Bacchus and Jesus Got Crunked in Narnia
As an experiment, I recently sat down with my three-year old daughter to read the illustrated version of C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. We made it to page twelve before she enquired, “Do you want to see my doggies?” We don’t have dogs. It was the three-year old equivalent of, “WTF, Dad. Seriously, can I go play now?” I had kept her long enough, so I let her wander off as I kept reading. I realize that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a children’s book (which, by the way, doesn’t equate to, “not for adults”), but I was particularly disappointed with it this time around. It’s a short book that starts slowly, even though it can’t afford to, lacks constancy, and forgoes the development of both characters and world. First, it’s not a crime to be short. It is a crime, however, to be both short and developmentally challenged. Why does this matter? Because, jumping over my second point, Lewis fails to develop any love of either the characters or the world. The problem is that Lewis unsuccessfully cultivates concern—let alone a real care—for either the adventurers, the inhabitants of Narnia, or even Narnia itself. In a phantasmagorical land on the brink of destruction, it is paramount that the author creates a connection between both the world and the reader. The author wants the reader to see the world as both valuable and worth saving. If the author fails in this task, then why should the reader care if a wicked witch kills a lion and, consequently, the world slowly suffocates in ice? Because, and this is the only reason I can figure, Aslan is supposed to be Jesus, and, unfortunately, Western Evangelicals have hijacked The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It’s not a story about a few kids who find themselves thrust into a world beset with a cold evil; rather, (to some Christians) it illustrates the saving power of Jesus Christ. Though the allegory might hold, it makes for weak narrative. Allegory should never be the point of connection between the narrative and the reader. In other words, one shouldn’t care for the characters and world within The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe only because it is a Christian allegory. When reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe the reader should ask him or herself: do I care for Narnia? Is Narnia worth saving? As a character, do I sympathize with Aslan? The witch? Edmund? If you find yourself answering these questions based on your theology (i.e., “Well, I certainly don’t want Edmund to parish eternally!”), then Lewis has failed in the task of creating a consistent narrative of both depth and clarity. You might be saying: “Well, sure, but Lewis wrote with a children’s audience in mind, not adults.” To which I would respond: “Yes, to children, who don’t deserve to read good, well-developed literature (even if it’s scaled down for their age), right?” Wrong. Kids are smart (smarter than adults often give them credit for). This leads me to my last point, Lewis is anything but consistent. Fauns—traditionally connected with the lecherous forest god, Pan—make an appearance, but not as the lust filled gods of whimsy they classically were, but rather as gentle creatures of reading and hearths. Another god, Bacchus, arrives deep in the forests of Narnia to party with its inhabitants. Does that mean that Bacchus and Jesus (err…I mean, Aslan) got crunk on wine (err…I mean, grape juice) while kicking with the Dryads? If that imagery is strange, which it surely is, then what of Father Christmas? Out of nowhere, mid-narrative, the jolly-fat man shows up to bequeath treasures upon Lewis’ protagonists. This is weird. It’s not weird because it’s Santa Clause, it’s weird because, up to this point, Lewis has done nothing to prepare the reader for Father Christmas’ arrival. Yes, there is mention of Christmas not having come in generations, but this doesn’t necessarily prepare the reader for the actuality of Saint Nick’s arrival. Why does this weaken the narrative? Because the reader is never quite sure where they are nor what is happening. Fantasy, like life, benefits from a sense of constancy or else it suffers from the arbitrary whims of the author. Is The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe a classic? Sure. Is it worth a read? If you’re eight and your parents forgot to buy you The Hobbit, then, sure. In the end, whether genre fiction or literary, the reader must care for both the characters and the world of a given narrative, which, subsequently, must be a consistent (though fiction) reality. Lewis fails on both accounts, and, as such, so does The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.