December 5, 2005

Musings on Narnia

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at December 5, 2005 3:53 PM

Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)

Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.

Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)

All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.

Tags: Books, Culture, Movies, Religion

I have vague memories of reading the first book a long time ago (and also not seeing the obvious parallels because of my age), although I also remember essentially nothing, and right now I'm wondering if I even read the entire first book. (I definitely read parts of it and I think I read the whole thing, but I'm experiencing a small memory crisis here. I know I read nothing beyond the first book.) The trailer looks really good, so I am eager to see it. I'll grant you the point about the bandwagon, but there might as well be a bandwagon in a genre I like rather than in stuff that I don't like even when it's well-done. (That's what basically killed arcades for me many years ago. At some point, none of the genres I liked were getting new games in the arcades and the new games in other genres weren't doing it for me.)

Posted by: Mason | December 5, 2005 4:05 PM

Huh, what, LotR contains Christian allegory?! Are you sure about that? I vaguely recall something to the effect that Tolkien violently despised allegory (I believe the comment had something to do with Lewis and Narnia, but my memory is even more hazy than usual here...).

Gandalf dying and coming back seems to me like a trivial and superficial similarity, since he is for all his power a relatively minor character overall (even in the mad dash to Minas Tirith and monkey business with Denethor, the focus is very strongly on Pippin rather than Gandalf). I don't recall how big a role Aslan had in Narnia, unfortunately. But Gandalf's death lacked the central importance one would want for a Christ-figure; such an allegory would work better had he been the one destroying the ring at the climax of the story (can't really say "end", for LotR!). Also, resurrection is not entirely unprecedented in Middle Earth, unlike in Christianity. See Beren & Luthien, and arguably Glorfindel if Elrond's lieutenant really is the same guy who snuffed a balrog covering the escape from Gondolin. Durin the Deathless would be another potential example, though probably more of reincarnation than resurrection.

Or is the resurrection allegory Frodo and Sam being saved from certain death by deus ex giant eagle? I could sorta buy that, I guess. Though Tolkien might possibly have been annoyed if he'd heard such a notion.

To be not completely off-topic, I'm also in the "read Narnia as a kid, don't remember much" camp. As may be obvious, I spent a lot more time and brain cells reading Tolkien. :D

Posted by: Justin | December 5, 2005 4:47 PM

Ok, I should have known someone would call me on that. Some literary critics have read LotR as a Christian allegory, but you are correct in that Tolkein certainly didn't intend it that way and was disdainful of the notion. Instead of "allegorical aspects" I should have used a different phrase like "Christian themes", since Tolkein's devout Christianity did influence his writing even if there's not a direct allegory going on. [I had Gandalf's resurrection in mind, which I agree is not central the way Aslan's is.] Much worse than this is the way Tolkein's right-wing politics influenced his writing, which is better addressed by David Brin.

Anwyay it's been years since I've read Tolkein, so you may be able to demolish even my weakened claims.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | December 5, 2005 5:35 PM

Ah yes, I loved Brin's take on LotR! :)

On further thought, the boring cosmological background material (the Ainulindale and Valaquenta at the beginning of the Silmarillion) is strongly parallel to the Judeo-Christian equivalents. Best-'n-brightest Valar/archangel gets uppity, cast out, becomes Source-of-All-Evil(tm), that kind of thing. Which I guess would make Morgoth the Eden snake as well as Satan, and Ungoliant would be a very unlikely Eve, of sorts. And that would be where the parallel breaks down... Such a pity, I bet the Bible would be a lot more interesting if it had armies of cranky, cocky, uber-powerful elves running around.

Posted by: Justin | December 5, 2005 5:58 PM

I think that a redeeming value of LotR is that the Christian themes prevalent don't have to have any weight on the enjoyment of the story. On the other hand, I find my ability to enjoy the story is drastically undercut by my inability to enjoy the writing. Sadly, while I have heard tales of how inspirational LotR has been to men and women young and old, I remain unfazed by the excellence of the books and really can't get through all that annoying hobbit geneology.

I always found the Wagnerian themes more interesting than the Christian themes, though. Which Gazebo knows, since I've said that several times by now, but perhaps someone else would be reading this comment. Anyway, in our Modern Drama class, we had a bit of time to compare the Ring Cycle to LotR, and since the subject of discussion for the day was heroes, naturally one thing that came up was the representation of the fascist society of Wagner as opposed to the democratic society of Tolkien. Namely, how Siegfried is clearly set out to be a sort of "Superman" character who is destined to be one of the elite and recieve the Ring of Power, whereas contrarily Frodo is the everyman kind of character who is weak, human, and unlikely to fulfill his quest.

What I find ironic about this argument is how in order to make Frodo the hero, Tolkien seems to take a lot of time to establish that yes, indeed, Frodo is the only person who could possibly fulfill such a quest. While not an example of living perfection, we hear in those lovely hobbit geneology passages I mentioned before, Frodo's pretty much the only hobbit in Hobbiton who could possibly do what he did. And rather than democratic, Tolkien's message seems to involve a perspective of more of a republic... rather than one stout leader, a larger group chooses a small group of elite from every race and creed, and those in the small group each have their own part that they are perfect to play.

Anyway, that one got a little off-topic from Christianity. As for Narnia itself, I don't remember a single thing about it, and I just hope it will be a lot of fun. It looks beautiful, and as long as I can still enjoy the story without feeling like I'm being bashed over the head by C.S. Lewis's Big Steel Crucifix of Justice(tm) then I'll be happy.

Posted by: Josh | December 6, 2005 6:32 PM
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