Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The other day I was having trouble with a script and so I took a long walk. We have a dollar theater about eight miles from the house, which is a perfect distance (provided you have a ride home1). I love dollar theaters because they stop me from being picky: how can I resent a movie that only cost a buck? Even when the movie is terrible, I can at least spend the time productively by analyzing why the movie is terrible … Which is exactly what I did while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis’ fantasy series2. One of the books’ most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery … some might even say allegory. I’ve spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several.

I’m starting to think that the discovery that the Chronicles of Narnia are about something is the bookish child’s version of learning that [SPOILER ALERT]  there’s no Santa Claus. It is the moment when we discover that authors aren’t just nice men and women trying to entertain us with a story; instead they’re trying to communicate some lesson to us — which makes them no different than every other bossy adult in our lives. Perhaps even more important, it is usually a discovery we make on our own.

I have re-read (and now watched) The Chronicles of Narnia with this question in mind. And the more time I spend with these stories, the less I think that the outrage is justified. Certainly Lewis has created Narnia as a moral universe — where every new place and challenge is a proving ground for personal integrity. But what good story doesn’t do that? Why do we roll our eyes at the heavy-handed moralizing of Eustace’s avarice, but thrill at seeing Ofelia approach the table of the Pale Man? Or seeing Harry Potter discover the secret of the mirror of Erised?

I suspect that the anger concerning The Chronicles of Narnia is less about Lewis’ specific message and more about the fact that he has a message at all. It is outrage at the very notion of authorial intent.

  1. 1. I tend to prefer walking all my miles in a straight line … which invariably results in my phoning Mary to pick me up. The woman is nothing if not patient.
  2. 2. I have long harbored an irrational hatred for The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeThe Magician’s Nephew, however, is one of my favorite stories of all time.

8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • kbryna says:

    WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO SANTA CLAUS?

    I didn’t feel disillusioned at the discover of Lewis’s Christianizing, just – well, honestly amused and a little shocked that I didn’t pick up on it until it was pointed out to me. In college. By a professor.

    Voyage of the Dawn Treader has always been my favorite of the Narnia books; that same professor agreed, saying it was more *Odyssey* than Bible.

    The other major crushing moment of bookish life, also courtesy Lewis, is when you eat Turkish Delight for the first time and realize it’s appalling. I’ve taught TLTW&TW a bunch of times, and invariably, someone raises their hand to tell the class how bitterly disappointed they were when they first ate Turkish Delight.

  • Voyage of the Dawn Treader was always my favorite, too–in fact, I think I loved it BECAUSE of Eustace’s unbridled greed and annoying-ness. I loved to hate him.

    I actually really appreciate the moralistic aspects of the Narnia books. It was a series that accompanied me through the transition from being read to, to reading on my own, and the fact that there was a symbolism that I could grasp at a young age (once it was explained to me) made me feel very grown-up. It didn’t matter whether the symbolism was inspired by Christianity or what.

  • Roboseyo says:

    I downloaded (yep, I guess I’m one of the bad ones) Voyage of the Dawn Treader after reading this post. I’d forgotten the movie’d even come out, it made so little an impact, even though it made it all the way to Korea. Strangely, in reading the book, I loved to hate Eustace, but in watching the movie, I just out-and-out hated him.

    Come to think of it, it was the same for Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter. Maybe because in a book, you only have to ACTUALLY hear the voice if you choose to imagine it.

    Interesting side-note: a failed attempt to see “The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe” back in 2006 was the flashpoint that led to me breaking up with the seriousest relationship I’d had, before I met my wife.

  • Clementine B says:

    Thanks for your comment! which led me to your website in turn :)

    I haven’t seen the film yet but a few weeks ago I went to a PhD seminar about Voyage of the Dawn Treader where everyone had looked at the book from a particular angle. It’s incredible how much you can get from the novel when you go beyond the Christian allegory. There’s so much there about imperialism, images of childhood, in psychoanalytical terms, as a political fable, etc. I’m not a big fan of the series but the least you can say is that they’re fascinating.

    Funnily enough, I’ve always thought Eustace was extremely badly treated by the narrator and that he’s just a normal kid who has to endure the constant bullying of Caspian and Edmund. Just my vision of it… :D

  • All fantastic points! I’m interested to learn so many people felt empathy for Eustace — though maybe that’s not surprising. The story of him turning into a dragon wouldn’t be impactful if we didn’t feel like he was a boy “more sinned against than sinning” (to steal a line from LEAR).

    Kbryna,
    I COMPLETELY agree about Turkish delight! I’m actually in the midst of writing a short post on that very subject. That stuff is disgusting!

  • Meredith says:

    I’ve hesitated to make this comment, because little bothers me more than American Evangelicals complaining about being persecuted for their faith, and I really don’t want to come across that way. But I think that in some cases – Pullman’s, in particular – the message really is offensive, rather than the realization of authorial intent in general. Pullman clearly knows something about intent, and also, I think, has clearly been hurt by the Church.

    I do think there’s an element of “Oh, man! This is ABOUT something!” disappointment for many, but I still think there are those intellectuals who really are bothered by ever having enjoyed – been taken in by – a Christian allegory.

  • Meredith says:

    Also, I apologize for the horrid profusion of “I think”s in that comment.

  • fern says:

    I like non-rose flavored Turkish Delight…

    It may not be traditional, but it is delic





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