Landscapes to walk in

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?

 

C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004

seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
and theology

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect.

Successful novels, and by extension successful novel sequences, should work on many levels to be satisfying. Characterisation must be high on the list, plotting of course should be there, and the creation of a world that one can imagine being in or being a part of must surely also be a sine qua non. Much has been said of Lewis’ moralising, his avuncular or even patronising tone, about his hidden agendas, but I won’t go over what has already been written about in depth and more authoritatively than I can manage. So what I will touch on is characterisation, plotting and creation of a universe.

As the sequence progressed I continued to be disappointed by the ciphers that were the Pevensie children. Yes, they change as they grow older but not into the rounded adults that either other adults or, more importantly, young readers might expect and hope for. They had some individuality but I did not find them engaging. If, as the recent study Planet Narnia suggests, much of the characterisation and action is suggested by Christian planetary astrology, I sense that much of what goes on is almost predeterministic while appearing on the surface to be childish whimsy.

Plotting seemed at times to me to be rudimentary, lacking the richness of, say, his contemporary Tolkien, and frequently individual books seemed to come to a end with a suddenness like an antique deus ex machina denouement. As I came to the final pages of each book I felt I’d been given candy floss to eat: tasty but insubstantial, and not very nutritious.

Last but not least, a sense of place: this, for me, was the most successful part of Lewis’ creation, the geography of Narnia. Here were landscapes I could imagine walking in, and while relative distances (at least according to Pauline Baynes’ maps) were hard to gauge, the lands of The Horse and his Boy and The Silver Chair often felt real if at times nightmarish.

I might give the sequence a second chance in the future, but on a first reading (admittedly as an adult) I was largely disengaged and unsatisfied, and it is with a great sense of regret that I say so.

When I first reviewed the Chronicles, in August 2012, I had yet to read Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. Will this  2008 study change my view of Lewis’s fantasy? The next post will reveal all

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10 thoughts on “Landscapes to walk in

  1. Alas, I am in no position to comment, having read the Narnia tales young and come to know them as a child. I have never considered that they never develop, and this is true. I have always valued the metaphors in Lewis. So strong they embody concepts which can’t be easily pinned down. But they are always teaching opportunities for Lewis, I think. Must re-read a few snatches.

  2. Yes, I found the didacticism an obstacle, especially the tales’ role as Christian allegory.

    I was strongly reminded that not every reader or filmgoer recognises the Narnia tales as allegory when I spotted an inspirational flyer showing an African lion in the snow; the accompanying text (“As Aslan died for Edmund, so Christ died for us”) seemed to suggest that either the copywriter hadn’t understood Aslan’s role as an allegory of Christ or that they wilfully played on others’ ignorance of one of the purposes of Lewis’ creation.

  3. I think you are right, and yet they hold utter magic for me. Why?
    You know, I rather think that the shortcomings we now see were advantages to the young. It didn’t burdon one with undue complexity, and the characters are sufficiently drawn for a child’s imagination to fill in all the gaps desired to be filled, if any. The situations were truly ones which one lived and revelled in, from the magic of the wardrobe on.
    Then, I think that once stories have attained that kind of hold, they simply keep it. Emotion overrides intellect.

    1. Having trained as a classical musician and now teaching piano I never underestimate emotion over intellect. I can analyse and apply technique and musicianship but, ultimately, in performance there has to be that heart-felt emotion, that gut feeling, that communication of what the music is expressing, to convey melancholy or to uplift you.

      You’re right, Col, the young aren’t burdened with the mechanics, they only know whether they want right to triumph, the good to prosper, right actions to be repaid in kind. My daughter has my copy of the Chronicles which she’s reading to her sons, and they absolutely love it. Any allegory or intellectualisation goes straight over their heads. And so it should.

  4. It’s a shame that your first reading of the series was in adulthood. There’s no doubt that Lewis’ stories resonate more with young children than adults. From my own childhood experience, I absolutely loved The Chronicles Of Narnia; they more than any other books ignited my passion for fantasy.
    I recently got e-book editions of the series so that I can re-read them again as an adult. The last time I read them was over 20 years ago, so it will be interesting to discover if they retain the same “magic” that they possessed when I was a kid.

    1. I’ve a feeling I must have read ‘ The Lion etc’ as a child before seeing the BBC tv series of it because it all seemed familiar watching it on the screen and remembering what a mess, plotwise, it had seemed to me. I think as a child I must have been hard to please, and perhaps that’s stayed with me as an adult as far as the Chronicles as a whole are concerned! My bad I suppose…

  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    The Narnia books are deeply flawed, indeed. Yet as so many have mentioned, they formed an indelible part of my childhood reading experience and a true gateway to magic. A curious example of the alchemy of literature and growing up. If you can bear to think about them any more, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles has a very interesting and thoughtful series of posts about re-reading them as an adult, which is appreciative but also fully cognizant of their faults.

    1. Thanks for the pointer, Lory, I look forward to exploring those posts. The Planet Narnia study was certainly enlightening about the Narniad’s broad and popular appeal as well as that underpinning theology. In my review I will definitely have problems, not with knowing what to include, but with deciding what points to miss out! (I’m still mulling it over in my mind, as you can guess.)

  6. I must admit, the books bored me as a young reader for the very reasons you point out. The children seemed less substantial as characters and more like vehicles that drive the story. I have never felt the need for a second trip.

    1. I just might revisit Narnia once again, Sari, after Ward’s book, but only once more.

      I’m just watching a BBC TV doc about Lewis by the biographer A N Wilson — some interesting perspectives on Lewis but I still don’t find him attractive as a person, nor do I share his and Tolkien’s view of Christianity as the myth that ‘just happens to be true’.

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