January 26, 2009
In purely cinematic terms, Prince Caspian is better than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I liked it more as a movie. Aside from too little Tilda Swinton, the characters and the conflicts are more interesting and "authentic." And yet it all adds up to utter nonsense.
Paradoxically its superior quality makes this clearer. I've read the Narnia books many times, but watching Prince Caspian it fully registered what about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series specifically Philip Pullman finds so annoying: Lewis cheats like crazy.
The first big cheat in Prince Caspian is Lucy's insistence that she's seen Aslan, and that means they should do X instead of Y. We believe Lucy because she's a cute kid and was right the last time. Plus she's the protagonist and she's really, really sure of herself.
Outside the fanciful Y/A universe, this is a dreadful rule of thumb when it comes to taking advice from anybody, especially children. Bright lines are drawn between "adulthood" and "childhood" because (among other reasons) the judgment of children is so bad.
A passionate insistence isn't a substitution for the facts. Neither is it the equivalent of "faith." Else we should follow after every self-assured ideological zealot that comes down the pike.
Back in the real world, religions (and organizations in general) come up with various ways around this problem. For example: official spokespersons. If Lucy was the "designated person who talks to Aslan" (i.e., a prophet), that would have changed the equation considerably.
It's a classic "appeal to authority" either way, but at least the chain of attribution would remain clear. Nobody in Prince Caspian can decide who the heck is in charge. No wonder they resort to magic when they screw up massively and their backs are up against the wall.
Which makes this magic business the even bigger cheat, and the more invidious one.
All fantasy and science fiction cheats. Rather than "Once upon a time," such stories should begin, "Assuming that the standard laws of physics don't apply and the second law of thermodynamics can be violated at will." (Literary fiction cheats too, except about human nature.)
But we accept these hand-waves as a matter of course. We are willing to suspend our disbelief and consume a simile of reality as long as we're not expected to treat it as an actual reflection of reality. That's why it's called make believe.
More importantly, we accept these inventions on the condition that they conform to the internal logic of the story. But Lewis relies instead on a context outside the narrative. He exploits external connections between fairy tales and Christianity to connect the dots.
Calling it "deep magic" is another way of saying "Just because." This is not only a Narnia problem. When it comes to the Christ figures in all his books, Lewis punts. Seriously, what exactly does Aslan do in Prince Caspian other than show up at the last minute like an M1A1 battle tank?
I can't help thinking of the scene in Red Dwarf where Kryten invades a Jane Austen virtual reality simulator in a tank because the crew blew off the lobster dinner he'd been slaving over all day. One of the funniest things I've ever seen. But, really, this isn't much different.
Anyway, being generally short on battle tanks, I can imagine the faithful resorting to all sorts of cargo cults to get Aslan to reliably show up when the chips are down. Based on Prince Caspian, I guess it comes down to trusting in unknown forces and taking an intellectual swan dive off a cliff.
Oh, and getting a whole lot of people pointlessly killed first.
But if I wanted New Agey, self-actualizing claptrap, hey, give me Richard (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) Bach. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, set himself the task of reconciling an upstart Jewish sect with the cosmology of the Greco-Roman-Egyptian universe (Acts 17:23 NIV):
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The end result was modern Christianity. But what we've lost since then is that original cosmology, the known and unknown gods that ruled Paul's world. The gods of the Old Testament and The Aeneid, full of parts and passions. Gods that could be argued and wrestled with.
Mormon Gods, in other words. At least before Mormonism got embarrassed of them.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe