EDUCATION

FUN WITH NUMBERS

KATE FILLION November 28 2005
EDUCATION

FUN WITH NUMBERS

KATE FILLION November 28 2005

HOLY THREESOME!

THE BACK PAGES

Christians C.S. Lewis, Anne Rice and Mel Gibson smoothly click into place as parts of a commercial holy trinity

BRIAN BETHUNE

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine an odder literary couple than C.S. Lewis and Anne Rice. Oxford don Lewis, bestknown today for his classic children’s fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia, was the Englishspeaking world’s most eminent Christian apologist before his death 42 years ago. Rice, an American writer of haute vampire tales and one of the great sex-and-blood authors of any era, is still going strong at 64, a year younger than Lewis when he died. But success makes its own strange bedfellows: add Mel Gibson to the mix—he of The Passion of the Christ and its US$6ll-million worldwide gross—and the ill-fitting pair of authors smoothly click into place as parts of a commercial Holy Trinity.

The seven books of Lewis’s enduringly popular Narnia series, featuring English schoolchildren who repeatedly find themselves battling evil in a kind of alternative Camelot, have sold 95 million copies in half a century. Sales figures for Rice’s novels exceed 100 million. And now Rice, too, is a Christian, having returned in 1998 to the Roman Catholic faith of her childhood, just as Lewis took up as an adult the ancestral Anglicanism he had abandoned as a youth. Rice’s new novel, her 27th, is the first to reflect her conversion. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is another probable bestseller. Even so, it won’t match the pop culture impact already being generated by the film version of the first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opens on Dec. 9. Clearly, the age of the Christian blockbuster is upon us.

Not that Rice was so sure, at least while she was still writing Out of Egypt. She was genuinely worried that her complete change of fictional world might do “violence” to her career, she told Maclean’s last week. But now that the book is out, Rice says the response has -so far—been reassuring. “I’d say my fans, the ones I’ve heard from, have mostly been very enthusiastic. Of course I’ve also heard from some disgruntled readers—they don’t want me to even go there: please don’t abandon the old characters, the old settings, and so on. But a lot of email from new readers too. I’d say the split is about 50-50.”

Intriguingly, Rice has managed the unusual feat—one shared with C.S. Lewis—of reading the Gospels as literature and as the

The vampire writer captivates with a novel about Jesus as a boy

word of God. She admires the evangelists as wordsmiths, even visualizing a collaboration between two of them. “I can imagine Luke saying, ‘I’m not going to put in that part about raising Lazarus from the dead. They’re never going to believe that.’ And John replying, ‘Well, I saw it. So that’s what I’m going

to write.’ That’s my opinion as a novelist.” By erasing the gap between faith and reason, Rice was able to craft a novel that portrays a Christ in complete accordance with Catholic tradition, set against a meticulously realistic Jewish background. Out of Egypt, the first of a projected four-volume fictional biography, is a first-person account of a year in Jesus’s life, from age 7 to 8. Jesus is the Christ of the Gospels—the only begotten Son of God—and Mary is his ever-virgin mother. (Plot details, such as the time an angry Jesus killed a bully and then raises him from the dead, come from the apocryphal gospels.) The effect, for readers who can accept Rice’s basic premise, is striking. Seven-year-olds do not normally make compelling narrators, but Rice’s Jesus does, as he struggles with his dawning awareness of unlimited power. And for those who miss the old Anne Rice, there is a brief but charged encounter with a Satan who has more than a whiff of the vampire about him.

There are other continuities with Rice’s past work. “My earlier books also had a seeking after meaning and dealt with supernatural characters,” she says, “even if Jesus is the ultimate challenge, the ultimate immortal. But if I can make a vampire come so alive that people phone me at home—I’m talking about grown adults—and ask me if he’s real, then I can write this.”

Whatever its eventual commercial success, Out of Egypt is hardly likely to bring upon Rice a fraction of the hostility that Narnia provokes in some circles. However much a hero Lewis is in robustly religious America, he is an object of derision for many in his native Britain, a much more militantly secular society, particularly among some of his fellow kidlit authors. The struggle is so vicious because the stakes are so highone American commentator has described it as “nothing less than a battle for the soul of children’s fantasy literature.” Novelist and former Booker prize judge Philip Hensher, a man with a gift for invective, once wrote: “Don’t give your children C.S. Lewis to read; give them anything else—Last Exit to Brooklyn, a bottle of vodka, a phial of prussic acid, even

books

• Winnie the Pooh—but keep them away from Narnia.” And just what is Lewis guilty of? Why, ofbeing an articulate voice from a vanished world that some modems find dead wrong on just about everything—he’s sexist, racist and Biblethumping. Those are the sentiments of Philip Pullman, whose brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which features the death—no, the killing of God (although Pullman calls it “a natural release of an idea which has been kept alive long past its due date”)—is the current gold standard in children’s fantasy. From the trilogy’s beginning in The Golden Compass (1996), Pullman has been warning his readers about the evils of organized religion. As one rebel angel says, “We have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.” For Pullman, one of the Authority’s—that is God’s—chief servants is Lewis, whom he will spontaneously denounce during interviews.

Lewis’s bigoted, “nauseating drivel,” says Pullman—sounding himself exacdy like a priggish vicar—will lead children astray: into racial profiling (Narnia’s Evil Empire, populated by dark-skinned desert dwellers, is clearly modelled on the Muslim Middle East); into sexism (the girls become queens, but under the rule of their brother-kings); and, worst of all, into the religious worship of death that Pullman detects in the series. In the end, everyone in Narnia dies when its sun is extinguished; all the good people go to heaven, where they find themselves truly happy for the first time. Pullman hates the idea there could be anything better than earthly life. Even angels envy humans their bodies. “I want to remind people that our bodies are the source of all wonder, pleasure and experience.”

It’s all more than a bit much. The Calormenes, Narnia’s Muslim stand-ins, are not evil by nature—the good among them are welcome in Lewis’s heaven—and as for Christianity, Lewis can hardly be expected to keep his beliefs out of his writing, any more than Pullman can cut out his. As for the relative place of boys and girls; well, it was 50 years ago, and the queens do rule over every other creature in Narnia, including the talking animals—a kind of species-ism that has not, as yet, galvanized any detractors.

There’s a joke in all this, and it’s on Pullman. Lewis’s books have not survived either because of or despite their deeper themes—

but as stories. In post-Christian Britain, many, including Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, read them as children without realizing their religious subtext. Although Christians might wonder how anyone could miss the significance of the main character giving up his life for the sake of another, and then rising from the dead, such ignorance is commonplace now. (In the Potter novels absolutely no one has any religious faith, yet Christmas is still celebrated.) Christian children will always read The Chronicles of Narnia as Lewis meant them to, but without the bee Pullman has in his bonnet, others would probably enjoy them in exactly the same way Rowling didas the enthralling stories they are. M

ON THE WEB For a review and information on The Chronicles of Narnia videogame, visit www.macleans.ca/namia

FINALLY A BOOK ABOUT... DEMOLITION

Blowing things up real good is a subject of joy for many of us. Jeff Byles’s Rubble (Random House) offers an entrancing history of planned destruction, from the Great Fire of London in 1666, when wreckers used barrels of gunpowder to blow up houses to halt the blaze, to the present. Among a remarkable cast of characters is Cedric Price, the only British architect to also be a member of the National Institute of Demolition Contractors.