Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On The Chronicles of Narnia

Weta workshop seems to be racking in the epics as they made the costume and set design for Peter Jackson’s epic movie Lord of the Rings and now The Chronicles of Narnia, which is based on C.S. Lewis’s highly successful children’s book series. Of course it’s worth noting that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in the same milieu, and the two are actually good friends.

Personally, the Narnia books strike me as something controversial. I’m not a big fan of Tolkien, and I’m even much less a fan of C.S. Lewis. Philip Pullman, a young adult writer, dislikes Lewis, and his best-selling, award winning His Dark Materials trilogy is actually a reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia. As for his opinions on the yet-unreleased movie, he has several complaints on the subject matter. Some scoff his arguments as petty jealousy, resentment, or a publicity stunt to boost the sales of his own books. Does his arguments have merit?

The problem with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels deal with values. Many works of fantasy draw as inspiration various myths. In the case of Lewis’s successful work (along with his science-fiction and philosophy writings), his basis was Christianity. Now the initial reaction of many would say that’s a good thing. Closer inspection though and actual reading of The Chronicles of Narnia would reveal that Lewis was a product of his time, and shares a more conservative stance on religion. Now I don’t have a problem with the pilot book (and most well-known in the series) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I do with the others. In one of the later books, for example, it’s revealed that one of the characters is deemed as less than savory simply because she adopts a tomboyish (i.e. wears pants) lifestyle. Pullman does have basis for his arguments, but just because there is proof does not mean the argument ends.

An issue with literature is its struggle to keep up with the times. Classics have stopped being classics simply because they’re now viewed as unacceptable, such as a book referring to African Americans as niggers is now labeled as racism. The Chronicles of Narnia comes under similar scrutiny. One camp in general defends these books that some might consider outdated, stating that they are nonetheless classics and merely reflect their era. Others, on the other hand, are less forgiving, and deem that such books should stop being required reading for their children. Both sides have good points, although in the end, it’s up to the individual to decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. On my side, do I really want children to be influenced by the conservative views Lewis had? (Lewis considered teaching women a waste of his time, for example.) Yet the literati in me shudders at the thought of a body of work sentenced to extinction simply because it was deemed “inappropriate”.

Narnia is also a controversial issue for me because it contains the seeds for both acceptance and denial of the fantasy genre in Christianity. The genre of fantasy, unfortunately, is discouraged by the church, more so among the Protestant folk. This, of course, is not without basis. Fantasy novels and short stories usually contain magical elements and unfortunately, the Bible considers any form of sorcery as tools of the devil. This isn’t helped by the way media has sensationalized various fantasy icons, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and certain RPGs. So is it a sin to read a fantasy book? No. But one side of the church states that there are those prone to such weaknesses, whether it’s juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction (which is one of their fears when it comes to The Da Vinci Code), or taking it too seriously. Again, the question we must ask is whether such fears are justified. Well, in a certain way, yes. I mean in any group, there will always be someone who will harness it for the wrong ends. A knife, for example, has many uses, from cooking to carving to a useful tool in general. There’ll always be a chance though that someone will use the knife to stab someone. That’s the same fear the church has with fantasy books, except you know, you don’t ban knives from people just because there’s a possibility that they might harm other people (or in the case of children, themselves) using it.

Now I’m not saying the banning of fantasy books is a cardinal rule. It’s a gray area at best, and some people take extreme lengths, while others possess more tolerant views. Some people consider the Harry Potter books inappropriate even without reading it (or taking the word of their priests/pastors), while others have a more liberal view. Still, don’t be surprised at the vehement condemnation of a practitioner at something like Harry Potter. I’m just surprised that they haven’t focused on the biggest fish of them all, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is the father of modern adult fantasy. (Perhaps Tolkien’s association with Lewis had something to do with it. Which brings me to my next point.)

The exception, of course, is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the rest of the books in the series, mainly due to its Christianity-based lore. Never mind the fact that the protagonists uses magic as well, even if it’s for the side of “good” (as if fantasy novels never portrayed heroes using magic for the good of all). The church’s tolerance of The Chronicles of Narnia is something of a double standard. I mean on one hand, they’re proclaiming that fantasy is a gray area. On the other hand, they’re giving The Chronicles of Narnia their full support, and is actually one of the few works of fiction that I see on the shelves of Christian bookstores.

Of course it’s interesting to note that while Christian belief and the church in general has evolved over the years (despite what some of them might deny), the values The Chronicles of Narnia teaches hasn’t, simply because it’s a text set in stone. There’ll be new interpretations of it, but the fact that it does possess ethnocentrism, for example, can never be invalidated. I find it ironic that the church is opting for tolerance of humanity (i.e. forgiveness of sins, caring for your neighbor, etc.) in general, yet one of the books that they promote breeds intolerance. Of course Narnia will appeal to the more conservative practitioners of Christianity, especially with Lewis’s rather zealous stance.

On a more optimistic side, Christianity has broken its own rule by accepting The Chronicles of Narnia as part of their doctrine. In supporting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is also inadvertently supporting the very genre it has rallied against. Which gives hope for the fantasy genre to perhaps gain more acceptance in the future.