The medievalist and popular theologian C.S. Lewis began publishing his seven fantasy novels for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, in 1950, four years before his close friend and Oxford colleague, the philologist J.R.R. Tolkien finally released his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien, who had painstakingly crafted an immense backstory for his older and more obsessive audience, found maddening Lewis's debonair approach to fantasy world concoction, protesting, "It really won't do, you know!" Thus, while sales for both series have reached nine figures, Tolkien's has inspired the larger cult.
The Lewis-Tolkien relationship /rivalry lives on in blockbuster movie adaptations. The success of Peter Jackson's "Rings" movies, which remain this decade's great cinematic achievement, prompted Disney to set another New Zealand filmmaker, Andrew Adamson, co-director of the smirky "Shrek," to work filming "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
The fortuitously named Adamson's 2005 movie about two "Sons of Adam," Peter and Edmund Pevensie, and two "Daughters of Eve," their sisters Susan and Lucy, who stumble into Narnia, a land of "Talking Beasts" out of The Wind in the Willows and centaurs and dwarves from pagan myths, might have been rapturously acclaimed if it had preceded "Rings." "The Lion" was certainly a competent and respectful adaptation that earned a lucrative $292 million domestically.
Admiral J.R. Jellicoe, commander of Britain's Grand Fleet during WWI, had to bear the knowledge that "he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon." The directors who launch franchise series, such as Adamson and Chris Columbus, who successfully kicked off the "Harry Potter" movies, labor under the awareness that they can blow a billion dollars in potential profit. Recently, director Chris Weitz helped sink New Line Cinema, maker of "Rings," by earning only $70 million in America with his $180 million "The Golden Compass," the first of a planned trilogy based on Philip Pullman's secularist anti-Narnia series, His Dark Materials.
Adamson's "Narnia" sequel, "Prince Caspian," follows the path blazed by both Jackson's and Columbus's second installments by being more violent, intense, and well-crafted, at some expense in charm. Like "The Two Towers" (the best of the three "Rings"), "Prince Caspian" is a war movie. It doesn't quite measure up to "The Two Towers" as a heroic epic, but, then, what does?
In "Prince Caspian," the four Pevensie children are called back to restore Narnia after an invading race of humans, the Telmarines, have ethnically cleansed it of its talking animals. Like Hamlet, the young Telmarine Prince Caspian has lost his rightful throne to his usurping regicide uncle. He must now fight for his life by allying with the surviving creatures and the Pevensies. Adamson gives the Telmarines Spanish accents, which leaves the prince sounding rather like the Spanish swordsman in "The Princess Bride" who repeatedly challenged: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
Lewis would have liked the accents because the Spanish were so ardent in their quixotic chivalry, and Lewis, who was wounded on the Western Front in 1917, loved chivalry. As he wrote in Mere Christianity, "the idea of the knight - the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause - is one of the great Christian ideas."
While lacking the Rings' nerdish grandeur, The Chronicles of Narnia are, despite Tolkien's complaints, far from simplistic. Every critic notes that Narnia's liberator, the majestic lion Aslan, is a Christ-figure who gives his life in the first film to save sulky little Edmund, and then comes back from the dead. (This left many reviewers of "The Lion" nervous about being exposed to subversive Christian indoctrination.)
Yet, few have observed that Lewis played a more complicated allegorical game, blending in pagan myth, as Dante had. For example, the kingly Aslan, whose voice is aptly furnished by the formidable Liam Neeson (who sounds more like Jehovah than Jesus), makes for a peculiarly imposing savior in contrast to the crucified Christ familiar from Michelangelo's Pieta or Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.
Planet Narnia, a new book by the Lewis scholar Michael Ward, the chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge, advances the plausible theory that the immensely learned Lewis modeled each of his seven Narnia novels on the temperament of one of the seven planets of Greek astronomy, calling them "spiritual symbols of permanent value." The Lion, which introduces the jovial Aslan, is dedicated to Jupiter, while the martial Prince Caspian belongs to Mars.
Rated PG for epic battle action and violence.