In book form, "The Chronicles of Narnia" consists of seven slim volumes about the magical Kingdom of Narnia. The first one published, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" (1950), makes a tasty introduction. Author C.S. Lewis is known for apologetic religious books such as "Mere Christianity," but he was no theological drone. From childhood, he had been deeply moved by ancient myths, and came to believe that this response is something planted in us by God. When certain themes recur in the world's great religions, such as a dying-and-rising god, Lewis said that they are like "good dreams" sown by our Creator. Believing that a capacity for wonder was vital to perceiving the presence of God, Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien set about writing stories that would reawaken imagination in an era that was hyper-rationalist and dry.
Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy filled our December multiplexes three years running. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" could very well break those records. Unlike the "Rings" movies, it's child-friendly. The lead characters are children, and they are mercifully portrayed by actors who look like real, live kids rather than glamour-shot child stars. (Little Georgie Henley, who portrays the youngest sister, Lucy, is especially appealing). The vast landscapes are stunning, the homey interiors are charming, and when violence must occur the camera looks discreetly away. Some new action sequences have been shoehorned into the story, and these additions feel strained and artificial; they are likely to age worse than the rest of the movie. But there is still so much about this film that is superlative that it is easy to imagine it becoming an enduring children's classic like "The Wizard of Oz."
Yet what gives this tale its emotional punch is the roots Lewis gave it in one of those "good dreams." The White Witch has conquered Narnia, and for 100 years has wrapped the land in barren ice, "always winter and never Christmas." When the children tumble into Narnia through the back of a magical wardrobe (SPOILER ALERT: Quit reading here if you want to be surprised), the next-youngest, Edmund, meets the Witch, and she plays on his pride and greed to get him to betray his siblings. The good citizens of Narnia--talking animals who look satisfyingly like real animals rather than baby-faced toys--unite under the leadership of the noble lion Aslan. The Witch's power is shaken; pale blue begins to streak the winter sky, and Father Christmas appears to give the remaining siblings, Peter, Susan, and Lucy, "tools, not toys" for the battle ahead. After many dangers and trials, the four children reunite, and Edmund repents of his failing.
Sounds like a good place to wrap things up--but it's what comes next that makes this story so powerful. The Witch appears at Aslan's camp and demands her right to take Edmund away. According to the "Deep Magic," she says, "every traitor belongs to me; his blood is my property." She reminds Aslan, "Unless I have blood, as the Law demands, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water." Aslan does not dispute this, but after private negotiations the Witch renounces her claim on Edmund. Only late that night do we learn why: Aslan is going to the Stone Table to die in his place.
Those who have seen "The Passion of the Christ" (or read the Gospel stories, for that matter) will note some similarities at this point. Aslan is mocked and bound and slaughtered. Lucy and Susan watch, distraught, then sit by his still, golden body all through the cold night. But as gray dawn breaks and they prepare to leave, they hear a mighty crack; the Stone Table has broken in two, and Aslan is restored to life. "If the witch knew the true meaning of sacrifice, she might have interpreted the Deep Magic differently," he tells them. "When a willing victim who has committed no treachery is killed in a traitor's stead, the Stone Table would crack and even death itself would turn backwards."