Nov 12

Bedtime Story Watch I

The Brown Wedge/24 comments • 795 views

At the weekend I finished reading The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to my kids – audience L (almost 6) and D (3 1/2) liked it, or maybe they like the ritual of bedtime stories and found it tolerable content to fill said ritual, I dunno. My Dad thoughts follow.

This was never my favourite Narnia book as a kid – some of which was budding contrarianism and some of which was that it’s all over the place in terms of pace, plot, mood, you name it. Lewis has three stories here: the one he wants to tell, the one he insists on telling, and the one he fakes the reader out into thinking he’s telling.

The one he wants to tell – or at least, he’s best at telling – is Edmund’s failure and redemption. As a kid I disliked this element and squirmed at Edmund’s dickishness, as a parent of two boys I liked it more. “Awful Boys Who Stop Being Awful” is a story Lewis is generally drawn to – he tells it with Edmund, Eustace, Shasta and to some extent Digory (Digory can’t be as much of a knob as the others because he’s also the main protagonist and his redemption isn’t the point of the story, but he has his moments).

As a theme this isn’t without issues – “why is it always boys?” being one* – but Edmund’s version of it is the best, I think, because Lewis is very careful to lead the reader through Ed’s motivation and emotions every time he goes wrong. As a reader aloud I rather like Lewis authorial voice – friendly, conspiratorial, careless of the fourth wall – and it does a good job here of keeping the moral stakes in the story real, and less arbitrary**.

Unfortunately, of course, Edmund’s story crashes straight into the second story, the one Lewis is writing the book to tell: Aslan AKA Jesus Lion. Aslan is less passive-agressive here than in any other book, but at the expense of completely taking over the action from the supposed protagonists. It’s hard to think of a meaningful choice Peter makes anywhere in the book, for instance, which is one reason he’s so annoying. His death and resurrection, taken on its own terms, reads as a desperate plot fumble no good writer would ever go near.

Which is, of course, exactly why it works for kid listeners. It’s pure, glorious playground logic. The Witch: “I use Deep Magic From The Dawn Of Time”. The Lion: “I use Deeper Magic From BEFORE The Dawn Of Time.”. The Witch: “Whaaaat?” It’s pretty much game over in the “Is Aslan A Dick?” stakes though – his resurrection is a matter of superior legal preparation, not faith, so he surely knows he’s going to come back, and it’s dreadful to put Lucy and Susan through the agony (and personal risk) of watching the process – but at least he’s also being a dick to the villain.

A big problem with the Aslan story is that it exposes the third story – the one Lewis makes like he’s telling – as a con job. This is the story of four kids exploring and saving a magic land that you get to through a wardrobe. As mentioned, the protagonists all get sidelined by Aslan, but also the exploring ends as soon as the sides are clearly drawn, and even the central conflict is dispatched with a shrug – the Witch’s “death scene” is perhaps the least satisfying in all kid-lit***.

Does this matter for small listeners? Not really – the Witch’s death scene did disappoint, actually, because they’re already so used to three-act Hollywood storytelling. But they know a superhero when they see one, and that’s what Aslan is being here. And Lewis’ two great strengths – his lively, sensual descriptions (the book is packed with food porn, a big draw in rationing-era Britain I’d guess) and his gift for set-pieces and ideas (the wardrobe itself, the courtyard of statues, “always winter but never Christmas”) – bring them through. From memory, the more he plays down plot and theology for set-pieces, the better the Narnia books get. This one was well-received enough that I will likely get to find out.

*Susan is the second-best characterised of the kids, perhaps the best (her risk-averse sensible-ness is more subtly drawn than Edmund’s treachery) but she’s still given very little to do.

**There’s an odd bit at the end, quite unforeshadowed, where “that school” is blamed for Edmund’s problems, but intra-sibling tension explains them better.

***What DID they teach editors in those days? etc.


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Nov 2012 #

    Yes, I couldn’t even remember how the Witch died (or at whose hand), and had to look it up. It’s amazingly muffled — almost coy (“they rolled over, the witch underneath” or similar), certainly compared to Peter slaying the wolf Maugrim, which is detailed and grisly. Did he not want the Jesus-Lion to be a killing machine in tooth and claw?

    (There are on-stage deaths in every story except MN and HahB, I think: but I don’t believe Aslan ever kills anyone else…) (In VofDT a sailor falls overboard and drowns, but that’s it IIRC)

  2. 2
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Nov 2012 #

    To be fair, one of the things he is trying to get at is the speed and suddenness and sheer confusion of battle, I think, where you don’t realise what’s going on till it’s long over — so it’s a descriptive effect steamrollering a dramatic effect. But it is still an error, especially compared to the witch-death in SC or the ape Shift’s excellent exit in LB.

  3. 3
    katstevens on 27 Nov 2012 #

    Edmund is clearly the best! The unspoken side of the intra-sibling tension is interesting to theorise on: Edmund is a middle child, possibly resenting Lucy as the youngest (can get away with more, still allowed/excused to live in a fantasy world) and resenting Peter as the oldest (futile competitiveness with someone 3-5 years older than you, dislike of being ‘bossed around’). His interaction with Susan as a sibling is minimal! She either tells him off or ignores him – she may as well be his Mum. Edmund subconsciously feels he doesn’t have a ‘role’ in the family other than a Nuisance, so once he gets to Narnia that aspect of his personality is emphasised (like Susan’s resourcefulness, Peter’s leadership, Lucy’s… whining???). It’s like a DRUG do you see.

    Then there’s the free will aspect: Edmund is continually told he has to be responsible (sensible?) but he has no real power or choice in his actions – until he gets to Narnia and can have his revenge. He realises that things are going badly and it’s too late to stop it. Allegories aside, the fact that Edmund has to accept help in order to change his life is a surprisingly adult theme! He must *choose* to be good rather than being *told* to be good (Catholicism v Reformation FITE etc), though how exactly he has free will when there’s an EFFING GRATE LION stood next to him prompting his conversion… Hmm.

    It’s also pretty rare in kidlit that you have a child protagnist who is also the bad guy (Earthsea #2 is the only other one that springs to mind), so I can understand why it could be uncomfortable reading it as a kid. IIRC in Dawn Treader his post-traumic neuroses (that he’s been bottling up all the way through Prince Caspian) totally get the better of him and his past nightmares COME TRUE ONCE MORE which is also a pretty realistic ‘relapse’ (though less so in the book than the film).

  4. 4
    katstevens on 27 Nov 2012 #

    Oh man I’d forgotten about Narnia week!

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    weej on 27 Nov 2012 #

    My problem with Narnia generally is that its (admittedly rather special) delights are found on the margins and first chapters and its tedious alegories / overcooked grand narratives are dwelled upon in depth, so that the climaxes are also the worst bits.
    Still, looking forward to reading it to my kid when he’s old enough. Looking forward to reading Dahl more though, of course.

  6. 6
    Kerry on 27 Nov 2012 #

    From memory, the more he plays down plot and theology for set-pieces, the better the Narnia books get.

    This is true in my memory as well, and in reverse – with the DREADFUL seventh one illustrates too.

  7. 7

    Climax of LWW: I think strong and interesting in descriptive terms (the nastiness of waiting in the dark and cold as a witness to Aslan’s execution, the nastiness of the battle, the thrill of the statues being woken). The coda (the kids becoming grown-ups in Narnia) is genuinely strange — an oddity he never returned to. As Tom says, LWW is a mess, tonally and plot-wise.

    Climax of PC: great (the Telmarines and the wooden door). PC has several tremendous set-pieces, actually, even though the narrative as a whole is very badly structured.

    Climax of VotDT: they reach the world’s end which is heaven. I’ve said before Dawn Treader is structured like the levels of a computer game: I think the “winning the entire game” moment is a let-down, but it always is in this kind of game.

    Climax of SC: great if you mean the fall of the underground world and clambering out into a snowball fight. There’s some stuff afterwards which is less memorable. The transition back into our world is rendered daft by his explanation of bullying at Experiment House — but Eustace and Jill actually putting the bullies to flight is satisfying.

    Climax of MN: Digory tempted in the walled garden, I suppose. Myself I find the allegory pretty easy to shrug off: this could totally be a fairy story — especially with Pauline Bayne’s illustration — from one of Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books. But the best stuff in MN is certainly earlier: Uncle Anrew’s scary room, Charn, the Wood between the Worlds, and the Lion singing Narnia into existence.

    Climax of HahB: the battle? It’s funny because Rabadash turns into a donkey! But this is a weak book all round really. The scene in the Tombs is the only truly memorable one (that isn’t also racist).

    Climax of LB: I wrote about it here. Basically I love the seventh one: as actual xtian theology it’s nuts, of course, but HE DESTROYS THE LOVELY CHARMING WORLD HE CREATED. FURTHER UP AND FURTHER IN *sets off at a run*

  8. 8

    Other kidlit bad guys: Mary in the Secret Garden maybe? She is arrogant. sulky and contrary, until redeemed by the nature-magic of YORKSHIRE. (Haha in fact it’s actually the exact same plot as The Tombs of Atuan!)

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 27 Nov 2012 #

    Heidi. “I’ll push you out of your wheelchair, you obviously can walk…” (May be misremembering slightly).

    Mary is a lot more of a subtle character than that I think. It states she is spoiled, but she has also just lost both of her parents (even if they are not “loving”) been forcibly moved and therefore is quite justified in HATING THE WORLD. Whilst the Sekrit Garden is seen to be the transformational catalyst, it is really just a mixture of time grieving and getting friends which makes her a better person.

  10. 10
    weej on 28 Nov 2012 #

    Sukrat – Pretty sure we’re never going to agree on this as saw your rankings on one the the ‘NARNIA WEEK’ links up there and my chart would be almost exactly the inverse (I love HahB / 1st half of MC, bored by PC, can’t stand LB). Haven’t read them for a couple of decased, though, so it will be interesting to see if I change my mind when I come back to them.

  11. 11

    That list (it’s here) was I think based on how well they stood up in memory at the time, but I reread (everything) a lot, and I’d say it also pretty much matches what I expect to enjoy (hence how often I do reread them). Not quite sure why I said “dawn treader” has the best ending, though I do like the serenity of the sea of lilies passages, and the idea of the standing wave and the sheer end-of-the-world loneliness of the place (cf also Le Guin’s The Furthest Shore). I will stan for the Last Battle until the er last battle.

    A revised ranking (as of late 2012) (no enormous surprises):

  12. 12
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Nov 2012 #

    his resurrection is a matter of superior legal preparation, not faith, so he surely knows he’s going to come back,

    Huh, I never really got that impression, the law of magic seemed much more magic than law to me.

  13. 13

    This magic/law law/magic stuff is pretty much undiluted Kipling, actually: “it’s a spell” = “it is written” = “it’s THE LAW” (written in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones of the Secret Hill AND PLUS — in case no one knows where the Secret Hill is — engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-Over-Sea).

    Tolkien — who also absorbed a fvckton of Kipling, esp.from the Jungle Book — went the other way: he says there’s so such thing as influence magic and the elves all say WTF if the idea comes up. Because for them, the word and the world are not (entirely) sundered.

  14. 14

    But for Kipling and Tolk and CSL, the shared idea is “it is made/written to have this effect” = “this is a shaping of the world, not just a shaping of a thing” = “the world as it has been (re)shaped arrives with unavoidable consequences”

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    Ed on 30 Nov 2012 #

    “It’s all over the place in terms of pace, plot, mood, you name it” is why LW&W is the BEST Narnia book.

    Even just the title: whoever put those three things together before?

    The bit I was knocked out by was the arrival of Father Christmas. Here’s the fat guy from the adverts and the shopping centre, who gives you a real sword that you can kill wolves with. What could be cooler than that?

    And why is there a lamppost in the wood? It’s a real disappointment when that intriguing loose end gets tied up.

    There’s a powerful sense of the thrill of unknown territory, like Lewis doesn’t know what he’s creating, or discovering. And as a reader, you don’t know either. I like all the others, and love a couple: VTD and SC. But their coherence – both internally and to the structure of the cycle – makes them less exciting.

    The leaky boundary between reality and fantasy from LW&W is explored further in Elidor, which I loved even more than Narnia as a child. I haven’t dared return to it as an adult, but images from it are still glowing in my mind’s eye, many decades later.

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    Ed on 30 Nov 2012 #

    I see Pete Baran’s reaction to Father Christmas was exactly the opposite of mine: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/see/2011/01/narnia-week-satan-claus/

  17. 17

    As CSL told it, the lamp-post and the faun with the umbrella in the snow were the initial idea that seeded the whole book. He saw this in his mind’s eye and had to write a story (and a world) they belonged in. Which he definitely did.

    Elidor holds up! You should definitely reread it. Though it is not in its place in the bookcase by my desk, which is bothering me.

  18. 18
    Tom on 30 Nov 2012 #

    Tonal shifts in mood, unexpected incidents = very good, I agree.

    Lurches in pace, etc = not so good. Remember though I’m writing as a reader-aloud here, not as a reader. Reading aloud makes you realise how much and where you skipped as a reader yourself – it’s good discipline (and I enjoyed discovering descriptive passages I’d hopped over on my various reads) but there were definitely bits which left my kids incident-hungry. Though it’s a mark of the book’s quality that they were also hungry for more of the book, not just “bored now”.

    (I’m now reading The Hobbit, which is MUCH slower at the start, and the troll sequence is the first point my older son has gone “no, don’t stop reading”) (no particular cliffhanger BTW, I left the trolls thoroughly enstoned)

  19. 19
    Tom on 30 Nov 2012 #

    I read Elidor as a set book at school, so the class read it agonisingly slowly and a chapter at a time. The quality shone through but I really need to go back to it as there are few methods which kill a book more firmly.

  20. 20

    Are the trolls cockneys or mockneys?

  21. 21
    Ed on 1 Dec 2012 #

    “A set book at school” is a sadly all too common way of sucking the pleasure out of a book.

    One of my kids did ‘The Owl Service’, also by Alan Garner. It’s a bit more YA than ‘Elidor’ (parental advisory: adult themes), but also great, I think. He hated it.

  22. 22
    Ed on 29 Dec 2012 #

    On the subject of killing great books, the Hobbit movie has a pretty good go. I felt like Tom’s kids until well after the trolls. The last 30 minutes or so are fun, but there is also a surfeit of pointless amendments and embellishments to the story.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 30 Dec 2012 #

    @22, Ed. It’s the exact shape of the film’s amendments and embellishments that irked me: every addition makes The Hobbit:AUJ more LOTR-like, which not only betrays the book (and makes little sense – how can there be rampaging bands of orcs and mega-orcs between the Shire and Rivendell in relatively peaceful times? Indeed, this would be pretty anomalous even during the War of The Ring.) becoming somewht toneless, but also bores because, well, we’ve already got the LOTR:FOTR film. [For another example of how the two problems with TH:UAJ feed into each other, Bilbo’s action hero moment at the end – becoming braver than any of the non-Thorin dwarves! – not only betrays the character and book, it leads to Thorin and the other dwarves hailing Bilbo, thereby striking an ‘Aragorn at the end of the LOTR:ROTK film’ note.]

    I guess there’s plenty to enjoy about TH:AUJ (particularly if LOTR redux is what one is after) but, at least first time through, I was very irritated by all of Jackson’s overall adaptation decisions.Maybe I’ll be able to relax into, as it were, ‘The Hobbit we’ve got’ by the time the 2nd and 3rd films roll around.

  24. 24
    Ed on 30 Dec 2012 #

    Yes! If Jackson wanted to make something that pompous and portentous, he could have had a go at the Silmarillion.

    (Not that I’ve ever got beyond p3 of the Silmarillion, TBH. But I did buy ‘Script From a Jester’s Tear’ the day it came out, so I think I know what I’m talking about.)

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