Friday, November 24, 2006

Prince Caspian, CS Lewis

I have a history with the Narnian books. Many, many years ago, I read them when I was quite a bit older than their 'target audience' and decided as a result that I wanted to study English Literature. If you had asked me last week why they should have had this particular effect on me, then I really wouldn't have been able to answer. More from what other people had said and written than from my own memory, I had built up an image of rather stuffy, preachy books written by a man with very precise intentions with regard to his reader, intentions I was not willing to welcome.

I read Prince Caspian because Son No2 (11) had just read it and, in the spirit of parental support and encouragement and positive reinforcement of desirable behaviour, I promised him that I would read it, too. Remembering nothing from my first reading 30 years ago, I was very impressed.

First, the narrative voice. Yes, he does address his reader directly. "The worst of sleeping out of doors is that you wake up so dreadfully early. And when you wake up, you have to get up because the ground is so hard that you are uncomforable." However, I didn't find it at all condescending. In fact, it had the opposite effect: it was involving in that he assumes you know what he is talking about because he is talking about things that we have all felt or wanted to feel. "It was not like the silly fighting you see with broad swords on the stage. It was not even like rapier fighting which you sometimes see rather better done. This was real broad-sword fighting. The great thing is to slash at your enemy's legs and feet because they are the part that have no armour. And when he slashes at yours you jump with both feet off the ground so that his blow goes under them." He gets on the child's side by acknowledging what they have already thought about stage fights and then adds a little bit of information that they might have picked up, but probably not. Yet it is the kind of detail that little boys' imaginations (in particular) are avid for and it both compliments the reader and leads him into the scene. The next sentence begins, "This gave the dwarf an advantage...".

His descriptions are simple, often to the point of being schematic, but this is a virtue in an adventure story. The action sequences are strongly marked by the sympathies of the writer and reader; once again, a virtue in that they are not the point of the story. The point of the story is the moral journey undertaken by the children, and that is centred on a sequence in which the opinion of others is all important.

The children are trying to make their way to where Prince Caspian is desperately beseiged by the forces of his uncle. They try a shortcut and get lost. Lucy, the youngest and therefore the most clear-sighted in the important things, glimpses Aslan, who seems to be beckoning her to follow. Her attempts to persuade the others are futile and they continue on their way, almost to disaster. That night when all the others are asleep, Lucy sees Aslan again and this time speaks to him. She must try once again to convince the others to believe her, but if they don't, and this is more than possible, she must be prepared to follow him alone. This time she is successful, though only just. They follow resentfully and only gradually, one by one, do they themselves see Aslan.

You don't need to be a Christian, or a believer, to appreciate the effect and truth of this. It must be a great comfort to a lonely child. You should not think that it is hammered into the skull of the reader, either. It occurs quite naturally in the story.

One further aspect struck me mainly because I had read Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address and remembered his point about faith and rationality and the connected one about Christianity being born as an amalgam of Judaism and Greek thought. That arrival of Aslan after many centuries is celebrated with a wild dance initiated by pale birch-girls, willow-women, shaggy oak-men, lean and melancholy elms and shock-headed holly all succeeded by people dancing round a youth "dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair". He was, in the words of Edmund, "a chap who might do anything - absolutely anything". Significantly, there are "a lot of girls with him, as wild as he" and "an old man on a donkey". The romp is unrestrained and completely unpredictable and it brings forth vine leaves, then vines and then wine. As it fades, Susan, who has just stood and watched with Lucy, says, "I wouldn't have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan." Lucy replies, "I should think not."

Obviously, it is not the rationality of the Greeks that Lewis is depicting here, but something far older. In modern terms, I would call it the intensity of life, material life, lived to the full. The fear that the children feel is well-grounded. As the wine should remind us, such closeness to the springs of life comes with the spilling of human blood in sacrifice to the greater natural forces that it celebrates. Aslan does not destroy those forces, but contains them, makes them safer.

The contrast with Tolkein is obvious in that The Lord of the Rings recalls a pre-medieval and medieval world - the classical world is almost entirely absent. In a way, Lewis was more ambitious in that he depicted the classical and Christian in order to to elevate both. He does so without explanation, but leaves it as something to be investigated further. It is, perhaps, the mystery he leaves that drew me to study literature.

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