Jan 11

NARNIA WEEK: Yours Is A Younger World

FT17 comments • 447 views

My favourite part of any subcreation is its edges – apocrypha, marginalia, the sketches and hints at grander unrealised designs. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is detail-rich (to say the least) but I’d linger fascinated on the Blue Wizards, or Rhun, or Far Harad: the stuff he left only as names. If anyone did fill them in I’d be mortified – this is one reason I won’t let my Doctor Who fandom take me as far as the novels, where mystery seems regularly to be given a thorough and pedantic kicking.

One of the funny things about these holes in a built world is that they work just as well – perhaps even better – if they arise from carelessness as if they’re planned. It’s a tightrope – revealing the mystery is bad, but knowing something was intended to work as a mystery can kill it for me just as surely. The Narnia series has a few of these – most of the close encounters with Aslan’s kingdom never impressed or moved me much as a kid because (I now suspect) there was too much narrative heavy-handedness around them.

But the series is also rich in moments where Lewis touches on a much vaster universe which seems all the stranger for being set against the slightly chintzy fairyland of Narnia. Tolkien apparently found fault with Lewis’ slapdash treatment of mythology in the stories but this is one of the series’ greatest assets. I read the books very young – there is a picture of me taken the summer Al was born, reading Prince Caspian; I would have been 4 and a half – and their sudden shifts in tone made pleasurable sense. Minotaurs on one page, Father Christmas on the next; jumping from the desolation of Charn to the violent slapstick of Andrew, Letty and Jadis in London.

The tedious modern reframing of Narnia-talk around the books’ Christian allegories tends to ignore this playfulness entirely. Almost alone among worldbuilders, Lewis is forever restlessly pushing at the boundaries of his own creation, and the more he does so the better the novels get. He’s impatient with Narnia itself. Pressed for a sequel to a hit children’s book, Lewis opens Prince Caspian by showing its world as a moss-covered ruin. Everyone the reader and human characters knew from that first story is dead: Lewis doesn’t make much of this fact but it’s there in the background. By his third book (publication order) he’s left Narnia behind and is sailing East. In the fourth he heads North (and Down), in the fifth South, in the sixth we hop worlds and end up at the beginning of time, and in the seventh we at last get a third whole book set in Narnia… only to see it destroyed. I don’t know how much this willingness to test his creation to destruction chimed with my tastes, and how much it shaped them.


  1. 1
    unlogged mog on 10 Jan 2011 #

    This is an interesting point and one I’ve sort of thought about but been unable to articulate myself. I also read Narnia when I was littler than its modern recommended reading age and remember being utterly unenchanted by the dull children and their twee exploits in magical lands (I’m sure it wouldn’t seem this way if I re-read it as an adult, something I’ve been meaning to do but my ability to read any wise maturity tales into it aged five was probably somewhat impaired) and completely compelled by the empty worlds. The Last Battle, especially the part about onion skins, branded itself on to my brain so much that, not having read it for going on for two decades I can still remember a lot of it off by heart. The imagery of the blank worlds in …The Magician’s Nephew, I think, was similarly appealling and fantastically visual. I’m sure it coloured my aesthetics on some level, although as you say it’s hard to say whether it hit some anxious childhood nerve-ending or became one.

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    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    Never read most of these, only know anything about the first one with the wardrobe really, may not even have read that. Impressed in a way that anyone’s read them.

    So my qualifications for nattering on Narnia are nearly nil, but even armed with those I would like to endorse Ewing’s point re “tedious modern reframing of Narnia-talk around the books’ Christian allegories”, a theme from the ILB FAP last week.

    I have long felt that people who talk about an elaborate and popular fantasy as an allegory of something else (especially when that something else is itself supposedly unintentional / unconscious) are usually going wrong. I think that the elaborate stuff of the fantasy itself is the point, and the allegory – if I wanted to send a message, I’d use Northern Rock. If I wanted children to get into religion, I’d tell them about religion, etc. Not sure that telling them the Narnia story (whatever it is) would do that job.

    Also tend to agree with Ewing’s opening thoughts on Blue Wizards and the like, though it’s decades since I’ve heard of these.

  3. 3
    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    ps / not that I know about Christianity either, but isn’t that also based on a big fantasy epic about battles, mythical beings and unbelievable events? Maybe it was an allegory of something.

    Makes me think that you could run a reductio ad absurdum of this, in which to get children into Narnia you have to make up an elaborate fantasy epic which is allegorical of it. Etc. Etc.

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    unlogged mog on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I think because Lewis’ faith was a substantial element of his writing and coloured his mechanics to a recognisable extent, there’s a horrible GCSE Cliff’s Notes temptation to go ‘and THAT is just like the bible too!’ etc. People (by which I mean Philip Pullman) have a really mindbogglingly boring tendency to further conflate Lewis’ really very distinctive personal theology with some sort of wider idea of What All Christians Believe. Although there are some bits where he becomes vaguely heavy-handed about Aslan-as-Christ it’s no more Christian than L’Etranger.

    The thing I find interesting in the Inklings work, as a whole, is the element of trauma to it. They’re obviously very worried men, full of disquiet, a part of their disrupted and wartorn world. Agitations and soothing mechanics of certainty run through both Lewis and Tolkien’s work, only to be repeatedly ripped up by their own hands as though struck with sudden concern that that might not be quite right. (Lewis does this much more than Tolkien but the obsessive twistings of the latter’s mythology are as emotionally tic-ridden as the rapid flight of the former’s)


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    Tom on 10 Jan 2011 #

    Philip P. makes a huge fuss about the God stuff as a smokescreen to distract from quite how indebted to Narnia his books are, surely! (Standard PP caveat: they are very good.) Yes I know, he is ‘critiquing’ them, in the sense of nicking all their best ideas.

    My wife’s grandfather was 1x Inkling! Not one of the famous ones, one of the ones who got hammered in the Eagle and Child with them. He did invent the word “psephology” though, apparently.

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    ^^^cosine re pullman: he is MISTER ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE in re lewis, harold bloom to thread

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    Tracer Hand on 10 Jan 2011 #

    A big part of my pleasure in reading anything as a child was the sense that I was raiding knowledge above my station; the extreme Englishness of these books just increased that pleasure for me (I think I have explained my amazement at discovering, years later, that Turkish Delight was real and could be bought from vending machines, and the even deeper amazement that it is not actually very good).

    I got the same pleasure from Mad Magazine – though written mainly for pre-teen boys its pages were full of mysterious references like “Henry Kissinger” and “Anthony Comstock”.

    Perhaps one effect of these hinted-at further universes in the Narnia books is to provide a kind of permanent mystery, a safety net of inaccessible reference points so that this pleasure still gets delivered even when the reader “knows it all”.

  8. 8

    The points — the Blue Wizards, the unexplored fact of dozens of other worlds in Magicians Nephew — are the point when the hold of the author excitingly relaxes for a moment. The reader of course loves this hold — they’ve let it keep them reading — but this is the point of handover: “My imaginative realm and dominion ends here kid; maybe this is where YOURS TAKES OVER”

    Pullman’s trilogy is very exactly an exploration of the “dozens of other worlds”, and the give-and-take of travel between them (that too much of it diminishes the enchantment).

    His rage at Lewis is really I think a deferred rage at the act of disenchantment: confronted with the idea that this adored dreamworld is actually just a crappy pedagogic device to convert the child PP, he transfers contempt for the very silly Coles-Notes reading to contempt for the thing being (mis)read. Because he has a much better misreading …

  9. 9

    Note to self: it’s rude to “point”

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    Pete on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I have explained my amazement at discovering, years later, that Turkish Delight was real and could be bought from vending machines, and the even deeper amazement that it is not actually very good).

    This is all the fault of Fry’s Turkish Delight chocolate bar which any British child knew was foul and thus Edmund’s sale of his soul was even dafter than it initially seems. However ACTUAL Turkish delight is really rather nice, as a trawl up Green Lanes of Shacklewell will prove.

  11. 11
    Tom on 10 Jan 2011 #

    Yeah exactly for 1970s children the whole scene reads as “OMG the power of the Witch she can MAKE TURKISH DELIGHT NICE”. Perhaps in Aslan’s Country Spangles are nice too.

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  13. 13
    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    don’t want to sound like an overrated rock lyric but

    I always liked Spangles

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    the pinefox on 10 Jan 2011 #

    actually I’m getting mixed up, was thinking of Opal Fruits

    but maybe did like Spangles too

  15. 15
    Pete Baran on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I quite liked Spangles too. There were much more hateable sweets around at the time, like Golden Nuggets.

    Pity CS Lewis never allowed things to evolve in Narnia, what with the time difference between here and there we could have had some Morlocks in later books.

  16. 16
    ace inhibitor on 12 Jan 2011 #

    sorry people, but mark e.smith inevitably has already had the final word on this one:

    “Balti and Vimto and Spangles
    were always crap,
    regardless of the look back bores.”
    (-‘Its a Curse’, The Fall)

    Hey, I’m just the messenger

  17. 17
    ace inhibitor on 12 Jan 2011 #

    oh, I’ve just clumsily spelled out pinefox’s witty allusion at #13, possibly. sorry about that. must read back further than one comment

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