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.


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