Many Christians are eagerly anticipating the third film of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, due in theaters in December. We love the fact that these deeply Christian stories are making their way to a wider audience. But one theologian wonders if the films really are a faithful representation of Lewis’s deeply Christian worldview.
In a Touchstone magazine essay titled “Narnia Invaded,” Steven Boyer says we should “think carefully about a significant element in Lewis’s vision that does not play very well in our world”: His “particular fondness for hierarchy.”
Christianity teaches that there is a hierarchal distinction between God and the world He created, with humans rightly subordinating to the God who creates and sustains us. As well, the Christian tradition teaches the goodness of hierarchy through all sorts of human relationships. “When that order is respected, real joy and freedom are the result,” Boyer says.
Writers like Dante, Spenser, Milton, and Virgil, along with Lewis, “understand the idea that just rulership and obedience are inextricable one from the other—that they are, in fact, the same virtue in different modes,” Boyer adds. Of course, throughout history people have abused hierarchy—everyone from dictators to fathers who demand unquestioning obedience from their families. And this is why, for many moderns, the very word hierarchy reeks of domination and oppression.
Unfortunately, this is the view of hierarchy the Narnia scriptwriters embrace. For instance, in Lewis’s books, the lion Aslan makes the four Pevensie children kings of Narnia, who rule harmoniously over Narnia. Peter, the oldest brother, is made the High King over the others. When the children return to Narnia and encounter Prince Caspian, the relationship between Peter and Caspian is marked by mutual respect, reliance, and open-handedness.
But the scriptwriters destroy this view of honorable cooperation. Peter and Caspian—whose dealings are marked by rancor and antagonism—battle constantly over who is really in charge in their efforts to rescue Narnia from the evil King Miraz. During a great battle, their own ignoble desires lead to the unnecessary deaths of their own soldiers.
But if you page through Prince Caspian, you’ll find that Peter and Caspian treat one another with great respect and cooperation.
The film’s depiction of hierarchy reveals a great deal about the scriptwriters, who are, Boyer notes, essentially admitting that they “understand nothing about power other than that it is meant to make other people do what you want them to do.” In effect, the scriptwriters accept the view of hierarchy embraced by the evil King Miraz, who stole the throne from Caspian: For Miraz, there is no such thing as legitimate hierarchy, only power. Kingship is not about sacrificing for one’s subjects, but about enjoying unquestioned authority—and destroying anyone who stands in the way.
Sadly, Boyer says, this means that viewers of the Narnia films are getting “mere entertainment” instead of Lewis’s “richly Christian view of the world.”
And what of the latest film in the series, TheVoyage of the Dawn Treader?
I saw an advance screening of the film a couple of weeks ago. I’m pleased to say that there is more respect for appropriate hierarchy here than in the previous two films. For instance, after Edmund and Lucy Pevensie fall back into Narnia through a seascape, Edmund unthinkingly attempts to take charge in a tense situation. The ship’s captain, Drinian, respectfully tells Edmund that the only person he takes orders from is Prince Caspian. Edmund accepts this gentle rebuke. We also see, through Lucy and Edmund’s obnoxious cousin Eustace, the consequences of failing to respect appropriate hierarchy.
When the travelers arrive at an uninhabited island, they discover that anything dropped into a body of water will turn to gold. Caspian—realizing the immense wealth and power that could come to anyone who exploited this knowledge—claims the island as a Narnian possession. He sternly forbids his companions from telling anyone about the island’s secret on pain of death. Edmund immediately (and rather nastily) contests Caspian’s right to command him.
While this may seem like a revisiting of the “who’s the boss?” hostility so much in evidence in Prince Caspian between Peter and Caspian,in reality, the scene comes straight out of the book:
“The king who owned this island,” said Caspian slowly, and his face flushed as he spoke, ”would soon be the richest of all kings of the world. I claim this land for ever as a Narnian possession. . . . And I bind all of you to secrecy. No one must know of this. Not even Drinian—on pain of death, do you hear?”
“Who are you talking to?” said Edmund. “I’m no subject of yours. If anything it’s the other way round. I am one of the four ancient sovereigns of Narnia and you are under allegiance to the High King my brother.”
“So it has come to that, King Edmund, has it?” said Caspian, laying his hand on his sword-hilt.”
In the book, Aslan appears to wake the children out of the trance the island has put them under. In the film, Lucy reminds them that the magician they encountered earlier had warned them that evil would try to sway them from their path.
Parents whose children have watched the previous two Chronicles of Narnia films, and who are eagerly awaiting the third one, might consider using Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a springboard for a discussion about both biblical and non-biblical hierarchy. With this film, as with all others, children should be taught to identify the worldview of those who created it. Where and why does the film deviate from Lewis’s original? Did screenwriters add scenes and change the story in order to add more excitement? Or did they alter the story in order to tone down the Christian message?
While we should be mindful of the film’s messages, we should not focus on them so hard that we cut into our enjoyment of it. It’s a rollicking adventure story, filled with dragons and sea serpents, magicians and Dufflepuds, a delightfully bratty schoolboy who gets his comeuppance—and a Lion who takes the young adventurers to the end of the world.
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