What I’ve been reading lately, part 36

The Magician’s Nephew — C. S. Lewis

I don’t quite remember what the specific stimulus was for my starting to re-re-re-read Lewis’s classic Narnia books. But this must be at least the tenth time through, going back to when I was eight or nine. (These are often referred to collectively as “The Chronicles of Narnia” but that it exactly what they are not. They are stories, with no pretense to historic verisimilitude or exhaustiveness.)

Why do I keep coming back? Because they are not only charming and enjoyable and exciting, but also profound. Lewis himself was quite up front about his intention with the Christian allegory that pervades these seven books:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

These are not easy times to own the name Christian. The “Christian Right” in America seems to be persistently — we might almost think systematically — betraying everything Jesus ever said about how we are to behave towards each other. It pains me to share a name with groups that seem to show so little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control — and which seems even to hold such qualities in contempt, as “snowflake” indicators.

That’s why I need to remind myself periodically of why I am and remain a Christian myself, in spite of the continuing pollution of that word. And the Narnia books are marvellous reminders. I simply can’t read them without loving Aslan (i.e. the Jesus character, who in the stories is a lion). I’m not ashamed to say they bring me to tears almost every time.

The Magician’s Nephew is the first of the seven stories in chronological order, but was the last-but-one to be written and published. It’s best seen as a prequel to the main-sequence books, so that the best one to start with is still the first one published: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Anyway: read them in any order; the Narnia books are rightly considered classics, and are fully worthy of their reputation.

This Other Eden — Ben Elton

Elton’s third novel, and maybe the first one in which his style has settled down into something more like what we’d expect from a novelist, as opposed to a stand-up comedian weaving a narrative around his routines. Early Elton was veery much about eco-armageddon, and this story is set in a world that is teetering on the brink of becoming uninhabitable. Rich people have claustrospheres — shelters analogous to the nuclear shelters some families had in the 50s — where they plan to retreat when the worst happens.  We follow the fortunes of a frivolous but charming Hollywood actor who gets caught up in a conspiracy involving ecological campaigners, Hollywood producers, and the claustrosphere manufacturers. It shifts at a quick pace, never stops being interesting, and is surprisingly moving in places.

The Horse and his Boy — C. S. Lewis

One of the most self-contained and exciting of the Narnia novels, though it has of late been mired in (to my mind) baseless accusations of racism. It tells of Shasta, a Narnian boy brought up in the southern land of Calormen, who escapes to the north with a runaway Calormene princess, Aravis. Each of them has acquired a Narnian talking horse, and all four of these main characters have lessons to learn along the way.

As usual with the Narnia books, it is the character of Aslan who lifts them beyond being merely exciting stories for children into something altogether richer and deeper. But even without that aspect, there is much to love about the character of Bree (one of the two talking horses) who talks as though his understanding is very superior to that of this three companions, but who gradually learns how little he knows.

The Four Loves — C. S. Lewis

One of Lewis’s less known books, and really an overlooked gem. It begins from the observation that we use the same verb “love” in English to denote several quite different things, and explores four of them in depth: affection, which exists to some degree between almost all people who are familiar with each other; friendship, which is based on common interests and goals; eros, or romantic love; and what Lewis calls “charity”, an outdated term for disinterested love that desires the best outcome for the recipient.

As always, Lewis’s observations are sharp and pithy; I call to mind the memorable image of lovers (eros) looking into each others’ eyes, while friends are side by side both looking at the same object. His core point is that even the “lower” loves can mature into something holy, and that even the “higher” loves can become demonic and possessive.

Have You Eaten Grandma? — Gyles Brandreth

A book on the English language by Scrabble champion, ex-Tory MP and perennial Radio 4 quiz-programme guest Gyles Brandreth. This one is a strange blend of amusing anecdote, well argued positions, and long, tedious lists of rules. I quite enjoyed reading it once, but will not revisit it.

Raising Steam — Terry Pratchett

The very last of the mainline Discworld novels (followed only by a Young Adult book in the Tiffany Aching series). It’s understandable if it’s not among the best: honestly, the contemporary-invention-comes-to-Discworld seam had been mined pretty bare some time before this one, and of course Pratchett was suffering with dementia by the time he was working on it. So there is a disjointed quality to what feels in places like a jouneyman work rather than a creation of the passion that drove great Discworld books like Equal Rites, Mort or Guards! Guards!.

Still, all of this carping is a bit mean. In the end, it’s still a Discworld book, which means some well-loved characters, some interesting ideas, some enjoyable wordplay, and a plot.

It’s Not Me, It’s You — Mhairi McFarlane

McFarlane’s You Had Me at Hello was an unexpected delight, so when I saw this one discounted to 99p, I jumped at it. I’m glad I did. It tells the story of Delia Moss, a woman in her 20s who discovers via a misdirected SMS that her fiancé, Paul, is cheating on her, and who moves from Newcastle to London intending to start a new life. The story is interesting enough, as she lands a questionable PR job and has to deal with a difficult but likeable investigative reporter.

But the real value here is in the very gently painful explorations of Delia’s feelings as she goes through the process of trying to come to terms with Paul’s betrayal, feeling irrationally responsible, wondering if she can function in a new place, meeting his lover, considering getting back together with him, and so on. All of this is done with a very light touch, so it doesn’t derail the story, yet it has a compelling quality of reality to it — not unlike C. S. Lewis’s descriptions of his reactions to his wife’s death in A Grief Observed. It’s not every day that I find myself comparing a chick-lit author with Lewis, but in McFarlane’s case the comparison is not wholly fanciful. She has a laser-sharp eye for emotional detail, and for sketching it out in a way that is evocative without being manipulative.

16 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 36

  1. Ah, The Four Loves. An excellent book though I think one of those where some of the best bits come in the introduction:

    St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougement) that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god”; which of course can be re-stated in the form “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God. I suppose that everyone who has thought about the matter will see what M. de Rougemont meant. Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to “become gods” is generally recognised. But family affection may do the same.

  2. I think you’re right, H, that that paragraph is the core of the book.

  3. I can completely understand the accusations of racism that are levelled against The Horse and His Boy – it’s very hard not to see the deliberate evocation of a medieval barbaric Arabian society of Calorman as contrasted with the fairyland bucolic delight of the ‘pure’ English society of Narnia.
    It’s just that this requires ignoring the whole of the rest of the series, in which the same range of good and bad traits appear attached to ‘white middle class’ characters and are therefore clearly not ‘racist’ in that context, merely sharp observation about human nature (i.e. they obviously weren’t racist in the first context either.)
    Sure there are key plot elements about forced marriage and harsh punishments; the question is whether or not that was deliberately or inadvertently intended to imply that “brown people do bad stuff”; I don’t think it was, any more than Mordor was. It seems pretty evident that the intent was to draw attention to bad government led by selfish power-hungry narcissists rather than anything else (cf. Shift the Ape in The Last Battle as well.)
    That doesn’t mean that modern readers shouldn’t just wave their hands and say “it’s a product of its time” of course. But it does mean that they may need to engage more deeply than perhaps even Lewis intended!

    (Me, I tend to find that whenever I reread Narnia, I spot new references that I hadn’t previously understood or even seen but have now read the relevant philosophical arguments to be able to place. And yet I still get wrapped up in the stories and characters. Mind you, I tend to find that with Harry Potter as well; good, well-told stories work better and last longer when they are built properly.)

  4. The Magician’s Nephew is one of my favourite books out of the seven. This probably has something to do with illustration by Pauline Baynes, at least in part.

  5. Agreed!
    I always found it very interesting that The Magician’s Nephew is the only book of the 7 to show magic functioning in our world.
    For me, the most intellectually interesting section of the book is the discussion with Uncle Andrew about the rings. It leaves us with so many questions:
    Was Atlantis real?
    Fairy blood?
    Devilish experiences?
    A great book in the series.

  6. Well, it’s almost the only book to show magic in our world: doesn’t Aslan show up, briefly, at Jill and Eustace’s school at the end of The Silver Chair?

    Yes, Uncle Andrew is a brilliant creation — especially when he starts talking about “ours is a high and lonely destiny”, in a way that primes Digory to understand pretty quickly what Jadis really is.

  7. Aslan isn’t magic, though, Aslan is supernatural, and I’m sure that if you gave him half a chance Lewis would go on at length about how the magic of a world works within the laws of that world and magicians are just those who understand the laws of magic; whereas the supernatural is the eruption into the world something from beyond the world. Magic involves the manipulation of things within the world, whereas the supernatural comes from beyond the world; and Aslan, of course, comes from beyond all worlds (and the reason he doesn’t usually appear in our world is, well, because he’s already here).

    It’s the distinction between magic — the manipulation of the hidden laws of the world — and miracles, which are when those laws are suspended.

    After all, all the early scientists were magicians, and studied elemental transmutation with just as much eagerness and rigour as they studied gravitation; and what we call ‘science’ is just the bits of their magical explorations that happened to work repeatably.

  8. That’s fair, H: the distinction between the magic of Jadis and the supernature of Aslan is like night and day.

  9. That is true to an extent, however, the moral status of Narnian (or other) magic in these books is quite ambiguous.
    On one hand, uncle Andrew, the various witches, and other villains all clearly use magic, and Aslan uses super natural power. However, Coriakin (from The Voyage of the Dawntredder) uses magic and is a “Good” character. It is possible that he uses innate powers (from being a fallen star), but his spell-book looks like a typical “Arcane” book from dungeons and dragons (in modern terminology, of course.)
    So it seems that magic is never satisfactorily morally explained (though references to “Good” magic do exist.)

  10. Excellent point, Ethan. I think in the end we have to say that Lewis was less interested in a coherent magical system than in telling the specific story he had in mind at the time. This comes back to my point that “chronicles” is the wrong name for the set of stories that Lewis wrote about Narnia.

    I think people are sometimes misled by Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien into thinking that he, like his friend, was interested in world-building. If we was at all, then Narnia was certainly not an attempt in that direction. I suspect he knew from very early in that friendship that he would never be able to create a coherent universe that would rival his friend’s, and so consciously opted not to try to compete in that area.

    Yet for all of the manifestly superior literary qualities of Tolkien’s work, Lewis’s stories still move me more. (And that’s not in any way a criticism of Tolkien, whose work does move me deeply — just not as deeply as Lewis’s.)

  11. Completely agree,
    A magical system was definitely not one of Lewis’s goals when approaching the series. I, personally, love complex and detailed metaphysics for fictional worlds, but can accept when others do not share my (admittedly quite niche) interest.
    Regarding Tolkien, I think both authors move me deeply, but in different ways.
    Lewis’s books are emotional, personal, subtle. Tolkien’s, by contrast, are epic, sweeping, moving in the same way that a Greek epic is moving. It is like the difference between Night terrors and the Zygon Invasion / Inversion Doctor Who episodes.

  12. Perhaps surprisingly, I find both The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin more moving than The Lord of the Rings. I wonder what’s going on there.

  13. That is true to an extent, however, the moral status of Narnian (or other) magic in these books is quite ambiguous

    I wasn’t really addressing the morality of magic, but its ontology. I don’t think Lewis would necessarily have seen magic as inherently moral or immoral any more than science is moral or immoral; what matters is the motivation behind it. I think that’s best seen in the companion-pieces The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.

    It the essay is where Lewis points out the motivations of magicians and early scientists (and later scientists are not a step-change in this regard) were in many cases identical, specifically, not so much as to uncover knowledge as to acquire power over nature. And while that’s not in itself necessarily a bad thing (power over a certain virus would be quite useful at this exact moment) it’s easy to see how it might not exactly be healthy for a soul to have such a desire to control (a Will to Power)?

    And in the novel there’s that odd passage regarding the character of Merlin which speculates that morality is ‘drawing to a point’ with many things that were in the grey area in previous ages now becoming firmly either good or evil. Now even in the context of the fiction that’s presented as speculation, so it would be wrong to ascribe it to Lewis (as it is wrong to ascribe to any author of fiction or drama the opinions which they put in the mouths of their characters) but it is evidently an idea which occurred to Lewis.

    Also remember Lewis’s point (in Mere Christianity I think) mocking those who claim that the fact we no longer hang witches as evidence of our moral superiority over earlier humans, pointing out that we didn’t stop hanging witches because we decided hanging witches was wrong, we stopped hanging witches because we stopped believing witches existed. If there really were such creatures as humans who had made deals with the Enemy of All for powers which they used to harm others, we would certainly at least consider hanging them. That is, the morality again is separate form the fact of magic’s existence.

  14. Regarding the Silmarillion and Children of Hurin, I also find them more moving than LOTR. I believe this is because they more directly channel the ancient myths on which they are based and, thus, have more of an emotional “Punch” to them.

  15. You may be right, Ethan: with both those books, it feels like drinking the undiluted spirit of which LotR is the more palatable, but correspondingly less intense, mixer version of.

  16. Indeed, when I read The Children of Hurin in particular, I feel more like I am reading a Norse saga than LOTR.

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