Monday, November 21, 2005

The Horse And His Boy (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) The feeling this book triggered in me was the joy of escape and the excitement of travel across an unfamiliar civilization. The book begins with a balancing act, describing the tedium of Shasta’s youth in Calormen while showing Shasta himself to be someone who clearly didn’t belong there. It’s a perfect setup: a situation that demands a change.

Shasta later spends a period waiting outside the city to rendezvous with his traveling companions. The wait felt like the naïve, agonizing wait for adolescence to be over – waiting for the right woman to come along so the journey could begin.

2) Cool story. Much better than Silver Chair. More appealing characters, at least. I felt caught up in the adventure.

3) The justification for publishing recent editions of the Chronicles of Narnia books in “chronological order” was apparently that C.S. Lewis mentioned in a 1957 letter to a young fan that it might be appropriate to do so. (The regents of his estate made it happen a few years ago.) His own story, however, explains why it’s a terrible idea.

In “A Horse and His Boy”, the princess Aravis tells Shasta and Bree the story of her dramatic escape from her father, and offers this mysterious detail:

“But when I came out from the presence of my father I went immediately to the oldest of his slaves, his secretary, who had dandled me on his knees when I was a baby and loved me more than the air and the light. And I swore him to be secret and begged him to write a certain letter for me. And he wept and implored me to change my resolution but in the end he said, ‘To hear is to obey,’ and did all my will. And I sealed the letter and hid it in my bosom.”

“But what was in the letter?” asked Shasta.

“Be quiet, youngster,” said Bree. You’re spoiling the story. She’ll tell us all about the letter in the right place. Go on, Tarkheena.”

She reveals the contents of the letter a few pages later – and holds every reader captive until she does.

By introducing the letter into the story without explaining its contents, an anchor is placed in the reader’s imagination, and that anchor helps to pull the reader more deeply into the story, and the story more deeply into the heart of the reader.

A story begun in the middle moves both forward and backward: we come to learn what happened before the beginning just as the events achieve an ending. In Casablanca: first we learn that Rick and Ilsa were lovers, then we learn that she broke his heart – and finally, we learn that Rick has always been, underneath his pain, a brave and noble man. We gather the details of Rick’s story before we recognize the individual that lived through it.

Most good stories begin in the middle. Doing otherwise robs the narrative of mystery (beginning at the beginning is like watching your gifts being wrapped), and the cultivation of mystery is the very purpose of storytelling: it entices the reader to participate more fully in the story - and through its example, in life itself.

C.S. Lewis understood this perfectly, and that’s why the first book in this series went straight into the middle of something that made no sense at first. To be captivated by something that makes no sense frees us from the confines of logic, and returns us to a more fundamental realm of being: the use of feeling, instead of thinking, as our primary connection to the world. Through this change we recover a sense of life’s infinite dimension – even, perhaps, of the divine.

4) I started liking Aravis, the best female character in the series, as she explained her escape:

“And what happened to the girl – the one you drugged?” asked Shasta.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

“I say, that was hardly fair.” Said Shasta.

“I did not do any of these things for the sake of pleasing
you,” said Aravis.

Huzzah! A real character, with contradictions and everything! We resent her selfishness, yet we envy her confidence! We despise her cruelty, yet we sympathize with her plight! What delightful power! What wicked charm! Will she hurt me?!?

All she needed do to be thoroughly appealing (as a character, if not as a companion) was to demonstrate that she operates from her own authority, yet is vulnerable. She makes all her own decisions, yet she’s fleeing from a world in which she had no control. She’s the opposite of the doped-up king from The Silver Chair: to help him was to go against his wishes. Aravis’ wishes and interests are so perfectly aligned that the natural response is to want to help her.

Many characters who gain compassion lose personal authority in the process. An evil male character who suffers defeat may become a parody of femininity: kind but weak. (The bully in “Back to the Future” went through this transformation.)

Aravis’ only vice is a lack of compassion, and she pays a price for it in the end. Fortunately, she learns to balance the two strengths, not simply to trade one for the other.

5) Why is it the contradictions that bring a character to life? I think it’s because we are all made of contradictions – masculine and feminine, weaknesses and strengths – and what is not visible on the outside is sure to be exerting a strong influence on the inside. (A strong man may turn to brutality as a way to conceal his weaknesses, etc.) The people we find less than interesting are those who demonstrate only one type of behavior, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative. Such personalities always seem to be fake; the truth of our lives lies in between these extremes, and the truth of our characters (fictional and non-) lies between the contradictory behaviors they display.

6) It seemed at first like the exotic details (strange names, turbans, curve-tipped shoes, armor, etc.) were borrowed from the Middle East, which kinda bugged me even while it was effective. Details borrowed from exotic places can make fictional worlds seem exotic too – but then the influence flows in both directions, and anything suggested about the exotic fictional lands seems to apply to the real-life places as well.

Any story of adventure into the unknown needs details that feel both familiar and alien, and the shorthand way to suggest “familiar yet alien” is to borrow familiar details from an alien culture. This was easy when the world was easily divided into familiar and alien, us and them; but now there are few differences between the two, and many good arguments for erasing such absolute boundaries even further.

It doesn’t help that Narnian style seems to have stepped right out of British history while the style of Calormen is borrowed from everybody the British tried to conquer over the centuries. In the end, though, these books borrowed the visual details from all over – just as the plot details were borrowed from mythology, folklore, popular fiction, and everywhere else.

7) The Horse and His Boy is almost a lesson in combining old ideas to form a new story: there’s the “he’s not really your father” idea, the separated-twins idea, the buddy flick, the road trip, the “further adventures of the characters from the first book” idea, the Aslan cameo idea and others, all strung together into an engaging whole.

8) I think this book is the point when Aslan’s visits start to get predictable: by the fifth book the reader is going to be way ahead of the characters in figuring out which cats to be afraid of and which not to be afraid of. I liked it, then, that Aslan attacked Aravis. It keeps the reader guessing and ultimately suggests several contradictory aspects of Aslan’s nature in one gesture. It would have been an easy mistake to have Aslan behave predictably, and benevolently. It would have reduced him, and the whole series would have been diminished.

9) The Hermit of the Southern March lives in a perfectly circular enclosure, with a motionless pond, a huge tree and a little stone house.

First, I find it amusing that a hermit would describe himself by title. You’d think titles would be less important to hermits than to anybody else.

Second, there’s something about the perfectly round enclosure that makes it seem terribly symbolic – it’s the center of something, even while it’s well off the beaten path, bypassed by the enemy giving chase. Meeting the hermit feels like stumbling out of an adventure story into a fairy tale, full of powerful images of great simplity. He heals Aravis; he helps Bree face his humility; he sends Shasta on his solitary mission. There’s no need to define the hermit as a specific reference to the soul or God or some such thing; his power in the story doesn’t come from what we decide he symbolizes. He’s just there, a ready mirror for whatever meaning a reader might need to find inside.

When George Lucas was asked to explain one of the less effective characters from “Revenge of the Sith”, he said “Well, that character is a metaphor.” Huh? Sure, the character may have a metaphorical value in the story – all characters do. But shouldn’t he be a character before he’s a metaphor? A metaphor that has “METAPHOR” printed on it speaks to the intellect but not the soul. For a metaphor to be effective, it must dissolve into the waters of narrative and emerge as a living being, operating from its own logic, obeying its own authority and responding to its own view of the world. Otherwise, an engaging story becomes a flow chart. Yuck.

10) It bothered me that Shasta turned out to be the twin son of King Lune. The details fit together well in the story, but it adds up to…”midochlorians”. The series suggests at first that the secret of magic or royalty or divinity is within each of us (Lucy and Edmund and Susan and Peter had no special qualification to be kings and queens before it happened), but after the halfway point in the series, when things start moving downhill, we’re dumped back into the old idea that some people are “born with it” and the rest just aren’t. Good for Shasta, but disappointing for everybody else. More kudos to J.K. Rowling for coming up with magic-using muggles to flatten the playing field and make room for the rest of us.