Monday, December 6, 2010

Who Owns Aslan, the Author or the Voice Actor?

There is a public furor shaping up over Liam Neeson, the actor who does the voice of Aslan in the recent Narnia movies, saying that Aslan could be any spiritual leader even Mohammad or Buddha. The Narnia books of course were written by C. S. Lewis as Christian allegories with Aslan intended to represent Jesus. Similarly, I recall back when the first film came out Tilda Swinton saying that she felt her white witch character represented Aryan supremacy as opposed to the Devil as Lewis intended. I would see this as an excellent example of the post-modern question of authorship. According to post-modern thought, a text is its interpretation. From this perspective there is really no such thing as authorship and an author has no special power over his own work. The author is simply the person who incidentally performed the labor of creating the text. He may have his own personal interpretation of his own work, but that interpretation is in no way more valid than the interpretation of any of his readers. Readers in turn are free to craft an interpretation from their own personal act of reading without concern as to original authorial intent.  

So who maintains interpretive control over Aslan, C. S. Lewis, who wrote the novels, or the millions of people who have read them, including Liam Neeson? Legally of course Neeson is free to craft any "false" or "heretical" interpretation he chooses and post-modernism says that he is on solid ground for doing so. I doubt Lewis would have really objected. My sense of the man was that he was not the sort to get worked up about anything. If Lewis had a Christian message to his work, he showed little concern to force that message to others. 

As a Jewish C. S Lewis fan, I feel no emotional qualms about accepting Aslan as Jesus. (I accept both of them equally as not my personal savior.) Part of this I think comes from my experience as a historian. Historians are unable to follow the post-modern path to its fullest extreme. We require texts to have hard meanings, otherwise the historical method would be just another form of subjective literary interpretation. We also do put a special value on authorial intent. Want to understand a text? Compare it to the author's other writing and then to ideas in general currency at the time. Under no circumstances are you to bring into play concepts that did not come about until later; that is an anachronism. That being said we historians do recognize that in practice texts do evolve. People do take texts and refashion them for their own purposes. So part of the story of any text is a "post-modern" defeat of authorial intent at the hands of public reception.

I accept as historical fact that Narnia is a Christian work and that Aslan represents Jesus. Even though I am Jewish, this does not have to get in the way or my enjoyment of Narnia or force me to fashion a Narnia to better suit my own personal beliefs. My pleasure is in trying to understand texts as the author might have and seeing how other people refashion it. If Aslan becomes Mohammad to suit our more ecumenical age, that too is a topic worthy of historical study.     



Larry Lennhoff said...

Why does anyone 'own' the 'true' version of the character? When I watch Episodes 1-3 of the Star Wars movies I see incompetent and corrupt Jedi who are major contributing factors to the fall of the Republic. George Lucas doesn't see that at all. He owns the rights to the digital movie, but I have the rights to the movie-in-my-head. How is this case different?

Anonymous said...

I am in middle of the reading Narnia series. Aslan is obviously an allegory to Jesus/God because in The Magician's Nephew Aslan actually creates Narnia and he dies for Edmund's sins The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, like Jesus supposedly did for everyone else's sins and was resurrected. Mohammad's and Buddha's followers did not claim that their spiritual leaders were resurrected.

Izgad said...


Star Wars would be another good example of this issue. I and millions of other Star Wars fans wish that the prequels had never been made in the first place. Should we have to count them? The Star Wars universe has one of the most developed canons in fiction. Lucas claims control over this canon, deciding what is “fact” in this universe. He has the legal advantage since he controls copyright, but fans are free to create their own canons in their hearts and on web forums. Fan faction might be seen as a form of readers seizing interpretive control of texts for themselves and creating their own canons.