Monday, 13 October 2014

Re-reading Narnia: The Silver Chair






This was the first Narnia book I ever read. My mother gave it to me one Christmas Day when I was about seven years old, along with about six other books, mainly Enid Blytons. (All I ever wanted was books).  I didn’t like the look of it.

The cover picture, one of Pauline Baynes marvellous illustrations, showed a gloomy-looking cavern with lots of grotesque little gnomes, and it put me right off. I had no idea what this book might be about; I had never heard of Narnia, but it all looked downright sinister to me. The gnomes reminded me of Gollum in The Hobbit, a book which had given me the creeps – and worse still, of a truly ghastly fairytale which had inexplicably been included in my school reading book, ‘The Hobyahs’.

So I put off reading it. I read all my new Enid Blytons, and, I seem to remember, Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. Then I was stuck with nothing new to read, and as I was the sort of child who would read the backs of cornflakes packets if there was nothing better to be had, I reluctantly opened The Silver Chair and began. And it started quite manageably, after all:

It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.

It seemed a school story.  But almost immediately, the narrator went on to say, ‘This not going to be a school story’ – and then Eustace Scrubb (whoever he was) came along to tell Jill there’s this chance of escaping the bullies of Experiment House by getting ‘right outside this world’ – and then, ah then, in almost no time, Jill and Eustace find themselves on a high mountain – at the top of a cliff.

Imagine yourself at the top of the very highest cliff you know.  And imagine yourself looking down to the very bottom.  And then imagine that the precipice goes on below that, as far again, ten times as far, twenty times as far.  And when you’ve looked down all that distance, imagine little white things that might at first glance be mistaken for sheep, but presently you realise they are clouds – not little wreaths of mist but the enormous white,  puffy clouds that are themselves the size of mountains.  And at last, in between those clouds, you get your first glimpse of the real bottom, so far away that you can’t make out whether it’s field or wood, or land or water: further below those clouds than you are above them.



Then Jill shows off, and Eustace falls over the cliff – and a lion appears and blows them both to Narnia ‘blowing out as steadily as a vacuum cleaner sucks in’ – and there I was in this adventure, full of old castles and dying kings, snowy moors and talking owls, and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, the best pessimist since Eeyore – and the beautiful belle-dame-sans-merci-type Green Witch –with time running out to save Prince Rilian from that terrible, magical engine of sorcery, the Silver Chair itself.  And I was hooked. This colourful, colloquial, exciting, fast-moving fairytale was about the best story I’d ever read.

Each Narnia book has its own flavour. There’s the Snow Queen winter world of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the mystical, light-filled, Celtic voyage-tale of the Dawn Treader, the E. Nesbit style of The Magician’s Nephew, the Arabian Nights feel of The Horse and His Boy. With its quest element, and snowy winter journey over rough northern countryside, I can now see parallels between The Silver Chair  and the medieval English poem Gawain and the Green Knight, while the supernatural Green Lady echoes not only the Green Knight himself, but also the beautiful and dangerous fairy queens of sixteenth century ballads such as Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The book is set in a framework of medieval romance. This particular Green Lady’s power to transform herself into a serpent, or worm, recalls the medieval French tale of Melusine, and two Scottish ballads, Alison Gross and The Laily Worm and the Machrel:  in the first, an ugly witch courts a young man and turns him into a worm when he refuses her:

She’s turned her richt and richt about,
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn;
And she sware by the moon and the stars aboon
That she’s gar me rue the day I was born.

Then out she’s ta’en a silver wand,
And she’s turn’d her three times round and round,
She’s mutter’d sic words that my strength it failed,
And I fell down senseless on the ground.

She’s turn’d me into an ugly worm,
And gar’d me toddle about the tree…

And in the second ballad:

I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.

For she has made me the laily worm
That lies at the fit o’ the tree
An’ my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.

In The Silver Chair, the Green Lady is both the worm which has stung Prince Rilian’s mother to death, and the woman who replaces her as mother figure, as captor, and as bride-to-be. 



Green is dangerous, the warning colour of the fairy world, and has been considered unlucky right down into modern times. The Green Lady is a very different villain from The White Witch.  Where Jadis is harsh, autocratic and frightening, the Green Lady conforms – outwardly at least – to the courtly courtesies of the Middle Ages. Here she is, drawn by Pauline Baynes like a lady out of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, richly dressed in green velvet with dagged sleeves and riding a ‘scrumptious’ white horse. She employs charm, ultra-femininity, logic-chopping and outright deceit, as well as spells and violence, to get her own way. I loved and still love the delightful, sinister ambiguity of her tempting advice to Scrubb, Jill and Puddleglum that they should visit the gentle giants of Harfang, where ‘the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times in a day’:

‘Only tell them,’ answered the Lady, ‘that She of the Green Kirtle salutes them by you, and has sent them two fair Southern children for the Autumn Feast.’

            The children thanked her again, with shining eyes…

A great thing about this book is the vivid discomfort of the winter journey. The children and Puddleglum struggle through the harsh snowy landscape like Sir Gawain himself, who ‘nearly slain by the sleet, slept in his armour, more nights than enough on naked rocks, where clattering from the crest the cold burn ran, and hung high overhead in hard icicles’. In Chapter Seven, ‘The Hill of the Strange Trenches’ (in which they ignorantly scramble over one of the very signs they’ve come to find) their misery extends for several pages.

When they reached the foot of the hill they caught a glimpse of what might be rocks on each side – squarish rocks, if you looked at them carefully, but no one did. All were more concerned with the ledge right in front of them which barred their way.  It was about four feet high. The Marsh-wiggle, with his long legs, had no difficulty in jumping up on the top of it, and he then helped the others up. It was a nasty wet business for them… because the snow now lay quite deep on the ledge. 

  



Like Gawain, the children and Puddleglum find shelter, comfort and courtesy in a castle in the wilds: and like Gawain, they will discover this apparent refuge to be a perilous deception. But oh, the relief of that hot fireside tub! How I wanted to try one!

If you can swim – as Jill could – a giant bath is a lovely thing. And giant towels, though a bit rough and coarse, are lovely too, because there are acres of them. In fact you don’t need to dry at all, you just roll about on them in front of the fire and enjoy yourself.

But then – ‘at the deadest hour of night’ – Jill has a dream in which a wooden horse, one of the giant toys, comes to life and rolls towards her across the room. In the shape-shifting way of dreams it becomes Aslan himself, who takes her in his jaws and carries her to the window. In a vision that reminds me of Thomas Malory at his numinous best, Jill sees how, outside in the moonlight,

written in great letters across the world or the sky (she did not know which) were the words UNDER ME.

In the morning, it’s obvious. The ruined city of the giants which they were supposed to be looking for lies right there beneath the window: the very terrain they struggled across the previous night.

On the mountain at the beginning of the book, Jill was given four signs by Aslan. Over the course of the adventure, the travellers ‘muff’ the first three, but the writing is so strong there’s no room for the reader to grow impatient with the characters. As a child I felt that I’d have done the just the same; I could sympathise. I still can. Puddleglum and the children are so horribly wet and tired and cold: and they’ve been wet and tired and cold for days, too: of course they long for a bit of warmth and comfort.

So whose fault is it, that they miss the signs?  Is this a sin thing?  Is the fault, like Eve’s, Jill’s alone?  Is this another strike against Lewis to place beside the problem of Susan and the fact that Narnia’s most spectacular villains (far surpassing tedious Uncle Andrew and Shift the ape) are female? I honestly don’t think so. Hunting out religious parallels for everything that happens in Narnia is a bit like going for a walk in lead boots: it can be done, but it’s not a lot of fun. I could get really heavy and suggest that the signs handed to Jill on the mountain are a reference to God handing the Ten Commandments to Moses; this might even be what Lewis intended, but if so, he did it with a very light touch. The mistakes the children make are so natural and likely, their transgressions never feel much of a big deal. Rather than being blamed for forgetting the signs, Jill blames herself – an important difference – but the others immediately accept collective responsibility, and they all move on. They’re a team. There’s no finger-pointing. If there’s a punishment, it’s not delivered by Aslan. It comes merely as a consequence of their decisions: at dinner with the giants they find themselves eating a talking animal.

And yet again Lewis chooses a girl as his viewpoint character. We see Narnia through Jill’s eyes, and she has common sense, courage, obstinacy and what is now called ‘attitude’. (Yes, she pushes Eustace off a cliff – but anyone might do that.) Jill and Eustace indulge in similar amounts of bad-tempered bickering, and their relationship – friendship with a touch of rivalry – is more realistic than any in the previous books.  It’s all very even-handed. Jill is afraid of tight spaces, but Eustace is afraid of heights. Jill doesn’t fight the serpent, but she can tack up big, nervous horses and ride them without fear. It’s Jill who fools the giants by putting on a comedy performance of Shirley Temple-style cuteness, and Jill who discovers this important entry in the Harfang cookery book:

MAN: this elegant little biped has long been valued as a delicacy. It forms a traditional part of the Autumn Feast and is served between the fish and the joint. Each Man –

This, after she has noticed two clean pie-dishes set out on the kitchen table, large enough for her to ‘lie down just comfortably in’. The mixture of suspense and black comedy is masterful.


Next comes the frantic escape from Harfang, the capture by the gnomes with their dirge-like chant of ‘many fall down, and few return to the sunlit lands’, and the fabulous underworld journey through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea – through endless caves of flabby trees and lizard-like creatures curled asleep in the moss – past the great sleeping giant Time, who will awake at the end of the world –  down to the dark water,  the pale beaches, and the silent underground city with its wan lamps: ‘as quiet, and nearly as dark, as the inside of an ant-hill’.

And here they meet the Black Knight.

A young man with fair hair rose to meet them. He was handsome, and looked both bold and kind, though there was something about his face that didn’t seem quite right.

No doubt any experienced adult reader will guess at once who he is. When I was seven, I initially thought this could be Prince Rilian, but Lewis did an excellent job of misdirecting me. The Knight is a foolish, shallow, disappointing man. He doesn’t recognise the name ‘Rilian’, he’s never heard of Narnia, and he seems to worship the Green Lady, who by this time I knew to be wicked.  And for an hour each night he turns into a snake?  Maybe the very creature which bit the Queen?

Perhaps I wasn’t quite deceived. But I wasn’t quite sure either: the Knight is so irritating.

They were thoroughly tired of the Knight’s talk before they had finished supper. Puddleglum was thinking, ‘I wonder what game that witch is really playing with this young fool.’  Scrubb was thinking, ‘He’s a great baby, really: tied to that woman’s apron strings; he’s a sap.’ And Jill was thinking, ‘He’s the silliest, most conceited, selfish pig I’ve met for a long time.’

It is this uncertainty which makes the next passage truly gripping. The Knight is bound to his Silver Chair and – here is the dreadful bit – himself begs the children and Puddleglum not to release him. ‘Harden your hearts and stop your ears. For while I am bound, you are safe.’  And they all agree, promising one another that whatever he says or does – ‘whatever he says’ – they’ll stay firm. They won’t let him go.

And for one brief hour, the witch’s enchantment lifts. ‘I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. But every night they bind me, and so my chance is gone. But you are not enemies.  I am not your prisoner. Quick!  Cut these cords.’

It takes two and a half agonising pages for the children and Puddleglum to change their minds and cut the cords, while the Knight pleads, begs, threatens, shrieks, and finally adjures them in the name of Aslan – the last of the four signs. They know at once what they have to do. They’ve messed up the first three, and this is the last chance – but what will happen next? ‘That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder,’ says gloomy but staunch Puddleglum. ‘But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.’

They all stood looking at once another with bright eyes. It was a sickening moment. ‘All right!’ said Jill suddenly. ‘Let’s get it over. Goodbye, everyone…!’  They all shook hands.  The Knight was screaming by now; there was foam on his cheeks.
 


It’s a wonderful effect: this rescue of the Prince isn’t a moment of triumph, but of suspense and terror. ‘Let’s get it over.’ Reading this as an adult, I find myself remembering that Lewis fought in the trenches. I think of soldiers listening to wounded comrades screaming out in No Man’s Land, nerving themselves to a rescue which may end in their own deaths. Is that too fanciful? Could the Silver Chair itself be a metaphor for the terrible barbed wire in which so many men lay entangled? As a fairytale motif, I know of nothing really like it except perhaps the Siege Perilous in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, the seat at the Round Table devised by Merlin for Galahad, the knight who will attain the Holy Grail, and fatal for anyone else who sits in it. The Silver Chair is more sinister than that. Of course, this book is a fairytale, I’m not suggesting we should read The Silver Chair as World War I literature. But look again at the passage where the liberated Prince turns on the Chair with his sword:

The silver gave way before its edge like string, and in a few moments a few twisted fragments, shining on the floor, were all that was left. But as the chair broke, there came from it a bright flash, a sound like small thunder, and (for one moment) a loathsome smell.

The Chair turns to wire-like ‘string’, its twisted metal fragments resemble shrapnel – it breaks with a flash, a crash like thunder and a loathsome smell – like gas?  If these images truly arise from Lewis’s war experience, which he never to my knowledge wrote about directly, then they come from subconscious memory. This is what writers do: things swim up unsummoned from the depths of all that we are and all that has happened to us. And we use them, often without looking at them too hard. This is what makes them powerful: they’re not planned or worked out, they arise as symbols of some emotional truth: they satisfy: they feel right. It’s not some kind of neat equation, but perhaps Lewis’s experience informs the image of the Silver Chair, lending it shadow and depth.

The rescued Knight is soon revealed as Prince Rilian himself, and as the children explain their purpose in coming to find him, the Witch returns.

The Silver Chair is an exceedingly rich book. It had more to it than any story I’d ever read. It gave me such a lot to think about – or perhaps more accurately to soak up and grow on, like a plant that’s been given a really nourishing fertiliser. It was Lewis, not any scientist, who introduced me, aged seven and up, to the concept of the multiverse, the notion there could be many worlds, many universes besides ours.  He also introduced me, little as I realised this at the time, to the Platonic parable of the cave. As much as Christianity, Plato was one of CS Lewis’s touchstones: he even gets a mention in The Last Battle:  “It’s all in Plato – all in Plato,” says the Professor, Diggory.  “Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”

In The Republic, Plato suggests that human perception can be compared to that of prisoners chained in a cave, whose only knowledge of anything beyond is gained from the shadows flung on to the cave wall from the real world outside. Only the philosopher sees the truth behind appearances. That is what lies behind this passage, in which the Green Lady, the witch, tries to persuade the children and the Prince that there is no such place as Narnia:

“What is this sun that you speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?”
“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.
“Can you tell me what it’s like?” asked the Witch (thrum, thrum, thrum, went the strings).
“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely.  “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof.  Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld, and hangeth in the sky.”
“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch, and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silvery laughs, “You see?  When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me that it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

First and foremost, this is a neat reversal of Plato's parable. Here it’s the Green Lady who inhabits – mentally as well as literally – the underground cave.  She wants to restrict the children’s reality.  She wants to keep them with her, prisoners – just as the dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle are prisoners of their own scepticism, refusing to emerge from the rank stable of their own senses.

Fundamentalists of all kinds prefer, in my experience, to stay in the cave. Some – not all – religious people live within the restrictions of a literal understanding of the Bible, refusing to consider metaphorical or historical interpretations. Some practical people feel comfortable only with demonstrable scientific truths and feel that telling fairy-stories about the world leads to confusion, illusion and possibly even child abuse. Some political parties insist – occasionally with force – upon rigid adherence to a particular social model. All fundamentalists feel deep suspicion, sometimes amounting to paranoia, of metaphoric, poetic, creative truth. All instinctively shun the suggestion that there may be other ways that theirs of reading, of explaining, of experiencing or governing the world.

What is reality? Lewis demands of his child readers. Is it only the evidence of our immediate senses – the things we can touch and taste and see?  Then what about the imagination?  What about fiction and poetry and religion and philosophy? 

This moment, when the Green Lady almost convinces the children and Puddleglum that her underground kingdom is all there is, made a deep impression on me as a child: and rightly, since it’s the heart of the book. And I especially loved the moment when practical, common-sensible Puddleglum saves the day, not by any subtle argument, but by stamping out the witch’s magical fire with his big, webbed foot, filling the room with ‘the smell of burnt Marshwiggle’ – and follows this brave deed with his, and Lewis’s, passionate credo:

“I’m a chap who’s always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have. Then all I can say, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stick with the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

‘Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world.’ Again I remember Lewis’s war experience.  He knew the value of the imagination, and this trumpet-call for its power and beauty still makes me want to cheer. Puddleglum’s credo is not Christian, because traditional Christianity hangs upon upon the verity of the New Testament. ‘If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith’, says Saint Paul, 1 Corinthians, 15:14.  Puddleglum speaks as a Platonist: if in this imperfect world you can imagine the Good, it is because beyond our material ‘reality’ it truly exists as a perfect Form. ‘Be what you wish to seem’: choose the best in yourself and not the worst. It’s not a bad message to come across, when you’re still only seven.

Now you may complain that it’s all sleight-of-hand, that Lewis is using Plato for his own purposes and this is a set-up, a bit of Christian propaganda (and in his adult Christian apologetics, Lewis certainly did rely heavily on dubious Socratic dialectic): because, yes, the child reader knows all the time that Narnia is real.  Or at least that in the secondary world of the book, Narnia is ‘real’…  Lewis hints at how impoverished the witch’s worldview is by showing us layer upon layer of rich reality: the glimpse of the brilliant land of Bism far down in the depths of the earth:

“Down there,” said Golg, “I could show you real gold, real silver, real diamonds.” 
“Bosh,” said Jill rudely.  “As if we didn’t know that we’re below the deepest mines even here.”
“Yes,” said Golg.  “I have heard of those little scratches in the crust that you Topdwellers call mines. But that’s where you get dead gold, dead silver, dead gems. Down in Bism we have them alive and growing. There I’ll pick you bunches of rubies that you can eat, and squeeze you a cup full of diamond juice. You won’t care much about fingering the cold dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones of Bism.

So there are worlds in Narnia that even the Narnians don’t know about! What is real?  Our world?  Fiction?  Narnia?  Aslan’s country? All of them…? 

With such questions hanging in the Narnian air, no wonder that I, along with many other children, felt a passionate half-belief that Narnia itself was real.  And we longed to go there. The American writer Laura Miller writes of this in ‘The Magician’s Book, A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’:

In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens.  On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighbourhood where my family lived, and I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things.  First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me.  For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.  The place I longed to visit was Narnia.

When my friend Frances and I were about ten, we confessed to one another our fragile belief that Narnia was real – had to be real.  We invented a code name for it – ‘The Garden’ – so that we could talk about it and other people wouldn’t know. As a child, I took what I needed from the Narnia books: and what I needed has stayed with me for life: the colour, richness and beauty, the breadth, depth and glory of the world.


Defeated in argument, the Witch turns to violence. In a hair-raisingly vivid passage owing a great deal to the death of the dragon in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, she transforms herself into a serpent and is killed. This breaks all her chains of enchantment, and the gnomes turn out to have been enchanted too. Rilian and Eustace reluctantly turn back from the glowing edge of Bism, and the travellers make their way out into the Overworld which – of course – turns out to be the classic heart of Narnia, with fauns and dryads dancing in the snow on a cold moonlit night. Everything is now delightful, and the Narnians welcome their long-lost Prince with shouts of joy. Returning to Cair Paravel on centaur-back, the travellers find King Caspian’s ship coming slowly up the river from the sea. It berths. Then comes a delay. You begin to feel that something is wrong. And finally the old king and his son are reunited: the king lying on a bed, ‘very pale and still’. He blesses his son and falls back, dead.

Caspian! – Caspian dies! Caspian, the brave and handsome boy who was so nice to Lucy (who = me) even though she was younger! It has all gone wrong, all turned sad.

…all who wore hats, bonnets, helmets or hoods were taking them off – Eustace included. Then she heard a rustling and flapping noise up above the castle; when she looked up she saw that the great banner with the golden Lion on it was being brought down to half-mast. And after that, slowly, mercilessly, with wailing strings and disconsolate blowing of horns, the music began again: this time, a tune to break your heart.

The resurrection scene which follows, as Aslan blows away the ‘the ship and the dead King and the castle and the snow and the winter sky’ and brings the children back to the numinous mountain does not, for me at least, detract from the poignancy of Caspian’s death. As a child I felt keenly for Rilian. He only just got to see his father!  After ten years of being enchanted!  After his mother had died too! Poor Rilian, left alone to grieve. He doesn’t get to see King Caspian coming back to youth and strength… 

On this re-reading I still find Caspian’s resurrection moving. Yes, the Christian imagery is there, and with deliberate intent. It is Aslan's blood and Aslan's pain that restores Caspian. I prefer that to a magic wand. Christian imagery permeates most of Western art, and you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate it. If Christianity is a myth, it is a myth that speaks as movingly and strongly as any other. The Silver Chair isn’t propaganda.  It is a beautiful fairytale.

Of course from my current, liberal, adult point of view, it’s a little disconcerting that the final action of Jill, Eustace and Caspian in this book is to inflict – with Aslan’s co-operative approval – corporal punishment on the bullies of Experiment House. I have to tell you, though, that as a child I thought this bit was great. I too had been bullied at school, as lots of children have – and it was unthinkable that after all they’d been through, Jill and Eustace would return to square one, cowering miserably in the shrubbery. I would also have found it highly unsatisfactory if Lewis had them simply quell the bullies by force of new-found confidence. (‘Just stand up to them,’ as adults liked to bleat, ‘then they’ll back down!’) I wouldn’t have believed it anyway.  No thankyou! I wanted vicarious revenge and I was pleased to be given it. And here, my adult and my childhood selves part company, and I can feel the seven year-old me giving her older counterpart a sceptical and pitying glance.



Picture credits: all artwork by Pauline Baynes

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

CLARIEL by Garth Nix - review





So here it is, the long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s fabulously successful Old Kingdom series, and from the opening pages in which an old beachcomber finds a bottle of thick green glass, with a silver stopper ‘secured to the neck with bright wires still yellow and warm’ - it doesn’t disappoint. While you’re still yelling ‘Don’t open the bottle!’ - you should never open the bottle - a Free Magic power is unleashed into the city of Belisaere.

Set six centuries earlier than Sabriel, Clariel shows Old Kingdom society on the brink of catastrophe, fiddling while Rome burns: complacent, degenerate and unmindful of danger. Even the King and the Abhorsen neglect their duties, leaving the city of Belisaere in the grasping hands of scheming Guildmaster Kilp. Into this potent mix enters seventeen year-old Clariel, descendent of both the royal line and the Abhorsens.

Garth Nix is particularly good at writing about women as people. His heroines know their own minds, they have important stuff to do: and there’s not a love-triangle in sight. Sabriel is cool-headed and brave; Lirael self-doubting and timid, but ultimately equally determined. Clariel is a strong-willed, impatient young woman who feels trapped and unhappy in the city to which her parents have brought her. Her father is devoted to supporting the career of her mother Jaciel, an uncompromising artist and brilliant goldsmith. Neither parent takes time really to understand their problematic daughter, and they use her as leverage to further Jaciel’s ambitions – yet the unacknowledged strength of the family bond becomes a trigger for cataclysm in one of the most striking and emotionally charged scenes of the book.

Clariel longs for a life of solitary freedom in the forest, but this simple ambition leads to conflict and danger. Hampered by ignorance – of the Charter, of her family history, and of her own weaknesses and strengths – she acts for the best, but her judgement is far from reliable. Untutored in Charter Magic, she can draw upon her own inherited ability of running berserk - a frighteningly unstable power. Clariel is a fascinating but flawed character in an unforgiving world.

Let me finally say that Garth Nix is just unparallelled at creating magical/alien creatures. (The only other writer I can think of who’s anything like as good is Larry Niven.) Fans of the series will be thrilled to encounter new Free Magic entities (and even perhaps an old friend). Filled with magic, politics, rebellions, plots and surprises, Clariel is a hugely enjoyable book and one I know I'll re-read. I loved it and so will you.



Garth will be touring the UK from 28th September.  Details: http://www.oldkingdombooks.com/garth-nix-in-the-uk/

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Re-reading Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader







I have two very different personal memories relating to this book. One, vividly happy, is from childhood. The other comes from a time when I was a young adult working in London, and it still makes me cringe.

The childhood one first: aged nine, I woke one night to hear my parents criss-crossing the landing and my eight-year old brother crying in the bedroom next to mine. I called out and was told to be good, my brother was poorly, go back to sleep. Next morning I found he’d been rushed to hospital during the night. At a party the previous week, the children had been tossing each other cocktail sausages and trying to catch them in their mouths; my brother had swallowed one whole, stick and all. He hadn’t wanted to explain this in detail to my mother, as he thought she’d be cross. It perforated his intestine, and since the wooden stick didn’t show up on X-rays, the surgeon had to perform a major operation to find it. I’ve never felt comfortable around cocktail sticks since.

My brother stayed in hospital for some time. In those days the visiting rules were strict. I wasn’t allowed to see him, but I could see that he was (deservedly) being deluged with treats, toys and other goodies from friends and relations. To keep sibling rivalry in balance, my parents bought me the book I’d been longing for, the only Narnia book I hadn’t yet read: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. While they went visiting I curled up in an armchair – I can still feel its bristly upholstery against my knees – and was swept away into an open-air world drenched in light – the light of sunrise over the sea, the quiet sunlit passages of the Magician’s House, sunbeams slanting through the green waters of the undersea world, birds flying out of the rising sun to the table of the Three Sleepers, the almost painful light of the Silver Sea.

...when they returned aft to the cabin and supper, and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and thought of unknown lands on the Eastern rim of the world, Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak.



Now for the second memory. I’m in my early twenties, chatting to a colleague, Richard. For some reason we are talking about the Narnia books, which he hasn’t read but is willing to try.  Which one should he start with?  ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘my favourites are The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I can quote from the beginning of that one.’ And I do: ‘“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”’  Richard starts to smile, and I continue from memory:  “He didn’t call his father and mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’, but Harold and Alberta. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers, and wore a special kind of underclothes.”’ Richard’s smile disappears. He says stiffly, flushing, ‘I call my parents by their first names, as it happens; and I’m vegetarian too.’

And thus I learned, not before time, that unthinking admiration for an old favourite can land you in the soup. What an idiot I was!  Why hadn’t I noticed that Lewis was so prejudiced? Could he truly have believed that a dislike of tobacco, alcohol and meat makes a person some kind of prissy, unimaginative bore? Could he? Sigh.

TVDT doesn’t become the book I fell in love with until the story – and ship – gets beyond the Lone Islands. There are just too many unexamined value judgements going on before then. I don’t know if I need to pick them all apart, but how about this one, on only the second page of the story, where Lewis explains why Edmund and Lucy are staying with Eustace at all. Peter, it seems, is being coached for an exam by the old Professor. The children’s parents are going to America and taking Susan with them.

Grown-ups thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age) and Mother said she “would get far more out of a trip to America than the youngsters”.

‘Pretty’ ‘no good at school work’ and ‘old for her age’ – a euphemism for sexual precocity – this, not The Last Battle, is the book in which Lewis dismisses Susan: and he never gives her another chance. Susan’s trip to America, though sanctioned by her mother, is viewed by Lewis as a dangerous frivolity, a trip to Vanity Fair or worse, and what she will ‘get out of it’ is – to use an old term of religious disapproval –  worldliness. Why a liking for lipstick and nylons should be more worldly than a taste for tobacco and beer, I don’t know, but this is farewell to Susan the archer, Susan the swimmer, Susan the gentle who ‘was so tender-hearted that she almost hated to beat someone who had been beaten already’. It’s all very silly.

Back to Eustace!

‘Still playing your old games?’ said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking about Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.



As the story begins, Eustace is certainly spoiled, irritating, bad-tempered, self-centred and sneaky. This is staple fare for a children’s book: Roald Dahl does far nastier things with some of his characters, and anyway, in the tradition of Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’, the voyage will make a man of Eustace. But stupid’? No! Eustace isn’t stupid, just inexperienced and a bad mixer. He doesn’t enjoy fiction (or hasn’t been given much) and is therefore very ill-prepared for the adventure about to befall him. But his wonderful diaries full of self-deception, self-justification and complaints are the comical high point of the book, as funny as Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole – on whom Eustace must surely have been an influence.

6th September
A horrible day. Woke up in the night knowing I was feverish and must have a drink of water. Any doctor would have said so.  Heaven knows I’m the last person to try to get any unfair advantage but I never dreamed this water-rationing would be meant to apply to a sick man. In fact I would have woken the others up and asked for some only I thought it would be selfish to wake them. So I got up and took my cup and tiptoed out of the Black Hole we’ve been sleeping in, taking great care not to disturb Caspian and Edmund, for they’ve been sleeping badly since the heat and the short water began. I always try to consider others whether they are nice to me or not.



Eustace’s own adventure begins when the Dawn Treader drops anchor in a steep-sided valley – drawn here with a hint of Chinese delicacy by Pauline Baynes. Avoiding the work of setting the ship to rights he slips off into the interior and gets lost. Finding himself in a deep, bare, rocky ravine, he hears a noise behind him and turns to see…


The thing that came out of the cave was something he had never even imagined – a long, lead-coloured snout, dull red eyes, no feathers or fur, a long lithe body that trailed on the ground, legs whose elbows went up higher than its back like a spider’s. Bat’s wings that made a rasping noise on the stones, yards of tail. 

…It reached the pool and slid its horrible scaly chin down over the gravel to drink, but before it had drunk there came from it a great croaking or clanging cry, and after a few twitches and convulsions it rolled round on its side and lay perfectly still with one claw in the air.  A little dark blood gushed from its wide-opened mouth. The smoke from its nostrils turned black for a moment and then floated away. No more came.


I said this book was full of light and so it is, but there’s a lot of darkness too. As a description of death, this is about as grotesque and physical as books for young children get. All the dragons I’d ever read about were strong and splendid, requiring a St George at least to quell them. This weary, repulsive creature dies alone of natural causes before it can even get a drink of water – a touch which makes it pitiable, too. A cave full of treasure, and all it wants at the end is a sip of water! Which may become Eustace’s own fate as, gloating over the dragon’s hoard, he falls asleep with a diamond bracelet pushed up over his elbow. 
 
All children know the panicky moment when a sweater sticks as you pull it over your head, or when a ring won’t come off your finger and your mother tries to ease it over your bruised knuckle with soap.

The bracelet which had fitted very nicely on the upper arm of a boy was far too small for the thick, stumpy foreleg of a dragon. It had sunk deeply into his scaly flesh and there was a throbbing bulge on each side of it. He tore at the place with his dragon’s teeth but could not get it off.

It’s an unforgettable evocation of horror, self-loathing and the sensation of being trapped inside oneself.  Behave like a dragon, and you’ll become one; you are what you do. It’s the obverse of Socrates’ ‘Be what you wish to seem.’ (All in Plato, it’s all in Plato…)  Eustace’s priorities are about to be rearranged, and his first need is to communicate, even with dragon claws and muscles that can barely write:

I WNET TO SLEE …  RGOS AGRONS I MEAN DRANGONS CAVE CAUSE IT WAS DEAD AND AINING SO HAR … WOKE UP AND COU … GET OFFF MI ARM OH BOTHER …

It takes Aslan to strip off the horny layers of dragon hide from which Eustace will emerge reborn, and CS Lewis summarises the pain, difficulty and satisfaction of the healing process in a brilliant metaphor any child can recognise: picking off a scab. ‘It hurts like billy-oh, but it is such fun to see it coming away.’

TVDT isn’t Eustace’s story alone, though. This is made clear in the next chapter, ‘Two narrow escapes’. So much happens in this book, I’d forgotten about the sea-serpent which almost crushes the ship to matchwood and then goes sniffing along its own body looking for wreckage with an expression of ‘idiotic satisfaction’ on its face. A purely physical danger, it’s a good contrast to the spiritual sickness embodied in the dragon. But a far graver peril awaits them at the next island.

The bottom of the pool was made of large greyish-blue stones, and the water was perfectly clear, and on the bottom lay a life-size figure of a man, made apparently of gold. It lay face downwards with its arms stretched above its head. …Lucy thought it was the most beautiful statue she had ever seen. 

But this water turns everything it touches to gold, and what seemed a statue is really a horror: the body of one of the seven lords they have come to seek. Only by chance have the children escaped the same fate. But there’s a worse danger.

‘The King who owned this island,’ said Caspian slowly, and his face flushed as he spoke, ‘would soon be the richest of all the Kings of the world. I claim this land forever as a Narnian possession. It shall be called Goldwater Island. And I bind all of you to secrecy. No one must know of this. Not even Drinian – on pain of death, do you hear?’

‘On pain of death’?  It’s clear that Eustace is not the only one vulnerable to greed. Caspian is a King, and what do Kings do but acquire lands and power? In this passage he reveals a high-handed, bullying side to his character which suggests he could go either way – just ruler or cruel despot.

When Caspian threatens his friends for the sake of wealth and power, we see the story focussing on intangible, internal adventures more than on physical ones.  Yes, there’s always plenty of action and excitement, but as with Frodo Baggins and the Ring, the real dangers are moral and spiritual. There may be squabbles and disagreements in other books, but this is the only one of the seven Narnia stories in which Lewis allows for the real possibility of ‘good’ characters changing for the worse. True, Aslan or his image steps in each time to avert real disaster, but the danger exists. Each of the main characters (save Edmund whose trial came in the first book) is put to the test. Like the knights on the Grail Quest, Caspian and even Lucy falter along the way, and only Reepicheep, Narnia’s Galahad, will succeed. For now, though, as Caspian and Edmund begin to quarrel and Lucy to scold, Aslan passes warningly along the hillside and recalls them to their senses.

When I was a child, the island-hopping voyage of Caspian and his friends to the End of the World seemed completely original, but I know now that C.S. Lewis was borrowing from the very old Irish voyage tales known as immrama, in each of which a hero or saint – Bran, Maelduin, Brendan – sets out for some kind of Otherworld, stopping at a number of fantastic or miraculous islands along the way.  Written in the Christian era, they hark back to older pre-Christian Celtic voyage tales, and were probably themselves influenced by the classical tales of the Odyssey and Argonautika. 

Saint Brendan, for example, puts out into the Atlantic Ocean in a hide boat – a curragh – with twelve companions. In search of Paradise, the Land of the Blessed, he spends years wandering the ocean from island to island: the island of the ‘Comely Hound’ which leads them to a hall with a table spread with food; the Island of Sheep, ‘every sheep the size of an ox’; ‘The Paradise of Birds’, on which some of the angels who fell with Lucifer live as small birds all rejoicing and singing the matins and the verses of the psalms.  

The islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the dragon island, the Dark Island where dreams come true, the Island of the Dufflepuds, the island of The Three Sleepers – these are deliberate echoes of Brendan’s islands or those visited by the Irish hero Maeldune: thirty or so marvellous islands and other wonders, including this:

            The Very Clear Sea

They went on after that till they came to a sea that was like glass, and so clear it was that the gravel and the sand of the sea could be seen through it, and they saw no beasts or monsters at all among the rocks, but only the clean gravel and the grey sand.  And through a great part of the day they were going over that sea, and it is very grand it was and beautiful.

Saint Brendan too encounters a clear sea, while saying mass:

So clear that they could see to the bottom, and it was all as covered with a great heap of fishes.  …And the fishes awoke and started up and came all around the ship in a heap, that they could hardly see the water for fishes.  But when the mass was ended each one of them turned himself and swam away, and they saw them no more.

The clear water is repeated in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Silver Sea’: 

'How beautifully clear the water is' said Lucy to herself as she leaned over the port side early in the afternoon...'I must be seeing the bottom of the sea; fathoms and fathoms down.'  




Like the immrama, TVDT is the story of a spiritual quest. ‘Do you think,’ says Lucy, ‘Aslan’s country would be that sort of country – I mean, the sort you could ever sail to?’  The answer of the immrama is a qualified yes. Brendan and his companions reach the edges of their Blessed Land:

…clear and lightsome, and the trees full of fruit on every bough… and the air neither hot nor cold but always one way, and the delight that they found there could never be told. Then they came to a river that they could not cross but they could see beyond it the country that had no bounds to its beauty.  Then there came to them a young man… and took [Brendan] by the hand and said to him…

‘Here is the country you have been in search of, but it is our Lord’s will you should go back again and make no delay… And this river you see here is the mering,’ he said, ‘that divides the worlds, for no man may come to the other side of it while he is in life; [and when he dies] it is then there will be leave to see this country towards the world’s end.’

Praising God and laden with fruit of the country and precious stones, Brendan returns to Ireland and dies, his whole mind set on the heaven he has already seen. In the same spirit, Reepicheep sails over the edge of the world in his coracle, ‘and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse.  But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.’

No wonder Lewis wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Reading these old tales, the writer in me longs to snatch up a pen and begin making one of my own.  When the children catch a glimpse of Narnia’s own Land of the Blessed, Aslan’s country, over the top of the stationary wave at the world’s edge, Lewis recounts it in the same flat yet awed manner of the immrama – the voice of one simply reporting or recording genuine wonders.

Eastwards – beyond the sun – was a range of mountains.  It was so high that either they never saw the top or they forgot it.  None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction.  And the mountains must really have been outside the world.  For any mountains even a quarter or a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them.  But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked.  And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them.  …It brought a smell and a sound, a musical sound.  Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards.  Lucy could only say, ‘It would break your heart.’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘was it so sad?’  ‘Sad!! No,’ said Lucy. 


But I’m getting ahead of myself. After the adventure of Goldwater/Deathwater Island, the next landfall for the ship is the Island of the Voices – comic, if slightly sinister relief after the strain of the past few adventures. The invisible, thumping creatures whose voices (‘the isle is full of noises’) alarm Caspian and his friends turn out to be servants of a powerful and equally invisible magician, whose spell only ‘a little girl’ can undo. Alone, Lucy sets off upstairs into the quiet sunlit interior of the Magician’s House

… perhaps a bit too quiet. It would have been nicer if there had not been strange signs painted in scarlet on the doors – twisty, complicated things which obviously had a meaning and it mightn’t be a very nice meaning either.  



I’ve always loved this bit, rich and cosy and creepy – the silence, the masks, the strange Bearded Glass, and the Magician’s Book which you could only read if you turned your back on an open door. I loved the spells, too. Of course Lucy wants to try one – who wouldn’t?  And Pauline Baynes’ gorgeous illustration only makes it all the more tempting.



An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Like Galadriel tempted by the Ring (‘All shall love me, and despair’) Lucy is tempted to speak the words which will transform her into another Helen, a cause of wars to lay Narnia and its neighbour countries waste.  There’s also a strong dash of sibling rivalry: the magical book shows her Susan, ‘only plainer and with a nasty expression… jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now’. We knew Edmund was jealous of Peter, but Lewis has never told us before that Lucy is jealous of Susan (in reality it has to be that way around) and the effect here is both to humanise Lucy and demonise Susan even though we know it’s all Lucy’s fantasy.

‘I will say the spell,’ said Lucy. ‘I don’t care. I will.’

This book of spells is Lucy’s test and like Eustace-the-dragon and Caspian, she fails it. Once again Aslan has to intervene, his painted face appearing on the page ‘growling, and you could see most of his teeth’. Frightened, Lucy turns the page only to gabble another, lesser spell that ‘would let you know what your friends thought about you’, which teaches her the age-old lesson that listeners never hear good of themselves. Next comes a spell ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’, and finally the one she’s looking for, ‘A Spell to make hidden things visible’. On repeating it, Aslan himself appears,in tender but chiding mood – the Magician is revealed to be a sort of benign exiled Prospero, and we meet the Duffers or Monopods. 

Lucy has succumbed to vanity and curiosity, which Lewis probably considered female faults. Unlike Susan, Lucy is forgiven them: the spell for ‘refreshment of the spirit’ with its Gospel hints of ‘a cup and a sword and a green hill’ seems to cleanse her.

Next comes the terrible Dark Island ‘where dreams – dreams, do you understand – come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.’  More strong meat for my nine-year old self, who like most children knew plenty about the sorts of dreams ‘that make you afraid of going to sleep again’. Reading it as a child, I completely understood that the Dark Island is not a physical place at all; the ship never comes to land.  All this terror and madness and horror is happening inside the minds of the crew.  It’s fabulous writing. (‘Can you hear a noise … like … like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting… over there?’)  I understood that somehow, the characters have to escape from themselves – out of their own heads. The tension as they try to row out of the darkness… will they ever get out?  Will anyone in the blackness of despair ever make it? 

The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst into a horrible screaming laugh. ‘Never get out!’ he yelled. ‘That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No no, we shall never get out.’



But by Aslan’s help, they do. Is that too easy?  I think not, because the emotion is true. The albatross which circles the ship crying in a ‘strong, sweet voice’ and which leads them back to the light may be Aslan, or Christ, or hope, or what you will, but Lewis knows help of some kind is necessary: there are few who can drag themselves out of depression unaided. The relief and joy of finding the sunlight once again is almost palpable.

More light follows this darkness at the ship’s next landfall, the Island of the Sleepers. Here the last three lost Narnian lords lie in an enchanted stupor, having touched the Stone Knife that lies on Aslan’s Table. Caspian and his company wait uneasily around the Table till dawn at the behest of Reepicheep the Mouse (‘no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing when I get back to Narnia that I left a mystery behind me though fear’) while strange constellations burn in the eastern sky.  Here they meet Ramandu and his daughter, and see the birds flocking to the Table from the rising sun. From this point on, the story is all wonder and enchantment and Ramandu, the old star, hints they are on the edge of spiritual awakening or rebirth

‘Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.’



I haven’t yet said much about Reepicheep. He is truly Narnia’s Galahad, not its Lancelot. Lancelot is the Round Table’s best earthly knight, but he is fallible, he has passions and faults which make us love and admire him the more because we can see ourselves in him. Galahad is inhumanly virtuous, courteous and brave. TH White had some fun with him in The Once and Future King: looked at one way he’s a prig, it’s difficult to like him.  Reepicheep is as virtuous, courteous and brave as Galahad, but he’s lovable simply because he isn’t human, but a gallant Talking Mouse about two feet high, with dark, almost black fur: ‘A thin band of gold passed around its head under one ear and over the other, and in this was stuck a long crimson feather.’  Reepicheep sets a high – almost too high – example to Caspian and his company. On Ramandu’s Island, Caspian’s crew begins to mutiny, longing for home like Alexander’s soldiers who refused to cross the Ganges.

‘Aren’t you going to say anything, Reep?’ whispered Lucy.

‘No.  Why should your Majesty expect it?’ answered Reepicheep in a voice that most people heard. ‘My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek will be head of the talking mice in Narnia.’

Perfection is inhuman.  This is made clear when only Reepicheep is unmoved by the terror of the Dark Island. ‘There are some things no man can face,’ Caspian exclaims as he orders the retreat.

‘It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,’ replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.

We can tolerate Reepicheep’s disapproval because he’s an animal. He doesn’t understand or share our fears. Nothing stands between him and the best. He is both less than us, and greater. When finally, ‘quivering with happiness’, he hurls his sword into the Silver Sea (like Arthur at the brink of Avalon) and sets off alone in the coracle, swooping up the green glassy breast of the wave to vanish forever over the crest, it still brings tears to my eyes.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is at an end. It is time for Caspian to turn back, even though he longs to go on. His last tantrum over, he accepts his duty and destiny to return to rule well and wisely over Narnia. For Edmund and Lucy, it is their last time here. Though they have come close, so close, to the fringes of Aslan’s country, like Caspian they must turn their faces towards their own world.

But we shall meet Eustace – and Caspian – again, in the next book. 



Picture credits:
All artwork by the wonderful Pauline Baynes