Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe (Part I)

I was planning this review to be a well-structured and organized essay on the lasting appeal of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one that examined character and theme, context and legacy, all in an orderly and chronological fashion.

Well, it’s not that. This is more of a grab-bag of ideas and observations.

But on reflection, maybe that’s appropriate. In reading the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia after a very long hiatus, it struck me just how messy this story really is. It starts as a typical British adventure tale, veers quickly into fairytale territory, takes a sudden left into religious analogy, and finishes with a time-jump that involves our protagonists growing into adults and reverting back into children within a couple of pages; a timey-wimey narrative devise that now reminds me of Moffat’s Doctor Who at its worst.

The story includes Roman gods and nature spirits, an evil witch akin to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, talking animals straight from the pages of Beatrix Potter, a cameo appearance from Father Christmas who cheerfully hands out artillery to school children, and Jesus Christ masquerading as a giant lion.

There are fairly significant plot-holes (why didn’t the Witch just kill Edmund instantly?), inconsistencies (how did Mrs Beaver serve up potatoes in the middle of a hundred year winter?), loose ends (whatever happens to the Dwarf that drives the Witch’s sleigh?) and a rather baffling lack of follow-through in some of the story’s more extreme plot-twists (are there really no adverse effects to four adults being forced back into their preadolescent bodies?)

The whole thing sounds utterly preposterous. A book like this shouldn’t work.

And yet it does.


In which I explain my Personal Background with the story...

I can’t remember my first reading of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I know that I had been shown the ancient animated version back in primary school, that by age ten I was familiar enough with the story to recognise how the dots connected when Mr Harper read The Magician’s Nephew out loud to the class, and that at drama school a few years later a younger group performed a highly abridged version of the story (being pressed for time they simply had a girl in a lion costume announce that the White Witch had been defeated off-stage). I’m pretty sure the well-meaning but hopelessly dated BBC adaptation of the 1980s is in there somewhere as well – at least, I have a vivid memory of a grown man waddling around in a beaver costume.

And so a part of me feels that I’ve always known this story; that bits of it have forever been ingrained deep within my consciousness. A faun with an umbrella and armful of parcels. A lamp-post glowing softly in the middle of a snowy wood. A courtyard full of petrified stone creatures. A cluster of mice chewing through the bonds of a dead lion. I’ve always had these images in my mind – more than that, they resonate there.

When I read of Lucy’s first sojourn into Narnia, I can smell the interior of the wardrobe, I can feel the prickle of the first pine needles, I can hear the hissing of the gas in the lamp-post. It seems strange to think that before 1950, no one had ever heard of Aslan and Narnia. No child had ever climbed into a wardrobe and hopefully run their hands over the back interior. No one had ever longed to taste that mysterious quantity known as Turkish Delight (only to be bitterly disappointed in finally discovering that it was basically just gelatinous soap). No one’s mind had instantly been flown to Narnia on seeing an old-fashioned lamp-post on a street corner.

Surely this story has always been with us, for when I read this book it feels as though I’m reading something of great and deep significance, an instinct I can only put down to childhood nostalgia coupled with adult awareness that millions of other readers have experienced this story in much the same way I have.

In which I rant about the Correct Reading Order...

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the first book in the series, make no mistake about that. Recent republications have numbered them in chronological order (the major differences being that The Magician’s Nephew is first instead of sixth, and The Horse and His Boy third instead of fifth) apparently in recognition of Lewis’s belief that chronology was the way to go.

But in examining Lewis’s exact words on the matter, it seems to me that he was fairly blasé on the subject of reading order, having written to a young fan that he didn’t much care how it was done. Okay, so his exact words to young Lawrence were:

I think I agree with your order {i.e. chronological} for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

Well sure. Perhaps he’s right and it doesn’t matter in which order anyone reads them. Heck, the very first Narnia book I was ever exposed to (and it was on audio cassette) was The Silver Chair. But if you’ve been given the choice, then please make sure that The Lion is the one you reach for first, especially if you’re introducing it to a child.

It’s all in the way Lewis introduces Aslan. When the four children enter the woods and have a whispered conversation with Mr Beaver, he tells them:  “They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.” At which point Lewis goes on to say:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning.

The bolded line obviously indicates that this should be a reader’s first experience of the name Aslan; one which certainly won’t have the same power on the heels of his (not nearly as anticipated and foreshadowed) appearance in The Magician’s Nephew. A first time reader should be as in the dark about this mysterious individual as the children are, not in a position of lofty foreknowledge.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that The Magician’s Nephew was designed specifically as a prequel (written second-to-last), and we all know where the enjoyment of prequels lie. Don’t deprive yourself of the gleeful sensation in realizing how the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit into place once Digory reaches the primordial darkness of pre-existence in Narnia.

And there is yet one more reason why The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should come first: on a fundamental level it feels different from all the sequels that follow. In what can only be described as Early Instalment Weirdness, the book contains a number of oddities that would feel completely out of place in any of the other Narnia books – heck, they feel somewhat out of place in this book!

Anachronistic elements such as Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and Mrs Beaver’s sewing machine really have no business being in a pre-industrial fantasy land, the likes of which are never again seen or mentioned in any of the subsequent books. Then there’s the visitation from Father Christmas, a whacky inclusion if ever there was one – something even Lewis himself presumably conceded since there’s no sign or mention of him in the later books.

(His presence also opens up the question of what exactly Christmas in Narnia involves. Even if you assume that it’s more in line with the pagan Yuletide, you’re still left wondering where the word “Christmas” is derived from without any explicit understanding of “Christ”. Logic dictates the holiday should be called Aslanmas).

There are other inconsistencies, namely Mr Beaver’s claim to the children that “there’s never been any of your race here before” (excepting Frank and Helen and all their descendants who’ve been around since the literal genesis of Narnia) and the intriguing claim that Jadis is not a Daughter of Eve, but rather the offspring of Adam’s first wife Lilith – a declaration that doesn’t jive with what we eventually learn about her life in Charn (though there is a modicum of wriggle room here to make both origin stories compatible).

On a more minor note, it's hinted that the magic of the wardrobe in The Lion is not down to the quality of its wood (as we discover in The Magician’s Nephew), but rather the mysterious nature of the house in which it’s situated. As Lewis says: “This house of the Professor’s ... was the sort of house that is mentioned in guide books and even histories; and well it might be, for all manner of stories were told about it, some even stranger than the one I am telling you now.”

Wow, seriously? Stranger than this one?

Later the children are shepherded into the wardrobe by mysterious force that seems to be inherent in the house itself (as opposed to the wardrobe): “whether it was they had lost their heads, or Mrs Macready was trying to catch them, or that some magic in the house had come alive and was trying to chase them into Narnia, they seemed to find themselves being chased everywhere...”

Even Pauline Baynes's illustrations get in on the act. Tell me, have you ever seen another of her depictions of Aslan in which he takes this stance?

In grappling with all these contradictions, you can at least do yourself the favour of putting as much distance as you can between the two books that are most at odds with each other in regards to continuity (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Magician’s Nephew) by reading them in publishing order.

As it happens, both reasons as to why The Lion should be read first (the odd anachronisms and the power of a prequel) are embodied in the book’s inclusion of the lamp-post. I’ve heard some chronology-fans argue that The Magician’s Nephew has to come first, as it explains the existence of the lamp-post in The Lion.

Gah! No!

The first time around, the iconic lamp-post glowing in the middle of the woods needs no justification. It’s an inexplicable landmark, one which is glorious in its inexplicability.  A lamp-post. In a snowy wood. Alight. No explanations necessary.

I wish I could go back to a time when I was unaware of the hows and whys of this lamp-post’s existence. Its quiet mystery reminds me of a piece of writing in Cyril Beaumont's The Mysterious Toyshop that ends with the enticing phrase: “perhaps even the will o’ the wisps are in town”. Even as a child I recognised that the power of this passage lay in the fact that I didn’t know what will o’ the wisps were – only that the mention of them sent a chill down my spine.

I actively avoided trying to find out what the words meant; I limited my re-reading of the passage in case the magic was lost. Years passed, and having inadvertently discovered the definition of  ignis fatuus, I returned to Beaumont to see if the term "will 'o the wisp" still held their power. Sure enough, I didn't get that spine-tingle. I knew too much.

So let the mystery of the lamp-post last as long as you are able, as I know that one day I’m going to read this book to my nephew and envy him his first discovery of that wonderfully unfathomable lamp-post.

In which I ask: Fairy Tale or Religious Allegory?

The slightly different tone and atmosphere that's apparent in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not just down to the anachronisms and inconsistencies scattered throughout, it's in the way Narnia is portrayed. 

Though there are a couple of mentions in The Lion of the Lone Isles (which are not visited properly until The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and Tumnus talks of “the Wild Woods of the West” that lie beyond the lamp-post, for the most part Narnia itself seems very small and self-contained.

In this book the stars are described, but the constellations are not named. Borders are hinted at, but there is no map by Pauline Baynes to accompany the geography. Human beings are treated as a species entirely alien to Narnia, even though (as we learn in The Horse and His Boy) Calormene is already a large and thriving empire.

Of course, all this is perfectly natural for a first book in a series. Things start out small, only for the rest of the series to delve deeper into world-building, establishing other countries and terrains; portraying Narnia as one small part of a much larger world.

In this regard, the scope of the other books puts them in the fantasy genre. Lewis's sub-created world (as Tolkien would put it) is described in more extensive detail. Boundaries are put in place. Rules are set up and stuck to. Things like internal consistency and cross-book continuity are adhered to.

But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is pure fairy tale, and though the difference between fantasy and fairy tale is subtle, it underscores why The Lion doesn’t feel quite as in-sync with the rest of the series.

It’s in the way Lewis uses Narnia to describe certain phenomena. When Father Christmas appears we're told: “Everyone knew him because, even though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door." At the children’s first meeting with Aslan, we learn: “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.”

In this book Narnia feels more or less synonymous with Fairyland, what with its hodgepodge of magical creatures, its funny anachronisms, and the way it plays by its own rules of time and space and meaning. Here Narnia is not a country but an entire world, and not just a world, but a state of mind - or to be more precise, a standard to which we can compare our own world.

Lewis speaks of it as though it’s a place of heightened emotion, truth and virtue by dint of it simply being Narnia. It’s imbued with rules and devices that make no real sense outside the context of its own existence: not only the umbrella and sewing machine, but also the idea that four siblings can be joint-monarchs, that a sacrifice can be undone with Deeper Magic, and that its inhabitants are somehow well-aware of who Adam and Eve are, even though they're figures in an entirely different world's religion.

There are other little ways in which The Lion differs from the other six books: the narrator feels a lot more overt in this volume, constantly addressing the reader and referencing the book itself, with lines such as “this lasted longer than I can describe, even if I wrote pages and pages about it” and “I hope no one who reads this book has been quite and miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night” and “other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups probably would not let you read this book”.

It’s also a remarkably short book (Lucy reaches Narnia six pages in, and the final chapter encompasses the entirety of the Pevensie's reign before they're dumped back through the wardrobe) and a rather oddly structured one as well: the Beavers more-or-less disappear from the story as soon as the children reach Aslan's pavilion, the insane time-jump ignores whatever psychological/emotional trauma might have occurred on both sides of the wardrobe after the Pevensies return home (seriously, how did the Narnians react when their rulers just disappeared one day and never returned?), and as soon as Aslan shows up, he takes over as the book’s protagonist, renderings the children rather obsolete (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just an odd thing).

Which of course, brings us to its Christian subtext.

We all remember the day we realized that Aslan was analogous to Christ. For me it was browsing through a Guide to Narnia (or something) at the local bookstore, one which didn’t spell it out exactly, but which gave coy hints such as “who else turns up at Christmas time?” and “who else has a father that could be described as an Emperor?”

The penny dropped. My mind was blown. My little eleven year old self looked around the bookshop, desperate to share what I'd just learnt.

But I have another bone to pick with those that refer to The Lion (or indeed, any of the books) as a religious allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious allegory, in which a Christian travels through various cities that represent the sins of mankind. Animal Farm is a political allegory, one in which all the animals and their situation align with Communist Russia.

The Chronicles of Narnia are something very different, and the best way to illustrate this is to simply describe the books as if they WERE religious allegory. In them Christ (Aslan) sacrifices himself to Satan (the White Witch) in order to save the life of Judas (Edmund) to prevent the world (Narnia) from being overturned with fire and water.

Quite obviously, that's not what went down in the Bible.

The thing is, Aslan isn’t meant to represent Christ – he IS Christ, albeit in a different body in a different world. What happens in Narnia regarding Aslan’s death/resurrection on the Stone Table isn’t a retelling of Christ’s death/resurrection on the cross; it’s a reflection of it, one in which Lewis takes certain components of the Biblical narrative and tweaks them in order to fit his own fairy tale: Aslan’s lonely walk to the Stone Table (like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane), his execution and resurrection (on a Stone Table instead of a cross), the presence of females as the witnesses of his return to life (Lucy and Susan standing in for Mary Magdalene and her companions).

The differences are far more profound. Here the sacrifice is just to save one traitorous young boy, not to wipe out the collective sins of mankind. Aslan is dead only for a single night, not three. And of course, what passes for a Satanic figure (the White Witch) is a much more of a central figure in Christ's death - its inception and its carrying out.

(And it all makes you wonder how many times across how many worlds the Son of God has had to die horribly for humanity’s screw-ups).

The point I’m trying to make with all this is that in classifying The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, you have to be careful what words you chose. It’s not an allegory, and it’s not strictly a fantasy either.

More than anything else, it feels like a fairy tale, one that borrows extensively from Biblical lore and pagan mythologies, but which ultimately contains all the prerequisites of a fairy tale: vague world-building, arbitrary rules, geographical self-containment, and characters who are (at this point) more archetypes than actual people – extremely vivid and evocative archetypes, but still rather one-dimensional.

None of this is meant to sound as though they’re bad things. Indeed, it’s all of the above qualities that make The Lion so special, even among the rest of The Chronicles of Narnia. As Lewis said in one of his most haunting phrases (when asked where his inspiration for certain characters came from) “we are born knowing the witch, aren’t we?”

He was speaking of the power of archetypes, of all those universally recognised characters – and by this point, the images that this particular story conjure up are as deeply ingrained in Western children’s literature as the boy who never grew up, the yellow brick road, the mute little mermaid, and the wooden puppet whose nose grows when he lies. Though all of these are the work of singular authors, each of them have inched toward, if not merged into, the huge body of older fairy tales found in the oral tradition.

As such, Lewis’s image of a faun scurrying through a forest with an umbrella and an armful of parcels sits alongside the girl in the red hood, a pair of glass slippers and a frog with a crown upon his head (at least in my mind), for I can’t remember a time when it didn’t inhabit a fundamental part of my imagination. A lamp-post in a snowy wood has always been an important landmark. Turkish Delight has always been analogous to temptation. Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve have always been viable monikers for men and women. The golden lion and the white witch (with her black hair and red lips) have always represented good and evil. Wardrobes have always contained the possibility of a world contained within their depths.

All that is what makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a fairy tale.

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