Friday, September 9, 2011

Adventure classics -- A faun in a snowy wood. . .

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

by C.S. Lewis

How different the world of books for young people would be if C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t been friends. Or if a group of scholarly, middle-aged men, several of them Oxford dons, hadn’t gotten together after work to talk about writing over a few pitchers of beer. Without such after-hours companionship it’s hard to imagine the pair of serious medievalists publishing books such as The Hobbit or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe -- not works likely to advance their professional reputations at the university.

Tolkien started it, of course, with The Hobbit. It was one of the books read to the Inklings, the informal writing workshop he and Lewis attended, and its 1937 publication to critical acclaim opened the doors to serious consideration of fantasy as a literary vehicle for children and young adults.

Still, Lewis’s publishers were dubious when he presented them with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- his first foray into children’s writing. And after its 1950 publication, some critics believed the book’s elements of fairy tale and mythology would be detrimental to young readers, even hindering their ability to relate to reality. And that the frightening sequences were too frightening, and the elements of Christianity were too pronounced for the book to reach a wide market.

But readers loved the story of young Lucy Pevensie and her persecution by her jealous brother Edmund. So much that Lewis went on to write six more books about the magical country of Narnia ruled by the good lion Aslan, and the adventures there of the Pevensie children and their friends. Lewis named the heroine of the original book Lucy, after his goddaughter Lucy Barfield, to whom he dedicated it.

The seven books were grouped together as The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lewis later wrote a prequel, The Magician’s Nephew, to explain how the land of Narnia came into being.

As writing, the books are far less seamless than Tolkien’s work. Lewis borrowed more widely than Tolkien, cobbling together Norse and Greek mythology -- he said in later years that the book began with a mental picture of a faun in a snowy wood -- with elements of fairy tales and an allegory of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

And unlike Tolkien, whose invented names sound always sound appropriate -- he was, after all, a professor of philology -- Lewis’s sometimes seem cobbled together. But there is a weird logic in giving the Christ figure, Aslan, a Turkish name that means “lion.” The Ottoman sultans who terrorized Europe for centuries sometimes used the word as a title. But as characters frequently caution each other in the Chronicles, Aslan is not, after all, a tame lion.

(Next Friday -- which is worse -- a bad family member or no family at all? A young girl based on a real life castaway finds out in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins.)

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