Saturday, 24 March 2018

Revisiting Narnia


If you read my blog last month, you might have seen my review of Harry Potter—which I read for the first time at 25. Well, that experience has somehow awakened the desire in me to read The Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike Harry Potter, though, I actually did read Narnia in high school, around the time the second movie came out and the third movie was announced. However, I only read 3 books out of 7, but I do remember loving them all. This time, I thought, I'd read all of the books—including the ones I already read 8 years ago. What I didn't know—although it makes a lot of sense—is that the books aren't published in chronological order, but started up with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, so I thought it would be interesting to try and read it in the order of publication. And here is what I thought about the series as a whole.

First Impression

Well, not exactly first impression, is it, when you've read the book 8 years ago? But I've forgotten most of what I read anyway that it felt like finding the books anew again. Naturally, for a book that was written over 50 years ago, the language used by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles is rather peculiar. It is incredibly poetic, rich with metaphors and symbolism. The writing style is also very interesting, in which Lewis seems as if he's interacting with his young readers—who are his target audience for Narnia—and completely including them in the story. He 'speaks' indeed like a fatherly figure would to a child, repeating various advice and moral lessons—even just the practical kind. The language he chose to use really amplifies the fact that Narnia was meant to be a fairy tale—which, I believe, is still pretty much valid today too. There is a certain Enid Blyton vibe about Narnia too. I think it lies in the sense of adventure in the air—although Famous Five never go to another world—and the beautiful sibling relationship between the children. It may be a different time, but these things always give the same feelings.

Getting Deeper

Unlike Harry Potter, it takes more to understand The Chronicles of Narnia than by simply comparing the book with the film. This world created by C.S. Lewis is rich with symbolism. If you've read his other works, you may realise that he is a devoted Christian—even after losing his faith for a while—and Narnia is none other than a beautifully wrapped religious teaching for children. And, because it is so and because The Chronicles are meant to be a fairy tale, the characters are mostly not quite well-rounded. That being said, you will encounter some who develop rather well, including Caspian, Eustace and Edmund. In fact, Caspian's youth, mature and old age are laid out beautifully throughout 3 of the 7 books. Edmund, on the other hand, has been portrayed in his childhood, adolescence and adulthood—growing from the selfish traitor to the just king and, later on, a rather wise teenager both in Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Now and then, though, we manage to see the flaws of our beloved protagonists. Lucy can sometimes be jealous and insecure, Edmund was once a traitor and bully, Susan can be vain and self-centred and Peter tend to be vindictive and proud. It is, however, important to note that most of these vices will be appeased in the end.

There is a major flaw to the whole writing of The Chronicles, however, in that Lewis didn't intend to turn it into a series when he wrote the first book. In result, the stories can sometimes create discrepancies within themselves and contradict themselves—most of them go unanswered. For example, when Lucy Pevensie first set foot in Narnia, it seems she was the first human being to ever enter that realm—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. However, it turns out that humans have been there from the start—with Digory, Polly, Uncle Andrew and Frank in The Magician's Nephew. The origins of The White Witch/Jadis also contradict themselves, in which there are at least two different versions available in the aforementioned books. Those are just a couple examples, however. If you pay close attention, you'll probably be able to spot a few more.

What I think is also worth noting is the era in which Narnia was written. Why? It honestly plays a huge role on the kind of subject matters being brought up within the pages. There are two incredibly prominent aspects that I can't help but to spot: racism and sexism. At the time, of course these two words have very different meanings from what they do today. In fact, I'm pretty sure racism was barely a thing in the 1950s. In the first book, you can already see evidence of sexism done by Lewis—Edmund's sexist remarks about girls' minds having no maps, Aslan's forbidding Susan and Lucy to partake in battle—which, at the time, probably qualifies as manners and courtesy. However, you can see that even Lewis is developing in that part, later on managing to create strong female characters, such as Polly and Aravis. But, I think, without meaning to, Lewis has also managed to create feminine strength that is entirely different from masculine strength. It lies, for instance, in Lucy's ability to trust and be generous to others, in Jill's capability of admitting faults and learning from others, and in Polly's bravery and forgiving nature. Without having to put them in a battlefield, C.S. Lewis has created female protagonists at the epicentre of most of his stories.

As for racism, unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Lewis was improving. He created a whole Arab-inspired country Calormen to play the role of a terrible society and, ultimately, villains—complete with a God that is portrayed like a demon. While Lewis seems to model Narnia from the Great Britain, it is very much idealised to include only the most glorious and wondrous things, whereas Calormen is filled with slavery, superficial gratification and cruel deities. For a Muslim who lives in what some may call a Third-World country, this definitely bothered me a bit. But, personally, I tried to read it with a grain of salt. Take in the good and leave out the bad. Narnia, not unlike so many other fairy tales and stories, is definitely comprised by the perspective of the author. His experiences and upbringing obviously play a part. I'd like to believe that had he been alive on this day and age, he would have a completely different view on this matter.

Books vs. Films

It's probably unfair if we talk about this series without mentioning the films one bit. Just to be clear, I'm referring to the 2007 onwards Disney version, played by casts, such as Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton and Ben Barnes—not the older 1970s version, which, yes, exists. As I've mentioned before, the books were written in an entirely different era from ours—having been over 50 years already by the time they made it to the big screen—the characterisation, language and portrayal of storyline need to be adjusted. For instance, in the first movie, the bit about girls shouldn't join a battle is completely omitted, although Susan and Lucy still aren't part of the fight. Some of the characters' personalities are slightly changed. In Prince Caspian, Caspian and Peter can't seem to get along, both fighting for the role of leader and Susan falls in love with the prince. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy's jealousy of Susan and Edmund's issues with the White Witch are emphasised. Some parts of the stories are changed too. The battle with the White Witch becomes the detailed climax of the story—whereas in the book it is mentioned briefly. Caspian and Peter first lead the army to a failed ambush of Miraz's castle, which causes so many lives. The order of destinations of travel in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is re-arranged.

Similar to Harry Potter, there is a modern sense of humour involved in the films. In LWW, there are little conversations between Lucy and Susan and Edmund and Peter that seem to melt the tension in the air. Or the fact that Mrs. Beaver flattens her fur upon meeting Aslan for the first—to which Mr. Beaver says she is already beautiful. In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin the dwarf has his own flavour of sass, underestimating and doubting the four old kings and queens of Narnia. Edmund also shows his sense of humour, surprising them with an electric torch—after Peter asked whether anyone had a match—and taunting Miraz to accept Peter's challenge to a duel. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep teases Eustace about swordsmanship and Edmund and Caspian seem to be equally attracted to Ramandu's daughter. Completely irrelevant to the story, I'm sure, but they ease the audience anyway.

Unfortunately, VDT as a film didn't do so well in the box office—something that I completely understand. In the film, the exciting journey of the Dawn Treader seems to be played down incredibly, that it ceases to be really interesting. Such a shame too. It is actually my third favourite book of the bunch—after The Last Battle and The Magician's Nephew. The end seems to imply that they are ready to make the next film—supposedly The Silver Chair—with Eustace's mother's mention of Jill Pole. However, it doesn't seem to work out well after the outcome of VDT itself.

Conclusion

At the beginning, I must say, I thought Narnia is simply a young adult series written in a different era. To me, they are reminiscent of Enid Blyton's works—filled with a group of children stumbling upon adventures at one point or another. It is, however, filled with so much symbolism that eludes a certain air of mystery around the world of Narnia. Even after you read all seven books, there are still things up for questioning—especially with C.S. Lewis's jumbled sense of chronology. But that's what keeps the books timeless, I believe, as it keeps the attraction alive. You may read it at a different age and have an entirely different impression about the books from what you used to believe when you were much, much younger.

Personally, I find the characters endearing and loveable, especially the Pevensie siblings. We see them grow up from selfish, immature little children to wise, ripe adults. We see how their characters change throughout the book, learning to overcome their insecurities, flaws and vices—as we all do. We see them step into a unknown universe, face challenges of all sorts and bid farewell to various friends over a span of a few years and several centuries. I find myself getting sucked into their lives, wishing to know what they are like when they are not in Narnia or when Narnia is at peace and has no need for sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. It was kind of heartbreaking for me to read the last book, as I can no longer be part of their lives.

Let me leave you off with further reading recommendations. Firstly, my experience with Narnia has been immensely enriched after reading the Pocket Companion to Narnia written by Paul F. Ford. It includes a lot of insights to the literary, biblical and cultural references Lewis has included in the Chronicles, as well as snippets of his life story that may have contributed to the storyline and the way the subject matters are discussed. My eyes were opened to various things I never really paid attention to before and mysteries behind several aspects of Narnia. Secondly, I would recommend reading Neil Gaiman's short story titled "Susan's Problem"—to be found in his compilation "Fragile Things"—which tells his interpretation of Susan's life after "The Last Battle." I find it absolutely heartbreaking and riveting. I think C.S. Lewis would have loved it!



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