Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Case of the Missing Narrator

Narnia Without C. S. Lewis?

Guest analysis by Sarah Arthur, author of Walking through the Wardrobe: A Devotional Quest into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Tyndale/thirsty? 2005)

It’s bedtime, and you’re curled up next to Daddy with your favorite stuffed bear, a glass of milk, and a beloved book. Daddy clears his throat, opens the pages, and begins: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” Time stops. You’ve entered another world.

It’s the opening sentence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and though you’re not yet old enough to read it for yourself, you trust the voices that carry you from the first chapter to the closing pages. Voices, you ask? Yes: voices. For not only is your father reading the story, adding his own inflections, interpreting the personalities of the characters in his own unique way, but behind his voice—or rather, speaking through him—is another voice, the voice of the narrator, the one who is telling the story from the inside.

It’s the voice of every fairytale from the beginning of time: authoritative yet personal, succinct yet chatty, a touch gossipy, even conspiring with you on matters of taste and opinion. It’s the voice of the nursery, of bedtime, of tales told by the fire, establishing a relationship of trust between teller and hearer without which the form of fairytale comes apart at the seams and becomes mere plot, either bald and flat, or bald and terrifying.

Take the classic story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, for example. Right away the narrator makes it clear just what genre we’re dealing with. This is fairytale in its purest form: an unlikely hero stumbles into another world—a magical world full of rules that must not be broken—and by luck and cleverness, the hero wins fame and even fortune beyond his wildest dreams. Without a trusted narrator, we wouldn’t dare make our first trips into this genre alone, just as a toddler will rarely enter a darkened bedroom without being carried in the arms of someone he loves. Such is the essence of fairytale, one which the filmmakers of the latest version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory understood. (Imagine how much more disturbing Johnny Depp’s performance would’ve been without the narrative asides! Those moments allowed us to exhale with relief, knowing there was at least one sane guide in the story.)

Likewise when it comes to the fairytale about a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe, the voice that carries us “further in” to the original book has a sane and even unique personality—so unique, in fact, that generations of children have sought to become acquainted with him through the postal system, though we no longer receive an answer. The narrator was—and “is”—the British scholar C. S. Lewis, of course, but a particular incarnation of Lewis uniquely suited to the form of fairytale: the form he chose deliberately for “its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas.’” [1] This Lewis is the wise old Professor, the forthright and trusted guide, the fairy godfather, leading us into the murky woods of fairyland where we would never dare tread alone.

And his readers have trusted him for the past half century. During the final ten years of his life, he was swamped with mail from children who had sensed such a close connection with him through his stories that they felt they could ask him anything. [2] Though in person he wasn’t exactly a knight-in-shining-armor (as his future stepson, Douglas Gresham, fancifully envisioned prior to their introduction [3]), he certainly wasn’t alarming to the children who chanced to meet him, either—rather the opposite, as this anecdote suggests:
On [one] occasion, as I opened my front door, [Lewis] happened to be passing by. With me was my six-year-old daughter, to whom I had just then been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A tender-minded child, she was very anxious about Edmund and had asked me to go out for a walk as she was finding the story frightening. Lewis stopped to talk with me and I told him what we had been doing. He was most affable. He wore a shabby grey-green overcoat, a battered felt hat, and he carried a knobbly walking stick. His large face was ruddy and cheerful, like a countryman’s. No-one would have taken him for an academic. When he moved on, courteously raising his hat, I said to my daughter, who had looked at him intently and in silence all through the brief encounter, “There! That is the very man who wrote the book we’ve just been reading.” She paused and then said thoughtfully, “Well, he looks as though he’d make it come out all right.” [4]
Even the tiniest child will stick it out through a scary story if she feels she can trust the teller. And that’s in part because the form of fairytale itself, when strictly adhered to, contains a kind of inevitability that is in itself comforting. Either the little pigs will find somewhere safe to go by the third round of wolf attacks, or the story is a kind of holocaust not suitable for children. Nor, we might add, can it be considered a fairytale. The pattern of threes and a happy ending are part of the form, and if the narrator sticks to the form, he or she can be trusted.

So it is with the man who created Narnia, that narrator who is just as central to our experience of the story as the parent who first read it to us by lamplight at bedtime. Without him, Narnia degenerates into mere plot, as I’ve already said: either bald and terrifying, or bald and flat.

And now, as you’ve no doubt guessed, we’ve arrived at the real point of this article, which is to review the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perhaps I’ve said enough to give you a hint of my overall opinion on the matter, but let me say it clearly now: The chief problem with this film is the absence of the narrative voice of “Professor Lewis,” our trusted guide. Without him, the story degenerates into something less than the fairytale it was intended to be.

First let’s start with the charge of “baldness,” or that quality of storytelling which borders on mere journalism, giving us “just the facts.” Because there is no narrator telling us what the characters are thinking and feeling, we’re left with action and dialogue like a newsreel, which some of the actors manage well enough (e.g., the Beavers) while others do not (e.g., William Moseley as Peter, poor chap). While some scenes are almost entirely action, there are long stretches in which there’s nothing but dialogue—explanation without narrative interpretation (how does Susan feel while listening to the Professor?)—so the overall effect is one of poor pacing: we’re rushed through those action scenes where a narrative voice could’ve bolstered their significance, and we’re dragged through those dialogue scenes in which a narrative voice could’ve succinctly summed things up.

Now to the charge of “flatness.” Film critics of all types seem to be in agreement on this one. The movie falls flat. Perhaps poor pacing has something to do with it; perhaps poor acting—Georgie Henley (Lucy) being the startling exception overall. Perhaps it’s the tendency towards the kind of “digressions” that Lewis felt were not suited to the form of fairytale (here we can’t help thinking of the melting river scene). However, I suggest it’s primarily the lack of narrative voice, the lack of the “we” and “you” language that invites us into the story as more than mere spectators. Here’s my favorite example of that language in the book, when Mr. Beaver says,
“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Without this narrative moment inserted into the story, all we’re left with is the camera panning from face to face, attempting to capture… what, exactly? And the soundtrack doesn’t help us figure it out (another unfortunate weakness in the film, as others have already noted). So a narrative opportunity—quite an important one, actually—is lost. The scene falls flat.

As to the charge of “terrifying,” here again we have some unfortunate examples from the film, though whether or not today’s media-saturated children experience it this way could be a matter of debate. The moments were terrifying to me, at any rate, and that’s because I’d already lost my trust in the narrator who wasn’t there, the absent and possibly even absent-minded storyteller sitting behind the camera or the television monitor somewhere in New Zealand, oblivious to my existence.

I’m speaking of the Stone Table scene. The narrator in the book is wisely self-censoring, giving us just enough of the horror and madness to sense what Aslan is up against, but veiling our eyes from the rest. He describes the “Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants,” but then adds, “and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book…” We trust him on this. Now, you could argue that the filmmakers couldn’t exactly shield our eyes from the “other creatures” if they were to render the scene realistically—but what on earth or in hell is that bat-like monstrosity quivering on the steps in front of Aslan? It’s enough to wake me up in a cold sweat.

But scariest of all is the moment of the Lion’s death. In the book, Lewis tells us, “The children did not see the actual moment of the killing. They couldn’t bear to look and had covered their eyes.” This is a narrator who understands how trauma works, particularly when experienced by the young. The filmmakers, on the other hand, leave poor Lucy staring in horror through the whole thing, missing nothing, watching the knife fall all the way down. And I’ll be honest: My first reaction was a flare of anger at—of all people—Susan, for not shielding her little sister’s eyes. I was casting around for someone, anyone, to take care of the girls, and with them, us. I wanted my narrator back.

So I have named the charges. Baldness. Flatness. Terror. This is what happens when a fairytale lacks a narrator, particularly a narrator as gifted as C. S. Lewis. Serious charges indeed, when one considers that many children who see the film without ever reading the story will miss out on a relationship with a trusted and beloved voice of sane authority in this insane age. Needless to say, their experience with Narnia will not likely translate into later forays into Lewis’s other works, since his voice is essentially unknown to them at this point.

Yet the question remains: At whose feet do we lay these charges? Do we blame director Andrew Adamson? Do we blame the scriptwriters and their advisors? Maybe they felt it would be impossible to capture the narrative “voice” of Lewis with any one vocal talent (a sticky problem, no doubt, but Focus on the Family’s Radio Theater® has managed to pull it off quite well). Or perhaps it was the general attitude that filmmaking is such a different medium that it can operate according to its own rules. All are legitimate suggestions, I suppose, since every individual involved in making this film is in a sense responsible for the final result.

But in the end it all boils down to this insightful statement by Lewis scholar (and father of small children) Andrew Cuneo:
Forgive me lovers of the cinema, but I must stress the obvious: one mind made Narnia. As I stood watching the thousands of names during the credits who animated, assisted, and labored to make a very good film, I am astonished that it took only one man, under the inspiration of Aslan, to make an even better book. [5]
It’s this voice we learn to trust, from the opening paragraph to the closing pages of the classic fairytale called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and if our narrator is absent now, who will guide us through the rest of the Chronicles?

1. C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” from the collection On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.
2. See C. S. Lewis Letters to Children, edited by Marjorie Mead and Lyle Dorsett.
3. See Doug Gresham’s memoir Lenten Lands.
4. As told by Barbara Reynolds in Memories of C. S. Lewis in Cambridge; quoted by Peter Schakel in Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds (University of Missouri Press, 2002), p. 73f.
5. See Narnia on Tour.

© 2006 by Sarah Arthur. Sarah is the bestselling author of numerous youth resources, including Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through The Lord of the Rings (Tyndale/thirsty? 2003) and a new devotional on Narnia entitled Walking through the Wardrobe. A former youth director, she now writes and speaks on the role of the imagination and storytelling in spiritual formation. Visit

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