Arts & Culture

Are There Any Jews in Narnia?

I'm used to trusting movies. The film industry is mostly made up of Jewish liberals, and so when I go see a film, I trust — often with a note of boredom — that what I'm going to see has … Read More

By / June 23, 2008

I'm used to trusting movies. The film industry is mostly made up of Jewish liberals, and so when I go see a film, I trust — often with a note of boredom — that what I'm going to see has been politically approved by the mainstream left. Unless it's an indie flick, it won't be too radical. But it'll be comfortably liberal, with some basically redemptive message about human goodness, seizing the day instead of selling out, living with your heart more than your head. This is what Hollywood sells and, as described in Neal Gabler's fascinating An Empire of Their Own, it's an ideology that secular Jewish Americans deliberately created.

Well, the Right has gotten wise. After spending two decades whining about the liberal Hollywood elite, they've gone and created an evil empire of their own. Mel Gibson was just the beginning; now there's tycoon-funded Walden Films, devoted to Christian-friendly entertainment and/or brainwashing, and a dozen other outlets that seek to reverse the tide of secular-liberal culture. Watch out, rock & roll!

The Narnia series is Walden's first major undertaking, and it is major: seven multi-million dollar blockbusters based on C.S. Lewis's beloved tales. I liked The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I liked Prince Caspian even more. It's more focused, more fun, and darker. It's a war movie, basically, but it's also wistful where Lion was innocent, and it's got more cute guys in it.

It's well known that C.S. Lewis incorporated Christian religious themes in the Narnia series. What's debated is how intentional that was. Lewis himself, a convert to the Church of England who wrote several nonfiction books on religion, claimed that whatever symbols appear in the books crept in almost by accident. He didn't set out to teach Christian theology, he says; these were just the symbols floating about in his imagination.

Well, fair enough, but it was also Lewis who said that we moderns had to relearn religion from scratch, and that myths were the way to do it. And it was also Lewis who said that the best myths to teach the basics of religious instruction were pagan myths, fairy tales… stories just like those of Narnia.

So, at the very least, it's a tidy coincidence that the same man who said that we need new myths to teach the Christian religion also wrote new myths which happen to teach the Christian religion. No?

Prince Caspian is above all a tale of faith. The four adolescent heroes of the first book/film return to Narnia after a year away, only to find that many hundreds of years have passed in Narnia-time. Narnia itself has been conquered by the evil human Telmarines, and the children's exploits are now the stuff of myth. Some believe, and others do not.

Even once the children return as prophesied, the real hero, Aslan, does not. In the first film, Aslan is obviously Christ. He sacrifices himself for the good of others, is killed, and then rises from the dead. The film, in case it wasn't obvious, sets the scene on a kind of otherworldly Golgotha. Now, hundreds of years later, Aslan is the Christ not of the Passion story but of the Christian faith. He is absent from the stage, and all but the few faithful doubt he even exists anymore. Even three of the four children doubt, with only little Lucy still remaining entirely faithful.

But this is a Christian film: the good guys' dependence on Aslan is absolute. Their plans, from their foolish first assault to their clever second effort, are doomed to failure. Nor do they hasten Aslan's arrival by their efforts at tikkun olam. Not Peter's swordsmanship, and not Susan's archery, but only Lucy's faith brings the true Savior.

Not just a Christian film, but a Catholic one. At perhaps the most exciting moment in the film, Peter is tempted by the White Witch, the Satanic villain of the first film. Aslan is absent, but the White Witch is summoned in a Satanic ritual, and offers her help. Peter knows she can save Narnia. He is sorely tempted. Evil is real, and powerful. Even if you probably know how this test turns out.

And not just a Catholic film, but a pagan-Catholic one as well. Prince Caspian threw me off at times, because the faith that must be maintained is not just faith in Aslan, but faith in magic as well: in centaurs, gryphons, talking animals, and fauns. Some have complained that the swarthy, accented Telmarines are typically ethnic baddies, but to me they resembled no one so much as corrupt churchmen stamping out the memory of pagan religion. They cut down trees, they work with machines; the heroes are the Earth-people.

This was surely Lewis's intention. In an interview he said that it was necessary "first to make people good pagans, and after that to make them Christians." The grammar of belief is first and foremost, not the object of it. First get children to see that faith is important, that the old stories are true, and that you must hold onto your beliefs no matter what people say. Then apply those lessons to Christian religion. Or, as the contemporary Kabbalist Ohad Ezrachi put it to me, first you have to see that there is a spirit in the tree, the lake, and the sky — then you can understand they are all one spirit.

This is a fascinating strategy, and I wonder if it works. These days, a lot of people believe in weird myths that have nothing to do with Christianity — the Secret, Qabalah, gnosticism, the Nation of Islam, Scientology — and there's no sign that the New Agers are becoming baalei tshuvah for Jesus. Perhaps what these and other movements are tapping into is the unmet desire to believe in myth. Not just spirituality, but gnosticism, in its modern form: occultism, the notion that somewhere out there is indeed a secret power (or powers) that really does exist.

If belief is the Christian mode of myth-making, then interpretation is the dominant Jewish one. Kabbalah (the real, not the marketed, one) is largely about learning how to read texts and the text of the world. Allegory is central, as is allusion, symbol, and multivocality. They believe, but we read deeply.

If so, then perhaps Prince Caspian is a Jewish film, as well as a pagan-Catholic-Christian one. It is, of course, wholly enjoyable just as a fantasy film, and many critics have observed that you have to be eagle-eyed to even get the Christian references. (I may even be looking too closely; at one point, a warrior-mouse discovers that his tail has been cut off, and his fellow mice say they will cut their tails for Aslan. I whispered to my friend Tovah that this was an obvious circumcision reference, but Tovah said I was nuts.)

But the Jewish way is to read deeper. This is why we get accused of lacking organic genius: because we like to take things apart, analyze them, and read into their symbols. From Joseph to Freud, we love to interpret dreams, stories, and myths. Rabbis, mystics, and commentators alike delight in multiple levels of meaning. For better or for worse, we like to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, to see how the magic is done.

At its core, beneath the many layers of meaning which delight this critic, Prince Caspian finally refuses the effort of interpretation. The ultimate question, asked by several characters in the film, is why Aslan waited. Why, given the centuries of suffering and carnage, did he wait for the four English children to come back? If he's omnipotent and loving, why didn't he hear the cries of the faithful, like God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt?

Aslan does not answer this question. In Liam Neeson's magisterial voice, he simply says that "things do not happen the same way as before." No explanation. God works in mysterious ways. That is all. If Lucy were Jewish, she would demand more of her God. She would bargain for the last ten souls in Sodom, plead for the unfaithful Israelites, and perhaps abandon God if he failed to save the innocent — in Narnia, or in her own Europe of 1944. But Lucy is not Jewish.

As for me, I find myself caught in the crack between wanting to believe, with her emunah shleimah, her perfect faith, and being unable to accept into my heart an Aslan who consigns thousands of Narnians to death. I believe in the magic of the wood. I love the God that is with me now. But I cannot take the next step and embrace the myths of religion which Lewis thought were so central. If there is an Aslan, I hope that he can forgive me.