Every once in a while, a new film comes out that explores themes of good and evil, of sin and virtue, of eternal conflict and universal values. And then someone will inevitably distort the message in promotion of his favored project of licentious criminality.
I expect that warmongers, especially on the religious right, will feel tempted to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as some sort of vindication of the U.S. war on terror. Many leftist critics of the religious right and the war will similarly see a connection. There is a connection, but it’s not what they might think.
In the film as well as C.S. Lewis’s novel, the lion Aslan is the Christ figure, the symbol of pure goodness. He forgives Edmund after the young boy betrays his siblings, and then Aslan sacrifices himself to save the boy. The lion is the one that leads the protagonists to victory against pure evil.
I suppose that some see in him the likeness of the president of the United States. But the similarities are none. Our president is not a lion, but he is surely always lyin‘. Would Aslan have misled his people to take them to war and then kept them in a state of war until some vague "victory" was achieved?
The president does not seem to have a penchant for forgiveness, although he appears to expect an endless supply of ours. He is always talking about sacrifice, but this war is his lifeblood; it is difficult to conceive of a single thing the president has himself sacrificed for his war.
Indeed, George W. Bush is a lot more like the white witch than the lion. Now, clearly there are some differences here, too. The witch is a sexy and seductive woman with magical powers. She can also speak in complete sentences.
But there are some similarities. In defiance of traditional symbolism, the witch is cast in white, not black, so as to demonstrate the illusive and deceptive nature of evil. It is not always as it appears. Sometimes the evil witch presents herself as generous. Sometimes a conservative presents himself as compassionate. The contradictions emanate from the contradictory, irrational nature of evil itself.
The witch’s magic is an illusion. She can make hot cocoa or Turkish Delight out of a dash of magic potion and a handful of snow, but it will soon evaporate like the promises of a politician. Politics, too, is an illusion. It cannot create good. It can only shift resources around. It can only force people to do or not do something contrary to their will. It can only destroy.
President Bush offers a seductive promise to many millions of Americans. He promises stability and security, as well as a mess of pottage. We have seen over the last five years the already flawed conservative movement sell the last of its soul and betray its most important declared principles — and for what? For sweeties.
The War Crime
The creatures of Narnia fighting off the evil forces of the witch are involved in that rarest of enterprises: the just war. According to Christian just war theory — or, for that matter, libertarian just war theory — the conflict is just on the side of the woodland animals, the good mythical creatures and the four human children. They have just cause with a just objective: the totally defensive resistance to the witch’s tyranny. Their resorting to war is proportional to the threat: if they submit to the witch, she will enslave them all and turn many to stone. With the determined leadership of Aslan and Peter on their side, they have attainable objectives. They give plenty of fair warning: in fact, they are standing there peacefully when the witch’s forces invade; there is no surprise about it. They go to war only as a last resort, to save Narnia from the impending totalitarian rule of the witch. And last but certainly not least, they pick just targets. They do not attack anyone but the aggressors. They have no use for the ugly concept of "collateral damage."
Furthermore, the good guys in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are fighting there purely by choice. Everyone appears to have the right to leave. There is no draft or stop-loss order. Under Aslan’s leadership and care, people’s rights are inalienable. They also do not tax anyone else for their war. Very, very few wars in the real world approach this level of justness. Very, very few wars in the real world are just.
As Laurence Vance has made exceedingly clear, the U.S. war in Iraq fails the just war test. The U.S. war in Iraq is an aggressive war. The U.S. is the aggressor nation. Aggressive war is a war crime. War itself is a war crime, unless when conducted purely defensively against an invasive or oppressive power and with total deference to the rights of civilians and neutrals. Even a just war is not glorious; it is an enormity. C.S. Lewis’s war is not portrayed as a glorious way to stomp around the world spreading freedom, but as a calamitous event even when undertaken in defense of life and liberty.
If we want to see parallels in the story with modern times, we see at the end an aggressive war waged by the witch in Narnia and at the beginning an aggressive war waged by the Nazis in England. The witch at least only fights combatants. The Nazis dropped bombs on civilians. Bush’s war isn’t as intentionally murderous as the strategic bombing conducted by both sides in World War II, but it appears even less concerned with killing only combatants than does the witch’s war! However, the witch doesn’t take war prisoners, whereas the U.S. government is more than happy to take war prisoners — lots of them, even ones who might have nothing to do with the war.
Warmongering and the Silver Screen
When the religious right saw movies like The Passion of the Christ or even The March of the Penguins and concluded that, in general terms, modern society had lost its way and it was now time to return to the basics of Christian morality, there was little to argue about. More precisely, there was little to argue over. In suggesting a return to traditional morality in general terms, no one was suggesting a reliance on violence to bring it about. No one seemed inspired by The March of the Penguins to put a gun in a heathen’s belly and force him to reject gay marriage.
Movies with grand conflicts between good and evil on the battlefield, on the other hand, stir up Manichean passions for war in the real world, and are invoked to justify militarism and imperialism. Soon after the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, I recall Bush saying something about how the hobbits fighting against evil reminded him of U.S. forces fighting for freedom in the Middle East. We can only expect many of his partisans to watch Narnia and see more evidence of the righteousness of waging war such as the United States is doing.
C.S. Lewis’s main political value, as I understand it, was apolitical: it was the natural law. That politicians exploit such principles for their own gain and aggressive policies demonstrates the importance of these principles and how they resonate with people. There is undoubtedly reason for hope when people feel that invoking the lion is the best way to conceal and enable the witch.
We must not let the witch get away with it, however. Good, freedom, natural law, truth and peace — these concepts are the ones most mentioned by those people who are the first to defy them in action. The important question is whether you adopt and recognize them in deed. By looking closely, we see that the war we read about in the papers every day is not the work of the lion. It is the work of the witch.
Thanks to David Theroux for sharing his thoughts on this, some of which I integrated with my own.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.