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Narnian Apocalyptica

Unable to sleep last night, I got up and spent two hours re-reading The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis.

I had recently started re-reading the series, based on a really awesome series of blog posts by Ana Mardoll, who is doing a chapter by chapter break down of the Narnian books. It makes for fascinating reading, because as with many such things that you love as a kid and never take a really close look at, there’s…well, a lot going on.*

Susan, always a problem, get so much the short end of the stick when you look closely that it’s…honestly, kinda bizarre.

To take another beloved children’s classic, we all mostly hate Mary in the Little House books, because Mary is very hateable. Not a problem, no question, and while Ma gets really weirdly passive aggressive and pits them against each other on occasion, still, there’s Something About Mary, and not in the good way.

Now much has been made of the problem of Susan. I knew that going in. But even as I thought that she got screwed, I did recall Susan being sort of like Mary in the books as a kid, and then I went and re-read them and actually looked closely, and…

Huh.

There is a really weird dichotomy between what Susan does and how the narrator tells us to feel about it. Susan is actually a very practical, tender-hearted person who cries to find herself back in Narnia and won’t shoot to kill if she can help it. The narrator, however, appears to detest her, and even Aslan (who is really a colossal dick in many, many ways throughout the books—such is the prerogative of gods) isn’t great. We are told flat out that “Susan was the worst” and other such, when she’s…actually behaving pretty reasonably all around.

Lewis, when he gets on a roll, is a really good writer. He is fun. The were-wolf’s speech in Prince Caspian is lovely. The whole sequence with the Isle of Dreams in Dawn Treader (particularly the American version, which is a LOT better–there’s a wiki with the side-by-side changes, yes, I was shocked too) is fabulous. I even liked the discussion of various kinds of loam eaten by dryads. And I will hear no evil said of Marsh-wiggles.

And as much as I detested Last Battle for many, many, many failures, for unbounded racism and generalized despair and some “Hey, let’s shoot Bambi’s mother!” gratuitous tearjerking and “YAY! Everybody dies! Let’s all be thrilled and gloss over how Eustace and Jill’s parents and poor Susan must feel right now!”—despite all that, as apocalypses go, the end of Last Battle can stand toe to toe with Revelations any day, as far as I’m concerned. The stars falling and the damned creatures running into Aslan’s shadow and the lighting and the monsters….it’s a helluva thing.

As a kid, I recall hating the first half of Last Battle. I have, in fact, only read the first half twice (unless I blotted it out) and once was as an adult, last night.** But I know I read the apocalyptic bits any number of times, because man, that’s a scene.

He’s a fine writer.

As a narrator, on the other hand, he tries to do this avuncular thing that works pretty well about ninety percent of the time and just crashes and burns the other ten percent. He shows beautifully. His telling—when it works it works, but in some cases, you get this weird tug-of-war where Lewis-the-writer shows you a thing and Lewis-the-narrator tells you how to feel about it, and Lewis-the-narrator is flat-out wrong.

It’s…yeah. I have no idea how to even process that. I’m not sure it even can be processed—he’s the author, what he says goes, so perhaps wrong is the wrong term. But it’s weird. If you read it and decide that he’s an unreliable narrator—dude. Edmund is enchanted, abused, and NINE YEARS OLD. Eustace has been kidnapped and (while whiny) is doing exactly the right things in trying desperately to get his captors to take him to a British embassy (although he’s still a dick to Reepicheep, which is one of the unforgivable sins.) Nikabrik the dwarf is the only sane one of a bunch who are running a losing war based on astrology (and Caspian drew first!)

And poor Susan just gets screwed, from first to last, by a profoundly dickish god, presumably because Lewis needed an object lesson in The One Distracted By Worldly Concerns to go with his Virtuous Pagan and make a nice set.

I’ve often noted that writing dialog is an entirely different skill-set than writing everything else. You see this illustrated most starkly in fan fic. There are people who cannot write a book, who should never be allowed within ten feet of a book, who can nevertheless write dialog that leaves you convulsed on the floor. And there are people who can write exceedingly well who produce some profoundly wretched dialog. (Mr. King, I am looking in your direction.)

Maybe the narrator, like dialog, is a different skill than Writing The Rest Of The Stuff. Or maybe sometimes we’re just wrong about the books we’re writing. I don’t know.

That’s all. There is no moral, except I should probably not read beloved but problematic children’s books at two in the morning.

Tomorrow, my mother arrives, and then—to France and cheese! Woot!

 

 

 

 

*In fairness to Mr. Lewis, many authors might not hold up so well to a line-by-line scrutiny—but on the other hand, if they weren’t such beloved children’s classics, one wouldn’t feel the need to go over them with a fine toothed comb in the first place.

**Okay, look, I KNOW because it’s Lewis, that Rilian and Jewel are not an item, but…dude. I mean, you don’t even have to walk across the street to ship that, and I don’t even do slash.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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I read the entire series start-to-finish (in chronological order rather than published, because my English father re-arranged them before I was allowed to start reading) between the ages of 6 and 8... and I STILL haven't forgiven Lewis for The Last Battle.

I do remember feeling bitter and resentful towards Susan, though. Not because of Lewis's puzzling dislike of her - I adored her in the first two books - but because later we find out she turned away from the memory of the adventure/fantasy, pretending it was all pretend. I realize now that she had her reasons - what do you MEAN I'm TOO OLD?! - but when I was 8, that was a serious sore spot. Mostly because I felt very passionately that if I'd been lucky enough to stumble through a magic wardrobe, I would never, ever have gone back. :)

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No, that's exactly how it went in the books. Time in Narnia is unspeakably weird in its relationship to the real world.

One of the things I actually really liked about the next movie--which had some issues, believe me--was that it actually addressed that, which the books...didn't, really. You had the four kids in London standing around going "You know, it is really damn weird and frustrating to be kids again after being adults and rulers for so long, and this is messing with my head."

Not that I'm in the Narnia fandom, but I don't suppose there are any good fics that deal with this that you could rec? Because now I really want to see them be adults-used-to-ruling-an-entire-kingdom (logistics, supply, maybe even treaties and dealing with hard years of drought or harsh winters) and maybe even having had lovers and killed people and dealt with politics and other experiences that tend to mature you.

And then suddenly being stuck in kid bodies again and having almost no agency of their own and not expected to be able to fight or take care of themselves, and having their opinions not valued and just a whole ball of frustration. And how they deal with it, and maybe going into politics or fudging their age to get into the military or ~something~.

You might try The Stone Gryphon by rthstewart. It's here: http://archiveofourown.org/series/15017

The third part isn't done, but the first two are novel length and complete. I recommend them highly.

Oh, that is interesting. Thank you! :D

*grin* Well, ask and you shall receive, although it's very short...

There's a whole bunch of fic! I was only ever peripheral to Narnia fandom, so I don't have a lot at my fingertips, but let me see if there's any I saved...

Hmm, most of what I had gives nods to the issue but doesn't really dig deeply into that pain, which I gather is what you're looking for. Drat, because I know I've seen some.

Oh, burntcopper wrote several fics in which Edmund and Peter go into the military and are generally considered to be the sort of terrifying bastard you're glad to have on your side but still find terrifying (because they came into basic training having spent several formative years in stab-him-till-he-stays-down warfare), IIRC. And I think those fics play with the issue at least some.

I wrote one Susan fic, Between, which I link also in case it strikes your fancy, although it seems tacky to self-rec. I'll be interested to see whatever recs others have!

Angst is good, but so is determination. *g* I was in the Detective Conan/Case Closed fandom for a while, where the main protagonist is de-aged from 17 to... 8? 9? A kid, anyway. And it helps that he knows a mad scientist inventor, and is a very smart detective, and it's somewhat played for laughs.

But still, there are inventive and interesting ways that he gets around his kid-ness, even uses it to his advantage. And he does this absolutely hilarious kid-imitation, where he's all wide-eyed and cute, and then he turns around is all serious business. Now that'd give you mental whiplash.

If I had the time/inclination to go back and reread the Narnia books, I'd probably be writing the fic where the four of them do a kid-act as a cover, and then get up to their necks in trouble doing stupidly heroic/noble things that their adult lives in Narnia let them get themselves out of again. And the boys make wooden practice swords and the girls teach themselves how to make bows and arrows so they can keep their archery in practice. Like the Secret Seven/Famous Five/etc, but with Sharp Pointy Objects! :D

And also thank you for the burntcopper recs, those are great :D And your fic Between is good and made me so sad for Susan, and also the rest of them, but mainly Susan.

I only really remember not liking Susan, I know at first i *wanted* to like her, because she was an older sister, as I am (why did that matter?), but she turned out to be not the kind of character I want to identify with.

But then... I think she grew up in The Worst Way, into the kind of person people came down on me for not being, too concerned with how she looks, thinking only of the Here and now, and deriding fairy tales as "childish", even though she had lived one.

I got the impression from the book version that the semi-magical animal they were questing after when they stumbled back across the lamp-post, was either a contrivance of Aslan, or Aslan himself in another shape, because It Was Time for their return. Haven't re-read the book in years, though.

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