Lewis, Disney, and Stories

Photo by Younho Choo

I’m listening through C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra. If you haven’t yet taken in this work, here’s a bit of necessary summary: The protagonist Ransom is transported to the planet Venus, upon which God has just created the progenitors of another human race in our own day. Satan is also present via the person (or at least the body) of the antagonist Weston, called the “Un-man” by Ransom. Satan is trying to persuade the Lady (equivalent to Eve, and during the time of the story, apart from her husband) to disobey the command of the Creator, Maledil, not to live on the planet’s Fixed Land. One way he does this is through a twisted logic, laying out the case that she had received this particular command in order to disobey it, and that in realizing and acting upon this, she is thereby to mature. But another way Satan seeks to persuade the Lady is through a vehicle that Lewis was himself attempting to use for good: stories. Here is the pertinent section:

Weston’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They were all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quite different circumstances. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, happily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often with tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer; some meaning for the words Death and Sorrow—though what kind of meaning Ransom could not even guess—was apparently being created in her mind by mere repetition. At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea—the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world’s weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do yet needed to have done. And all the time, as a sort of background to these goddess shapes, the speaker was building up a picture of the other sex. No word was directly spoken on the subject: but one felt them there as a huge, dim multitude of creatures pitifully childish and complacently arrogant; timid, meticulous, unoriginating; sluggish and ox-like, rooted to the earth almost in their indolence, prepared to try nothing, to risk nothing, to make no exertion, and capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females. It was very well done. Ransom, who had little of the pride of sex, found himself for a few moments all but believing it.

It is to me striking that Lewis’s portrayal of infernal storytelling so closely aligns with both the content and intent of Disney’s storytelling.

Recently, employee activism within Disney led Disney’s CEO, Bob Chapek, to issue a memo to employees regarding Disney’s lack of action on a particular cultural hot-button issue. He explained his belief that Disney’s storytelling was more effective than political activism:

As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change. . . . I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support. There’s a reason content is at the top of this list. For nearly a century, our company’s stories have opened minds, inspired dreams, shown the world both as it is and how we wish it could be, and now more than ever before, represent the incredible diversity of our society. We are telling important stories, raising voices, and I believe, changing hearts and minds.”

Lewis, of course, predated the modern Disney. Perelandra was first published in 1942, when Disney had produced only the likes of Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But it is to me striking that Lewis’s portrayal of infernal storytelling so closely aligns with both the content and intent of Disney’s storytelling.

How shall Christians respond? One way would be with a recognition that the artistic productions of Disney and others of similar bent are intended to, and do in fact, “change hearts and minds,” and that Christians should deal with them accordingly. And perhaps also with a determination to tell and take in, alongside the Great Story, stories which are consistent with it, not those which oppose it.

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Author Photo by Younho Choo

Chuck Bumgardner

Chuck has a PhD in New Testament and a heart for Scripture and the church.