So I just re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the I-dunno-how-many-eth time, and it’s still one of my favourite stories. I first read it in grade 7, from the school library. We had a copy of The Magician’s Nephew at home, but when I was a younger kid, I didn’t like it at all – the witch is too mean. But then I found Prince Caspian in the library when I was about 13, and read it, and suddenly thought, hey, haven’t I heard about this Narnia place before somewhere? So I read all of the Narnia books in very short order, and have been hooked ever since.
On this reading, much as on yesterday’s reading of Harry Potter, what struck me yet again is the sheer ability of the author. Both J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis are just such good writers. The way they play with language, the tone of their narration, it pulls me in and carries me along each time.
Lewis writes straight at the reader, and very definitely a child reader – it’s obvious from the way he explains big words, and doesn’t assume any “adult” knowledge or mindset. Rowling has a similar tone, but not nearly as conversational as Lewis’. Her narrator is removed a step or so from the reader, more in the background, off-camera, while Lewis’ is right there in the foreground, speaking directly into the camera, as it were.
With both of them, what delights me every time is the level of realism in their narration (which sounds odd when you’re talking about a fantasy story, but it’s in the details, not the plot or ideas). Lewis especially excels in this. His characters get cold, tired, hungry, miserable, when that’s just what they should be doing, given the circumstances; for example, when Edmund runs away from the beavers’ house to find the witch, he slips in the snow, keeps banging his shins, has loads of snow dumped on him from overhanging branches, stumbles in the dark and trips over rocks… Many other writers would just gloss over any of that, but not Lewis. And at other times, he simply tells the reader what the characters are feeling. After Aslan is dead, for example, when Susan and Lucy mourn over him, the narrator says “it was all more lonely and hopeless and horrid than I know how to describe” (144, Lions edition 1980). And because in other places in the story the narrator is so very good at describing things in detail, that statement carries tremendous weight. If he can’t even describe it, it must have been very, very bad indeed… Lewis’ narrator gets away with a “tell, don’t show” because in so many other places he excels at “show, don’t tell”. It’s a delight to read.
However, I’m also noticing in this reading some “flaws” in both books – well, flaws for a certain standard of writing. Both Lewis and Rowling fudge some of the details, leave out plot points that should be there, have people know things that they couldn’t really know otherwise (just small details, nothing major – things that make me say “how did he know that?”).
And the realism, which in some instances is so remarkable, in others is completely disregarded. With Harry Potter, for example – aren’t there any Social Service agencies who concern themselves with Harry’s well-being as a small child? Are the Dursleys actually his legal guardians, under British laws? Wouldn’t they have to deal with courts and child welfare agencies first? I doubt that a letter tucked in with a baby on your doorstep would be enough to establish legal guardianship… In fact, the “real world” that Harry and the Dursleys inhabit is as unreal as the wizarding world of Hogwarts – it bears very little resemblance to the real-life UK of the 1990s (which is when the HP stories take place).
The same goes for Narnia. The Pevensies arrive in a magical land, fight big battles, are crowned kings and queens within a few days of their arrival, and never once think back to their mother and father back in England? By the time they grow up and fall back through the wardrobe, they have completely forgotten everything that ever happened to them in their earthly life, and only suddenly remember it at the sight of the lamppost in the woods? By my reckoning, they’re in their pre-teens and early teens when the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begin to take place – a kid doesn’t just forget their first decade of life as quickly as that.
That’s the kind of lack of realism which, paradoxically, becomes believable because of the realism in the narration in other parts of the story. Both writers lead the reader into a completely willing suspension of disbelief; in fact, for most readers (okay, for this reader. I can’t really speak for others), disbelief goes right out the window and requires no conscious suspension. It’s one of the hallmarks of a good writer.
Oh, and by the by, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy run a environmentalist homeschool-encouraging kingdom in Narnia. No, really, it says so: “they made good laws and kept the peace and kept good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school…” (166). Yet another reason to want to move to Narnia.