Our Polly's a bigoted bitch,
Her scribblings, though crap, make her rich.
Her writings on Narnia,
Looked even barmier;
I laughed till I suffered a stitch.
Polly starts off with a title that is sure to grab the attention of all rabid atheists—or embittered lapsed Catholics, anyway.
'Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion'... Children won't get the Christian subtext, but unbelievers should keep a sickbag handy during Disney's new epic, writes Polly Toynbee
I've always thought that "writes" is a strange word to describe La Toynbee's childish scrawlings, but there you go. Still, it's a title to be proud of, eh? Grabs the attention, wouldn't you say? Your humble Devil likes it very much. Nice entrée; now for the meat!
Aslan the lion shakes his mighty mane and roars out across Narnia and eternity. Christ is risen!
Does Aslan shout this? No. Is this Polly's take? Yup. Don't you love the way that she presents this as fact, literary device though it may be.
However, not many British children these days will get the message.
Oh, oh well. Never mind.
Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.
Right, here we go. Polly, my love, you are simply aying that it is Christian allegory because you happen to know that C. S. Lewis was a Christian. Now, it's been a while since I read them, but I—as a small child—never saw the Christian allegory. Furthermore, I'm sure that I could still read them as stories of magic and myth; to me, a long-time atheist, Christianity is a myth, rather similar to those telling of the Greek and Roman Gods (but less interesting).
This new Disney film is a remarkably faithful rendition of the book - faithful in both senses. It is beautiful to look at and wonderfully acted. The four English children and their world are all authentically CS Lewis olde England.
Good. That means they won't be slouching around in hoodies and chibbing Mr Tumnus for his lunch money. It may be an idealised England that never really existed, but I don't like social realism in my films: they are always depressing and usually end up as tragedies.
But from its opening scenes of the bombing of their Finchley home in the blitz and the tear-jerking evacuation from their mother in a (spotlessly clean) steam train, there is an emotional undertow to this film that tugs on the heart-strings from the first frames.
I'm glad that the evacuation is tear-jerking. I am pretty certain that many children who were evacuated during the war were deeply upset and scared. I would be at that age. Strangely, Polly doesn't mention anything about how war is bad and evil: maybe even she would have joined the fight against the Nazis. Or, alternatively, maybe even she daren't write that we should have capitulated to ensure that civilians weren't killed. Still, good work by the film-makers: you sympathise with the children from the opening moments. Excellent.
By the end, it feels profoundly manipulative, as Disney usually does. But then, that is also deeply faithful to the book's own arm-twisting emotional call to believers.
OK. Gosh, I'm just waiting for Polly's review of Lewis's Perelandra. If she's heard of it, of course.
Disney is deliberately promoting this film to the religious - it has appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the Christian message behind the movie in British churches. The Christian radio station Premier is urging churches to hold services on the theme of The Gospel According to Narnia. Even the Methodists have written a special Narnia-themed service. And a Kent parish is giving away £10,000 worth of film tickets to single-parent families. (Are the children of single mothers in special need of the word?)
Yes, Polly; though it's more of a phrase: "keep your legs together" (reactionery old bastard, me). As for the rest of it, well, it's called marketing, Polly; welcome to the world. And I bet that those single-parent families are delighted to have something other than patronising homilies from their church, plus it'll keep the kids off the street for an hour or two.
Disney may come to regret this alliance with Christians, at least on this side of the Atlantic. For all the enthusiasm of the churches, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ bombed in Britain and warehouses are stuffed with unsold DVDs of that stomach-churner.
Yeah, but Pol, as many people have pointed out, that's because it was shite. And spoken in Latin and Aramaic. It was turgid and boring. I believe that The Last Temptation... has sold quite well over the years. Plus, those devious people in York still perform those eeeeeevil Mystery Rounds every damn year...
There are too few practising Christians in the empty pews of this most secular nation to pack cinemas. So there has been a queasy ambivalence about how to sell the Narnia film here. Its director, Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame), says the movie's Christian themes are "open to the audience to interpret". One soundtrack album of the film has been released with religious music, the other with secular pop.
Ooooh, "queasy ambivalence"! How about approaching a British marketing company? They'll just tell 'em to sell it as an action-packed fantasy blockbuster.
Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. Most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion.
Bloody hell, Polly, how many people know nothing about Christ? It's completely irrelevent anyway: it is, as you say, the "age-old mythic battle between good and evil": age old is considerably older than Christianity, as is the concept of sacrifice as a means of redemption.
By the way, Pol, did you see any eeeeeevil Christian manipulation in the ressurection of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, 'cos to my mind that is a far more Jesus-like symbol. He comes back, purified, as Jesus did. He also came back for only a short while, as Jesus did. Manipulative, I tell you.
After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn't say what Easter celebrated. Among the young - apart from those in faith schools - that number must be considerably higher. Ask art galleries: they now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what "agony in the garden", "deposition", "transfiguration" or "ascension" mean. This may be regrettable cultural ignorance, but it means Aslan will stay just a lion to most movie-goers.
That's right, you useless fuckwit; you have just pointed out that your entire rant is utterly, fucking redundent: can you stop now? No, Polly ploughs on, like some stampeding heifer of moral rectitude. Although, personally, I'm more reminded of one of those primative cultures in which they indulge in turd-throwing contests. And like in those contests, coming into contact with Polly always makes me feel a little bit soiled and unclean. Anyway, I digress once more.
All the same, children may puzzle over the lion and ask embarrassing questions.
What, like "mummy, where do babies come from?"or, "mummy, why am I bleeding?" or even, for those in Kent, "mummy, why don't I have a daddy?" Perhaps she means that children will ask questions that their parents won't know the answer to (that'll get both parent and child prepped for homework, eh?). Still, to get back to the sense of the sentence, I'm really sorry that Polly finds the whole idea of religion embarrassing: I think that it's rather sad. Did her children ask embarrassing questions whenever they passed a church? "Mummy, what is that tall building for?" I wonder what her answer was...
For non-CS Lewis aficionados, here is a recap. The four children enter Narnia through a wardrobe and find themselves in a land frozen into "always winter, never Christmas" by the white witch, (played with elemental force by Tilda Swinton). Unhappy middle child Edmund, resentful of being bossed about by his older brother, broods with meanness and misery. The devil, in the shape of the witch, tempts him: for the price of several chunks of turkish delight, rather than 30 pieces of silver, Edmund betrays his siblings and their Narnian friends.
The sins of this "son of Adam" can only be redeemed by the supreme sacrifice of Aslan.
I think that betrayal of your siblings and their friends to any evil force, whether you believe in a god or not, is pretty despicable. Many might describe betrayal as the ultimate sin: certainly, betrayal is pretty heavily punished by the Celtic, Norse, Greek and Roamn gods. They tend to regard it as a really shitty thing to do, and are likely to punish you severely. Even more recently, we have words that are eponyms of famous traitors: Quisling, Vichy. It's not just religions that dislike such behaviour, oh Polly, my sweet.
The difference being, of course, that the old gods—and humans—would execute the traitors (or drive them mad or both, etc.). That effort of formalised self-sacrifice for the sins of others is, surely, the best part of Christianity. And is the witch the devil? Is, then, the dead world of Charn, from whence she originated in The Magician's Nephew, heaven or hell?
This Christ-lion willingly lays down his life, submitting himself to be bound, thrashed and humiliated by the white witch, allowing his golden mane to be cut and himself to be slaughtered on the sacrificial stone table: it cracks in sympathetic agony and his body goes missing. The two girls lay down their heads and weep, Magdalene and Mary-like. Be warned, the film lingers long and lovingly over all this.
Is this wrong? Should the two girls walk away saying, "Silly old lion, I wanted an XBox 360 anyway"?
But so far, so good. The story makes sense. The lion exchanging his life for Edmund's is the sort of thing Arthurian legends are made of. Parfait knights and heroes in prisoner-of-war camps do it all the time. But what's this? After a long, dark night of the soul and women's weeping, the lion is suddenly alive again.
Indeed, Polly; the Celts had a long tradition of sacrifice for renewal, as did the Romans in their earlier days. True, the druids usually exchanged human blood for the renewal of the land, but to them the land was, although personified in the "green man" (Cernunnos or any of the other names that you like) and his wife, a raw force as much as anything. Let's not forget, either, that Cernunnos and the Wild Hunt always required a life in return for their favour.
Why? How?, my children used to ask. Well, it is hard to say why. It does not make any more sense in CS Lewis's tale than in the gospels. Ah, Aslan explains, it is the "deep magic", where pure sacrifice alone vanquishes death.
Apart from the unsurprising revelation that Polly's children have an intellect and imagination as poor as their mother's (chips off the old
We are left to conclude that:
- Polly didn't read the books to her children, or indeed let her children read the books, and thus she is a filthy, horrible liar, or
- She has only just realised that the book might have some Christian significance, or
- She feels that her children would be able to cope with it, because they are so much more intelligent than the general theatre-going public. Contemtable woman.
I'll leave you to choose which one.
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
That's the point, Polly. No, we didn't but he did it anyway. Oh, just fuck off.
Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart.
He betrayed his family, and his friends for a few pieces of, admittedly enchanted, Turkish delight, you stupid old bag. Yes, he bears some fucking guilt and so he bloody well should. He must take responsibility for his actions. As it is, Aslan, much like Luke Skywalker with his father, sees the good in Edmund and lays down his life for the mendacious, despicable little bastard thus countering the most selfish of act with the most selfless.
Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told.
Christ Almighty, and I thought Polly was bitter: can you imagine what Old Ma Toynbee must be like? Fucking hell...
So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.
Alternatively, Aslan has a fatherly chat to him and says, "I had to pay for that window: if you kick your football through it again, then it's coming out of your pocket-money." A Stepford brother? Or a half-decent human being? At the end, as I recall, he himself faces the White Witch, in severe peril of his life. He has become someone decent, rather than a selfish, cowardly Quisling (do you see what I did there?), i.e. he regained his honour through action, through doing the right thing. I know that the concepts of right and wrong are an alien concept in Polly's world, but that's because she is so morally bankrupt that she makes Jonathan Aitken look like the soul of probity.
Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored.
Yes, but in both stories, those who were worshipped were exalted because of their actions; the simple fact that they were kings or lords was not good enough. Only the worthy, those who proved themselves good through their actions were venerated. Others were either held in contempt or feared, but never respected.
Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight.
Blah... Money-lenders in the Temple... blah... The Samaritan taking action when others did not... blah...
Fuck off, Polly, you fucking wet blankett dhimmi.
Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".
Well, he's entitled to his opinion, though I think that he's a fuckwit. Has he not read any Nazi writings, or those of Communists, of the BNP or, for that matter, Poisonous Polly's column?
Besides, I very much enjoyed Pullman's His Dark Materials, but I found it profoundly religious. Isn't the concept of the daemon simly the same as the Christian concept of a soul? And don't Lyra and Will offer what is to them the ultimate sacrifice? They offer their love and, thus, effectively, their lives in order to save the souls of the dead: how is this different to Aslan's sacrifice? True, Aslan returns and their lives are for ever separated, but who is to say whose view of the world is better, or more real? Aslan offers hope of something new and better: all that Pullman offers is heartbreak and despair. Tending, as I do, towards the latter, I can only envy those who believe the former. And how often does despair breed depression, introspection, selfishness and misery which, in turn, lead to appalling actions? too many times, I believe. However, once more, I digress.
Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong.
Yes, but the strong-willed, the strong in heart. In a world in which money is power, God can't give you power before you have money; therefore, if you have money you must have deserved it before you have power. I think that's bullshit, but it's the logical conclusion to Polly's argument.
This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.
So, let's see, they fight off a load of evil creatures, putting their lives at risk, and thus make all decent people's lives better, and they get rewarded for doing so. Seems fair enough to me.
And, no, the poor—as in the cowardly, the faithless and the evil—do not inherit Lewis's earth (which in my opinion definitely put it in the realm of fantasy); instead those who have proved themselves by their actions "rule wisely" (thus making everyone's lives better) for a long time. Excellent!
Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice.
For the second time, Polly points out that her article is a pointless waste of time, that exists only so that I may insult the pusillanimous, moral pauper.
But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory."
So, any chance that Polly will shut the fuck up then? Er, no.
Well, here's my huff.
Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move", he writes: "Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..." So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.
"Emotional sadism"? So, the Narnia Chronicles are bad because they are filled with "sacrifice", "suffering" and "emotional sadism", but the His Dark Materials trilogy is "marvellous"? Have you actually read Pullman's Trilogy, Polly? Or did you just not "get" it? You emotionally stunted pusbag.
But wait, Polly has saved the very best for last, like the master storyteller that she is...
Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power.
A bit like those Celtic gods, eh? You know, the raw power of the earth? Or, perhaps, the power personified that were the Greek and Roman Muses?
He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come.
Oh, Polly; you've got confused again! You see, the idea of a higher being who rewards or punishes you after death, by judging how you lived you life is a very good way of ensuring that people do take responsibility for their actions. Because you can conceal your lying, cheating and stealing from others, but not from an omniscient god: do you see that, Polly? But God also gave us free will, you see, so if we completely screw up, it's still our fault.
Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass.
Oh, yes, that's right, and we've done so very well, haven't we? For instance, Communism—a supposedly secular regime—was responsible for at least 50 million murders in the last century, not to mention innumerable acts of betrayal, torture and other unpleasantness. The Nazis weren't much better. And the increased secularisation in this country really has brought a better society, hasn't it? You evil old bag, you make me want to reach for the sickbag: you personify everything that makes me ashamed to be an atheist.
Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.
I don't know: I like the idea of an Aslan. But I tell you want, we could well do without an intellectually crippled, moralising yet morally bankrupt, bitchy, disillusioned, imaginationless, bitter old piece of dried-out dogshit like Polly Toynbee.
Polly: you make me ashamed to be a human being: can you please hurry up and die, please, so that we can shit on your grave...