Numinous Narnia

No links from me today, because this week has involved interviews for two very different jobs, in very different places. (Erm. Both of them have serious Winter. And they both involve education and learning. But that’s about it for the similarities.) Both are things I could see myself doing, but they’re totally different directions, which is quite cool. Anyway, that means I’ve been prepping for the interview yesterday (for one of those jobs) and the interview today (for the other) all week rather than doing.. well, much else.

But, since my interview today was at 2pm, and since the new Narnia movie came out, and since I am not often out near suburban movie theatres at times I could easily go see a movie, I bought a ticket online for a showing at 4pm, and had a lovely time watching it.

[momentary digression]

This is not a movie review:  I loved it, but it does not follow the letter of the book (and does, on review, mangle it in more than a few places), but does, to my mind, follow the spirit of it. It’s a distillation of essence, not a replica.  It is absolutely stunningly gorgeous and visually powerful, though the first line was not the first line it should have been. I recommend it. In part, I wanted to go see it in its first week because what I *really* want them to make is the Silver Chair, which has always been the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite. On which more in a moment.

But I am also a fairly deliberately uncritical watcher of most movies (except for picking on historical inaccuracies in movies that are trying to take themselves seriously that way and getting it wrong) because my head is full of literary analysis and musical analysis and historical costume design, and theatrical staging analysis and much more, and I have found that I need at least *one* media form where I do not cling that tightly to the analytical, and allow myself to get swept away by the pretty. And this was very pretty. Dazzling, in fact, and rich in detail.

(Also, in general, I believe that books and movies are different for a reason, and I’d rather see a movie do things that movie can do well, rather than try to do the thing that books do well and fail. Which, again, I think this managed, though at the expense of some of the things that make the book an amazing book.)

There are places where I cried, even while knowing perfectly well what was about to happen – or perhaps, because of it. The movie (all three of them now, really) get something right that movies don’t always do, which is the sensory richness of Lewis. There’s a point where he describes digging hands into Aslan’s mane, for example, or the richness of the colors, or the feeling of dragon scales being torn away. And the movie gets that part right.

Back to the books.

My copies of Narnia are well-worn, and from an edition that puts The Magician’s Nephew where it properly ought to be. (Which is to say, last.) They have dog-eared pages, and broken spines, and they’re going yellow, in the way that books that are thirty years old do.

They were not the first books I read, when I could read books like that – The Wizard of Oz wins that award. But they’re there, very early. And they continue to be there. They’re one of the series that are a repeated touchstone for me, as they have been for so many others. (And like many of my friends, I always wanted to be Lucy.)

But watching today, I thought about why that is. Part of it is that – given the series as a whole – Lewis actually does a fascinating job of telling different kinds of stories. You have The Silver Chair, which is in many ways a very medieval fable or lais. You have The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is partly ‘defeat big evil’ and partly coming of age. You have Dawn Treader which is very much a hero’s journey.

And yet – and especially if, like me, you have not only read his other fiction, but his non-fiction and his letters – what continues to fascinate me about his writing is the complexity of what lies beneath the surface. Oh, it’s possible to get irritated, as an adult reader, at occasionally heavy-handed allegory. (And of course, there are places where he is so very much writing from a mid-20th-century English male perspective.)

But it’s the glimpses of those depths – or perhaps, glimpses of the stained glass light through a cathedral window – that fascinate me. Those moments where questions of identity, of what it means to be a grown-up in the best possible ways, show through. Of whether honor is bravery in the face of danger (maybe), or whether it’s really something more: being willing to look at yourself, and to try and do better. Of looking at what we might have become, if we had not taken that one extra step forward into transformation and a new world.

It’s those questions that paved the way for so much of my adult reading, into the questions raised by the post-Great-War novels from Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy Sayers to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. (Of how to go on after tremendous loss, with something like grace and dignity. Most of the time.) It’s that exploration of the ‘what if’ moment that has guided my reading into character-drive science fiction and fantasy: into Lois McMaster Bujold, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull, and many others.

And there’s something in what it means to be responsible – the power and importance of knowing what you’re changing, when you’re king, or queen, or wielding magic – that also lies in the heart of the Narnia stories for me. And that, of course, has lead me deep into all kinds of non-fiction, and into one of the paths of the numinous in our world: connecting people with information that changes their lives.

I could stop there, but there’s one more thing. I mentioned that The Silver Chair is the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite, and I think it’s because it’s in many ways the most medieval of the lot. Lewis was, of course, a medievalist by profession, and his writing on courtly love is still some of the finest on the topic.

But what that reminds me of is something that it’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to place people in a tidy little box, and label them with something. What Lewis reminds me of – what Lewis *always* reminds me off – is of what we lose if we do that. If you read Narnia, you read richness and story, and heroic acts and growth and redemption and transformation. But if that’s all you read, you lose the moments of adult and mature grief that echo in some of his works. Of his own transformation from a determined bachelor into a loving husband. Of someone who could become his own devil’s advocate, or write letters to friends of great power and potential. And none of those truly touch his actual professional work, or the students he taught directly, or many other topics.

The Narnia stories echo all of that, but I think you have to be looking for it to see all the places those things are tucked away. But once you know it’s there, the glimmers and gleams of those other moments, those glimpses into sideways worlds, touching alongside ours as much as Narnia does, but just as distant, reward attention again and again.

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1 comment to Numinous Narnia

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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