Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reclaiming Narnia

Prince Caspian
After I wrote my last post, I went surfing to see how widespread my idea about Narnia being faerie is. (Somewhat after the fact, I admit; also, not that common.) What I discovered in the process was that Narnia has been largely co-opted by two different camps. On the one side is the overtly theological camp, which wants to read even more theology into Narnia than C. S. Lewis would have welcomed. I’ve read enough of his work to know that Lewis himself believed in the old-fashioned notion that the best of Greek and Roman (pagan) culture had some genuine good in it, and this good found fulfillment (for him) in Christ. I think he would have said this about fairy tales, as much as he did about ancient poets. So no, it’s not a theological allegory, a parlor trick for duping people into learning religious dogma; he even says as much.

The other camp—there seem to be always two camps these days, and always squaring off over some shared misunderstanding. Anyway, the other camp holds that the Narnia books are too Christian, too theological, too inconsistent, too this and too that … Virtual whiners, we might call them. Fault-finders. They apparently dislike what the “theology” camp likes. Both are missing the point.

If, like me, you’re disgusted by this kind of co-opting and want to reclaim Narnia, here’s my suggestion. Read these books aloud to children (preferably about 6 years old). You’ll discover a few things, I think. One is that Narnia reads extremely well aloud. At least, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does. You can easily and intuitively inject the correct emotion into just about any piece of dialogue. There are pauses and surprises that come right out of the book at you—and better yet, at your rapt child-audience. Watch their faces while you read, and then tell me that it’s “too theological” or it’s an “allegory.” Nope. It’s gripping fiction for children. It’s fantasy that captures—and expands—a child’s imagination. And sometimes (not always), a child might even think Aslan is kind of like Jesus. But don’t count on it.

Lewis once wrote (I think in his autobiography) that adults shouldn’t be too snobby about how children first encounter classic themes and stories. He saw value in first becoming acquainted with a retold, childish form of those old stories. Later in life, coming across the “genuine article,” they’ll experience (he thought) a shock of surprise—pleasant and appealing—and associate their earlier fond memories with it.

I suspect he had something like that in mind for Narnia, and especially the story of one person giving up his (or her) life for another out of love, beyond the demands of mere justice. Yes, that’s a story in the Bible, and Lewis was profoundly attached to that biblical story. He made no secret of that, even in the Narnia books. But it’s also a story that Lewis would have said is found in the best of “pagan” literature, in certain fairy tales and in other great works of art. It’s a story of love that we do well to encounter in our dew-eyed youth, if only so that we can believe in such love later in life, when it’s both harder to believe in anything that good, and also more necessary.

PS: This post comes as I’m re-reading Prince Caspian—aloud to kids.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Narnia as Faerie

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis says that Father Christmas is the sort of person you only meet in a place like Narnia. But what is a “place like Narnia”? Isn’t there only one such place, with talking animals, tree-spirits, giants, spells, dwarfs, prophecies, and the sharp contrast of good-and-evil?

Come to think of it, there is. J. R. R. Tolkien called it “faerie.” Ursula K. LeGuin called it “Elfland.” If you’ve been there, you know that place. (If you haven’t, pick up some fairy tales and start reading!)

What makes Narnia faerie—the realm of nature-magic, deep as the land? I’ve mentioned some of its trappings. But, as Ursula K. LeGuin reminds us, trappings do not a good fantasy make. And, love it or don’t, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a good fantasy. An authentic journey into faerie—a kind of faerie, too, that you can see and feel in your mind.

Lewis achieved just the right mix of realism and magic. The rules of Narnia are clear, things aren’t arbitrary—people really do bleed there—and yet the magic is real (within discernible limits). So is that what makes this novel a journey into faerie? The skillful realization of magic within a believable world? Does technique a good fantasy make?

Or is it the fact that it is a journey, through a portal and into a woods—for it does start in the woods, like many fairy tales. Is it the fanciful device of the wardrobe, a new thing (relatively speaking) juxtaposed with an old thing (the faerie wood)? Does that make it authentic fantasy, a journey into faerie?

Or is it the sharp contrast between good and evil? The White Witch couldn’t be more evil; Aslan couldn’t be more good. Is this stark contrast what gives it that magical quality?

Or what about the smallness of the characters? Lucy, the youngest of four and a girl (in patriarchal England) is first to discover the portal. And she’s the one who seems closest to Aslan—she and Susan, in the first book, and Lucy alone as the adventures unfold. Even Peter is only a child, though a very responsible, grown-up eldest son. Edmund, who experiences the greatest transformation (after Narnia itself), is the proto-typical younger brother. These little people, small characters, become—but don’t start out as—realm-shapers. They fall into something that’s already been going on. They’re the target of prophecies of old, innocent though they are of them. Does this, then, constitute Narnia as faerie?

No. It’s like chasing the wind, or defining the shape of a spirit. Narnia feels like faerie because, in some mysterious way, C. S. Lewis opens a door on faerie. It’s faerie as C. S. Lewis encountered it. And he had the elfish power to weave its odors and sights around us.

I don’t think he could have done it, if he hadn’t been there himself.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Family Histories

One of my sanity projects last month—a.k.a. “insanity projects” (see last post)—has been to pick up an old interest in genealogy. I’m not sure what the appeal is, exactly, in knowing that you had an ancestor who lived in the Shenandoah Valley (true) or some south German castle (probably not true). But one thing is clear: It can be highly addicting.

It also has the power to change—and sometimes reinforce—my personal narrative.

As a lover and sometime teller of stories, and for that matter as a human being, I often tell stories to myself about myself. Who I am and where I come from. To take one example: Having grown up in the north (Ohio), I always told myself my ancestors weren’t slave owners (false). Living in America, I also told myself my ancestors most likely came here to escape religious persecution back in Europe (far, far from the whole story). I’ve shared with many other Americans of European descent a sense of guilt over the treatment of the native tribes (justified). I’ve also always been drawn to “little people”: misfits, powerless, indigent, the works. Good to know my ancestors are listed among their number (very true).

More surprising were the number of strands that (as far as I can discover) go back to colonial or Revolutionary War days. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, my branch of these trees kept drifting West. From Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee. Then to Indiana, to Illinois, to Missouri. Or from Pennsylvania to New York to Illinois to Missouri. Then on to Kansas and Nebraska. It was like a tidal wave, taking each daughter or son out to where the next generation should meet and drift yet further.

Only it stopped before I was born. After the second World War, when (I think) America was undergoing significant changes. And members of my family drifted back, as if on the changing tide, from Nebraska to Missouri to Ohio. And then (me now) to New York and Boston. And now, at last, by some strange magic unrelated to any quest for roots, to North Carolina. (I now live some couple hundred miles west of where one of my ancestors married his wife.) Who can say where my children will go?

What, if anything, is the meaning of such a story? It’s an American story, that much is clear. It connects me deeply to the land I live in—to all the lands I’ve lived in. And it makes me more a part of this rich history than my personal narrative had it.

It’s also a tale of movement, and settling on farms; of large families, and trying to make a life that’s better and more secure. However wealthy some fellow was, his fourth child (a daughter) marries someone with less wealth, less standing, who, after two generations, brings her offspring to a place as wild as her fathers once encountered.

This probably made my people feel rootless. But rediscovering it makes me feel rooted.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On Writing Through

I’m in the middle of a story that, for a variety of reasons, has been hard going. I’ve had a sense that something might be coming (in the story) that I won’t like. Or that I won’t want to face. Who knows? I’ve also had trouble finding time, the kind of mental space that’s necessary to face something difficult.

For me, difficult emotions have a way of crowding out everything else, including the desire to “work.”

One solution—constantly tempting—has been to just put the story aside and do something else. As writing goes, though, I’ve been down this road before, and I don’t believe it can bring me to a good outcome. Putting something aside means coming back to it—if ever—when you’re a different person, usually more than a year down the line. Your interests have changed; your worries too; sometimes even your style of writing has changed, be it ever so subtly. You come back … and you write it differently than you were writing it, and differently than you would and even should have, when you needed it most.

Not that there aren’t writing projects that should be put down. I mean, in the sense that you put down a horse. This isn’t one of those. It’s not misguided, at least in terms of my own artistic sense, whatever that is.

No, this is just one where I say: Am I going to face this, whatever is holding me back? Or am I going to turn away from it? And that’s a decision that a writer has to make, about how and who he or she wants to be, as a writer. For me, I’ve long since opted out of writing for any other reason than precisely this kind of soul-searching.

So if I’m going to grow as a writer, and as a human being, I need to press through this, whatever it is. I need to write my way through it. And really, deep down, I want to do that. I have enough faith in this process to know that it’ll be worthwhile. I’ll come out okay, and maybe more than okay. I just need a little patience, and that old-fashioned virtue they call perseverance.

Which reminds me of something else I was going to do …


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