Losing faith in Narnia, Part I

While there are no cars in Narnia, screenwriter Stephen McFeely rolled out an automotive image to express the message at the heart of the second film drawn from the seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis.

At its heart, he said, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" describes what happens "when people lose faith, when you don't keep Aslan in your windshield and he's in your rear-view mirror."

But if the most important thing to do during a life-shaking crisis is to keep one's eyes on a character named Aslan, then it's crucial to know who Aslan is and why following him is so important.

Yet dealing with the Aslan question has been the greatest challenge facing the Narnia team from Disney and Walden Media, which saw the first movie in this franchise -- based on "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- gross $748 million at the global box office, a total that soared over $1 billion with the DVD sales.

The bottom line: Aslan means different things to different readers. This is an awesome equation to ponder since sales of the Chronicles have topped 100 million, while being translated into more than 35 languages.

On one level, Aslan -- which means "lion" in Turkish -- is a magical beast who created Narnia and all of the talking beasts, spirits and people who inhabit it. Period.

Yet if he created this world then it would be logical to call him Narnia's Creator, with a large "C." Thus, many readers see Aslan as a powerful, yet vague, deity.

Then again, it's a fact that Lewis -- an outspoken Christian apologist -- stated that this series offered a sweeping parable of creation, fall, redemption and, ultimately, apocalypse. While the novels can be enjoyed on many levels, the Oxford University don provided a precise description of Aslan's identity in the first Narnia novel.

"I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea," says a talking beaver who helps Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie after the children arrive from the world of Adam and Eve. "Don't you know who is the King of Beasts?"

Thus, Aslan is the son of the ultimate ruler of Narnia and, in the most famous sequence in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he allows himself to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of a traitor. Then, at dawn, the stone altar is empty and Aslan is raised from the dead.

That's a rather obvious metaphor, noted William Moseley, who plays Peter, the oldest Pevensie, who becomes the high king in Narnia's golden age.

"I don't want to go into the ... Christian analogy, but it's obviously there," said Moseley, during recent New York press events for "Prince Caspian," which reaches theaters this weekend. "Aslan represents God. People say every day, 'Why can't I see God? If he's there, why can't I see him?' "

Questions about the absence of Aslan loom over the action in the second movie. When the plot begins, the children have been back in England for a year. Then they are magically recalled to the land they once ruled, only to find that 1,300 years have passed. Narnia is controlled by the evil tyrant Miraz, who has stolen the throne from his nephew Prince Caspian.

It's a time of doubt, corruption and cynicism, in large part because Aslan has not been seen since the time of the four young rulers. The land the children knew is gone and they are tempted to lose faith, in Aslan and in their own mission.

The big problem is that when Aslan finally appears, only Lucy can see him and her visions are mysterious and highly personal.

The youngest queen faces a frustrating paradox that is at the heart of the book's message. As she grows older, Aslan will grow in stature and power, yet it also requires more faith to see and follow him.

"The thing is, Narnia isn't a game" for the children, said Georgie Henley, the 12-year-old actress who plays Lucy. In the context of Lewis' parable, "It's a real world. Although Aslan fades for a while, when he comes back he's stronger than ever and he's bigger than ever.

"I love that saying, you know: 'As long as you grow, so shall I.' "

NEXT WEEK: Douglas Gresham, on turning his stepfather's novel into a movie.