Next Friday, November 22, 2013, will mark 50 years since C. S. Lewis died. As a way to commemorate his life, my posts of the next seven days will address one of the seven volumes comprising the Chronicles of Narnia. (This won’t simply be a summary of the books; if you haven’t already read them, please read them for yourself.) Like opening the door of a wardrobe, each volume will serve as my starting point.
Before I begin, however, anyone who has studied or is more than casually interested in Narnia and the Lewis vision for his stories should also read Planet Narnia by Dr. Michael Ward. The book is subtitled: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.
There’s no set rule about the Chronicles of Narnia. The individual books may be read separately and enjoyed as stand-alone tales. But reading the seven volumes as a single unit adds a second, broader layer to one’s reading pleasure.
Professor Ward argues there’s a third layer, a “deeper magic” if you will, wherein Lewis laid out his seven chronicles by a purposefully hidden structure. Ward makes the compelling case that each volume’s thematic elements connect logically with one of seven planetary objects: Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Saturn. It’s a fascinating thesis and I find Dr. Ward’s presentation makes a lot of sense.
Lewis dedicates his first volume of Narnia to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. The cover page for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe includes the subtitle: A Story for Children. In his dedication, Lewis observes Lucy has already grown “too old for fairy tales” but he also predicts the day will come when she’s “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” In typical understatement, Lewis laments the commonly accepted fallacy that fairy tales are meant only for children. He believed (as I do) that the adult imagination also thrives when brought under the enchantment of fairy tales.
To the left, I’ve reproduced the illustration from page one, chapter one of my copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I love plain pen and ink sketches like these because their simplicity allows one’s imagination to interact directly with the story without undue distraction.
This drawing sets the scene; an unassuming wardrobe invites you in, where one’s brain greets and engages the creative process. I don’t need an elaborate scratch-and-sniff book; my brain understands the feel of soft fur on my cheeks and how that sensation differs from something “hard and rough and even prickly!” My five senses identify with Lucy’s perplexing and yes, slightly frightening experience as she traverses the unusual (and magical) wardrobe into an other-world that she learns is called Narnia.
When the first Narnia movie was released in 2005, I went to see it … more from curiosity than genuine enthusiasm. I expected I might experience significant dissonance if the characters portrayed on the big screen didn’t line up with the images my mind had fashioned. That turned out to be the case.
The most jarring incongruity (for me) was how Aslan appeared. Even acknowledging the complexity of computer graphical imaging necessary to produce a convincing talking/walking/pouncing lion, the film’s Aslan was exactly that for me − a CGI fabrication. Try as they surely did, the majesty and power imbued in Lewis’s main character never conveyed itself onto the screen for me. And much as I like the sound of Liam Neeson’s voice, I would rather have heard a completely unknown (but sonorous) voice speaking as Aslan.
Maybe I’m being picky? I recognize the high degree of difficulty involved in transmitting a well-loved book over to visual media. Something (many somethings?) will be diminished. It’s similar to black and white films that were transformed when they’d been colorized. The producer’s vision was altered. Ditto the aspect ratio differences between widescreen and television screen. The change results in two similar but divergent products. Depending on the film, it’s often not an improvement.
On the C. S. Lewis Foundation website, there’s a Resources tab one may choose to obtain “Study Guides” for the first three books of the Narnia series. (A tie-in connected to the three films that have been released to date?)
I must confess some consternation about products like these study guides. The idea of enjoying a book on its own merits, digging one’s way into original material (as opposed to a secondary resource − no matter how good it is), this strikes me as counterintuitive. Why not just read the book instead?
As one who loves music, I always appreciate Lewis’s appeal to our aural sense. In the final chapter of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, there’s a brief mention of the “mermen and mermaids swimming close to the castle steps and singing … stranger, sweeter, and more piercing, came the music of the sea people.” This passage conveys (to my mind’s ear) an ineffable quality of harmony as I have seldom heard during my lifetime. The music stirs an unspeakable joy.
And then, the inevitable lump in my throat (no matter how many times I’ve read this book) as King Peter and King Edmund, Queen Susan and Queen Lucy ride off on their horses to hunt the White Stag. It is the end of the book, yes, and even though I know it’s not the end of the Narnian adventure, as with every good book I don’t want it to end!
I want to take comfort in the Professor’s assurances: “You’ll get back to Narnia again some day.” But my sense is rather to heed his warning (on the final page) not to “talk too much about it even among yourselves” lest this treasured morsel of the transcendent utterly fade from memory.
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