There has for several days been a tremendous fluttering in the dovecotes of the liberal intelligentsia; this twittering and squawking has been caused by the dramatic appearance of Aslan, the Christ-like lion in CS Lewis’s children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the multi-million-dollar Disney film of the book was released here last week to huge publicity. Several prominent members of the commentariat have felt moved to express their contempt and indignation at something that will give huge pleasure to millions of children. If it were not so repressive and censorious, this would be comic.
The problem for liberal intellectuals is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, like the whole Narnia series, is overtly Christian, for those that have ears to hear, and therefore religious propaganda and therefore a bad thing. Young minds might be perverted by this insidious stuff. The flames of this indignation have been fanned by the fact that the film has been eagerly taken up by the American Christian right.
The Mission America Coalition has invited church leaders “to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film” and the governor of Florida, the president’s brother no less, is arranging for every child in the state to read the book. In this country Disney has appointed Christian Publishing and Outreach, an evangelical group, to promote the Christian ideas behind the film to British congregations. The liberal establishment is reaching for the garlic.
Actually, the film makers and distributors are somewhat nervous about the Christian effect over here; what sells in Christian America might not sell to post-Christian Britain. Some of the cast have been making what sound like secular disclaimers about finding religious allegory anywhere if you want to look for it, as if to distance themselves from any hint of evangelism. However, the fact remains that the story is without a doubt Christian and meant to be so. Lewis said so quite explicitly more than once and any adult with a basic knowledge of Christian lore could not fail to spot this obvious point, not least because to adult minds the allegory is distinctly crude.
To a child’s mind, however, the world of Narnia is a subtle, magical creation enhanced by his or her own imagination. I have never forgotten the intensity of the moment when I first read about Lucy going through the fur coats in the wardrobe out into the snow of Narnia, as if I were Lucy myself. I must have been exactly the right age and I was entranced. I could not understand why my agnostic mother was so dismissive of it.
Now as an adult I understand what she meant; like her I now think the Narnia stories crude, cobbled together in a clumsy pastiche and sometimes distasteful or sententious (a view to which Lewis’s Catholic friend, JRR Tolkien, was also inclined). I rather agree with some of Philip Pullman’s furious blasts against them. But then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe seemed and was magical.
It is one of the odd facts of the life of the mind that books — and illustrations — that are not very good often give the greatest pleasure to children whose imaginations can be passionately inspired by extremely little. Children often love the second-rate. The Harry Potter stories are a case in point; derivative, pedestrian and clumsy, they nonetheless seem to do the business.
Children are surprisingly indifferent to quality and they are usually impervious to message as well. As a child I did not see that Aslan was Christ, or that he sacrificed himself for wicked Edmund, even though I had had a strong Christian education. Aslan might be Christ crucified in a doctrine you might dislike, in a religion you might reject, but at another obvious level he is just a magic lion in a fairy story.
Given all this, I cannot understand why there is so much antagonism to this film. Why should anyone mind about it one way or another? After all, Disney regularly produces a great deal that is infinitely worse, infinitely more manipulative, sentimental and saccharine. Nobody has to go and see it and most of those children who do will miss any evangelical point, given how ignorant children today are of basic Christian teaching.
Above all, I can’t help wondering why the instincts of secular liberals should be so repressive. It is odd, when one considers that a major part of post-enlightenment secularism is supposed to be enlightened tolerance. Their response strikes me as similar to the response of the British Muslims who burnt The Satanic Verses or the British Sikhs who demanded that a play offensive to their religion be closed.
What both groups have in common — one extremely religious, the other extremely opposed to religion — is a reductive cast of mind. They all suffer from extreme literalism. This is perhaps understandable with religious fundamentalists, including Christians; they all see themselves as people of the book and of the literally true word. With secular fundamentalists it is harder to understand; they have no book or word to refer to; they have no cultural excuse.
To be literal minded is either to be credulous — to believe that ancient writings (and self-contradictory ones at that) are the very word of God — or it is to have a repressed and repressive imagination. In the life of the free mind, by contrast, things can have many meanings at once; things can be true at different levels of the imagination. There are archetypes and myths that are found in all cultures, differently expressed in each, and anyone not oppressed with literal mindedness is free to let them play upon his or her imagination in his or her own idiom.
For instance, it is not necessary to be a Christian to respond to the great artistic achievements of Christian culture; Bach and Mozart and Donne and Caravaggio, as well as poor old Lewis in his way, all still have meaning to the infidel. For unbelievers, religious truths in art are metaphors for other truths. But literalists are the enemies of metaphor and therefore the enemies of art. One might, of course, say that hardly matters; in my experience, art lovers tend to be rather overrated just as philistines tend to be rather underrated. But it is a curious position for members of the enlightened intellectual establishment to find themselves in, along with the fundamentalists. It is rather disturbing, too.