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The Passion of C.S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

a film directed by Andrew Adamson

The film is remarkably faithful to the original. The computer-generated animals, including the traditionally domestic Beavers, who speak a kind of rural British dialect, are not too cute; Tilda Swinton, with a crown of ice and gray-blond dreadlocks, is elegantly scary as the White Witch. The transition from the dark furry wardrobe to the bright snowy wood of Narnia, which some psychologists have compared to a birth experience, is striking, and the landscape is beautiful.

The scenes of Aslan’s sacrificial death and resurrection, however, underline the religious allegory perhaps more heavily than Lewis would have liked. Aslan’s progress toward his death at a kind of altar called the Stone Table is a juvenile version of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, complete with ugly scorning and beating and spitting bystanders. Later, as Susan and Lucy watch by Aslan’s body, their postures imitate those of the mourning women in religious paintings, and when Aslan reappears the golden light behind him is High Baroque.

Disney publicists have shrewdly mounted two advertising campaigns for the film, one secular and one sacred. They did not want to scare away other paying customers, but they knew that the Christian overtones of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could make the film tremendously popular with the religious establishment, especially in America. The Chronicles of Narnia were already approved reading for church study groups: in The National Review last year, John J. Miller spoke of them as “the continuation of Sunday School by different devices.” According to some Christian Web sites, all seven volumes of the series can be profitably read as religious fables. The first volume in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, describes the creation of the world and the origin of evil, and contains a sacrament of marriage. Prince Caspian illustrates the corruption and restoration of true religion, and The Horse and His Boy tells the story of the conversion of a heathen. There is a spiritual voyage and a baptism in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the Descent into Hell is featured in The Silver Chair. The final book of the series, The Last Battle, retells the coming of the Antichrist and the Last Judgment.

Even before the film opened, the Disney organization was targeting evangelical Protestantism, and a company called Motive Entertainment was sponsoring meetings for church officials and supporters in 140 American churches, encouraging the use of The Chronicles of Narnia as an inspirational text, with sample sermons available for download on the Web.

Conservative politicians also got into the act, though not without repercussions. Last fall, when the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, chose The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for a statewide reading program, the Palm Beach Post called the move “a cabal of Christian commerce,” and claimed that the state was “opening up the public schools to some backdoor catechism lessons.” An organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State then proposed to sue the state of Florida over the issue.

C.S. Lewis, however, always claimed that The Chronicles of Narnia were not allegorical. “You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books ‘represents’ something in the world,” he wrote to a group of schoolchildren. “Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing that way.” It is true that there is no consistent one-to-one parallel between characters and events in Narnia and their religious equivalent, as there is in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But Lewis also often spoke of the Chronicles as a means of awakening religious impulses in children who might be turned off by the conventional teachings of Sunday school, as he had been.

2.

Clive Staples Lewis, who was born in 1898 and grew up in Northern Ireland, was raised as a Low-Church Anglican, with an emphasis on religious observance as a duty. But by the age of fourteen he had lost his faith in God—partly, perhaps, because his beloved mother had died of cancer when he was nine in spite of his fervent prayers for her recovery. His doubt and sense of abandonment were increased when two weeks later he and his older brother Warren were sent to an awful English boarding school that Lewis later called “Belsen” in his autobiography.

The headmaster of this school had already been prosecuted for cruelty to his students when Lewis arrived in 1908, and a few years later he would be certified insane. Both boys wrote again and again to their father, begging to come home, and Lewis prayed for relief from the constant savage beatings. But he did not escape “Belsen” until it was closed in 1910. As a result, he not only became estranged from God, but turned against his father, a pious, unpredictable lawyer of whom Lewis later wrote, “His emotions had always been uncontrolled. Under the pressure of anxiety his temper became incalculable; he spoke wildly and acted unjustly.” Lewis’s next English school was only marginally better: he was awkward at games, and was constantly bullied and teased. “Holidays are Heaven, school is, well, death,” he wrote.

According to his most recent biographer, Alan Jacobs, Lewis was rescued from adolescent depression and despair by the discovery of myth, romance, and fairy tale, and by intense Wordsworthian experience of the natural world, which he called “Joy.” At fifteen he read Frazer’s The Golden Bough and began to see Christianity as only another Near Eastern myth of a dying and reviving god. In December 1914 he was confirmed in a state of guilty disbelief.

For the next seventeen years, most of which Lewis spent at Oxford—first as a student and then as a tutor at Magdalen College, he regarded himself as an agnostic. It was not until September 1931, during a late-night discussion with two other Oxford scholars, Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, that he returned to Christianity. Lewis had been drawn to Tolkien, who was a practicing Catholic, because they both loved the myths and legends of Old English and Scandinavian folklore. That night, as they talked in Lewis’s college rooms or strolled around Addison’s Walk, Tolkien and Dyson persuaded Lewis that the Christian myth was not only equally beautiful and powerful, but also true. Lewis’s conversion was completed nine days later on a trip to the zoo where he “made friends with a bear whom he nicknamed Bultitude.” As he reported later, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”

Though Lewis had a great deal to say about his spiritual history, he was secretive about his private life, a circumstance that has made things difficult for his biographers.1 The central mystery is his thirty-two-year relationship with Mrs. Janie Moore, the mother of an army friend. Before they went overseas in 1917, Lewis and Patrick Moore agreed that if one of them were killed, the other would look after their single parents. (Lewis’s father was a widower; Mrs. Moore was estranged from her husband, though never divorced.) Patrick did die in France; his mother moved to Oxford, and for over thirty years Lewis kept his word—and perhaps more than his word. Though he slept in his college rooms during the week, he spent most of his time at Mrs. Moore’s house, and went on extended holidays with her and her daughter, Maureen. Lewis always refused to discuss the relationship with his friends, and concealed it as much as possible from everyone else.

Today Janie Moore remains an ambiguous figure. Some of Lewis’s friends spoke of her as self-centered and completely unintellectual; others reported her as charming. Both A.N. Wilson and Alan Jacobs believe that the relationship was sexual, and Wilson suggests that it had something of a sado-masochistic element. Mrs. Moore spoke of Lewis as being “as good as an extra maid,” and many observers were amazed at the way he waited on her. He also largely supported her and her daughter financially for many years.

When they met, Janie Moore was “a pretty blonde Irishwoman” of forty-five and Lewis was eighteen; by the time he became a practicing Christian she was fifty-nine and he was thirty-two. (It is possible that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, with its commandment against adultery, ended an erotic connection that might by then have become a burden.) As she grew older and her health failed Mrs. Moore became difficult and demanding. Lewis remained devoted; even after she had more or less lost her mind, he visited her in the nursing home every day. Lewis’s brother Warren, a retired soldier who had shared Mrs. Moore’s house (which he helped to buy) for twenty years, spoke of her death in 1951 as the end of a “mysterious self imposed slavery.”

The other romantic relationship in Lewis’s life is far better documented—perhaps overdocumented. Lewis’s friendship with and marriage to his American fan Joy Davidman, and her subsequent death from cancer, has been the subject of many articles and books, a play, a film, and television drama. Most of them portray the relationship as a tragic but uplifting romance. For Lewis, Joy Davidman’s appearance in his life must have seemed extraordinary. Though he was now a famous writer, he was also fifty-four years old: a heavy man with a booming voice, shabbily dressed and awkward around women. (“I am tall, fat, bald, red-faced, double-chinned…and wear glasses,” he had written to a class of fifth-graders in America who had asked for a description of himself.) Joy was thirty-seven, a nonpracticing Jew and former Communist from New York, who had begun writing Lewis in 1950 and in 1952 came to England in order to meet him. She was small, dark, attractive, lively, tough, and outspoken. She also regarded Lewis as one of the greatest men of his time, whose works had inspired her conversion to Christianity. (The coincidence of her first name with Lewis’s private term for peak experiences of literature and nature may have appeared miraculous; it was also the hidden message in the title he later chose for his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.)

Joy Davidman was certainly a surprise to his friends. Some saw her as a vulgar and scheming husband-hunter, others as an intelligent, amusing woman who had rescued Lewis from loneliness and despair after Mrs. Moore’s death. When she moved to Oxford he began seeing her every day; soon he was paying her rent and the school fees of her two sons. Though he was still declaring himself a “confirmed bachelor,” in 1956, in order to prevent Joy from being deported from England, they were joined in a civil ceremony. But Lewis did not consider himself truly married in the Christian sense; he told one friend that it was “a pure matter of friendship and expediency…simply a legal form.” It was not until the following year, when Joy was apparently dying of cancer, that they were married by an Anglican priest in her hospital room.

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    There are now two good biographies of Lewis, one by A. N. Wilson (1990) and the other by Alan Jacobs (2005). Jacobs is more comprehensive and detailed about Lewis’s philosophical, religious, and scholarly development, though it unfortunately lacks a bibliography, but Wilson is a better storyteller—even if now and then the stories he tells are (according to Jacobs) not always accurate.

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