Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum and the Weston Library.

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The Museum of Natural History.

There were only a couple of hours left of my visit to Oxford now. I wanted to squeeze in some more exploration while I could. I headed to the Museum of Natural History, which is the sort of place anyone who has had to entertain under fives will be familiar with. Housed in a neo-Gothic Victorian building, with a lawn full of picnicking families in front, it was a busy, bustling place full of stuffed animals, dinosaur bones and ever-patient grandparents corralling small children and doling out snacks and juice boxes. It was light and bright and I really liked it. I walked through the museum to a doorway in the far wall. This led into the Pitt Rivers Museum.

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The Pitt Rivers.
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Glass cabinets.

What an astonishing place. The eight-year-old me (who is never very far away) squeaked with joy. The entire place (one large open room, with galleries across multiple floors) was a gigantic cabinet of curiosities. Miraculously, it had been spared over-modernisation, streamlining or ‘tidying up’. There were tens of thousands of artefacts from all over the world. Weapons, clothes, toys, money, models. I wandered about for some time and didn’t see anything I wasn’t interested in. The items were all displayed in traditional glass cabinets. I chanced upon some shrunken heads which may well have inspired the prop designers who worked on Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Numerous pre-teen children were skipping around the place, evidently enjoying it as much as I was.

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Shrunken Heads.

Time was running out, so I left the museum and, just around the corner, I entered the Weston Library. I’m very glad I did. It was a pleasant, modern building. First, I visited the Shakespeare exhibition, which included a first folio. Next, I headed to the ‘Treasures’ room. Here was a small display of immaculately selected, lovingly displayed items of particular interest. Of course, my favourites were the Pauline Baynes sketch of Puddleglum, and Tolkien’s picture of Hobbiton, but they were given a good run for their money by the other pieces on show.

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The Weston.

Next door to the Weston was Blackwell’s, the famous bookshop. I picked up some gifts and admired another original Baynes (Wimbleweather, priced at slightly more than I spent last time I bought a car) and some interesting first editions: Narnia, Dymer and A Grief Observed. I also made a mental note that such a thing as an Inklings Colouring Book exists.

After a last visit to Keble’s chapel, I collected my suitcase and walked to the train station. (It only took about 15 minutes.) At the station I stocked up on snacks and waited for my train. I was sorry to leave Oxford, but as ever missed my own bed and home comforts. I was looking forward to sharing my adventures with my husband when I arrived at home.

My return journey was to Newcastle via Kings Cross, so naturally I popped into the expanded Platform 9 3/4 shop. Why they have still now sorted out the air con in this place? It’s like the seventh level of hell in there. Is it intentional, to discourage dawdlers and gawkers? I got out as soon as I could squeeze past the people and displays. The queue for Platform 9 3/4 photos was unbelievable. I’m glad I got mine when it was still on the outside of the building, with nobody there.

All the way home on the train, I plotted my return to Oxford, my new favourite place. I’d made my literary pligrimage and had not been disappointed.

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Keble College and Christ Church College.

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The tower of Christ Church college.

Another jam-packed morning of my Oxford visit. First, once I’d packed my bag, I took it down to Keble’s storage room, where a friendly man tagged it for me. This left me free to wander without dragging my little wheelie case along with me. Having checked out of Keble, I then headed through town to Christ Church College. The journey was a pleasant one, as I passed through the College’s beautifully kept gardens, noting the memorial to fallen soldiers. I arrived at the entrance to the buildings a little early (it opens at 10am) but there was already a queue – and multiple coach parties arriving.

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Hogwarts at Christ Church.

As I queued, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of the people in front of me. A Spanish man, who looked to be in his late twenties, was talking to his English guide:        “So, the Chamber of Secrets, is it under this college?” The guide looked perplexed. He replied, “No, the Great Hall was based on the hall here, and the staircase was used for filming, but not the Chamber of Secrets.” The Spanish man seemed puzzled, and asked, “Well which college has the chamber then?” He genuinely believed that one of the Oxford colleges concealed a massive underground labyrinth (accessed by a toilet sink) featuring a massive statue of a dodgy wizard and filled with the bones of a basilisk and everything it had eaten. Bless him. The guide’s polite explanations continued, as he pointed out the differences between film sets of imaginary schools and genuine locations.

 

I paid my £10 and entered a small courtyard filled with the scent of lavender bushes. Moving on (the leaflet I’d been given specified a path to follow, rather than just wandering about) I arrived at the famous ‘Hogwarts’ staircase. (It’s the scene of McGonagall’s welcome and explanation of the house system in the film of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, for example. Harry’s met up with Ron and Hermione there, encountered Filch, and watched Tom Riddle via his diary.)  The ceiling is reminiscent of the decorative ceiling in the Bodleian’s Divinity School. I took plenty of giddy snaps to remember it by, then filed into the Dining Hall with everyone else. You can clearly see how it inspired the film version of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, with its long tables, high roof and large stone fireplaces.The walls are filled with stained glass windows and painted portraits. I filed round, duly taking snaps, but was surprised to find myself a little underwhelmed. I think it must be a personal taste thing, but I preferred Keble’s (far newer and less celebrated) hall. After the hall came a large quad, and the cathedral, which was full of interesting things to see wherever you looked. I particularly liked the Pre-Raphaelite windows.After lighting some prayer candles I wandered back out of the cathedral and through another quad, and returned to the streets of Oxford near Oriel College.Christ Church is undeniably gorgeous, historic and everything else you could want from an Oxford College. I’m not sure why, I just didn’t warm to it in the same way I did Magdalen or Keble. Maybe it was too large-scale for me. I’m a small scale sort of person.

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Leaving Christ Church.

Having some time to spare, I sought of the ‘Tumnus’ carvings, situated either side of a doorway near and old fashioned lamppost (coincidence, I’m sure, but fun nevertheless) and visited the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was pleasantly cool and calm. I picked up some souvenirs from the Bodleian shop, noticing the doorway nearby marked ‘grammar and history’. Tailor-made for me!

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Tumnus and the lamppost.
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My favourite doorway.

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford.The Ashmolean, The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag.

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The Ashmolean.

I’d had a busy day. I’d ‘done’ Christ Church meadow, the Bodleian, the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve, Lewis’ home, his church and his grave. My feet hurt and I’d taken a ridiculous number of photographs. But I was determined not to waste any of my time in Oxford, so on I went. I had thought about visiting Christ Church College, but abandoned this plan as a consequence of a rain shower. Instead I headed to the Ashmolean, which turned out to be a very good plan indeed.

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It’s the first university museum in the world, but is thoroughly modern in its organisation. A bewildering selection of items from everywhere and everywhen were enough to satisfy all my Indiana-Jonesish tendencies. Rather than follow any particular plan, I wandered about haphazardly, which allowed me to ‘discover’ find after find.

I moved happily from room to room, enjoying excellent displays of artefacts, scultpures, carved friezes, musical instruments, pottery, paintings and more. The items from antiquity were particularly of interest to me. A pair of carved stone lions reminded me of Ember and Umber, the gods of Lev Grossman’s Fillory.

Faces of people long dead stared back at me. I wondered which ones Lewis might have stared at in his time.

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Tash?

A carving of a bird-headed god caught my eye. Surely creatures like this inspired Tash, the Calormene god?

What a brilliant space to spend a drizzly afternoon. After a satisfying mooch round, I sat on a handy bench and pondered my next move.

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The Eagle and Child.

Should I visit Lewis pilgrimage: the pub where, in a cosy back room, the Inklings met regularly to talk and hear each other’s work, including Tolkien’s Middle Earth work and various books of Lewis’. But it’s a pub. Would I feel uncomfortable? Self conscious? Despite it being the 21st Century, women are still not really expected to drink alone in public. Also, as a woman, you do feel a certain vulnerability in certain places, and an unknown pub in an unfamiliar city is definitely one. But I didn’t want to let this stop me visiting a key place associated with Lewis. I decided to give it a try.

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The rabbit room.

First I bought a newspaper, then headed inside. The pub, dating from the 17th Century, was divided into different cosy snugs and seating areas at the front, with a long, narrow extension at the back. The old ‘Rabbit Room’ where the Inklings sat has since been opened up, but is still clearly marked with signs on the walls for tourists. I bought a glass of wine and sat down. Just where they used to sit. A group of men, including two whose work had dominated my childhood, and my imagination ever since.

And I realised that my self-consciousness was unnecessary. Nobody cared. Nobody was looking. I relaxed, and wrote in my diary, and thoroughly enjoyed my drink. It felt liberating.

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The Lamb and Flag.

So liberating, in fact, that I decided to continue my afternoon in the Lamb and Flag pub across the road (another popular spot with the Inklings). Bagging a prime seat in the bay window – which I recognised from episodes of Morse and Endeavour, I enjoyed another wine and worked on a crossword puzzle. Again, absolutely nobody paid me the slightest bit of attention. Is this how it is now for women in pubs? Or is it dependent on the city you are in?

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A lovely afternoon.

I was greatly cheered when a (quite posh-looking) lady, I think about 8-10 years older than me, also entered the pub alone. She ordered a pint and sat at the next table. We exchanged pleasantries. The sun was shining through the window so my next two drinks were Pimms. The lady stood up to leave, but as she did so asked if what I was writing was a diary. She told me she always kept one, and I really reminded her of herself. She was in Oxford teaching a Summer school on Hepworth and Moore. I explained the purpose of my visit.We admired each other’s style (going to pubs alone and enjoying it, basically). As she left, we waved happily at each other through the window. It was the first time in many years I’d been so struck by a warmth of friendly feeling between me and stranger.

I was immediately and forcefully reminded of two things:

  1. Lucy’s short encounter with the mermaid in VDT. (See my re-read post on Chapter 16.) She sees a mermaid, but the rapid movement of the ship means that they stare into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, wave, and then are separated. Lewis tells us: ‘Lucy had liked that girl and she felt certain the girl had liked her. In that one moment they had somehow become friends. There does not seem to be much chance of their meeting again in that world or any other. But if ever they do they will rush together with their hands held out.’
  2. Lewis’ own quote: ‘Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”‘

Lewis was everywhere I looked! I strolled merrily home and revisited the chapel of Keble College. Again I was quite alone. I wandered around the different quads and sat for a while on a circular seat beneath a tree. Upon returning to my room I pottered for a white, thought about my day, and – feeling tired, particularly my legs- I climbed into bed.

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Holman Hunt in the Chapel.

Again I woke early, and snuggled contentedly into my bed. It had rained in the night and the air was cooler and fresher that yesterday. Keble’s colours suited the rain, with the patterned bricks looking brighter than before. This time, I sat at the dining hall’s high table for breakfast, smiling to myself as a nearby couple impersonated Dumbledore.

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Breakfast at the high table.

Back in my room after another pleasant Keble breakfast, I rested, then packed my bags, surprised again by the chime of the clock in the tower opposite my room.

I am resolved to return to Oxford. Some parts I haven’t seen; others I want to revisit. I want my husband to see the Bodleian so I can see his face when he walks into Duke Humphrey’s library.

I’ve thought a lot about my late dad here. History, architecture, pubs, literature: all the things I’ve enjoyed here are the things he relished. It feels like a very ‘him’ place somehow. He’d have liked the Lamb and Flag. I really enjoyed my solo drink, but would happily swap it for one with him.

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. The C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve and The Kilns.

 

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Risinghurst. Not Headington.

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Having thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the Bodleian, I booked a taxi to take me to Headington, the Oxford suburb where Lewis lived and died, where I’d booked a tour of his home, The Kilns. I asked to be collected from ‘The Bodleian’, then after hanging up, realised my folly. The Bodleian consists of 30 different buildings situated across the city. The staff and I wondered where it might appear. (Answer: opposite Blackwell’s.) I was duly driven to the C. S. Lewis nature reserve. When I gave him the address, the taxi driver upbraided me for having said that I was going to Headington. Apparently the reserve is considered to be in Risinghurst, not Headington. Shame on me for not knowing the difference between two adjoining areas in a city nearly 300 miles south of my home!

The journey took around 15 minutes, then the unsmiling driver deposited me at the entrance to Lewis Close. Yes, it’s in Risinghurst. Sorry. Excited about being so close to Lewis’ home, I walked along the street to the end, where the Kilns is situated. Having seen it in photos online, I recognised the house instantly. The sun was shining and the floral border outside the Kilns’ hedge looked glorious. I had about half an hour before I was due for my guided tour, so I continued past the house and along a narrow path, into the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve.The reserve in modest in size at 2.5 hectares, so it was easy to negotiate the pathways which run through it. The reserve used to belong to Lewis, as part of the grounds of The Kilns. He and Warnie planted some of the trees there, and used to swim in the pond. It’s a little oasis of calm and green surrounded by housing, with the many colours of the trees reflected beautifully in the large pond (the old kiln’s clay pit). I followed the path through the trees, passing one or two other visitors on my way. After a short walk, I stopped at one of the benches provided and pulled out my packed lunch. Sitting in the quiet of this little woodland, I thought about how this was one of the hundreds of ideas, places, memories and stories which fed Lewis’ imagination when he set about writing the Chronicles. I wondered how Paxton, Lewis’ gardener and the inspiration for Puddleglum, managed such a large area. Finishing my lunch, I made my way back to Lewis Close.

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The Kilns from the street.
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The Kilns from the garden.
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The blue plaque.

I arrived at the Kilns in good time and frantically snapped away, taking pictures of the plue plaque, the garden and the well kept, inviting house, much to the amusement of a German couple sitting in the garden. The garden inside the hedge was much simpler than the borders outside, with a small lawn reached through a flower-covered arch. I took a seat, staring at the house. It was so strange to be somewhere I’d pictured and imagined for so long.

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The desk by the living room window.
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The living room.

Gradually, the garden filled up, mostly with Americans. A smartly dressed man of indeterminate age and background appeared. He gave us a potted history of Lewis’ life. I listened attentively, and even braved answering a question about Lewis’ nickname. I was interested to note, but not at all surprised, that the uncertainty surrounding the nature Lewis’ relationship with Mrs Moore was not referred to. Entering the house, I was struck simultaneously by its homeliness (normally when you tour a house it is partly because it is grand) and its significance to anyone who loves Lewis’ books. So many ideas have poured out of this place, into so many people’s lives. We were shown into the living room, where a desk looks out into the garden. There was a feeling of familiarity, mixed with excitement. The house has been restored to look as it did in Lewis’ time, a style familiar to anyone growing up in Britain in the latter part of the 20th Century.

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Aslan and tea.

Next was the dining room, then the kitchen. In the hallway stood a large mirrored wardrobe. (I see what they did there!) Climbing the narrow stairs, we looked into Lewis’ old bedroom, with single bed, desk and fireplace. The tour was very interesting, and I enjoyed hearing anecdotes which were new to me, such as a story about Joy (Lewis’ wife) and her proficiency with a rifle.

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The bedroom desk.

Returning downstairs, we visited Warnie’s room (where I think the photographer Jonathan Kirkpatrick was in residence), Joy’s room and the room in which Lewis died. I felt a little odd at this point, as if I were invading someone’s privacy. What on earth Jack would have made of people touring his old bedroom I have no idea. The tour was much more personal than, say, the Bodleian tour. As the tour finished, I made an idiot of myself. Thinking it cost £8, I handed over a £10 note, and told the guide to put the change in the upkeep fund. The tour costs £10. Exit, stage left.

I know that The Kilns was of huge importance to Lewis, and I was really excited to be where so many of my favourite books were written. However, I think that the colleges and gardens I’d visited previously possibly gave me more clues about his inspiration and ideas than this peek into his domestic life did. Maybe the best way of all to find out more about Lewis is to read his books.

Further information:

http://www.bbowt.org.uk/reserves/cs-lewis-nature-reserve

http://www.cslewis.org/ourprograms/thekilns/

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. The Bodleian Library.

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Inside the Bodleian courtyard.
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One of the doors to the ‘schools’.

At 10.15 I arrived at the Bodleian Library, one of the most famous and prestigious libraries in the world. Nearly all the day’s guided tours were already sold out, so I was glad that I’d booked online a few weeks ago. I was excited about the tour, but it ended up surpassing all my expectations.

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The Divinity School ceiling.

I was given a sticker, and asked to wait on a bench in the Divinity School. (This is the name of a large room on the ground floor.) I recognised the unusual ceiling, as I knew this room had been used in the Harry Potter films as Madam Pomfrey’s infirmary. (Harry’s adventures often ended up with someone needing medical attention, after all.) Our guide, Naomi, gave everyone in the group amplifiers, so that we could all hear her, without her having to raise her voice. (It is a library after all!) We began by exploring the Divinity School, learning about its fascinating past. The ceiling was even more ornate and interesting than photographs I’d seen suggested, and my eyes kept being drawn upward as I listened. Naomi was engaging and knowledgeable, the other visitors friendly and attentive, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I was unprepared, however, for the next stage of the tour.

Naomi led us up a staircase, explaining the history of the next place we would see: Duke Humphrey’s Library. This is a large upper room, the oldest reading room in Oxford University. As I walked into this historic space, I found myself quite overcome, and welling up with tears, a reaction I hadn’t expected at all. I was taken by surprise at the strength of my response. The room was so beautiful, so precious, so significant. It represented a love of learning, and of sharing learning, everything good about culture and civilisation. It was like the Plato’s Forms ideal version of a library, the library I somehow felt I knew without ever having been there. (And, of course, it is also the Harry Potter films’ Hogwarts library, including the restricted section. Books were actually chained to the shelves – although this was due to their value, not their magical powers.) I thought immediately of Sam Tarly entering Oldtown Library on Game of Thrones. I felt like I probably had the same expression on my face.

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Duke Humphrey’s Library. (Stock photo, as you can’t take pictures inside this room.)

A woman dressed in sportswear appeared, looking quite incongruous in this ancient place, showed her security pass, and wandered off to get on with some reading. I don’t think I’ve ever been so envious. Naomi explained how the library had been created, where the books had come from, why they were chained, why they were made of certain materials and so on. It was fascinating. I asked about the Inklings’ links to the Bodleian, and she asked me whether I could name any Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien, as she’d momentarily forgotten their names. I felt like I was channelling Hermione Granger as I listed them off, then for some unaccountable reason got embarrassed and turned bright red. She jokingly suggested I give a presentation on the subject, and I turned redder still. She also tipped me off about some Faun carvings next to a lamppost which she thought would interest me.

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The Convocation House.

After some time, we returned to the Divinity School, and through it entered the Convocation House, a room which definitely evoked the Wizengamot.  Naomi described Charles I sitting in the royal seat and demanding loyalty from the assembled college masters, as roundheads made their way through Oxford. It was another room full of history, and so interesting I could have stayed much longer and listened to more stories. (The standard tour takes an hour, but I’d have happily doubled the time spent in the library.)

Last of all, we went through another doorway into the Chancellor’s Court, where Oscar Wilde was once tried for debts owed. Again, there were lots of interesting stories attached to the place. One lady, on the tour with her Harry-Potter-fan grandson, told us about her husband’s involvement in a political protest in the 1960s, when he and a  number of other students had occupied the room.

As the tour ended, I thanked Naomi, She mentioned that she’d noticed my tears on entering Duke Humphrey’s Library. She told me that it’s not an unusual reaction, and that one Japanese lady cried quietly throughout the entire tour. I felt a little less foolish knowing that.

The Bodleian is a phenomenal place with a rich history. It represents freedom of speech, and the desire to acquire, share and preserve knowledge. And it’s almost Hogwarts.I can’t wait to go back.

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. University Parks, The Randolph and Keble College.

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Aslan door-knocker.
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Sanders.

Having spent the afternoon in Magdalen College, I now made my way down High Street, known as ‘the High’. I’d expected to see a number of colleges on my visit, but was not aware of just how dominant college buildings are in the centre of Oxford. I couldn’t keep count. The street was busy, but not unpleasantly so. Pausing regularly to peer into interesting windows, I particularly liked the look of Sanders of Oxford, and went inside for a nose around. (website listed below)

By now, I was getting hungry. I’d thought carefully about how to organise my meals during my visit. I’m quite comfortable dining alone (I know many people don’t enjoy it, but as long as I’ve got something to read or a window to look out of, I’m happy.) but I have some allergies which can make finding somewhere suitable and safe a little tricky. Also, if I were to experience an allergic reaction (they have led to hospitalisation in the past) I was miles away from home with no-one to help. So I picked up the makings of a picnic from Marks and Spencers and headed back to Keble.

Once back in my room, I had a snack and a shower, then headed back out into the early evening sunshine. Just across the road were the University Parks, where I decided to have a leisurely stroll. (see link below for details and map) The park was much larger than I’d expected, and was being well used by people relaxing, picnicking and so on. I made it as far as the cricket pavilion, then turned back towards the main road. My feet wanted a rest, and the rest of me wanted a proper drink, so I walked back through St Giles to the Randolph Hotel. I’ve seen it mentioned a number of times that Lewis took tea here, and the film Shadowlands used it as a location. But for once I didn’t just have Lewis on my mind. I really enjoy the Inspector Morse series, based on Colin Dexter’s novels. Dexter famously drinks at the Randolph, and Morse was filmed there on more than one occasion. The hotel bar is now named the ‘Morse Bar’ in his honour.

The Morse Bar is small but perfectly formed, the staff attentive but unobtrusive. Having a drink alone in some bars can be an uncomfortable experience for a woman, but I felt completely at home there (although it’s quite a bit fancier than my usual haunts.) The decor is traditional, and I settled into a leather armchair next to the stone fireplace. The barman brought me a delicious French Martini, which I sipped as I worked on a crossword. Drinking a strong drink while solving a puzzle was not only my little salute to Morse, but also to my late Dad, who loved Morse, crosswords and having a ‘decent drink’ in a ‘civilised place’. He would have loved it here.

Strolling back through St Giles I felt most at ease (thanks in part to the French Martini, no doubt.) I gathered up the picnic items from my room and took them down to the Pusey Quad. There, I sat on a bench, munching my way through pork pies, beetroot salad and cake.  I was quite alone under a blue sky, the only sounds coming from some distance away. Bliss.

After my higgledy-piggledly meal I decided to visit the Keble Chapel, which was on the far side of the Liddon Quad. After some time doing battle with the door, which was so stiff I almost gave up once or twice, I managed to gain access. Unsurprisingly, the chapel’s design was completely in keeping with the rest of the college buildings. It was strikingly decorated with brightly coloured brick and tile (the hallmark of the architect, Butterfield), as well as the more usual stained glass and stone carving. Everywhere I looked were patterns and pictures, including friezes of Bible scenes on the wall, with life-size figures in bold colour. Even the organ pipes were covered in dazzling geometric patterns. As I was the only person there, I felt able to just sit for a while, staring at everything and trying to take it all in. In the side chapel I found Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’. I thought at first that it was badly lit, but after a while I spotted the button to press which illuminates the painting for visitors.

Leaving the chapel, I had a wander around the different college quads, where lavender and jasmine made the evening air sweet. There was even a little water feature. I couldn’t help but think how utterly different it all was from my own university accommodation, in run-down terraced houses with shared bin yards and metal grilles on the doors and windows. Upon returning to my room, I pottered for a while, and read. As the night drew in, I looked out of my window across the quad. The buildings looked even more Hogwartian, thanks to their turreted silhouettes and the odd twinkling light in a window. I slept well.

Further information:

http://www.parks.ox.ac.uk/

https://www.sandersofoxford.com/

http://www.cslewis.org/resource/walkguide/

http://www.britainexpress.com/History/bio/Butterfield.htm

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. The train journey.

Monday 25 August, 2016

8.15am

So the day is finally here. I’m going to Oxford. Despite the July heatwave, Newcastle Central Station retains its crown – awarded by my family – as the coldest place in the North of England, particularly when you’re sitting on a delightfully modern metal seat with custom draft-holes. For once, however, this is a relief. I’m about to sit on a train for over four hours, so I’d rather not be flustered and sticky before I even begin.

Stations without steam have lost a good chunk of their ‘romance’, but there’s still a feeling of possibility. My fellow travellers and I could go anywhere. Do anything. Escape. Be anonymous.

I’m full of anticipation for the mythical Oxford of my mind’s eye, peopled by characters both real and fictional: The Inklings, Wilde and Bosie, Nicholas Jenkins, Inspector Morse/Endeavour. I imagine gorgeous, otherworldly views of ancient buildings shrouded in swirling mists (based chiefly on my Morse box-set and a guidebook I’ve borrowed from the library).

Of course, waiting at a train station stirs specific Narnia memories; I’m choosing to focus on the events of Prince Caspian rather than The Last Battle. Just as the children were whisked away into another world, hopefully I will be. But I’ll be able to use the buffet service.

My brother-in-law mentioned to me recently the idea that humanity, whether secular or not, often feels the need for a spiritual or emotional quest of some sort. (As discussed in my previous post.) I can’t quite articulate why this visit means more to me than just a sight-seeing tour would. Logically, I understand that standing in a room where Lewis worked on the Chronicles won’t help me to understand or enjoy them more. But still, I long to do it.

8.25am

On the train, I’m awaiting the final whistle. I’ve calmed down a little now, the mundane reality of 21st Century travel overriding my dreamy mood: I’ve not got a window seat. To see out of the window at all I have to lean forward and peek past the seat in front.

8.45am

I was intending to be very grown up and scholarly, by reading one of my books on the Inklings. (If any of my fellow passengers glanced across at me doing this, they’d surely think, ‘What an interesting, sophisticated person she must be.’ Unless they happened to look when I was shovelling jelly beans into my mouth.) Instead I’ve succumbed to the lazy pleasures of the Prince Caspian audio book on my iPod. Childish excitement means I can’t focus on anything properly for more than five minutes. It’s just as well I’ve brought entertainment, as the philistine in the seat in front of me has, without consultation, closed the blind. Hasn’t he heard of the romance of rail travel? How am I supposed to gaze dreamily at blue-remembered hills passing the window now? Curse you, Anton J****, and your desperate need to check your emails every ten seconds. (Yes, I had a good nose at his screen. I’d do it again, too.)

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9.25am

So, I’m sitting here thinking about why Lewis and the Chronicles mean so very much to me. I devoured lots of books as a child, but the only ones which came at all close to Narnia in my affections were Tolkien’s. Even then, the world of Middle Earth felt like it belonged to me and my family – we listened to, discussed and enjoyed the stories together. But Narnia was mine. A private world just for me.

Maybe part of the appeal was of a place where I fitted in. I’ve been thinking about ‘fitting in’ recently. I’m pretty adept at doing so in a variety of situations, with many different people. But when I stop to think about it, I’ve always felt inwardly like I’m a little off to one side. Out of step. Observing rather than being. (A terrible thing in these times of mindfulness, no doubt.) I don’t mind. I’m not sad about it. It just is what it is.

In part, this feeling of otherness may well have been because my interests haven’t always been those of my peers. At primary school, I wanted to talk about knights, castles, chivalry, poetry and military history. The other little girls in my class were less keen, and I learned to keep my passions to myself. This continued into high school, where I spent the day discussing all the usual stuff teenage girls discuss, and the evening devouring as diverse a range of writing as I possibly could. I hadn’t any prejudices or preconceptions. Books were books. I would read anything and everything – from The Way of All Flesh to Trotsky’s autobiography to Sweet Valley High – and would happily spend hours alone in the local library. But I didn’t really mention my reading to my friends. (I was at school long before the ‘nerds are cool’ thing started to gain momentum.) At University I was a little more open, partly thanks to the liberating effect which sharing large amounts of alcohol has on conversation. But as an adult, I’ve generally found myself working in environments where the main topics of conversation have been diet fads, gossip and the triumphs and disasters involved in potty training toddlers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that, but I’ve not really felt comfortable talking about my love of fantasy stories and medieval history in these places. So whenever I’ve presented a face to the world, there’s always been a part missing.

So here I am, and whenever I read the kindly, paternal narrative voice of the Narnia stories, I feel I’m with a friend who understands me. Nobody in Narnia seemed like they would mind my bookish over-earnestness and complete inability to be ‘cool’. They liked stories, and knights, and all the things I liked.

Travel information:

Journey time from Newcastle to Oxford: 4 hours 5 minutes.

Cost of return ticked booked 12 weeks in advance: £90.00.

 

 

Narnia re-read. Finishing the Last Battle.

Reading this book, after not having done so for some time, really surprised me. I found that my relationship with it is more difficult to define, or even understand, than my thoughts and feelings towards the other books in the series.

Reservations

What struck me throughout the book, particularly up to chapter 12, was the utter strangeness of the mood of the story. This book is a children’s book. Yet it’s full of ‘doom and gloom’. Characters fight desperately on the side of good to no avail. A world which has acted as an exciting escape for the reader, while also being extremely comforting (good defeats evil, people can change, kindness is better than power etc.) has been turned completely on its head. It contains all the most depressing elements of our own world.There’s a real sense of loss and despair in places. I can remember being unsure about this as a child.

Aslan, despite being mentioned (including all the references to ‘Tashlan’) all the time, is absent from the majority of the book. The characters are left to themselves, with no way of knowing if help will ever come to them. He ends the book by taking his ‘other’ form. This follows on from his increasing ‘distance’ in SC, compared with how he is involved in the action in earlier books. I find myself warming much more to the three main human characters instead, with Jill being an excellent example of a clever, brave, strong female protagonist. I felt much more attached to the Aslan of the first three books, or of MN.

I imagine that how you view this book may well depend on your religious outlook. (I know that many Christian commentators online say that this book is their favourite Narnian story.) The other Narnia stories, although they clearly contained references to and parallels with Christianity, could be enjoyed fully without the reader believing in anything specific. (Of course many people enjoyed them without realising the religious undercurrent was there at all.) However, this feels somewhat harder to do with LB. If you don’t see death as the next step in a soul’s journey, but as a simple, final, full stop to existence, it’s difficult to cheer when a railway accident kills the main heroes of your story. (Also, what about the other passengers?) The door to Narnia is closed to you, and you can’t see how to get round this. Another real sticking point for me is that it is also (for now) closed to Susan, as discussed previously. This is the case even more so now that I’m an adult.

Positives

Although the tone and story line are often not my favourite from among the Chronicles, Lewis’ imagination and descriptive power is as strong as ever: the monumental scale of the events of Narnia’s ending; the breathless action of the battle itself; the beauty of the true Narnia-within-Narnia. The descriptions are as vivid and lovely as anything in the Chronicles. The dialogue is also memorable, notably Roonwit’s last words, Jewel’s response to reaching the New Narnia, and Emeth’s encounter with Aslan. These words have the power to involve and move me, still, regardless of my religious beliefs, and I know I’m not alone in this.

The nobility of fighting for a hopeless cause, for choosing what is right instead of what is easy, is most inspiring, and despite my reservations about this book, it is the main thing I take away from it. The main characters’ fight against all the odds, in an utterly bleak situation, always brings to mind this quotation from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

These words could easily be from a conversation between Tirian and Jewel.

Overall, I found this book moving, and beautiful, rather than ‘fun’ to read. I suppose how you respond to it differs from person to person. As Lewis says in MN,

‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter sixteen. Farewell to Shadowlands.

Synopsis: They climb the waterfall, and enter the Western Wild. There they meet old friends, and finally learn what has happened to them, and the true meaning of where they are.

Whenever I read this chapter, the title makes me think of the film made about Lewis and his marriage, which was entitled ‘Shadowlands’. (I’ll be reviewing it in a later post.)

How does Jewel know what to do? Is it an animal thing? A unicorn thing?

Reading this, I can’t imagine that anyone will ever be able to film this book, as they have some others in the series. How would you portray this magical country and the strange things that happen in it? Even animation would struggle.

The clumsy Lewis, who detested sports and found them incredibly difficult, would, I imagine, have liked to suddenly be able to run, swim etc. in this confident manner. Who wouldn’t?

How does Eustace try to frighten himself?

Somehow I’d not noticed on earlier reads just how quickly they travelled, like ‘human speed-boats’.

I love the dogs’ inability to stop barking excitedly, so they keep coughing and sneezing on mouthfuls of water. The waterfall contains images familiar to anyone who has read the Chronicles as positive signs: cool, refreshing water, reflected light and colour, and a combination of potentially conflicting emotions.

Tirian’s reunion with his father is so lovely and tender. I think I even prefer it to the reunions with the favourite characters from previous books. (Fun as it is to see Reepicheep, I’d have loved to hear what Puddleglum has to say about being in heaven. How would he manage to make it sound sufficiently ‘serious’?

Why can’t Ramandu’s daughter ever get her own name?

Have Frank and Helen been sitting in the thrones for long, waiting for everyone to arrive? Do they spend much time like this?

We end the Narniad with Lucy meeting once again with Tumnus, and him explaining the world she is in, and with Polly and Digory ‘flying’ over the Western Wild. Whether you prefer to begin them at LWW or MN, we’ve come full circle in the Chronicles. (We have also come full circle in terms of LB – we are back at Caldron Pool, with Puzzle in the water.)

At this point in the narrative, young me became quite confused by the scale and proportion of everything. How could a world like this be? (I understood old Narnia perfectly because it looked almost exactly like the England I grew up in.) It is still a little odd, but better acquaintance with Plato since my childhood readings has helped me begin to unravel it. The thing that still puzzles me is, if there are multiple Narnias within Narnias, how do you decide which one to go to? And if they keep getting more real and beautiful each time, what’s the point of the outer ones? Is there an end to these Narnias?

I was never keen on the fact that the Pevensies’ parents turned up at this point in the story. I’m still not. They’ve never figured much in the story before, and I don’t want them popping up now. (Particularly because of the horrible implications this has for Susan back in our world.) It just feels odd. Maybe it’s just me being awkward though, because I like the fact that the Professor’s house turns up.

Again, a horn is sounded. This always means something significant in the Chronicles.

Would Aslan really say, ‘No fear of that,’? It sounds a little informal.

After all the mentions of dreams and their significance in every novel in the series, Aslan finally tells us, ‘The dream is ended: this is the morning.’

And so the Chronicles end. For me, not quite as I would like. At the last moment, Aslan begins to turn into something else (i.e. Jesus.) But what I wanted, more than anything as a child, was Aslan to be real, and be Aslan. And for me to find my way to him, and Narnia.

I can’t argue with the beauty of the final paragraph, however. How very Lewisian to explain the idea of eternal life through a metaphor about reading. These books, after all, are our very own wardrobe door into Narnia.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter fifteen. Further up and further in.

Synsopsis: Emeth tells his story. Puzzle appears. Everyone works out where they are.

Emeth (meaning ‘true’ or ‘faithful’ in Hebrew) clearly learned his tricks of speech and storytelling in the traditional Calormene manner. Emeth only appears briefly in the story, but is one of my favourite characters. He is honourable, courteous and honest. When he realises the truth about Aslan and Tash he freely admits his error and is prepared to take any consequences. Some religious readers have found his story unsettling because of the implications they feel it would have if the idea were translated into this world: God will judge you on your actions, and your desire and love for God, rather than for your belonging to or obedience to a specific religion. They believe that only the followers of their ‘true’ religion could be saved, i.e. people who follow Jesus. Personally, I much prefer the idea that actions and character are what matter, not which building you worship in, what name you call your God or what dietary/clothing rules you follow. Hinduism accepts the idea that different people may have different spiritual paths to take to reach God. What a shame some of the more extreme followers of Abrahamic religions can’t share this open-mindedness.

If it really were the case that ‘vile deeds’ done in the name of God were taken as service to Tash/the devil, there are a lot of people in this world – past and present – who would need to be afraid.

‘My happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound.’ I love Emeth’s turn of phrase. I imagine he and Lucy would get along very well. They both have that dreamy, spiritual quality to their character. (The internet being what it is, some people have naturally discussed the potential of this ‘ship’.)

Pauline Baynes’ illustration of a lion-skin-free Puzzle (shown at the top of this post) is delightful. He really does have a lovely face!

The characters are all headed West. However, until now, the general direction of travel for all things Aslan/Emperor over the Sea has been East. Maybe this is because travelling in that direction would require a retread of the Dawn Treader’s journey. It also seems strange to me that by this point, the Emperor hasn’t been mentioned more. He’s clearly very important – we know this because of his relationship to Aslan – but he isn’t referred to at all. I don’t think I even have a fully formed idea of who or what he ‘is’ in terms of this world from the stories.

The phrase ‘further up and further in’ reminds me of HHB’s ‘Narnia and the North!’.

I’m not sure I quite understood the implications of the dogs’ conversation about calling naughty puppies ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ when I was younger.

The idea of the land being the ‘real thing’, the ‘real Narnia’, is explained by Digory. This makes sense as he mentions Plato, whose theories of Forms etc. inform the ideas behind this, and the following, chapter. Lewis is spelling out his idea to us, but until I was an adult I hadn’t actually read Plato, so didn’t know what it meant. I did, however, understand Lewis’ explanation referring to seeing a view reflected in a window or mirror. I often looked for such reflections just because of this passage.

Jewel’s speech, which includes, ‘This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now,’ shows that the characters have finally achieved what Lewis hoped and wished for all his life. They have reached the source of their ‘joy’. They no longer need make do with ‘sehnsucht’ or glimpses, or moments of wonder and pure, unadulterated happiness. The source of their joy is here. Lewis spent his life pursuing this end. This speech strikes a deep chord with many readers, including me. Reading about Narnia, I always felt that I had ‘come home’, too. It was the land my heart desired, without knowing it was going to be found in a book. It still is.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter fourteen. Night falls on Narnia.

Synopsis: The friends watch Aslan put an end to the world of Narnia. They meet Emeth.

The friends stand on the right side of Aslan. In ‘Biblical’ terms, this shows their importance and place of favour with their leader. (There are a number of other Biblical allusions in this chapter, which are helpfully listed in Ford’s Companion to Narnia. The influence of Revelantions on the entire book is notable, as well.)

One of my favourite scenes in the Narniad is the beautiful creation scene in MN. Here we see it’s opposite: the total destruction of the world. It is a sad but fascinating scene. There is silence instead of music, cold instead of warmth and death instead of life. However, I would love to see the descent of the stars. (I never pictured them quite as they appear in Pauline Baynes’ illustration, which reminds me more of Jack Frost.) Is Coriakin there? Ramandu? Tarva? Alambil? For me, nobody writes this sort of thing as well as Lewis. He can mix clarity of prose with dreamlike mystical elements. His writing about such moments is never arch, or self-conscious, or insincere.

The influence of Lewis’ beloved Norse mythology is present in the ending of the Narnian world is clear. In these myths, Ragnarok is the ending of the world, which sees the gods killed in a huge battle with monsters. A horn is blown to signal the beginning of the end. An eagle is present to witness events. The world is subsequently covered with water and the stars disappear.

Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’ links LB with the medieval idea of Saturn. (Death, destruction, melancholy etc.) Father time, the old man with the scythe, was based on Saturn. Here he appears, but we are told he will have a new name. We aren’t told what it is. (Ford mentions that this is a reference either to a work of George Macdonald or Revelation 2:17, or both.)

How did creatures like the monopods get across the sea to the door? How did water-based animals reach the door? Did insects have to face Aslan too?  (I suppose this is not the best section of the book to dissect in ‘logical’ terms.) To be fair, the idea of time and reality altering beyond the character’s – and our –  understanding is mentioned by the narrator.

Where did the creatures who entered Aslan’s shadow end up? (Maybe the best guess here would come from reading The Great Divorce.) Are the dumb animals’ fates different from the other beings?

How does Roonwit know what to do? Is it a centaur thing? Is it instinct, or has Aslan given him instructions?

I’m so glad that Poggin, the boar and the others have a happy ending.

Why are the giant lizards etc. necessary? Their entire existence seems very strange: sleep underground in massive caves for millennia, wake up, eat some trees, age rapidly, die, decay. (If the world around them wasn’t about to die they’d make amazing fossils for someone to find.) Do they not have souls to be judged by Aslan?

The red sun and the moon rising in the wrong place is a really unsettling image.

Why does Peter shut the door? Why not King Frank? Or Tirian? (Is this a reference to Saint Peter and his symbolic keys?)

I agree with Tirian – I would definitely cry if I watched Narnia die.

The dogs are delightful to read about here. They add some light relief to the seriousness of what is happening, too.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter thirteen. How the Dwarfs refused to be taken in.

Synopsis: Tirian and the seven friends of Narnia explore their surroundings. They try to communicate with the dwarfs.

I’m coming to this chapter still annoyed by the Susan situation (see previous post). I’m hoping it will cheer me up.

All the fruit I’ve ever eaten has been mentally compared to the wonderful fruits described – or rather not described – here, and the toffee tree fruits of MN.

I think, although I can’t be sure, that this is point at which I worked out what had really happened to Jill, Eustace and the others. I really didn’t like the idea. The more I think about it the stranger it is. I know that, logically, if you truly believe in an wonderful afterlife which exceeds anything we’ve ever experienced in this world, death shouldn’t be something to fear. But it’s such an odd way for a children’s book to conclude. And many (most?) readers would not feel such a certainty about life after death.

Of course Edmund is the sort of person who ‘knows about railways’.

As a child I had absolutely no idea what a ‘hack at rugger’ involved. I’d always imagined that the Pevensies were still at school at this point, but Susan and Peter wouldn’t have been. I wonder what they were doing. Did they have jobs?

The stable door reminds me of the door made with three pieces of wood in PC. Tirian describes it as a ‘great marvel’, which is exactly the phrase used in LWW when the Pevensies discover the lamppost. In both cases, it is noted that the strange, incongruous items look like they have simply ‘grown’ into place.

The idea of something larger on the inside than the outside would, I imagine, remind most modern readers of the Tardis.

Lucy’s talk about the stable in our world shows that the religious parallels cannot be ignored now. There is a definite, specific link between the way Narnia works and Christianity. As a child, this was uncomfortable for me. I wanted Narnia to be separate from our world, a total escape. Also, I believed in Narnia and Aslan much more, and loved them much more,  than I did anything I’d so far discovered in our world. I couldn’t see the link between Aslan and the stuff vicars talked about in Church.

Eustace’s poor manners serve to explain the story for the reader. Just as in HHB, when Aravis tells her story, a listener is chided for interruption.

Lucy was always kind and keen to help others, and we see that this is unchanged. We also see that she still has a very close relationship with Aslan.

The aside with the dwarfs is, I know, making a point about belief, and faith, and cycnicism. But it leaves me wondering where the dwarfs end up. What eventually becomes of them? Does their situation change when the other living creatures all leave the land of Narnia? Would Tirian be able to kill them in this place? Are they already dead? Do they just sit there forever? Will they, like the lost souls in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, have a chance at redemption?

And then Aslan appears, and it is becoming clearer and clearer who/what he is.

When I eat my way through the food of the Chronicles, I confess that I’m not looking forward to eating ‘tongue’. It’s not top of my list of delicacies to try. I much prefer the thought of Mr Tumnus’ sugar-topped cake.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter twelve. Through the stable door.

Synopsis: Tirian and the others end up going through the stable door. They are surprised by where it leads and who they meet.

Imagine how Jill would have felt watching Eustace being thrown into the stable. She’s in a different world. Nobody knows where she is. Her only friend from her own world is now presumably dead. And yet she remembers not to damage her bowstring by crying on it.

The dark confusion of this scene is no longer recognisable as Narnia. And we are left without hope now – the ‘last battle’ is ‘hopeless’.

Again, the action continues apace, and we return to seeing things from Tirian’s, rather than Jill’s, point of view.

The saying goes that it is darkest before the dawn, and this definitely applies here. Eustace and Jill have gone into the stable. Narnia is lost. Cair Paravel has fallen. Dozens of good, brave animals have been killed. But the dawn comes with Tirian’s jumping through the door with Rishda Tarkaan.

The description of Tash, combined again with Pauline Baynes’ illustration, makes him suitably unsettling. As a child, I found him very frightening. (Ford’s Companion to Narnia describes Tash’s appearance as the most ‘terrifying’ scene in the Narniad. Interestingly, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the city where Lewis spent most of his adult life – houses some ancient carvings of multi-limbed, bird-headed gods which look very like Tash. I wonder if he was familiar with them.

Where is Tash’s ‘own place’? Is it hell? Or is there a Tash’s Country just as there is an Aslann’s Country?

Hearing that a voice is ‘strong and calm as a summer sea’ made me think that the speaker would be Aslan. But it is Peter.

Polly, Jill, Digory and Eustace are described as Queens and Kings. Are they royalty in Narnia because of their actions? Or is everyone royalty in this new place?

The Susan Situation.

Of all the passages in the Chronicles, the one which is most often discussed, particularly in negative terms, is this: When Tirian asks where she is, the others (who clearly display annoyance and frustration about the situation) explain that she is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’. Jill mentions that she is only interested in ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’. She has broken the Narniad rule of remaining ‘child-like’, and chosen being ‘grown-up’ over Narnia.

My response to the passage, and the issues raised by it, is as follows:

Susan has not come to ‘real Narnia’ with the rest of the children. She is excluded. This really bothered me as a child, and still does now. Susan always got the worst of the plotting and dialogue. She was the least keen to go to Narnia; the least keen to follow the white stag; the most prone to negativity; the least likely to see Aslan; the most easily frightened. Lewis never seemed particularly keen on her. But not to get to Narnia? Why punish her like that? (One worried reader asked Lewis about her fate in a letter, and Lewis replied, ‘The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.’) I found this most unsatisfying. I wanted the four thrones to be filled again.

The mention of lipstick etc. is seen by many as evidence that Susan’s exclusion is punishment for her being an adult woman interested in sex and relationships. I don’t quite see it like that. To me it seems more that her superficiality is the issue, not her sexuality. (Although I certainly don’t deny that Lewis had some decidedly 19th Century attitudes to gender roles, I don’t agree with those detractors who say that he hated and feared women, and wrote the Chronicles to reassert his skewed gender values.) A useful (I think) discussion of the accusations levelled at Lewis in relation to this passage can be found at http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/are-the-chronicles-of-narnia-sexist-and-racist/

The idea that Susan could possibly forget about Narnia never rang true with me. She was queen of a country filled with mythical beings and talking animals. For fifteen years. How could anyone forget that? She watched Aslan being murdered, then resurrected, and rode through Narnia on his back. If Polly and Digory never forgot the golden colour of Aslan’s mane (which MN tells us they didn’t) how could she possibly forget all this? So, are we supposed to imagine instead that she has not forgotten Narnia, but rejected it? Does she feel betrayed by a world which has shut her out, permanently? Is she fed up of waiting for years for a call that never comes? (She is in her twenties by the time of LB.) I’m unconvinced by the whole thing. Did Lewis even give it proper thought before he cast her aside?

It seems unfair that Susan is excluded when others (Edmund! Eustace! The dwarf who shot the horses!) have done terrible things and been forgiven. I imagine there is a religious ‘lesson’ here about faith, or worldliness, or that hell is of our own making, but I’m not at all sure what it is.

Another problem I have with the gap left by Susan is that it surely means that the others can’t be truly happy and satisfied in this new world. Imagine them sitting in Cair Paravel, trying not to look at the fourth throne, and not wanting to play with the golden chess set. Imagine them repeatedly and wearily explaining to everyone they see that no, Susan isn’t there. It’s depressing.

Finally, the idea of what happens in our world at this point is horrible. We are expected to be happy – as are the others – with a situation where Susan is suddenly, unexpectedly bereaved in the most traumatic way. She is utterly alone. No parents. No siblings. All of them have gone in one single unexpected moment, and she doesn’t know where they now are. I’ve seen people argue that this unimaginable misery is what Susan needs to develop spiritually, so that she can make her own way to Aslan’s country. Really? It seems like overkill to me. Literally.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter eleven. The pace quickens.

Synopsis: The battle begins.

Despite all the evidence of previous chapters, here, once again, the reader begins to hope that it will all begin to go right. After all, how many books – let alone children’s books – have you read where the ‘good guys’ don’t win in the end? We are unused to the idea.

The green light and bird sounds which occur when Shift is (most satisfyingly) flung into the stable tell us that Tash is probably inside. But how? And what else is in there? What happened to Emeth? It’s still a mystery.

Rishda Tarkaan, the cynic who has just realised that Tash is real, is spotted by Farsight the Eagle. For some reason this moment always gave me the creeps as a child. I think I was worried my beliefs – or lack of them – might one day get me into trouble.

Already teary from the boar situation in chapter ten, the dogs and small animals trying to help is a guarateed tear-jerker for me. Size and strength are not relevant here. It’s loyalty and intent which make these animals so admirable. And the dogs’ ‘dogginess’ makes them all the lovelier. Lewis loved animals, and had pet dogs and cats.

Tirian says here, ‘Since I was your king’. Does he no longer consider himself king of Narnia? Does he not see these animals as his subjects?

It’s so sad to see that the majority of Narnians won’t rally to Tirian. The reader’s hopes are dashed once again.

This part of the book may not be cheerful, but it is unoubtedly fast-paced, action-packed and exciting. Lewis doesn’t glorify war (although it is made clear that fighting for a just cause is noble) and gives us a sense of the fear, confusion and horror of battle. Was he consciously thinking of his time in the trenches here or had it seeped into his subconscious?

Eustace looks around to see dead and injured dogs, and watches the poor, confused bear die in front of him. This is pretty hideous stuff.

The chilling sound of the drum, calling reinforcements, reminds me strongly of the drums heard by the fellowship of the ring, in Moria, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a sound would fill you with dread.

The Calormene enemy killing the Narnians is bad enough, but the dwarfs murdering the Talking Horses, for no reason whatsoever, is, I think for me, the worst moment of the entire Chronicles so far. The mindless cruelty of it would be staggering if we didn’t know the nature of such acts from our own world. Again, I have to remind myself that this is a children’s book. Nothing like this would happen in most YA books, let alone those for younger children.

Tirian has had his faults up to now, particularly in controlling his temper. But here, even after witnessing the outrage of the horses being killed, he is calm and noble. He’s a true king, even if his country and his people are no longer his.

Jill wasn’t always the most impressive protagonist in The Silver Chair, but here she shows what she is really made of. She plays an essential role in Tirian’s ‘side’. She is skilful and brave. And Jill, like us, dares to hope the ‘plan’ might work, and then realises with horror that it absolutely won’t.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter ten. Who will go into the stable?

Synopsis: Narnians and Calormenes start to go into the Stable.

Griffle and his followers are so frustrating. Rishda Tarkaan calls them ‘children of mud’, which is similar to Aslan’s term ‘son of earth’, but clearly pejorative.

I discussed the issue of race in this book in an earlier post. Reading this chapter, I do wonder whether publishers will in future replace the unacceptable term ‘darkie’ with an insult which doesn’t have racial associations. Lewis purists would probably be unhappy but I’d prefer it. It makes for an uncomfortable read.

The idea of bears being essentially good, but a little slow on the uptake (See the Bulgy Bears in PC in particular) continues here. Shift’s spiteful comments to the poor bear are further evidence of his cruelty.

Shift asks the crowd, ‘What’s struck you all dumb?’, which of course is about to be the fate of Ginger.

‘We are all between the paws of the true Aslan,’ are comforting words, but surely they must be especially so for someone like Jill. Tirian has never seen Aslan. Jill has. She’s been to his country. She’s seen him resurrect someone. After that, I imagine thinking of him would comfort you whatever the situation.

What happens to Ginger always gave me the creeps. I know he’s a ‘baddie’ but something about it really unsettled young me.

I didn’t expect to read about the sound of cats ‘making love’. Presumably Lewis means this in the old fashioned sense, rather than how the term is used today.

It explains here that Calormene officers call their superior officers ‘My Father’. This detail didn’t sink in on previous readings, which means I spent a long time believing that Emeth was actually Rishda Tarkaan’s son. I did always wonder how such a character managed to grow up in Rishda’s house.

What did Emeth actually think was going to be in the stable? I can’t imagine he really believed in ‘Tashlan’. And at what point were the Calormene soldiers going to be told the truth, if ever?

Emeth is only a minor character, but one who stood out very clearly in my memories of this book. He’s the very image of traditional ‘knightly’ values.

There are many different parts of the Chronicles which provoke emotional responses in me. How much of this is pure nostalgia, how much the writing itself, is impossible to say. The boar being selected by the utterly disgusting Shift to go into the stable always makes me well up. Shift is flippantly selecting an animal to be murdered, for absolutely no reason at all. It’s the futility, as well as the cruelty, of this action, which gets to me. (And the fact that until Tirian acts, nobody does anything to intervene.) It puts me in mind of times in this world where people have acted like this towards other humans. All the unpleasantness, the violence, the negativity we are familiar with in our world is present in Narnia too. Talking animals can be selfish, cowardly and vicious, just like people.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter nine. The great meeting on Stable Hill.

Synopsis: Tirian and his companions make their way to the Stable. Shift makes an announcement to the Narnians, which alters their plans. 

Jewel clearly states the fact now that things will not be ‘all right in the end’. Narnia has fallen. Now all they can hope for is a noble death, just as Roonwit foretold. All they can do is, ‘Take the adventure that Aslan sends.’ This is going to be the story of a last stand, rather than a glorious rescue.

Once again Eustace shows us his practical, common-sense attitude. I love that he sticks his hands in his pockets, despite being in Narnian armour.

In PC, Peter wondered what would happen if someone from our world was killed in Narnia. Here this thought occurs to Jill and Eustace.(I have no idea what actually would happen. It’s never confirmed. I suppose I always imagined that you would just ‘disappear’, by not returning to our world.) They both admit their fear quite openly. Being afraid isn’t seen as weakness or some sort of failing in the Chronicles. Characters are often afraid, but they have to continue with what they are doing regardless.  (Peter fighting the wolf; Lucy searching the upstairs of the Magician’s house; Edmund fighting Jadis; Jill travelling through the small cave underground; Eustace fighting the sea serpent.) Jill and Eustace don’t enjoy fighting. (Lewis always makes it clear that war can be just, noble and brave, but the reality of it is frightening, confusing and physically disgusting.) They don’t want to do it. But they know it’s right to try to help.

Eustace gives us our first clue as to the children’s true fate, when he talks about the train giving an ‘awful jerk’.

Tirian and Jewel are really close friends. Lewis greatly admired and cherished friendship. He wrote about it, for example in The Four Loves, where he is as quotable as ever: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’ His brother Warnie was his closest friend, but he had very close friendships with others, too, notably the Inklings. Wisely, Jewel regrets nothing. He knows that there’s one path each life takes, and trusts that his is the right one. Regret can’t change the past and makes the present miserable.

Shift’s descent into alcoholism is spelled out here. He’s now the puppet of the others. If event’s weren’t altered by Tirian’s actions in this chapter, I wouldn’t like his odds of surviving for long.

I think the moment when Shift announces to the Narnians that a donkey has dressed as ‘Tashlan’, thereby discrediting Tirian and his friends, endangering Puzzle, escaping justice, and dashing the reader’s hopes, is one of the saddest, most gut-wrenching in the entire Narniad. It still makes me feel annoyed now. He’s a really despicable villain: he’s amoral. He’s a traitor. He’s outsmarted and outmanoeuvred the rightful king and his allies, which goes against all our expectations of how the story should progress.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter eight. What news the Eagle brought.

Synopsis: The companions see Tash. Farsight the eagle brings terrible news.

I now have to admit just how ‘sensitive’ I was as a small child. The image of Tash – used at the start of this chapter and at the top of this post – terrified me. I was genuinely scared of it. I memorised where it was in the book, and would quickly turn to the next page, skipping it. (Sometimes, if I was feeling brave, I might peel back the corner of the page and peek at it.) In my defence I was only about six. And it is pretty unpleasant.

Tash is like the polar opposite to Aslan. Aslan brings light, a sweet smell and a feeling of happiness with him wherever he goes. Tash brings darkness, the smell of death, and fear with him. When I was younger I used to wonder whether the Calormenes felt cheated by their god. Didn’t they want a loving, lovely god? Aslan is implicitly the ‘god’ of Narnia, but we never hear anything about churches, shrines icons or temples dedicated to him. Tash, on the other hand,  has magnificent temples, altars and priceless statues of himself in Tashbaan.

It is repeatedly impressed upon us that you shouldn’t call on gods and the like unless you really want them to come. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

I can’t decide whether we’re supposed to agree with Eustace’s upbraiding of Puzzle, or Jill’s defence of him. Or both.

The lamb is mentioned again. Does the fact that nobody knows what’s happened to it mean something bad has happened?

The springtime sights and sounds that surround them are like those Edmund and the other Pevensies saw when the enchanted winter ended in LWW.

It appears that Eustace has maintained his interest in biology which was mentioned in VDT.

Jewel explains to Jill – and us – that for most of Narnia’s history, it has been a calm, peaceful place. She has only ever heard stories of the difficult times, as this is when people from our world have been called into it. This peaceful round of tournaments, dances and the like is exactly the Narnia I longed for as a child. We are given tantalising glimpses into Narnian history – or myth: the beautiful queen Swanwhite; Moonwood the hare; King Gale and the Lone Islands. I love the description of the effect of this on Jill:

‘The picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance.’

Is this maybe the way Lewis looks at the history of literature?

Jill talks hopefully of Narnia lasting forever, but Jewel sets her right. The only world which can last forever is Aslan’s country. Neither of them know, however, how close the end is.

Farsight’s name reminds me of the way centaurs are named in Narnia: a compound word related to the animal’s nature.

So, after a pleasant springtime walk with talk of past glories, the story takes us traight back to misery. Cair Paravel, the palace I’ve dreamed of for years, is full of corpses. My Narnian dreams are all turning into nightmares.This is hideous. Roonwit’s final words always make me tear up:

‘Noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.’ It’s one of my absolute favourite lines the entire Chronicles. True, sad and beautiful.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter seven. Mainly about Dwarfs.

Synopsis: The companions free some dwarfs who, apart from Poggin, refuse to join them. They return to the tower.

I had never heard the term ‘manikin’ (as opposed to mannequin) before. Apparently it comes from Dutch, and is a diminutive of man. It is most commonly used to mean those small poseable wooden figures used by artists to help them draw people in different poses. I didn’t know ‘slyboots’ was a real word either, but I like it.

I’ve looked for any reference or source for Tirian’s ‘password’ – ‘The light is dawning, the lie broken,’ – but I can’t find one.

Seeing the woodland creatures frightened and miserable was grim, but the reaction of the dwarfs is somehow more disheartening. I know that the subtext is about religious belief, but that aside, seeing people being so relentlessly negative and self-centred is no fun at all. I find I’m back to not enjoying the story again.The sense of frustration experienced by Tirian is palpable. If we were undecided about Griffle, his rudeness to Jill and ingratitude at the rescue confirms our suspicions about him. Discourtesy is never a good sign in the Narniad.

Tirian mentions his ‘wallet’, but I’m guessing he meant some sort of small bag or coin purse rather than what we would recognise as a wallet.

Eustace’s emotions in relation to fighting and killing the Calormene are similar to how Peter felt about killing the wolf who attacked Susan in LWW. Unfortunately, Aslan isn’t around to tell Eustace to clean his sword, as he was with Peter, so Eustace gets in trouble with Tirian.

Poggin joining the party provides some much needed relief from the gloom.

Poggin cooks using a herb called Wild Fresney. Fresney is a village located in Normandy, France, but this may well just be a coincidence. I like it when Lewis creates little details like plants and fish peculiar to Narnia. It makes the world feel richer and more convincing.

Jewel is described as noble, beautiful, delicate and so forth, but I find myself warming more to Puzzle. He feels more ‘real’, like the horses in HHB.

Shift’s apparent descent into alcoholism is a strange thing to see in a children’s book. Lewis wasn’t a teetotaller (For example, he enjoyed ‘beer and Beowulf’ evenings at Oxford.) and didn’t disapprove of alcohol – if anything, he was suspicious of non-drinkers such as Harold and Alberta Scrubb in VDT. However, I suppose it’s the excess, rather than the alcohol, which is the problem here. Similarly, enjoying food isn’t bad, but Shift is greedy and wants endless fruit and nuts.

Ginger the cat is ready to betray Narnia and Narnians, merely for profit. Lewis leaves us in no doubt about how terrible this is.

We learn that Ginger and Rishda Tarkhaan (and presumably other characters, including Shift) are non-believers. They don’t think Tash or Aslan exist. As we come to the close of the Chronicles, the parallels and ideas which link Narnia to religious ideas from our world are increasingly obvious. I didn’t really think about this when I was very small, but as I got older (and was unsure about what I did or didn’t believe myself) I began to feel a little uneasy in some way. Would I be like Griffle if I were in Narnia? I really hoped not.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter six. A good night’s work.

Synopsis: The companions free Jewel and discover Puzzle.

Immediately, I find that this chapter, like the previous one, is much more upbeat and enjoyable than the first four.

Lewis clearly intends us to admire Jill and Eustace’s woodcraft. It does make me wonder how long I would be able to survive in Narnia. Or in the wilder places in our world. Could I start a fire? Feed myself? Avoid being tracked?

Why do I feel proud that Eustace and Jill are decent at fighting skills?

Once again, Narnian air strengthens and ‘improves’ people from our world.

Is it true that you can train yourself to wake when you want to?

We are now seeing Tirian’s leadership skills. He plans, he is practical, he seems calmer and more determined than before. He’s passed through despair and rage and is just getting on with the job in front of him.

I always enjoy hearing about the Narnian stars. It sounds a little strange to describe them as burning, but with no light pollution in Narnia, the skies would be crystal clear and packed with visible stars. We learn that Narnia’s equivalent of the pole star is the Spearhead.

We learn that Jill has developed her woodcraft through being a Girl Guide in our world. Guides were (and are) taught lots of practical skills. ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’ by Janie Hampton is well worth a read on this subject.

There’s quite a typical Eustace reaction when Tirian notes Jill’s skill at tracking. He grudgingly admits it, but says it’s due to her small size. Even though he’s ‘good’, Eustace does tend to default to slight grumpiness. Jill’s really impressive in this sequence. I know Lewis doesn’t always cover himself in glory when it comes to gender roles in Narnia, but I really think Jill is an excellent example of a rounded, real female heroine.

We are told how quiet the wood is: no cheerful creatures, no dancing fawns, no busy dwarfs. The picture of Narnia which the reader has built up in previous books, all the hundreds of little reasons we love the place, are missing. This isn’t our Narnia any more.

We can see how much Tirian has changed since the beginning of the book in his treatment of the Calormene. Instead of killing him in a rage, he apologises for tying him up.

Eustace and Tirian react very differently to Jill entering the stable, but if she hadn’t, the entire story would have turned out quite differently – especially for Puzzle.

As far as I’m aware, the illustration at the end of this chapter (and at the top of this post) is the only use of silhouette in Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of the Chronicles. However, some editions of the books use brightly coloured covers with silhouette images on them.

If I were reading this for the first time, I’m sure I’d be confidently thinking that the tide was now turning for Tirian, and that things were about to start going right. Of course, having read the book many times before, I know this is not the case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter five. How help came to the King.

Synopsis: Eustace and Jill appear. They free Tirian and make their way to a tower.

When Eustace stops mid-sentence: ‘I thought -‘ he is presumably about the refer to the railway accident.

‘Anything might happen now,’ is the second glimmer of hope so far in this book, after Tirian’s vision. However, the reader must remember that Tirian is already known to us as the last king, in the last days. Whatever might happen, it won’t be enough to save Narnia. This positivity is reflected in the birdsong and sunshine which appear.

When Eustace explains who they are, he shows that his inability to tell a story clearly (as discussed in VDT when he was a dragon) is unchanged.

Why was is Digory who felt Narnia’s need for aid, rather than the others? Normally, Lucy is the most sensitive to such things.

Had any of the seven friends ever considered digging up the rings before? Surely the idea must have crossed someone’s mind on a rainy afternoon?

The thought of Peter and Edmund breaking into someone’s garden dressed as workmen is so incongruous it made me laugh.

We are told that all the Pevensies have now left school. I wonder what each one is doing?

Tirian’s keys sound really interesting. I’d love to see them. Who wouldn’t want a set of ‘keys made for opening solemn and secret rooms in palaces, or chests and caskets of sweet-smelling wood that contained royal treasures’? What secret rooms were there in Cair Paravel? Who else had a key to them? Were they the same rooms as those in the Pevensies’ rule? What special treasures are there now? Is there anything like Susan’s horn? In fact, what happened to Susan’s horn? Did anyone ever try to use it again? What about Lucy’s cordial, or Rhindon, Peter’s sword?

It seems a strange thing to say that Tirian was ‘pleased to see that the two strangers had been well brought up’.

Jill is given a hunting knife instead of a sword. I can’t think of any instance in the entire Chronicles where a girl or woman wields a sword rather than a knife or dagger.

It seems funny that Jill and Eustace still refer to each other as Pole and Scrubb. They know each other pretty well by now.

I’ve always enjoyed any opportunities I’ve had to try archery, partly because it seems such a Narnian skill to have. Jill and Eustace have both been practising since their last visit. I think this is the only time we hear about anyone developing skills with their return to Narnia in mind. I’d always imagined that maybe a year had passed (in terms of our time) since the events of SC. However, according to the timeline in Ford’s ‘Companion to Narnia’ (itself based on writings by Lewis) it is 1949, seven years after SC. This would make Eustace and Jill sixteen. This is much older than I’d ever imagined them to be when reading the books as a child.

The lighting of fires, and sitting around fires, is often used to signify cosiness and comfort in the Chronicles. So it is here in the tower.

Jill wishes for tea – how very British.