Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Back to Narnia - Musing on Fantasy Literature and Reading Lessons

One of the nice presents our family was lucky enough to receive this winter holiday season was from an old school friend of my lovely bride's: a nicely illustrated box set of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books as an early-arriving but late-delivered (we thought it was for Christmas) birthday gift for Chloe.  At just seven years old, we feared that these might be a bit tough for her. Then again, yesterday when I told her she was getting the ante-penultimate brownie she pondered a half second before answering "so there are two left." Vocabulary is clearly not an issue, and the girl loves reading at least as much as I did at that age. The Narnia books themselves are a very, very hazy memory for me, but the wondrous, open-ended anything-can-happen feeling in a great fantasy novel is not. It's something that, beneath the writerly analysis and tendency to overthink, I still feel today.  Still, these are books targeted perhaps a touch older than she is, so I thought it would be nice for her to have a guide. With this in mind I told her that I'd like to read along with her, picking up the book when she sets it down to catch up (and only to catch up - she didn't want me cheating and reading ahead!) so we can talk about the characters and what happened. Now, through the wonders of technology, you have the chance to read along with us for my musings on both the books and the process of reading them with a young child.

We started before the beginning, with The Magician's Nephew, mostly because the set we have numbers it first. This doesn't strike me as a bad place to start; it introduces Narnia at the very beginning (literally the beginning - we see its creation as a new world) and learn the origin of familiar objects and settings, such as the lamppost in the woods and the famous gateway in the back of a wardrobe.

What's this Book About? A refresher

For those interested in the plot (and who either don't know it or have forgotten it), two young London children named Digory and Polly are sent out of this world and into another by Digory's narcissistic and cruel Uncle Andrew - the titular magician.   Through the use of magic rings crafted from Atlantean dust they travel first to Wood Between Worlds, in which clear pools of water serve as portals to our world and others. From there their explorations take them to the dead world of Charn, in which Digory recklessly and impetuously awakens the evil Queen Jadis, providing an antagonist for the remainder of the series. She'd put herself into an enchanted sleep after - in a clear allegory of nuclear war - she'd killed every single living thing in her world through the magic of the Deplorable Word.

The famous Narnia lampost.
Image by Ej.culley
Jadis's follows the children to London, where here magic doesn't work but her supernatural strength makes her something of a menace. Through use of the magic rings, they manage to bring the evil witch through the Wood between Worlds and, eventually, to the new world of Narnia, as of yet still unformed. A Lonon cabby and his horse also make the trip.

In Narnia we meet the lion-god Aslan, who literally sings the world into existence. In atonement for bringing the evil witch into the newly formed world, Aslan sends Digory along with the carriage horse - now winged through Aslan's magic - to a hidden garden near the edge of the world for a magic apple of all things. It would not only keep the witch at bay for a time, but is quite healthy and loaded with a great deal of delicious symbolism. Digory takes the trip with Polly and the horse, resists the witch's temptation to eat the apple himself or take it back to London to cure his ailing mother, and is rewarded by Aslan with another magic apple so he can cure his mother after all. A final chapter details Digory's move away from London and the creation of the famous wardrobe we'll see in the next book.

Reading as a Writer and Parent

Teaching children to read is so much more than teaching them to read the words which, as I said above, isn't much of an issue now. In some ways this is a very nice introduction to "real" fantasy literature because it is so simple;  the witch is evil. Uncle Andrew is also evil, but not so much as the witch. Giving in to the temptation to keep the magic apple is wrong because it would be a betrayal of the trust Aslan had given Digory - and because it would be wrong for him to save  his mother with an act counter to the values he taught her. This correct act is rightly rewarded. Digory is the closest to a complicated character we get; he's basically good, but badly wounded by family troubles and dreadfully impulsive. There was a moment of violence between him and Polly - just one moment, but an unmistakable crossing of a line - which prevents us from seeing him as just a hero. 

The more interesting thing reading this as an adult is how apparent the work's flaws are. The quest to get the magic apple was all too easy, with no obstacles of which to speak. Aslan is a being of pure good, and Jadis a being of pure evil. In addition to the idea that a powerful woman is a villain and also a temptress, she's somewhat of a boring villain, with no motivation or real personality aside from a desire for power. She's more a force of nature than a person. Compare, say, Queen Mallow in Cat Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Boat of Her Own Making. Mallow was quite the villain and did a fair measure of harm to the denizens of Fairyland, but once we meet her we see that she had her own personal reasons for doing so. In the end, she was more to be pitied than hated.

Speaking of the apple, I'm not sure how I feel about that element. On one hand, the adult writer in me finds it painfully heavy-handed in its symbolism. As we are a non-religious household, it's symbolism that sailed right past our young reader's head to little effect, so no harm and no foul on that. What almost bothered me more is the forced "happy ending". Digory made the right choice in resisting the temptation to steal the apple to cure his mother. As a reward he gets... a magic apple to cure his mother. This is almost exactly the same complaint I had at the end of Disney's Tangled - the sacrifice is rendered meaningless by granting the reward anyway. 

That's not to say that the writing, although perhaps a bit old fashioned - lacks charm. Take, for example, this passage in which the two children arrive in the dying world of Charn:

"It's very funny weather here," said Digory. "I wonder if we've arrived just in time for a thunderstorm; or an eclipse.""I don't like it," said Polly.

Both of them, without quite knowing why, were talking in whispers. And though there was no reason why they should still go on holding hands after their jump, they didn't let go.

I especially like the bit about the two of them holding hands and called it out as an example of "showing, not telling". They're nervous. How do you know that they're nervous and a bit scared? Not because they say so, but because they don't let go of each other.

Reading as Readers

All of the object lessons about literature, about reading, and about writing aside, one of the very best things about this process has been sharing the pure pleasure of fantasy literature. The journey from Uncle Andrew's study through the Woods Between Worlds and eventually to Narnia evokes the open-ended feeling of limitless possibility which attracted me to fantasy in the first place. If one looks past the symbolism, characters, authorial decisions, one is left with not just a story, but a fantastic story. A story in which it feels as if anything can happen, and we're along for the pure joy of exploration. 

It's easy for us grown-ups to forget that sometimes. If understanding of the bigger picture is my gift to my children, a view through young and innocent eyes is their gift to me.

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