Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

“It is difficult to make a dull garden, but old Mr. Wither had succeeded.”

Stella Gibbons writes rather odd books.  Cold Comfort Farm, her best known and highly acclaimed novel, follows an orphaned, pert young woman to a mucky, rural farm and observes while she neatens and tidies all the morose, lurking, and deranged occupants into their proper places, finding love in the process.  Gibbons has a knack for depicting rather unusual and sometimes bizarre characters, and this flair for the unique has continued in her writing of Nightingale Wood. The introduction to the story labels it as a “fairy tale” and it is, although not along the usual lines one would expect from such a tale.  Gibbons’ evil creatures often have angelic faces, and her happily-ever-afters can leave the reader uncertain of reality.  In playing with her characters, Gibbons appears to play with society and even the reader himself.  Her writing is not easily defined.

When Viola Wither finds herself a widow, parentless and very nearly destitute, she must accept the hospitality of her in-laws for her subsistence.  However, the Wither household is a quirky one, yet Viola, with her quiet and rather doe-eyed vacuity, manages to navigate the excessive expectations of her father-in-law, the ineffectualness of her mother-in-law and her two sisters-in-law, one who is a rather mannish, outdoorsy, opinionated woman, and the other a dull, thin, conventional woman with strangled hopes from an overbearing father.  Yet, in spite of the tedious country life she is forced to accept and Viola’s credulous and nascent view of the world, she somehow manages to find her Prince Charming in this unlikely place.

“It has been hinted that her nature was affectionate; now that it had received encouragement there was no holding it; she was in love, so much in love that she did not realize that it was Wednesday morning and the letter had not come; and that the man she was in love with was the legendary Victor Spring.  Victor had now become Him.  He was less of a real person than ever.  She never once thought about his character or his income or his mother.  She was drunk.  She wandered about like a dazzled moth, smiling dreamily, and running downstairs when the postman came, crying:  ‘Anything for me?'”

Right away, we notice that Gibbons fairy-tale has some rough edges, that will never be filed smooth.  It is romance, but romance with an uncomfortable twist.  While Viola’s Prince Charming is not only handsome, debonair and rich, he’s also engaged to be married.  And although he is physically attracted to Viola, he doesn’t even seem to remember her name.  His reaction to Viola after the ball is not one of an idealized lover:

“He was most strongly attracted to her, but not romantically.  The intentions of the Prince towards Cinderella were, in short, not honourable: and as we have seen, he thought it the prudent thing not to see her.

Sleeping Beauty
source Wikimedia Commons

However, this story is not only about Viola, and the Withers.  We have a number of other unconventional characters who populate the pages of this unique novel:  Hetty, Victor’s cousin who loves books and her family not so much; Saxon, the young, handsome chauffeur whose family has come down in the world, as he tries to manage his rather slovenly, yet sexually indiscriminate mother; the loud and dirty woodland Hermit who takes great delight in terrorizing the gentry with his insightful, yet indelicate observations; and many, many more colourful personalities.  It’s a kaleidescope of the English country life of the 1930s, but while the surface is nice and tidy, underneath there are swirling passions, undisclosed sentiment, and hidden resentment.

Certainly the novel has a fairy tale flavour to it, sprinkled with hyperbole, but Gibbons ensures that she imbues it with a healthy dose of realism.  In a lovely fantasy-style, Gibbons bestows on each character their heart’s desire, yet the outcome of their desires are firmly entrenched in the reality of the 1930s, and their desires can perhaps turn out not to be as desirable as first expected.  On one hand, Gibbons shows incredible insight by investigating human desires, and then showing us how capricious the hand of fate can be, and how indiscriminate human nature can be, yet sometimes she doesn’t seem to like her characters, almost manipulating and abusing them in a way that makes you wary of liking them, even if you wish to.  Reality descends on the characters, but often they seem to reject it, living inside a mental shell of their own making.  It’s sort of an odd experience.  I feel that I’ve witnessed an explosion of Dodie Smith meets Virginia Woolf and I’m not sure if I like it.

Having written over 20 novels, Gibbons was rather annoyed that none of her other works received the attention of Cold Comfort Farm, yet perhaps the criticism is somewhat deserved.  While I enjoyed this book, I felt that it was difficult to really get to know any of the characters.  Perhaps this mental barricade was due to the radical treatment that Gibbons gives her characters, pressing the loud pedal at one time, and the soft at another.  Just when you think you have a character sketched, they behave in a way completely unexpected and you have to start all over again with a likeness.  The characters themselves struggle not only within the definitions Gibbons imposes on them, but societal definitions and self-definition, so the read becomes somewhat unsettling.  A fairy tale, yes, but a splintered fairy tale, where actuality rears its ugly face and blows away the clouds of expectations.

Prince Charming (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy – Read With Me!

Did you know that besides the scholarly, theological and children’s books that C.S. Lewis wrote, he also delved into fantasy?  Set on Mars, Venus and Earth, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are vastly different works that grasp the reader’s imagination in a wholly unique way.

Beginning September 1st and reading one book per month, my Goodreads Group, The Dead Writer’s Society will be delving into this trilogy, and I have volunteered to lead this intrepid group of readers.  Do you like adventure and surprise?  Have you ever wanted to travel to another planet?  Then come and join us!  Head over to The Dead Writer’s Society and when you request membership, say that I sent you.  It should be a stimulating conversation!

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)



The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

The Silver Chair
First Edition Dustjacket
source Wikipedia

“It was a dully autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.”

Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole seek shelter from bullies in their Experiment House school and, after stumbling through a door, find themselves in Aslan’s country, not realizing that Aslan has called them there for a very special purpose.

Ten years ago after the death of his mother, Prince Caspian’s son, Rillian, disappeared into the North without a trace.  With Puddlegum, the pessimistic Marshwiggle as their guide and companion, Eustace and Jill set out to discover his fate.  However, Jill missed some of the four signs that Aslan had given her and the adventurers wonder if their quest has not been made more difficult because of her oversights.  Will they be able to save the heir of Narnia from the evil Emerald Witch, and even more importantly, what will they have learned by the end of their adventure?

Lewis makes me laugh with some of the symbolism he inserts into these tales for children.  In one scene, the Witch attempts to enchant the children, striving to convince them that their world is only a dream and that her world is, in fact, the real thing.  Bravely, Puddleglum, in desperation, stamps on the fire, hoping the resulting pain will break the spell.  He declares even if they have imagined all the wonderful things of their world, he prefers them to the cold, dark, menacing world of the Witch, and he pledges to live as a Narnian even if Narnia does not exist.  Puddleglum’s curious statement echoes Blaise Pascal’s famous wager that argues that even if God does not exist, to live by His precepts will ensure a better earthly life; what one would gain would be infinitely more valuable than what one would lose.

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

This book is my least favourite of the Chronicles so far, but Lewis still manages to tell an engaging tale that keeps the reader interested and invested in the characters.  Next up is The Horse and His Boy!

C.S. Lewis Project 2014

Other Narnia Books

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

“Was she beautiful or not beautiful?”

Gwendolyn Harleth is a “spoiled child”, a young woman with average prospects yet with high hopes of attaining respectable social standing and monetary comfort. While scorning the traditional avenues of marriage, she desperately wishes for a meaningful, vibrant life, even though she is unsure of how to attain it.  Gambling, parties and equestrian amusements, fill her time, with little thought of other peoples wants, needs or struggles.

Daniel Deronda is a respectable moral young man and the ward of Sir Hugo Mallinger.  When he first spies Gwendolyn, his disapproval of her gambling and later, the same quiet censure of some of her actions, leads her down a path of introspection and causes her to question the manner in which she is living her life.  Yet the changes in her character do not come soon enough and, due to her family’s sudden monetary troubles, she contracts a marriage to Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, the nephew and heir of Sir Hugo.  She views the marriage as an escape from poverty and a stepping stone to a life of leisure and a respectable position in society.  Instead she gets a husband with a twisted soul, bent on breaking her will as he would a horse or a wild animal.  He glories in her struggles, fear and his ability to control her actions.

Gwendolyn at the Roulette Table
(1910)
Wikipedia

A second plot winds itself through Gwendolyn’s, as Deronda internally questions the manner of his birth and the identity of his parents.  Not wishing to bring up a subject that may be uncomfortable for Sir Hugo, he suppresses his curiosity, yet aches for familial connections and history.  Upon saving a Jewish singer from drowning, his relationship with her takes him down the path of finding his true heritage.

Eliot forces the reader to examine some of the social issues of that time.  Without money, young women could only hope to find work in low paying positions, such as governesses or companions, or perhaps choose less respectful avenues as singers or actresses.  Without an inheritance or a family who was financially able to support them, an advantageous marriage was really the only protection for women of this time period.

She also treats the subject of Jewish identity and culture with surprising dexterity and perception.  While they are portrayed with an obvious sympathy, Eliot makes each character real, from the philosophic and idealistic Mordecai, to the money-loving pawnbroker, Cohen. The struggle of a people against prejudice and pre-judgement is plainly explored with touching sincerity and insight.  Mordecai’s longing to see the Zionist hopes for a Jewish homeland established adds a deeper more complex examination of an issue that was of particular interest to the author.

The Fair Toxophilites (Archers)
by William Firth (1872)
Wikimedia Commons

I found that certain parts of the novel dragged, and the plot suffered numerous bumps, but again Eliot tackled such diverse issues, making the writing of the novel an epic task, so I can forgive some of the inconsistencies. Her obvious intellectual curiosity, and her enlightened opinions made the read informative as well as enjoyable.  Daniel Deronda is a book that prods you to think and ponder even after the last page is turned.

“In the chequered area of human experience the seasons are all mingled as in the golden age: fruit  and blossom hang together,; in the same moment the sickle is reaping and the seed is sprinkled; one tends the green cluster and another treads the wine-press.  Nay, in each of our lives harvest and spring-time are continually one, until Death himself gathers us and sows us anew in his invisible fields.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

First Edition Dustjacket
source Wikipedia

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”

Another year has passed.  Peter and Susan Pevensie are able to travel with their parents to America, while Edmund and Lucy are sent to live with their cousin, Eustace Scrubb.  Eustace is a spoiled pest, a child who has been raised by “very up-to-date and advanced” parents and who attends a “modern school.”  When the three children pass through a picture of a sailing ship and back into the land of Narnia, they are tossed into another wild adventure.

The Dawn Treader is the pride of the Narnian fleet and is carrying Prince Caspian on a journey to find the seven lost lords of Narnia, friends of his father who sailed east and went missing long ago.  As they explore both uncharted land and water, the children find themselves in situations of danger and moments of decision that will change their lives forever.

This book is the third book published of the Narnia chronicles and with each book, Lewis weaves more gems of wisdom into the story and does it with a genuineness that is particularly appealing.  Lucy once again has an encounter with Aslan: Lucy is instructed to look for a particular spell in a book of Magic but decides, against her conscience, to read a spell that will stroke her vanity and make her more beautiful than her sister.  Immediately she spies Aslan on the page, growling and showing his teeth, which stops her selfish action.  Instead she chooses to read a spell that allows her to eavesdrop on two girls from her school, and what she hears about herself is not pleasant, especially since she had viewed one of the girls as her friend.  Aslan gently admonishes her about listening to their conversation and says that her relationship with her friend will now never be the same.  When Lucy wishes to know what would have happened if she hadn’t eavesdropped, Aslan tells her, as he told her in Prince Caspian, “Child, did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”  Actions have consequences and we need to weigh the repercussions before we act, instead of being guided by impulse.

Wikimedia Commons

Eustace Scrubb is certainly a wonderful character and Lewis’ development of him is extraordinary.  Going from a petulant, spoiled, impertient child, he is transformed by a frightening experience, yet Lewis does not make him perfect in his transformation.  As we see by his reactions, he still holds some of the same prejudices, assumptions, and, at times, behaviour as he originally did.  Eustace’s encounter with Aslan fundementally changed his soul, yet he is like an Everyman, struggling with life’s circumstances while trying to live a life of integrity, and still making mistakes along the way.

Lewis makes a point in this book of examining the views of an exclusively scientific mentality and what results from this kind of worldview.  Eustace is initially presented as boy who goes to a model, or progressive school, and is only exposed to factual experience.  Because of his sterile formation, he is unable to enjoy or even recognize, the magic and joy in Narnia.  He has straightforward knowledge, but when situations do not fit into his technical understanding, he is handicapped by his lack of wonder and curiosity, and is unable to accept, understand or cope with them.  What is particularly telling, is that he doesn’t recognize what lies right in front of his face:  in spite of being on the Dawn Treader and being able to see that it is a ship, he tries to tell Caspian what a real ship is like; when they land on Droon, it is reasonably obvious (and he has been told) that they are in another world, yet Eustace insists they should find the British consul; and even after Eustace’s transformation, when they land in the country of the Dufflepuds, he makes an impulsive judgement about the area and its people based on his first sight of technology: “Machinery!  I do believe we’ve come to a civilized country at last!”  By living solely by “the facts”, Eustace can recognize what makes us physically human, yet misses the wonder, enjoyment, and recognition, of what makes us spiritually human.

Detail of Dawn Treader port stern porthole
photo courtesy of David Jackmanson
Creative Commons License

Living during the Second World War and being exposed to the Nazi’s views of racial superiority and social-Darwinism,  Lewis’ was unavoidably confronted with certain aspects of science and was forced to ponder their eventual outcomes:

“Again, the oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim of knowledge …….  This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists …… Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects.  Let scientists tell us about science.  But government involves questions about the good of man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value …… On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science.  That is how tyrannies come in.  In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension, which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent.  They ‘cash in’.  It has been magic, it has been Christianity.  Now it will certainly be science.”

Lewis was not concerned about science itself, but the importance placed on it and for what means it could be used.

Once again, Lewis weaves a wonderful adventure for children, but leaves questions and ideas that relate to an adult world.

C.S. Lewis Project 2014

Other Narnia Books

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle, man of firm convictions …
By falling gravely ill, he’s won
A due respect for his afflictions —
The only clever thing he’s done.

I was so happy to get the chance to participate in Marian at Tanglewood’s Read-Along for my second read of Eugene Onegin in six months.  My first time I read the translation by Charles Johnston and this time chose to read James A. Falen’s translation.  But more comparisons on the two later.

It was such a joy to read such a lively and often tongue-in-cheek poem, yet Pushkin weaves his jaunty remarks throughout a tale of serious love, serious death and serious coming-of-age, crafting a remarkable masterpiece.

Since I already reviewed Eugene Onegin the first time I read it,  I will simply cover a couple of areas that stood out for me from a second read, that were not initially apparent.

First Edition of the novel
(source Wikipedia)

Comparing the two translations, I must say I enjoyed Falen more than Johnston.  Johnston’s words have a loftier tone and are perhaps more beautiful, but I think Falen captures the spirit of the poem more accurately.  A couple of times, his choice of words appeared awkward, yet he communicated the grave situations in balance with the bouncy, cheekiness of the narrator, with flair and apparent ease.  I would recommend him for a first-time reader.

This second read I noticed numerous instances of juxtaposition ………. Tatyana reading books that lead her to form a romantic infatuation with a man she’s barely spoken to vs. Tatyana reading books that lead her to a more mature and formed view of Onegin’s character; Tatyana’s love of the country and woods vs. her marital residence being in the city; Tatyana’s letter vs. Onegin’s letter; Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana, and then Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin; Onegin’s volatile response to a friend’s challenge that leads to that friend’s death vs. Onegin’s wish to seduce a friend’s wife which could have led to a similar circumstance.  It really became apparent to me this time that Onegin hadn’t learned anything.  It was clear to Tatyana, too.  She asks him pointedly, why he is suddenly pursuing her, and her harsh words demonstrate her mistrust of his motives:

” Why mark me out for your attention?
Is it perhaps my new ascension
To circles that you find more swank;
Or that I now have wealth and rank;
Or that my husband, maimed in battle,
Is held in high esteem at Court?
Or would my fall perhaps be sport,
A cause for all the monde to tattle —
Which might in turn bring you some claim
To social scandal’s kind of fame?”

Until he saw Tatyana the second time, he was the same foppish young man, sinking in ennui.  She revived him briefly, yet even in the ardent fog of love, his actions are not the actions of a man who has gone through a self-examination from the tragedy that had come from his initial conduct (the duel).  If he had managed to convince Tatyana to begin a relationship with him, it would have ended in another duel and another possible death of a friend.  I think Tatyana was wise enough to ascertain the baseness of his behaviour and foresaw the consequences.  She loved him as a man, yet rejected his ignoble character.

Statue of Alexander Pushkin
photo courtesy of Cliff (Flickr)
Creative Commons License

This quote by Onegin sums up his character throughout the poem:

“Yet I in futile dullness squander
These days allotted me by fate …..”

There is a pathos in his words and actions with which the reader can sympathize, hoping for a reversal in his chosen path, but at the end he is still walking the road of self-gratification and boredom, and we can only watch him disappear into the thickening mist …..

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

First Edition Dustjacket
Source Wikipedia

One year later, Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy return to Narnia (via a train station —- I’m curiously reminded of Harry Potter) only to find their castle at Cair Paravel in ruin, the talking animals in hiding and a despotic foreign ruler, a Telmarine, has assumed control of the kingdom.  The sacrifice of Aslan and the children’s reign has been forgotten, reduced to a mere myth in the minds of the Narnians.

Assisted by Trumpkin, a drawf, the children learn that they have been recalled by the blowing of Susan’s horn by Prince Caspian, and that they must aid him in battle against his uncle, Miraz, the man who slew his father, the rightful king.  Aslan appears to Lucy and, while she ignores his first summons under pressure from her siblings, she soon learns from a gentle remonstrance from Aslan, that she must always try to do what is right and not follow the crowd.  She also realizes that she will never know what would have happened if she had obeyed the first time, that choices have consequences; lessons learned to increase her wisdom.  The children finally reach Caspian’s hideout and, with the help of the animals, dwarves, Aslan and Bacchus and his merry men, they manage to defeat the forces of the evil Miraz and place Prince Caspian on the throne of Narnia.

My, my, what is Bacchus doing in a children’s book with Christian undertones?!  Some critics were astonished and perplexed at Lewis’ insertion of the Greek god of wine and merrymaking into this novel.  His inclusion of pagan deities, into a hodge-podge of talking animals and quasi-medieval culture was perhaps mystifying, but Lewis grew up devouring Norse and Greek mythology and had no issues with the pagan gods.  His essay, Myth Became Fact, can give the reader further clues as to his love of myth and the symbols related to it. Probably with this essay in mind, one Lewis scholar, Louis Markos, argues that he sees the Bacchus scenes as Lewis’ way of bringing all pagan myths together, that “when viewed from the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the pagan myths are not only tamed but come true ……… Christ … is all the myths come true …..”  The myths can assist us in a deeper understanding of spiritual realities.

Bacchus by Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

While Prince Caspian was published after World War II, in 1951, the consciousness of the country was still unsettled, and many people, Lewis included, were concerned with the direction England would take after the war. With setting the reign of the Pevensie children so far into Narnia’s past, Lewis brings a curious parallel to his own post-war England.  In Narnia, the people have forgotten Kings Peter and Edmund, Queens Susan and Lucy, the lion, Aslan, and the medieval pomp and joyous times of their reign.  So, in post-war Europe, if the traditional medieval Christian past disappeared from peoples’ thoughts and actions, so too would its values and morality.  It was important that, like in the case of Lucy first seeing Aslan, the correct choices were made.

“War creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.  Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”  

All in all, another delightful story from Lewis, filled with adventure, suspense, and life themes that are not only pertinent in Narnia, but echo throughout all the ages and into our own.

C.S. Lewis Project 2014

 Other Narnia Books

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

First edition 1925 (sourced Wikipedia)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Decadence, adultery, narcissism, vast wealth, idealistic love, betrayal, death, revenge, murder; a vast array of scope for a novel, and Fitzgerald delivers an impacting tale in The Great Gatsby.  Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest, begins to form a relationship with his neighbour, the wealthy Jay Gatsby and eventually learns of Gatsby’s connection to his cousin, Daisy.  Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan, while casually enduring her husband’s adulterous relationships, has led a very vapid and frivilous life amongst the society scene of the 1920s.  When Gatsby reappears in her life, their rekindled romance sets off a series of tragic events, the repercussions reverberating through the lives of all the characters.

Gatsby, the created man; Gatsby, the idealist, a man who is love with an image that formed five years earlier, and that he has nurtured through time.  Did I understand his infatuation with Daisy?  No, but I sympathized with it.  He had grown up isolated, broke relations with his parents reasonably early on and had no one in his life to set a good example that he could draw from.  Daisy was perhaps the only person whom he had loved, and so he loved her passionately, unrealistically and terminally.  And he realized, that he would need money to keep her love.  When Nick Carraway says to him, “She’s [Daisy’s] got an indiscreet voice …. It’s full of —-“, Gatsby answers, “Her voice is full of money.”  Even though he knows what she is like, and has known from the beginning, is he desperately trying to hold on to his fantasy of her —- this illusion of perfection — because he has nothing else?  Gatsby fails to examine any of the decisions he makes in his life ……… perhaps he truly believes that money can buy him happiness and cannot see the superficiality of the life and people with whom he surrounds himself.  His life is built on illusion and throughout the novel we hear the faint ticking of the bomb that will shatter his misperceptions.

The Plaza Hotel in the early 1920s
(source Wikipedia)

As for Nick Carraway, I felt uncomfortable with him as the narrator.  He went to unusual lengths at the beginning of the novel to establish his credibility with the reader, and if his observations are to be believed, he was the only one in the novel with any compassion, discernment or standards.  While the society he moves in is portrayed in a harsh, decadent, unforgiving light, he is the angel that hovers above it, the star that shines through it.  He is the only one who cares for Gatsby, the only one with a moral compass.  I had a difficult time buying into his golden-boy image.

The tragedy of this novel is a wasted life.  In spite of the grandeur, in spite of his fame and money, Gatsby left no real lasting effect on anyone, other than perhaps Nick Carraway.  He buried himself behind a persona, only emerging to be drawn towards the flame of Daisy and then perishing, as his wings brushed the heat of her consuming light.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.”

There is a wardrobe in an old room.  Picture yourself opening the wardrobe door.  You climb inside it, careful to leave the door cracked open slightly as you push your way back in amongst the antique coats, which smell of dampness and age and silent history.  But wait!  It is cold underneath you and, as you reach down, you grasp a wet, slushy substance that could only be snow!

What a wonderful way to begin The C.S. Lewis Project and the Classic Children’s Literature Event!  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is an enduring children’s classic that is magic, just pure magic!  Peter, Susan, Edmond & Lucy discover an old wardrobe and find that it can transport them to another world called Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell on the land and “everything is winter and never Christmas.”  However, all is not bleak and hopeless because Aslan the Lion is on the move.  He begins to bring spring to Narnia, but Edmund betrays his siblings with the result that Aslan willingly pays for Edmund’s transgression with his life.  With his resurrection, and after an enormous battle led by Peter and Edmund, Aslan is acknowledged King of Narnia.

Lewis rejected the assertion that this story was intended as an allegory and, being an expert in that area, Lewis was certainly qualified to judge:

“By an allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial or literary) in which immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects, eg., a pictured Cupid allegorically represents erotic love (which in reality is an experience, not an object occupying a given area of space) or, in Bunyan, a giant represents Despair. 

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure.  In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?”  This is not allegory at all ……. This …… works out a supposition.”

While this book contains references to Christianity, Lewis did not initially set out to write a Christian story:

“Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided to what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them.  This is all pure moonshine.  I couldn’t write in that way.  It all began with images: a faun with an umbrella, parcels, a lamppost, a snow-covered kingdom.  At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them.  That element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

Within the story, Lewis communicates aspects of Christian faith in way that is easy to understand and, through the death of Aslan, Lewis allows us to experience the agony and horror of Christ’s death and to experience the conflicting emotions of his friends and disciples, as well as their joy upon his resurrection.  His style is a simple straight-forward narrative that easily communicates emotions of joy, perseverance, loyalty, pride, envy, betrayal, and sadness.  A timeless story with timeless themes that can be read again and again.

C.S. Lewis Project 2014

Other Narnia Books