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.


Post a Comment

<< Home