I saw “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” this weekend, and I realized realized immediately why the cultural elite loathed this movie, called Narnia-creator C.S. Lewis a perv (’cause he lived with an older woman–horrors!), and openly hoped the film would sink like one of those boulders lobbed from the talons of its flying gryphons: And it wasn’t “Narnia’s” Christian message that got under the intelligentsia’s fingernails–it was its message that Western civilization is a fragile enterprise that must be militantly defended, sometimes even to the death.
That’s what Polly Toynbee’s now-famous anti-Narnia rant in the U.K. Guardian was really all about. Sure, she went off about how C.S. Lewis’s fantasy represents everything “disgusting” about religion. But what actually stopped her clock were the inescapable parallels between the climactic battle to save Narnia and the war against the worldwide radical-Islamic terrorism that our bien-pensants either don’t believe exists or is best ignored. You can’t help but notice that the ragtag, child-led critter-army arrayed against the White Witch is a hodgepdge of the beloved literary and mythological archetypes of the West: fauns and centaurs from Greek mythology, knights and ladies of chivalry and fairy tale, lovable land and water creatures straight out of “The Wind in the Willows.”
Yes, that hateful, bullying, patriarchal, colonial, capitalist West. So of course Toynbee’s real target was G.W. Bush and what she called his “muscular Christianity”–his willingness to defend a system that Toynbee and her ilk loathe. It must have galled her to see the two Pevensie boys attired in chain mail with swords–children playing war games!–and looking for all the world like those Crusaders whose attempt to save the West a millennium ago were the impetus behing 9/11, and who, along with the Jews, are responsible for all the violence in today’s Middle East.
Some Christian critics have complained that this Disney adaptation of Lewis’s book deliberately downplayed the Christian allegory. Aslan is supposed to be Jesus, evidently, so the critics were irked that the Christian parallels to his self-sacrifice on behalf of one of the children weren’t highlighted–or even that the idea of his giving his life for just one human being instead of everyone doesn’t really accord with Christian theology. I haven’t read any of Lewis’s Narnia books, so I’m in no position to comment, but as a moviegoer, I’m glad the Disney people didn’t lay on the allegory with a trowel. That would miss the point of fiction, which is to create a gripping and believable story that can stand on its own without the help of an underlying message. Laying down one’s life for a friend is one of the most powerful of archetypal stories–a story that was retold in the latest Harry Potter movie as well as “The Lord of the Rings.” The story of Jesus’ sacrifice is, of course, that same story in Christian terms–and those who are Christians will immediately think of it when they see Aslan bargain for Edmund Pevensie’s life with the White Witch without needing a one-for-one parallel to the death of Jesus. After all, Lewis himself was converted to Christian belief after his Christian friend Tolkien persuaded him that the Christian story was a great archetypal myth that happened to be true.
So I found the film version of “Narnia,” with its implicit and explicit defense of the things great and small that make Western civilization the only civilization I’d care to live in, from its mythology and literature to its sweet and comfy rituals–teatime and presents from Father Christmas–all set against the backdrop of the imminent demise of Western civilization at the hands of Nazi Germany, stirring and powerful. The film’s heroine, brave little Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) melted my heart to a pool of butter, and Tilda Swinton’s movie-stealing White Witch, ice to her very core, makes Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West seem a piker.
But our cultural elite doesn’t care for defenses of the West, and it doesn’t care for the notion that evil is real (unless the evil folks belong to the Bush administration or evangelical churches). It’s idea of a gripping fantasy is the cynical musical “Wicked,” where the wicked witch is actually a victim of discrimination on account of her green skin and the good witch is actually something that rhymes with “witch.” And that’s why Narnia, where the wicked witch is actually wicked, sticks in their craw.