[14 July 2005]
Clearly hoping to cash in early on hype for director Andrew Adamson’s upcoming version of C. S. Lewis’ beloved young-adult lit series, Home Vision Entertainment has released a box set of the BBC’s 15-year-old treatment. The Chronicles of Narnia are comprised of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988), Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989), and The Silver Chair (1990). Each disc comes only with stills galleries, except the first, which also includes a short 15-minute segment on Lewis from BBC’s Bookworm, a smarty-pants, kids’ arts and literature show.
But the extras likely won’t hold the most interest for parents or kids. Parents will want the moral lessons and be glad that the violence of the books is downplayed here. Kids will want Aslan (Ailsa Berk), Mr. Tumnus the Faun (Jeffrey S. Perry), Jadis the White Witch (Barbara Kellermen), and magical animals and goings-on galore.
Kids will be pleased. The costuming is excellent, allowing actors to inhabit the roles of, for instance, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Kerry Shale and Lesley Nicol). The animation, however, is hardly so seamless (especially in light of the Pixar fare with which today’s children will be most familiar). Aslan’s army of hippogriffs and manticores, and Jadis’ forces of afreet and ghouls look painted directly onto film stock.
Still, parents of certain conservative, Christian sympathies will be more than pleased. Other parents, who might not want their children proselytized to in the name of Orthodox Christianity, may be less happy with the series. The Bookworm extra emphasizes this element, trotting out various Lewis scholars, aficionados, and young fans to wax on about the deep Christian morals expressed by The Chronicles of Narnia.
Like so many others, I read Lewis’ series when young, avidly I will admit, and even though I was raised in a relatively traditional Roman Catholic home and church, the religious metaphors slipped my attention. I remember thinking it odd, and a bit annoying, that everyone in the magical land of Narnia referred to the Pevensie children who travel there—Peter (Richard Dempsey), Susan (Sophie Cook), Edmund (Jonathan R. Scott), and Lucy (Sophie Wilcox)—as “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.”
Watching the series now, I see the symbolism quite clearly, especially in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which the innocent Pevensie children are caught in the struggle between the White Witch and Aslan, the Great Lion, for lordship over the land of Narnia. The Witch obviously represents Satan/all that is evil and repeats several Christian myths in her makeup; she’s Lilith, the lost wife of Adam, a seduction sent by the devil, or the “treachery” of Eve, here remade as the White Witch’s seduction of Edmund with the candy Turkish Delight.
The metaphoric connections between Aslan and Christ are as also plain as day. Within Christianity, both the lion and the lamb are symbols of Christ (the Lion of Zion, the Lamb of God), like flipsides of the same coin: the Lion as redeemer, King of the Beasts, and the Christ King, the sacrificial Lamb of God, etc. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe even re-imagines Christ’s crucifixion. This time Aslan sacrifices himself for the sins of Edmund, and is slain on a stone table rather than upon an upright cross (altar or cross, both are Christian symbology). Aslan comes back to life, stronger than ever, to lead the armies of Narnia to victory over Jadis. It’s like Orthodox Christian Resurrection and Judgment Day mythology mashed up into one story. Along the way, the children learn the virtues of fidelity and truthfulness.
These aren’t bad lessons, and many will likely dismiss my criticisms here as PC griping. Maybe so. But while I am willing to let the directly Christian details of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe off the hook, as its explicit ethical values are a bit more universal, I am less willing to be so gracious in the case of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Here’s how promotional materials describe the story: “Led by Aslan, the children help young Caspian to defeat the corrupt King Miraz, and restore Narnia to its full glory.” Sounds suspiciously like the Crusades to me, not the least for the vaguely Arabic sounding “corrupt King Miraz.” A corrupt (infidel) King has overrun the Holy Land of Narnia, and it is up to Aslan and his warrior-innocents to take it back.
Considering the state of Middle Eastern politics today, I would caution against Lewis’ overtly pro-Christian attitude as suitable for children (or adults for that matter). I can’t necessarily fault the BBC, director Fox, and scriptwriter Alan Seymour for not being attuned to today’s realities—though Mid-East politics were hardly less delicate 15 years ago than they are today. Here’s hoping however, that when Disney gets to filming Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (separate books in Lewis’ series), it shows a little less fidelity to source material and a little more sensitivity to contemporary global conditions.