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Now a Tamed Lion

Since I did a health update last time, I’ll add now that apparently the reason I’ve felt yucky the whole last month is pneumonia, but I’m on a new antibiotic that seems to be turning things around. Still, expect a certain amount of radio silence.

We did go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a week or two ago. Steven had read the books in middle school or so, but I got to them much earlier, which I think is why they stuck so deep in me. In kindergarten, I could recite full pages from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because I spent so much time poring over it and making sure my pictures of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy matched the descriptions. I’ve probably read it and my very favorite, The Voyage of The Dawn Treader 50+ times, if not far more than that. But I hadn’t read them recently, not since middle school or so for me, when I moved from believing that even if I Jesus made no sense to me I could understand the power of Aslan to deciding that it was all just stories and I was ready to read something new. After the movie, though, I decided to give them another shot. I was reading a book a night last week (in publication chronology) but I seem to have tapered off after The Silver Chair, since I know in my old opinion it was all downhill from there, especially into The Last Battle.

See, that’s where the gender problems get inescapable, or so it seemed to me. The Pevensie children are thrust into Narnia again because they’re dying on earth, but sister Susan is no longer with them. See, she’s now more interested in boys and stockings and lipstick than in the Narnian ideals of righteousness and stuff. (Here and throughout quotes are paraphrased, but correct to the best of my memory. Again, I plead sick and don’t want to have to flip through all those pages.) Apparently so much for “once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia” when it comes to getting one last chance! I think it especially bothered me because in the setup to Dawn Treader it’s explained that Susan gets to accompany their parents to America because she’s pretty and not as smart as the other children and thus will gain more from the experience. See, that always bothered me. Shouldn’t Aslan grade on a curve if this is what we already know Susan’s like? That’s all the explanation there is, though, and that always nagged at me even though I wouldn’t say I’ve ever cared about lipstick or stockings or boys.

Nothing before that seemed too bad, though it was there. Father Christmas tells the girls in the first book that wars are ugly when women fight. Then there’s Eustace’s teetotaler, vegetarian parents in Dawn Treader, with his mother particularly singled out for being disappointed when he comes back from Narnia, where he’s had life-changing experiences, because now he’s just like an ordinary boy. In the ridiculous liberal parody school, Experiment House, that Jill and Eustace attend in The Silver Chair, the head of schools who allows bullying to go on in order to study bullies turns out in the last pages to be (gasp!) a woman, although she’s eventually shuffled off to Parliament where she won’t have any more negative effects on anyone. Maybe it’s because these books have been part of my life since before I could read that this comes across as more a cranky old uncle-figure complaining about kids (and schools) these days. I didn’t agree, but I found it easier to ignore those bits and focus on the parts I found less off-putting.

What I did find more off-putting was the way the movie dealt with such issues. This is very much Lucy’s story and there’s a reason, in Lewis’s rigid gender system, that this is a book dedicated to a young girl. It’s not really about the epic battle sequences, although I may just be saying this because they do nothing for me. More important are the personal transformations the children all go through in their adventure, and unfortunately if you’re going to have exciting times hiding from the wolves, you don’t have time for all that. It just seemed unbalanced to me, in a story about children thrown into a situation where they have to become adults, to depict this almost purely by how nobly they toss their heads when sparring or doing archery practice. And that’s not even mentioning the things the movie added. Now Mr. and Mrs. Beaver suddenly play out the smart mom/doofus dad dynamic common in bad sitcoms, and I don’t think talking animals had to be funny in quite the modern way they were. I don’t think the Susan/Peter dynamic was expressed well enough in the movie, either; they weren’t trying to be mom and dad, just to be leaders to the other children as best they could and with varying ideas about what would be best. Father Christmas’s line about why he doesn’t want Lucy and Susan to fight unless they absolutely must gets cleaned up, but then Peter forces Edmund to wear a woman’s coat, because nothing’s more humiliating than being like a girl! Ah, how times have changed in these 60 years!

This is all leaving aside the question of whether there’s a crypto-Christian story playing, which is certainly what Christian groups are being told. I’m not so sure. Yeah, Aslan sacrifices himself and then shows up again, but I think there’s more to Jesus than that. What we don’t hear until the very end of the movie is the refrain that runs through the book, Aslan is not a tame lion. The actors did their best to portray the awesomeness (in both the grand and terrifying sense) of the Great Lion, but the movie didn’t really bother with that. Weirder still is that only Aslan has to make meaningful sacrifices, and all his scarier moments are removed so that he can look better gilded. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Lucy comes upon her dying brother Edmund as the battle is winding down and she gives him a drop of her healing fire flower potion. For a long, dreadful moment, nothing happens. Then Aslan tells her that she needs to move on to others, and she basically shushes him. He points out (loudly) that others may be dying because of her selfishness and at that she leaps up apologetically and heads out on her task. Edmund’s stern talking-to when he’s returned to Aslan’s camp is fiercer, too, as is the admonition that Peter needs to clean his sword. Maybe there are a lot of Christians who think that individuals don’t matter in the face of a god whose sacrifice has changed everything, but I’m pretty sure most of them go in for the “doing good works” side of things too. That’s the part, not the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, that seems compelling to me as a reader, though not as a viewer since it’s hardly anywhere to be seen.

I complained a little about the battle already and I’m sure in the post-Lord of the Rings era we’re going to get many such showdowns, but this one struck me as almost dull. Again, it’s partly because the girls are absent. In the book, it’s the battle that’s left in the background (a sign that Lewis/Aslan now trust Edmund and Peter to play their roles without oversight?) with the waking of the statues as the key plot point. I loved the scene with Giant Rumblebuffin (not in the least because it brings back Lucy’s handkerchief a third time) and the little Christmas diners and the moment when Lucy finds the stone Mr. Tumnus in a niche upstairs and the other lion who leaps around telling everyone about his brotherhood with Aslan, who speaks of “us lions.” This is drama! This is weeping giants and a reminder that a battle isn’t decided only by those on the front lines (again, I think, a nod toward the Christians). Instead what we got were vaguely realistic falling rocks and charging polar bears, which I’m sure thrilled and excited plenty of viewers but seemed to me to be missing something. As becomes clearer in later books, part of what makes Narnia special is the talking animals, the naiads and dryads and so on. Should the moment of Narnian glory really be represented as one long beastly roar? Sure, we need to see Edmund go for the Witch’s wand rather than her head, but I really don’t care about in what order the centaurs went forth, and the archers and so on.

Then there was the Witch herself, who seemed to me pure sex almost to the point of overkill. She seemed scary because she was so weird, not because she was cold and dangerous. Sure, she would have killed Edmund, but even the moment she slaughters Aslan didn’t seem as intense and final as I thought it should have been. There wasn’t really the primal darkness I wanted to see, just the sense that she had an army of clones without personalities behind her willing to heed her every command. Maybe that’s a place where no movie could touch imagination, but it seemed the onset of spring melted her too instead of leaving her flushed with fury and desperate power.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, and the 6 or so children sitting behind us (much quieter than their parents) seemed to enjoy it too. I told Steven just before the movie started, “Knit bloggers are trying to figure out how to make Lucy’s sweater, but I don’t think I’ll want to do that.” I was so, so wrong.


  1. Bryan Lee O'Malley says:

    I remember someone on a message board or something saying they liked the fight in the movie better, because in the book they didn’t even show it.

    When we saw the movie, the kids beside us were told repeatedly by their eldest girl member that Aslan would come back because he’s a cat, and cats have nine lives. Duh!

    I liked the movie fine while watching it, but in retrospect I don’t think it added anything to my life, and it may have even taken things from me in some way.

    — 10 January 2006 at 7:38 pm (Permalink)

  2. David says:

    It’s been some time since I read the books, so I felt like something was missing (at the expense of Lucy and Susan) during the whole LoTR-ish fracas, but I couldn’t remember what precisely that was. And really, I’d much rather have seen the waking than the brawling.

    — 10 January 2006 at 8:24 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    That nine lives theory is awesome! Now it all seems so obvious.

    I fully realize I wasn’t the target audience for this and that I’m mostly lacking when it comes to childlike wonder, but would even kids be impressed with Peter’s Xtreme ice floe surfing? Maybe they would, but I couldn’t help thinking while I watched that I’d have preferred to see some of what was there cut to allow more depth.

    — 10 January 2006 at 8:56 pm (Permalink)

  4. Tim O'Neil says:

    Keeping in mind I haven’t seen the fil mand probably won’t until it’s been on DVD for a while -

    The New Yorker published an absolutely brilliant essay on Lewis a few weeks ago in which they essentially take the author to task for brilliantly misunderstanding the whole point of Christianity in the Narnia books. What’s the point of the Christ figure being the most powerful and noble creature in the menagerie? Why not a lowly donkey or goat? Seems like the kind of animistic triumphalism that the actual Christ (if He existed) would have been quite shocked to see perpetrated in His name. Plus, they point out something obvious to the smallest child: the books get worse the closer they hew to allegory.

    Oddly (or maybe not), they also printed a profile of Phillip Pullman just a week or two later, in which the author of the explicitely un-Christian “His Dark Materials” books criticizes both Lewis and Tolkein, but stops short of outright dismissing Lewis based on the fact that he at least tried to deal with his characters on a rational level. Of course, that’s missing the whole point of Tolkein (something that many otherwise intelligent people have been known to do), but I was surprised, because my memories of the Narnia books are pretty negative on this point.

    In the lead-up to the movie I bought the Narnia omnibus because I caught it on sale at one of the big-box bookstores. I haven’t read them since fifth grade or so, and I was curious to see how they held up. Well, somehow every article or post on the books and movies I see makes me less interested in going back to the series. I don’t know why that is.

    — 11 January 2006 at 1:46 am (Permalink)

  5. Lin says:

    I am glad you gave the Narnia books another shot. They are so rich in imagery, language, and symbolism. I hope you continue to think about them and enjoy them!

    I have a book to recommend to you that is written in a similar style, rich in imagrey, language and symbolism, but just recently released. I think you will like it.

    The book is “The Fall of Lucifer”, written by Wendy Alec. This book is fictional, but very intriguing. It was packed full with biblical truths, and explained them in a unique but penetrating way.

    The book opens with the three Angelic brothers, Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel, in heaven before the fall. Over the course of the book, the essence of the angels is developed. The controversy arises when God created man to be higher than the angels, in that we are created in the image of God. Lucifer was embittered to the point of rebellion.

    Various historical events are incorporated, and the plot offers the perspective of an angel into the events. The novel develops the beauty of heaven and the grotesque quality of hell, the depths of evil, and the beauty of grace. It communicates these themes through beautiful imagery and an intriguing plot. The beautiful imagery would make for amazing scenery!

    This is a fast read, 300-page novel that is consuming to the imagination and penetrating to the heart. I hope they make this book into a movie. It would be amazing. If you have time, I hope you enjoy it!

    — 11 January 2006 at 4:07 am (Permalink)

  6. Dave Intermittent says:

    Christian lit spam? Okay.

    I had the Narnia books read to me when I was very little; maybe four. My mom was hoping to the Christian bits would sink in. Me, I liked them because, looking back in retrospect, the books respected the maturity of most kids’ imaginations; the detailed rendition of the physical and emotional terrain at the point of Aslan’s death, for example, doesn’t pull many punches. Or the other Aslan stuff Rose mentions. The danger, both moral and physical, in those books seemed real in a way it didn’t in most other children’s books. Or at least those books available to me. My super knee jerk, not having seen it thoughts on the film are that it looks far too bright to convey the kind of darkness I think is an essential part of the books.

    Tim’s point on whether Aslan is consistent with the Bible or not depends on what parts of the Bible one chooses to focus on; believe you me, there is pretty strong textual support for and a pretty long tradition of muscular Christianity. The terrible swift sword, and all that. There was a long thread at Unfogged on that issue.

    And speaking of other threads, Timothy Burke had a nice piece on the gender politics of Narnia.

    — 11 January 2006 at 11:16 am (Permalink)

  7. Steven says:

    The movie is bright: even the climactic battle scene is sunny and bloodless.

    A proud, wrathful and violent lion is too much a Christ figure for Evangelical Christians looking forward to the last battle at Armageddon when Christ is supposed to kill all the unbelievers in the world, I think. I don’t know what Lewis thought about John’s Apocalypse, but he did seem to enjoy a bit of the bloody-minded side of Christianity. Aslan is much nicer in the movie, as Rose points out, which I think makes his sacrificial submission to the White Witch less surprising and powerful: reading the books, I expected him to do some cool magic and banish the Witch, not to tamely follow the rules of the deep magic. But he does manage to bite the White Witch’s face off in the climactic battle of the movie—it’s not quite explicit, but there is a quick shot from Jadis’s point of view of Aslan’s jaws rushing in. Maybe that’s more honest than Lewis’s more tastefully indirect rendering of the event, although the rest of the movie’s violence seems dishonestly bright.

    — 11 January 2006 at 12:03 pm (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    — 11 January 2006 at 12:26 pm (Permalink)

  9. Dave Intermittent says:

    The first book, when it was read to me, I accepted merely as a really neat story. My mom didn’t read the remainder of the series to me; I picked up the rest when I was maybe eight or so, and I think I sort of sniffed out the vague outlines of the allegory then. I remember the Sons of Adam bit setting off little bells for me, and certainly the Last Battle set off a whole frigging symphony. Which says less about my deductive skills, I think, than my upbringing. At around the same time I picked up the Narnia books on my own I was going through a comic book style version of the Bible I’d gotten from my Grandma; Genesis to Revelations in pictures. So I may be an outlier in terms of the back ground knowledge I brought with me to Narnia, though I suspect most other kids who spent valuable grade school time trying to find ways to design game settings in which cool D&D pantheons became compatible with Christianity might also have seen some of the Christian bits in Narnia.

    I don’t think I ever quite made the connection that Aslan was Jesus; I think I saw him more as some sort of saint or something, a subsidiary figure to God. Fitting out his place in the puzzle didn’t happen until much later; maybe middle school, at which point I’d read Lewis’ explicitly Christian works.

    — 11 January 2006 at 6:33 pm (Permalink)

  10. Tom Bondurant says:

    I don’t think I ever quite made the connection that Aslan was Jesus; I think I saw him more as some sort of saint or something, a subsidiary figure to God.

    This is my thought too — if Aslan is Jesus, then whose birthday does Father Christmas’ holiday commemorate? (And he’s not “Father Christmas” on Earth and somebody else in Narnia, since the Witch has made it “always winter and never Christmas.”)

    It’s been about five years since I read the Narnia books, although I did just read the New Yorker article. The movie’s decent but it’s not really Christian prosletyzing. There are elements of Christian theology in it, of course, but if you want to see them, they’re in Superman and Star Wars too.

    To me the difference is in the transmission of the message. Aslan comes back to reawaken his people and reinvigorate the land. However, Christ came to recruit disciples and spread God’s word to those who hadn’t already heard it. That makes Aslan’s sacrifice look more like Gandalf’s, especially with Aslan leading the calvary charge right afterwards.

    — 13 January 2006 at 3:39 pm (Permalink)

  11. Rose says:

    — 29 January 2006 at 8:28 pm (Permalink)