Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Narnia: Allegory and Allergy

Chris Heard cites a report which gives the impression that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's religious aspects are being downplayed in the media. I've been getting the opposite impression, especially from yesterday's Guardian article, which reports as follows:

"Disney is deliberately promoting this film to the religious - it has appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the Christian message behind the movie in British churches. The Christian radio station Premier is urging churches to hold services on the theme of The Gospel According to Narnia. Even the Methodists have written a special Narnia-themed service. And a Kent parish is giving away £10,000 worth of film tickets to single-parent families.

"US born-agains are using the movie. The Mission America Coalition is 'inviting church leaders around the country to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film'. The president's brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, is organising a scheme for every child in his state to read the book. Walden Media, co-producer of the movie, offers a '17-week Narnia Bible study for children'. The owner of Walden Media is both a big Republican donor and a donor to the Florida governor's book promotion - a neat synergy of politics, religion and product placement. It has aroused protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which complains that 'a governmental endorsement of the book's religious message is in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution'."

This is all rather sad, but hardly surprising. But the part of the article that caught my eye in particular was the following contrast between Tolkien and (Philip) Pullman:

"Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored. But Tolkien disliked Lewis's bully-pulpit.

"Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia 'one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read'."

But Tolkien and Pullman had/have different reasons for hating Narnia. Pullman is rather hostile to Christian doctrine. Tolkien was orthodox to the core -- so Catholic he believed Lewis to be too liberal, if anything -- and certainly professed the beliefs and doctrines allegorized in Narnia. What Tolkien despised about his friend's work was the allegory itself, for its unoriginality and the way it rendered myth so one-dimensional. In a word that Tolkien would have despised as much as Narnia, it was "cheesy".

Like PZ Myers, I was left cold by the Narnian Chronicles as a kid (some of Myers' antipathy towards Christianity leaves me equally cold), for reasons which I later understood to square with Tolkien's. One person's allegory is another's allergy. There's nothing wrong with the Christian ideas as such. I often surprise people for liking The Passion of the Christ. Gibson's film was powerful, even to me as a non-Christian. You don't have to be a believer to be moved by the power of myth, especially in a story well told. But in my view, the Narnian chronicles preach more than engage mythological drama in any meaningful way.


Blogger Ron Cox said...

Is the following statement at all fair , by the standards of Lewis' and Tolkien's day?
"...the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children."
I have no problem is pointing out the disconnect between their worldviews and ours some 55 or more years later. But it strikes me that imposing our justifiable but still recent sensitivities and sometimes not so justifiable contemporary proclivities on literature from a different era (whether the NT era or the last century) seems wrong headed and intellectually oportunistic.
What is more, if we expect the literature of the past to conform to our standards now (and if it doesn't, then apparently we should do away with it) - aren't we depriving ourselves and our children the ability to work critically through such issues and to better assess both the past and the present?
I guess my reaction to such hyperbole is the same as when a conservative Christian dismisses Harry Potter tout court without having read it or considered the issues of magic as fantasy. It is closed-mindedness of another stripe.

Blogger Ron Cox said...

I forgot to say at the outset, I do recognize you this is not your statement but a quote. I think your blog is great and enjoy your insights a gread deal. Thanks.

Blogger Christopher Heard said...

Toynbee's article made me so angry that I just had to post about it at length. It's one thing to dislike the books on aesthetic or even religious grounds; it's another thing to ream out Christianity with poorly-considered arguments and snide remarks masquerading as a movie review.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


I agree with you about judging literature by petty contemporary standards. Look at what people say these days about Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest classics of all time. You might enjoy reading a book by Glenn Arbery called Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation. Arbery touches on some of these issues.

Blogger Andrew Criddle said...

'Witches Druids and King Arthur' by Ronald Hutton contains an interesting essay 'The Inklings and The Gods' claiming that the pagan elements in Tolkien and Lewis are often underemphasised compared to the Christian elements.

He discusses the excellent but less well known novel by Lewis 'Till We Have Faces'


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