Monday, April 16, 2012

Walt's Windows - C.S. Lewis on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

C.S. Lewis

In a January 11, 1939, letter to friend Alfred Kenneth Hamilton Jenkins, Lewis shares his critical thoughts of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

But what about Snow-White.  Leaving out the tiresome question of whether it is suitable for children (which I don't know and don't care) I thought it almost inconceivable good and bad - I mean, I don't know one human being could be so good and bad.  The worst thing of all was the vulgarity of the winking dove at the beginning, and the next worst the faces of the dwarfs.  Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way.  And the dwarfs' jazz party was pretty bad.  I supposed it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music.  But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius.  What might not have come of it if this man had been educated - or even brought up in a decent society(Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1939, 242)?

Lewis found both aspects to admire and abhor in Disney's first animated feature.  The Dwarfs seemed to catch Lewis' special interest.

Not happy with  fun loving dwarfs.  Lewis used dwarfs within his own writings.  Most prominently in the Chronicles of Narnia series.  In 1950's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis introduces the first dwarf character in his series, Ginarrbrik the servant of the White Witch.  Ginarrbrik is introduced to the story accompanying the White Witch on her sledge,

On the sledge, driving the reindeer, sat a fat dwarf who would have been about three free high if he had been standing.  He was dressed in polar bear's fur and on his head he wore a red hood with a long gold tassel hanging down from its point; his huge beard covered his knees and served him instead of a rug (Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, 123).
Ginarrbrik is not depicted smiling and happy, but at the same time he is not described as ugly or dark.  His overweight appearance and beard could easily have appeared amongst the seven dwarfs.

Ginarrbrik, The Original Grumpy?
Dwarfs also play prominently in 1951's Prince Caspian.  The most prominent Dwarf character who aids the stories heroes is Trumpkin.  Lewis brings Trumpkin into the story in a scene in which he, another Dwarf and a talking badger capture Prince Caspian,

The dwarf who had wanted to kill Caspian was a sour Black Dwarf (that is , his hair and beard were black and and thick and hard like horsehair).  His name was Nikabrik.  The other Dwarf was a Red Dwarf with hair rather like a Fox's and he was called Trumpkin (Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, 346).
Again, neither of these Dwarfs matches the description of Dopey or Doc.  I guess in the end, the desire to murder the title character is probably something that never crossed Happy's or Sneezy's mind.  

In the end, Lewis' Dwarfs and Disney's may have had a lot in common.  First, both were extremely loyal, standing by their friends through adversity.  Second, both prominently featured beards.  And finally, both sets were extremely capable; be it be mining or hand-to-hand combat. And the children in both stories, be it Snow or Lucy, are extremely kind and loving.  

Lewis' assessment of Disney as a man who needed an education was both spot on and somewhat unfair.  Compared to Lewis, the educated Oxford professor, Disney would have been lacking not even having his high school diploma.  But Lewis failed to see the genus of Walt Disney, a man who took a traditional story Lewis would have been familiar with and repackaging it for audiences to enjoy for generations.    

Ironically, the Lewis and Disney legacies would collide in 2005 with the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe co-produced by Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures.  It was followed in 2008 with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  But this time it was the Disney legacy that was disappointed by the earnings of the franchise and abandoned their support of the Narnia films.  A 2010 followup, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, moved forward without Disney support.

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