Natural law and the impropriety of self-sacrifice: A review of the "Chronicles of Narnia" film
By Gennady Stolyarov II
I come into this review with the obvious defect of not having read the book upon which it is based -- a shortcoming I confess freely, since my intention here is not to evaluate the correspondence between the film and the renowned C.S. Lewis book upon which it is based. Acquaintances who have read the Chronicles of Narnia books tell me that a high degree of correspondence exists between the film’s events and moral message and Lewis’s original intent -- so I will presume that Lewis would have approved of the film’s representation of his work. In the future, I intend to read the books for myself and verify this initial assumption. However, at present, I seek to evaluate this film qua film -- and share the perspective of an atheist Objectivist on what is evidently a work inspired by Christianity.
The Andrew Adamson film, "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" holds a position of superiority over most films of our day due to several essential merits: it has a plot, it has an unambiguous conflict, and it has a didactic purpose -- characteristics that most contemporary literature and films lack. Whatever one might think of the content of any of these three elements, their very presence renders the film superior to the muddled mindlessness of so many others -- which convey no essential message or meaning and are littered with gratuitous gore, carnal intercourse, and profanity.
The plot of the film is driven by an essential conflict: four human children and the eternal magical law "built into" the land of Narnia against a tyrannical, sadistic, and animalistic White Witch, who had usurped the throne and maintained her rule through intimidation and initiation of force -- with blatant disregard for the higher absolute law of the land. If one examines the White Witch as the archetypical tyrant and the law of Narnia as the Lockean variant of natural law -- devoid of any religious connotations -- one finds a fitting moral message indeed: tyranny violates natural law, and tyrants are held accountable to natural law. This natural law derives from the fact that men (or, in this case, all creatures of volitional consciousness, including centaurs and talking animals) are autonomous moral agents who must use their own judgment to understand and act responsibly in reality. A tyrant inhibits that possibility of autonomous judgment, thereby hindering the very motive force of man. This is why the White Witch’s victims are literally turned into immobile chunks of stone; man becomes their equivalent when he is deprived of his liberty. He cannot act in the truly human sense of the word unless he has full freedom to choose and bears full responsibility for the outcome of his choices.
The character of Edmund Pevensie is analogous to the all-too-common individual who becomes seduced by tyranny and the prospect of power over others that allying with a tyrant offers: a prospect seen in the White Witch’s promises to eventually make Edmund King of Narnia. Her bribes of candy are analogous to powerful governments’ handing out of special favors to affiliated interest groups. Yet the power one gets when surrendering to tyranny is illusory. Edmund willfully acts against justice when -- despite witnessing the consequences of the Witch’s "police" devastating the house of Mr. Tumnus as a result of information Edmund had provided -- he nevertheless chooses to venture into the Witch’s palace and continue to seek favors from one he knows to be a violator of others’ natural rights. The consequence of Edmund’s betrayal is not ingratiation with the Witch: it is imprisonment, humiliation, and shame in her dungeon. Like Edmund, he who supports arbitrary power becomes robbed of all he values by the arbitrariness of that power.
Edmund is forgiven when he realizes -- and suffers for -- the error of his decision. I do not take issue with his forgiveness itself -- since reality punished him enough for his transgression, and the punishment convinced him to change his ways. I do object to the "moral" of self-sacrifice closely linked to the circumstances of his forgiveness. The sacrifice is offered by Aslan the Lion in order to appease the Witch and the "law" of Narnia -- which prescribes death to all traitors by the Witch’s hand. The only way Aslan can circumvent the law is offer himself to the Witch instead, which -- under the dynamics of the world of Narnia -- would free Edmund from bondage. Aslan does this and is murdered by the Witch and her horde of deformed followers in a vicious Dionysian orgy.
Aslan comes back to life after his sacrifice and leads the four Pevensie siblings to victory over the Witch -- guiding the plot of the story toward a happy resolution, an element that always greatly enhances the quality of any story. Yet the moral of this story should not be extrapolated to the real world -- for reality is no Narnia, and no innocent sacrifice can ever compensate for anybody else’s guilt. In our human world, self-sacrifice serves no constructive purpose whatsoever; it is causally unlinked to either the punishment of evil or the reform and redemption of the guilty. The natural law guiding reality is quite different -- it is a law dictating each individual’s own responsibility for his actions, with no possibility of legitimate bail-out by means of another’s suffering. One person’s loss can never be another’s redemption; it only magnifies the material and moral loss that the other person’s original transgression brought about. In reality, the only way for one to be "forgiven" for one’s transgressions is to face their objective consequences and correct the damage resulting from them. Edmund does this, and -- in reality -- he would need no lion-sacrifice in addition to his personal compensation for his misdeeds.
While it is not a strict Christian allegory, the story of Aslan certainly parallels the crucifixion of Jesus sufficiently to lead children who were entertained and interested by the film to another place where they could find didactic stories of self-sacrifice: The Christian Bible. Since C. S. Lewis was an admitted Christian and active promoter of Christianity, I do not fault him for seeking to promote his sincerely-held convictions. I simply disagree with the content of said convictions. As an element of the overall plot, the sacrifice story was not essential. Instead of dying and being resurrected, Aslan could have lived all along and served as a mentor and guide for the four children in acquainting them with Narnia and training them to face the Witch. The story would then have focused on other genuine values: loyalty to principles and to virtuous people, fortitude in resisting evil, liberty from tyranny, self-responsibility, determination, and justice -- which, to its credit, the film addresses on no uncertain terms. The law of Narnia could have been made more compatible with the law of reality, requiring that the innocent be spared and the guilty be punished -- by reality more so than by other men.
In its structure and content, the "Chronicles of Narnia" film is entertaining and thought-provoking -- and is thus highly recommended as an alternative to the "mainstream’s" cultural vacuum. Its implications in the realm of justice, government, and natural law are promising -- though they have been more so without the unavoidable presence of the Christian element of sacrificing the innocent for the guilty’s sake.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and Objective Medicine. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus here.
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