July 5, 2001
Trying to Neuter a Lion
-- R. Jonathan Moore
Like the lion Aslan himself, the controversy over HarperCollins's handling of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia just won't die.
Last Monday's Sightings column referred to the publishing company's plans to "reissue the Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series with all Christian traces purged." Several readers insisted that this completely misrepresented HarperCollins's intentions. So, what exactly is going on? Are editors at HarperCollins blue-penciling their way through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in an effort to strike out any thinly veiled Christian themes, or do they remain comfortable with the religious allegory that suffuses this children's series?
The truth, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in between. No, HarperCollins won't be tinkering with Lewis's original seven books, first published in the early 1950s. A terse press release assures us that "The works of CS Lewis will continue to be published by HarperCollins as written by the author with no alteration."
However, with visions of Harry-Potter-like profits undoubtedly dancing in their heads, HarperCollins plans to hire contemporary authors to provide new books in the series, "filling in the gaps" in the original tales. Writers of these not-yet-penned fables (the first will appear in 2003) will be expected to use familiar characters and settings . . . but not themes laden with Christian sensibilities.
The publisher seems determined to make sure that the religious overtones of the Chronicles of Narnia don't stand in the way of even greater sales. In an in-house memo regarding a Lewis documentary funded by HarperCollins, editorial director and publisher Steve Hanselman made clear the company's strategy. Concerning Lewis as "Christian Apologist," he wrote: "we should make sure that this designation isn't the 'handle' that sticks from the series."
Having Rupert Murdoch in charge of anyone's literary legacy, let alone a highly prized and spiritually charged one, is quite enough to make reasonable people blanche. But is HarperCollins really desecrating the Lewis canon, as some have complained? In a letter to the New York Times, one outraged reader -- stretching the boundaries of analogical taste -- asked: "Would the publishing world endorse a remake of The Diary of Anne Frank without Anne as a Jew? What about a Bible without God?" How fair is the charge that Aslan is being "neutered" in the interest of greater and greater profits?
Responding to critics, HarperCollins has explained that it intends for both new and old Narnia books to reach "the broadest possible audience and leave any interpretation of the works to the reader." This statement implies that the Chronicles have heretofore been the exclusive province of narrow-minded interpreters. But is this really the case? Many people would be surprised to find that there is only one way to understand Lewis's fables. Indeed, letters to major newspapers saw many Narnia fans -- from Christian to Jewish to nonreligious -- confess to having completely missed all the (supposedly obvious and integral) Christian symbolism.
The genius of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series lies in its appeal to all kinds of people, Christian and non-Christian. The Star Wars films tap into a similar cultural reservoir of archetypes. Like George Lucas's movies, Lewis's books are not primarily designed to convert audiences to a unique understanding of the universe. Instead, audience members and readers refract common symbols and themes through the prism of their own metaphysical particularities. Christians may see Jesus Christ in Luke Skywalker or Aslan the lion, but others may and need not. In assuming that the interpretation of Lewis's original series has always been fixed as Christian -- and therefore must be minimized -- HarperCollins made the first of many mistakes.
Another mistake? Trying to milk even more cash out of an already productive literary sacred cow. This may have once seemed like a wise financial strategy, but HarperCollins will soon discover the far greater cost of awakening the sleeping giant that is the conservative Christian cult of C S. Lewis. Trying desperately to render the Chronicles "inoffensive" in order to increase sales, the publishing house has risked offending the community of loyal readers most responsible for the series' continued popularity. Provoking those who do read the Chronicles of Narnia through Christian lenses is the height of stupidity. Just how many new Narnia books will be sold if Christian bookstores fail to provide their usual imprimatur?
Biting the hand that feeds you has never been a good plan for financial success, least of all in the publishing world. The British writer Kingsley Amis, no admirer of the English don, once said that C. S. Lewis was nevertheless "big enough to be worth laughing at." HarperCollins has usually been quite savvy when it comes to selling contemporary religious books, but in its ham-fisted handling of the Chronicles of Narnia, the publisher has proven itself big enough to laugh at as well.
R. Jonathan Moore is the managing editor of Sightings and a doctoral candidate in American religious history at the University of Chicago Divinity School.