ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 11/17/09
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, people sit in a cavern chained against a wall; a fire behind them lights the chamber. Puppet figures and objects are passed before the fire, and their shadows are cast where the viewers can see them. The people chained to the floor look at the performance of the shadow puppets and think it’s real life. Plato’s cave is the classical version of the Matrix: people trapped in a world of illusion they believe is completely real. And some of them actually like it.
I myself, just the other day, subjected my entire family to such an experience. There we were, glued to our seats (admittedly they reclined and had cup holders) while the fire of a high luminance projector shot pictures of people and objects which weren’t really there onto a great white wall before us. And we paid good money (fifty bucks with popcorn and drink) to sit there, watching sights and listening to sounds that didn’t exist—total illusion, complete lies. Plato would say we needed to break the chains of illusion and turn and walk out of the cave into the light of the sun. That’s where the real world is. That’s where the illusion of the Matrix falls from our eyes. But what if Plato were wrong?
What if movies were a window, a doorway like Narnia’s magical wardrobe into a world far more real than the illusion first suggests? What if Plato’s real world of sunshine and truth were to be found on the cave wall all along, or, at least, what if it’s there now, in that wondrous, magical place of shadow and light we call the Cineplex?
C. S. Lewis was not a big movie fan. He once wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “You will be surprised to hear that I have been at the cinema again! Don’t be alarmed, it will not become a habit” (1 September 1933 Collected Letters 120). But he says some positive things about movies as well the few times he talks about them. And what he says connects film to art forms and ideas he does spend a lot of time talking about: myth, truth, and fairy-tales. Through Lewis’s vision I want to argue something that may very well belong in a fantasy book. I want to explore the possibility that fairy-tales are true, that myth is history, and that movies may be more real than the reality we see around us.
How Everything Meant More
Lewis understood that there was a magical window capable of showing us things that are as far from illusion as are people from the shadows they cast. His description of the window appears in the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. At the end of the series, the old Narnia has passed away, and the human heroes from the stories have come into the heavenly realm known as Aslan’s country. They begin to notice something strange. This new country looks like their old Narnia. Hills, mountains, valleys—places in the old Narnia look like places here. And yet they’re different. Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children who enter Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says of the hills and mountains, “They have more colors on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more . . . more . . . oh, I don’t know . . . .” And Digory, who saw the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, answers, “More like the real thing . . .” (Last Battle 210). The heroes of Narnia have entered Lewis’s version of Plato’s most real world. Digory explains that the old Narnia was not the real one and so will pass away. It was only a copy of the real Narnia which never had a beginning and will never see an end. And so of course they are different from each other, “as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream . . . . It’s all in Plato, all in Plato . . . .” (211-12).
Lewis’s next challenge is to describe the difference between the two Narnias. Here is where he describes the magic window to another world:
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