From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish
Back in December, I and a whole host of others embarked on a readalong of the Narnia books by C S Lewis, magnificently hosted by Chris at Calmgrove in his #Narniathon21. (See my closing post on the Chronicles with links to all the others here). It was fun, and Chris suggested an extension book to read at the end.
Katherine Langrish is a children’s author and essayist on fairy tales. She, like me, grew up on the Narnia books, and in this appreciation of the series in this book, she returns to re-read the books as an adult, but always thinking back to her memories of reading them aged nine. The main seven chapters take one book each, in the later chronological order as Lewis suggested to one of his correspondents. She gives spritely summaries of each book – so there are spoilers – dissecting the plot and intertextual references to myths, legends and history. She also considers Lewis’s own strongly held beliefs and life experiences – his hatred of schools comes over strongly for instance. She contrasts the experience of reading as a child when the religious overtones largely wash over the reader, and how Lewis largely realised this, writing for the child and leading them to see that good will prevail, and maybe even why.
She also analyses the characters that support the children, including Aravis and Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, the grown-up women are all strong, but wicked rather than good – at least there are several of them! The female children are all also strong in their different ways, of course (we’ll come to Susan later).
I was particularly interested in her analysis of The Horse and His Boy which takes us to the exotic world of Calormen in which we expect some magic, only to find:
Where are the flying carpets, magical rings, terrifying jinni, sorcerors and enchantresses with which Scheherezade fills The Thousand and One Nights? Lewis ditched the lot. He borrowed the trappings but left out the magic.
Langrish also writes with a strong sense of (feminist) humour, as in this quote where the two talking horses are debating whether to stop for refuelling. Bree (m) says to Hwin (f):
‘I think, Ma’am … I know a little more about campaigns and forced marches and what a horse can stand than you do.’
Er … sorry? Hwin is a horse! Stallionsplaining – who knew?
She also spots onward references, such as when discussing Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Eustace will change, but meanwhile 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 was surely an influence.
Langrish’s tone throughout the book is mostly light and always engaging, but she does delve deeper into the literary and religious significance of major plot strands, although she acknowledges that Lewis didn’t want his readers to think that way:
In other words, the story is king, and if you read the Narnia books trying to pick out isolated religious references and pull some moral message out of them, then whether you are an approving Christian or a disapproving atheist, you are doing what Lewis never intended and did not want.
I found Langrish’s appreciation of the series, erudite, thought-provoking and taking me off down many other avenues deeper into folk lore and fairy tale – indeed I’ve since ordered her book of essays on fairy tales, Steven Miles of Steel Thistles (also the title of her blog). Adding her personal memories and ever-present sense of humour means it could never get bogged down in the biblical analysis. She’s not afraid to call Lewis out, arguing her points, but I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she suggests. This book is written with a sense of the joy that reading the chronicles of Narnia for the first time gave her, and how much of that remains even when all grown up – because these are stories that you can lose yourself in – still. Read, enjoy and then think, so to speak.
Highly recommended for all Narnia fans. (See also what Helen thinks of it at A Gallimaufry.
Source: Own copy. Darton, Longman & Todd hardback, 2021, 240 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
The Problem of Susan by Neil Gaiman & some discussion on the topic…
No one would disagree that the way that Lewis disposes of Susan in The Last Battle is both heartless and cynical, despite a way being theoretically left open for her to return to Aslan’s Country. It’s a very convenient thing to say that because she is now interested in lipsticks and nylons she has lost her faith, and thus the way to Narnia. Langrish above gets rightly riled by it: so did Neil Gaiman, who wrote a short story called ‘The Problem of Susan’.
You can read the story in Fragile Things, a collection of Gaiman’s short fiction, or, you can read a graphic novel treatment of it as I did in The Problem of Susan and Other Stories (which includes 3 other Gaiman shorts). To be honest, I didn’t warm to the illustrations by P. Craig Russell – because of how he portrays the elderly professor of children’s literature (who we assume is Susan) as so decrepit – I didn’t want her to be glamorous, but… Anyway in the story, the professor dreams of Narnia, and then she prepares to be interviewed by a student, Greta, who crashes about asking her about Susan. Later both dream again, and Greta comes to a conclusion.
Where Gaiman lost me, was in the later dream sequence. Aslan and Jadis don’t fight, Mary Poppins (wtf?) appears to make them negotiate. They agree to take two Pevensies each, Aslan gets the girls – Susan runs, but is caught and devoured – except for her head which is forced to watch Aslan and Jadis get it on together. Puh-leese!
I’m totally with Jenny at Reading the End on how Gaiman treats Lewis.
However, all this leaves me even more conflicted about Susan’s fate. Yes, I realise that turning to like more adult things and losing your faith are mutually exclusive, although puberty hormones will do their best to derail things.
The problem with Susan for me begins in The Horse and His Boy – it’s set after the events TLTW&TW, and Susan appears briefly as a minor support character. In it, Queen Susan the Gentle has come to the Calormene city to be courted by the son of its ruler. She is old enough to be married – and is beginning to look forward to this idea – if not this particular suitor. Thus, in Narnia, she has already experienced these grown-up things and another culture unlike her own, conveniently forgotten for her return to Narnia in Prince Caspian. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, she is taken to America by her parents, leaving Lucy and Edmund with Eustace. Would that reawaken those suppressed memories of being older than she is then back in Narnia?
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I went to church regularly. Did I believe in God then? A little, perhaps. It was more the youth club that drew me in rather than the sermons although I did have a moment after Texan Christian rock band Liberation Suite staged a sell-out concert there (ironically during their cover of Eric Clapton’s song ‘Presence of the Lord’ – thus seeming to prove as the infamous graffiti said ‘Clapton is God’! Sorry for my irreverence), and I did go to the Greenbelt Festival several times. I’m digressing. I was getting into mascara, jeans (and boys), and once I got to uni, and its freedoms I couldn’t drop the church fast enough. The poor vicar did write but to no avail, and it seems most of my youth club pals also moved on during the holidays. These days I’m just an enthusiastic singer of Christmas carols etc.
I may have lost what faith I had but it leads me to rather identify with Susan who is ready to try being an adult, (having already done it back in Narnia) and I thoroughly support her decision to put away childhood things. That doesn’t make her wicked or a Lilith-type character, just becoming a young woman striking her own path.
We will never know if the impending tragedy would have brought her back to Aslan, and Lewis always intimated that it wasn’t his story to tell. However, in my mind she doesn’t return to appease the angry God who took away her family, and had her own adventure instead.
BTW, I enjoyed the three other stories in this graphic collection (Locks, October in the Chair, and The Day the Saucers Came)
Source: Own copy. Headline hardback, 2019. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.