Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.

Synopsis

Monday, March 20, 2006

It's the 'Daily Express' Gone Mad, I Tell You

On March 7th and 8th, the 'Daily Express' dedicated two front pages, two leading articles, two inside pages and some space in the letter column to a Very Important Story. It seems that children in a nursery school in Oxfordshire have been made to sing 'Baa-Baa, rainbow Sheep' rather than 'Baa-baa, black sheep', because the traditional version of the rhyme might offend minority groups.

The March 7th front page managed to include the two most important 'P.C Brigade' cliches in a single headline.

Political correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT'S BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP

As we've seen, 'Now' is an important 'Daily Express' code word, translating as "It's even worse than you thought". And of course the words 'Political Correctness' can only be used in conjunction with the words 'gone mad'.

The first paragraph tells us various people's opinions, without troubling us with anything as old fashioned as an actual news story.

A nursery school was last night accused of 'ridiculous' political correctness after removing the word 'black' from a nursery rhyme. Teachers at the government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

"Was accused of..." Well, the article does contain quotes from a local councilor and an un-named parent, both of whom use the word 'ridiculous', so I suppose that this is literally true. We don't have a factual news item followed by a comment: the fact that someone has made a comment is the news item.

"Last night...." The accusation happened at particular point, sometime on Monday March 6th. The story would be quite different if the accusation had happened in the afternoon. We are being asked to imagine someone rushing into the office late last night, shouting "Hold the front page! We've just heard that a mother in Oxford thinks that her kids kindergarten teacher has done something silly!"

"Were ordered to...." We never quite find out who or what did the ordering.

"Removed" -- An active act of censorship. Positive action taken against the offending monosyllable. Someone with a blue pen going through the Official Text of children's rhymes and 'removing' the B-word.

The core of the story is a quote from a 'mother' who 'did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her daughter's place (at the school)'.

" 'Baa baa black sheep' has been one of the most well-known nursery rhymes for generations. For people to come along and fiddle with it is ridiculous. What on earth is a a rainbow sheep anyway?"

Note that Mrs. Anonymous does not tell us anything about what has or hasn't been happening at the school, or how she heard about it. She merely says that she thinks that changing the rhyme is ridiculous. We then get an attributed quote from the 'manager' of the school.

"Basically, we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. Not one should feel point out because of their race, gender or anything else."

But wait a minute – Mr Chamberlain has also failed to refer to any actual incident; indeed, to make any reference to sheep, black or otherwise. He's just made some general comments about the school's race policy. And why does he twice use the phrase 'equal opportunities' rather than, say, 'racially inclusive language'. (Surely, 'equal opportunities' refers to which teachers you employ and what kids you admit, not what books and poems you use?) The 'Express' says that the school censored the rhyme in order to 'avoid offending children', but nothing in the quote from Mr. Chamberlain implies this.

There is no news story here. No-one has published a book of censored poems; no-one has issued a press release or a diktat, and (presumably) no 'Daily Excess' hack has been inside the school to report on what goes on. Maybe the toddlers have been singing about rainbow sheep, and maybe they haven't, but there is no hint in the paper about how we know, who reported it, how the story came to light. All we have is a couple of quotes in which people react to having been informed (by whom?) that the words of the poem have been changed.

We have to wait to Day 2 of the story for an actual piece of information to make itself heard.

The 'Daily Express' revealed yesterday how the Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, had changed the words of the nursery rhyme. Center manager Stuart Chamberlain had said equal opportunities justified that extraordinary decision.... At the center itself yesterday the staff were still trying in vain to justify their actions. Felicity Dick the nursery's project coordinator, said; "What is ridiculous is that we were actually singing black sheep, white sheep and occasionally rainbow sheep. But afterwards we had a useful discussion about it all. We haven't often sung rainbow sheep as that is not their actual colour of course. And I will say that the children hear have made both black sheep and white sheep to put on the wall.'"

So: we now have an actual fact. At this school, the line 'Baa-baa Rainbow Sheep' has been sung, at least once, in addition to, but not instead of, the line 'baa-baa black sheep'.

But hang on. Isn't that what you do when you are playing with very small children -- make up silly words to well-known songs? Aren't the popular children's jingles precisely the ones where Mummy or Teacher can make up an infinite number of equally irritating verses? After the wheels on the bus have gone round and round a few dozen times, the wipers on the bus can go swish swish swish and the farmer can think up a large number of equally unlikely things to do in his den. If your toddlers have an appetite for yet another round of songs about sheep, then you can just imagine Miss Dick looking up from her piano and saying 'What colour sheep are they this time, children.... Baa-baa-blue-sheep'. The original story, that an un-named Big Brother figure has 'ordered' the school to 'ban' the word 'black' is in ruins.

Very fascinatingly, Day 2 contains a quote from two more parents without names:

One couple whose daughter attends the group felt the nursery's stance had been 'absolutely laughable'. The father said yesterday: 'I think most of us only heard about it today, but it's absolutely ridiculous. But after all the publicity an once we made our views known, I am pleased to say today that they are again singing black sheep.'

"After all the publicity": Mr and Mrs Anonymous have found out about what goes on at school, not from their child or from the teachers, but by reading about it in the 'Daily Express'. We are reading a parent's reaction to a news item which itself consisted of nothing but other people's reactions to a supposed event.

I don't think it is too hard to imagine the way in which these kinds of stories are created.

1: Some school children sing 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' because some teacher thinks it is funny at the time.

2: One child repeats this to his mother.

3: His mother telephone the 'Daily Express', using the 'Do you have a story' number prominently displayed every day on page two, and tells them that she thinks that it is 'ridiculous.'

4: The 'Express' phones round for quotes. The head of the nursery, knowing nothing about what songs Miss Dick may or may not have been singing yesterday, makes a general comment about the school's equal opportunities policy. They ask various people 'What do you think about nurseries singing about amazingly technicolour dream-sheep' and the politicians says 'We think it is rather silly'

5: They publish an article almost entirely made up of comments from people who say it is very silly.

6: Other parents with children about the school, who knew nothing about it read the comments, and also say that it is very silly.

7: The nursery issues a partial rebuttal, saying, yes, we did sing the song with variant words, but no, we didn't have any kind of policy against the use of the word 'black'

8: The 'Express' prints a front page headline implying that this rebuttal represents a change of policy ('Daily Express' halts the rainbow sheep PC nonsense' 'Ewe turn' 'The big climbdown').

A non-news story is follow by a non-event represented as a huge victory. There is no World War II bomber on the moon after all.

All of which would be very funny, were it not being used as a pretext to talk about race issues in general. The Oxfordshire local politician who thinks that rainbow sheep are ridiculous informs the readers of the worlds-greatest-newspaper-and-proud-of-it that "this kind of thing is happening all the time", and we seamlessly segue into a story about a toy-shop owner who was asked to remove three gollywogs from his window. When he got a phone call from a police officer "'I assumed there had been a break in. It's political correctness gone mad." (Twice in one article.)

Now, it would indeed be ridiculous to prohibit the word 'black sheep', which is why no-one has ever done so, but selling dolls which are grotesque caricatures of Negroes -- particularly when the word 'wog' is commonly used as a racial slur – is a much less clear cut issue. And then the co-founder of the sinister sounding 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' asserts that "There are missives coming down from Government bodies about equal opportunities, so schools get into trouble like this." We are no longer talking about a single schools hyper-correct editing of a particular poem: the whole idea of 'equal opportunities' is the problem.

The March 8th article concludes, in a complete non-sequitur, by re-cycling a story about positive discrimination in the police force. A constabulary "caused outrage" by launching "a recruitment drive aimed at gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and people from ethnic backgrounds" which apparently meant that applications from 'white, heterosexual men" were "torn up". The question of how you deal with the under-representation of minorities is a real one and this kind of affirmative action (if true) is in my opinion rather a blunt instrument for dealing with it. But the 'Daily Express' wants us to draw a connection between the two issues. Banning black sheep and gollywogs and thinking that there should be more black policemen are both examples of the thing called 'political correctness'. Political Correctness is shorthand for the belief that it's Us, white people, not Them, blacks and hoh moh sexuals who are subject to prejudice. Our traditional nursery rhymes are taken away and our job applications are torn up.

England prevails.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Monday, February 27, 2006

Civil Liberties and Human Rights Can Be Disregarded When You Are Very Cross: Official

"Well on the first, look I will be very clear with you, I have said why I think that Guantanamo is an anomaly and should come to an end. I have said all that. I also think however it is important we never forget the context in which this has happened, which is the context of the war in Afghanistan and the reason for that was the slaughter of 3,000 innocent people on 11 September. Now it is important, of course, that we pursue the action against terrorism, maintaining absolutely our commitment to proper civil liberties and human rights,



but




it is also important that we remember those people that died in that terrorist act, and have some understanding therefore of the huge amount of anger that there is in America of what happened there."


Downing Street Press Conference 23rd Feb 2006


maintaining absolutely our commitment to proper civil liberties and human rights, but

absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Poetry Corner

This poem may be illegal under the Glorification of Terrorism bill.

This poem has no possible relevance to anything in last weeks news.

Bugger.

I am officially unemployed.

This "getting made redundant" business could become tedious after a while. I think this is the fifth time.

On the plus side, I get to move away from Macclesfield which is officially the most boring town in the western hemisphere, and go back to Bristol.

No flowers by request. Carry on talking among yourseves. Normal service will be resumed relatively shortly.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

....and it's good night from him

Mr Bean: Good evening. It's wonderful to be back with you again, isn't it Rowan?

The Archbishop of Canterbury: Indeed it is. And in a packed programme tonight, I'll be talking to a lady who likes Nicholas Parsons...

Mr Bean: ...and I'll be talking to parson who was arrested under the Religious Hatred bill for making lewd jokes about members of the clergy.

Archbishop: After that, I'll explore the limits of free speech in a multi-faith society.

Mr Bean: ...and I'll bang on and on about old "Not the Nine O'Clock News" gags involving the Ayotallah's contact lenses, which weren't very funny at the time.

Archbishop: Then I'll be interviewing a man who thinks that even if you despise what someone says, you should defend to the death their right to say it.

Mr Bean. ...and I'll be interviewing a man who thinks that even Voltaire would have regarded Nick Griffin as a special case.

Archbishop: But first, the news. There were widespread demonstrations throughout the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper printed a series of religiously offensive cartoons. Police say that it's hard to work out the difference between caricaturing the Prophet at a time of heightened racial tension and shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Mr Bean: One Muslim protester, photographed holding a banner with the slogan "Freedom Can Go To Hell" on it, said that this violation of the West's most sacred taboo was intended "ironically".

Archbishop: Across Europe, newspapers showed solidarity with Denmark by printing cartoons about pedophilia and essays by holocaust deniers.

Mr Bean: In order to show how strongly it believed in freedom of speech, the Daily Mail printed a double-page spread of nude male models with erect genitalia, and asked readers to select the biggest prick in the paper.

Archbishop: The readers unanimously voted for Nick Griffin.

Mr Bean: Nick Griffin had just been cleared by the high court of being a racist, on the grounds that he was very careful to use the word "Muslim" instead of "Paki" in his invective. One comedian argued that if you closed this legal loop hole, you'd also end up criminalising most religious jokes.

Archbishop: Which begs the question, which would give you the bigger laugh: Rowan playing silly vicars in bad Hugh Grant movies, or Nick Griffin banged up in a cell with a couple of big strong black convicts for company?

Mr. Bean: Tony Blair's flagship Religious Hatred bill -- that would have prevented comedians telling religious jokes, such as one that I made 20 years ago involving the Ayatollah's contact lenses....

Archbishop: ....get on with it, Rowan....

Mr Bean: ...was defeated by one vote in the House of Commons, not because free-speech advocates won the argument, but because the Prime Minister went home early. As the late, great Bob Monkhouse said "That was when I realised that God writes better jokes than I do."

Archbishop: And now a sketch about the President of the United States and the former President of Iraq. I play the crazed fundamentalist who approves of torture and sponsors terrorism.

Mr Bean: And I play Saddam Hussein.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

"I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language." - Out of the Silent Planet

Review

I thought that "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a very good movie. It is pretty faithful to C.S Lewis's book and quite moving at times. Mr Tumnus's house, the Beavers' cottage and the White Witch's palace all looked very much like Pauline Baynes illustrations -- although I had my doubts about Cair Paravel. The talking animals were extremely convincing, although some of the monsters were less so. All the main characters should be nominated for Oscars, and Tilda Swinton should actually win one. The religious content was neither overlooked nor overplayed. Above all, it succeeded in making me feel that I was in Narnia. I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Analysis

I

In Chapter 12 of C.S Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" the Pevensie children meet Aslan for the first time. The Lion asks them what has happened to their brother Edmund. Mrs. Beaver tells him that he has betrayed them and joined the White Witch. "That was partly my fault, Aslan," says Peter. "I was angry with him, and I think that helped him to go wrong."

This is a good and generous act on Peter's part. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is a bully: Lucy thinks he was turned bad by a "horrid" school. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is bewitched by the magic Turkish delight; it isn't Peter's fault that Edmund decides to lie about having been in Narnia with Lucy. But when he discovers this lie, Peter calls his brother a "poisonous little beast". In Mr Tumnus's house, he shouts down Edmund's perfectly reasonable comment that there is not much that four children can do to rescue the Faun from the Witch. Had Peter not been angry, or if he had forgiven him sooner, then Edmund might not have sneaked out of the Beavers' house and gone to the Witch. Peter has told Aslan the exact truth -- his anger helped Edmund to go wrong, so he is partly responsible for the betrayal.

In Andrew Adamson's (1) movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", when Aslan learns that Edmund has betrayed his family, Peter says "That was my fault. I was too hard on him." Susan puts her hand on Peter's shoulder and says "We all were." For some reason, movie-Peter takes all the blame for Edmund's misconduct on himself.

In Chapter 16 of the book, Aslan arrives on the battlefield, along with the prisoners who he has freed from the Witch's castle. The Lion leaps onto the Witch and the freed prisoners charge her army. Lewis tells us that, once it is clear that the Witch is dead, all the bad creatures surrender or flee.

In the movie, the Lion tears out the Witch's throat with as much ferocity as is compatible with a P.G certificate and then says solemnly "It is finished." Adamson has spent the last month telling the media that there is no specific, unique or necessary "Christian" interpretation of the story: nevertheless, movie-Aslan adds an explicit religious gloss to a scene which, in C.S Lewis's book, doesn't have one.

Chapter 17 of the book, Edmund is mortally wounded from his battle with the White Witch. Lucy puts a few drops of her magic elixir into his mouth, and waits to see if he will recover.

"There are other people wounded" said Aslan....
"Yes, I know", said Lucy crossly. "Wait a minute."
"Daughter of Eve" said Aslan in a graver voice "Others are at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?"

In the movie version Lucy waits and sees Edmund come back from the point of death. His two sisters embrace him, and Peter says, with mock severity "Why can you never do what you are told?" This family reunion comes to an end when Lucy bounds off (without being prompted) to tend to the other wounded soldiers. In the book, Lucy is mildly reprimanded for caring more about her brother than about a group of strangers: in the film this is accepted without question.

So: Adamson's movie is quite astonishingly faithful to C.S Lewis's book. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be able to play this kind of game. (If you tried to put scenes from Tolkien alongside scenes from Jackson, your little head would explode.) It's a scene by scene, if not quite a line by line, translation of the story from book to movie. But fairy tales and disney-multiplex-franchise-movies speak a different language and inevitably in the course of the translation, something gets lost.

II


The problem with the movie doesn't come where I expected it to.

It wasn't the child-actors. Peter looked too much like Prince William, and Lucy said "actually" too often, but they were all pretty natural and convincing. I felt that I was watching 'real' kids, not drama school prima donnas.

It wasn't the character of Aslan. You can't put God on the screen and you can't make the audience feel that "some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music has just floated by" when they hear his name. But a larger-than-life Lion that sounds like Qui-Gon (Obi-Wan was unavailable) is a pretty good cinematic representation of numinous wisdom. Aslan's first entrance -- a gigantic paw emerging from a tent; all the various centaurs, cheetahs and rhinos falling to their knees; Peter, slightly awkwardly, saluting with his sword -- was one of of two unequivocally magical moments in the film. If we'd never heard of "CGI" I think that we'd have assumed that this was a real lion, borrowed from circus and bribed to do what the director told it to. But Aslan's movements are slower and more regal than a real animal's. That adds to his mystique; like a lion, and yet not quite like a lion. I do regret that we entirely lost the playful side of his character: he does let the girls ride on his back, but we don't see the "mad chase" round the hill, "such a romp as no-one has ever had except in Narnia."

The other genuinely magical moment, surprisingly, was the arrival of Father Christmas. Many people, including Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green thought that his appearance in the book was a great mistake.(2) The film navigates this fat jolly minefield by avoiding any stereotypical "coca-cola" imagery. Yes, he has a beard; yes, he is dressed in red, and yes he rides a sleigh ("I've been driving one of these longer than the Witch has!"). He even laughs, although he avoids saying "Ho-ho-ho". But until he produces his sack, you could easily not realise who he is. James Cosmo plays him absolutely straight, as if this is the first time anyone in the world has ever worn a Santa suit. As in the book, the incongruity of the scene is its real point. It's not strange that Father Christmas should be giving out gifts; it's not odd that the heroes should be given magical weapons; but it is very odd that the High King should get his sword as a present from Father Christmas....and this oddness somehow puts a new shine on the cliché.

Department of Polly Toynbee: The line "Battles are ugly when women fight" is changed to "Battles are ugly affairs."

The religious element was handled with a fairly light touch – not laid on with a Gibsonian trowel, but not ignored, either. The death of Aslan is genuinely horrifying, due less to the zoofull of CGI hags and minotaurs than to Tilda Swinton's lumininously evil White Witch. It would have been so easy to have camped up this part, turned her into someone's ugly sister. Instead, Swinton is a kind of female Iago; speaking softly and plausibly and only occasionally allowing the mask to slip. When she whispers "Did you think by all this to save the human child?" we feel Aslan's despair and humiliation. We don't see the knife pierce Aslan – in general, the film tones down the books slightly bloodthirsty atmosphere - but the film unflinchingly squeezes every last tear out of Susan and Lucy. The actors are excellent, convincingly fighting back tears rather than sobbing. Susan's first reaction is, in fact, a forced smile "He must have known what he was doing."

Department of Polly Toynbee: In neither the book nor the film is Aslan "thrashed" by the Witch's minions, although he is tied up and shaved. Perhaps our Polly was confusing Lewis with Gibson? An easy mistake to make.

So: the four children, the Witch, the death and resurrection of Aslan and even Father Christmas – the film handles them all with great confidence and style. And it all looks absolutely terrific; the first shot of Tumnus and his parcels and the lampost and Lucy just takes your breath away -- they've brought Narnia to life, how have they done that?

The problems start when Adamson has to make up stuff for the characters to say.


III

C.S Lewis is at his best when he is talking to his readers in his own voice: telling them, often in summary form, what happened next or how someone feels. When Aslan dies he writes:

I hope no-one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been -- if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you -- you know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.

--as good a description of grief as I think anyone has ever managed.

He is less good at dialogue, although in the more mythical sections of the story, his characters often get good lines. When Edmund arrives at the castle, the Wolf says "Welcome, fortunate favoured of the Queen, or perhaps not so fortunate." Many of these lines are carried over into the film: Lucy tells Tumnus that he's "the nicest Faun I've ever met"; Edmund tells the White Witch that his siblings are "nothing special." Adamson only rarely gives in to the Jacksonian urge to redistribute lines between characters. When he does so, it's usually for a clear reason. In the book, when the Witch demands Edmund's blood, a talking bull says "Come and take him!" In the film, the line is given to Peter, which fits in with his hero role, and shows that he really has forgiven his brother. (3) And it was a very good idea to give Mrs Beaver's lines about how Aslan will "always be coming and going" to Mr Tumnus: it means that the Narnian section of the film is neatly book-ended by conversations between him and Lucy.

But when the characters are engaged in ordinary conversation, Lewis's writing ranges between the bland and the positively bad. No modern actor could be expected to say "We've fallen on our feet and no mistake. This is all going to be perfectly splendid" to end sentences with "By Jove!" and "Great Scott!" or to describe things as "beastly". Although Lewis's characters talk a lot, most of what they say is concerned with pointing things out ("Look, there's a robin!") or explaining what they are going to do next. No real relationship or dynamic between them ever emerges. Edmund is treacherous; Peter is angry but forgives him; Lucy is good; Susan is...their sister – but except in so far as it drives the plot they have no real voices of their own.

This is not really a fault on Lewis's part, but a characterstic of the fairy tale form he is writing in. We experience Narnia more vividly because we see it through the eyes of a non-descript Everyboy and Everygirl. Either we imagine that we are in Narnia or we we imagine for ourselves what kinds of children Peter and Lucy must be. The Brother's Grimm don't tell us what Hansel and Gretel studied at school, or what Rapunzel did all day in the tower. But in a movie we are necessarily looking at four specific people represented by four specific actors: they have to be fleshed out as people. And you can't have a movie script where four people spend all their time agreeing with each other: Adamson has to give the group an internal dynamic. This gave me a sense that I was watching two movies simultaneously. In the background is Lewis's story, faithfully rendered; beautifully visualised; powerfully acted. But in the foreground is a "character driven" story about four wartime evacuees that Adamson has made up out of his head.

Just as the fairy tale genre imposes limits on Lewis, so the movie genre imposes limits on Adamson. Hollywood is founded on a Deep Magic that determines what kind of stories can exist. Everything must center on a single hero, who must be central to, or preferably initiate, the action. The hero must be faced with a choice between doing the Right thing and doing the Wrong thing. This choice must involve Personal Growth -- the hero at the end of the movie cannot be quite the same as he was at the beginning. For most movie heroes, from Rick Blain via Han Solo to Merry and Pippin, this Choice has usually been cast in the form "Should I stay or should I go?" Because movies are a democratic genre, the Right Thing is usually defined as a platitude: not Justice or Democracy, but a Good which literally everyone can agree on. It is good to keep promises; it is good to stick together as a family; it is good to help people who have helped you; the bond between Father and Son (and Mother and Daughter, but that's obviously less important) is sacred in an almost literally religious sense; it is good believe in yourself. And at some point in every movie the Deep Magic demands that someone should say "Why don't you try and get some rest?"

Adamson's tells the only story that the Rules of Movie allow him to tell. But it is at times hopelessly at crossed purposes to the story by C.S Lewis on which it is ostensibly based.

IV

We begin with an air-raid during the blitz. The first image in the movie is of German aircraft over London.

This has a triple function:

1: The Deep Magic requires that something should go "bang" within the first five minutes of a movie, otherwise "it's boring"

2: It spells out the concept of "evacuation" for the benefit of any slow boys in the back row. (4)

3: It introduces the central theme of Adamson's invented plot, which which is the conflict between Peter and Edmund.

(It is also "kewl" to start a fantasy movie with a scene from a war film: do you remember how the Oscar Wilde biopic started out looking like, of all things, a Western?)

Since Peter (as opposed to Aslan) is the hero of Adamson's story, as much of the action as possible has to center on or be initiated by him. Adamson has seized on Peter's remark that Edmund's fall is partly his fault and made it the organising principle of the first half of the movie. Peter treats Edmund badly in order that Peter (the hero) can be completely (as opposed to partly) to blame for Edmund's fall. Edmund's repentance can thus be "about" Peter's self-recognition, keeping Peter in the central position. However, this strategy has the incidental effect of making Edmund a more sympathetic character. In the book he is merely spiteful; here, he is to some extent a victim of his ill-treatment. This, in turn, changes the meaning of Aslan's sacrifice. In the book, he is dying for a very nasty and spiteful little boy - giving the light for the darkness. In the film, he is dying to extricate someone from the results of bad choices for which they were not entirely to blame.

So, in this opening scene, we see Peter rushing back into the house (with doodlebugs falling all around him) to rescue Edmund. This establishes that he is a basically decent sort who loves his brother; and that Edmund is stupid and disobedient. Once they get to the bomb shelter, Peter calls Edmund an idiot and asks "Why can't you ever do what you are told?" This rather puts us on Edmund's side -- no-one wants to be told off by their big brother. And the reason Edmund returned to the house is to retrieve a photograph of his soldier Dad, for which we can hardly blame him. Edmund especially idolizes his absent father ("If Dad were here, he wouldn't send us away") and thus especially resents the fact that Peter tries to take on a fatherly role. Pretty much the whole of Adamson's plot has been established. Not quite Oedpus Rex, but still.

The next scene shows the children at the railway station, being evacuated to the country, and saying farewell to their mother (5). The main themes of Adamson's story are further established: Mrs. Pevensie explicitly puts Peter in loco parentis. Peter "promises" to take care of the others. Promises are important and unbreakable in Movies. (It will be remembered that in Jackson's parody of "Lord of the Rings", Sam's stated reason for leaving the fellowship and going to Mordor was neither loyalty nor love for his master, but "I made a promise to Mr. Gandalf. A promise.") "I promised Mum..." is going to become a refrain throughout the Adamson thread of this film. Peter immediately tries to behave like a father, and Edmund immediately resists it ("I know how to get on a train".)

The credits roll over the train-ride to the Professor's house. Before we have seen any wardrobes we have undergone a kind of magical journey: from the nasty urban reality of bombs, railway stations into a rural arcadia where people still travel by horse and cart. As the train puffed through the astonishingly unspoilt countryside and the silly new age theme tune played in the background, every single member of the audience simultaneously thought "Hogwarts Express!"

The first ten minutes or so in the Professor's house are an extremely well-characterised elaboration of Adamson's basic themes. Peter tries to take on the role of Father; Susan needles him for doing it inadequately ("Well, that was nicely handled") and Edmund sulks because Susan is trying to Mother him. ("Yes Mum"). Peter is far too willing to tell Edmund off, but very reluctant to do so to Lucy. This tends to put us on Edmund's side. By the time Edmund meets the White Witch we, like him, are losing patience with Peter. We can understand why Edmund likes the idea that when he is King of Narnia, Peter will be his servant. (In the book, the deal is that Edmund will be King and Peter and Lucy will be Dukes and Duchesses.) Edmund's betrayal is motivated by a wish to humiliate Peter. Peter thus is kept center-stage.

So, we have a positively Ibsenesque little family drama. A surrogate father being cut down to size by a wannabe surrogate mother; and a rebellious son who accepts neither of them due to his (admirable) fidelity to his absent father; and who has therefore become embroiled in a scheme to make his brother-father into his servant. Lewis's fairy tale is a much simpler conflict between three good children and one traitor.

In the book, when the children discover Tumnus's house wrecked by the White Witch, everybody but Edmund agrees that it is their duty to try to help him. Here, Lucy wants to help Tumnus, but Susan and Peter (like Han Solo, Merry, Pippin and those Cheese-Eating-Surrender-Monkeys) think that We Should Stay At Home and Not Get Involved. Susan thinks that This Is Not Our War; Peter's over-riding concern is to keep his brothers and sisters safe, because "I promised Mum." This remains their motivation right through their first meeting with Beavers, up to the point when Edmund consummates his treachery. Discovering that they are the subjects of an ancient prophecy doesn't make any difference. We may also detect the increasingly cancerous influence of Joesph Campbell at this point: the first stage of the journey of the Hero is the Refusal of the Quest. "We aren't heroes. We come from Finchley". (It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here.) It is only when they discover that Edmund has run off to join the Witch that Peter agrees to go and meet Aslan at the Stone Table. But Peter does this only in order to enlist Aslan's help in rescuing Edmund. Arguably, Aslan's sacrifice itself is made sub-ordinate to Peter's need to keep his promise.

In Lewis, the Pevensies accept the reality of Narnia almost immediately. When they step through the Wardrobe, they are transformed into characters in a fairy tale. They seem to know this and behave like fairy tale characters should. Adamson keeps his children anachronistically out of place in Narnia for as long a possible. Susan accepts the existence of magic wardrobes and fauns, but still affects to be surprised by talking beavers. They continue to make references to our world – Lucy boasts that she is the tallest girl in her class ("actually"); Edmund tells the Witch what Mum thinks about Peter. Even after they have met Aslan, Lucy and Susan are still wondering about whether they can take some Narnian dresses home to Mum in the England of rationing and clothes shortages.

But just as Lewis's characters go from being "real" children to fairy tale characters, so Adamson's go from being "real" children to Movie characters. The tipping point is the arrival of Father Christmas. Peter's acceptance of his sword is, in some sense, an acceptance of his role as Hero. Adamson celebrates this by plunging him into the stupidest scene in the movie – and the only one which has no basis in the book. In the land of Movie, the end of the long Winter represents, not the onset of Spring and the return of the true King, but a Hazard for the movie-hero to overcome. The frozen river they are trying to cross starts to melt. All pretense of being 1940s schoolchildren is abandoned. (Not that this pretense ever went much deeper than striped pajamas and a habit of calling everyone Sir.) They realise that they are Action Movie characters. Peter develops an Indiana Jones like ability to, er, surf on lumps of frozen ice. Sticking a sword into the ice would be a good thing to do in the middle of a frozen lake. Apparently. Susan drops out of her mumsy-big-sister role, and realises that she is the Spunky Side Kick of a Movie Hero. "Just because a man in a red suit gives you a sword, that doesn't make you a hero!" But it does, Sue, it does. That's the whole point.

The characters are, incidentally, a little confused about whether to speak British Movie or American Movie. They play cricket, but they say things like "We could all use the fresh air" and "I guess I could try". The Witch says "He turned you in -- for sweeties" as opposed to, say, "He grassed you up -- for candy."

Edmund's scenes in the Witch's castle arguably improve on the book. The idea that Edmund should meet Tumnus in the Witch's dungeon is inspired. It keeps Tumnus on stage – he rather disappears from the book after the first few chapters – and it allows Edmund to see the results of his pettiness. Adamson has already drawn a direct parallel between Tumnus and Edmund: both planned to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, but Tumnus changed his mind, explicitly because he was ashamed of letting down the memory of his solider father. ("We're not really very similar at all.") When Edmund arrives in the wreck of Tumnus's house, it's he that notices the picture of Tumnus Snr. on the floor – taking us right back to the first scene. Again, because we feel that Edmund has blundered into his situation, we feel sorry for him as he grasps the enormity of what he has done: when the Witch turns Tumnus to stone, we feel more sorry for Edmund, who caused it, then for Tumnus himself.

As we've seen, when Peter meets Aslan he takes all the blame for Edmund's treachery because he was "too hard on him." This is an interesting phrase. Edmund resents Peter for having tried to take the place of his father; but Peter sees that the problem is that he has been a bad father: demanding too much of his "son" and over-reacting when he does something bad. (In Movies, "Bad" means "Strict": we never see a Father suddenly realising that he has been too lenient with his son.) This is Peter's Moment of Personal Recognition on which everything else turns.

In the book, we are told that, after Edmund is rescued from the witch and forgiven by Aslan:

"Everyone wanted very hard to say something that would make it quite clear that they were all friends with him again -- something ordinary and natural -- and of course no-one could think of anything in the world to say." ..

Adamson, however, is able to think of something. Peter says "Try and get some rest" and then adds with a smile "And don't go wandering off." Adamson's family plot is effectively resolved at this point. Peter, by pretending to tell Edmund off, concedes that he has been a bad father; Edmund, by smiling, accepts Peter's paternal role and his own place in the pecking order. Susan, incidentally, stops trying to be motherly and starts fooling about in the river with her kid sister. Everything is now in the proper order. All that remains is for Peter, just before the battle, to experience Heroic Self-Doubt (Copyright Viggo Mortensen) and for Edmund to say "Aslan believed in you. And so do I."

Quite astonishingly, even after Aslan has appeared and Edmund has been rescued, Peter still keeps singing his should-I-stay-or-should-I-go song. Now that they have Edmund back, they have to go home "because I promised Mum". This is appallingly impoverished writing: we are being asked to entertain the notion that Being Asked to Become King by Jesus Christ or a Furry Analogy Thereof is trumped by I Made a Promise To My Mum. And we all know the main character can't miss the big climax, in any case. Granted, Peter's scheme is that he should stay and fight while the other three go home, but that only suggests that he hasn't been paying attention: the prophecy requires four human children to be monarchs.

No-one ought to be surprised that the battle, which takes place off-stage in the book, is played out in all its glory. As the ranks and ranks of monsters and animals lined up for the cavalry charge; as we see Peter and the White Witch facing each other across the valley and the gryphons dropping rocks on the enemy, and an honest to god phoenix lighting up the sky, everyone in the audience must have thought "Doesn't Peter Jackson do this kind of thing so much better?"

Putting the battle on screen has one unintended consequence: it means that we actually see Edmund realising that he should strike at the Witch's magic staff, rather than at the Witch herself. In the book, this occurs off-stage, and when Aslan arrives, the first thing Peter does is tell him that it was his brother's bravery and good sense that saved the day: a nice gesture of magnanimity and generosity which would have fitted in nicely with Adamson's invented story, but can't fit into a Movie which requires a climax in which Stuff Blows Up.

And so we are left with Susan giving Edmund the magic elixir, which, as we have seen, is given a very different spin from that in the book. In the book, the fact that Lucy has to go and tend the other soldiers first indicates that family is not the only important thing. This would utterly contradict Adamson's invented storyline, which is about how a dysfunctional set of siblings, running away from one war (in which they are helpless bystanders), establish healthy, functioning relationships by finding themselves in the middle of another (in which they are pivotal figures.) The idea that there is anything more important than family simply cannot be expressed in the language of Movie.

When the battle seemed to be turning against the good guys, Peter told Edmund to "take the girls and go home", so when Edmund is revived, Peter says "Why can't you do what you're told?" in a friendly, ironic manner. This is the same thing he said to him in anger in the bomb shelter. The fact that the line is said twice, but in a different context, establishes that there has been Character Growth: Peter is now longer "too hard" on Edmund, and Edmund now respects Peter. So the Deep Magic of Hollywood is satisfied, and we can all go home.

V

None of this really matters.

There is only one important question to ask about this film. "Did it, or did it not, put a lump in your throat during the key set-pieces?" According to this criteria, Adamson's "The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe" succeeds admirably. Lucy's first trip to Narnia; Father Christmas; the first appearance of Aslan; Edmund's rehabilitation; Lucy and Susan at the stone table – all these scenes must have had everyone apart from Polly Toynbee reaching for their pocket handkerchiefs.

So despite the Disneywood nonsense, the film actually remains pretty close to Lewis's intentions. The point of Aslan's death is not that it is a rather clumsy "allegory" of the Atonement; but that our reaction to it is emotionally congruent with what our reaction to the death of Jesus would be if we believed that story were true. Ten years from now, children who saw this film will not remember that the explanation of the Deep Magic was rather truncated or that there was some dross about Family and Doing the Right Thing. What they will remember is how sad they were when Aslan died, and how happy they were when he came alive again, and how the "real" Father Christmas is scary and holy as well as being kind and jolly. Poetry is lost in translation; but myth remains the same in any language.

NOTES:


(1) The director's name is, of course, an allegory. "Adamson" means "Son of Adam", so "Andrew Son-of-Adam" and "Peter Son-of-Adam" are symbolically brothers. In the Bible, the apostles Andrew and Peter are brothers. Just as Andrew brought Peter to Jesus, so Andrew Adamson brings Peter Adam's Son to Aslan. (The director's name is also a deliberate reference to the movie "Born Free", which is itself an allegory of the conversion of C.S Lewis. Joy Adamson made friends with a lion called Elsa, which is very nearly "Aslan" spelled backwards. This represents the fact that it was the experience of "Joy" which led Lewis to "befriend" Christ.)

(2) In fact, he is indispensable to the symbolism. In the story his arrival represents the beginning of the end of the White Witch's "always winter but never Christmas" spell. (The English "Father Christmas" is primarily the personification of the season although he acquired the habit of gift-giving from the Dutch-American "Santa Claus".) At a religious level, it's important that Aslan and Father Christmas arrive at the same time. But Lewis is also invoking a world where Father Christmas and Christ, the merry making and the holiness are inseparable parts of the same festival. He claims that one Easter Sunday he heard a toddler chanting "chocolate eggs and Jesus risen!" and commented "This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable theology."

(3) Peter drawing his sword to defend Edmund is an allegory of Peter drawing his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane. Santa giving Peter a sword is an allegory of Christ telling Peter to put away his sword.

(4) I think the film is confused about the nature of evacuation. The kids who were sent away from railway stations with name-tags round their necks were part of an organised programme, where whole schools were sent to the countryside and compulsorily billeted with strangers. The Pevensies know that they are going to meet Mrs McCreedy; and Mrs McCreedy evidently knows they are coming. So surely this a private arrangement between the Professor and Mrs Pevensie. Why the name tags?

(5) Lucy mentions that their mother is called "Helen". This suggests that Edmund and Peter are allegories of David and Douglas Gresham, who were taken by their mother Helen Joy Gresham to live in an old house that was owned by a learned Professor, who knew about secret worlds.


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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas Message

This Christmas season people of good will both at home and throughout the commonwealth are all thinking about the same thing. They are seeking the answer to one basic question which has been at the heart of our national celebrations this year. That question is, of course: "Was David Tennant any good?"

The answer is "Yes, in a very real sense, David Tennant was quite mind-blowingly, astonishingly good; good in a way that blows our memories of Christopher Eccelston out of the window." When he grins and says "Fantastic" at the end of the episode, it seems positively anachronistic, as if, in the space of an hour, the guy in the leather jacket has become as remote as the the guy with the recorder. You had to look hard at Doctor Chris to find his Doctorness; some of us old-timers found ourselves saying "This is strange: unlike the Doctor, yet somehow, still like the Doctor." Doctor David is Doctorish from the moment he emerges from the TARDIS. Like Doctor Tom, he manages to shift in a second from being silly and childish to godlike and serious. Fans will be saying "This planet is defended" for years to come. R.T.D is a sly fox. It now looks very much as if he always intended Tennant to play the Doctor, but spotted that, by allowing Eccleston's off-the-wall re-invention to command the stage for one season, he would get to blow many of the cobwebs off the tired old format, and to relaunch the series twice in one year. I mean, honestly, when sitting down to watch "Rose", the TV event of the year, did anyone of us really think that nine months later, nine million of us would be watching an even bigger and more hyped re-relaunch?

Many of the 45 minute episodes have felt rushed: at 60 minutes, "The Christmas Invasion" felt developed and well-balanced. The story made a great deal of sense, although it suffered from a few examples of R.T.Ds trademarked lazy plotting -- there seemed to be no story-internal reason for the killer Santa's or killer Christmas tree -- they were in the story simply because they seemed like a good idea at the time. (The idea that the Doctor is literally revived by a cup of tea was amusing, but had no rational justification.) The papers, bless them, fixated on the idea that the story had a strong anti-war message, but compared with the in-your-face satire of "World War III" last year, it was almost imperceptible. The ground is laid, tantalisingly, for next years Torchwood spin-off without giving us any clues us to what it will be about, and we get to see UNIT without feeling that we are in the middle of a Continuity Reference For The Fans. (And no Brig. Shame.) R.T.D remains nervous about setting a story on what he calls "the planet Zog", but the alien space ship sequence was a as sci-fi as anything we've seen in the new series so far.

In retrospect, March - December now feels like a prolonged gestation period: with "The Christmas Invasion", the real Doctor is definitely back.



But why couldn't they have found some reason for him to say "Incidentally, a merry Christmas to all of you at home?"

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Yes.

 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/dec/13/religion.film

Thursday, December 08, 2005

08/12/80

"So flower power didn't work. So what. We'll try something else. Apathy isn't where it's at."

See you later allegorist!

It would be possible, and it might be edifying, to write a Christian cookery book. Such a book would exclude dishes whose preparation involves un-necessary human labour or animal suffering, and dishes excessively luxurious. That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a pagan. -- Lewis 'Christianity and Literature'

On December 4th, The Sunday Times revealed the contents of a "previously unpublished" letter from C.S Lewis which "emerged ahead of this week's release of the Chronicles of Narnia movie" and "provided conclusive proof of the Christian message in the Narnia books."

 Things are always "emerging" in newspapers. I think it means "We just noticed" or "There is no actual story here, but we decided to report it anyway." The headline, too, was a classic example of the sub-editors art: Narnia's Lion is really Jesus. It has to say "Narnia's lion", because we might be too ignorant to know who "Aslan" is. 

 The article contains a few short quotes from the letter, a reply by Lewis to one of the many children who wrote to him: 

 "The whole Narnia story is about Christ".... 

"Supposing there really was a world like Narnia.and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?" 

 Now, Lewis wrote an awful lot of letters. One could wish he had written fewer. Indeed, one could willingly murder all those Yanks who sent him food parcels during the shortages after the war. Instead of writing each one a personal thank-you letter, why couldn't he have hired a secretary and written some more book! We've had two thousand-page volumes of 'Collected Letters' so far and he still hasn't met Joy Davidman or started to written a children's book. This letter comes from vol 3, due out next year. The 'Collected Letters' are published by Harper Collins, which, like the Sunday Times, is part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. So perhaps in this case "emerged" means "The proofs of volume 3 were lying on someone's desk, and we had a look at them"? 

So it is literally true that this letter is as yet "unpublished". However, it is complete nonsense to say that it sheds any fresh light on the religious content of the Narnia books. A much smaller selection of Lewis's letters was edited by his brother and published in 1966. In it, we find the following: 

 "But it is not, as some people think, an allegory. That is, I don't say, "Let us represent Christ as Aslan" I say "Suppose there was a world like Narnia, and supposing like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there." See?" 

And in another short volume called 'Letters to Children', we find him saying the same thing in the same words: 

 'I did not say to myself 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia'; I said 'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen'. 

 'The Times' wants us to imagine some kind of controversy between people who think that they have found a religious sub-text in Narnia and people who deny it's there. There is no controversy or debate: Lewis's intentions are easy to find out from any standard work. 

This would not be especially interesting but for the fact that, in the run-up to the movie, a lot of people have been saying a lot of very silly things about "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." 

For example, Tilda Swinton, who has possibly been getting a bit too deeply into her role as the White Witch tells the BBC: 

 "Faith is in the eye of the beholder... the original book was more "spiritual" than religious...You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that's what you're interested in." 

Well, yes, indeed, you can, although it must be said that it is rather easier to do it to "The Pilgrim's Progress" than, say "Tellytubbies" or "Pulp Fiction". I have to say that I have never understood what people are talking about when they use the word "spirituality", and the idea of the spiritual as opposed to the religious baffles me even further.

 More worryingly, the producer of the film asserts: 

"When I first read it, it never occurred to me Aslan was anything more than a great lion. Christian themes were very important to CS Lewis and imbued everything he did, but he himself denied any religious implications." 

 Got that? Lewis denied any religious implications in the Narnia stories. This lie crops up again in an allegedly humorous "A - Z of Narnia" printed in Sunday's "Observer" magazine 

"C is for Christian allegory --Is it or isn't it? CS Lewis said it wasn't really, which seems a bit disingenuous." 

 The Australian magazine "The Age" prints the following astonishing excerpt from an interview with no lessor person than Douglas Gresham: "Won't it at least impart a subliminal Christian message to young audiences, I ask? ""I sincerely hope not," he snorts. "Because - and this is what people always get wrong - it's not a Christian film and the Narnia books aren't Christian novels...." 

 A couple of years back, Harper Collins were exploring the possibility of commissioning new stories using the Narnia setting, a silly idea of which very little came. An internal memo was leaked to the press saying that these books would play down any Christian symbolism; the usual process of Chinese whispers occurred, and before long, it was being widely reported as fact that Harper Collins was planning to censor all religious references from the text of the the existing books. (*) Douglas succinctly denounced this as a "wicked lie". To hear Douglas saying that "the Narnia books aren't Christian novels" makes me think that either 

 a: He has been murdered and replaced by a Slitheen or b: He was quoted out of context.

 The interesting question is not "Are the Chronicles of Narnia Christian books" – of course they are. The question is "How does the Christian element in them work?" Lewis, as we have seen, said that they were not "allegory": Aslan doesn't "stand for" Jesus; and the other characters certainly don't "stand for" anyone from the Bible or anywhere else. (Edmund is not given thirty pieces of silver; Peter doesn't deny Aslan three times; Lucy certainly doesn't anoint Aslan's paws with her tears, wipe them away with her hair or have seven demons cast out of her.) This is the point which the "Observer" writer misses: when Lewis said that the books were "Not a Christian allegory", he was denying that they were allegorical, not denying that they were Christian. "The Sunday Times" headline-writer managed to miss the point even with the text in front of him. Lewis did not say that "Narnian Lion is Really Jesus." What he said was that "In Narnia, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a Lion named Aslan; analogous to the way in which, in our world, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a human being named Jesus." Which, I grant you, would not have made such a snappy headline. 

When talking about the Narnia books, Lewis distinguished between his intentions as "an author" and his intentions as "a man". As an author, he had some images -- the Faun, the Witch riding a sledge -- which he wanted to use in a story; along with an inkling that he'd like to have a go at writing a fairy tale. This was the starting point. But "as a man" he developed the idea that such a story could be put to an edifying use. 

Christianity is embodied in a collection of stories, and one central story. Christ himself "never spoke without using a parable". Tolkien famously broke through Lewis's resistance to Christianity by telling him that it made sense as a story. But the central narrative of Christianity has become so familiar to us that we can't experience it as a story: we don't feel horrified when Jesus is killed, or afraid when his tomb is empty or amazed when he comes back to life. By presenting something very like the Christ-story in the context of an imaginary world Lewis thought that he could defamiliarise it and allow us to hear it for the first time. 

 Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associate with lowered voices, almost as it it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained glass and Sunday school association, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency.? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could. 

 So the people who say "I read the books as a child without realising that there was anything religious about them" are reacting very much as Lewis wanted them to. And the people who feel that they have been tricked by the books have also got a point. If you're moved by Aslan's death and resurrection, then at some level, you've experienced a religious emotion. Maybe even done some kind of devotion to a being you don't believe in. It's harder for you to say "I don't understand what it is these funny Christian types think they're doing on Easter Sunday and Good Friday" – because at some level, you do. I can see why the books make the Polly Toynbee's and Phillip Pullman's of this world spit blood. They know that Christianity is hateful religion; they know that the-Christ-of-the-church is a monstrous figure; but when the Christ-of-the-church is presented to children, and even to many adults, disguised as a lion in a story, then a lot of them have the audacity to fall in love with him! Interestingly, Lewis never tries to press the point as an argument. He doesn't say "So, then, if you love my Narnia books, you are already, at some level, a Christian" or "Since this is a beautiful story, it must at some level be true". 

 When Lewis wrote "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", he was "quite sure" that it would be the last Narnia book, and it does read like the last volume of a trilogy. At the end of the book, Lucy and Edmund come to the edge of the world (Narnia appears to be a discworld) and encounter a Lamb. They ask the Lamb to show them the way to Aslan's country; the Lamb turns into Aslan, and tells them that for them, the way to his country is through their own world. In case this isn't clear enough, the Lamb offers them food:

 Come and have breakfast" said the Lamb...Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. 

 ("As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid theron, and bread... Jesus saith unto them Come and dine."- John 21:9) 

Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that this will be their last trip to Narnia: 

"And is Eustace never to come back here either? said Lucy "Child" said Aslan "Do you really need to know that?" 

("Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved, following...Peter seeing him saith to Jesus "Lord, and what shall that man do?" Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry trill I come, what is that to thee?"- John 21:22) 

Finally, Lewis puts his theological cards very firmly on the table: "It isn't Narnia you know" sobbed Lucy "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?" 

"But you shall meet me, dear on," said Aslan 

"Are--are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund. 

 "I am," said Aslan, "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." 

 To use a rather Lewisian extended metaphor. Imagine two people looking at a religious artwork: say, a painting of Jesus on the cross. One of them is a Christian, there other isn't. The Christian regards the painting as a devotional aid; he meditates on it, looks at it while he prays, and generally feels inspired by it. The non-Christian also admires the painting. He doesn't just admire the brushwork, but responds to the whole scene: he's horrified by the realistic way the painter has depicted a man being tortured and moved by the dramatic way he is conveyed a mother's grief at seeing her son hurt. But these are exactly the same emotions which the Christian feels when he looks at the picture. The only difference is that the Christian art-lover thinks that these emotions bring him closer to God, where the non-religious art-lover does not. (He might possibly call them "spiritual", but I still wouldn't know what he meant.) It is possible to imagine two other visitors to the gallery having more extreme reactions. One visitor might be so hostile to the whole idea of Christianity that they can't respond to the painting as a painting. They probably can't even see it. They're so overwhelmed by their conviction that the Atonement is an immoral doctrine that they couldn't even start to admit that they were looking at a very pretty picture. At the other extreme, someone might be so overwhelmingly moved by the picture that they decided to become a Christian on the spot. The hostile critic would have plenty of interesting things to say about his objections to Christianity, but would not be have anything useful to say about the picture. (He'd think that the image of Mary was an instrument of patriarchal oppression regardless of whether this one was well painted or badly painted.) But you probably couldn't blame the painting or the artist for manipulating or brainwashing the convert: he wasn't responding to the painting but the thing which he thought that it was a painting of. And winning converts probably wasn't in the artists head; he just wanted to paint a very truthful picture of what he imagined the crucifixion to have been like. 

 "By knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." I don't think Lewis is really proselytising or writing propaganda. I don't even think he's writing one of those teaching aids which uses stories to explain the difficult bits of a religious idea. I think he's trying to provide something a lot like a devotional tool that different people will use in different ways. 

 Francis Spufford (**) says that even as a child he could see that 

 "Aslan was both a talking lion and something else at the same time: I already knew that the story of him being sacrificed and coming back to life was a kind of cousin of the story of Jesus." 

And really, it shouldn't be necessary to say any more than that. Aslan is like Jesus, but not exactly like Jesus. I may have spent several pages "stating and re-stating the terribly, terribly obvious." 

But when people closely associated with the forthcoming movie are being quoted or misquoted as saying that the "Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is "not a Christian story", "spiritual rather than religious" and that Lewis repudiated the story's specifically Christian significance the obvious is probably worth stating quite loudly. 

(*)It is said that fledgling political journalists are asked to prove their skill by taking a speech by John Prescott and editing it into English without changing its meaning. I suggest that "Re-write Narnia with the religious element removed, but without changing anything else in the story" could be a similarly challenging party game for wannabee editors. 

 (**) Chapter III of "The Child That Books Built" is the best thing which anyone has ever written about the Chronicles. "Some people" he says "feel got at by the Narnia books." 


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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lipstick on My Scholar






1: In the beginning....

The Devil I will leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I would wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. -- C.S Lewis "The Inner Ring"

According to the Bible, the first man and the first woman lived in a garden. God gave them only one rule:

"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die."

But there's also a Talking Beast in the garden(1). The Beast misquotes the rule, and thereby hugely extends YHWH's list of prohibited substances:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say 'You must not eat from any tree in the Garden?' "

You may eat of any tree except... You may not eat of any tree. The serpent knew that you only need to change a couple of words to turn a text on its head. He knew that in the presence of a misquotation, people very rarely go back and check the original. And he knew that if you repeat them often enough and confidently enough, the misquoted words will eventually become better known than the real ones.

2: Being for The Benefit of Mr Pullman.

Phillip Pullman writes books. Some children seem to like them, which is nice; and so do some adults, which is okay. His books are better written than J.K Rowling's, although they don't sell nearly so many copies.

J.K Rowling's books have been turned into hugely successful movies, with the result that she is richer than the Queen. Phillip Pullman's books have been turned into very serious plays by the English National Theater, with the result that he is admired by the Times Literary Supplement and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"His Dark Materials" has been compared with C.S Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" because it is a serious tale with literary and mythological allusions which uses symbolism to deal with profound religious questions. "Harry Potter" has been compared with the "Chronicles of Narnia" because there are seven books in the series.

When people ask Phillip Pullman what he thinks of C.S Lewis he always gives the same answer:

"Susan isn't allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.' This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up".

"And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It's a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done - she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex."


J.K Rowling doesn't dislike C.S Lewis and God nearly as much Phillip Pullman does. After all, her books outsell Lewis's and she's richer than God. But her comments about Narnia have an oddly familiar ring:

"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex...I have a big problem with that."

Recently, the newspapers have been talking about C.S Lewis, because there is a new movie coming out, starring New Zealand and a computer. These articles become rather repetitive after a while.

"The reason Lewis gives for (Susan's) exclusion from paradise is that "she likes lipstick and nlyons and invitations". To Pullman this has suggested that Lewis considered a girl reaching sexual maturity to be such a terrible thing she should be banished to hell." (Times)

"Pullman has often spoken of his disgust at the exclusion of Susan from paradise at the end of the stories. She has started to become, not a sexless angel, but a young woman interested in evil snares such as "nylons and lipsticks and invitations." (Independent)


It's clear that nylons and lipstick are the most important things about which C.S Lewis ever wrote, and the offending passage deserves the closest possible analysis. It occurs at the end of chapter 12 of "The Last Battle", which is the final book in the Narnia series regardless of what order you read them in. Seven of the protagonists from the previous books have been re-united in Aslan's country, which they have entered through a magical doorway in Narnia.

"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "Is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.' "

"Oh Susan!" said Jill "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grow-up."

"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she
would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter.


Can you see what has happened?

Lewis: "She's interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitation."
Pullman: She's become far too interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations.
Rowling: She's lost to Narnia because she likes lipstick
Times: She's excluded from paradise because she likes nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
Independent: She's interested in evil snares such as nylons and lipsticks and invitations.

The sin of "liking nothing except lipstick..." has become the sin of liking it too much, which has become the sin of liking it at all. Finally, lipstick has become an intrinsic evil. It's rather as if you had read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and concluded that, since the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to bribe Edmund to betray his siblings, Lewis thinks that confectionery is a great evil.

Pullman, to be fair, is trying to make a sophisticated point. He doesn't say that, in the story itself, Susan's sexual maturity causes her to stop being a friend of Narnia. Rather, he thinks that the story allows us to to infer things about C.S Lewis's unconscious attitude to sex. This game - discovering feelings that writers didn't know they had on the basis of things they didn't say - is great fun, and anyone can play it. (There's is a bit-part player in "Prince Caspian" called Mrs Prizzle. Well then, the fact that Lewis chose this name proves that he had an unconscious desire to spank women using the penis of a bull (2). See how easy it is?)

But Rowling and the two journalists have not understood Pullman's subtle point about Lewis's unconscious motivations. They've reproduced his comments without going back and checking the book. As a result "Susan is sent to hell as a punishment for her sexuality" has become one of those things which "everybody knows".

Did God really say...? Did God really say....?

3: What did C.S Lewis say about lipstick?


Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiseled those curves your smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man
-- 'Epigrams and Epitaphs'



It is probably fair to say that Lewis did not spend much of his career thinking about lipstick. Women have been painting their mouths since ancient times; Desmond Morris helpfully points out that artificially reddened lips resemble a vagina and are therefore very sexually arousing to men. But modern "lipstick" was first sold in 1915, when Lewis was 17. Obviously, women's tights couldn't have been made from nylon until the 1930s; but once they became available, they were greatly preferred to the unattractive and inconvenient cotton variety. "Nylons" were hard to come by and therefore greatly sought after during the war and into the 1950s. (In the film "Vera Drake" one pair of nylons is swapped for eight packets of cigarettes.) Lewis must have regarded both of them as relatively new-fangled items.

Lewis may not have quite approved of women's make up in general. Arguing that something is not necessarily important because it is in a newspaper, he remarks in passing that "a very commonplace protest against make-up would be News if it came from a film star."("Letters to Malcolm" XXII) So he evidentially thought that disapproving of cosmetic products was a unremarkable thing to do.

Perhaps this simply shows that Lewis was a little old fashioned, and still believed, like his Victorian parents tthat make-up was appropriate for prostitutes and actresses, but not respectable women. But he also felt that the cosmetics and fashion industries "manipulated" men's sexual tastes and encouraged women to aspire to an imaginary idea of "beauty" that it's impossible to live up to.

It's all a fake, of course, the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full grown woman to be. ("Screwtape Letters" XX)

Feminists would probably agree with him about the falsification of women's bodies for commercial ends; although they might doubt whether the Devil is creating "the beauty myth" in order to stop people from marrying the partners with whom "spiritually helpful, happy and fertile marriages are most likely." (Screwtape is, incidentally, very proud of the fact that most women now dislike men with beards. "There is more in this than you might think." Occasionally, Lewis says something so off-the-wall that I actually can't imagine what he means.)

So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'. It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.' Do Pullman and Rowling have an – er – unconscious belief that the only way a person can make themselves look nice is by buying stuff? That would amuse Screwtape no end.

4: What did C.S Lewis say about heaven and hell?

"It's all in Plato; all in Plato, bless me what do they teach them in these schools." -- "The Last Battle".


Lewis believed in a literal heaven and (up to a point) a literal hell. He also believed in purgatory, but let's not worry about that for the time being. He thought that whenever you desire something on earth, you are really desiring heaven; but that nothing on earth can ever really satisfy that desire. He believed that if you love heaven more than anything else, you will in fact, go to heaven; but if you love anything more than heaven, then you won't.

The idea that we should desire heaven and nothing else could be very austere and puritanical. Pullman, typically, says that it is a life-hating creed. In fact, the opposite is true. Lewis can come across as almost cloyingly romantic. He rejects asceticism, the idea that they material world is evil and we should turn away from it and seek heaven. The material world is good, because it is heaven's reflection. His image of "visionary gleams" shining on us from another world is pure Wordsworth:

"There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I have found myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desire anything else?....All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.("The Problem of Pain" )


For Lewis, of course, these glimpses and promises came through Wagner, William Morris and the landscape of Southern Ireland; but he quite acknowledges that other people experience "joy" through different things -- through sport, or gardening, or hobbies such as woodworking or sailing. These are all Good Things. In "The Last Battle" it is strongly implied that Edmund is a railway enthusiast, and it isn't remotely suggested that this innocent pleasure is a barrier to him coming back to Narnia. They only become Bad Things when you start to love them instead of heaven. For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. The devil in Screwtape doesn't remotely care whether human beings are soldiers or pacifists, provided soldiering or pacifism become more important to them than heaven. Even love, according to Lewis, "ceases to a be a demon only when it ceases to be a God."

This idea is absolutely central to Lewis's thinking. You mustn't confuse means with ends; you mustn't confuse copies with realities; you mustn't confuse reflections for the original; you mustn't confuse a secondary, partial good with a primary or total good. "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." The idea pops up over and over again in different forms. He says that classical Paganism was a Good Thing in so far as it was a reflection or shadow of Christianity; but a bad thing otherwise. He say that, as a little boy he used to snaffle his father's tobacco, and because he wasn't an experienced smoker, came away with the idea that cigars are a second rate substitute for cigarettes. He says that the human race is like an ignorant child preferring to carry on making mud-pies in a slum because he has no conception of what is meant by a holiday at the seaside.

"The woman who makes the dog the center of he life loses, in the end, not only her human useful and dignity but even the proper pleasures of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication ....If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception."

To be damned, then, means to turn away from heaven and instead pursue some little earthly substitute -- which can't, by definition, have satisfy you. Hell is populated by little people who have become so atrophied as human beings that they have become incapable of wanting any kind of happiness. On no possible view does Lewis send Susan to hell as a punishment for liking lipstick. He may, however, define hell as "That state in which you would rather have pretty red lips than be Queen of Narnia."


5: What happens to Susan?

"I think that there are in the end only two kinds of people: those who like happiness, and those who really don't"

It is untrue to say that Aslan expels Susan from Narnia. Susan isn't present at Polly and Diggory's re-union dinner; presumably, because she choses not to be there. Since she isn't there, she doesn't witness the the phantom of King Tirian calling for aid. Therefore, she doesn't play any part in the scheme to recover the magical rings; so the isn't on the train which crashes, so she doesn't die. Since she isn't dead she doesn't go to heaven.

It is also quite untrue to say that Susan is sent to hell. By the end of the book Narnia has come to an end, and all the Narnian talking animals have been judged by Aslan. Those which don't please him are turned into dumb beasts, and disappear into Aslan's shadow. This is a sort of Narnian last judgment. But there's no hint that Susan has met this kind of fate. Our world hasn't yet come to an end; and Susan is presumably still alive and will have every opportunity of coming to Aslan's country by a more circuitous route. (When Lucy asks Aslan if he will tell her how to get into his country from our world, he replies "I shall be telling you all the time".)

Susan is not blamed for becoming an adult. We are told that of the seven "friends", only Jill and Eustace are young enough to be at school. It follows that Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies must be at least 16 when she comes to Aslan's country. In fact, according to Lewis's "Outline of Narnian History" Peter is 22, Susan is 21, Edmund is 19 and Lucy is 17. So Aslan can hardly be singling Susan out because she has hit puberty.

Certainly we are told that children beyond a certain age can't enter Narnia; this is why the younger Eustace and Jill encounter King Tirian in the "old" Narnia, but the other four only see him in Aslan's country(3). However, this exclusion from Narnia does not represent any kind of punishment or loss of paradise. On the contrary, they are being sent back to their own world to learn to know Aslan under a different name and so find their way back to his country. (Lucy, incidentally, has taken this seriously: when she is shown the magic stable which in some way contains Aslan's country she immediately says "In our world too, a stable once had something in it that was bigger than the whole world": the only explicit reference to Christ in the whole saga.)

Granted, Jill says that Susan is "too keen on being grown up." (Not "grown up" or "keen on being grown up" but too keen on being grown up.) But Jill is herself still a child. Polly, a very old lady, corrects her immediately and says Susan's problem is not maturity but immaturity. ("Grown-up, indeed... I wish she would grow up.") Polly thinks that Susan was the kind of school girl who would rather have been in her 20s, and will carry on behaving like a 20 year old when she is 50.

So, we are left with the actual reasons that Lewis gives for Susan's absence from Aslan's country:

1: She denies that she ever really came to Narnia; she says that her experiences there were only part of a game that she and her siblings used to play as children.

2: She is interested in consumer beauty products and parties to the exclusion of everything else.

3: She is an air-head, fixated with staying at a "silly age", probably 21.

Susan has lived in Narnia; she has reigned as Queen of Narnia during its golden age. She and Lucy have had an intimacy with Aslan that ever Peter does not experience(4). She comforted Aslan during his agony before going to the Stone Table, and he let her stroke his mane. After his resurrection, she celebrated with him and he let her ride on his back. However, she now denies that any of this ever happened, and instead seeks joy exclusively through beauty products. Pullman wants us to believe that "Susan became interested in lipstick, and is therefore thrown out of Narnia." I think Lewis is really saying "Susan ceased to love Narnia, and therefore, became a pathetic figure -- a woman of 50, trying to be a girl of 21, capable of loving nothing apart from lipstick."

Susan is committing Lewis's cardinal sin: getting confused about what is real and what not. She choses to believe that Narnia is only a play-world, something which she and her three siblings made up. This reminds us of the scene in "The Silver Chair" where the Witch imprisons Prince Rillian in a cave and tries to convince him that there is nothing outside it: that Narnia was only ever a figment of his imagination. Indeed, there is a certain similarity between Susan's voice and that of the Witch:
.
'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'

'Well, 'tis pretty make-believe thou to say truth it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. As for you, My Lord Prince, thou art a man full grown. Fie upon you! Art thou not ashamed of such toys."


Prince Rillian is saved by Puddlegum who tells him that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones." Whether anyone wakes up Susan, we don't know.

Susan's state of mind is also an an ironic inversion of that of Peter and the others. Peter has discovered that Narnia is "not really real"; in the sense that it is only a shadow or reflection of the real Narnia in Aslan's kingdom. Susan thinks that Narnia is "not real", in the sense that it is something made up or copied from the real world. For Peter, Narnia is "not real" because there is something more substantial above it; for Susan is is "not real" because it was only ever a fantasy. Susan thinks that Narnia was "just a story"; from the point of view of Aslan's country, our world and Narnia are both just the first page of a story which is now beginning.

You might compare Susan's and Peter's perspectives to the contrasting viewpoints of "allegory" and "symbolism" suggest by "Lewis" in "The Allegory of Love". The allegorist takes something in a story to point to something in the world outside the story. ("The dragon represents the Spanish Armada"). The symbolist takes something in the real world to point to something outside it, ("The Pelican is a symbol of God's love.") "To the symbolist, it is we who are the allegory."

Lewis's parable is intended to provoke a response. Parables often work like that. They don't so much instruct us try to provoke us into seeing the point for ourselves. We listen to this part of the story and say – don't be absurd. No-one, having run their hands through Aslan's mane, could possibly decide that they prefer parties. Yes they could, says the story teller – and every day people give up heaven for equally trivial reasons -- sex, booze, money, power...

Even readers who don't share Lewis's conviction that there is a source of "joy" outside of the material world can surely go some way with him on this point. Doesn't most of the human race spend most of its time giving away things which they know will make them happy in return for things which they know will not?

6: ....and Finally.

At the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", the Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. For many years, they govern it along Tory lines:

They made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live....And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them."

Peter becomes a "deep chested man and a great warrior". Edmund is a "graver and quieter man". And as for Susan -- the Susan who Lewis wants to keep as an infantilised, asexual angel; the Susan who Lewis blames for wanting to look pretty and damns for becoming sexual:

Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.

Game, set and match, I think


A word from the author

Hello, fellow Narnians....

I wrote this essay more than a decade ago; it's by far the most-read thing I've ever written.

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NOTES

(1) Genesis does not say that the Serpent is Satan; although certain New Testament passages imply that he is. Much depends, therefore, on the order in which you chose to read the books of the Bible.

(2) No, seriously. See "The Skeleton in the Wardrobe" by David Holbroke. This book also proves that Aslan is an unconscious portrait of the sadistic schoolteacher described in "Surprised by Joy". Oldie had a beard; Aslan has a mane. Q.E.D (I will grant you that "Pizzle" is the dialect term used in "Tess of the D'Urbevilles" to describe the "characteristic part" of a male pig.)

(3) If we go by the ages in the "Outline", then 13 would seem to be the cut off point: since Edmund and Lucy are 10 and 12 at the end of "Dawn Treader" when they learn that they are becoming too old to return to Narnia. (Peter and Susan, who missed that trip, are 14 and 15.) But this makes Eustace a full 4 years younger than Lucy, which is hard to reconcile with the rest of "Dawn Treader."

(4) My forthcoming book "The Cair Paravel Code" will conclusively prove that Lucy was Aslan's consort and the mother of his cubs.