|Archive for Big Readers A place for discussing books and all things bookish.
The Chronicles of NarniaHaving decided I would read The Chronicles of Narnia in their entirety, the first question was whether to read them in order of publication or of plot chronology. I opted for the latter, so started with The Magician's Nephew. My history with Narnia is probably not atypical for one of my age. Watched the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when it was first on, aged five. Perfect Sunday early evening viewing, with lovely music by Geoffrey Burgon. Had the book read to me as a bedtime story. That was about it. I think my mother embarked on The Magician's Nephew too, it being a favourite of hers, but I petitioned her to abandon it on account of my lack of interest.
Well, it turns out that the boy me was wrong. It's a delightful book. Digory is staying with his aunt and uncle because his father is abroad and his mother (though it isn't spelt out to begin with) mortally ill. His Uncle Andrew is a strange and secretive man. Digory and next-door neighbour Polly stumble one day into Uncle Andrew's room, and it turns out he is dabbling with the magic he has inherited from his godmother. Digory and Polly are employed as guinea pigs for his teleportation rings and find themselves, after a bit of toing and froing, in a new world just being created: Narnia.
While the first half of the book is perfectly enjoyable, it is when Polly and Digory reach Narnia, with the entourage of Uncle Andrew, a London Cabby (a condescending caricature, perhaps, but a fond one, and touching in his goodness of heart, as certain Dickens characters are), his horse Strawberry (later renamed Fledge, once he has been given wings by Aslan), and Jadis, the White Witch, that it gets particularly interesting, and indeed moving.
The first part of the book has its whimsy, and some pleasing 1950s dialogue. I wish children still spoke as Digory does here, trying to persuade Polly to let him ring a mysterious bell:
"I expect anyone who's come as far as this is bound to go on
wondering till it sends him dotty. That's the Magic of it, you see.
I can feel it beginning to work on me already."
"Well I don't," said Polly crossly. "And I don't believe you do
either. You're just putting it on."
"That's all you know," said Digory. "It's because you're a girl.
Girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about
people getting engaged."
"You looked exactly like your Uncle when you said that," said
"Why can't you keep to the point?" said Digory. "What we're
talking about is --"
"How exactly like a man!" said Polly in a very grownup voice; but
she added hastily, in her real voice, "And don't say I'm just like a
woman, or you'll be a beastly copy-cat."
"I should never dream of calling a kid like you a woman," said
"Oh, I'm a kid, am I?" said Polly who was now in a real rage.
"Well you needn't be bothered by having a kid with you any
longer then. I'm off. I've had enough of this place. And I've had
enough of you too -- you beastly, stuck-up, obstinate pig!"
I love that it's got a bit of energy about it. I thought it might be a twee and well-behaved sort of book, but it's not. Ringing the bell awakens the White Witch, who follows Digory and Polly back to London, and confronts Uncle Andrew and Aunt Letty:
"Now, slave, how long am I to wait for my chariot?" thundered
the Witch. Uncle Andrew cowered away from her. Now that she
was really present, all the silly thoughts he had had while
looking at himself in the glass were oozing out of him. But Aunt
Letty at once got up from her knees and came over to the centre
of the room.
"And who is this young person, Andrew, may I ask?" said Aunt
Letty in icy tones.
"Distinguished foreigner - v-very important p-person," he
"Rubbish!" said Aunt Letty, and then, turning to the Witch, "Get
out of my house this moment, you shameless hussy, or I'll send
for the police." She thought the Witch must be someone out of a
circus and she did not approve of bare arms.
"What woman is this?" said Jadis. "Down on your knees,
minion, before I blast you."
This is just terrific. 'Down on your knees, minion, before I blast you.' A lot of children's books have nice and goofy witches; me, I like the kind who won't hesitate to rough you up a bit. Aunt Letty's got some spunk too. I'm sorry no one is called a slut in this book. Perhaps in one of the others.
Then, as I say, Narnia intrudes, and there is something magical to see it being created by Aslan, a creature clearly, even at this stage, emblematic of God and Jesus. I was a bit young to pick up on the religious allegory when I first got to know Narnia, though I dare say my mother pointed it out while I wasn't listening. Now it seems very clear. Aslan creating the heavens and earth, even Jadis acting as the serpent, cajoling Digory to take for himself the silver apple Aslan has instructed him to bring back. It sounds heavy-handed, but it couldn't be further from it.
At times, the writing has a tremendous poetry, even to the point of religious ecstasy. As Digory and Polly contemplate the face of Aslan:
all at once ... the face seemed to be a sea of tossing gold in
which they were floating, and such a sweetness and power rolled
about them and over them and entered them that they felt they
had never really been happy or wise or good, or even alive and
I don't think you have to have religious sympathies to find this kind of writing exhilarating. It feels (at least, to me) as much rooted in folklore as it is in Christianity. What really impressed me was the genuine emotional involvement I felt, particularly in respect of Digory's dilemma about whether to take the apple that might save his mother's life or to take it back to Aslan, as he has been instructed. Of course, the decision he makes informs the outcome. Most children's books don't have the power of this one. Another important element is that the children are the saviours, while the villains tend to be adults. That's as it should be.
As a reader I'm usually turned off by fantasy worlds. I quite like science fiction (can't write sci-fi to this day because of the strong opinions of Reamonn MacIllenamhaoil, I think, on the Beeb board that SF was OK, sci-fi a no-no) that's set in an altered version of our own world, but generally not worlds invented from scratch. One of the things I like about Narnia is the occasional tantalising glimpse of things that might exist on Earth - the best Turkish delight ever, a reviving cordial...
Digory later turns into the Professor at whose house the Pevensie children stay when they find they way into Narnia through the wardrobe he has had built using the wood from the apple tree he planted in his garden from the core of the apple that saved his mother. Ah, mythology.
A note about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What fun I had reading it. I was surprised by the extent to which I knew the book already, not having encountered it much in the last, say, twenty years, but on many occasions I knew the exact dialogue that was coming up, which emotions to anticipate where, and so on. There's a very strong emotional memory of it in my brain.
It was the smaller details, that perhaps had passed me by before, that made the deepest impressions this time. The portrait of Mr Tumnus's father, for instance, that is desecrated. This earnest man (well, faun) trying to emulate his father's rectitude has a great poignancy.
I despised Edmund. I suppose Lewis is trying to espouse some supposed Christian virtue by indulging his faults and forgiving him when he sees the error of his ways. He even tries to explain Edmund's behaviour away at the end, very clunkily.
When at last she was free to come back to Edmund she found
him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but
looking better than she had seen him look -- oh, for ages; in fact
ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where
he had begun to go wrong.
I have no sympathy for Old Testament Christianity, but wouldn't it have been nice if he'd been maimed, or at least petrified and then (maybe) restored to life. It's not enough that he has a miserable time with the Witch, he needs to be made to suffer for his shameful betrayal of his brother and sisters. Well, maybe it's just me. I suppose he does turn into a kind of hero at the end.
Funny how attitudes date. I don't think you could depict dwarfs today quite as Lewis does, though a lot is pardonable in the name of fantasy. The thing that really took me aback was this:
The noise was like an English fox-hunt only better because
every now and then with the music of the hounds was mixed
the roar of the other lion and sometimes the far deeper and
more awful roar of Asian himself.
I realise it's only describing the noise of the hunt, but by extension it sanctions the activity. I think there may be some dodgy racial attitudes on the way in the later books. We shall see.
Finished today: The Horse and His Boy. It's the first Narnia book that's disappointed me a bit. Not wholly, but I didn't feel as involved in it as I was in the first two, and that's because there are paragraphs of this sort of drivel:
"By Tash!" said Aravis. "Itís the army. Itís Rabadash."
"Of course it is," said Hwin. "Just what I was afraid of.
Quick! We must get to Anvard before it."
"I therefore went to the Chief of the Messengers in the
House of Imperial Posts in Azim Balda and said, ĎO
dispatcher of messages, here is a letter from my uncle
Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan lord of Calavar.
Take now these five crescents and cause it to be sent
This is the kind of thing I imagine prevails in Tolkien, and the main reason I've never bothered with LOTR, as we used to call it. It's intensely trying.
I suspect that to most people this is one of the less familiar books in the series, because it's not generally filmed or adapted for television. That's probably because there are talking horses throughout. For the other books you can probably make do with a man in a beaver costume, but horses are trickier. The plot involves the horse Bree and 'his' boy Shasta escaping from some nasty men to Narnia, where Bree is originally from. On their way they meet Hwin, a female horse, and Aravis, a girl, making a similar flight. Everything gets sorted out, with a little help from Aslan.
Aslan's a problematic character, both in the way that he acts himself and in the effect he has on people. Here is Shasta meeting Aslan:
But after one glance at the Lionís face he slipped out of
the saddle and fell at its feet. He couldnít say anything
but then he didnít want to say anything, and he knew he
neednít say anything.
Lewis was an intelligent man and clearly had a Christian agenda to push, so why he should want to portray Christianity as blind and unquestioning and anti-intellectual, as in this episode, I don't know. Because this is a children's book and children aren't ready to cope with the challenges of faith? But this wishy-washy obedience doesn't feel appropriate for children either.
At one point Aslan attacks Aravis, and later explains his actions thus:
"The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb,
blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back
of your stepmotherís slave because of the drugged sleep
you cast upon her.
"You needed to know what it felt like."
How nice of Aslan. I don't hold that this stuff is harmful to children, exactly, but at any rate it's horrible. There's a piece online by Philip Hensher, a writer who sometimes seems to have been put on this earth with the specific purpose of putting my back up, that denounces Narnia as 'the sheerest poison ... ghastly, priggish, half-witted, money-making drivel'. His tone is one of such hysteria that I imagine his tongue is slightly in his cheek, but I begin to sympathise with him. (Mind you, his assertion that 'you would probably gather from A Horse and His Boy [sic] ... that Islam was some kind of Satanic cult' †is far-fetched.)
Onward and upward. I look forward to The Silver Chair, but that's not for another couple of books yet.
For my last two books of October I've been back in Narnia. Firstly, Prince Caspian. This and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were dramatised together by the BBC after the very successful Lion etc. in the late '80s. I didn't care for this one at all at the time, though got back into it when The Silver Chair was adapted. It's a pleasure to find, then, that the book is a return to form for Lewis.
That's not to say it's without its problems. As said before, I'm not sure I'd have picked up on it as a child, but the theology underlying the story can be disturbing. Lucy by implication is the best Christian because her devotion to Aslan is the most slavish and unimpeded by reason and doubt. As in the previous book, Aslan is shown to be capricious and cruel in his sadistic treatment of the dwarf Trumpkin. (I except Trumpkin from this compliment, but generally Lewis's names don't put my teeth on edge as Tolkien's do - I like the giant Wimbleweather, for instance, and the mouse Reepicheep.) Not that a god should necessarily be a perfect being by human standards, but is this Aslan a god who should be worshipped? I suppose it's nice that the waters are muddy, at least. Some dodgy moments where Lucy is possessed by a kind of religious fervour among the trees, and where she and Susan attend a Bacchic orgy. (They remain quite proper in their behaviour, mercifully.)
This aside, it's a good story, straightforward and exciting, and it's good to have the Pevensie children back after an absence, variously insufferable though they be. I also like Lewis's cheeky humour. You'd think from his reputation that he was rather po-faced, but that is not the case. Hints of Roald Dahl here:
Everyone in the streets fled before their faces. The first house
they came to was a school: a girls' school, where lot of Narnian
girls, with their hair done very tight and ugly tight collars round
their necks and thick tickly stockings on their legs, were
having a history lesson. The sort of "History" that was taught in
Narnia under Miraz's rule was duller than the truest history you
ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.
"If you don't attend, Gwendolen," said the mistress, and stop
looking out of the window, I shall have to give you an order-
"But please, Miss Prizzle --" began Gwendolen.
"Did you hear what I said, Gwendolen?" asked Miss Prizzle.
"But please, Miss Prizzle," said Gwendolen, "there's a LION!"
"Take two order-marks for talking nonsense," said Miss
Prizzle. "And now --" A roar interrupted her. Ivy came curling in
at the windows of the classroom. The walls became a mass of
shimmering green, and leafy branches arched overhead where
the ceiling had been. Miss Prizzle found she was standing on
grass in a forest glade. She clutched at her desk to steady
herself, and found that the desk was a rose-bush. Wild people
such as she had never even imagined were crowding round her.
Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled
her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat
legs. Gwendolen hesitated.
"You'll stay with us, sweetheart?" said Aslan.
"Oh, may I? Thank you, thank you," said Gwendolen. Instantly
she joined hands with two of the Maenads, who whirled her
round in a merry dance and helped her take off some of the
unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing.
Not sure about those Maenads.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is more of the same, really, though not as engaging. A changing of the guard. Peter and Susan are out of the picture, and this time Edmund and Lucy are accompanied to Narnia by their twerpy cousin Eustace Scrubb. I only know Eustace from The Silver Chair (the next book in the sequence), and remembered him being more agreeable. I wondered if he might have an epiphany during this book to make him mend his ways, as Edmund does in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Sure enough, halfway through he is temporarily transformed into a dragon, which gives him pause for thought. When Aslan changes him back, he's much nicer. That's a bit of a shame, to be honest, because the infrequent excerpts from his diary are the most entertaining bits:
7 August. Have now been twenty-four hours on this ghastly boat
if it isn't a dream. All the time a frightful storm has been raging
(it's a good thing I'm not seasick). Huge waves keep coming in
over the front and I have seen the boat nearly go under any
number of times. All the others pretend to take no notice of this,
either from swank or because Harold says one of the most
cowardly things ordinary people do is to shut their eyes to
Facts. It's madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little
thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course,
absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no
bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday
evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian
showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary.
I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he's too dense. E.
and L., of course, didn't back me up. I suppose a kid like L.
doesn't realize the danger and E. is buttering up C. as everyone
does here. They call him a King. I said I was a Republican but
he had to ask me what that meant! He doesn't seem to know
anything at all. Needless to say I've been put in the worst cabin
of the boat, a perfect dungeon, and Lucy has been given a
whole room on deck to herself, almost a nice room compared
with the rest of this place. C. says that's because she's a girl. I
tried to make him see what Alberta says, that all that sort of
thing is really lowering girls but he was too dense. Still, he
might see that I shall be ill if I'm kept in that hole any longer. E.
says we mustn't grumble because C. is sharing it with us
himself to make room for L. As if that didn't make it more
crowded and far worse. Nearly forgot to say that there is also a
kind of Mouse thing that gives everyone the most frightful cheek.
The others can put up with it if they like but I shall twist his tail
pretty soon if he tries it on me. The food is frightful too.
(The Harold and Alberta he mentions are his own parents, whom he addresses by their first names. They get a bit of stick from Lewis for being trendy vegetarians. Times change.)
Another highlight is Lucy's encounter with the Magician's Book, which she has to peruse in order to deinvisibilify some fools. This episode communicates some of the power of books to children, I think, some of their magic. The book is more picaresque than previous volumes, as the children and Prince Caspian (who is curiously personalityless) sail around on a boat to find seven old dudes for some reason I've already forgotten. Some episodes work better than others, and the book feels disjointed. Once again, obscure spirituality and mysticism abound, to what end I can't quite discern. The final chapters, as the sailors approach the end of the world, are told with an appealing fervour, with lots of attention paid to light and colour, and it's bewitching, but the rational part of me resists it as perhaps it wouldn't have in childhood. (Actually it's more likely that I'd have been bored by it and asked for some Roald Dahl instead.)
My last book of November is The Silver Chair. I'll put Narnia to bed before the year's out, though I'm not approaching the books with as much enthusiasm as I was at the start of the series. They have become more of a chore than a pleasure. This one, however, I was looking forward to. I liked the BBC adaptation in 1990, and hoped the book would be entertaining.
It is, though there are still irritants. Lewis's reactionary stance on modern developments in society bug me, as perhaps they wouldn't have bugged readers in the early 1950s. Eustace and Jill attend a trendy school where pupils are left to their own devices. 'Bibles were not encouraged at Experiment House', we are told. This is probably the fault of 'the Head (who was, by the way, a woman)'. Oh, do eff off Clive, you utter bore. The Bible stuff isn't laid on very thick in this one, unless (which is quite possible) I wasn't paying enough attention. Just a few appearances of Aslan with his usual bogus-smelling mysticism.
The plot, as ever, is a quest to free someone from bondage, in this case Prince Rilian, son of Caspian. Jill and Eustace do a bit of voyaging around accompanied by Puddleglum, a Marsh-wiggle. Puddleglum is the best thing about this book. He's marvellously world-weary and depressed, which is quite a tonic. Lots of Eeyore-esque 'We haven't had an earthquake lately'-type stuff. I'd like to watch the TV version again purely for the sake of seeing Tom Baker's Puddleglum once more. I'll dig out my DVD at Christmas, perhaps. The further I get into the series (six down, one to go), the more I realise I'm not really interested in adventure stories, but this one is pretty good I suppose. I like that Lewis feels able to use a phrase like 'the Dwarf touched up his donkey' without fear of reprisal. More innocent times.
I've reached the end of my Narnian odyssey. And it's been an odyssey. Homer was thinking of something like this, I'm sure. The Last Battle. More of the same, really. It gets boring me writing it every time, but the combination of suspect mysticism and unpleasantly dated attitudes is offputting. In this one, the Calormenes of Calormen ('Darkies', as the dwarfs refer to them) are fighting the Narnians because an ape called Shift has gone rogue and got his dumb but pliant donkey friend Puzzle to dress in a lion skin and impersonate Aslan. King Tirian (is that right? I don't think it was Drinian or Rilian, but they're all the same, like the real Royal Family) tries to marshal a band of good guys to put things right. It's like a less entertaining version of High Noon. I can't deny it's entertaining enough, though the battle scenes are dull (are they ever not? I've not read War and Peace); and the final chapter, as the earthlings travel to the afterlife (SPOILER: everyone dies at the end) has a transcendent quality also present at the end of Dawn Treader. It's easy to get swept up in Lewis's evocation of atmosphere, in spite of the objections you might feel about his concept of religion.
In summation: glad I read them. I think Wardrobe towers over the rest, but there's much to enjoy in almost all of the books. I imagine readers are more susceptible to them if they have a natural taste for fantasy (which I don't) or are children (which I begin to accept I'm not).
Chib, you outdo yourself again. Thank you for taking me back to the magical Narnia of my single-digit youth. I can easily recall the almost unbearable excitement in discovering what new way those ordinary kids would be transported into other worlds, while cuddled up safely next to my mom on the couch.
I am glad to hear you can enjoy and even marvel at this stuff as an adult. I think I've mentioned my attempt to re-read the stories to my own kids was not much fun. But I retain very fond memories. Reepicheep, yes. And Puddleglum the Marshwiggle.
The doors between worlds. Adventure and romance. Magic. Probably ruined my chances of becoming a wealthy banker.
Count yourself lucky. I'd take Narnia over banking.
Who was it that wryly observed that 'reading novels' was to blame for the impractical romantic notions of his daughters?
Some Patrick O'Brian character, or maybe Dickens.
Apologies in advance to all Narnia fans, but, all things considered, I think I'd opt for banking.