‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’: a review

This children’s novel by CS Lewis has been made into a theatrical piece which is currently being performed in a huge big-top style tent in Kensington Gardens, London. It is a terrific experience, as the environment is projected onto the inside of the tent to give a completely realistic setting. One minute we see the performers in an attic room of an old house entering a large wardrobe to play hide and seek, and the next they are climbing out of the top of the wardrobe into an outdoor winter scene, with snow falling all around them. There is some slick puppetry to create the giant lion who comes to save the world. So engrossingly realistic is the whole make-believe scenario that the 9-year-old who accompanied this reviewer to the performance was shouting out his indignant anger at the baddies when they passed close to our seats.

Those who have read this children’s classic will recall that the children playing hide and seek inadvertently pass through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia where it is perpetual winter as a result of the wicked white witch having usurped the throne. With the arrival of the children, however, signs of spring begin to appear, and all the downtrodden creatures of Narnia are given hope that the lion, Aslan, will return to save them – as indeed he does. In a scene clearly intended to reflect the crucifixion of Jesus, Aslan is trapped by the wicked witch and her evil minions, humiliated and put to death, but he is then resurrected and defeats her through the superior power of his magic. After this, normal seasons return to Narnia and the four children who went through the wardrobe become the new kings and queens who of course rule fairly and wisely, so everybody is happy.

One of the children, Edmund, rather more independent minded and questioning than the rest (a personality which incidentally appealed greatly to the reviewer’s young guest) gets into hot water as a result of succumbing to the witch’s flattery and to her promises of Turkish delight. However, he comes to realise the witch’s wickedness and returns to the side of the angels to become as boringly conformist as his siblings.

Why would a newspaper such as this want to review a children’s fantasy play such as this? The answer is because the strong parallels between Narnia under the rule of the wicked witch and our own world ruled by imperialism today are extremely interesting. The perpetual winter of Narnia is symbolic of the perpetual wars of imperialism, and the sadistic cruelty of the witch and her minions is symbolic of the needless suffering caused to the majority of humanity through hunger, unemployment, destitution and deprivation, quite apart from the ravages of war. As a Christian believing in an all-powerful and benevolent God, CS Lewis must have found his faith sorely tried by the wickedness he could see all round him in the capitalist world, and he set about expressing that wickedness in fictional form. He even believed, clearly, that the wickedness needed to be brought to an end, and that for that purpose, since the ‘magic’ of the wicked witch was so very powerful, strong leadership of the oppressed and downtrodden was absolutely necessary.

But where is that leadership to come from? CS Lewis obviously thought that God would send someone along in due course – a Messiah, for which Aslan the lion is symbolic. He even understood that the struggle between the lion and the wicked witch would not be easy, and that the lion was bound to suffer defeats in the path to its ultimate inevitable victory. He also thought that victory when it came would take the form of an enlightened despotism – a monarchy which he thought would work very well so long as there were nice people on the throne.

CS Lewis’s merit is that he was prepared to denounce the evils in the world. His weakness, and the danger he presents to the young minds who are introduced to his work, lies in the sheer impracticality of his ‘solutions’. By claiming that the Messiah will see to everything, CS Lewis is in effect discouraging the downtrodden and oppressed from taking matters into their own hands, as indeed they must, trying to convince them that there is no point in acting until the Messiah has come back to lead them. We cannot convince those who believe such things that actually they will never happen, but we would remind them that if they really want the Messiah to return they should remember that God helps those who help themselves. Get moving to rid the world of evil – the evil of imperialism and capitalism – and ‘God’ will do his bit.

Of course CS Lewis is quite right to promote the idea that without leadership the oppressed masses cannot succeed in overthrowing such a mighty force as imperialism. Not only is imperialism rich beyond counting, but its propaganda machine is ubiquitous, and extremely efficient, and crude and subtle at the same time, while its viciousness knows no bounds. Imperialism has extremely superior leadership and organisation, and it would be quite impossible for the proletariat to overthrow it without superior leadership and organisation of its own. That leadership is not going to come from a Messiah sent by God, however. That leadership must be forged by advanced workers, who must fight to build an organisation, a party of the proletariat, that is well versed in the science of revolution and experienced in organising the masses and fighting opportunism, that is capable of welding the oppressed masses into a single mass and to give direction to its elemental force so that it smashes capitalism to smithereens and then with equal verve and determination proceeds to build the new socialist society. In other words, our Aslan must be created by the strenuous and unyielding efforts of advanced workers. Our Aslan will not be sent by the gods. If the masses are simply left to respond spontaneously to the indignities showered on them by capitalism, they will often fight back bravely and with great creativity, but without proper leadership and organisation, those who fight best will be isolated by the enemy and eliminated. All kinds of diversionary tactics will be used against them to leave them in a state of utter confusion, unable to see who is friend and who is enemy. For example, the bourgeoisie in defending its system is all too frequently able to turn workers against each other on grounds of race or religion. To prepare for revolution, the party of the working class must labour day and night to counter all the myriad of diversions that the bourgeoisie puts in the path of proletarian revolution. If there is no party to do this work, then however brave and strong the working class is, the bourgeoisie will outwit it.

There are those in the working class movement upon whom perhaps the white witch has cast her spells who have lost all faith in the ability of advanced elements of the working class to generate a party of their own to guide them in action. Necessarily in an imperialist country and in a period of blackest reaction resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies of eastern Europe, the people who retain the vision to work to build such a party are few and far between. Our advanced workers, i.e., those who have realised that they must act to put an end to the injustice prevailing in the world and have actually taken steps towards doing so, are not only few, but they are not even for the most part particularly advanced, and they sorely lack the links that they need with the masses. Yet unless these few bend their backs to the wheel absolutely nothing will happen. Yes, the lion we build can only be a weak infant in its early years – no match for the wicked witch. But it must be nurtured so that it can grow into a fine adult. Yes, it is possible that our little lion will become sick with opportunism and die; it is possible that it will be overwhelmed and exterminated by the class enemy. If that happens, the working class may possibly be deprived of the leadership it needs- but if nothing is done to nurture the lion, then the working class will definitely be bereft of leadership. Moreover, because the ruling class survives only by exploiting the working masses, the working-class movement can never die, because the working class can never be eliminated. If one working class party disappears, then another will sooner or later emerge to take its place. In that respect it will resurrect itself after defeat just as surely as did Aslan in the play.

Since the play is for children, perhaps it is inappropriate to say that to present benevolent monarchy as the solution for the world’s problems is simply childish. The kings and queens of the future will be the proletarian masses.