Doing sums

© C A Lovegrove

At the start of August I outlined my bookish plans for that month which, even at the time, seemed quite ambitious. How did I do, I hear you all cry. (Not.) Here’s a quick update, my original schedule now annotated in green (for those seeing text in colour.)

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Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.

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Susan of Narnia: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”


“Grown-up, indeed. I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Jill and Polly ¹

In successive books of the Narniad Susan Pevensie, Queen of Narnia, also known as Susan the Gentle and Susan of the Horn, slides from grace to such a degree that she is no longer considered a “friend of Narnia”. The consequence of this is that in The Last Battle she is not in the fatal train crash that ensures her siblings go “further up and further in” to enter the “true” Narnia.

In many ways this seems dreadfully unfair on the poor girl – not only is she not to know the joy of entering Aslan’s Country with the others, but she is to be left without a family. And this for many readers feels like a betrayal.

What is the reason Lewis denies Susan her reward at this stage, the culmination of his grand design? Do the persistent rumours, that he planned to write a further volume entitled Susan of Narnia, have any foundation in fact? Or is there a practical reason why she’s not on the roll call of the Friends of Narnia?

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Twilight: #Narniathon21

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For many readers The Last Battle in C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is either a triumph or a letdown. I’ve already given some of my thoughts on its successes and failures in a review, and intend later to look at Lewis’s vision of the world of Narnia as depicted in the previous six chronicles, before going on to that final Narnia which is further up and further in.

Lewis as usual draws his imagery and his themes from several sources: the Bible – of course – but also from myth and medieval cosmology, from history and archaeology, and from his favourite reading in childhood as well as academia.

In this post I intend discussing the aspects that naturally interest me, leaving those points that interest readers with a theological bent for them to expound on. In a future post, along with the several Narnias I’d like to examine the issue of the Pevensie child who never returned to Narnia and hopefully come to some conclusions regarding Susan; but now I want to consider Puzzle, Tash, and the end of Narnia.

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The dream ends: #Narniathon21

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The Last Battle: A Story for Children
by C S Lewis,
Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books, 1964 (1956)

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

16: ‘Farewell to Shadowlands’

A bitter disappointment or a valedictory farewell? A heavy-handed religious allegory or an exciting yarn embellished by an array of symbols and motifs? A betrayal of the reader’s innocent trust or a fitting conclusion to a saga that could only end one way after much signposting? The Last Battle is all these and more, though depending on the reader’s point of view they may lean more towards the former assessments than the latter.

What’s clear to me though is that my second read of this final instalment of the Narniad has adjusted my previous attitude to both it and the entire sequence, leading to a more charitable judgement; that’s not to say that there aren’t infelicities and missteps – the prejudicial racial stereotypes being the most obvious – but any fair review would also point out the positives, of which there are many.

The upshot of this re-evaluation is that The Last Battle can be seen as not just an amalgam of the Apocalypse, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Armageddon and the end of the Golden Age ruled by Cronos or Saturn: it also reflects the attributes of the twins Epimetheus and Prometheus (“Hindsight” and “Foresight”) in that it looks back to all that had gone before as well as anticipating what is to come.

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A rebel angel

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

The Question Mark
by Muriel Jaeger.
Introduction by Jo Moulton.
British Library Science Fiction Classics, 2019 (1926).

“You are the natural rebel, the Satanist—one of those unfortunates born with inverted instincts. Your necessity is to attack and to suffer. You may not know it, but, whatever your circumstances, you would seek out suffering. […] In no place nor time would you be at home. You are he who goes up and down upon the earth and to and fro on it.” — John Wayland to Guy Martin.

Chapter X, v.

Guy Martin is in a dead-end job in London in the 1920s, disappointed in love and feeling a great ennui for the world he lives in. In a moment of desperation he goes to his room, lies down and wills himself to enter a trance, a kind of akinetic catatonia or coma, which allows his consciousness to withdraw from the world. And then…

And then, after what seems to be an out-of-body experience, he finds himself apparently waking in the 22nd century in a kind of Utopia – literally ‘Nowhere’ – where energy is free, technology is beyond all 20th-century imagining, and labour is not only minimal but optional for many. Introduced to his new way of living by the Wayland family, he believes all is perfect, a socialist dream where all have access to whatever they need or want.

But all is not perfect in this future England, and Guy finds that neither human nature nor society adapt well to an idealised system, and especially a oerson such as himself who has existed in and experienced the Depression of the twenties. What will his reaction be to this growing realisation?

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#Narniathon21: Farewell?

Durham Cathedral sanctuary knocker

The Chronicles of Narnia come to a conclusion with The Last Battle, a title which raises strong feelings in readers, not all of them good. And theoretically we come to an end with our #Narniathon21 – though as I’ve already indicated there is a chance to extend it, for those for whom the sudden dissipation of magic is too painful!

As with the previous titles in the septad I shall pose three questions for you to consider, though as usual you are free to ignore them in any comments you may wish to add below; either way, your reactions and opinions will be of huge interest – especially for this, often regarded as the most problematic of the Narniad.

There is no rush for you to join the discussion, particularly if you have yet to finish (or indeed to start) The Last Battle; but do, if you want, add links to your own reviews or discussions, or add pointers to related literature you’ve come across that may add to our appreciation and enjoyment!

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Jack and Daisy: #Narniathon21

Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Split, 1764

[Amabel] went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle. ‘I expect it’s only shelves and people’s best hats,’ she said. Of course it wasn’t hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars…

E Nesbit, ‘The Aunt and Amabel’

Having previously reviewed The Magician’s Nephew (1955) – but in advance of a scheduled review of E Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906) – I now want to discuss C S Lewis’s indebtedness, both generally and specifically, to his predecessor for not only details but also his general approach to the Chronicles of Narnia.

Not the least of his indebtedness is to Nesbit’s story ‘The Aunt and Amabel’ in The Magic World, in which a well-meaning little girl goes through a wardrobe to a place called Whereyouwantogoto and meets The People Who Understand – does this not sound a teensy bit familiar? I also want to enlarge a bit on aspects of the themes which Lewis introduces to The Magician’s Nephew that weren’t borrowed from Nesbit but yet which mattered enough for him to include in the novel. (When I say “a bit” it appears I mean “quite a lot”. Sorry about that.)

And here, as an aside, I shall just mention in passing other titles that play on aspects of Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, namely Diana Wynne Jones’s The Homeward Bounders (1981) which heads in a very different direction from that which Lewis took, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic (1954) which while very much sharing Nesbit’s sympathy for the child also involves some North American children discovering a mysterious talisman not unlike the amulet.

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When books beckon

10 Books of Summer 746books.com

1st June. As summer beckons Cathy (of https://746books.com/) encourages – nay, entices – us to select 10, 15, or 20 books to complete over three months.

I usually shilly-shally over this, not because I don’t think I’ll get through any of these amounts – on past form that’s never a problem – but because I am a notoriously fickle reader, relying on the whim of the moment to decide which title I fancy at any given time.

But it’s good to commit to a wishlist, is it not, whether or not I actually get round to read them all, or indeed any of them! Herewith then that list of ten, which may expand to fifteen or even twenty before summer’s end.

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#Narniathon21: the apple orchard

Louis Tiffany window design

It’s #Narniathon21 discussion time again, and we’re now considering the sixth Narniad title, The Magician’s Nephew (1955) even though this is now placed first in the chronological order publishers advertise.

You’ll know the drill now. I pose three general questions about the book. You either answer them or ignore them, should you choose to comment. You may also, whenever it suits, post a link to a review or discussion you’ve posted.  I’ll endeavour to respond to every one.

Then you have a month to read and consider The Last Battle, the last title to be published and the conclusion of the saga. If you’re having withdrawal symptoms there’s a further option to consider Katherine Langrish’s From Spare Oom to War Drobe, her adult response to her childhood obsession with the Narniad, including a detailed look at each of the titles.

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A quicksilver tale: #Narniathon21

As I promised in a previous post I shall be examining the taint of alleged racism that C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy has acquired, and ascertaining if it’s justified. I also promised to look at the planetary aspect by which this novel is ruled, according to Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, namely Mercury, which seems to go towards determining Lewis’s overall schema for the Narniad.

But I shall start by also briefly (?) mentioning novels that reveal a glancing relationship with some of this novel’s characteristics.

Note that there’ll be spoilers. Also that most links here will take you to one of my reviews or threads. And now, farther up and farther in!

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Rich in themes: #Narniathon21

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Lewis mines material from his own huge learning, drawing on theology, Renaissance geography, myth, folktales, medieval writings, and even earlier children’s books…

Diana Wynne Jones (2012:48)

Where fans of Narnia are concerned The Horse and His Boy (1954) doesn’t rate as highly among their favourites as others in the series (though usually, it must be admitted, higher than The Last Battle). For many this instalment has issues surrounding racial and/or cultural stereotypes, intermixed with disappointment for some that the expected protagonists take a back seat in the narrative and the action.

However, in common with the previously published titles The Horse and His Boy is rich in themes and motifs which C S Lewis borrowed freely from literature, mythology and folklore.

In this, perhaps overlong, post I want to consider some of these influences, leaving discussion of the issues and of Lewis’s overarching schema to another time. Is it needful to say then that there will be plenty of spoilers ahead?

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May (of course) be with you

Today is May Day – Beltane in Ireland and Scotland and Calan Haf (“the first day of summer”) in Wales – and a joyful celebration of new life and hope for the future. Consequently Brona of BronasBooks.com is running a reading and blogging event called Understanding Ukraine: I Stand for Peace focused on Ukraine, an excellent way in which we can to a small degree show solidarity with that poor country.

Needless to say I shall be joining in, and hope you may consider it too. I’m currently doing a slow read of a brief collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories: he was a famous son of what was then called Little Russia and which now is once again officially Ukraine.

Then I shall look out for other titles with a Ukrainian connection: as luck would have it I already have a collection of children’s stories (based on a character called Dunno) by Ukrainian-born Nikolai Nosov which my father gave me in the early 60s, so I may well go for those next, and then see what follows.


#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

Narniathon21 continues to wend its way with a discussion of the sixth chronicle, The Magician’s Nephew, scheduled for Friday 27th May. Though I’ve already reviewed this relatively recently, with some related discussion posts, I’m looking forward to a third read in the context of its position in the Narniad publishing order as well as posting discussion of The Horse and His Boy.

After this April past, when I seem to have already read a lot of fantasy – principally Tolkien and C S Lewis – for me the merry month of May also looks to be focused on this genre with the fifth annual Wyrd & Wonder read hosted by a cohort of avid readers.


Wyrd & Wonder 22: tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com

As well as the usual Narnia business I have a few other works in mind for this annual event – though what I actually read and comment on will be as much a surprise to me as to you! But it will include some ruminations on Volume 3 of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, and whatever fantasy titles fall off the shelves at me. I suspect there’ll mostly be children’s fantasy – some classic, others more contemporary – landing in my lap…

Thanks to Imyril and others listed on Twitter under the handle WyrdandWonder for hosting this event, even if I shall be following my own nose for what I read instead of consciously taking part in their prompts.

© C A Lovegrove

But … please, people, don’t set up any more tempting memes / events / challenges – I’ve got enough already on my plate!

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My own meme for short story collections to be read

#Narniathon21: equine friends

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms
Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms (Sawrey Gilpin, 1769)

We’re really galloping through the Chronicles of Narnia in our Narniathon readalong, and have now arrived at the fifth published volume, The Horse and His Boy.

Below are the usual trio of prompt questions to get you started on a discussion … should you need them! Feel free to go off at a tangent if there are different points to raise or issues you want to discuss.

As ever I look forward to a lively response to this instalment, frequently cited as readers’ least favourite – but of course you may disagree and want to put up a spirited defence!

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Talking beasts: #Narniathon21

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The Horse and His Boy
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2009 (1954).

With its quizzical title – how exactly does an equine creature somehow own a boy? – the fifth book in the Narnia sequence proves itself a bit of a puzzle but, luckily, also offers unsought delights, unspotted during a first read. How unspotted? Probably because mild prejudice blinded me as to this instalment’s merits.

And that prejudice? Twofold, I think: as a first-time adult Narniad reader I could only see painful proselytising and xenophobic slights; now I have a more nuanced view of the text, one where I switch back and forth between young and old eyes, revealing a novel which is more deserving of my admiration than derision.

The puzzle of course comes with an opening where, unexpectedly, we don’t start with youngsters from 1940s England but are thrown straight into a story seemingly straight out of the Arabian Nights. Reader, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Narnia anymore.

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