Narnia revisited

Cair Paravel, by Pauline Baynes

Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1962 (1951)

It is a year after the events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and  Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter are waiting at a train station to go to their respective boarding schools for the summer term. Suddenly they find themselves in a thicket, and after extricating themselves from that they discover that they’re on an island amid some castle ruins.

Clearly they’re back in the magical world of Narnia — but why and, in particular, when? Because they soon work out that this is Cair Paravel where they reigned as sovereign queens and kings, but the castle’s ruinous state suggests that much time has passed, certainly more than the year since they’d been evacuated to the Professor’s house back (we may assume) in 1940, or even 1944.

And then they see a boat with two soldiers in chainmail about to drown a dwarf, and by rescuing him they are precipitated into a sequence of actions when they hear the story of Prince Caspian and the dire straits he and the Old Narnians are in.

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#Narniathon21: Back to Narnia

© C A Lovegrove

Narniathoners! Here we are again, with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy back on Narnia soil, called back by the sounding of Susan’s horn. But all is not as it should be, is it, as the Pevensie children soon find out after emerging from a thicket.

Our Narniathon now takes us to the second of C S Lewis’s chronicles, Prince Caspian, published in 1951 a year after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As before I shall pose three general questions which you can answer or evade, depending on what you may want to say.

And as ever, feel free to to share here and elsewhere on social media your thoughts or your reviews, your favourite quotes or your photos, remembering to include the hashtag #Narniathon21 to let like-minded readers in on it all.

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The last Lightning

Nine Lightning F1 of No 74 Squadron RAF display at the 1961 SBAC show, Farnborough. Photo credit: TSRL

Thunder and Lightnings
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jim Russell.
Puffin Books 1978 (1976).

‘I wonder if that was the last Lightning of all,’ said Andrew.
‘Well, if that wasn’t, that ought to have been. What a way to go out, eh?’

Chapter 17

This is a tale of oddballs, obsessions and, to some extent, opposites. It is also a well observed sketch of friendship, of the inevitability of change, and of being comfortable with being who you are.

Two schoolboys in 1980s Norfolk are thrown together with nothing to suggest they have anything in common except being outsiders in their school, Andrew whose family are incomers and Victor who would be possibly be identified now as having learning difficulties.

And yet there is more to either than appears on the surface, and they will have more in common than their social backgrounds and familial aspirations would suggest, bonded at first by Victor’s obsession with English Electric Lightning warplanes and then by a comfortable companionship. And yet that easy companionship may be tested by matters outside their control.

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The Ents of Entwood

Bluebell wood near Crickhowell, Wales © C A Lovegrove

Among the hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and men in Middle-earth which readers now take for granted in The Lord of the Rings strides an even more curious figure: the guardian (‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’, as he’s referred to) of the trees of Fangorn forest, whose own name, synonymous with the woodland, translates as Treebeard.

How we picture him may owe much to the Peter Jackson film trilogy (2001-3) from the turn of the century, while older cinema fans may remember Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Treebeard (1978); but the fact is that however differently these image-makers have depicted him, even Tolkien himself wasn’t initially clear about either Treebeard’s appearance or even role.

So it’s a shock to find that he was first revealed to Tolkien as an evil figure in league with Saruman, and then when we first meet him in the published text to discover he may have an appearance which depends as much on the reader’s imagination as on film directors’ visions.

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As symbolic as realistic

Katla eruption, 1918

Moonstone: the boy who never was
by Sjón (Sigurjón B Sigurðsson).
Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til (2013)
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Sceptre 2016.

Reykjavik has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life: a fact he would not confide to anyone.

Chapter XIX

This wonderful heartfelt novella leaves a lasting impression of a couple of months in the Icelandic capital as winter approached at the end of 1918. Through the life of Máni Steinn Karlsson — the boy who never was — we the readers experience a tumultuous epoch in history, affecting millions around the world but in such different ways; and Sjón’s writing, using short chapters and the historic present tense, has an immediacy and vividness that both appalls and attracts as it draws us in: it’s not for the squeamish.

Although written in 2013, Moonstone remains strangely relevant in 2022. My reading of it in the middle of a global pandemic also coincides with the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano on the Pacific Ring of Fire, both of which events echo the arrival of influenza in Iceland, scant days after the explosive eruption of Katla, which forms the background of the novella.

This is stark writing capturing the bleakness of life a century ago, a monochrome diorama shot through with flashes of colour, especially red. But instead of creating distance, as can be the case with some historical fiction, the author includes a kind of epilogue which makes it clear that this story is of personal significance and importance: in an interview he emphasises that it contains “the untold stories of my gay friends and the shadowy existence they were forced to live until recently.”

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A tall story about devilry

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

That Hideous Strength
by C S Lewis.
Pan Books 1955 (1945).

“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”

C S Lewis, ‘The New York Times Book Review’, 18th November, 1956

Composed during the war years, when That Hideous Strength was finally published in 1945 it was subtitled ‘A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’. In his original preface Lewis declared that he “called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled,” before finally characterising it as “a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”

The following year when Lewis abridged it for a new edition it was retitled The Tortured Planet, presumably to make clear its association with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. When that same abridgement then appeared in a new 1955 paperback edition it had resumed its original title and included another preface by the author in which he confessed:

In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace — I would not wish even ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Faerie Queene’ any shorter — but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.

All of which is noted as a preamble to saying that the transformations the novel went through in its first few years are as nothing compared to the complexity that C S Lewis aimed to incorporate in his “fairy-tale for grown-ups”. It contains moralising, it’s true, but it’s also a thriller, a science fantasy, and a repository of ancient myths and legends.

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Big issues

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve noticed an interesting trend — if trend it is — in my reading of late, and it is this. Many of the titles I’ve  consciously or unconsciously chosen seem to have an ‘issue’ at their heart, whether racism, feminism, authoritarianism, environmentalism or some other pressing concern.

Sometimes there’s more than one of these, implicit or explicit, expressed as a factor that one could call the ‘inciting incident’, or as an injustice simmering away till everything boils over.

So, whether the choice of title turns out to be conscious or unconscious two questions rise to my mind. One, is there a reason (or more likely, are there reasons) for this to be the case, if it hasn’t always been so; second, is it a trend other bloggers have noticed?

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Amy’s angst

Illustration by David Parkins

Trouble Half-way
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by David Parkins.
Puffin Books 1986 (1985).

Amy Calver is a girl trapped by her fears and anxieties. She lives in Gravesend, Kent, but it might as well be the world’s end for all the familiarity she has with life outside this southeast corner of England. Her only interest is participating in gymnastics, and life will be rosy if and when she gets a chance to compete in the immanent Thames and Medway Inter-Schools Junior Gymnastic Shield event.

But, as a reserve on the school team, her happiness hangs in the balance when a phone call announces that her grandfather has been taken to hospital, followed by her mother and younger sister going off to keep her grandmother company. She is left with her new stepfather, Richard Ermins, and not only is she not at all comfortable with him as an addition to the family but, since he is a long-distance lorry driver concerned about losing a week’s work and pay, there’s every chance he will not want to leave her on her own.

So her anxieties, already sky-high when she knows that as a reserve she may miss out from actually competing, rocket ever higher when she realises that she may have to leave her familiar environment and travel ‘Up North’ with Richard.

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An uncertain future

© C A Lovegrove

The World According to Anna
by Jostein Gaarder.
Anna. En fabel om klodens klima og miljø, 2013,
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015.

When the original subtitle of a novel reads “a fable about the earth’s climate and environment” then you know there’s a lesson being offered. Though fables are usually defined as short stories with a human moral featuring animal characters, Jostein Gaarder’s tale is longer than most such fables, and its moral features the animals as victims of humanity’s dubious morality.

With any literary fable there is a worry that increased length may affect effective storytelling, with the moral risking being the tail that wags the dog. Gaarder doesn’t always successfully maintain the balance, I feel, but he does it with style and evident passion and furnished this reader at least with much to think about.

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Still relevant

Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940
by George S Schuyler.
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2021 (1931).

[Dr Crookman] was naively surprised that there should be opposition to his work. Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined people to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

Chapter Three

Imagine if an innovative process involving “glandular control and electrical nutrition” became available, allowing those with a dark skin pigment to become as pale as a majority white population; how many would take advantage of that process and what effect, if any, would that have?

A black US journalist, George Schuyler, did imagine just that in 1930, demonstrating in this, his sharp dystopian satire, a humorous and cynical approach that was underpinned by a realistic grasp of human weaknesses. Interestingly, it appeared just before a major shift in American politics when under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms the Democratic Party became more socially liberal while the Republicans established themselves firmly as the party of the right.

But what hasn’t changed is human nature, along with the doublethink that still holds sway, especially in the US, all of which makes Schuyler’s narrative so relevant to our contemporary world and its societies ninety years on.

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A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

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