Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Recreating myth in Narnia

This approach adds a second filter, that of a fictional world, and sets the mythic at a remove from the everyday world of the reader, encouraging them to go to the myth rather than have the myth brought to them. The impulse to create secondary worlds is as deeply rooted in the human psyche as the impulse to myth itself, and many authors have chosen to create explicitly alternative worlds for their stories rather than the equally alternative but on the surface congruent world of a story set in familiar surroundings. J.R.R. Tolkien is the acknowledged master of what he termed ‘the sub-creative art’ (Tolkien, 1938, p.53), and has been much imitated since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, by some more successfully than by others. Tolkien established the parameters for modern fantasy with his creation (or sub-creation), and I would argue, put myth centre-stage for this genre. The world of The Lord of the Rings only achieves the reality it does by Tolkien’s creation of the mythic history behind it, as described in The Silmarillion and his many other writings expounding the history of Middle Earth. He created a world that lived and breathed, that can almost be believed to be true as it hangs together consistently and therefore stands up in a way that many of the imitative ‘fantasylands’ (Jones, 1997, [web page]) cannot. I make this point to stress the influence of Tolkien’s work on modern children’s fantasies which are set in other worlds. Successfully realised, approaching Tolkien’s achievement, such ‘sub-creative acts’ can be seen as recreating myths, legends and folklore for an alternative world, reflecting them as our own world is reflected in the new one, and casting a new light on them in this way. To explore this further, I would like to look in particular at the sub-creative act of Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, and the way he recreated myth in his new world of Narnia.

The story of Narnia is a tale that grew as the series went on, from relatively simple beginnings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where four children follow the pattern of the universal hero myth (see above) in travelling to another world, enduring a series of tests and trials, before helping to redeem it from the clutches of the evil White Witch and ruling it for many years, as prophesised. The five central (in chronological terms) books of the Chronicles fit nicely into the categories of reworkings or reusings as explored above, introducing such traditional motifs as the ‘once and future King’ (Prince Caspian) and the fairy-lover (The Silver Chair). However, with the last two books Lewis wrote, covering the beginning and the end of Narnia’s existence, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, the mythic nature of Narnia is brought into focus, and the horizons of the sequence expand accordingly.

Lewis’s Christianity informs his sub-creation as thoroughly as it did his life, so it is no surprise that when he recreated the creation and end of the world for Narnia he imbued them with Christian perceptions. As Wood (2001) puts it: ‘The Narnia series reinvents the narrative of Christian teleology while leaving the values untouched’ (p.256). The creation of Narnia, a magical sequence delayed until half way through the book, begins with light (the stars and then the sun), moves on to plants, then animals, then man, or at least, the Narnian equivalent of talking animals, selected two by two like Noah’s Ark. Man in the human sense is not overlooked in the creation of Narnia, but it is significant that this is the one thing Aslan does not create, at least, not literally. He does set the Cabby in the place of Adam, as the first man and King of Narnia, and brings his wife (reflecting Eve being created from Adam) from London to be the first woman and Queen, but they are transformed, not created:

But it was neither hair nor clothes that made them look so different from their
old selves. Their faces had a new expression, especially the
King’s. All the sharpness and cunning and quarrelsomeness which he
had picked up as a London cabby seemed to have been washed away, and the courage
and kindness which he had always had were easier to see. Perhaps it
was the air of the young world that had done it, or talking with Aslan, or both.

The Magician’s Nephew, p.154-155

Lewis also does not neglect the question of the Fall of Man, but, almost to preserve Narnia’s utopia, he has sin come into Narnia from outside, in the form of Jadis, later to become the White Witch. Her presence is necessary, both logically in terms of explaining the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and also theologically, in terms of sin being a necessary evil as the reverse side of good, the Jungian Shadow if you like. Narnia is utopian, at least in relation to our own world (standing in psychological terms as the ideal in the same way as Garner expressed the shadow with Elidor), but it is not, and cannot be, perfect. If Narnia were perfect, then there would be no need for the children to be brought there, and it would teach them, and all those who read it, nothing. Perfection is empty, two-dimensional. A fully realised sub-creation must reflect the original creation in both its good and bad aspects. Wood (2001) has discussed the implications of Lewis’s use of the Tree of Knowledge, and the motif of eating the forbidden fruit, in comparison with Philip Pullman’s treatment in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman casts this episode in a solidly positive light – for him, Lyra and Will have to eat of the fruit in order to gain the mature self-knowledge and love upon which the whole of creation depends. Lewis remains true to the Bible in showing eating the fruit as an act which can only be regretted: ‘That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after’ (The Magician’s Nephew, p.162). Having Jadis eat the fruit also allows Lewis to cast her very early on as the Serpent or Devil, as she tries to persuade Digory to eat the apple he picks and not take it back to Aslan. This establishes an allegory which will persist into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it is not just the White Witch who is defeated, but the Devil and sin itself (Aslan’s raid on the Witch’s house can be seen as Lewis’s version of the Harrowing of Hell). In the events of The Magician’s Nephew therefore, Lewis is creating a mythic history for Narnia which echoes and recreates a mythic history of our own world.

Having written a creation myth, Lewis then attempted an eschatological one in The Last Battle, which is the most overtly didactic of the Chronicles. Recreating the end of the world is unusual in children’s fiction, presumably because it is by its very nature an uncomfortable subject, and authors tend to prefer the process of creating a world to destroying it. I would argue that it is Lewis’s Christianity which allowed him to end his creation, as only a firm belief in a better life after the end of the world could enable an author to tackle this most difficult of topics and present it in an uplifting way for children. It is the epitome of Tolkien’s theory of the fantastic eucatastrophe, ‘a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’ (Tolkien, 1938, p.69). This is precisely what Lewis achieves in the ending of Narnia – his characters face the possibility of defeat, but move beyond the world to the poignant joy of everlasting life in Aslan’s country. His intention is surely purely consolatory, as his final words indicate, to show his readers that death is not the end, that Narnia lives on even though he has destroyed it. His recreation has achieved its goal, reflecting and informing the Primary World through his use of the mythic in his sub-creation:

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother
and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term
is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended, this is the morning.”

The Last Battle, p.171
Jones, Diana Wynne (1997) ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ [web page] <http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/medieval.htm> Accessed 20th October 2004

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia:
--- (1950) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1951) Prince Caspian, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1953) The Silver Chair, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1954) The Horse and his Boy, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1955) The Magician’s Nephew, London : Penguin, 1963
--- (1956) The Last Battle, London : Collins, 1980
Pullman, Philip, His Dark Materials:
--- (1995) Northern Lights, London : Scholastic, 1998
--- (1997) The Subtle Knife, London : Scholastic, 1998
--- (2000) The Amber Spyglass, London : Scholastic, 2001
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1938) ‘On fairy stories’, in Tree and Leaf, London : HarperCollins, 2001
--- (1968) The Lord of the Rings, London : HarperCollins, 1995
--- (1977) The Silmarillion, London : HarperCollins, 1999
Wood, Naomi (2001) ‘Paradise lost and found: obedience, disobedience, and storytelling in C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman’, Children’s literature in education, v.32:no.4 (December 2001), pp.237-259