My introduction to The Chronicles of Narnia came at an early age, and it was similar to the experience of walking into a wardrobe.
In my memory, Lucy’s first entry into the wardrobe is mixed up with the crowded, dark apartment belonging to my grandparents in
But like that initial unremarkable room that the four Pevensie children entered, with a dead blue-bottle on the windowsill, these were books that could not be judged by their covers. On weekend after weekend at my grandparent’s house, while the adults sat in the tiny kitchen down the hallway of brown cracked linoleum and talked in English and Italian, and while my younger siblings amused themselves with Chinese checkers and old toys, I curled up on the bed and read about Narnia by the light filtered through windows darkened by Greenwich Village smog.
And I was no longer in the dingy bedroom in a vast city, but walking through a winter forest where Christmas never came. And I was crossing the Fords of Beruna and voyaging in the dragon-headed Dawn Treader. And I was making my way through the marshes toward the wild wastes of the North, and plodding through the
And most of all, I was like Lucy—except that instead of a wardrobe, I had a book, a thin little gray-bound book which led me into a new world: out of the gray modern world with its deadly problems into a world whose colors were richer, brighter, and more splendid than anything I had ever encountered before and whose simple narrative lines and characters still move me.
Unlike J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a world whose painstakingly-created details were as exacting as the miniature models Peter Jackson’s shop fashioned for The Lord of the Rings movies, Lewis’s Narnia is a sketchy world, a mixture of fairy tales and Norse and Greek mythology whose pastiche appalled the perfectionist Tolkien. Lewis is haphazard about his geography: for instance, one fundamental difficulty is that it’s never really clear whether Narnia is the name for the entire parallel world, created by Aslan and accessed through the wardrobe or (like Charn) through a pool in the Wood Between the Worlds; or if it’s just the name of one (small) country in that unnamed world, the neighbor of Calormen and Archenland. Both LWW and The Magician’s Nephew make the reader think that it’s the first option: Narnia is the name of the whole parallel world. But Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Horse and His Boy make you think it’s the latter: just one country. And The Last Battle somehow manages to have it both ways: very confusing! Lewis never settles the question; one gets the idea he never really cared.
Because Narnia is really a very imprecise universe, part of me winces to see detailed Narnia maps appearing on the new editions of the Chronicles, and I can’t help feeling that the attempt of the filmmakers to construct “races” with “distinctive looks and fighting-styles” for the movies is somehow wrong-headed. One can do this with Tolkien, who left us with a plentitude of details, including several languages for filmmakers to mine. But Lewis tossed off the books in a few years and went on to other projects, never looking back. I wonder if the obsession with the details might in the end make the movies feel less and less like the books. Ironically, I keep hoping director Adamson will realize that Lewis’s Narnia has a lot more in common with Shrek than with The Lord of the Rings.
Maybe I should be happy: the obsession for the super-detailed (including the intense debate about the order of the books) could mean that we are valuing Narnia more; we are taking Narnia more seriously these days. Perhaps way too seriously: the atheist Philip Pullman has even given the Narnia the backhanded compliment of writing an entire lugubrious fantasy trilogy of his own to undercut its influence. And as for the books I read at my grandparents’ house, I discovered—when I attempted to complete their set a few years ago (they were missing a copy of The Horse and His Boy)—that volumes in the original American edition (if they are intact in their awful gray-pink-and-lemon-yellow covers) now sell for several hundred dollars.
But perhaps Narnia is best understood when we take it lightly, when we don’t subject it either to dictionaries and encyclopedias of creatures, or to intense symbolic analysis and somber inspections for racism, sexism, and imperialism. Lewis himself wrote it lightly, to entertain a child, and even the Christian allegory that occasionally dances through the book seems to have happened naturally and intuitively rather than deliberately. The books are short, full of internal inconsistencies, yet they work: they entertain, they delight, they can even move one to the hunger for Joy, that other-worldly intruder than entered Lewis’s own life so memorably and with so great an effect.
So it’s toward the further enjoyment of the series that I dedicate my set of columns: in hopes that Hollywood Jesus readers will enjoy them for what they are.