The four Pevensie children—Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter—have been evacuated from London during the Nazi bombing of that city in World War II. They end up living with an old professor on a rambling country estate far from the city and the war. But the professor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Macready, is the original wet blanket, so the children must find ways to keep themselves amused without falling afoul of her stern gaze.
C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s tale has finally made it to the big screen in a way that captures the novel’s breadth and splendor. When Lucy climbs into a huge wardrobe while playing hide and seek, the furs give way to firs, and she finds herself in a snow-covered land called Narnia. Soon all the Pevensie children enter this magical world where it is always winter but never Christmas.
The White Witch responsible for 100 years of cold knows full well that an ancient prophecy says two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve will come to challenge her curse. So she immediately sets out to kill the children. She’s unwittingly helped by Edmund, who through his own selfishness and foolish pride quickly falls under her spell.
Chases. Fights. Battles. Beavers! A lion named Aslan who becomes a picture of Jesus. And the love that binds four siblings together. These are just a few of the reasons the land of Narnia is so loved by so many.
This story is chock-a-block with positive lessons about loyalty, courage, selflessness and sacrifice. Peter and Susan look after each other and their younger brother and sister. Reluctant to assume leadership at first, Peter takes charge of the army of light determined to defeat the White Witch. He steps up as the eldest and, among other things, puts himself between his siblings and a pack of ravenous wolves.
Indeed, many of the mythological beings and talking animals of Narnia put themselves in harm’s way to help the children fight against the forces of darkness. At great personal risk, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver offer their humble home to the Pevensies and later lead them through tunnels and woods to keep ahead of the wolves. Lucy’s newfound faun friend, Mr. Tumnus, overcomes the temptation to try to gain favor with the White Witch, and he pays dearly for doing the right thing. A fox offers himself as a sacrifice to help the children escape the clutches of the White Witch. Then, in an act that forms the core of the story, Aslan becomes the ultimate sacrifice to pay the penalty for Edmund’s treachery. (Edmund’s siding with the White Witch is used to good effect as this tale tells us about our own propensity to stray off the straight-and-narrow.)
When bickering gets the best of the children, the professor gently chides them, saying, “You’re a family. You should start acting like one.” Peter and Susan reprimand Edmund and demand that he apologize when he plays a cruel trick on Lucy. Lucy, for her part, is quick to forgive.
It is in the spiritual realm that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe displays its greatest positivity. C.S. Lewis intended Aslan to serve as a Christ figure and for the events that surround him to serve as an allegory for Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. This film fully embraces those allusions.
A primer on Narnian allegory: Aslan serves the Emperor Beyond the Sea (God the Father) and yet is also creator of Narnia (compare Colossians 1:16). Even though Aslan clearly has power over the White Witch, he chooses to work through human beings to accomplish his will to free Narnia. And he offers his own innocent blood to pay for Edmund’s sin (Romans 5:8). His “Gethsemane” is a forest glade. His “disciples” are Susan and Lucy. As he is led to the Stone Table to be killed, he is mocked and humiliated by the White Witch’s evil cohort yet does not protest or fight back (read Isaiah 53:4-7 and the gospel accounts of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion). Most important, he rises from the dead and the atonement is complete (Colossians 1:13-14). Aslan tells Edmund’s siblings not to bring up their brother’s betrayal again: “What’s done is done,” he explains (Psalm 103:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Hebrews 10:17). As he presents Edmund to the court at the castle Cair Paravel, he calls him “Edmund the Just” (see Romans 5:19).
Christin Ditchfield, author of A Family Guide to Narnia, offers other biblical parallels. “All of Narnia awaits deliverance from the dominion of the White Witch,” she writes. “The land itself longs to be free from captivity (Romans 8:19-21). According to the Deep Magic (or law) on which Narnia was founded, Edmund must pay the penalty for his treachery with his life (Romans 6:23 and Hebrews 9:22). Aslan is the only hope for Narnia and for Edmund. It is only Aslan, the one who created Narnia, who can now deliver it from the power of the White Witch (1 John 3:8).”
Also, it should be noted that the White Witch is a usurper and pretender to the throne who has temporary control of Narnia until Aslan returns (Ephesians 2:2). She has magic powers to turn living things to stone and uses a potion to conjure hot chocolate and Turkish delight (an ultra-sweet dessert) for Edmund. Her subtle lies to Edmund are a good illustration of James 1:14-15.
Father Christmas makes an appearance and gives Lucy a magic potion that can heal wounds. (She uses it to revive Edmund after he is stabbed.) Susan is given arrows that she’s told will “not easily miss” their target.
Lewis begins his book with the simple line, “They were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids.” The movie begins by dramatizing those 14 words with a depiction of the German attack. We see a plane crash in flames. Bombers loom overhead and loud explosions roar in the background as the children run for cover. Edmund and Peter are knocked over by the force of one blast.
The film concludes with a grand battle featuring armies of animals and mythological creatures. Minotaurs, centaurs, unicorns, cyclopes and giants run headlong into each other. (No blood or gore is shown in any of these sequences.) Volleys of arrows are fired, and Susan fells a malicious dwarf with one well-aimed shot. Swords and lances do their damage. Giants swing their clubs. And Edmund is stabbed with a broken spear. Griffins dive-bomb the White Witch’s army with giant boulders. A charging rhino bowls over enemy forces and tosses one creature into the air with its horn.
In between those “modern” and “ancient” battles, Peter, Susan, Lucy and the Beavers are pursued through a tunnel by a pack of wolves, who at another time catch the fox and threaten to kill him. The children also cross a frozen river as the ice breaks beneath their feet and as a frozen waterfall begins to thaw and collapse above them. They are eventually cornered by the wolves, and they wind up falling into the raging torrent and being swept downstream. Later, Peter kills a wolf with his sword. (Again, no blood is seen, even though Aslan tells Peter to clean his blade.) Some of Aslan’s soldiers attack the White Witch’s encampment to free Edmund, swinging swords as the Witch’s henchmen fight back.
Ginarrbrik, the White Witch’s evil dwarf, tackles Edmund and holds a knife to his throat. The Witch slaps Edmund, and Ginarrbrik raps him over the head with a pike. Characters grimace in pain as the White Witch turns them to stone.
At the Stone Table, Aslan is physically abused, shaved and tied up. The White Witch then stands over him with a spear and plunges it downward. (This blow, as is the case throughout the film, makes impact offscreen; we see Aslan’s eyes go wide in pain as he absorbs the fatal wound.)
Mr. Beaver says “blimey” and calls Edmund a “cheeky blighter.”
The professor smokes a pipe.
The children run to hide in the wardrobe to escape responsibility for accidentally breaking a window and knocking over a suit of armor. (In the book, they were merely trying to stay out from under Mrs. Macready’s feet.) In anger Peter says of Edmund, “I’ll kill him!”
“It’s like Lord of the Rings with animals!” That was my son’s assessment after seeing an advance screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And it’s true. Sort of.
Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends who deeply loved old stories of mythological lands and strange beings, and both wrote from a profoundly Christian worldview. But Lewis’ tales are more clearly Christian allegories, or, as he preferred to call them, “supposals.” He explained that he wrote his stories by asking this question: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a man in our world, became a lion there, and then imagine what would happen.” For his part, Tolkien hated the thought that his books would be considered allegorical at all.
There are visual differences between the movies, too. Narnia is much lighter. No rain-drenched battles in the dark of night here. The Witch and her minions are evil, but they’re nowhere near as scary as Rings‘ orcs and Uruk-hai. That’s not to say Narnia is a shoo-in for children. It feels intense for a PG movie (shortly before it was released, it was trimmed slightly to avoid a PG-13). And the climactic battle scene and chase sequence will likely frighten more than a few kids. The Witch’s cruelty to Edmund is harsh, and the humiliation and killing of Aslan will bring a tear even to an adult’s eye.
So this is not a tame movie. But in the words of Lucy, it is “good.” Shrek director Andrew Adamson has deftly captured the thrill and splendor of Lewis’ stories and preserved the essential allegory at the heart of Narnia. Lewis once referred to his Chronicles as a “trifle.” I wonder, though, if he would still be saying that after seeing it brought to life like this and after pondering how much spiritual good his words (and now pictures) have the potential of doing in the hearts of generations he never knew.