A midnight showing of Narnia

There is a point in the book Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis, when a group of characters are hopelessly lost in the forest. The Pevensie children, four siblings transported from mid-twentieth century England to an alternate world called Narnia, are searching for the title character and an army of good guys. Unfortunately the landscape has changed since their first visit and they find themselves walking in circles, feeling increasingly exhausted and short tempered. Then the youngest, a girl named Lucy, sees Narnia’s lion messiah in the distance, beckoning them to go up alongside a craggy gorge that seems impenetrable. She excitedly shares this vision with the others, begging them to follow her toward what surely should be the right way to go. They cannot see the lion or a path and after a condescending vote, ignore her and go in the opposite direction.

They should have known better. Lucy has on several occasions been privy to experiences and insights when they have lagged behind and this situation proves no different. She has another vision and this time is encouraged to follow with or without the others. She eventually cajoles them into action, and after a few steps of rocky surface, an easier trail is revealed. One by one, all of the children see the lion and Lucy graciously accepts their apology, her vindication tempered by her own guilt for not having gone the way she knew should in the first place.

In the book, this scene spans three chapters. In the new movie, released last week, it takes about five minutes. I took myself and a group of boys to see it on the day it was released. The theater was half full with bunches of squeaky clean teenagers dressed in pastel polo shirts and the customary midnight-showing adults wearing odd, inexplicable get-ups: one in kitty ears and a tail, one wearing a female anime’ costume and several in kilts and pajamas. We constituted the scruffy but sort-of normal contingency. This opening was understandably tame compared to the light saber duels and pointed hats of other events. We got there too early and, with not much else going on, began chatting.

Of the six boys, more than half had read at least one of the seven books in the Narnia series. Two had read them all. I listened to them talk about their favorite titles, characters and scenes, smiling at how those who had not read kept up by relating what they remembered from the first movie. These conversations blended into a conversation on the way home reviewing how much they enjoyed a prominent sword fight and how the final battle was very “cool.” I became increasingly aware of an absent elephant, or perhaps lion, in the room. C.S. Lewis wrote the books as children’s literature with thinly veiled Christian metaphors including a god figure in the form of an oversized talking lion named Aslan. None of the boys seemed aware of any spiritual layer to the stories. Not a hint.

I discovered the Chronicles of Narnia in elementary school. I was a bookish, intellectually curious child with a propensity toward religious ideas. This combination was at odds with the rigid belief structure that I grew up in. Quests of dialogue were discouraged, answers were obvious, and questions were a sign of weakness. I often felt miscast as a rebel because my approach to knowing was more journey than declaration. C.S. Lewis seemed to have written his stories just for me. I yearned for an alternate world where faith, mistakes and redemption could be explored in ways that did not have to be tidy or prescribed. I was transported along with the characters to a place where fantasy felt more real than what I lived on Sunday. I related to Lucy’s faith and Edmund’s betrayal. I understood Digory’s courage and Eustace’s sorrow. These British children with their proper manners and pleasant resilience invited a type of conversion I recognized and could enact. Narnia became a place for me to both embrace and escape the conflicting definitions of my developing spiritual identity.

But the boys at the movie came to these books from an entirely different perspective. My own children were not raised in their parents’ religion. They are not struggling against or limited by any specific set of tenets or cultural templates. For them, there is no embedded symbolism to reveal. No rocky passage leading to belief. Narnia is just another fantasy series. Even more interesting is that when lined up alongside J.K. Rowling and a million other teen novels dealing with magic and gifted heroes, Narnia today feels a little quaint. Most of my group likes the movie versions better.

This observation did not elicit any regret or illusions. Even if I had raised religious children there is no guarantee that they would have read or liked the books. The stories can be fun and meaningful even without the allegorical allusions. And who knows what these boys may have been thinking or feeling; they are certainly not going to share their souls over popcorn. What struck me in the midnight movie adventure was simply the gap in our interpretations. I thought of how my reading the Chronicles of Narnia had changed me, gave me the confidence to question, and how that questioning led me on a path that may have kept the same books from having the same impact on my children. It is an idea fitting of the genre.

Which circles back to Lucy and the crucial episode in Prince Caspian. Although ultimately we are on our own to follow or forge ahead, every step we make alters the ground for the person behind us. We may see a vision, but others may only notice the branches broken in our tread or veer toward a different lion. As I sat in that theater remembering, there was a moment when I missed my girl-self, who like Lucy believed with all her heart. And later, driving home that night, my adult-self considered the present Lucys, still seatbelted safely in my care.

11 responses to “A midnight showing of Narnia”

  1. So how was the movie? Of the three movies Sylvia wants me to take her to (this, Indiana Jones and the Chamber of Secrets, and Kung-Fu Panda) I find myself most excited about this one.

    I loved the books as a child and have been really enjoying introducing Sylvia to them; I did not pick up on the allegorical stuff until mid-teenage years, well after I had read and reread the series.

    What are you getting at in your last sentence when you say your adult self “walked in the opposite direction”? Just that you have abandoned your childhood religious faith? It sounds from the way it is constucted like you were at the moment you’re talking about, consciously rejecting the path of righteousness in order to take the kids home; but that doesn’t make sense to me.

  2. PB says:

    Modesto – you are right, the last line made no sense. I altered it to fit what I think I mean – which is less about the judgement of my decisions and more just a musing on differences in perpsective. Thank you for your question – this was a germ that I couldn’t quite get my arms around and appreciate your constructive thoughts. I find it so interesting that you came to the story first and then the allegory.

    In spite of mixed reviews, I loved the movie. Lots of action and pretty people and a really great badger.

  3. I actually had a hard time, P, reading these books to my kids, mostly because the Christian allegory was so forceful in ways I somehow didn’t recognize as a kid. Or maybe it’s just that the allegory was normalized for me because it was so closely in synch with everything I thought I knew about the world.

    Then again, older daughter is now knee-deep in the teen vampire books written by a Mormon housewife … which has led to some interesting conversations about religion and sexuality.

  4. forceful in ways I somehow didn’t recognize as a kid

    This, totally. Once you know about it, you look at (e.g.) Aslan impaled on the stone table and think, This is so obviously the crucifixion, how could anyone possibly miss it? But then I remind myself that when I was reading it as a child, I didn’t pick up on that; and my daughter will even less so as she’s less conversant with Christianity and its fables than was I at her age. I have a sort of pet romantic notion that children reading fantasy can enter completely into the fantasy world in a way that’s less accessible to mature readers, and which entails not getting the referents to ideologies outside the fantasy world. I sort of think allegory does its best work on this type of reader; but that’s not a very examined opinion and I would have a hard time defending it.

  5. Dave says:

    I never got the Christianity in the Narnia books, either. There always seemed to be something else going on with them, but I didn’t figure it out. My general sense is that this something else weakened the books by making them seem more arbitrary from within the fantasy world, since the stories explicitly responded at points to an external ideology. This is just my general memory, though, because I honestly can’t remember enough of the plot to point to specific instances.

  6. PB says:

    I have a sort of pet romantic notion that children reading fantasy can enter completely into the fantasy world in a way that’s less accessible to mature readers, and which entails not getting the referents to ideologies outside the fantasy world.

    Because I was so immersed in religious thought so early (my own choice really, reading several older children’s Bible versions by the age of 10ish), there was never a time when Aslan was not Jesus and yet the kid magic was that the whole savior business felt more real in the context of Narnia than it did in the context of Jewish guy in Nazareth. Does that make sense? It was always merged for me, always true and always Narnia. Weirdly, even today when I think of the concept of faith I think of Lucy, never a mustard seed. Perhaps C.S. did his job too well – or perhaps I never left the childhood perspective you describe.

    btw – my favorite book is The Magician’s Nephew

  7. I read the books at some point when I was a child, but I don’t remember when. I seem to remember that we owned the series, and that they were kept up high on the single, tall, built-in shelf my parents had. I thought they were a good enough read to read them all, though I remember it took awhile to step away from all the religious connotation– the sacrifice of Aslan was too big of a symbol to be just plot/character coincidence. I just wanted to read them as fiction, not as anything connected to anything religiously.

    It’s been so long that I don’t remember much about the plots, and the first movie has been a happy reminder of familiar plot; I suspect the other movies will be the same.

  8. So it looks like Sylvia and I will be seeing the movie tonight — we were going to go with her friend Harry this afternoon but Harry’s mom thinks it will be too scary for him, says “I had to leave Horton Hears a Who with him midway through.”

    I was just now reading some of my reminiscences of reading Narnia to Sylvia, and happened on an amusing anecdote.

  9. Robert says:

    Having loved the Narnia series as a kid, I tried re-reading the Narnia books as an adult, and found them very hard to take. I started with The Horse and His Boy, which is supposedly now the first in the series (chronologically, I guess?), and it was so full of colonial paternalism that I just couldn’t stomach any more. I sympathize with the fact that people thought differently half a century ago, and that there’s much more to the book than its cultural context, but I figure there are plenty of other books to read now, and I can instead just be content with my pleasant memories of the series.

  10. Kirsten says:

    I haven’t taken Katie and Soren to Prince Caspian yet– we’ll go on Monday. They opted for the 4th Indiana Jones flick first…
    When we took them to the first Narnia movie, I asked Soren (then 8) what he thought of the character of Aslan. He looked at me and frankly replied, “Well, he represents Christ of course.” The woman in front of us in the theater turned around and gave us a look of utter shock. I suppose my kids are a bit like you were at that age, P. Both are “bookish” and read everything from fantasy fiction to how-to books; Calvin and Hobbes to biographies of former presidents. Soren has since read the series and we had an interesting discussion some time ago about Edmund and redemption in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will be curious to see what comes up as we see and discuss the new movie.

  11. Sylvia and I saw it tonight and enjoyed it. Capsule review at my place.