?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Reflections on Narnia - The Mad Schemes of Dr. Tectonic [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Beemer

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Reflections on Narnia [Dec. 10th, 2005|11:42 pm]
Beemer
No, I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've been re-reading the books. I finished Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair recently, and I have some thoughts.

I mentioned previously that I think PC (I'm abbreviating all titles to their initials from now on) is a better book than LWW, because it's not on auto-pilot. I think I'd also rate SC considerably better than VDT. The problem with VDT is that it's more a collection of disconnected short stories than an actual novel. They go from island to island, and each island has got something interesting going on, but they don't really have anything to do with one another. If it were an RPG, it would be one of those adventures that consists of nothing but random encounters. So I liked SC a lot better, because it has an actual plot.

I'm starting to think the religious angle of the books is being seriously overplayed. Someone on my friends list said, and I have to agree, that while there are elements of religious allegory in the stories (Aslan is obviously a Christ figure, for example), the thing is that you'd never notice them if you weren't already familiar with Christian lore, because they're all mixed in with other things. (Which makes it not very surprising that I -- and many others -- totally missed them when we read the books as children.)

Let me give an example of what I mean. Okay, so in VDT, Eustace gets turned into a dragon by sleeping on a dragon's hoard and thinking selfish thoughts. He gets transformed back when he encounters Aslan at a well. Eustace wants to bathe, and Aslan tell him he has to undress first, so Eustace scratches off the outer layer of his reptilian hide. But that doesn't do it, so he scratches off another layer, and another, and then Aslan explains that Eustace will have to let him do it. And Aslan pulls off all the skin, revealing that he's a human again underneath, and tosses him in the pool.

Okay, so this is a nice little allegory about Christian theology, illustrating the idea that salvation comes only through Jesus, and not from one's own actions. Lots of related elements, like baptism, and "trading old garments for new", and being washed clean, and so on. Lovely.

But then we have the island of Ramandu, where a "retired" star and his daughter live near Aslan's table. Every evening, the food on the table is magically renewed, and every morning, a great flock of white birds comes flying out of the dawn, descends on the table, and eats or carries away everything that's left. One of the bird brings Ramandu a fireberry from the Valley of the Sun, which he takes away a little of his age, so that eventually he can rise into the sky and become a star again.

Which is related to the Christian idea of... well, nothing, really. I mean, you can make parallels if you're looking for them (maybe the birds represent the Holy Spirit, and tables are an important symbol of fellowship, and, um...), but it's not like the baptism metaphor. There's no simple mapping. And there are a LOT of these things. Most of them are more like Ramandu -- random, mysterious, magical, maybe with a tinge of Christian symbology but not especially religious -- than they are like Eustace's redemption.

Aslan is a helpful supernatural ally who is generally benevolent and infallible, though not always plain-spoken. And the characters react to him as such. But that's not a uniquely religious pattern. The characters in Steven Brust's books react in very similar fashion to Sethra Levode, an ancient sorceress who is helpful, supernatural, generally benevolent and sufficiently experienced (thousands of years old) to be effectively infallible -- but definitely NOT a Christ figure. So while the readers might see the parallels between Aslan and Jesus, as far as the books treat him, he's just a friendly superpower.

Anyway, I guess my point is that having re-read the books from a critical adult perspective, my conclusion on the whole issue of religious content is that there's definitely some of it in there, but it's about as prominent as you decide to make it. No more and no less.

P.S.: I wrote this while really tired, so I hope it's coherent, but I make no promises.
LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: pr_bear
2005-12-11 01:26 am (UTC)

Narnia...

Thanks for that. I have been hearing all this christian theology angst about the movie, and for someone who hasn't read the books, thinks the movie is interesting, and wants to see it, it's refreshing to hear your point of view. I mean you can find christian allegory in many of the big movies many people love from Star Wars to ET to LOTR, and that didn't stop people from seeing them gay or straight. Besides I think the fact that people may make more of the allegories than is intended does not make a the movie a fundamentalist one like many have made it to be. *IT'S JUST A MOVIE* lol
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-12-11 04:49 am (UTC)
I'm not willing to pay money to reread these books, so I'm stuck with the friends I have who are rereading them...

I think I was something like 5 when my father read them to me (and I probably read them myself at some point in the subsequent year); certainly I had no idea Aslan was a Christ symbol until many, many years later.

It's funny to me that one of the very few traditional "father"-ish things I can remember my dad doing is reading a Christian semi-allegory to me. Considering that he's a secular Jew, it's odd to have as one of those few "dad reading to me" memories.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: pekmez
2005-12-11 06:06 am (UTC)
Doesn't Canada have public libraries?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-12-11 06:21 am (UTC)
I'm leaving for six months of living in another country in 3 weeks, and my expectation is that I might get to the top of the Narnia waiting list roughly when I return to Canada.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: pekmez
2005-12-11 06:06 am (UTC)
I'm giggling at the thought of Sethra Lavode as a Christ figure.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: toosuto
2005-12-11 08:29 am (UTC)
Speaking of Christian allegory: have you seen the Superman trailer yet?
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-12-11 12:02 pm (UTC)
Nope! But I've heard lots of awful things about the genesis of the script, so I've got an eyebrow half-askance already.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: toosuto
2005-12-11 12:16 pm (UTC)
Ooh really? Share!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-12-11 12:57 pm (UTC)
Well, I followed a link a while ago (I have no idea where it is now) that had a VERY long and sordid tale about how actor after actor and director after director have started to get involved and then bailed, because the producer (or whoever the guy in charge is) is, like, insane, and the script has been re-written forty times and all the details that have leaked out from it have sounded really, um, crappy.

If you've ever seen Kevin Smith's lecture series on DVD, he tells this story about getting called in to fix up a Superman script, and the guy who was in charge of the project (1) didn't understand who this "Kal-el" guy was supposed to be, (2) wanted Lex Luthor to fight Superman's guards at his Fortress of Solitude (um, what part of the word "solitude" do you not get?), and if there are no guards, cyborg polar bears, and (3) wanted the climactic battle to be between Superman and a giant spider, because "spiders are like Nature's sharks".

Or something like that. Anyway, from what I gather, the coming movie has mutated quite a bit from that stage, but is still basically the product of studio execs who have literally never read a comic book and have no idea what it's all about, but are against the whole 'heroic dude in tights who flies around' aspect of the story. So it sounds like a total trainwreck in the making.

It could be a decent movie anyway -- but I'm not going to bother anticipating it until I hear some word-of-mouth reviews...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: toosuto
2005-12-11 01:00 pm (UTC)
"spiders are like Nature's sharks." That is the freshest wine I have EVER tasted. I am going to say that all the time now.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: ocschwar
2005-12-12 08:54 am (UTC)
Wow. Sounds like this script really jumped the spider.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: zalena
2005-12-11 10:21 am (UTC)
I've always been surprised about the elements in these books that are deliciously pagan. As I've probably commented hundreds of times, they were the only fantasy I was allowed as a child because of Lewis' reputation as a Xtian.

Have you ever read L.M. Boston's Children at Green Knowe series. I think you would like them. But first, Diana Wynne Jones? Have you? She's a must.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-12-11 12:04 pm (UTC)
I haven't ready the Green Knowe books, but I've read plenty of DWJ. I especially like A Tale of Time City. Though if you have particular titles to recommend, there are many of her books that I haven't read yet.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: orbitalmechanic
2005-12-11 01:04 pm (UTC)
I think it's the first book that's most overwhelmingly allegorical, and I would venture to say that that's why it seems like it's on autopilot to you. The later books are more sophisticated in a lot of ways. Wait--I retract that, The Last Battle seems pretty doctrinal to me.

I do want to say, though, that "I didn't recognize it" doesn't necessarily make the Christian thematics less important. The way for one ideology to win over another is to prevent people from recognizing it as ideology, to make them think it's just common sense. For instance, to present a Christian allegory as a rip-roaring adventure story featuring some bad behavior, which is punished, and some good behavior, which is rewarded. The example you give about shedding the snake skin may not register as Christian, but if a young reader learns that there are some things you can't do for yourself but must let a more powerful being do for you--well, Christianity is going to make a lot of sense, isn't it? That is a massive ideological success.

Whether you mind? That depends on whether you're trying to raise your kid Christian, or in a religion that doesn't rely on external salvation, or outside of religion. But it matters, either way.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-12-11 05:35 pm (UTC)
I have to disagree about the first book. The only allegory I noticed in it was Aslan-as-Christ-figure; Dawn Treader had one on roughly every other island. I think the autopilot factor is simply because in the first book, nobody makes any choices. They just do the obvious thing based on their circumstances...

You make a good point about recognizability != effectiveness. But I guess my feeling is that sneaking it in through the side door, as these books do, in most cases reduces the points from specifically doctrinal to generally ethical, if that makes any sense. I mean, most of the points that get made are sort of along the lines of "greed is bad" and "pride can make you stupid", which are common to most ethical/belief systems. And for the remainder, the common sense aspect is tempered by the "yes, if you're in a magical land with talking lions" aspect, which is not negligible.

It definitely has some teaching value, if you want it, but my conclusion is that it's not (as some, both pro and con, have intimated) some kind of super-effective brainwashing technique that will make all the little kiddies long for sunday school. It's no more effective than L. Ron Hubbard books are at recruiting Scientologists, except that the Narnia books aren't utter dreck...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2005-12-11 08:27 pm (UTC)
the thing is that you'd never notice them if you weren't already familiar with Christian lore

I forget the term for it, but it's an instance of finding things you're looking for. People tell stories from their own experiences - especially their most moving ones. In Lewis' case, his "conversion" was one of them.

Which is related to the Christian idea of... well, nothing, really.

Well, maybe renewal in general, especially once you've "fallen". I'll agree - there is no simple mapping.

One thing to strongly keep in mind is that Lewis, Tolkien and the other folks who liked to tell each other stories were deeply versed in many mythologies. One of Tolkien's criticism of Lewis was less that he was using Christian mythology to tell his stories (not because he was making it profane), but that he was taking the easy way out.

Probably the most preachy of the books is the Last Battle. You're getting there, and that's the time to have the next discussion. One thing I'd look for is the bit about how one may come to salvation when you think you're following another god. It's probably the single biggest point I'd throw at people looking to get upset at the books.

I think it'll be interesting to see if this point is preserved - along with Susan's downfall.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-12-11 09:51 pm (UTC)
That's actually your sweetie I'm quoting, but since it wasn't in an open post, I thought it would be kind of awkward to link to him. =)

I dunno that reusing an existing mythology is all that much easier; you're going to be influenced by the mythology you already know anyway, and if you want to do a good job of reuse (which I think Lewis did), you have to put a lot of effort into filing off the serial numbers. So it's not hugely different from making it up from the whole cloth...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2005-12-12 06:48 am (UTC)
you're going to be influenced by the mythology you already know anyway

Witness most modern fantasy. :-)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: arcticturtle
2005-12-12 12:02 am (UTC)
Considering that all too many fantasy/SF writers grind their metaphysical axes so hard that you need to read them with safety goggles to protect your eyes from the flying sparks, I'm a bit surprised anybody's bothering to fuss over Lewis.
(Reply) (Thread)