A Dec. 8 Style article incorrectly said that Bowling Green State University is in Kentucky. The school is in Ohio. (Published 12/9/2005)
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?).
The basics: Clive Staples Lewis, known as Jack, was born into a Protestant household in Belfast in 1898; his mother died of cancer when he was 9; his father shipped him away to an English boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster who was later declared insane; Jack began a lifelong appreciation of Norse mythology and Wagnerian opera. At 19, Lewis interrupted his studies to fight in the front-line trenches in World War I, where he was wounded, twice. He returned to Oxford and spent the rest of life teaching, reading and writing. He died the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The juicy bits: After the war, Lewis lived for three decades with the mother of a friend killed in the conflict. No one appears absolutely certain what was going on. Janice King Moore was, according to Lewis's brother Warnie (himself an alcoholic), a shrew who forced Jack into a role of domestic slavery. But was Mrs. Moore (25 years his senior) simply an obligation, a surrogate mum or a lover? The consensus among scholars tips toward a physical bond (at least at the beginning).
Anyway, a year after Moore died, a Jewish former communist and atheist, the American Joy Davidman Gresham, came into his life, first as a fan, then as a friend and finally as his wife. She converted. She, too, died of cancer. Their romance is the subject of the 1993 film "Shadowlands," starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. (And the subject of "A Grief Observed," by Lewis, which begins with the line, "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.")
A key to CSL is his three separate but interlocking careers, says Bruce Edwards, author of several Lewis books and English professor at Bowling Green State University in Kentucky: As academic, as Christian apologist (meaning one who speaks in defense of) and finally, best known, as the author of the seven books in the Narnia series, published between 1950 and 1956.
In his youth, Lewis rejected his religion and declared himself an atheist. But, in part at the urging of his friend and fellow Oxfordian Tolkien (a Catholic and, of course, creator of "The Lord of the Rings"), Lewis became a devout Christian in 1931, was a member of the Anglican Church and believed in a literal Heaven and Hell.
Edwards recounts how Tolkien and Lewis both spoke of how moving and transcendent the pagan myths were to them (myths Lewis later referred to as "the good dreams" that God gave man). Tolkien then pressed Lewis: If he so admired the fables of the Norsemen, the Romans and Greeks, the fairy stories of English and Irish countryside, why was he so opposed to the greatest myth of all, "a myth come true," the story of Christ in the Gospels?
After his conversion, Lewis seized his faith with zeal, writing works still popular today, including "The Great Divorce" (a description of Heaven and Hell) and "The Screwtape Letters" (an old devil instructs a younger one how to snag souls). "He was a true evangelist, full of fervor, but he wasn't a saint," says Nancy Enright, director of freshman English at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "He wrote to convey a message."
In 1948, Lewis started work on his first Narnian chronicle, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Citing his letters and other writings, Mitchell says that Lewis did not begin with the intent of composing a Christian fable, but instead with images: a faun carrying parcels in the woods, a street lamp in the snow, an old dusty wardrobe. Later, he added the lion. "But Christ wasn't there in the beginning," Mitchell says.
Many children (and adults) quite happily enjoy the book and never see the allegorical elements. The lion as Christ. The White Witch Jadis as Satan. Edmund, tempted by the Witch and her Turkish Delight, as a Judas. The lion king Aslan dies for Edmund's sins. He is crucified on a stone tablet. Disappears. Then is resurrected and lives again. Etc. Etc. There's tons of the stuff. "Once you start looking for it, it's everywhere," says Peter Schakel, professor of English at Hope College in Michigan.
Lewis was upfront about his meanings. "There's no debate over his intent. The lion is Christ. The scholarly debate is not whether Lewis used the Gospels in Narnia," says Edwards. "What is debated is how to experience the books or the movie," meaning how much instruction a new or young reader should get.
For his part, Lewis did not see the Narnia books as straight allegory, but as "a supposal," says Mitchell. Meaning suppose there was another parallel world called Narnia and in that world of talking animals, unicorns, Father Christmas, dwarfs, Bacchus, ogres and fauns, that God's son might be a lion and what would that story be like? (By the way, Tolkien, who was meticulous in his construction of Middle-earth, was no fan of Narnia. He criticized his friend for a mush of borrowings from myth, fable, fairy tales and Beatrix Potter; he also thought that the Christian references were too obvious.)
Lewis did refer to his Narnia books for children as "baptizing their imaginations." When children wrote to him, he would gently ask what figure Aslan reminds them of. "I don't know what Lewis would make of all this. He would probably be amused and appalled," Schakel says. "The unfortunate thing in all this hoopla is that people won't be able to enjoy the story."
A number of professors mention this very thing -- that they worry the evangelicals and their opponents, the Narnians and anti-Narnians, might go too far in pointing out the parallels. "If I would have had my choice, I would have let the movie come out and let people enjoy it and see what they saw," Mitchell says. "But I guess that is pretty naive at this point."