Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Cleaning Our Windows

Guest analysis by Maureen Stewart.
Maureen McKittrick Stewart is a voracious reader, a perpetual student, and a gardener-of-weeds. Her cockeyed view of the world sometimes enables her to see things that others don't, and aging has exacerbated her insights. The pleasure of seeing her favorite fantasy tales on a forty-foot movie screen, naturally, has finally pushed her over the edge. Maureen's odd reflections on Faërie were first inflicted on the world through a small series of essays posted at, through which she discovered Hollywood Jesus. She hopes her writing aids others in their wanderings through the Fair Realm.

When a beloved book is transposed to the screen, critics immediately start comparing and contrasting, attempting to weigh which is better. But few seem to notice what the contrast between the two actually reveals.

C. S. Lewis was steeped in the literature and language of all of western heritage. His imagination and thought had a three-thousand-year-sized playground in which to explore. Few men in the twentieth century were as widely read—or as capable of remembering so much. Lewis labeled himself a dinosaur and encouraged people to examine him while they still could. He was definitely not “a man of his times.” Do we who have read and loved his books or those who worked so hard making the movie appreciate how wide his horizons were?

What would Lewis have thought of the recent portrayal of the Universe of Narnia as a live-action film? A lot of people have speculated about that. They have tried to construct an answer from thoughts and ideas culled from his many works. I don’t think I could presume to do that. My mind is not as well-informed or imaginative or educated as his! People who knew him say that Lewis would discuss his own works as impartially as though they had been written by another.

Instead, what I would tell him (should I have such a privilege and be able to present myself with anything like sangfroid—hah!) is that it is not only reading old books, as he advises, that reveals my hidden assumptions. Seeing a movie not quite faithful to the storyline of Narnia made by a person immersed in modern assumptions also does a pretty good job!

Even if I could quote verbatim everything Lewis ever wrote, I still would be filtering it through the assumptions of my own culture. Lewis’ assumptions were very different from our own; but, take a story I have loved for years and read to my children—and which my children have read to theirs!—and change it, and these assumptions do start to be noticeable.

As with “The Princess and the Pea,” I’m learning to discover my assumptions by paying attention to those subtle little discomforts aroused when moviemakers change books and shine a new light on familiar, beloved words and images. I’m learning some sharp lessons, too!

Lewis’ Narnia is built upon—to borrow from Chesterton—the Ethics of Elfland:

There is the chivalrous lesson of ‘Jack the Giant Killer;’ that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is manly mutiny against pride as such. … There is the lesson of ‘Cinderella,’ which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exultavit humiles. There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast;’ that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened into sleep. (Orthodoxy, Chapter 3)
Narnia is, like Faërie, a place where promises must be kept whatever the cost; where the hubris of gigantic tyrants must be punctured, where accepting Turkish delight from strangers becomes treason, where seventh sons and boys and girls from Finchley can become kings and queens. More, it is a place where joy is a solemn thing of splendor, “as sharp as swords and as poignant as grief.”

The wardrobe is like the border of Faërie in that it can be crossed only by those without any purpose except, possibly, wonder. And intentions affect one’s experience. If we have paid attention to our fairy tales, we will remember that attempting to enter Faërie with base motives of ambition or greed or gain may not get us into the Perilous Realm; but if it does, the consequences may be dire.

Narnia is also a place where magic—not the actions of kings or queens, but Magic from the Dawn of Time and Before the Dawn of Time—is the catalyst for emancipation of a land in which it is always winter and never Christmas. Kings and queens, beavers and foxes, even good giants participate, but it is the Providence of the Emperor-over-the Sea that brings all the players to their places on the stage and directs the outcome of the play.

I regret, as others have also noted, that the thawing of Narnia shifts in the film from a signifier of Advent, of the return of the immanent and imminent King-Creator, to the mere occasion for risk in crossing a melting frozen river. Where are the birds singing and the streams chuckling and the sense of new life and mysterious upwelling of power? If you watch carefully there are signs of the wondrous, exuberant fast-forward of the coming of spring; but there is not the emotional impact of Edmund, a miserable prisoner in fear of his life, seeing that “the world is charged with the Grandeur of God” (as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it) even as he doubts the outcome for himself.

Some have disliked the fact that the older children in the movie are always talking about going home. It bothered me, too. The children as Lewis wrote them understood the rules of operation in Faërie. They knew that promises must be kept, honor must be upheld, and friends who are imperiled by one’s actions must be rescued—whatever the consequences.

In our current society, decisions are made and ventures begun only when the outcome is statistically favorable. Peter, Susan and Edmund, as the script writers saw them, come from this world. Susan is the pragmatist, the reductionist. “We should go back! He’s a beaver! He shouldn’t be saying anything at all!” Peter has learned that one must weigh consequences as well as obedience to rules or promises. That is how practical decisions are made. He even expresses this to Edmund in the film’s opening scenes. Edmund is the subjective materialist. Why shouldn’t he get back at that superior Peter—and get more of the best Turkish delight?

Lucy is as yet innocent of such calculations. She understands that new friends are treasures and that there is debt incurred in friendship extended—the debt of love and of wonder to all that Faërie may reveal to us if we travel there with innocent hearts.

The movie begins by placing the children within the context of their own world—a world with a tyrant rampaging across the globe, promising the rise of supermen to rule a utopia of peace and prosperity for the few and attempting to impose his dream by force—a land where it is always winter and never Christmas. It is very telling that the White Witch’s “apple of temptation” offered to the second Son of Adam—the Turkish Delight—is the same sort of apple being offered the world on Edmund’s side of the wardrobe. Order. Uniformity. Efficiency. Guarantees. “You shall be as gods.”

Pragmatism is the Witch’s underlying philosophy—pragmatism carried to its logical conclusion in the land of Faërie and seen afresh in truth. It is ultimately a philosophy that says the poor, the downtrodden, and the scapegoats are expendable and a burden to society. Like all evil, pragmatism exists only as a parasite, elevating some goods above others in order to serve its own ends and undoing all the virtues and attributes that make us human. Inefficient, messy attributes such as mercy, compassion, and justice for the weak and helpless.

But the unfolding of the story does reveal the Ethics of Elfland and of Narnia. When the High King is called by his True Name to “Arise, Sir Peter, Wolf’s Bane!” by the One Who Names, he does arise to his becoming, the true purpose of his being in both littleness and greatness.

It is, in fact a good thing that the children do not cease being children in a big scary battle. Our customary conventions for modern tales make men and women the primary movers of the plot. Heroism today is defined as effectiveness and superior power. But in this tale it is Magic at work moving the story and enlarging its characters, and a Magician behind it all (to borrow from Chesterton again).

I cannot speculate about whether the scriptwriters were trying to make the story “more believable” by making the characters “more like real people,” or whether they understood just what their changes would evoke. Whatever the case, it is a remarkable exposition of the Winter we are calling down on our own heads in our modern quest for managing and controlling our world according to our own design. But then, as Tolkien said, that’s the purpose of Faërie:

‘Seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. (The Tolkien Reader, On Fairy Stories”)
The screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe continues to do just this for me, as the changes the filmmakers made prompt me to examine my assumptions.

Images Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.