The president says we’ll remain in Iraq until we’ve finished the job, but I’d prefer that we stay until the talking lion says it’s done. We’ve reached the point in the timetable where children’s morality tales make more sense than government press releases; if you ask most armchair philosophers, they’ll tell you our fantasies are calling the shots. Either way, C.S. Lewis’s novel The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, now out on projection screens, operates like the last remaining Cold War transistor radio. First published in 1950, it’s the closest thing we’ve got to a source for the current conflation of Christian philosophy and global imperialism. Imagine a re-creation of World War II in Arthurian costumes, and in this version the young Christian soldiers have Santa Claus, the unicorns, and Christ himself fighting on their side.
Lewis was never one for overly practical concerns. A Cambridge English professor by trade, he quickly shifted the stage of his fantasy from bombed-out London to a frosty paradise only accessible by wardrobe. From this vantage point, the war looks like an excuse to pull the protagonists out of the city and onto the allegorical plane where life is really happening. But this year’s filmmakers (Shrek‘s Andrew Adamson directed) look the headlines straight in the eyes. The opening shot views at close range the faces of two German fighters and follows the bomb they drop on the Pevensies’ block. More generally, the human world that envelops the children’s anthropomorphic adventures receives, in the film adaptation, unprecedented fleshing-out: When warrior birds fly overhead in the climactic battle, there’s no question that we’ve seen their shapes before.
That showdown, between the White Witch who’s frozen her country and some animal dissidents with human helpers, is founded, in Lewisian lore, on an ancient prophecy. Four children—two “sons of Adam,” two “daughters of Eve”—will appear on the Narnian front, lead its soldiers into battle, and emerge victorious to sit on its thrones. In this much, at least, the film remains faithful to the revolution as Lewis wrote it. Where it differs, starkly, from the novel is in how the Pevensies respond to their predetermined inscriptions. In the book, the eldest boy, Peter, takes up his sword and shield (presented by Father Christmas, no less) if not with grace, then at least with resignation. If there’s a war to be fought, he will fight it, his brothers and sisters will join him, and not much else is said about it. At the post-war moment when the book was written, there was no margin, even in fantasy, for reasonable dissent. The film, however, makes much of the prophecy and the Pevensies’ attempts to shirk it. An interspecies luncheon quickly turns into a partisan debate, as two beavers badger them incessantly about their obligations, to gloomy responses from the elder two children. Peter appears on the verge of deserting, until his brother’s life is in danger. For this year’s weaselly, queasy Pevensies, moral imperatives don’t quite cut it, until their private interests are at stake.
Ultimately, Peter lifts his sword twice, both times in defense of his siblings. It’s an understandable response from a sympathetic character. While bloodshed plays well in the book, it’s hard to justify in the flesh why anyone would maim and slaughter for what looks, after all, like a pack of beasts. The sister closest to Peter’s age takes a strictly defensive position, cowering, running, and blowing a whistle when she finds herself in danger; the younger brother, Edmund, plays the part of the skeptic traitor, spilling his guts the moment he’s locked in the witch’s creepy dungeon. Only the credulous six-year-old, Lucy, musters any enthusiasm for warfare, whipping out her minature dagger at the slightest provocation. It’s far easier to take the advice of the witch’s head hench-wolf, who tells Peter at the outset, “Oh come on, this isn’t your war. All my queen wants is for you to take your family and go.”
In this otherwordly context, human intervention only works when it’s not framed as intervention at all. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, as Lewis wrote it, justifies a humanitarian mission, of sorts, with a quick sketch of decent souls in need. The White Witch is unkind, and the long winter she inflicts feels, to the Pevensies, awfully cold. Not one of the siblings—not the good ones, at least—says, “Let’s just climb back into our wardrobe.” At the time Lewis was writing, a hasty glance at smoked-out London filled in all the rest. But in the current climate, it seems, onlookers need a little more convincing. Edmund, once he’s turned the corner, puts it to his family like this: “I’ve seen what the White Witch can do and I’ve helped her do it. We can’t leave these people behind to suffer for it.” This is the same brother, of course, who’s seen the inside of the palace, and there’s no forgetting that when they defeat her, according to prophecy, they’ll sit on her throne.
Imperialism could not have been precisely what Lewis had in mind. What’s at stake in The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of battles between good and evil, with Christian theology drawing the line between them. (Of course, that’s not so different from the binaries that dictate presidential speechifying.) The Pevensies’ every step is guided by Aslan, a Christ figure in lion’s fur, who accepts on Edmund’s behalf a death sentence from the White Witch, then rises again, with little explanation, in time to lead the uprising. Each time the kid soldiers nearly run from the battlefield, we’re certain they not only defy some vague principle of empathy, but also the express commands of the hawkish lion. The magic of the movie, if one can call it that, is how precisely it conflates the duties of the do-good warrior with the precepts of the salvation minded. Peter’s wafflings may placate viewers wigged out by the latest from Fox News, but they also remind us, in Technicolor, that pacifism is for cowards.
“There’s a crowd out there and it’s ready to follow you,” Lucy tells Peter, as the Narnian ranks fall into line behind them. If only American forces had been lucky enough to find a menagerie of the willing. But this, after all, is a film adaptation, and the battle that follows is a perfect cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and Braveheart. Dwarves charge from all the hillsides and everyone makes terrible faces. Even the Pevensies, with their soft lower lips, transform into heroes, fighting, if not for particular beavers, then “for Narnia,” “for Aslan,” and most of all, for themselves, when a sword is pressed against Peter’s chest.
Mercifully, the damage is slight. Lucy conveniently has a potion—another gift from Father Christmas—that resucitates dead soldiers. The White Witch’s prisoners, it turns out, were frozen, not fried, and lion’s breath restores them. This is the war that the ’90s once promised us—a humanitarian, technological, nearly supernatural intervention—the war in which no one gets hurt. Best of all, there’s no fallout. The transition to Pevensian rule occurs without a hitch. By the end, the quartet of undergrown monarchs is sitting on their foreordained thrones. Their headdresses, Lewis insists, are “not ugly, heavy things like modern European crowns, but light, delicate beautifully shaped circlets that you could really wear and look nicer by wearing.” Then, after a few centuries of salutary neglect, the Pevensies get tired and hop back to England. Those beavers can fend for themselves now. Three cheers for happy endings.
Carla Blumenkranz fights for Turkish Delight.