Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My love affair with Narnia

"They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed."
It was late August, and the itch still hadn't come yet. My hunger for children's and young adults fiction, which had not dimmed even with entry into university (and supposedly, adulthood) was being indulged in by reading some old favourites (Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song) and discovering some new delights (Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light). But I hadn't felt any particular stirrings for the Land of Talking Beasts, the pavilions of Cair Paravel, the purposeful wanderings of public schoolboys(and girls).

But I knew it would come, as it did every year without fail. And sure enough, about mid-September, I felt the familiar craving once more. I immediately went to the corner of my room, found the old, worn boxed set of 7 books, and cast my all-seeing eye across the titles emblazoned on the sides of each book. This time around, it didn't take me long to know which book I wanted, and soon I was happily settled in on my sofa, opening the pages and losing myself in seeing if Shasta could beat the army across the desert in The Horse and His Boy once more.

The Narnia movie is opening this Thursday, and since it's getting increased publicity, I thought this would be as good a time as any simply to share my love for the series. I have yet to tire over it, having read the whole series 6 or 7 times over already. And every year, I will reread at least one book from the series. In this case, I guess I'm following Lewis' advice to follow up the reading of new books with old books!

My first contact with Narnia actually wasn't through the book, but on the stage. I think I must have been 5 or 6 at that time when somebody put a production of part of the story of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my school. I can't remember the occasion, but I seem to remember that my brother, who was in Primary 5 or 6 at that time, was in it, and seemed to have played the part of the lamppost. (A very important part, I might add). Everything else is hazy, but I remember that part clearly.

I must have been about 10 or 11 when I first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The entire set of the Chronicles of Narnia has always been around my house in some form or another - even when my mum gave one entire set away, she went out and bought another one. So it was inevitable that I would eventually get around to reading it. I absolutely loved it. I can still remember the White Witch being a really scary figure in my mind - I suspect that it was influenced by my mental picture of the Ice Queen (another scary fairy tale). I felt Lucy's indignation when her siblings didn't believe her, and I was horrified by Edmund and his succumbing to Turkish delight. I think the scariest scene is when they enter the Queen's palace for the first time, and there are all these stone figures.

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I also intuitively got a sense of the nobility of the heroes. The Beavers and Mr. Tumnus are people whom you can instinctively trust. Peter was always going to grow into his eventual role as High King. And Aslan! What a figure. And when he died on the Stone Table, I couldn't believe it. (More on Aslan later).

No one told me that this book was often taken as a picture of Christianity, but no one needed to. It was as plain as day to me even then that the Christian story was what undergirded Narnia. I still see, even today, that Lewis never intended to go out and write an explicitly religious allegory, although he did, tongue-in-cheek, talk about sneaking it past "watching dragons", but simply, that his knowledge of the Christian story simply informed his fiction for children.

The Horse and His Boy was next, and I think Shasta just might be my favourite hero in the entire series, even more so than Caspian. Completely ignorant of his true status, he does what is right anyway. In some ways, this story is a bildungsroman, or a story of the coming-of-age of a character, in this case, 3: Shasta, Bree, and Aravis. Seeing one group of completely different people work together to beat the odds always makes for a good story, and this is what we get here, and I think we can find echoes of David, Daniel, Moses in Shasta.

Prince Caspian was a more traditional fantasy tale, whereby we have an evil uncle occupying the throne illegally, an heir that's a threat, and an underground movement that nevertheless, is floundering under pressure. Seeing old faces such as Penvesies was great, but I think this book really shined when focusing on the internal tensions of the rebel movement, with the loyal badger, the rather naive Trumpkin and the impatient (what creature was it again? A goblin? I can't remember). It does capture some of the impatience I'm sure we all feel, living in a world that seems unfair and unjust.

I initally didn't like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There was an initial melancholic air about it that I didn't like, and I remember especially disliking the character of Eustace. Often, I felt like screaming at him, "Why are you so stupid? Can't you see?". Later, I realised that I didn't like Eustace at all because
1. We all know someone like Eustace, who gets on our nerves
2. We all know that there's something of Eustace inside all of us

But his incarnation as a dragon and subsequent change ranks amongst the greatest moments in the series, and by the time we get to the last book, Eustace has become one of the most solid characters around. Perhaps he's a little like Paul. (Btw, I'm not suggesting at all that Lewis had allegorizing tendencies in mind, quite the opposite, in fact. I'm merely drawing parallels here.) And Repeecheep is the other memorable character. Which other character can make Aslan roar, "Ah, you have defeated me?" :)

After I read The Silver Chair for the first time, I didn't come back to it for a long while. I thought it was the scariest book of the entire series, and I couldn't bear reliving how Jill and Eustace went so off-track. The Green Lady rivalled the White Witch for pure evilness, and the alluring music that she played, made me wonder how anyone could withstand that. This was the closest shave in the entire series where evil really looked as if it would triumph over good, darkness would overcome light. But that's the reality of our experience, and when I eventually came back to it a second time, I saw more clearly for myself the truth of the statement that fiction, and fantasy in particular, can say true things about the state of the world.

The Last Battle just might be my favourite. When you have a donkey who has no idea he's being manipulated, an ape that's gone way above his station, a cocky cat, and when people start talking about "Tashlan" (I slapped my forehead when I read that), boy, you know you're in for a ride. But it's the last couple of chapters that are so particularly precious to me. To this day, it is this book which has primarily influenced my imagination as to what heaven would be like. And I love the last sentence, where the narrator describes all that has gone on before as simply the prologue, and that we are only stepping into Chapter 1 of the never-ending story when we enter the real Narnia. I've never thought of heaven as a harp-playing, fluffy cloud-spotting place, I've always thought of heaven as the place where things are more real. (Admittedly, it does sound like this picture of heaven has Platonic influences). But wow! Trust me, my thirst for heaven was renewed.

The Magician's Nephew is the first book in the series, but it was the last one I read. (I could possibly have read it before I read The Last Battle.) One reason for this is that I have an irrational aversion to prequels. For some reason, I'm always afraid that prequels would shatter my illusions about a certain character or the world of the book that I was reading. This book strengthened the evil nature of the White Witch, but seeing how Narnia was sullied was perhaps the most powerful moment in this book. Although seeing the Witch in modern-day London provided plenty of comic relief.

Throughout all 7 books, however, there's no doubt that Aslan is the most compelling character. The tension between him not being a tame lion, yet a tender one at that, is very skilfully drawn out by Lewis. Think, for example, of the scars that Aslan gives Shasta to spur him on. Or the way he gently disciplines Jill in The Silver Chair. I can't think of anyone quite like Aslan in all of literature.

Narnia isn't loved by everyone. The author Philip Pullman quite famously blasted the Narnia series as serving the cause of "life-hating ideology", and there is some indication that he deliberately positions his Dark Materials trilogy in opposition to Narnia. Some Christians (sigh), have charged that Lewis was in league with Lucifer and bringing about paganism (double sigh). Proof? Well, look at Lewis - he frequented the pub! And why did he have to write religious allegory anyway, was he ashamed of the gospel? (I kid you not, this is an actual argument).

But I love Narnia, and my love affair with it is something I will carry with me for my entire life. And I won't have it any other way.

I don't intend to offer too much commentary on the film itself, or on CS Lewis, or on some of the current issues surrounding the movie. (eg. the marketing juggernaut accompanying it etc.) But I thought that you will find some of the recent comments in The Guardian very interesting indeed, so I'll offer you a selection.

His Dark Materials by Alison Lurie. A sample paragraph:

Many readers have been infuriated by his condemnation of the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as no longer "a friend of Narnia". She is cast out of paradise for ever because at 21 she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy. She is also said to be "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations". Apart from the fact that these seem very small sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much in only a few years, and forgotten her joy in Narnia. It seems deeply unfair that Edmund, Susan's younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the Witch, is allowed to repent and remain King Edmund, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.
Reactions of readers to the Lurie article.

'Narnia represents everything that is hateful about religion', by the well-known columnist Polly Tonybee, which I thought was a very revealing piece. Sample paragraph:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart.
Reactions to the Tonybee column

The Guardian film review. I must admit to being very surprised by the positive review, because Peter Bradshaw is the most belligerent of all the film critics I read. A good sign that the film is quality?

A more general piece on Lewis and Narnia.

Oh, and do share with me if Narnia has enchanted you too. :-D

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Blogger Tim said...

i can empathise with edmund.. like him, i have a weakness for turkish delight. mmm.

my favourite book in the whole series would actually have to be the Voyage of the Dawn Treader - melancholic though it may be, i thought it was CS Lewis at his finest..


6:53 am  
Blogger BK said...

I think we all can - as I've revisited the Narnia series over the years, I can identify more and more with Edmund. He represents sinful, helpless humanity, and I think the longer we've been Christians, the more we recognise that truth. That's why it's so amazing to follow him from Lion, Witch & Wardrobe through to Dawn Treader and Last Battle and watch his character slowly change. Ditto for Eustace.

If you looked at all the articles I've cited, notice they all take issue with Edmund in one way or another. I think they've got the essence of it! For it does show that the gospel will always cause offense to some, that it will be regarded as mere foolishness. No wonder this Christmas season, we all need the light of the world!

6:49 pm  
Blogger mad_scientist said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:25 pm  
Blogger mad_scientist said...

I first read Narnia in Timmy's old house in Hui Sing before he left for Aussieland. Even though I'd no contact with d series after dat, i still remembered it, especially d 'Turkish Delight' part. Then, last March before I returned to Kuching for d mid-year hols, I chanced upon a 7-in-1 book - for RM 50 at Kinokuniya KLCC, KL. Though on a tight budget, i bought it and have been leafing through it ever since.

I also liked Edmund n how Lewis protrayed him throughout d series. After d movie comes out today, I think many will hav problems with d Edmund, Aslan n Witch part ... either bec it doesn't sufficiently reflect what Lewis was putting forward, or bec it touches someone's sensitive nerve ... or simply bec it's unacceptable to someones 'great' intellect. Ever the stumbling block and ever d controversy.
From d books, I find d 'Silver Chair' d most intriguing ... even though i feel reluctant to turn to those pages, as d anticipation n tension level can rocket at certain points, making it a heart-stopping thrill ride. Also, it's depiction of how forgetfulness in it's many shades and guises can be disastrous is excellent ... and yet silently thought-provoking and self-convicting.

Among all the characters in d series, I'd say that Lucy is a unique character indeed. She reflects d innocent, easily accepting, down-to-earth nature of our younger days ... and also touches on our loss of innocence as we increase in age. Her unquestioning trust in Aslan throughout the series is wonderfully woven in, and it evokes knowing smiles or nostalgic flashbacks from me at times. Her high point in the series is unquestioningly in the book, "Prince Caspian" ... where she held firm to her steadfast conviction of seeing Aslan even against the continuous disbelief of her siblings and Trumpkin ... which was vindicated in the end, though it brought tears and seeming acts against 'common sense' and 'adult thinking'. Her character indirectly rebukes us of the perpetually and insatiably questioning nature of the postmodern man.

Overall, I love this series. Though written in a language for children, it's messages and thoughtfulness makes it a good read for all ages. If I ever have children of my own, I'll make sure they'll have one set.

6:35 pm  

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