Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) George Lucas introduced Jar-Jar, the most irritating character in cinematic history, in the fourth movie of his series. C.S. Lewis introduced Puddleglum, a creature of similar charm, in the fourth book of his series. Both characters are reptilian and serve no purpose but to suck the energy out of any story in which they appear. They offer only discouragement and interference with anything the protagonists try to do.

Together, the two characters suggest the amphibious voice that, when an inventive series reaches its halfway point, creeps up from the depths of a writer’s subconscious to sabotage the narrative and whisper “shame on you for writing stories for kids.” That shame is then projected, in the form of these characters, onto any adult who tries to enjoy the story: “You’re embarrassed to find meaning in this stuff, and this is what your embarrassment looks like.” Both series continue and conclude, but details in each hint at a certain ironic distance the author eventually places between himself and his creation – a promise that, mythological symbolism aside, the story was never meant to be taken seriously by adults.

In the end, this kind of character is just another way adults tease children with tickling they can’t avoid and jokes they can’t understand. Kids hate these characters just as adults do, but they hate them within the context of the story, and adults interpret that as youthful fascination. Show me a kid who wants to hang with Jar-Jar or Puddleglum and I’ll show you a kid whose only joy in life is found by solving his inept parents’ endless problems.

2) A quick look at shows a large number of people declaring this their favorite Narnia book, which I found kinda baffling at first. There are no compelling characters, save for Aslan. The lead characters’ participation in the story is almost entirely passive; nothing happens to them during the main adventure that wouldn’t have happened to everyone sent on the same mission. That unspecific quality seems like it should allow the reader to relate to the characters, but I don’t think it works that way. A truly compelling story follows the characters along a path that only those characters could travel, revealing as much about them as the world they travel through.

3) Yet the adventure is compelling. The kids go to the land of the giants, then they flee underground, where they meet strange cave-dwelling creatures, a nasty queen and a doped-up king. This stuff resonates. Have you ever been to the land of the giants? Duh – we all spent our first several years living there. Have you fled underground? At the time they called it ‘adolescence’. How about the cave-dwelling creatures? We recognized one another in elementary school and had our first real friends.

The problem comes with the nasty queen and the doped-up king. Briefly, she’s a little too nasty and he’s a little too doped-up. It feels too simple for the woman to be a horrible witch and the guy to be her victim. Five years of marriage have slowly taught me that any guy living under the spell of a nasty witch has a real problem, and the woman in his life ain’t it. At the end of this story, the nasty witch gets her head cut off and the king is set free – but the smart money says that king will be married to another nasty witch within a week. Guys love to repeat mistakes.

4) The fairy tale presents a king and a queen; she’s evil and strong, while he’s good and weak. So, the problem is that she’s evil, right? Nope – the problem is that he’s weak. A healthy body that can’t fight off some infections isn’t a healthy body, and a good king who can’t deal with some evil now and then isn’t a king. This focus on avoiding evil rather than strengthening good has made us vulnerable to anything that disguises itself as a force against evil; we’re clearly taught who our enemies are, but we never learn how to recognize a blatant lie from someone we’re supposed to trust. Our president couldn’t get away with the everything he’s gotten away with if we were focused on building a functioning society of interdependent individuals rather than eliminating every last threat we may someday face.

5) There aren’t any beautiful women of consequence in most of these stories; if a woman is beautiful, she’s wicked. Susan and Lucy don’t count, since they’re sisterly characters and they act like it. Caspian marries a hottie in the previous book, but we’re told nothing else about her. Adult sexuality isn’t merely absent from these stories – it’s a sign of corruption. For all the wonders of the books’ portrayal of Aslan, it suggests a pretty weak spiritual vision overall – and a shallow version of Christianity in particular - if human sexuality is in itself cause for suspicion. Guess that kinda thinking goes back to the old testament, though.

6) When the wicked queen dies, the spell breaks and everybody is free. I hate that. Same thing happens in the Wizard of Oz and dozens of other stories. Apparently the nightmare of loyalist insurgents maintaining a futile battle and leaderless locals rioting from anger at the new government makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Yet the “smooth transition from deposed leadership to functional democracy” never, ever, ever happens in real life. That’s one of many differences between fiction and reality that we must ensure the President of the United States knows before we let him take office. Believes in mermaids? Fine with me. Prays to a green tree monster in the woods? I’m cool with that. Thinks that his headaches in foreign countries will evaporate the moment we remove the leader for arbitrary reasons? Quit makin’ shit up, Mr. President.

7) Somehow it’s more irritating that the dopey king is a happy guy than it would be if he’d merely been an angry hostage. It probably bugs me because I was happy in the same way as a kid – my cheerfulness designed to distract myself from all the things I wanted to not think about. The king’s cheerful cooperation with the wicked queen makes him less worth rescuing, since he’s most of the problem.

8) I liked the jabs at modern education and parenting offered in references to “Experiment House”. I attended 8 years of elementary school that sounded exactly like “Experiment House”, and no, it didn’t prepare kids for real life. That doesn’t mean I yearn for the regular beatings offered to students by British schoolmasters, but there’s gotta be a happy medium.

9) The “to serve man” bit in the story seems to have been borrowed from Damon Knight’s 1950 story, which also inspired the Twilight Zone episode. Intellectual property laws must have been different back then. Regardless, the thinking may have been that borrowing an adult story to slip into a children’s story wasn’t really stealing, since who would read both?

10) Like the Star Trek movies, every other one of the Narnia books kinda sucks in its own enjoyable way. In this case, 1, 3, and 5 are good stories; 2, 4, 6 and 7 are weaker. The numerological instability of that pattern may somehow be responsible for the recent re-ordering of the books. That must be it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) This was probably my favorite Narnia book when I was a kid, either because the cover was purple, or because it had more adventure than the first two books did. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was engaging but it kinda focused on tea parties and Christmas presents in a way that didn’t speak to me as much as it might have, while Prince Caspian had the heroes sitting around eating apples for the first hundred pages. This one drops the reader right into the water. It’s the adventure that everybody who read Prince Caspian thought was going to happen in that book.

2) All I remembered from having read the book as a kid was “the land where dreams come true” (Would I be the one who could survive in such a place? Or would I be the most vulnerable to its dangers?) and the pool of water that turned things to gold. I spent much of my childhood wondering what it would be like to be stuck at the bottom of a pool, having been turned to gold by the water. Drowning would be the only real problem, but it’s a real problem. Okay, dying because all my organs had turned into gold would be a problem too. Plus I'd be too heavy to move.

3) Many other things came back to me as I read. I remembered the dragon with the bracelet pinching his arm. I remembered the name Reepicheep, which reminded me that one of my grade school teachers had said the name Reepicheep, which reminded me she’d read the first three books aloud to the class. Somehow I’d forgotten about that. I found Reepicheep a little less ridiculous as a kid.

4) I like the way the kids enter the voyage with little buildup and no rational explanation - it just plunges everybody into the water. A rational setup would have been pointless.

5) Eustace’s character transformation is very effective, as Edmund’s was in LWW. For all of the captivating and powerful dimensions in these stories, Aslan is the only character whose contradictions are described directly: he’s beautiful and terrible, kind and dangerous, etc. The only human characters who are blessed with contradictions are those who start out acting one way and wind up acting another – Edmund in LWW, Eustace in this book and one or two others. (Both Edmund and Eustace start being likeable and stop being interesting when they complete this transition.) Eustace in particular is given a great deal of time to suffer for his mistakes – and resent others for them - so when he emerges as a different sort of person, it feels genuine.

6) I love the scary part when Lucy enters the magician’s house. One of Keith Johnstone’s most basic rules is to get the characters into trouble. In this case it doesn’t turn out to be real trouble, unfortunately.

7) The magician changes a whole species of creatures and refuses to change them back. That kinda bugged me.

8) I’ve heard that King Arthur’s gathering of the Knights of the Round Table symbolizes the work the conscious mind does to gather the resources lying buried in the subconscious. The demands of surviving childhood require each of us to bury our treasures - strengths we’re not yet ready to use - and the demands of surviving adulthood require each of us to dig them up again.

Caspian took his voyage to locate the seven lords who’d fled Narnia. What might seven lords represent?

Sensitive new age guy that I am, I associate the seven lords with the seven chakras. Five years ago that word would have made me gag, but I’ve learned a few things since then. Stranger In A Strange Land presents a multi-leveled psyche; a system of chakras could be thought of along the same lines – seven different levels on which each of us might interact with the world. Regardless, Voyage of the Dawn Treader suggests an individual who’s gathering up seven lost parts of his kingdom, his consciousness, which have been lost.

I’m not suggesting that C.S. Lewis had any of this in mind when he wrote the stories. I presume these ideas came together subconsciously, as such things do. But there was clearly a meaning behind the number of lords being seven. Would it have been the same with six lords? Eight? Five? It would have felt different, and that feeling is the best indicator we have that something symbolic is going on.

Come to think of it, why are there seven days of the week? One for each chakra? We have a base-ten mathematical system because we have ten fingers; it makes sense that we’d base the week on the number 7, which is central to many patterns in nature. (I'm sure there's at least one other more rational-sounding reason that I just don't know, but I just don't know it.)

9) The voyage to the end of the world is a basic mythological idea that somehow always succeeds in being interesting, since it’s by definition a voyage into the unknown. A story set in a familiar location runs the risk of repeating the same events that happened last time, but a story at the end of the world – well, who knows what’s out there? Nothing could logically be there, so whatever is there must be beyond logic. Any story that goes there uses logic as a vessel (a pattern whereby this event causes that event which causes another event) to sail beyond the limits of logic. That trick is why stories exist.

The end-of-the-world quest also has a way of isolating the characters in the story for a personal confrontation. When they travel out beyond all familiar territory, they have nothing but what they’ve brought with them.

10) I love the way Aslan’s country is always left mysterious, always in the distance, even beyond the end of the world. There's something hopeful about that.

Monday, October 17, 2005


1) I never watched Seinfeld during its original run. Started watching the show on DVD a few months ago and suddenly couldn’t get enough.

2) Half the plot complications in Seinfeld would evaporate if the characters had cel phones, but they hadn’t yet conquered the planet in the early ‘90s. Weird to think how very quickly the whole world can change when the right options come along.

3) First I watched the fourth season, then the first season. Together they formed a lesson in sitcom production. Nothing was together during the first season. Everything ran more slowly and quietly. Characters said whole sentences that weren’t funny, just to move the story along. Kramer acted as though he wanted to be liked, which was just creepy. The whole cast behaved like kids who were afraid their parents would get divorced if they made any noise. Things got better after the first few episodes.

4) The show has the reputation of being “about nothing”, but that’s not quite it. What’s unusual about the Seinfeld is that each story pivots on minor details, and each one is spread over several episodes. Great importance is given to insignificant events, and no importance is given to finding direction or resolution for the characters. Small distractions are plentiful; big gestures are futile. That this is a particularly urban, kinda pathological way of looking at life was not lost on the fearful executives who were hesitant to green-light the show.

Each story element (a jacket, a car, a relationship, etc.) is mentioned in one episode, reincorporated in the next as a joke, then reincorporated in yet another episode as a plot device that pivots the whole story. Each episode consists of jagged parts of several stories, like parts of different photographs stuck into one frame.

5) I think the cultural phenomenon that has the most in common with Seinfeld is the Peanuts comic strip. Each character suggests one fragment of a modern human psyche – the everyman, the loser, the haunting romantic past, the weird neighbor-creature with mysterious powers. I’ve had dreams involving the Seinfeld characters. The main difference between Seinfeld and Peanuts seems to be that in Peanuts, Linus occasionally says wise things, while Seinfeld exists in a world without wisdom. The show’s motto, after all, has been described as “no hugging and no learning.” Wisdom is replaced by Jerry’s standup routines, which present as objective a view of reality as can exist on the show.

6) Kramer became the best character. He’s a walking interruption of the routine, turning any conversation into a scene and any drama into comedy just by walking in the door. Where he goes, the scene follows.

Like all great characters, he’s full of contradictions. He’ll go to great lengths to stand up for his principles, yet his behavior is amoral and unpredictable. He has no social skills, yet he’s a ladies’ man. He’s a fearless slapstick character on a show about sophisticated neurotics. Nothing is too over-the-top for him to do. I love Kramer.

7) Jerry is the everyman character, and the everyman character is often mistakenly thought to be unnecessary in comedy. Charles Schulz ended his career thinking Snoopy was the true protagonist of the Peanuts cartoons, and the result was twenty years of strips that weren’t funny.

Jerry Seinfeld is the host who invites the viewer into the strange world of otherwise self-absorbed, neurotic, bizarre characters. His standup comedy bits at the start and end of each show aren’t always very funny, but they make it clear that he’s our guide through the story that follows.

I’m guessing this was the reason for the “Seinfeld curse”. I never saw the shows that the other three actors launched when Seinfeld ended its run, but they might have tried to build their comedy around a central character better left on the periphery. When we’re asked to see the world through the eyes of a weird character, that character stops being weird – or, less comfortably, we start to feel weird ourselves.

8) George became more of a loser with every episode. At the start he was employed and mild-mannered. The interview footage on the DVD shows the actor, Jason Alexander, to be quite handsome and charismatic when his character isn’t trying to lie his way out of his latest catastrophe. I get a bit wary of George’s total inability to do the right thing, but it does keep the stories moving forward. The stories work better when George gets stuck between doing two “right things” – such as quitting the job he hates, and maintaining an income – and decides to try doing both.

9) Elaine mostly shares the everyman role with Jerry, but she also slips into whatever role the story needs her to play: she can be obsessive and manic, or she can play the voice of reason.

I may be missing or dismissing some key aspects of her character, but the show clearly needs her to be both sane and crazy; consequently, she winds up acting reasonable most of the time, yet surrounding herself with lunatics, such as her series of over-the-top bosses. She seems to be a rational person, but her career and life are controlled by irrational people. She's extremely rational in her idealism, but she takes it to irrational extremes.

10) Elaine winds up as the emotional core of the show. Jerry wears one facial expression through most of the series, yet Elaine can project affection, exasperation, anger or anything else she might feel. She's Jerry’s romantic past, right there in the room with him - judging his present relationships and offering limited emotional support. The scene where she and Jerry negotiate a return to their physical relationship might as well be Jerry cautiously inviting emotion back into his life. If Jerry realized this kind of thing, of course, he'd be well-adjusted, and probably unemployed. Instead, we have Seinfeld.

Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) This was the first book I ever read quickly, and out of personal interest, when I was a kid. However lovely or hokey the Narnia stories might seem, they’re beautifully written. Few wasted adverbs.

2) I remembered only two things about this book from childhood: apples (how it would be to eat nothing else for days at a time), and the children returning to Narnia to answer the call of Susan’s horn. I love it when one story gracefully reincorporates something mentioned in another, suggesting a world bigger than both stories put together.

3) When King Miraz’ wife gives birth to an heir, Prince Caspian suddenly becomes an enemy as a rival to the throne; that’s why he has to leave. I love that. It’s complex yet compelling, like a Shakespeare play. It also suggests the transformation of adolescence, when the parents who had been our only protection from the world become, one way or another, the trap from which every growing child must free him or herself.

4) The mentor in many stories is not merely a teacher who offers knowledge of the larger world, but is, in some hidden way, a part of that world. Ben Kenobi wasn’t just a guy who knew about the Jedi knights; he was Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight himself. In this story, Cornelius is another such mentor – not only a guide into the unknown, but a refugee from the larger world the wicked king has banished from existence.

5) I love the re-incorporation of the Stone Table and the castle at Cair Paravel, both aged many hundreds of years while the four children were away. Handy shortcut for creating an epic. I’m probably exaggerating the effect, since I read the second book long after I’d read the first, but this centuries-between-books strategy seems to call up that feeling of remembering something from childhood, even if the reader only experienced it a few days before. Burying the stone table and the treasures of the castle adds to the effect: what had been experienced consciously is now rediscovered deep underground, buried with other hidden treasures in the depths of the dream world.

6) It’s a weirdly structured book. Caspian’s story is very interesting, but he’s a tangential character. Despite the battles they enter, the four kids with whom we begin the story aren’t really challenged or transformed as they are in the first book; for the most part, they’re passive characters. It adds up to a sorta mundane tale with really interesting backstory. I do love that moment when the story-within-a-story meets up with the main narrative, though; we know the new character, yet we’re meeting him for the first time.

7) I’m not sure what to make of Peter and Susan’s departure at the end, except that it feels appropriate. It could be viewed as “they’re getting too old to experience the world of imagination”, which is depressing, because it’s wrong. I prefer to think of it as “they’ve learned the lessons that Narnia had to teach them”. That suggests that the timing of each visit is a facet of the mystery of Aslan, and that Narnia is one of many places a human life may pass through. He often says “each is told only his own story, no one else’s”. The details of how and why visitors come to Narnia is left appropriately unexplained.

8) Narnia is an imaginary world, yet it’s very familiar territory – kings and queens, fauns and centaurs, talking animals, etc. The imagination is reputed to be the land where all the details are made up on the spot, yet most fantasy stories tread very well-established paths. This suggests either that storytellers are lazy, or that imagination consists of one specific world, or that folklore is an accumulation of images and stories that are very useful for exploring psychological, cultural, and even natural territory that may be impossible to explore directly. To discuss the natural world without revering its mystery is to miss half the picture, and a cast of characters to populate and give form to that hidden side has been in wide use for millennia.

9) The division in Narnia is not between animals and humans, but between talking animals and non-talking animals. That makes for convenient storytelling, but still makes for a mealtime full of amusing double-standards, left mostly unexplored.

10) There’s a recurring motif in these books and many others: “the crazy stories you heard as a child are true.” This idea is appealing on a lot of levels, but I think it works best taken literally. Adults develop a great many illusions as we mature; as we learn to focus on our chosen paths, we shut out most of what is going on in the world and in the depths of our own minds. Or so it seems to me.

I’ve heard that Chinese Medicine defines depression as “losing touch with the divine part of oneself” – and I’ve found that definition to be absolutely consistent with my experience and that of everyone I know. A story that suggests simply that “what you believed as a child is true” is more accurate than not, and much more helpful than not. The world – as experienced by humanity, at least - is not a rational place; those who’ve lost touch with the irrational, creative part of themselves will not be equipped to deal with the challenges it presents.