Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) I read the series as a kid. Assume you did too. I’m rereading them before the movies come out. Trying to learn what I can about writing kids’ books. Figured I’d enjoy them again.

2) I remember finding the White Witch much more attractive when I was 12. There was something about a 7-foot-tall porcelain goddess who starved young boys and made them do her bidding that I found very sexy. Now, having learned to maintain self-respect within relationships, I’m no longer so hot for the cold scary ladies.

3) The Call to Adventure happens when Lucy enters the wardrobe and has a lovely time with Mr. Tumnus. Lucy never actively refuses the call – but the other children do so on her behalf. Consequently, all four children together form a single hero on a familiar path of self-discovery, rescue, triumph, etc.

4) There are several mentor characters too – the professor, Aslan, Father Christmas - each one offering wisdom and/or gifts that prove useful. The effect is to make the world seem more caring and nurturing: the children are subject to dangers and mysteries, but help and guidance are available everywhere.

I was never too comfortable with Father Christmas turning up in this story, even while it was a convenient way for the kids to receive their gifts. Might have seemed dorkier to us than to the British, since Santa Claus represents both the best of human compassion and everything that’s wrong with American culture. Some kids meet Santa Claus in the hospital, but most of us meet him by going to the mall.

I liked the character of Aslan. The frequent references to how “terrible” and scary he was made him much more interesting and effective; many adult books have less sophisticated, more hypocritical notions of “good” and “evil”. The religious references, and the whole story, would have been much weaker if Aslan had not had that wrathful, or at least dangerous, aspect.

5) I like the professor character too. Very mysterious.

I think a book is serving its most basic purpose by creating mysteries (such as “Why does the professor understand Narnia, and why does he have the wardrobe?”) to draw the imagination out of its lair. The trick is apparently to tell a story that has a beginning and ending, set in a world that doesn’t. Any story that answers every question it raises creates a claustrophobic world that leaves no space for the reader to inhabit. Better to let some references reach beyond the words on the page.

When I was in elementary school our class watched a movie that was supposed to provoke our imaginations. In the movie, a man walks into an arena and must open one of two doors. Behind one door are wealth and happiness; behind the other are tigers that will eat him. The movie ends when he opens one of the doors, and we were supposed to finish the story ourselves. Stupid movie.

It might have been useful as a psychological test, but even as a creative challenge it was disappointing. Yet it was presented in a moralistic way, as if complete stories do the imagination a disservice and this one ennobled us by letting us make up the ending. Whoopee.

What the teachers didn’t realize is that that movie had it perfectly backward: it presented a very limited world – one that consisted only of an arena, two doors and the guy who had to choose between them – and a story that had no beginning and no ending. Our imaginations would have been more involved had we been given a few details about the world, a complete story that takes place within it, and the freedom to tell the stories that were hinted at but had otherwise been left to the imagination of the audience.

The imagination is drawn out by relationships between things more than by the things themselves. Life provides the materials, but it’s up to us to establish the connections. Alice In Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, for example, both start with perfectly ordinary elements of everyday life – playing cards, animals, grammar lessons – and each tells a crazy story about the relationships these things might have with one another. The imagination is brought into the realm of everyday life, and the illumination affects everything we see and do thereafter.

The whole world of Narnia is found in something equally mundane, the wardrobe, and no wardrobe might ever look the same after reading it.

6) There’s some essay to be written about how the quaint details of Narnia (tea parties, children as royalty, etc.) contrast with the emotional realism of the Harry Potter books. In a nutshell, the details of fantasy worlds haven’t changed nearly as much as the characters who visit them. Could be that today’s world, despite its reputation for barbarism, is much less scary than the WWII setting of the Narnia stories (the kids are sent to live with the professor because of the war) – and that more frightening, chaotic world is balanced by a more noble and less scary fantasy world than that of the Harry Potter books. Then again, the Narnia books were written for a more exclusively young audience; Harry Potter seems to have been aimed at more general audiences.

7) Every other mention of the Chronicles of Narnia books includes the phrase religious allegory or Christian allegory, but that’s unfair to the stories, if not to the famously Christian author. First, the stories deserve to be taken on their own merits; all literature borrows structure and relationships from other places in the culture. Second, the stories do have clear parallels to Christianity – but then, so do other religions, and it’s pretty rude to call them “Christian allegories”.

8) That said, the Christian references are inescapable. I didn’t pick up on them until the sixth or seventh book when I was a kid, and I don’t know my bible stories well enough to recognize all the references, but any reader over age 12 who’s spent time in a church will recognize who’s who in these books.

9) Edmund’s transition from insufferable traitor to hero is very effective. I guess it’s not that difficult to think of ways for a character to be horrible and treacherous and then find some reason or reasons for him to change, but I can appreciate it when it’s well done.

10) Not to read too much into this stuff, but: the four kids in this story parallel the four “court cards” in many tarot decks – king, queen, knight and page. That seems arbitrary, except the parallel works so well: Peter is the high king, heroic and decisive and commanding; Susan is the high queen, compassionate, maternal, emotional and intuitive; Lucy is the page, naïve and youthful – a beginner in every respect. And Edmund is the knight – but not in the most immediately obvious way.

The knight in the tarot deck is usually thought of as accomplishing great deeds, performing feats of bravery – but what does Edmund do in this story? His character transforms, while the other children merely reveal the character already intact inside them. When a knight card comes up in a tarot reading, it may suggest exactly that transformation: the “great deeds” implicit in the image of the knight may represent the dramatic steps taken by any of us who experience deliberate changes in our lives.

I'm guessing C.S. Lewis did not borrow his characters from the tarot. Rather, I think that this story and the standard tarot deck each stumbled independently onto a powerful set of character types that combine to form a complete human personality. We each have a powerful king, compassionate queen, ambitious knight, and passionate novice inside us. Fiction and the tarot each speak to the part of the imagination that understands this, and offers its own thoughts in response.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Notes about storytelling

First, yes, a glossary. Apologies in advance. When discussing stories I refer to story-building elements defined by Joseph Campbell and Keith Johnstone. Most of the below observations about these steps are mine.

Here’s a greatly simplified breakdown of the steps through Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” cycle. Campbell observed that virtually all stories of heroic accomplishment, whether supernatural or plainly human, proceeded through these same steps, although not necessarily in this order.

1) The Call to Adventure. The hero is given the opportunity, either accidentally or deliberately, to go on some character-defining quest.

2)The Refusal of the Call. If the hero who received the Call to Adventure said “Sure, I’ll follow you, Obi-Wan, whatever you say…” then the quest that resulted would be an adventure – but it would not be a reflection of who and what the hero is; the quest would be a job that could be done by anyone. The refusal of the call – and the insight that follows - is the point at which the hero realizes that the adventure being declined (because it’s inconvenient, or dangerous, or terrifying), is nevertheless the only path to a bearable life. The hero’s mind & body may decline the adventure and survive, but all that is heroic – even, perhaps, human – about the hero would die if this path is not taken.

3) The Meeting of the Mentor. With the Refusal of the Call, the hero has supplied the internal factor – a character-defining personal commitment. The mentor supplies the rest: tools and knowledge. Without these gifts – “external” components of the quest - the task is impossible; without the internal component, the adventure is just a job being done. With both components, we witness the growth of the character, and the discovery of a decisive, deliberate human being underneath many layers of naïve habit and other stuff nobody planned.

4) The First Threshold. Our hero can look into the distance from here, and meet those who have traveled into the unknown – but the line has not yet been crossed; turning back is still an option. It’s easy to spend one’s whole life at this point – the path is close by, but it’s too risky to take.

5) Tests, Allies & Enemies. Things get more complicated, more promising and more dangerous. The stakes are raised.

6) Supreme Ordeal (or “The Belly of the Whale”, an image that turns up with some frequency). The hero’s plight appears to hit rock bottom. If not for this step, the hero might emerge from the adventure unchanged. Instead, the whole world will appear transformed, if only for the hero.

7) Revisiting the Mentor. The person, wisdom and/or tools that made the journey possible return to reveal even deeper, more mysterious qualities.

8) Return with new knowledge. The hero has grown more powerful – but must now consider whether to remain on the other side of the threshold, or return to complete the adventure. The resulting decision clarifies who the hero is, and what the adventure has accomplished.

9) Seizing the sword / prize. The most challenging task is completed – but the ultimate purpose of the quest is not yet achieved.

10) Resurrection. Whether literally or symbolically, all that symbolized the former life of the hero is let go or destroyed. The new hero that emerges is a different kind of creature.

11) Return with Elixir. The ultimate purpose of the quest is achieved. The hero and the heroic achievement have become inseparable, and society as a whole has grown richer as a result.

See anything written by Joseph Campbell for more info on the above.

Keith Johnstone invented or refined many forms of improvisational theater, with an emphasis on storytelling skills. His book Impro is the best book I’ve ever seen on any subject related to creativity, performance or human interaction. Highly recommended for info about the below ideas & more.

Johnstone offers these elements (among others) as the basic building blocks of story:

Interruption of Routines – every story starts with some familiar activity being interrupted by an unexpected circumstance. To begin a story, describe a familiar activity in progress, and then interrupt it with some unforeseen event; whatever happens as a result is the story.

Reincorporation – all characters, relationships and objects seem incidental to the story, until they’re incorporated into multiple scenes. When someone or something is re-incorporated (the hero remembers the weapon found several scenes earlier, etc.), that character or object seems to have a purpose in the story - and becomes, to some degree, what the story is about.

The Circle of the Story – Every story begins by offering a list of things the story is about, and it must operate thereafter within that established circle. A children’s book may do this directly (“This is a story about a princess, and a frog, and a pair of tweezers, and a basketball”) but this list is usually implicit: spy novels are expected to include guns, poison and double-agents, fairy tales are expected to include kings & queens, castles, fairies, etc. If some element from outside the circle is introduced in the middle of the story – if Robinson Crusoe pulls out a laser pistol, for example – it may get a cheap laugh, but it breaks the spell of trust the storyteller has developed with the audience.

Tilts – a Tilt happens when one character says or does something to provoke a strong change in another character. It’s the essence of drama: something is revealed about the “tilter” and the “tiltee”. A gunshot creates a tilt when the victim screams and keels over, but a tilt can be subtle as well: a word whispered from one person to another may provoke a reaction of great emotion, surprise, pain, horror or joy. The strength of the reaction is what makes it worth watching.

Above text Copyright 2005 Martin Azevedo

Thursday, September 08, 2005

10 Thoughts About What?

I read & finished maybe six books between 1984 and 2003. All my friends read a lot.

A few years ago I started reading semi-voraciously, if slowly.

I’m a published writer (articles here and there) who’s currently learning to write fiction. I read stuff for the joy of it and to figure out how it’s done.

That includes kids' books nowadays, because I want to learn how to write them, and because I want to catch up with the ones I haven't read or don't remember, and because they are what they are. Read other stuff too.

I'll write ten thoughts in this blog about books I've read or movies I've seen. Not reviews, just thoughts. Spoilers will be plentiful but I'll give warnings.

Perhaps it will all add up to something.