The Curmudgeon


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Lions, Lizards and Gospel

C S Lewis was a brilliant writer; no author capable of starting a book (The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader", I think) with the words, "There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it" should be entirely dismissed by the discerning reader. But he was also a bigoted, inflexible and, as Philip Pullman has pointed out, unforgiving Christian; and this stance permeates the Narnia books. As a child I was intent on the details and the stories, and noticed the propaganda barely if at all; though I do remember looking slightly askance at the characterisation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who is fond of mechanical things and also "beetles, if they were dead and pinned to a card"; and whose parents are "nonsmokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes". I myself was fond of aeroplanes at the time, and saw no particular virtue in smoking and drinking; and I was vaguely conscious that Lewis was holding these little prejudices against me.

At the beginning of The Silver Chair something else gave me pause. The heroine, Jill Pole, is being bullied at school; yet worse, she attends what is called a "mixed" (i.e. a comprehensive) school, something the narration denounces as perhaps "not nearly so mixed as the minds of those who believed in them". Bullies are not punished at "mixed" schools; they are considered "interesting psychological cases" and, so long as they know "the right things to say to the Head", they end up rather admired than otherwise. It is a sad spectacle when a writer of Lewis' obvious abilities turns out satire that is too clumsy for a ten-year-old; but it was, after all, only a story.

The most controversial aspect of the Narnia books, and the films to be derived from them, should be the treatment of the Calormenes. The natives of Calormen are dark-skinned and worship a god called Tash, who in the last book turns out to be an evil demon. Since Tash is a three-headed lizard, or something of the kind, Pullman's contention that Lewis is portraying "a religion that looks a lot like Islam" may not entirely convince; what is certain is that the Calormenes look and behave a lot like Middle Easterners. In The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader", after the young Narnian king Caspian has ended the slave trade in the Lone Islands (and substituted an aristocratic ruler for the bureaucratic governor), the Calormene merchants praise him highly and "paid him long compliments; but of course all they really wanted was their money back." Clearly Lewis wants nothing to do with alien, verbose ideas of politeness. In another book, we find that when Calormenes mention their king, the Tisroc, it is the done thing to add "may he live for ever"; naturally, a straight-talking Narnian exile, who owes unquestioning obedience to a slain and resurrected talking lion, queries this ludicrous custom.

In the final book, The Last Battle, Narnia is bloodily invaded by the Calormenes, and the heroes must disguise themselves; only washing with a particular formula, says the king, "will make us white Narnians again" (my emphasis). A young Calormene soldier is eventually admitted to eternal life along with the heroes, presumably by the usual Christian expedient of renouncing his entire culture and previous life; but it is quite clear which of the two races is superior in virtue, independence, thought, courage, faith, etc., etc.

Pullman objects to the books' lack "of love, of Christian charity"; but I think this misses the point. Like his contemporary and fellow Christian Tolkien, Lewis divides his fantasy world into Good and Evil. The Good, as Ambrose Bierce said in a different context, are the heroes and their friends, and can do no wrong. The Evil are their enemies, and can do little else. Love and Christian charity are for the Good to share among themselves; on the Evil, or the sceptical, they are simply wasted. Near the end of The Last Battle a miraculous banquet is set before the heroes; but a band of dwarfs, who lack theological insight, are unable to see more than a few old turnips.

A major theme of The Last Battle is an attack on any idea that there might be common ground between religions. A crafty ape drapes a lion-skin over his honest but simple-minded donkey friend and goes about proclaiming that Aslan, the lion-saviour, has come again; it is this swindler who later proclaims that Aslan and Tash are one and the same. Of course, the assertion is ridiculous. A lion may lie down with a lamb, but surely never with a lizard.

Now Disney executives, smitten with the wonder of spiritual things, are "eagerly anticipating repeating the success last year of Mel Gibson's Jesus biopic (sic) The Passion of The Christ" and hoping to heal a rift with Evangelical America which has emerged over such matters as gay-themed days at Disneyland. "Christian marketing groups", an intriguing alliance between the Temple and the money-changers, have been charged with selling the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Eminent theologians at the National Association of Evangelicals and the Billy Graham Centre have praised The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an effective tool for God or his earthly minions to communicate the Gospel message. If the Observer has quoted him correctly, Pullman believes that children will be "corrupted"; but I doubt it. The Lord of the Rings, which is fundamentally just as simple-minded and reactionary as anything Lewis wrote, does not seem to have caused a massive upsurge in piety. Much of Lewis' satire is too crude or too irrelevant to be more than a slightly distasteful distraction from the plot; if Disney's screenwriters know what is good for them, they will leave it out. If they don't leave it out, their box office will probably suffer. Whether they can handle The Last Battle without either emasculating it or alienating half the audience will be an intriguing question to ponder for the next six years or so; but I suspect that, whatever the shape or form in which the Lewis gospel comes to the screen, where the soil is not fore-poisoned the seed will quietly choke.


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