Friday, August 11, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 1: The Chronicles of Narnia, By C. S. Lewis

So, I’m starting another series on this blog. But don’t worry; this time I have a backlog built up, so I can actually keep to some kind of update schedule. This series is about the books I read, or in some cases had read to me, that opened up my mind to the fantastic, the ones that crawled inside my head and never left. This is about the books I can’t help thinking of, the ones that shaped my thinking and imagination long before I thought I might write something of my own one day.

I’m going to start with Narnia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was probably not the first non-picture book read to me, but is the first one I can easily conjure memories of hearing from my mother. I’m not sure if any of those memories are of the first reading, when I was six or seven. All of those books, with the partial exception of The Last Battle, were read and re-read so many times at my demand that each repetition must be blurred into a dozen others in my mind. Our editions had some little illustrations in places, and I can bring up the tournament ring from Prince Caspian with perfect clarity as I type this, with the two fighters bent forward in improbable fencing stances, and the bear dozing and sucking his paws at his corner of the ropes. Fixed images of scenes litter my memory, and only a few are from the illustrations.

I never really cared about the Pevensies very much, or Eustace and Polly. The social dynamic of siblings so close in age, or children attending an English boarding school, were completely alien to me, and most of the time spent developing the children was on the bad ones’ failings so that they could be redeemed. I rarely identified with children in books as a child. I was there for the world and the magical creatures in it, for Tumnus and Mister Beaver, Prince Caspian and Reepicheep, Bree, and dear despondent Puddleglum. I was there for the expanse of green, the sharp mountains and the deep forests and swell of heat off a desert just wide enough to divide one world from another.

I remember that The Magician’s Nephew was always the most frightening, because it brought the villain into the real world. Jadis’ cruelty was much more shocking there on the streets of London, because it didn’t seem of a piece with the world. When she covered Narnia in eternal winter, that was only natural, an expected part of a place that had fauns and centaurs and great battles and chivalry and magic. In our world, just being cruel and strong and uncaring was enough to shock. Injury or death were real there, not like the distant dream through the wardrobe door.

In my mind, it is the journey books, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, that loom largest, with The Horse and His Boy next behind. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is fundamental, but the visions of a wider world that those books showed me were the most affecting part of the series. They had grand battle and adventure and all the trappings of medieval fantasy, but they were also fables, with the real contests being won by wit and goodness, not fighting or even grace. I loved the slow dissolving of the prosaic into the utterly fantastical as the Dawn Treader sailed farther and farther west, I loved the brief vision of an even stranger land down deep under the earth at the climax of The Silver Chair, and I loved the stops along the way, the rapacious bureaucracy of Narrowhaven, the sailors caught in enchanted sleep, giants who felt the need to be polite and deceptive before devouring their tiny guests.

From all of Narnia, it is the wonder and the majesty that stays with me. The miracle of Aslan’s resurrection, the phoenix bringing berries from the sun, the place where brine turns to sweet water and God is waiting for the faithful. I was not bothered by the insinuation of Jesus into my beloved fantasy. I got the bible along with other stories as a child, and I can’t honestly remember a time when I didn’t understand that Aslan was a stand in for the Christian God.

Narnia has never left me, and when I try to analyze the core of what has stayed, I think of two things. First, the power of stories that have a sincere commitment to teach morality without being ruined by preachy insistence. Narnia is always committed to the idea of good and evil, and it demonstrates that commitment without dictating. Second is that portal fantasy must be about the visitor and not the other world. The question is not what the magic kingdom needs from a chosen hero, but what a child from the ordinary world needs in the land of fancy.

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