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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Part II)

WWII and Edmund’s Motivation...

If anyone follows me on Tumblr, they’ll know that whenever I post something Pevensie related, I tag it with the phrase “my favourite Pevensie is the one I’m looking at.” I’m a fan of all four characters, and it’s impossible to decide which one I enjoy the most.

When I was younger, Lucy was my favourite character. When I got a bit older, I realized that I was totally Susan. Peter (let’s be honest here) is rather dull, and yet - as though in compensation - gets to do all the cool heroic stuff. But Edmund...well, the more you read these books, the more interesting Edmund becomes.  






In The Lion, Edmund is a bad egg. He betrays his siblings and allies himself with the White Witch partly because he’s a jerk and partly because he eats too much of that enchanted Turkish Delight. Lewis is careful not to strip him of all his autonomy once the Witch's food starts working on him (having abandoned his brother and sister to head for the Witch’s house, we are told: “deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel”) but in light of that we are never given a particularly good reason as to why Edmund is so susceptible to the Witch’s seduction.

Of course, there is one potential explanation for Edmund’s attitude problem, one that’s obvious to any reader who has ever been separated from their parents, uprooted from their home or had to live through a traumatic experience. Having been shipped off to the country to avoid the air raids in London during World War II, it takes no stretch of the imagination to assume that Edmund isn’t coping with the powerlessness of his situation as well as his siblings.

The juxtaposition of the children being sent away from one war (in which they are completely helpless) only to find themselves caught up in another (in which they play a vitally important role) is certainly not lost on the makers of the 2005 film adaptation. In fact, one of the best original ideas the screenwriters inject into the story is to explicitly link Edmund’s behaviour to his reaction to the war.

The opening scene involves the Pevenise house being bombed and the siblings having to race for the bomb-shelter in the middle of the night. They establish that Mr Pevensie is fighting in the war, and include a tearful farewell with Mrs Pevensie at the train station. Edmund resentfully mutters: “we wouldn’t have to go if Dad was here”, and the four children are depicted as anxious about where they’ll end up, witnessing several of their companions on the train end up in the hands of diffident guardians.

All of this is original to the film, and my favourite addition would have to be Edmund racing back into the house to fetch his father’s photograph, and later feeling his first brush of remorse when he steps on the picture of Tumnus’s father, similarly damaged on the floor of the faun’s cave after his arrest.

Connecting Edmund's damaged psyche to the pall the war casts upon him makes such perfect sense that it's downright bizarre such a parallel doesn’t exist in the book. And yet I honestly don’t think the connection between WWII and Edmund’s characterization ever occurred to Lewis.

Indeed, while the children are staying in the Professor’s house, Lewis seems to forget why they’re even there. There’s no mention of blackouts or food rationing. There’s no anxiety about the loss of their parents (who are complete non-entities throughout the books) or of being in a strange environment (instead, the children have quite a positive attitude to it all: “this is going to be perfectly splendid”). During the course of the story Mrs Macready is mentioned as taking people on sight-seeing tours over the house (not impossible, but surely a rather odd activity during war-times) and – strangest of all – when the White Witch asks Edmund what he is, he replies: “I don’t know what you mean. I’m at school, at least I was; it’s the holidays now.”

The holidays? Kid, you’ve just been evacuated out of a freaking war-zone. You ain’t on holiday.

And yet this gives us a clue as to what Lewis believed was the root cause of Edmund’s attitude problem. There is only one explicit reason given to justify his treachery, one that’s mentioned well after Edmund’s reconciliation with his siblings. According to Lewis: “he was looking better than [he had] – oh for ages, ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong.”

And there it is. In case you weren’t already aware, Lewis had a hugely traumatic time at boarding school when he was young. How much so? In his autobiography Surprised By Joy, Lewis spends several chapters discussing how much he hated his years at school. His experiences during the First World War? Those are accorded about five pages. 

In that light, it perhaps comes as no surprise that school rather than war is cited as the reason for how easily Edmund betrays his siblings, as it would appear that Lewis had an easier time of WWI than he did his boarding school years. It’s certainly not the last time that Lewis demonstrates that he has an axe to grind regarding school: the Pevensie reign involves “liberating young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school”, and Prince Caspian and The Silver Chair each have scenes in which children are either freed from school, or punished for enjoying it. On the other hand, warfare is glorified throughout all seven books – well, unless women are fighting, at which point battles apparently become “ugly.” But I’ll get to that later.

Of course, there is one other motivating factor meant to explain the ease with which Edmund is able to sell out his flesh-and-blood: the oft-harked upon jealousy of Peter. From a certain point of view, Edmund’s internal (and completely unself-aware) ravings at Peter are pretty funny, revealing a level of childish pettiness that’s well in keeping with the story’s fairy tale atmosphere – at times he rather reminds me of Tinkerbell and her jealousy of Wendy.

But again, the film expands on this, depicting Peter and Edmund’s relationship as fraught right from the very beginning – in fact, the opening sequence involves the former saving the latter’s life after he runs back into the house. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Edmund in this moment, for he doesn’t quite deserve the “selfish” moniker that Peter throws at him (he was running back into the house to grab the photograph of their father), but it sets up the dichotomy of the responsible older/ resentful younger brother nicely.

When Peter yells “why can’t you ever do what you’re told?” the answer is clearly because it’s a matter of principle for younger siblings to never listen to what their older ones are telling them to do. From this point on, Edmund bristles whenever Peter gives him orders or tries to help him in any way (putting their luggage on a rack on the train for example), demonstrating the attitude that many siblings will recognise all too well: the younger ones' sheer inability to accept the authority of an older sibling.

Throughout the film, Edmund's growth is linked closely to his relationship with his brother, from bitter resentment to accepting Peter's position as leader. There is also more emphasis on his dawning comprehension of what he's done in allying himself with the Witch, with his redemption starting a bit earlier in the film than it does in the book. The film not only includes a scene that has him come face-to-face with Mr Tumnus in the Witch's dungeon, but it also plays around with the scene in which the Witch discovers the Talking Fox.

In the book, the Fox is part of an outdoors Christmas feast, and Edmund only shouts: “no!” when the party is turned to stone. In the film, the Fox remains though the feast is dropped, and Edmund is depicted as actively jumping in front of him in an attempt to spare him the Witch’s magic (he gets a slap both times though).

“There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan
was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot.”

Though his talk with Aslan still occurs partially off-screen, just as it did in the book, Edmund of the film articulates why they need to help the Narnians fight, citing his own culpability as a reason, and later gives Peter the inevitable “I believe you can do this” speech before battle, ceding to Peter’s authority at the same time.

The whole thing is brought full-circle with Edmund defying Peter one last time in order to destroy the Witch’s wand (“Peter’s not king yet”) and a reiteration of Peter’s “why can’t you ever do as you’re told?”, this time with fondness instead of anger. As it happens, Peter/Edmund’s full reconciliation is held off until this moment (the girls embrace Edmund well before the battle, but Peter holds off until Lucy’s cordial brings him back from the brink of death), and the brotherly bond is explored further (in ways that weren’t present in Lewis’s text) in the adaptation of Prince Caspian.

To be honest, I think that Skandar Keynes as Edmund is the best thing about the 2005 film, both in the writing and performance. Though the book is content blame magic and school for why a boy might betray his siblings, the film fleshes out his motivation before forcing Edmund to face the full consequences of his actions, take responsibility for them in spurring the others to action, and finding contentment in his position as king #2. It gives him a backstory that makes his attitude a lot more understandable (without excusing it), it fleshes out his relationship to his siblings, and it all adds a lot more weight to his successful attempt to destroy the Witch’s wand in battle (which occurs off-screen in the book).

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