I have an unspoken rule when it comes to DVDs for the kids: books before movies. That is, no matter how great the film, if it was a great book first, then that’s what belongs on the shelf. Despite the fact that recent film fantasies like Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and the various Harry Potter films are about as perfect as film adaptations can be, I feel obliged not to own them simply so that I can read the originals to my kids first.
Which is why we’ve been visiting Narnia this week. With its third film installment, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” coming to big screens early next month, and one of the only PG-rated films in wide release, our whole family is gearing up to see it.
This means working our way through the first three of C.S. Lewis’ seven books each night at bedtime before watching the films together on DVD. That way we can talk about what our imaginations saw in the books and how that compares to what our eyes saw on the screen. For instance, my son was immediately struck by a simple snowball fight scene in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” which, despite the book’s pervasive descriptions of cold and ice, visually drove home the fact that Narnia was frozen for 100 years under the corrupting spell of the White Witch. [Tilda Swinton’s performance in that role, by the way, realizes one of the most magnificent screen villains ever conceived… at least since Darth Vader.] My wife (a Narnia newcomer) commented on how vividly the film built out that world through details merely hinted at in Lewis’ prose and Pauline Baynes’ sparse illustrations. For me, the most telling point was that, despite having seen the film already, I was hard pressed to remember any distinct visuals from it heading into my second viewing. I had found it so consistent and faithful to the book that, try as I might, my memory of the film simply defaulted back to images from my reading imagination. The two interpretations worked together to craft a single, unified fictional world.
That effect has more to do with Narnia itself than the filmmaker or even the author. Much has been made of the overtly Christian overtones to C. S. Lewis’ most famous work of fiction. I was introduced to the “Chronicles of Narnia” myself by Sunday school teachers, not the school librarian. On the one hand, American evangelicals stumble over themselves to claim Lewis (a high-church Anglican academic and Oxford English professor) as one of their own. At the same time, nonsectarian readers go through ideological gymnastics to distance themselves from any hint of religious interpretation, frequently downplaying the books’ overt messianic themes as an unnecessary spiritual overlay that isn’t essential to enjoying the stories themselves. Both perspectives, however, are equally flawed because both mistakenly read Narnia as religious allegory: the great lion Aslan is like the figure of Christ, the White Witch is like a type of Satan, her spell of unending winter (“always winter, and never Christmas”) is like the Christian doctrine of original sin, and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the Chronicles of Narnia are inescapably works of Christian imagination, but their magic is born of creation, not allegory.
Lewis himself was adamant on that point. In On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, he wrote:
Everything in art and most things in nature can be allegorised if you are determined to do it: as the history of medieval thought shows. But I do not think that is how such stories were written nor how they ought to be read. The starting point is a supposal. ‘Suppose I found a country inhabited by dwarfs. Suppose two men could exchange bodies.’ Nothing less, but equally nothing more, is demanded. And now, what is the point of it?
…Every supposal is an ideal experiment: an experiment done with ideas because you can’t do it any other way. And the function of the experiment is to teach us more about the things we experiment on. When we suppose the world of daily life to be invaded by something other, we are subjecting either our conception of daily life or our conception of that other, or both, to a new test.
Narnia is nothing less than Lewis’ great thought experiment, his “new test” for the concept of an incarnate God that “teaches us more about the thing” by creating an entirely new world in which that God can incarnate. Properly understood, Narnia is no mere story about a talking animal who acts like Jesus. It is a distinct, though fictional, place where the Divine person Christians know in our world by a human face has entered in a form proper to that world (i.e. a great talking Lion) to interact with the imaginary creatures living there. By all rights, this kind of thing should make Christian fundamentalists a little edgy; the fact that they too embrace Narnia as they do is a testament to its power. Aslan is not an allegory, but another Divine incarnation for another world, a point Lewis makes clear in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” when the Lion explicitly tells the children: “There [in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia.” I imagine such dialogue doesn’t play well in focus groups. Frankly, I am curious to see whether the studio lets it stand in the critical, climactic scene when the film is released next month or if secular taste will trump authorial vision.
Now, agnostics, inquirers, doubters and corporate communicators: please bear with me a moment longer. My point is to explore, not to preach. While Lewis’ concept may seem bizarre, this idea is not without precedent in human spirituality. Visit the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and you will see this statue gracing the entrance of the Asian art gallery. Cast of copper during the Ming Dynasty, it depicts an aspect of the Buddha known as the Vairochana, in different Buddhist traditions representing emptiness or the attainment of bliss. Like the lion, he carries solar connotations. Most interesting to me, however, was the museum commentary on the pedestal beneath him:
Here he is depicted as described in the Brahmajalasutra, seated upon a lotus with 1,000 petals that emit 100,000 Buddhas, each of whom will teach the doctrine to a different universe.
There you have it. Long before “Fringe,” we have the concept of alternate realities. 100,000 of them, no less, with different manifestations of one transcendent being reaching into them all. While not equating the two systems, Christian tradition has long revered God as “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” At the very least, our creed hints at a Divine creation that extends beyond just the world we can see. Why shouldn’t the reality of a fictional world merit a fictional visit from the Divine in fairy tale form? The new cosmology emerging from string theory predicts that space may have anywhere from 11 to 26 dimensions, most of which are simply too compact for us to experience directly. Moreover, gravity in these extra dimensions may actually affect forces like electromagnetism in the four dimensions we tend to inhabit! In my (admittedly superficial) understanding of these spectacular theories, that suggests something extraordinary. At the very least, it suggests the unseen is not only real, but has real effects on the seen. That, right there, is the power behind Lewis’ ideal experiment. In a world before quantum physics, in the fuzzy math of literature, maybe Lewis was actually onto something.
Lewis, along with Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien and other contemporaries sharing an interest in myth and storytelling, comprised a literary society calling themselves the Inklings. It was in that circle that Lewis and Tolkien took part in a conversation on the literature of fairy tales that gave rise to Tolkien’s classic lecture, “On Fairy-Stories.” Here, Tolkien refuted the assumption that fairy-stories are mere stories for children, and instead laid out two essential characteristics of the genre:
- “Sub-creation:” the fairy tale creates a self-contained world with its own internal logic, rules and consequences that, no matter how fantastic, hangs together around an “inner consistency of reality”
- “Eucatastrophe:” the end of this secondary world is to deliver the reader “the sudden joyous turn,” the tell-tale “happy ending,” where all that was lost has been found, and all that was high brought low in a reversal of fortune that sees morality rise upon its own wings while evil crumbles under its own weight.
It is no accident that two of the most famous and popular works in the literature of fantasy grew out of this dialogue, with Lewis and Tolkien encouraging each other’s experiments in the form: not just in storytelling, but in the necessary act of sub-creation on which such stories must rest. Though distinctly different, the mutual success of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is built on more than plot and character. Both works hinge on the sub-creation of deeply consistent and vital fictional worlds, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lewis’ Narnia, respectively. Anyone who has read or re-read them knows these books don’t just entertain, they captivate. They aren’t just stories to tell, but places to visit. It is also no accident that both writers were deeply religious thinkers (Tolkien a Catholic and Lewis an Anglican) who engaged imaginative storytelling almost as an act of devotion. It is similar to Saint Augustine’s explanation of how humanity can be created in the image of God:
Each individual man, who is called the image of God, not according to all things that pertain to his nature, but according to… an image of the Trinity in his mind.
…We remember nothing… except by memory, nor understand anything except by understanding, nor love anything except by will.
If indeed human memory, understanding and will to love are truly the reflection of a creating God written in our psyche, then engaging the creative imagination in story and world-building can be an act of adoration. It is as if, in conceiving Middle Earth and Narnia, Tolkien and Lewis were participating in the Divine image, allowing someplace real to be created through them with real power to deliver “a sudden joyous turn” to our plain, old visible world.
Ultimately, regardless of creed, that capacity for sub-creation is something for every reader to take away from Lewis’ Christian literary imagination. In a post 9-11 world, I want to believe eucatastrophe is not only real, but normal, that as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I sense the truth of it, but know it is not a truth the world can tell. It can only break into this world from somewhere outside, from the stories we tell, and the faiths behind them. My four-year-old son has a beautiful eye for color and a love for art that goes beyond mere activity time. Like any dad, I sense seeds of greatness in that. But in this globalizing economy, it has no value. Wholesale closures of university classics departments this week have garnered tremendous media attention and a public outcry one commentator attributed to “fear that these disciplines are less career-oriented than business and technology, less valued in a world dominated by the bottom line.” I can imagine the parents already retooling their preschoolers toward a more practical MBA path as a result, but I want mine to create. Moreover, I want him to know that what he creates has value that is real, not monetary, because something Divine is shaping the world through the work of his memory, understanding and will.
After all, where does story live? How much volume does a fairy tale require? What are the dimensions of fiction? If an idea has critical mass, what are the limits of its gravitational pull on us? Thanks to Aslan, and Vairochana, and the invisible possibilities in string theory, we can sense the danger of living in a world devoid of story. When only the measurable matters, we give up our power to influence, and ignore that which truly influences us just beyond our line of sight. Teaching our kids to create imaginary worlds is nothing less than how we equip them to survive in ours.