Monday, June 02, 2008

The Deep Magic

The best thing about Catholicism is the apologists. It takes a special mind to wrestle all of the difficult concepts of faith into the observed realities of the world, the modern version requiring a certain combination of complication and muleheaded resolve. It's not something that those Protestant kids have had the time to cook up, having never gone through those tough historical times when religion was the only science, free to flit off and have wild sects every time they disagree on some minor point of catechism. Protestant Christians just don't have the rigor for apology. If their authorities start throwing dogma around, the parishioners can always find their own personal versions of Jesus who, if necessary, can be counted on to tell them more or less what they want to hear.

Of course, I had none of these connections when I first fell into the world of rationalizing the Sprit. Reading C. S. Lewis as a theologically naïve ten-year-old, I didn't get the ham-handed Jesus parallels, but I hardly missed the feeling of the momentous clockwork that the author placed just behind the curtain of his fantasy universe, every action dripping with portent and echoing the divine design. There is beauty in Narnia, and not just the fanciful visions of nobility and naturalism. In that world everything fit: the truths that children could sense made up the deep magic of the place, to use the author's words. But it wasn't really the beauty or the meaning that did it for me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had all that, and much as I loved the opening volume, it didn't grab me at a fundamental level the way the sequels did. Narnia worked out well enough for Aslan's four chosen people, but it wasn't until Prince Caspian that Lewis opened his Elsewhere up to anyone lucky enough to stumble down the right rabbit hole. The second publication offered more than a whirlwind tour, it gave us a few days in the life, it put actual people into an actual ecosystem, threw in some hardship and earned some emotion. It made a fantasy world that was magical and real. I tore through the rest of the Narnia books after that, and wouldn't let myself read anything else for the rest of the summer, holding the faith against less pure fantasies and looking out for any funny-looking portals that might pop up in the back yard, because I'd have taken the plunge through one of them in a heartbeat…

Middles can prove the storyteller, especially when they're writing in these richly imagined settings. Once the rules are dispensed with and the obvious parallels are announced, before the denouement (a word that means the opposite of what it means) dutifully shapes the text into a conclusion, the author has an opportunity to pull off some real exploration of his space. I don't begrudge Lewis for crafting a Christian universe, nor for weaving it into some generic mythological setting. I have a soft spot for that sort of thing, and as far as writing goes, it's always what you do with it anyway. Prince Caspian was the first of a middle stretch of four Narnia books that gave us fuller characters, grittier locales, and drama on a variety of human scales. If a blighted land and a crucified lion presented interesting philosophical puzzles, getting in the heads of a few of the menschen and finally getting a chance to peek into the corners the scenery was the stuff that actually made me buy in. (What do you want, I was ten.)

I've really enjoyed the movie versions so far. Although they've suffered from the breezy development that is the usual failing of epic story adaptations, and even though Caspian had an egregious Leo ex Machina for an ending (that didn't even have symbolism to redeem it), I have found them both to be a satisfying ride. There was good acting in parts--Tilda Swinton is great, and Peter Dinklage communicated more with his eyes, under two pounds of latex, than the sum total of all the speaking lines in the second film--and when the script or the talent didn't manage to generate performance, the look of the thing was always spot on. I could lose myself in Ben Barnes' princely hair, and the rest of the Telmarines sported fabulous Spanish scruff. The surly, ambivalent dwarves and the dashing mice were wonderful, and even if she's growing out of it, Lucy still looks a little bit like my daughter. Do they give out awards for casting and character design, or what?

But Narnia aspired to be more than a ride. If the Conquistadors had a certain fashion sense, it doesn't change the fact that they were, in the course of things, rat bastards. Lewis's Telmarines flaunt some piratical charm, but they've committed their share of unnamable horrors in fantasyland. The film showed off some biblical frights, but the parts of this family picture that were actually scary were hidden in the endless swordplay. All the gore, needless to say, spattered and stank just off camera, but there was still plenty of clanging metal and desperate exhaustion, and it got awfully intense under the Dolbies. Does this sort of epic violence seem out of touch with a peaceful, redemptive sense of divinity? When your bad, arrogant decisions cost lives, does it matter that you feel bad? When has the institution of hereditary monarchy ever been worth an apology, and what, for that matter, is all this bullshit about superior races and the divine right of kings?

As a child, I didn't always welcome these ethical intrusions into my escapism, but I have to credit Lewis for struggling with the challenge. (A couple others from that point in my life need revisiting too.) I mean, I appreciated some of it even at ten: I liked Lewis taking on ideas of personhood, where it is the prerogative of the being to speak and assume the mantle of moral consequence, and I was blown away at the idea of pulling a world together (as Aslan did in The Magician's Nephew) out of the essential ether that must have existed before concepts became concrete things. It still fascinates me, but it's definitely an anthropocentric viewpoint (as if there's an alternative), or maybe better call it a philological one. Tying creation to speech is one of the cleverer bits of wordplay the Semites passed on to the world, and the transition from prehistory to civilization, to a world of writing, resonates strongly with the idea of a transition from inchoate mysticism into a physical reality, and it can sure be fun to fantasize what's just over that lost horizon. All of the human beings in Narnia, if I recall right, are non-native, and there is a message that the land was created as an alternative to the Passion Play we've come to know and love. As if a land populated by sentient creatures couldn't be real until humans came along.

Yes, Narnia is biblically informed, and the book of Revelation played strongly in the ultimate volume, The Last Battle. As C. S. Lewis let reality sneak into his pure land, the narrative insisted that it couldn't withstand the indecency and failure of actual people, and eventually it reached a critical mass. What to do but create another fantasy land--this pissed me off even at ten. Calling in a real Narnia as a refuge from an ever-more-visceral Narnia is just insulting. How many times are you going to make me escape, Clive? Not only were my chances of visiting Fairyland vanishingly slim in the first place, now I have to die and get to heaven too? Way to move the goalposts. It's been too long to remember if Lewis rejected the violence, the means to his noble ends that, when examined, were really pretty horrible, or if it was, as usual, a divine instruction to "just trust me." As an adult I take some satisfaction at imagining his Catholic self writhing around these issues, how he must have tortured himself to bring about a world that put evil only in the hands of devils. But in the end, Lewis punted a conclusion straight into the realm of heaven. Once humanity and Christian theology were made to mix it up too much on the same board, victory could only by cheating. Again.

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