WAY WITH WORLDS:
ASLAN MEETS HIS MATCH: Theme versus Setting
By Steven Savage
Archives available at The Way With Worlds Home Page
Maybe you hadn't heard the news - but HarperCollins apparently wants to write more Narnia stories - but without the Christian influence.
Now, normally I don't cover current events in this column, but this one is important to me, and important to building and writing worlds.
Yes, there's debate over this choice already. But I'm going to ignore:
There, with that out of the way, I'm going to aim for the writing debate. Besides, I'll be more pleasant and civil that way. I'm not even a fan of C.S. Lewis, and I don't like this.
The idea one can remove Christianity from Narnia brings up a topic that is important to world-builder and world-writers. Namely, if you have a major theme in your stories, can you write about the world while not writing about the theme?
Now, ideally, I feel the theme of a story is separate from it's world. The world can go on if other stories are told. Thus your setting may be a fantasy world, but you can tell tales of romance or mystery, adventure or comedy.
But it's not an ideal world, and ideal worlds are not often what we create - or sometimes we create very ideal worlds and that's where this controversy arises. Sometimes our worlds and stories are about ideals.
In the case of Narnia, author C.S. Lewis is unapologetically recorded as saying it's about Christianity. He makes no bones about it - he retold classic Christian ideas in an entirely new setting. Maybe you have talking animals, but the story is the same. Or, simply, Aslan is Jesus, get over it.
Now to some, taking religion out of Narnia may not seem any different than putting religion into storylines - fanfics do it all the time. It's even a point of contention for some people. I myself have seen it done, and usually done quite poorly. I rather imagine attempts to reverse-engineer a religious story would have exactly the same results.
However, religion or not, in or out, the problem is some stories are about themes that are core to their worlds. In the case of Narnia, that's the kind of world you have - it is not about Christianity, it is based on a Christian's world view. The story of Narnia therefore emanates from the very core of it's continuity- which are Christian concepts held by C.S. Lewis.
Some stories are about part of a world - and some stories are about the very foundation of the world. Your world may hold many possible themes, but when you do a story that concerns the very way your world works, then modifications to that story are extremely difficult to achieve. Even attempts to tell other stories may be bounded by this overarching story - anyone who's tried to write fanfic in a very tight continuity has found this out.
Also, the overarching story may not be so obvious, while being very ingrained into the core tales. In the cases of complex and heartfelt stories where the storyline is based on the major foundations of the world, attempting to work around that major theme/world basis is going to require care and extensive understanding. The original author may be able to do it.
I'd doubt another author could unless they were talented.
Why is this important? Beyond the fact that I'm rather annoyed?
Simple. It's important to know, when writing, just what level of theme you're working on - and if writing fanfic, what level of theme the author was working on. You may find there are some stories you can't write in your world, or some stories you can't write in an author's world.
Now it's a challenge to push boundaries, but sometimes you may break things. There are times to work within a continuity and times not to - or time to create an alternate universe or something similar.
It's important to know these things when writing - to respect your creation or that of another, to avoid banging your head against a wall, and to understand the challenges you face.
And my personal feelings on this Narnia mess?
Leave it alone. Christian literature sells well enough anyway, and I'll pit C. S. Lewis against any other author today. He did his work, he deserves the respect, and it's going to be too much pressure and to difficult for good writers to try and work around his themes.