Mar. 16, 2006

Notes on Narnia

When I was a lad (back when rocks were soft) one of my favourite fiction series was the C.S. Lewis Narnia books. Hearing that there is movie series coming out piqued my curiosity to pick them up again. So far I'm through the first two in the series (the Magician's Nephew and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

It's kind of a strange experience to revisit Narnia after more than four decades of life experience. The books bring up a number of reflections;

First, pedagogical; the level of vocabulary and complex ideas are surprising in a children's book. Did C.S. Lewis just not know how to write for children, or was the education system just that much better in 'forties? One suspects the latter, because not only myself but many children of my generation and older read the books with great delight and I don't remember being baffled by them.

Second, literary; C.S. Lewis is a good writer. He has an elegant way of putting things and a wry sense of humour that shows through again and again. I've read many of his works for adults, including his science-fiction series beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and the same good style shows up there too. (I'll take the opportunity here to plug my own Letters from Mara, which are a Buddhist spin on Lewis' Screwtape Letters. By the way, Letters from Mara is forthcoming as a Wheel Book from BPS)

Third, spiritual; it's no secret that Lewis was a devout Christian, although judging from his works perhaps a wee bit heterodox. The Christian symbolism in the first two books is pretty evident. Aslan the lion is the Christ of Narnia, he is even killed and rises from the dead to save the world.

I'm all for inter-faith dialogue and all that, but don't have any time for the position that "all religions teach the same thing underneath." Some aspects of the Christian mythos in the Narnia books just can't be translated into a Buddhist framework. There is the creationist angle in the Magician's Nephew when Aslan calls the world of Narnia into being by singing, but we can let that slide.

A more practical concern is the inherent dualism of good and evil that drives the plot. There is the good lion and all his good creatures on one side and there is the evil witch and her hordes of demons and spooks on the other. Good and evil, to this sort of Christian, are inherent qualities of being. Buddhists don't like using those words. The closest equivalent is the classification of ethical states into kusala and akusala, which translate most literally as skilful and unskilful.

There is a curious sutta in which Moggallana has an encounter with Mara and in the course of their discussion it comes out that Moggallana himself had been the Mara of a previous world-age. Since the Mara is the closest Buddhist equivalent of the Devil, it transpires that even the Devil in Buddhism is not beyond redemption. This is not the case in orthodox Christianity where the damned are damned forever. (We can add that rebirth into the Buddhist hells is also a temporary state, not eternal damnation.)

Furthermore, this dualism of good vs. evil presupposes the necessity of a struggle, even to the death, with the forces of darkness. This sets up a convenient framework for fiction, but has disturbing implications for real life. In the Narnia stories, Aslan leads the good creatures in an actual battle against the witch and her minions. The protagonist, the English boy Peter, is given a sword by Father Christmas no less and slays an evil wolf with it.

This theologically sanctioned warfare may seem harmless in the context of Narnia where talking animals and other odd creatures are battling goblins and monsters, but it can and does play out in the real world too. All the various crusades were driven by this idea. During the Albigensian crusade in France against the heretic Cathars of Languedoc, one of the French generals asked a bishop how his men could know who to spare when massacring a captured town. (He was concerned that some good Catholics remained among the Cathars.) The bishop's reply was "Kill them all, God will sort them out."

This isn't just an historical relic either, but is a powerful force in the world today. Just witness the rhetoric used by the Bush administration with all their talk of "evil-doers" vs. "good-guys." When the enemy is an irredeemable orc, the Geneva Conventions don't apply.


Rod the Buddhist Book Burner said...

One can only assume that any Buddhist suttas which personify mara are simply a joke, some later social acne on the original face of Buddhism (and so much for reading them!). There is nothing personal in nature, and there is no evil or devil either (nor good nor god), just darkness (ignorance) and light (awareness).

As for the status of English in the present day, I found that out reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was younger. These were also children's books. There is no doubt that the study of mathematics, loud music, sniffing thinners, drinking brake fluid, and watching TV help to make people inarticulate. Welcome to the machine age.

Maenad said...

I thought it interesting that you mentioned the battle between the lion and the witch. I wonder, did Lewis intentionally make it so that the "evil" took on the form of a woman? The lion was so masculine with his strong body, his warrior stance, etc, while the Queen was calculating and cold, and was continually offering Edmund Turkish Delight (which I take to be a reference to sexual knowledge and awareness-if not sex itself). I suspect that Lewis did not intentionally mean to cast women and their feminine mystique into the shadows while glorifying maleness and war, but that it is so entwined with Christianity that it is almost a subconscious perception.

Phil K said...

I have never read the books, but was recently persuaded to see the film NARNIA, made from the book THE LION, WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I thought it was a fairly entertaining movie until the denouement which was a huge battle of various beings. I was put off by the fabulously elaborate and militaristic battle scenes and started looking for fault in the film. I found it in multiple scenes that I took to be glorifying young people deciding to enter into battle for their "side." The youngsters were, to me, portrayed as seeing their side as the good and the opposing side as evil. Consequently a message was clearly delivered, to the young audience in the theatre in which I sat, that there was some nobility and praiseworthiness in being ready to enter into battle, being ready to kill, and ultimately to kill.

I thought that portion of the movie was the precise opposite of the wholesome and desirable socialization typically given to young children in the real world about resolving differences peacefully--especially since those scenes were emotionllty-charged, perhaps the most so of any in the flick. But it was, hey, a fairy tale, OK, not to be subjected to such moralizing scrutiny, right?