The Lion, The Witch and The *Snore*

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KB
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Sun Nov 22, 2009 1:18 am Post

I have just finished reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my son. I can't remember if I ever read the book myself as a kid, or if I just knew it from the eighties BBC series (and obviously the film a few years ago). But I have to say, I am shocked at how... Well, dull this book was. That's rather difficult to admit for two reasons: 1) This is a classic children's book that everyone is supposed to love; 2) C.S. Lewis is a highly respected scholar of medieval literature, and as such I have read a number of his informative essays (having studied medieval literature myself) and found them enlightening and highly perceptive. Perhaps it's just down to the changes in taste since he wrote the book, but blimey... Although my son did a good job of seeming interested all the way through, I found it laborious. The prose was leaden on the tongue - given that Lewis's beloved medieval literature was steeped in oral traditions, it seems odd that his own prose is so difficult to read aloud - and the characters are, well, flat as pancakes. I resisted reading J.K. Rowling for years, but reading Harry Potter to my son was far more enjoyable (she actually bothered giving her characters - well, characters). The vast majority of the book seems to be taken up by descriptions of the scenery (and really rather tawdry descriptions, too - "the green bushes and blue sea and squawking seaguls and muscular centaurs and a really dull list that spans half a page blah blah blah"); Aslan is a frightful, priggish bore; Peter goes from schoolboy to heroic warrior without so much as a hint of character development; Susan receives a bow and arrow but isn't allowed to fight because women and battle is an "ugly" combination; while the main battle is happening, even though the rest of the book alternates between viewpoints, we are elsewhere, with Aslan the dull lion while he reawakens the stone people; and finally, when we do eventually join the battle, we get a paragraph and the queen dies between chapters.

I don't often read classic literature and wonder how it attained classic status. And I know some of the kids I used to teach really liked the book (although they only read it because they saw the film, and that may be the key there). But this was dreadful. I'm looking forward to reading "How to Train Your Dragon" to my son next (because I know that's at least funny - I read that to a class of children and it was great fun). Are there any classics you have read, either children's books or otherwise, that you wonder how on earth got to be classics in the first place? Has anyone read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe recently who would like to defend it?

All the best,
Keith
(Relieved to have finished the book...)

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xiamenese
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Sun Nov 22, 2009 2:33 am Post

I don't know that I want to defend it, but perhaps to excuse it and the others in the series. Keith, don't try the others ... it's probably the best, though "Prince Caspian" might give it a run for its money, and the last one is dire, in my opinion.

Defence? Well I have always understood that C.S.Lewis wrote each of them in a weekend. Some say that he did it having been inspired by Tolkien who was struggling his way through "The Lord of the Rings" at the time, others ... and this seems to me more likely ... say that he wrote them to show Tolkien that writing children's stories was easy and why was he making such a meal — 16-year-long meal — of LoTR. The other side of it is that having been converted to Catholicism by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis out-Catholicked his mentor, and the whole underlying Aslan-as-Christ rather overwhelms the plot to my mind.

I don't mind them ... I have read them all recently, as a former student of mine doing an MA in English at another university had been set to write a paper on Christianity in some modern* writing and asked for my help. I thought the Chronicles of Narnia would be a good text for her as the images are only skin deep and as a non-Christian she would be able to make the connections without too much difficulty.

As a counter-question, what do you make of another set of children's classics from roughly the same era, Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons", etc.?

Mark

Edit: *"modern" here tends to mean anything after Dickens, and most definitely anything from the latter half of the 20th Century!
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Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:16 am Post

No Narnia defenders here. I barely got through Lion, and didn't even try the others. And that's when I was in the target age group. (Well, more or less. It was about the same time that I read LoTR for the first time.) I thought it was a huge amount of setup for about three pages of anticlimactic action. That was my impression of the movie, too, which reminded me why I didn't read the other books.

Don't bother with his Silent Planet books either, as they're just as bad. Plus, reading Out of the Silent Planet as an adult, I found the Christian Themes (tm) annoyingly heavy-handed.

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 10:47 am Post

I'm glad it's not just me. I knew there was a big Christian metaphor going on, but that wouldn't bother me at all if it was done well - I'm sure Jesus wasn't such a pompous bore as Aslan though. I have heard that one of the girls gets killed in a train crash in the last book, pretty much as punishment for wearing make-up or something, although I've never read it, but I had always thought the first book was more fun; it's not.

(I have to admit I never got through LotR, which again is shameful given my respect for Tolkien as a medieval scholar - in fact he taught the professor who taught the professor who taught me :) - but that was more my own failing in that I just don't have enough taste for fantasy to get through such a long fantasy work. I could see why others would love it, at least.)

As a counter-question, what do you make of another set of children's classics from roughly the same era, Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons", etc.?


I'll have to get back to you on that, as it's been so long I read them. I imagine there is plenty from the era that still appeals though, just as with adult fiction, and just as contemporary children's writing varies wildly. For instance, Michael Morpurgo is a very well respected contemporary children's author, but I tried reading one of his books to my class of Year 5s (10 year-olds, the intended audience) and it was so dry that half of the class were looking out of the window every time I picked it up. But you can read them the century-old Highwayman poem by Alfred Noyes and, with a tiny bit of explanation (and a stern reminder not to start giggling at "French cocked" or "pistol butts") and they're on the edge of their seats.

All the best,
Keith

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 11:19 am Post

On LL&W, it's actually not the first in the series. The first is "The Magician's Nephew", but LW&W is the one everyone has heard of and so reads first ... and of course that's the one that gets made into a film first. But it's from the events in "The Magician's Nephew" that the lamp-post ends up in Narnia, and the tree whose wood is used to make the wardrobe is brought back from Narnia. But it really is a somewhat silly story.

I won't bother to check up on someone getting killed in the last one, but it's "and they all go to heaven with Aslan and (presumably) 'live' happily ever after".

As for the characters being cardboard cut-outs, yes. I felt that the only one who was even a semblance of a real person was Lucy, that she was the only one that C.S. Lewis cared about. This was her story and the others were just there to fill the plot. It comes out in the recent film too, I think ... the only one of the four who isn't totally ham!

I'll be interested to know what you make of Arthur Ransome if you read them to your son. I have to say, I never read any of this when I was a child, even though I am of the era. At the age of 10 I was into ancient history and mythology, moving on to psychology, Freud and Jung in particular, by the time I was about 13. I didn't read any of the other classics, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Dickens and so on either. I had Pickwick Papers read to me in class when I was 9, but I was sitting too far from the window to look out ... it bored the pants off me, and I still can't read Dickens; I can't find any interest in or empathy with any character he created.

The children's classics — with the exception of "The Hobbit" and LoTR, which I read at university, and unlike you, I couldn't put the latter down! — came when I read them to my daughter. The others, now that I have to teach the students here a bit about them ... but I tell them they're on their own with Dickens!

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 11:31 am Post

I agree totally. Very flat. And the movie underlines it - almost no story.

I have rosy memories of Swallows and Amazons and sequels, enhanced in recent years by learning that Ransome was a spy—well, spy-ish. In fact they triggered a life-long enthusiasm for boats and sailing. But I am reluctant to re-read them in case my memories are exploded.


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Sun Nov 22, 2009 12:19 pm Post

I never got into the Narnia books either, although I did read them all as a child. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was my favourite of the set, but overall it ranked pretty low on my scale of preferences. My overriding memory is of the Snow Queen and Turkish Delight, but I think that was because when younger I had been very scared of the fairy tale -- but my children have just told me that the character in Narnia isn't a Snow Queen at all, but a witch of some description, which says it all really. I suppose that is the problem with allegory; I have ended up remembering things arising from intertextuality rather than from the actual content of the book. My son, by the way, says the Narnia books are "doctrinistic but entertaining".

As for Swallows and Amazons et al... well, I loved them as a child, and I loved them all over again when my children discovered them. Up until recently, we used to take our boat from the Deben to the Orwell on holiday to mess about there for a couple of weeks each summer, with the children playing pirates and stuff. The first year, the weather was appalling -- but the chandlery at Woolverstone marina (close to Pin Mill, on the edge of "We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea" territory) stocked most of the Arthur Ransome books, so we bought two a day until the rain stopped. All four of us fought over them, parents and children alike. And it was rather nice to be able to read the non-Lake-District stories in situ, adding fresh excitement to passing each named buoy at Harwich, or exploring "Secret Water" in the dinghy.

Arthur Ransome seems to have remembered what it was like to go on adventures (real or imagined) and have fun. His work is affectionate, and you get the feeling that he would still have loved to be doing those things himself (a bit like Uncle Jim a.k.a Captain Flint). C S Lewis, on the other hand, always struck me as rather pompous and joyless, like the row of assorted ministers who used to preside over Wednesday-morning assemblies at primary school.
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Sun Nov 22, 2009 1:49 pm Post

Put me down solidly in the Arthur Ransome camp. I came to S&A later in life, partly from an obsessive-compulsion to mess about with boats and fish, and partly because an elderly English friend once told me she stayed sane hiding in the Tube tunnels listening to German bombs stomping through her neighborhood only by reading Swallows and Amazons and imagining she was camping on Wildcat Island with the gang.

I read all twelve every three or four years (confession: I'm a serial-re-reader--Trollope, Hardy, Austen, Eliot, Conrad, Melville, James, et al), and find them just as engaging and friendly as I did the first time through, back in the 1980s. So much so that I, unwisely or not, have a character in my first premeditated act of fiction, now making its way around Midtown Manhattan ("lovely stuff, but we're just now taking a break from midlist literary fiction"), who is perhaps unhealthily obsessed with recreating an idyllic seafaring childhood that never quite existed.

So, Swallows and Amazons for ever.

All my friends who read them to their kids found themselves enjoying them just as much as the kids. Which is a pretty good endorsement.

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 2:56 pm Post

You know, I don't think I've ever read Swallows and Amazons. It's one of those books that teachers talk about (like The Silver Sword), but looking it up I don't think I ever read it - so it's one to look forward to then. At 400 pages, I think it may be a little long for reading to my five year-old just yet, though, despite his insistence on me reading him proper children's novels these days.

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:17 pm Post

I think most of my boat-hippy friends started indoctrinating their offspring at around five or six. Most of the kids bit right in and demanded more, and so it can be a commitment: there's 12 volumes, at about 400 pages each (and readily available for 50p at any good used bookstore or boot sale in the UK).

The nice thing is, the kids seem like real kids, doing things real kids do (or at least they did before overprotective helicopter parenting became the vogue), mostly by themselves, with adults intruding only in supporting roles.

Not something you see much anymore. Everything these days seems all clotted up with murky moral messages and Good Examples, and the idea that kids ought to have fun, and find out things for themselves, has begun to seem quaint. There are a few wincers here and there, as you might expect of 1930s lit, and the kids are definitely middle-class, which seems unpopular these days (the English definition of middle-class, not the American one).

But on the whole they're just ripping good yarns with believable characters you wish had populated your own childhood.

Instead of the friend who ran across me fishing and reading book on a summertime riverbank way back a half-century ago when I was around ten, and he said, "Whatcha doin?" and I said "readin' this here book," and he said, "Why?"

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:38 pm Post

I reckon we read them to Fiona when she was about 6 ... when she wasn't reading them to herself. She liked being read to before going to sleep.

My wife loved them when she was young, and actually had a copy of Swallows and Amazons autographed by Arthur Ransome, whom she met at some do as a child, but in the intervening years, it had got lost ... the way these things do!

She told me that she never read the last one, although she had a copy, as that would have brought it all to an end.

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Sun Nov 22, 2009 6:41 pm Post

KB wrote:At 400 pages, I think it may be a little long for reading to my five year-old just yet, though, despite his insistence on me reading him proper children's novels these days.

You might be surprised. My father read The Hobbit as an ongoing bedtime story when I was small, and it took forever -- in fact, I'm not convinced he ever actually finished reading it to me. But I vividly remember looking forward to the next instalment, and also thinking how nice it was that there were plenty more episodes yet to come. It was like a commitment to a long-term promise, in a way. There is more to a child's enjoyment of a story than simply reaching the dénouement!

And you might find that your son takes Swallows and Amazons off you to carry on reading it for himself, especially if you stop at an exciting bit. I reckon my two must have been five or six when they started reading Arthur Ransome (although it is hard to remember exactly, because they have re-read the books so many times).
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Mon Nov 23, 2009 10:26 am Post

I've a vivid memory of our friends' boat anchored nearby, and I got up about midnight to pee and saw their cabin dark as a tomb, and in the cockpit, under a boom tent, their six-year-old daughter busily reading Secret Water (one of the Swallows and Amazons series) with a pair of dogleg flashlights duct-taped to a sail-hoop crammed down over her ball cap.

When she got her first boat, a small fifth-hand sailing dinghy, it was of course named Swallow, and her big stupid dog, who sailed with her, was named Amazon.

Nowadays she's grown, married, recently spawned, lives way over toward Seattle, was an Outward Bound sailing instructor and now makes her living rigging large sailboats and repairing sails.

Those books grow independent children.

BTW, you can safely read the last one (not Coots in the North, because Ransome never finished it), Great Northern?, because the series doesn't end so much as simply Stop, like a French movie.

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Mon Nov 23, 2009 1:53 pm Post

Lewis didn't write the series to make classic literature. He wrote for a under-served market of "prigs" (to use the terms of others) who wanted something to read that wasn't dreadfully boring. The Narnia series was all that some of us were allowed to read in the "fantasy" realm. LOTR was actually "forbidden" as being "excessively evil" and having no message of value. At least that is the drivel that I was given as a "young scholar".

So yes, all the criticism is legit if you are not the assumed target audience. If you were a young person in a conservative christian home, Lewis provided us this escape. It was a wonderful world where imaginations filled in the gaps that are being noted as criticism (legitimately). My friends and I could imagine that we were Peter and Edmund. We wondered about Lucy and what we would have done. We saw in Aslan, not a frightening prig, but the idea of a protector that should be feared as much as loved and worshiped.

Just a look at the other side of the picture.
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Mon Nov 23, 2009 2:27 pm Post

Jaysen, you are right of course that there is an audience, as you describe, that loved the Narnia books and still does no doubt, but it's not my understanding that C.S. Lewis was writing for that audience specifically, as I said above.

As for Tolkien, it's strange, isn't it, that conservative Christians forbid LoTR as excessively evil, as you say, and yet Tolkien had to struggle against the interpretation that it is not merely a Christian story — inevitably, given that he was a staunch Catholic all his life ... though I know that is not likely to be a recommendation in conservative Christian circles in the US ... there are many Christian elements that do come in — but that, in the eyes of Catholic literary criticism especially, it revived the Catholic/Christian novel as a tradition.

For him, he saw his world, the world that he created, as an attempt to recreate a mythology for England, something we had lost down the ages along with most of our folk culture.

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