Reading Narnia

Hello, July. You snuck up on me. I woke up this morning thinking it was still June, but it wasn’t.

I had gone to sleep at around 4:00 a.m. after finishing my Folkroots column. Then I had woken up early to read it one more time before sending it off. Once I sent it off, I went back to sleep and woke up in the afternoon. Tired, but feeling relieved. June was difficult, and I had so many deadlines, but I made them, at least the ones I had to make. And now it’s July and I have a month ahead of me in which all I need to do is work on the dissertation. Honestly, it’s sort of a relief.

The Folkroots column I just turned in is the one on Narnia, and I know some of you have been waiting for that one. I think it’s good – I certainly enjoyed writing it. I had to read all the Narnia books again, and I read Peter Schakel’s The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide and Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. I’m actually still reading Miller’s book. When you’re writing a column, you end up skimming so much, and now I’m going back and reading it in a more leisurely way. It’s making me think a lot about my own writing, because it’s the sort of thing I like reading about literature: both scholarly and intensely personal. And you see, that’s not a way I’m necessarily allowed to write as an actual scholar, an academic. But it’s a way I like writing very much. It makes me think about what I’m going to do with my academic credentials, other than teach. Because I want to write books, but I also want to write about books. I’m just not sure how. Academicese doesn’t come that easily to me. But these Folkroots columns I’m doing – oh, how I love doing them! It’s a great pleasure to write about scholarly subjects – or to treat fantasy as a scholarly subject – in a way that any reader can understand. Not in academicese.

One thing I realized as I was writing this particular column is that the Narnia books still have tremendous power for me. Even when I was skimming, I was tearing up – when Fledge gets his wings in The Magician’s Nephew, for example. Or when the Bridge of Beruna comes down in Prince Caspian. And I still hated reading The Last Battle. It makes me so angry that Lewis created Narnia and then destroyed it. And replaced it with Aslan’s country. Who wants to go to Aslan’s country? Not me, I can tell you. I want Narnia, with all its adventures and perils. There are no adventures in Aslan’s country.

I thought about what gave Narnia this particular power, because when I read The Hobbit, it didn’t have the same magic for me. I loved it, but I didn’t want to go to Middle Earth, particularly.

I think it was in part that Lewis made me a pantheist. Narnia was so alive, with its satyrs, dryads and hamadryads, centaurs, dwarves. The land itself was alive, in a way Middle Earth wasn’t. It was a fairy tale, whereas The Hobbit was a prose epic. It fulfilled all my wishes: in Narnia, you could become a king or queen, you could dance with the trees themselves, you could talk to the animals and they would talk back. I wanted my own world to be that way. Lewis taught me a certain set of values, which weren’t necessarily the values he meant to teach. They had to do with our relationship to the natural world, with valuing each tree, each stream. With believing in magic.

He also made me believe in a certain type of prose. Reading the books again, I realized how well they are written, now clean they are, how quickly they move. It’s a sort of prose I associate with the first half of the twentieth century. I see it in George Orwell, in Dorothy Sayers, in E.M. Forster. I know, completely different writers, but there’s something about their prose – they are working from similar principles. I wish I knew exactly what it was, but it’s a clarity, a facility with sentences. Sayers is much more of a craftsman than Forster, obviously. Forster is the artist. But still, there’s something. And it’s something I don’t often hear in prose nowadays. Modern prose often strikes me as muddy. When I do hear that clear, fluid prose, I always feel a sort of gratitude.

I was thinking of Narnian values today in particular, because this morning I read two stories in The New York Times. The first was actually a series of short opinion pieces called “Why Did Wild Nail Polish Go Mainstream?” The writers were opining on that question. Now, you and I may have different opinions on nail polish. (I don’t understand why anyone would use the stuff, except as a subversive statement. Like, men painting their toenails pink. Have you ever seen what happens to nails under it?) But why in the world is The New York Times hosting a debate about it? Surely there are actual events happening in the world. The second was a story on the names that paint companies choose for their colors: “We Call It Brown. They Call It ‘Weekend in the Country.'” Did you know that Benjamin Moore offers 3,300 paint colors? And that’s just one company. What sort of society needs 3,300 paint colors? So there I was, having just finished my Folkroots column, having just read about battling giants and riding on the backs of centaurs. About the dangers of the desert, the beauty of the forest, the sea of lilies at the end of the world. About Reepicheep and Puddleglum. And suddenly I was confronted with the information that I live in a society in which there are at least 3,300 different paint colors. In which women painting their fingernails blue or green is news. And I thought, no one paints either rooms or their nails in Narnia. And then I thought, we’re doomed.

So here I am in July, and it’s going to be another busy month, but hopefully not quite so busy as June was. And I’m thinking of the blog post I wrote on alternative values, and thinking, they’re Narnian values, and Middle Earth values, and the values of the magical, fantastical lands I love. And I’m going to live by them, even when they make absolutely no sense in this society, which in turn makes so little sense to me. As Puddleglum says to the Lady of the Green Kirtle,

“All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

I do love Puddleglum.

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12 Responses to Reading Narnia

  1. Hear, hear! Seriously, what a great post.
    Hail Queen Dora of Narnia!

  2. I love Sayers. I’ve read her over and over.

  3. Emily Gilman says:

    I like the idea of nail polish, and I often like how it looks on other people, but most of the colors I see in the store and think are pretty would look awful on me. Or would make me think my fingers were bleeding every time I looked down.

    Practically speaking: I can never get nail polish to go on evenly, it always chips and once it does I start picking at it because I can, it only accentuates the fact that I have guitarist fingernails (longer but neat on the right hand, as short as possible on the left), whenever I play guitar or mandolin it ends up getting worn off the ends of my middle and pointer fingers, and I think I might get violent if somebody tried to mess with my cuticles. So mostly I don’t bother.

  4. On scholarly but not academic writing: have you seen Gary Wolfe’s stuff, such as Evaporating Genres? ( )

  5. Georgia says:

    Thanks for posting such a thoughtful, non-Lewis-bashing column. I love Lewis, his lucid prose, how he makes you live in Narnia as you read. I’m saddened by the many snooty comments I’ve read about his Narnia work. He made my childhood bearable and made me realize I was meant to be a writer, so I continue to love him the way you love your parent after you grow up and don’t 100% agree with him/her anymore. And Dorothy Sayers? How can you not love such a fine, clean writer of such intelligent mysteries? In fact, I’m going to dig out some of her novels to read over the long weekend.

  6. Grey Walker says:

    That is one of my favorite passages in all the Narnia books. I find myself quoting it again and again.

  7. Ron Leighton says:

    I think Lewis would be dismayed to learn his Narnia had a hand in making you a pantheist! But I certainly get it. He would likely be dismayed that his Screwtape Letters and Pilgrim’s Regress had a hand in making me not so much a Christian as a fantasist! 🙂

    I look forward to the column. I bet it will inspire me as much as the April one did (last one I read!).

  8. It’s odd that the mainstream news, which loves to print “look at those weird SF fans” stories, nonetheless finds nothing silly about “fashion fans” who care not just what color they paint their nails, but what colors of nailpolish are acceptable because other people have painted their nails that color. Fantasy, by and large, is not about trivial things. It may be about ultimate good or ultimate evil, honor or shame, love or death, war or reconciliation, power or the abdication of power, but it is not about making sure one’s nails are a fashionable color.

  9. “Fantasy, by and large, is not about trivial things.” I love that, and I think it’s absolutely true. In fact, I think people who care about trivial things do very badly in fantasies. Certainly in fairy tales.

    Part of my problem with nail polish is that you have to be very careful it doesn’t chip. I once knew someone whose nail polish never chipped. She basically arranged her entire life around her nail polish, dialing phones with a pencil eraser, for example. We’re talking about HANDS here. They’re meant to be used. Anything that keeps women from using their hands fully and freely is pretty evil, in my book. And if you’re not careful, it does chip and looks horrible.

    I think Gary Wolfe’s writing is lovely!

    When I was a child, all I wanted to be was a queen of Narnia . . . 🙂

  10. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    Thanks. I needed to hear Puddleglum’s statement again.

    Another writer whose prose is so clean, so transparent that all you can see is the story, is Arthur Ransom, author of “Swallows and Amazons” and other “children’s” books about children camping,and sailing, and caring.

  11. I’ve only read one of the Arthur Ransom books, but I need to read the series when I have time. That’s what I remember too, about his prose!

  12. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    Ransom’s books make great bedtime reading! Enjoy!

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