Magic, War, and Faith
Some Thoughts about Themes and How They Differ
by IAN MCMULLEN
There is a brilliant book about plays by David Ball called Backwards and Forwards: A technical Manual for Reading Plays. In this book (on page 78), Ball offers what I consider the best definition of “Theme”: “Theme is an abstract idea made concrete by a play’s action.” “Action” can be understood simply as “what happens in the play.”
“War” is a theme of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because the four Pevensie children are sent away from London to avoid war, and the Children lead the Narnians in a war against the army of the White Witch. “Magic” is a theme because the children magically travel to Narnia, and many characters use magic. Those things are themes because the play’s (and book’s) actions bring them up directly. In other words you cannot get through the play/book without encountering the ideas of War and Magic.
Faith is a subtle phenomenon, and in turn a more subtle theme.
Building off of that, in order for an idea to become a proper theme, it needs to come up repeatedly in a story. Stories will bring up many ideas, but many of those ideas will quickly pass as the story moves on. “Captivity” is an idea brought up by the story; Edmund is captured by the White Witch. However, “Captivity” really only comes up once and then the plot moves forward. Non-Theme-Ideas can be important, plots would not move forward without them. However, ideas like this should not be confused with themes. Themes linger; the story forces them to linger in your head, even after the play/book/etc is over. Coming back to Ball’s definition of theme, ideas are “made concrete’” through repetition throughout the story.
Not all themes are as obvious and in your face: Faith is a quiet theme. We don’t really see it the same way we see War and Magic. Faith is a subtle phenomenon, and in turn a more subtle theme. Various characters do speak about Faith (though I truthfully cannot remember if they ever use the word Faith in the book).
Theme is an abstract idea made concrete by a play’s action.
The beavers, and many Narnians have held onto a long lasting faith in Aslan and in the prophecy. The beavers teach this faith to the Pevensie Children. Aslan maintains faith in the deep magic when sacrificing himself to save Edmund. At that same moment Aslan leaves the Narnian army under Peter’s leadership, showing faith in the abilities of the children. Finally when the four children leave Narnia the Professor has faith that they will return to Narnia (in later books this is proven correct).
So, what am I saying? I guess that Themes do play in our heads in different ways: some are obvious; they are loud and spectacular. Other themes are harder to spot. Subtle as they may be, they are nonetheless real and vital; they can cause a story to have a deep impact on us. To go back to Ball’s definition: Themes are abstract ideas. They are complicated, and not always obvious.
Themes linger; the story forces them to linger in your head, even after the play/book is over.
One additional note I want to make: Should you worry about themes? If you are attending a play, and you have no obligation to review or give feedback to the creative team, then no. Just sit and (hopefully) engage with the experience. If you are working on a play in any capacity (acting, directing, designing, writing a report etc). Then you should put the work into understanding the themes and where they repeat themselves.
IAN MCMULLEN is a professional theatre artist, and is in the cast of 9th Hour's 2023 production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Listen to Ian discuss the story's themes on the Telling The Story podcast.