Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Behind Narnia, part two

nothing like ye olde swashing and buckling

Shortly after the chat with the professor, the kids are outside playing cricket. They break a fancy window, and eventually all cram into the magical wardrobe to escape the consequences.

So, all four children enter wintry Narnia, and Lucy leads them to the home of Tumnus, but it has been broken into and trashed. Conveniently, a message has been left by the captain of the secret police, Maugrim, to say that Tumnus has been captured and charged with high treason against Jadis Queen of Narnia, for comforting enemies and fraternizing with humans. Lucy realizes he has gotten into trouble because of her, and Edmund, always on the outer, is clearly aware that he provided the info that led to Tumnus's arrest, which is why he's reluctant to do anything to help him.

Leaving the faun's house [by means of bird-signs], the four kids encounter a chatty beaver, who knows Lucy by name and seems to have been waiting for them. He invites them back to his house [and his wife], beyond the hearing of the trees. Inside they're told that Aslan is on the move. Of course this means nothing to them, so the beavers tell them about the prophecy – more Christian-style eschatological stuff. The story goes that Aslan will return when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve come to Narnia. Then there will be a great war between the forces of good under Aslan and the forces of evil under Jadis, which of course the good will win, and peace will be restored. The kids - particularly the older pair - already in refuge from a war, are none too keen to instigate another one, and make to leave, but find that Edmund has already scarpered. The beaver, clearly suspicious of Edmund, asks whether he has ever been to Narnia before. Maybe there's another part of the prophecy that hasn't been shared.

So what about this business of the prophecy and its relation to the Christian message? One article I read [I won't link to it, it isn't worth it], though extremely irritating in its blind acceptance of so-called biblical truth, points out intriguingly that Lewis has given more play to 'pagan' mythology than to Christianity in Narnia. For this reason, there are problems with a simplistic identification of Aslan with Jesus, but even so, the Christianity-infected western mind will inevitably leap to this identification. In any case, the unit-for-unit linking of Narnia prophecy with biblical prophecy is less important than the fact that they inhabit the same metaphysical-speculative realm, the realm of religion, in which there are divisions into good and evil, darkness and light, eternal summer and eternal winter, as well as various supernatural powers and occurrences.

Edmund has run off to the queen's ice palace, drawn no doubt by supernatural power. There he finds various creatures turned to stone, and is led by the nasty wolf Maugrim of secret police notoriety, to the throne of Jadis. She's angry that Ed hasn't led his siblings thither, so has him chained up with Tumnus. She questions him about his family – already the secret police dogs have torn down the beavers' home – but of course he doesn't know where they are. Suspecting Tumnus of interference in Ed's story, she has him turned to stone, and then sets out, with Ed, to find the three other kids, who're on their way to Aslan's kingdom near the stone table.

The kids and their beaver guides find themselves being chased by a sleigh, which they fear belongs to Jadis, but it turns out to be Santa's. It's a strange moment – Santa is jolly enough, but there's no red outfit, he looks much more like a medieval nobleman, and he means business. Out of his sack he produces tools, not toys, for the kids' forthcoming battle with the forces of evil. They continue on their journey, and after a skirmish with the dogs of Jadis, arrive safely at Aslan's camp. The lion asks after the fourth child, and is told that he has betrayed them. This old-fashioned word, heavy with Christian connotations, comes as something of a shock – Edmund after all is simply trying to survive in a strange land – but in the context of the second world war, where loose lips sink ships, it's perhaps understandable.

More religious stuff comes when Aslan has a private conversation with Peter, the prophesised king. He says: 'There is a deep magic more powerful than any of those that rule over Narnia. It defines right from wrong, and governs all our destinies – yours and mine.''

It's one of those solemn moments that occur from time to time in the film – moments of high-minded nonsense that hopefully will pass barely observed by young viewers. The idea that good and evil reside in powers beyond human action or control [indeed that good and evil are palpable entities] is a pre-scientific superstition, which might readily appeal to a child's pre-scientific mind. This doesn't mean that we should prevent them from entertaining such ideas – they may well be part of a child's development – but they should be seen as part of a rich play of ideas, often contradictory, and some finally recognised as more fruitful than others.

I might add here that a few critics have made the point that the four kids of the Narnia film aren't a patch on the kids of Hogworts. Perhaps this is because Lewis's Narnia books, written in the fifties, are much flavoured by that conservative period, when children were more often seen and not heard. 'King Peter' and his siblings, even down to little Lucy, seem like they're undergoing an apprenticeship in adulthood, one that they take all too seriously. We never fully enter into their imaginative world, the magic is imposed on them rather than derived from them. They seem at times more like representative samples of children rather than the fully realised individuals of the Harry Potter series.

The rest of the film – Edmund is rescued by Aslan's forces and serves as the more or less penitent and supportive brother thereafter, Aslan does a deal with Jadis in which he apparently agrees to be sacrificed in place of Edmund, but conveniently comes back to life, and Peter leads Aslan's forces in a daunting battle with Jadis, with Aslan arriving with reinforcements in the nick of time – is swashbuckling entertainment, with the Christian elements thankfully downplayed or distorted. Even Aslan's Christ-like remark, ''It is finished'', coming as it does after he's apparently bitten Jadis's face off, hardly conjurs up notions of Christian resignation before the Almighty. It seems that, in this film version at least, Lewis's paganism does win out over his Christian sentiment, which is a healthy thing. Not that I'm an advocate of paganism of course, but it's at least an improvement on Christian dogma.

So, all in all, the film won me over. Magic prevails over doctrine, animals, albeit overly humanised, play a nobler part than generally allowed by Christian tradition, kids are encouraged to think themselves kings and queens [as if they need encouragement], the horribly slain come alive again, stone isn't always as hard as it looks, the goodies beat the baddies, and the kids all return safe and sound to the real world, having lost nothing and gained a whole new world of marvels and imaginary friends. As long as the high-flown religious nonsense is kept in check, I don't see why the Narnia chronicles can't continue to delight film-viewing youngsters in future.



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