look more feminine than the ones with swords. This upholds the distinction that Father Christmas and the rest of the Narnia books make explicit: hand-to-hand to combat is the work of men, but women can lend a hand if they’re needed (and if they keep from the fray).
On screen and on the page, the boys become men by risking themselves for the sake of Narnia and for their sisters. They must be prepared to sacrifice themselves if necessary. Peter first draws blood and makes an initial move from boyhood to manhood when he has to save his sister Susan from a wolf. There’s more to this scene than a simple rescue, however. Good creatures of the forest move to save the daughter of Eve, but Aslan waves them back. “Let the Prince win his spurs. . .” The boy must show what he’s made of.
Susan makes it to the second branch of a tree, barely out of reach of the wolf’s snapping jaw. “Peter wondered why she did not get higher or at least take a better grip; then he realized that she was just going to faint and that if she fainted she would fall off.” Fainting? Oh my, that will never do. And, no, the fainting doesn’t make it to the film.
This is no macho nonsense in the book, mind you. “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do.” Peter knows what he must do: He slays the attacking beast with his blade. The boy is becoming a warrior, a man, but he has a ways to go. He fails to wipe his sword. Aslan knights the boy Sir Peter Fenris-Bane for his achievement, but reminds him, like a father to a son, a man to a boy, “Whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword.” With very few changes, this scene makes it to the screen.
Peter has passed a milestone on his way to manhood. His brother, Edmund, can be sullen and spiteful, and his treachery leads to Aslan’s sacrificial death. But Edmund is not beyond hope. Once rescued, he shows his courage and smarts in battle. The fight hasn’t been going well, after the White Witch has turned Peter’s forces who come near her into stone. But Edmund battles his way through the monsters to reach Narnia’s self-proclaimed Queen and, instead of trying to attack her directly, he smashes her wand and evens the odds.
In the melee, he is gravely wounded. It is here Lucy takes an important step to womanhood. She remembers for the first time her Christmas gift, the cordial of healing, and tends to her wounded brother.
Susan and Lucy are not bit characters; Lewis does not neglect their growth from girls to nurturing, caring women of strength. Throughout the movie, they prove that they do not lack courage. In the night before the battle between the good and evil creatures of Narnia, Aslan leaves in the dark to face what the Deep Magic demands. The girls worry something is wrong with Aslan, so they follow him. He is glad for their company and (in the novel) asks them, “I am sad and lonely. Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that.” The girls do as they are asked and they bring great comfort to the mighty lion.
The last of the journey he has to walk alone. Susan and Lucy, staying out of sight, witness in horror as Aslan submits himself to mocking, humiliation, and death at the hands of the White Witch and her vile allies. The lion’s dead body is left atop the hill. But the girls do not leave him alone. They are becoming women. Remaining with the murdered Aslan through the night, they try the best they can to lessen the indignities the noble lord suffered at the hands of his tormenters.
It is important that Lewis doesn’t end the story with Aslan’s resurrection and the vanquishing of the White Witch. The brothers and sisters do not slip back into the world of men after the battle. They stay in Narnia until their physical selves catch up to their emotional and spiritual selves: “And Peter became a tall and deep chested man and a great warrior, and he was called King Peter the Magnificent. And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the Kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Queen Susan the Gentle. Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgment. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden haired, and all Princes in those parts desired her to be their Queen, and her own people called her Queen Lucy the Valiant.”
This passage is beautifully and convincingly shown on the screen, as we see the now-older Susan, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy on horseback. With this depiction, thankfully, Narnia’s real message of empowerment for both boys and girls made it to the screen.
– R. Andrew Newman is a freelance writer in Nebraska.