The Dollar, The Witch And the Wardrobe

Over the past month, my 5-year-old son and I have established a nightly ritual.

Just before bedtime, he sits on my lap and I read to him from The Magician's Nephew, the first in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series.

Last week, we read the vivid passage in which Digory and Polly, along with the Witch from Charn, Uncle Andrew, the cabby and his horse, Strawberry, arrive in a world of apparent nothingness. Before long, they hear the singing of a beautiful voice. They stand in awe and watch as stars fill the sky and a sun rises. In the expanding light, they catch sight of a lion singing the world into being.

I first read these books as a teen-ager. Back then the Christian allusions and allegories were an interesting aside to the fantastic adventures. Now I see things the other way around, and the stories are even more exciting because of it. Some day, I hope my son feels the same way.

The Narnia tales thrill the imagination while teaching the truth. They are works explicitly centered on Christ and his offer of redemption. Rereading from them all these years later, I was reminded how much they helped to shape and strengthen my faith in God.

That's why I was dismayed when, a couple of weeks ago, I read in the newspaper that HarperCollins is exploring the idea of releasing a new version of these fantasy classics—with the Christian elements removed.

Dismayed, and then livid.

“We'll need to be able to give emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery [and] theology,” a publishing executive was quoted as saying.

The reason for the literary sacrilege? To paraphrase the news report: The custodians of Lewis' estate have seen the Harry Potter phenomenon—millions of books sold, a major motion picture on the way, fabulous fortunes amassed—and decided they want a piece of the action.

Never mind that, given Lewis' rather radical conversion to Christ, the concept of gutting The Chronicles of Narnia of their Christian theme is absurd. Lewis gave up agnosticism for Christianity in 1929, and spent the rest of his life growing in faith and writing about issues related to it. An Anglican, he held views on the Eucharist and the liturgy that today seem very Catholic—an intriguing fact, given his immense popularity today among evangelical Protestants.

Lewis' appeal to diverse groups of Christians today isn't hard to understand. He was one of the 20th century's great thinkers and, once he turned to Christ, his faith informed every thought he had.

In his apologetics classic Mere Christianity, Lewis compared the subject of the title to a hallway from which the Christian may enter any number of rooms. “The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms is, I think, preferable. And, even in the hall you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.”

And now comes HarperCollins, eager to introduce a new generation to a dim shadow of the real C.S. Lewis, one utterly stripped of his muse. For taking Christianity out of Narnia would be like cutting the economics out of Marx's Communist Manifesto in order to make it more palatable to capitalists. Like editing all evidence of Jesus' divinity out of the New Testament in order to sell it to Buddhists. Like … oh, I'd better stop here or I'll start giving publishers ideas.

‘People won't write the books I want, so I'll have to do it for myself.’—C.S. Lewis

The problem, of course, is that the absence of religion is itself a belief system. If the symbols and elements of Christ are taken out of Narnia, they will be replaced with something else. If the Christ figure, Aslan, the lion of Narnia, is banished from Lewis' books, what remains? The witch.

In Narnia, unlike the universe described in the Harry Potter books, the White Witch represents what witches should always represent—evil. Her presence, absent Aslan's, would most assuredly reflect a belief system: the belief that there is no such thing as God, no such thing as a transcendent struggle between good and evil. Only nice characters and naughty ones.

As Catholic novelist Michael D. O'Brien has warned, there is a battle underway for our children's minds. A Chronicles of Narnia plundered of its Christian elements would be an incredibly audacious act of war indeed.

As for the Drake family, we know that, if all this comes to pass, it will be the new fans who will be missing out on something truly special. Not us. When the marketing hype for the new books begins, and my son starts asking to have them because “everyone else” does, I'll replace my old, dog-eared copies not with the new books, but with a spiffy new set of the originals.

Later, when Hollywood produces their zillion-dollar version based on the new books, we'll pass on that, too. We'll stage our own private screening of videos based on the real deal, and buy extra popcorn with the money we save by not going to the multiplex.

And we'll thank God for giving us C.S. Lewis and his wonderful story about Narnia—the whole story.

Features correspondent Tim Drake welcomes e-mail at [email protected]