Friday, December 09, 2005

The Mythology of Truth



“Truth,” C.S. Lewis said, “is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is.”

For Lewis, the late Christian apologist, author and lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge, that truth was best conveyed through mythology. Myth, as Lewis saw it, far from being a lie, was the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. They were the imaginative expressions of the deepest meanings of life – meanings that are illusive when one attempts to express them in concrete, rational, dissectible terms. Myths, which are generally concerned with strikingly similar themes the world over – creation, divinity, and the significance of life and death – affect their recipients in much the same way: awe, enchantment, and inspiration. It was for this reason, Lewis felt that the myths and stories that capture the essence of the human condition are, therefore, the best vehicles upon which to relate meaning.

“It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth,” Lewis said. “We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition of both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

We live in a world shaped by stories. As children slipping into the embrace of slumber, our parents introduced us to realms of enchanted fairy tales. Later, tall tales and ghost stories entertained faces splashed by campfire light. In school, we were charmed by the stories of Aesop or the exploits and machinations of the Greek gods. Even as adults we look to a variety of story forms to entertain, instruct, and sometimes even to transform us.

As spiritual people, we want something even more from our stories. As our origins are from God, inevitably the myths woven by us, though often erroneous, will reflect a splintered fragment of His true light.

Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and the man to whom Lewis credited his conversion to Christianity, believed that the story of Christ was the True Myth, a myth that operated in the same way as the others, but, in fact, really happened, existing in the realms of both fact and truth. While myths could be seen as God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, Christianity's sole difference was that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.

Truly, Lewis and Tolkien were the vanguards of the Postmodern movement.

Perhaps, it is these yearnings that help to explain the heightened expectation surrounding the release of the new film version of the beloved classic fantasy tale by C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has sold more than 85 million copies in 29 languages.

Wednesday night, my wife and I had the opportunity to see a sneak preview of the film.

It has never been a secret that C. S. Lewis composed his great collection of the seven children's fantasy novels the make up The Chronicles of Narnia with the New Testament in mind. It is difficult for people to argue with the author’s own words. “The whole Narnian story is about Christ. Supposing there really was a world like Narnia . . .and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened? The stories are my answer.”

Evacuated from a London besieged by German bombs, four siblings are trundled off to an isolated country manor where they stumble across a wardrobe which mysteriously opens into the icy, magical land of Narnia. The snow and ice, while beautiful, mirror the cold heart of the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton, sumptuously terrifying in the role), who reigns over an endless Narnian winter.

There is a prophecy, that four human children will defeat the witch and return Narnia to spring. The children’s roles are beautifully portrayed, especially that of wide-eyed and open-hearted Georgie Henley as Lucy. The enslaved populace is naturally thrilled by the children’s arrival, while they themselves are decidedly less enthusiastic. After all, they left London to avoid a war, not participate in one. (The comparisons of the fantasy battle and those of a very real Nazi bombardment serve as a reminder that the war between good and evil is not merely a metaphorical conceit).

Things are complicated immeasurably, when one of the brothers willfully betrays his siblings and the army of good to the queen. Fortunately, they have a formidable ally in Narnia's savior, Aslan the lion, voiced by Liam Neeson in velvet and rendered with astonishing realism. Aslan is the Christ-figure--brave, wise, forgiving and willing to sacrifice himself for the boy’s considerable sins.

While much has been made of this story's Christian roots, Director Andrew Adamson's (Shrek I and II) approach ensures that they are only truly evident to those who want to believe. Which is the way it should be. While many can rightly see theological underpinnings to the movie, what most viewers will see instead is a straightforward exploration of good and evil, friendship and family, courage and cowardice.

And if these aren’t the epic themes of every great myth, what is?

To the millions of readers and now viewers, Lewis's religious intentions have either been obvious, invisible or beside the point. Which is part of the appeal of allegory, as Lewis well knew. It is a symbolic mode, not a literal one and it constructs distinct levels of meaning along which readers travel freely. As an allegory, Narnia is both a reflection of the real world and a reality unto itself. One can read the books and see the movie as a Christian allegory or as an ornate story of wonder—or both.

It was once thought that there was no market for The Chronicles of Narnia. Who in America would want to watch a movie about proper British children battling evil? Then came Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and all such reservations were quickly cast aside. With seven novels in all, welcome to Disney’s newest cash cow. But don’t think this is Lord of the Rings lite. These are distinctly different stories that deserve to be judged on their own merits despite the inevitable comparisons.

The Chroicles of Narnia could not have been made until now. Lewis himself feared of his books ever being made into films because of the inevitable lack of believability. But modern technology has rendered his fears moot. Narnia is a world populated by every sort of mythical creature imaginable: centars, giants, dwarves, fawns, unicorns, mermaids, cyclops, minotaurs, griffins, phoenixes, not to mention a host of talking animals. Thankfully, these creatures are blessedly un-Disneyfied and rendered with hyper-realism. Adamson and his team of magic makers, many who turned from The Lord of the Rings films to Narnia practically overnight, use computer technology to capture both the mythic power of Lewis's tale and, even better, its charm. While there are fantastical creatures and massive battles, they are never allowed to overshadow the overtly human elements of the story.

This is a comfortingly familiar and excitingly original tale which works surprisingly well both as a boisterous fantasia and as the Christian fable that Lewis intended. But generations of readers have found The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to be a gripping adventure that reaches well beyond its religious underpinnings, and this robust film version respects both aspects and finds the same winning balance of excitement and meaning.

While there were moments when the digital seams show through and the magicians are more visible than the magic, this is a problem, I think, more with me than with the children for whom Narnia will utterly transport. We grown-ups are heavy, sluggish oafs when it comes to recognizing wonder much less embracing it. Children and the children at heart demand no such perfection. For them, the strange, disturbing and delightful experience of being whisked away to a fantastical land is quite enough. This is an utterly enchanted fantasy, one made as though children had their way with every element of its production. It is nothing short of magical.

And for those with the eyes to see its deeper meanings, it is Truth itself.

14 Comments:

Anonymous af said...

I glanced thru,
Seems like an excellent article.
Liked the myth stuff.
Very well expressed.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Here's a great Slate article on the topic:

http://www.slate.com/id/2131908/?nav=fo

4:38 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

As much as I am excited about seeing this film, I must say that the picture that most excites me now is what is sure to be Terrence Malick's newest masterpiece: "The New World". I can hardly stand the wait.

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Deon M. Jamison said...

Brandon,
I enjoy your Blog updates they are very informative, and entertaining. I always loved your writings, and I will continue to look forward to your updates. I will be going to see the movie sometime this week and I will let you know what I thought. Take care.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Nate (Remington, that is) said...

Deon! What's up girl!

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Brandon, both your take and that Slate article are right on, because I can relate. I have more than one friend who has no interest in ever picking up Narnia because they think they are going to be beaten over the head with some Christian allegory.
I loved it when I was eight, and again when I was twelve, and was only vaguely aware of its religious underpinnings, probably because some adult told me.
To say I loved it doesn’t do justice to how close I was to these books. I was passionately adoring of them, and, embarrassing as this is to say, I remember crying in bed one night because I lived in the real world with no access to Narnia. Aslan comes to one of the characters because Eustace calls out for him with enough belief, and I my little eight year old brain was desperate to do the same.
Only two other books, both read as a child, have had anything close to the same emotional grip in my formative years, and no other piece of fiction so forged my basic beliefs about what is Good in this life.

If The Lord of the Rings was a massive mythical construct simply demonstrating a simple virtue at its most extreme - that virtue being loyalty, specifically Sam’s loyalty to Frodo as these two tiny characters crawl across an epic, world stage, and thus save everything in it – then Narnia works sometimes on smaller scales, but with no less poignancy. Narnia was always about turning the other cheek – a mealy mouthed phrase at this point in history – but it demonstrated how it could be truly practiced in a way that no one had ever quite explained to me. There are little moments that I remember: when Lucy sees the photo come to life, and it is her friend saying mean-spirited things about her to other friends, how she is hurt and enraged, and Aslan chides her for that hurt and rage.
Narnia was always about walking tall to me, and I see now that it was about this Grace you and your fellow Christians are always on about in your view of Christianity, of how it should really be. Or when our friend Brett jokes that, “Maybe this Grace thing can be taken too far.” C.S. Lewis wrote about grace and just how far you could take it, and the ideas of it, the basic themes were always separate from any religious dogma for me. Maybe it’s imprinting on my eight year old brain is really the reason why I continue to struggle today, not because of Christianity as it is practiced around me today, but in spite of it.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Sorry if that’s a bit unpolished. That was written in a rush. I am at work after all.

2:49 PM  
Anonymous deon jamsion said...

brandon, i hope you don't mind my saying hello to nate on your blog, but hello Nate, I 'ved missed you over the years. How is life treating you now? hit me back on my e-mail.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Reacher said...

Grace can't be taken too far, but it must be taken all the way.

Very nice piece of writing, my friend.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

That was well put, Brandon. I liked the article you cited as well. Good stuff. I enjoyed the movie and thought the young actors did a great job: Peter was likable yet bossy at times as was Susan, Edmond... I disliked him when I was supposed to dislike him and put that aside when that was appropriate, bravo. Lucy had the perfect blend of childish, innocent, curiousity about her. I thought the animals and portayals were well done too.

One thing the opening bombing of London did for me was help me believe the kids were capable of their derring-dos in Narnia.

Any word on if they're going to do any of the others?

Thanks as always for the thoughtful posts, Brandon.

Paul

3:45 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I agree with Reacher, Nate. A very nice peice of writing indeed.

If this film does well, Paul, and it has (though it will be obliterated by "King Kong" this weekend) they've said they'll do all of the books. The next one would be "Prince Caspian" because it is the only other one which features the four siblings.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

No, Brandon. Reacher was talking about your writing.

Won't you tell us that you love us both, Reacher?

King Kong was A-plus-mazing.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Reacher said...

Okay, I love you both; but only one of you writes well.

Breathe. Just kidding.

Both of you fellers can smith a word like few words have been smithed before.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Narnia - it was faithful and taking the opinion of 3 men who as boys had it read to them and read themselves until the books I am now reading from are falling apart - I trust the emotion of their hearts. The set I am reading from is from England, they were not even selling it in the USA yet - so it is the original with the original pictures. I cried, Dorothy Cried, Tim Cried, Amy cried, and Troy's son Noah said, "Dad, why is you face sweating so much?" These are the critics I respect the most - not the the jerk in the GT - his heart, if he has one, will probably never be open the Gospel for the same reason he does not like this movie and so many others that have a true message. Yes, I believe we grow-ups fail to see the wonder in the story and demand more than anyone can deliver in our movies - but look at the $ they have made - the public has spoken again. Notice how they are pushing KK and how as you spoke so well too - is is bombing. But Jack Lewis delivered, his books deliver and the movie delivered - I trust my heart and the hearts of others on this issue. It is Finished and so am I.

6:01 PM  

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