I played hooky yesterday.
For the past eight years, I've had the good fortune to have as my next-door neighbors a family with five children. When they moved in, the children ranged in age from five to eleven. Now, the oldest boy and the only girl are off at college in Arkansas and Kentucky, and the youngest boy has turned thirteen.
The children were home-schooled; the family is a committed Christian one. However, they have been remarkably tolerant of my eclectic and catholic (with a small "c") approach to spirituality.
Yesterday afternoon, they invited me to join the entire family (the oldest are home from college) on an outing to see the film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." I agreed with enthusiasm, and we set out for a 1:00 PM showing.
The theatre was packed--it turned out that several day care centers were in attendance. The eight of us were forced to find individual seats, and I ended up in the third row alongside a pair of friendly eight-year-olds.
I read the Chronicles as a child, but remembered only the barest outline of the story. Not to worry. The little boy on my left provided a running commentary that kept me apprised of what would happen next. At one point, he even patted my hand to assure me that Aslan the lion wasn't "really" dead.
When I first read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I knew nothing of Lewis' Christian conversion; the book seemed to be only another adventure story. Revisiting it yesterday, the Christian allegory was unmistakable: Aslan's willingness to sacrifice himself for Edmund's sins now seemed obvious. At the same time, I found myself fascinated by Lewis' liberal mixing of mythology and fantasy into the tale. The White Witch ruled over a world populated by giants and dwarves, fauns and unicorns.
The audience--largely composed of kids under the age of ten--was completely engaged in the film. They clapped and cheered and laughed and chattered throughout the movie. Although grown-ups kept telling them "be quiet," the admonitions had little effect.
For my part, I was as much enchanted by the children's reactions as I was by the film itself. I found myself remembering those moments during my own childhood when the rules of reality didn't apply--reading the Raggedy Ann and Andy adventures and dreaming nightly of flying. Therein was the real charm of the Narnia stories: a world to which only children held passports; adults were not permitted. It was up to the children to battle and save the fantastical inhabitants and, because they were children, they believed they could.
When the film ended, I thanked the African-American boy beside me for keeping me from "being scared." He grinned happily and ran off with the rest of his class.
I went looking for my neighbor in the mob of children. She expressed the hope that Disney would film the other stories in the Chronicles. For just a minute, I toyed with the idea of asking why she allowed her children to see Narnia, but not Harry Potter. I didn't. We'd left the world in which fantasy and allegory could co-exist happily. Now we were back in the adult world with its complicated politics and prejudices. Witches and magic were no longer permitted.
I brushed aside my envy of the children's world and hugged my neighbor. We walked together out into the cold and rainy real world.