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…
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.