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The Roar Over C.S. Lewis's Otherworldly Lion

In Disney's version of
In Disney's version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Skandar Keynes plays Edmund Pevensie and Tilda Swinton is the White Witch. (By Phil Bray -- Walt Disney Pictures Via Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- When Lucy and the rest of the Pevensie children went through the back of the professor's magic wardrobe, apparently they stepped into more than the crunch-crunch of freshly fallen snow.

They walked right into a grown-up spat about "The Chronicles of Narnia," the C.S. Lewis kiddie classic that is now a $150 million Disney movie, opening tomorrow nationwide.

A timeless fantasy about talking beavers, friendly fauns and a mystical lion named Aslan? Or insidious militaristic propaganda cunningly used to inoculate innocents with rigid Christian dogma penned by a pervy pipe-puffing Oxford prig who actually didn't very much like little children and might have slept with a woman old enough to be his mother? When he wasn't drinking. In pubs. With J.R.R. Tolkien.

"C.S. Lewis, Superstar." That's the December cover of Christianity Today (which compares the deceased scholar of medieval poetry, seriously, to Elvis). David Bruce, the founder of the faith and pop culture Web site Hollywood Jesus, writes, "God is speaking to this culture through its mythical movies." With a stream of teaching aids and Sunday sermons, some evangelicals are hoping that "Narnia" will do for tots and tweeners what "The Passion of the Christ" did for adults.

Or not. Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy of children's fantasies, describes "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" as "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice."

"Here in Narnia," writes Polly Toynbee in the Guardian newspaper, "is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America -- that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right."

So what is it? Are Mr. and Mrs. Beaver stand-ins for the Apostles? Or is the wardrobe, as the Freudians would have it, a womb-portal? What, exactly, was Lewis up to, in this fantasy of four English siblings helping a lion king save the world of Narnia from the curse of "always Winter, never Christmas" cast by the wicked White Witch?

This is where it gets a little tricky. Disney execs and their partners at Walden Media (founded by family-friendly Christian Republican billionaire Philip Anschutz) are marketing the movie to both secular and Christian audiences, with very different messages. They offered "sneak peeks" of the movie to hundreds of pastors around the country, but the 42-page production notes for the movie don't mention Lewis's Christian overtones. Indeed, in recent interviews Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, denies the book is a Christian tract, but rather a parable about the Holocaust (and the witch is actually a Nazi white supremacist, but that's another story).

We got on the telephone.

C.S. Lewis scholarship has long been viewed as kind of fuddy-duddy-retro in academe, populated mostly by enthusiasts toiling away at religious colleges who often come to the massive Lewis output with an appreciation for its Christian message. "There is the feeling that it would be relegated to a corner," says Christine Mather, a Lewis scholar and a lecturer in gender studies at Vanderbilt University, "that it would be a lesser area of study for a lesser scholar."

Not now. Narnia Studies, with a minor in Harry Potter, are hot. "My goodness," says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Lewis material in the world. "There is a ton of stuff coming out right now. It's a publishing frenzy. Everyone is trying to capitalize on the movie."

Over the years there have been dozens of Lewis biographies, and they trace the common narrative about the life of Lewis, which was actually odd and troubled. Where they differ is in what it all means. Lewis is often portrayed in split-screen images: the reactionary, red-faced Oxford don who dislikes children but is described by friends as humble and generous to a fault, who spends his evenings answering letters to his 10-year-old fans (and, by some accounts, every letter was answered -- can you imagine?).

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