Political correctness has now raised its head is what one would have thought a stronghold of traditional Christianity — the work of C.S. Lewis. To be precise, the new film of his Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the best-selling “Narnia” series of children’s books.
The Dawn Treader is a revival of an old Irish form, the Immram, telling of a ship voyaging among islands, with the crew learning some lesson at each stopping place.
The imaginary world of Narnia is, of course, under the rule of kings who acknowledge the rule of its Creator, the good lion Aslan, an attempt by Lewis to make the idea of Christ accessible to modern children.
However, actor Liam Neeson, who provides the voice of the lion in the Dawn Treader, has claimed it is also based on other religious leaders such as Mohammed and Buddha.
In fact there is not the slightest doubt about Aslan’s identity. In the first Narnia story, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan takes on the burden of guild and punishment for another, undergoes a kind of crucifixion and rises from the dead. Neither Islam nor Buddhism have remotely comparable episodes.
Following Lewis’s conversion, the entire body of his writing apart from his purely scholarly work consisted of Christian apologetics of one kind or another.
He said on more than one occasion that his purpose behind writing the Narnia books was to introduce children to Christianity and to get the Christian message to them “past the watchful dragons” of modern secularism. He wrote of Aslan:
He is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?”
Neeson was quoted as saying “he [Aslan] also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries. That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids — that’s what he means for me.”
Walter Hooper, Lewis’s former secretary and a trustee of his estate, was quoted as saying the author would have been outraged: “It is nothing whatever to do with Islam. Lewis would have simply denied that. He wrote that the ‘whole Narnian story is about Christ.’ Lewis could not have been clearer.”
Conservative Christian William Oddie, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, accused Neeson of “a betrayal of Lewis’s intention and a shameful distortion.”
Although there are wicked witches and other supernatural evil creatures threatening the good kingdom of Narnia, the chief political and military threat to it is Calormene, the great and cruel empire to the south.
Lewis did not make the Calormenes identical with Muslims. It is probable that he deliberately made them different in important ways so the books would not be regarded as simply anti-Muslim tracts: the Calormenes worship a vulture-headed god called Tash and, unlike any Muslims, conduct human sacrifices. There city has statues, which are forbidden in Islam.
However, it is equally obvious and quite unmistakable that they are meant to be Muslim-like: they are warlike, live in the hot, desert-like country, are swarthy, wear turbans and run the slave-trade. Their ruler, the Tisroc, practices polygamy and his prime minister is known as a chief vizier. The women live is harem-like seclusion.
The Calormenes government is Oriental despotism. The Tisroc is a capricious and merciless tyrant. (“Call back the pardon we wrote for the third cook. I feel manifest within me the prognostics of indigestion.”) Insulting the Tisroc results, for one of his subjects, in a short life and a slow death. There are no Christian values in government.
The Tisroc, who regards “our subjects” as “vile,” in The Horse and His Boy plots the death of his eldest son before the son can assassinate him, remarking: “I have eighteen other sons and Rabadash, in the manner of the eldest sons of kings, was beginning to be dangerous. More than five Tisrocs in Tashban have died before their time because their eldest sons, enlightened princes, grew tired of waiting for their throne.”
The state of Calormene law is indicated by the fact that “there is only one traffic regulation, which is that everyone who is less important has to get out of the way for everyone who is more important.” The Narnians, by contrast, though we do not hear much about their organized religion, try to live by Christian-like values and an idealized version of medieval chivalry, and to revere the Lordship of Aslan in actions as well as words.
The Calormenes regard peace with the Narnians as no more than temporary truces, are always trying to conquer Narnia and in the end, in The Last Battle, succeed. The Calormen names, such as Arsheesh, Ahoshta, Lasaraleen and Rabadash, are not specifically Muslim but have a kind of Arabic sound to them.
As Narnia represents the Christian and classical heritage of Europe (it has beings from classical pagan mythology such as fauns and dryads as well as “northern” fairy-tale creatures and talking animals), so Calormen represents perpetual the infidel threat to it. Buddhism, incidentally, is simply not mentioned in the stories at all (I am at least grateful that writing this has given me a chance to re-read them).
Further, it is made clear that Aslan-Christ is, under the Emperor-Over-Sea (God the Father), the only good God. No syncretism is possible. In The Last Battle a phony syncretic religion, running together Aslan and Task is concocted by Calormene crooks and slave-traders. A bewildered and exploited donkey wearing a lion-skin is presented as “Tashlan” to fool the Narnian animals into obeying the Calormenes. It is seen as a sign, literally, the “End Times” of terminal degeneration and decay ushering in the end of not just Narnia but Calormene and the whole Narnian-created universe.
The good Calormenes are saved at the end in The Last Battle not because Tash who they sincerely worshipped had any aspects of goodness, or identity with Aslan but because Aslan claims that any good action, even if done in another’s name, is his own. Lewis made the same point in The Screwtape Letters, in which the demon Screwtape complained that God saved the souls of men who died in a bad cause “on the monstrously sophistical grounds that they were serving the best cause they knew.” This is about as far from syncretism as it is possible to get.