The Lion, the Witch and the Metaphor

The New York Times | Op-Ed

By Jessica Seigel

Though it's fashionable nowadays to come out of the closet, lately folks are piling in -- into the wardrobe, that is, to battle over who owns Narnia: secular or Christian lovers of C. S. Lewis's stories.

Children, of course, have been slipping through the magic cupboard into the mythical land for 50 years without assistance from pundits or preachers (though fauns and talking badgers have been helpful). But now that the chronicles' first book, ''The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,'' has been made into a Disney movie, adults are fighting to claim the action. And that means analyzing it. Or not.

The 7-year-old who sat next to me during a recent showing said, ''This is really scary.'' It was scary when the White Witch kills the lion Aslan, who dies to save the loathsome Edmund before rising to help him and his siblings vanquish evil. But adults reducing the story to one note -- their own -- are even scarier. One side dismisses the hidden Jesus figure as silly or trivial, while the other insists the lion is Jesus in a story meant to proselytize. They're both wrong.

As a child, I never knew that Aslan was ''Jesus.'' And that's a good thing. My mother recently remarked that if she'd known the stories were Christian, she wouldn't have given me the books -- which are among my dearest childhood memories.

But parents today will not be innocent of the religious subtext, considering the drumbeat of news coverage and Disney's huge campaign to remind churchgoing audiences of the film's religious themes. The marketing is so intense that the religious Web site even worried that ham-fisted promotion might ruin it for non-Christians.

But a brief foray into Criticism 101 shows that the wardrobe is big enough for everyone. Symbolism, for example, is when one thing stands for another but is not the thing itself. Psychoanalysts, for instance, have interpreted ''The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'' as Dorothy's quest for a penis -- that is, retrieving the witch's broomstick. Does that symbolism -- if you buy it -- make Dorothy a pervert? No, because it's hidden. That's the point. Overt and covert meaning can exist independently.

Those with a fiduciary, rather than phallic bent, might prefer the theory that L. Frank Baum's Oz stories are a Populist manifesto, with the yellow brick road as the gold standard, the Tin Man as alienated labor, Scarecrow as oppressed farmers, and so on. (And surely some Jungian theory about the collective unconscious explains why both Oz and Narnia are populated by four heroic characters fighting an evil witch.)

Yes, it's allegory land, a place that strings symbols together to create levels of meaning, which a determined scholar has actually quantified as ranging from two to seven layers. (No word on why not eight.) Allegory, the oldest narrative technique, often involves talking animals, from Aesop's fox with the grapes to Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, supposedly a Hitler figure.

Does that twist the Seuss tale into a political treatise on fascism? No, it adds another level for adults, it teaches morals (even the meekest can unseat the powerful, etc.), and it's fun -- when plain little Mack burps, he shakes the bad king Yertle from his throne built on turtles.

But which layer is more important -- the surface or beneath? Deep thinkers specialize in hidden meanings (building demand, of course, for their interpretive expertise). An Oxford English professor, Lewis himself explored the depths in his scholarly books. But he also defended the literal, lamenting in his essay ''On Stories'' how modern criticism denigrates the pleasures of a good yarn -- and that was 50 years ago.

While critics today call it ''fallacy'' to interpret a work by citing the author's intentions, Lewis left a road map for us marked with special instructions for not annoying children. In his essay ''Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said,'' he denounced as ''moonshine'' the idea that he wrote the Narnia chronicles to proselytize the young. The lion Aslan, he wrote, bounded into his imagination from his experience as a Christian, coming to him naturally as should all good writing.

''Let the pictures tell you their own moral,'' he advised in ''On Three Ways of Writing for Children.'' ''If they don't show you a moral, don't put one in.''

In keeping with that advice, the Narnia chronicles don't beat you on the head -- nor does the faithful movie adaptation. If everyone stays on his own level -- the surface for adventurers, and the depths for believers -- we can all enjoy, so long as the advertisers stay out of the way.

Jessica Seigel teaches journalism at New York University and comments on culture for NPR.

December 12, 2005 Monday