The Green Witch
Narnia Altered by Climate Change at the Franklin Museum
by Kathryn Walker
For students growing up in the greater Philadelphia area, one field trip was guaranteed to make the school calendar every year: the Franklin Institute. Recently renamed the Franklin, this science museum is famous for its walk-through human heart, its planetarium and observatory, the Sky-bike, and a series of levers that allow ten-year-old girls to lift 500-pound weights.
Though I live even closer to the museum now than I did while growing up, I thought little of it in recent years until a little girl I know told me about her visit to the museum’s special Narnia exhibit, which opened in November 2008 and ran through April 2009.
The idea of making an interactive visit to a world I’ve long admired evoked anticipation similar to what I felt as a preteen when my childhood-long dreams of visiting American Girl Place and Whit’s End Soda Shoppe were fulfilled. For years, I had inhabited the mental worlds of Narnia and Lewis, but the prospect of encountering them “in the flesh” prompted a new tingling of expectation.
Apparently, the Franklin hoped this tingling of expectation would be felt not just for the fantasy world of Narnia but also for real-world scientific applications: The promotional pamphlet beckoned visitors to “consider the surprising similarities between our world and that of Narnia.” Making scientific connections between a fantasy world and our world seemed a bit of a stretch, but the possibility of what they might include was still intriguing.
From Literary to Movie World
The opening hallway of the exhibit contained a tribute to C. S. Lewis. Various artifacts of his were displayed, including a large and impressive wardrobe, on loan from the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. One small sign presented a brief biography of Lewis, while a second commented on the importance of virtue in his stories, expressed through the children’s struggle between good and evil. Visitors reviewed these displays while waiting to enter a wood-beamed room where an audio recording of a hide-and-seek countdown preceded the dramatic opening of wardrobe doors into a flurry of snow particles and the exhibit itself.
The step from the Lewis display into the main exhibit felt a bit like putting down a chapter of the book Prince Caspian to watch Walden Media’s film version. Costumes, artifacts, and set models from the movie, along with video documentaries, comprised much of the exhibit. The authentic and literary Englishness of the Lewis artifacts quickly faded behind a world of cinematography—which remained entertaining regardless.
There were also many displays relating elements of Lewis’s story to earth science and physics. Visitors could launch a catapult, build a stone archway, and feel an icy coldness seeping through the White Witch’s wintery throne. They could also test the heft of metal swords, press their hands into a frozen waterfall, and crawl into animal treehouses as they progressed through the displays.
Fantasy does not naturally correspond to earth science, however, so many of the displays seemed rather out of place. The White Witch’s stone curses, for instance, were accompanied by an explanation of petrification, and the plaque next to the frozen waterfall gave a description of molecular freezing.
In the midst of this somewhat awkward juxtaposition of fantasy and science, however, the museum made a leap far less excusable. While the petrification and molecular freezing displays were conspicuous enough, easily the most prominent scientific display was the one focused on climate change. Here, the exhibit’s creators connected the hostile weather of Narnia under Jadis’s reign with the supposedly imminent climatic disasters facing our planet.
Lest we think a mythical White Witch might be responsible for global warming, the museum immediately challenged us to consider whether we might actually be doing the Witch’s work. One display read:
A mini-video attached to this display presented a narrative by Walter Patzer, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. He outlined the clear hazards posed by high global temperatures and identified their cause: “The reason—it’s us!” he declared. (The propriety of a global warming alarmist working in a jet propulsion lab was an issue left unaddressed by the video.)
If implicating viewers as associates of the Witch weren’t bad enough, the character of Aslan was brought in to pound home the point. Later in the video, against a clip from the movie showing Aslan, powerful and majestic, standing before the tents of the Narnian camp while the soaring Narnian theme song plays, Dr. Patzer returned to present a list of ideas on how we could join the fight against global warming.
Undoubtedly, the exhibit’s creators were just looking for a clip that showed Aslan as the powerful opponent of Jadis for this part of the video. But I couldn’t help noticing the irony: The movie scene they chose to accompany their call to save the planet comes right after Aslan promises to die as a ransom for Edmund, saving him from the power of sin and evil.
I suppose I should be grateful that the museum didn’t make the more direct parallel between the warmth accompanying Aslan’s return and the warmth resulting from carbon dioxide emissions in the earth’s atmosphere; allegorically speaking, that would have equated the melting of the ice caps with the Apocalypse.
The Wrong Lessons Pulled
But by far the most disconcerting aspect of the climate change analogy was how it, along with environmental responsibility in general, was made the centerpiece of what the exhibit designers perceived as Lewis’s idea of virtue. According to the Franklin’s exhibit, Lewis’s sense of virtue included a general attitude promoting the well-being of human and animal life, but remained devoid of any moral character. While the displays made vague references to “the struggle between good and evil,” this struggle seemed rooted more in the cause of natural preservation than in specific virtues, faith, or ethics. Care of the land and of the body superseded concern for the soul.
Of course, the emphasis that Lewis placed on nature in his writing should not be disregarded. The numerous animal characters in the Narnia series, as well as Bultitude the bear in That Hideous Strength, not to mention Lewis’s descriptions of the real animals he spied on his walks, all attest to his fondness for living things. A deforestation display in the Narnia exhibit reflected Lewis’s concern for nature: It showed the scene from Prince Caspian in which Trufflehunter bemoans the fact that “since the humans came into the land, felling forests and defiling streams, the Dryads and Naiads have sunk into a deep sleep.”
Living creatures and natural settings were as crucial to Lewis’s fantasyland as they are to our world, and negligence of or cruelty to them would indeed have been shocking to him. Nevertheless, one wonders how Lewis would have responded to the lessons the Franklin pulled from his pages.
A Shallow Application
In the end, one wandered through the exhibit feeling the inevitable tension caused by a display that sought to inspire its audience with Lewis’s virtue while ignoring the foundation Lewis laid for that virtue. Perhaps this tension was best summarized by a shield standing beside the exit. A wonderful inscription quoted from Lewis’s defense of fantasy as a means of introducing children to the virtue and courage they would need in order to resist the evil they would encounter in their lives. The Franklin offered the following “interpretation”: “Prince Caspian and the Pevensie children have shown that demonstrating virtue and making the right choices allows us to connect peacefully with others and live in harmony with Nature. As you leave Narnia and return to your world, keep these ideas and important lessons with you.”
What struggle against evil was Lewis concerned about? What virtues did he seek to inspire? What lessons ought we to carry from Narnia into our world? Apparently, go green, save the planet, and preserve endangered species would suffice for now.
Now, the Franklin is a science museum, not a literary institute or theological center, but it should have known better. As a reader who has felt the power of Lewis’s stories and striven to meet his challenges to grow in virtue and faith, such an application felt shallow and powerless—and dishonest. •
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“The Green Witch” first appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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