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 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. Early morning in the city centre, breakfast at Keble.


I awoke early, taking a moment to remember where I was. The stiffness in my calves was testament to yesterday’s walking. It was only 5am, so I lay in bed for about an hour, listening to the quiet of the morning. The only sounds I could make out were the occasional distant rumble of traffic and the noise of leaves rustling on a nearby tree. Peering out of the window, I smiled at the now familiar sight of Keble’s Pusey Quad. What must it be like to wake up every day to this? And how different would it feel during term time? Sound carries up to the windows from the quad, so that conversations are easy to make out. If you returned drunkenly to your rooms at night (which I may have done on rare occasions during my own university years) you’d be seen and heard by the whole college. It would be impossible to sneak anyone back to your room either, without all your neighbours spotting what you were up to, and with whom.

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Early morning sightseeing: Hertford Bridge
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Early morning sightseeing: The Bodleian
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Early morning sightseeing: The Sheldonian

Just before 6am, I clambered out of bed, pulled on some clothes and set off to explore early morning Oxford. My reasoning was that I’d be able to wander around more easily at this hour, and take photos which had fewer random people milling about in them. Plus, ‘early walk’ was in my spreadsheet itinerary (fair weather column only) so I was powerless to resist. This is the lovely part of travelling alone. I didn’t have to wake anyone up, agree on a time, negotiate what to do, explain a plan . I just got up and got on with exactly what I wanted to do.

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Morning sunshine on ‘the High’.
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Lots of doorways to peek through.
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Empty side streets.
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A tree, in the middle of the High Street.

I was rewarded for my virtuously early start by glorious morning sunshine and practically empty streets. As I strolled around the Bodleian and High Street areas, the only people I saw were a few delivery drivers. I couldn’t believe I was in Oxford at the height of summer. I breathed in the fresh, quiet pleasure of the place, discovering little side streets and peering into half-open doorways. I noted places of interest as I passed: Oxford’s oldest pub (The Bear), various colleges – including Lewis’ alma mater, University College – and yet more of the pleasing sights I was now fully expecting wherever I went in Oxford. Just a short passageway from the high street, I found myself walking past Christ Church College’s meadow, where the bales of hay and birdsong made it seem impossible that I was so close to a city centre.

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Outrageously photogenic: Merton Walk
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Outrageously photogenic: Merton Walk

Sharing the footpath with a few joggers (all women) made me feel safe wandering about on my own. I followed a path between Merton Field and Christ Church Meadow, which led me towards the Botanic Gardens. To my right was the Cherwell. A ridiculously pretty scene stopped me in my tracks. Immediately in front of me were a number of trees, with leaves and branches picked out in the sunshine. Behind them was the Cherwell, which was so still and calm it perfectly reflected the summer sky. Beyond that was a cricket pitch and traditional pavilion. I seemed to have stumbled into that non-existent, idyllic England I’ve read about in so many novels. I stood and stared at it for a good few minutes. I felt I owed it that much.

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The Botanic Gardens (through a fence)

Finally continuing on my way, I passed the fence where I could see, on the other side, the Botanic Gardens. I didn’t think I’d have time to visit them (they were only pencilled in as ‘possibles’on the itinerary) but hoped to get to them on a future visit. I know Tolkien enjoyed spending time there, surrounded by nature, and the trees in particular. (His favourite tree there, a black pine, unfortunately collapsed in 2014.) From where I was standing, peering through the fence like the little match girl, the gardens looked colourful and well organised, although the morning mist made parts difficult to see. The path continued, round ‘dead man’s walk’, past Tolkien’s old place of work, Merton College.

As I returned to the High, Oxford was beginning to come to life, with people making their way to work. I returned to Keble, and after a quick shower headed to the hall.

 

So, I’m obviously hugely nerdy about Lewis, but my nerdish leanings don’t stop there. Unsurprisingly, I also love Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling. Therefore I felt genuinely excited entering the Hall at Keble, purely thanks to its Hogwarts-Great-Hall-ishness. What a glorious room. It’s like a tile and brick re-imagining of a medieval church and feasting hall combined. I stood slack-jawed for a moment, staring up at the ceiling. Although enjoying my solo travel experience, at moments like this I did miss having someone to nudge forcibly and exclaim, ‘Eeh, just look at it!’ to. (Where I come from in the North East, women traditionally begin at least half their sentences with ‘eeh’.) The hall is the longest of all the Oxford colleges, with seating for 300. Maybe people who’ve been to boarding schools wouldn’t feel so excited about it, but I was delighted with the whole set-up. Other guests were dotted around, some clearly attending some sort of conference, others in couples or family groups. Again, being on my own was a non-issue. It turns out that other people don’t spend their entire lives noticing what you’re doing or judging it. They’re too busy doing their own thing, which generally means staring at their phone. They don’t know you’re there at all, let alone notice that you’re on your own.

As all British people know, it is your patriotic duty to eat as much as possible when breakfasting anywhere that involves a buffet or self-service. First, I filled my plate with those hot items that my tedious dietary restrictions allow, and sat at one of the long tables. (It turns out that it’s tricky to climb onto the benches in a maxi-dress. I don’t think I looked particularly graceful.) Tea was brought to me by a shiny-faced, helpful young man, and juice was provided on the table. Between giddy selfies, I tucked in. All I needed to be completely transported to the Potterverse was an enchanted ceiling and a couple of owls dropping post onto the tables.Hot food was followed by two rounds of coco-pops (I’m not allowed bread or pastry) and a yoghurt. I felt like making a pig of myself was a fitting salute to Ron Weasley. In the time-honoured tradition of hotel buffets, a banana was purloined for later consumption. I’ve eaten fancier breakfasts, but never enjoyed one more.

As the room filled up with people operating on a less ridiculous timetable (perhaps without even consulting a spreadsheet) I finished my meal, sent envy-inducing picture messages to my children and headed back to my room for a well-earned snooze, basking in the insufferable smugness of the early bird.

Further information:

https://www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk/

http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/bed-breakfast

http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/oxford/places-of-interest

 

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Magdalen College and Addison’s Walk, part 2.

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Addison’s Walk.

After sitting for some time by the lily pond, soaking up the loveliness, I decided to continue my stroll back through the Fellows’ Garden and onward. Addison’s Walk pulled out all the stops to make itself memorable. Shafts of sunlight turned the leaves to gold, and made dappled patterns on the path in front of me. Branches reached forward from either side in salute as I passed. Butterflies and squirrels led me onward, pausing just long enough for me to take their pictures in suitably charming poses. Punts passed alongside me with gentle creaks and splashes. Magdalen tower presented and re-presented itself in a series of perfectly-framed views. I passed a handful of other people, but retained my sense of solitude. Everyone moved as if in their own private world. The experience was all I’d hoped for. If I had had to return to the train station at this point, I already felt that the trip had been worthwhile.

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Ent inspiration?

This was where Lewis used to walk with Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and other friends. This was where he was finally convinced by them that Christianity was a myth, but a true myth – one of the pivotal points in his life. This was where he would stroll, smoking a pipe or cigarette, talking about life and books and nature. I’d made my pilgrimage. A number of interestingly shaped trees made me think of Tolkien walking along this path, creating Ents and Huorns for his Middle Earth stories. Just before returning through the gate, I stopped to read the Lewis poem which is carved into a plaque set on the wall. It suited my mood perfectly.

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The poetry plaque.

Returning through the gate, to my right was New Building. I knew that this was where Lewis’ rooms were located so I headed towards it. I’d reached another stage of my pilgrimage. I believe that his rooms were the two windows to the right of the central section of the building (see below).

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New Building, Magdalen. Lewis’ rooms were on the right in this picture.

New Building, along with the other buildings of Magdalen where staff or students would be working, is not accessible to the public. (For understandable reasons.) Giddily, I snapped some selfies and explored as far as I was able. As I was doing so, probably looking a little peculiar, a woman  – presumably on the university staff – approached and entered the door pictured above. I wondered if she was lucky enough to have Lewis’ old rooms. Lewis wrote about the views he enjoyed from his rooms, mentioning the herd of deer which still graze there today. It was in these rooms where he entertained the Inklings, with tea and beer and conversation, where he worked and wrote. I wonder how much of the Chronicles of Narnia were composed there.

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Deer grazing behind New Building.
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The view from New Building with the gate on the left.

I sat on a bench outside New Building, looking back across the lawns to the older part of the college. I realised why so many of the politicians who studied at Oxford are so out of touch with the realities of modern life, and why they make such terrible decisions. If you’d spent your formative years in a place as attractive and timeless as this, particularly if you’d already spent time at a similarly appealing school, then gone straight to Whitehall, you would think that Britain is just perfect as it is. Who would want to improve a country which arlready seemed this wonderful? If this was your main experience of life in modern Britain, you’d have a very different view of the country from most of its population.

The sun was shining ever brighter, so I decided to make the most of it and return to Addison’s Walk, travelling in the opposite direction this time. Dawdling along, I soaked up all the little details around me and wished I knew the names of more plants and trees. Partway along the path is a bench which offers a fantastic view across the water meadow towards Magdalen Tower. A man sat painting the scene.

After a good fifteen minutes of happy strolling, I was back at the gate. I took a closer look at the borders, which were in full bloom, then returned to the cloister, delighting repeatedly in different views of it from different windows. A set of stairs leading off to the left took me to the dining hall, where Lewis would have eaten his weekday meals. I could almost hear the clink of glasses from the hundreds of dinners and celebrations it must have hosted over the years. (I defy anyone not to think of Hogwarts when they see the long tables in college halls like this, something I’ll be returning to in later posts.)

After the hall, I made my way to the college chapel, where Lewis attended services after his return to Christianity, but I was disappointed to find the seating area roped off, as I had hoped to look at the plaque which marks where he sat. The chapel did contain other items of interest, however, such as stained glass and stone carvings.

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Behind the chapel was a quiet area, the Chaplain’s Quad, containing a modern sculpture. The bright sunlight made it appear that the woman in the sculpture (Mary Magdalen) was shielding her eyes from the sun. Returning to St John’s Quad, I had one last happy look around, spotting the gargoyles above me, and then headed back onto the street outside, buzzing with excitement at having retraced Lewis’ footsteps, and at experiencing such a beautiful place.

Further information, including maps:

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

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

http://www.vanderkrogt.net/statues/object.php?webpage=ST&record=gbse183 (the statue)

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Keble College, Magdalen College and Addison’s Walk, part 1.

Monday 25th August 2016

8.10pm

What a day! Arriving in Oxford after an uneventful journey, I made my way towards my temporary home: Keble College. I had chosen to stay at Keble for a number of reasons:

  1. Have you looked at hotel prices for Oxford? They are not for the faint-hearted. Even the Premier Inn’s tariff was steep.
  2. Keble is, like most of the other colleges, located centrally. I was visiting Oxford by train, as the city centre isn’t really ideal for parking or driving. Keble placed me within walking distance of nearly everything I wanted to see.
  3. I wanted accommodation which was clean and safe, but wasn’t looking for a fancy romantic getaway. I wasn’t planning to spend much time in my room so didn’t need anything luxurious.
  4. Staying in a college, would, I felt, enrich my experience of Oxford. After all, university life was central to Lewis’ time here.
  5. Oh, did I mention, Lewis was based at Keble for his army training , for three months in 1917? I’d be staying where he’d stayed! (For more information on his time at Keble, including photographs, see http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/about/past/keble-and-the-great-war/an-unknown-photograph-of-c.-s.-lewis )
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Part of my route to Keble.

As I walked, I passed the usual city mix of old and new, posh and not. Then, as I began to get closer to Keble, Oxford just kept supplying old, gorgeous and above all interesting buildings everywhere. Little architectural details (doorways, lamps, carvings) fought for my attention. I passed the Ashmolean and the Randolph Hotel and suddenly found myself on St Giles. With a little thrill of recognition (and possibly a small squeak of happiness) I spotted two of Lewis’ favourite haunts: The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag pubs. I didn’t linger as I was pulling my case behind me, but was excited to know that I was really here, at last, in Lewis’ world. Making my way down Lamb and Flag Passage and then Parks Road, I realised that Oxford was different from other cities I’ve visited, in terms of the sheer number of things I wanted to stop and look at per square metre.

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Keble College.

Keble is, to my mind, a most attractive set of buildings, but then I like fancy brickwork, which feels reassuringly northern. I was delighted to find that my room was in the Victorian section of the college, overlooking the library and Pusey Quad. The room was basic but clean. I knew it wouldn’t be Lewis’ actual room, as his was shared, but it was exciting to know that he’d stayed at this college. At this point, I must admit, I found myself a little agitated: I wanted to get going and start exploring. I got myself organised and headed straight back out.

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The beautiful cloister at Magdalen. (Note the statues.)

Of all the places in Oxford associated with Lewis, Magdalen was the one I was keenest to visit. It also required reasonable weather to fully enjoy, so I took advantage of the afternoon sunshine and headed straight there. My route took me past lots of sights – the Natural History Museum, Trinity College, the Radcliffe Camera, etc. but I hurried past them all as I was intent on getting to Magdalen. I paid the incredibly well-spoken young man on the door my £5.00 to enter, and picked up a leaflet on ‘Lewis at Magdalen’ and one on ‘The History of Magdalen’. He gently suggested I might prefer the English language version, as in my excitement I’d picked up the French leaflet, which would be useless to me unless it chiefly consisted of people introducing themselves and buying jambon in a supermarche.

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The gate leading to Addison’s Walk.

Magdalen College is gorgeous. Truly lovely. It consists of warm sandstone buildings, covered in humourous gargoyles, interesting statues (pictured above, and said to have inspired the statues in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)  and beautiful stonemasonry, all set off to perfection by wonderful gardens. I darted from place to place, unsure how to begin my exploration. Finally, I decided on Addison’s Walk as my starting point, headed through the ornate iron gate and turned right, following the well-worn path. (Addison’s walk is a broadly circular footpath through the grounds of the college.) At this point, I realised that when anticipating my visit here, I’d really hoped to feel something, a sort of special connection or heightened emotion of some kind. It was a most attractive place, but I didn’t. Was I expecting too much of Oxford?

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The Y sculpture. (see links below for details)
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The bridge to the Fellows’ Garden.

I passed occasional punts on the Cherwell, which runs alongside the path, one of which contained some exuberant –  and very wet – Italian students, who seem determined to run aground. There were ducks, and flowering shrubs, and willow branches skimming the water. Following the map in my leaflet, I found myself in the Bat Willow Meadow (At the time I thought it must be inhabited by bats, but have since realised that it’s more likely that the willows are of the type used to make cricket bats.) which contains the ‘Y’ statue – pictured above. It’s modern, but doesn’t feel out of place. However, just as I arrived, a group of young women settled in front of it and all pulled out their tablets. Their furious typing wasn’t really in keeping with the mood I was looking for, so I continued on my way, over a little wooden bridge and into the Fellows’ garden.

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The view from the end of the Fellows’ Garden.

I reached the lovely – and silent – lily pond at the very end of the garden. It was only when I sat on a bench here, facing back along the path, and started to sketch the scene in front of me, that I relaxed. (I used to love drawing at school, but it fell by the wayside, as many things do, so it’s now a very occasional pleasure.) I drew the curve of the pond, the pattern of the lilies, the statue of a heron with dipped head, the carefully pruned bushes, the surprisingly tall trees. Finally, I felt that quiet joy that I was hoping for. To be in a beautiful garden, in England, in the sunshine, with total peace and quiet, is such a genuine pleasure. I loved it, and I was sure Lewis would have loved it too. It reminded me of this passage from The Magician’s Nephew:

‘Now that he could see the place it looked more private than ever. He went in very solemnly, looking about him. Everything was very quiet inside. Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound. The lovely smell was all round him: it was a happy place but very serious.’

Further information:

http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/ (about Keble College, including bed and breakfast)

http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/ (about Magdalen College, including its history and visitor information)

http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/wallinger/further.html (about the sculpture in the Bat Willow Meadow)

 

 

 

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 four. What happened that night.

Synopsis: Tirian is tied to a tree. Some animals help him. He calls to our world for help, and experiences a vision of the friends of Narnia.

Tirian is tied to an ash tree. Yggdrasil, the world ash tree, is what links the different worlds in Norse mythology. This seems fitting as the Last Battle contains many echoes of Ragnarok, the battle at the world’s end, where monsters defeat gods and the world itself is destroyed.

Tirian, a king who is bound by ropes, is helped by the smallest animals of the wood, including mice. The same thing occurred when mice tried to gnaw away Aslan’s ropes on the Stone Table. The animals’ love for their king, and their fear and despair at Aslan’s orders, is very moving. They risk their own safety, and the wrath of their ‘god’, to help Tirian.

Tirian here feels (understandably) sorry for himself, and compares his misfortune with the lives of his ancestors. This allows us to remember the stories ourselves, of Rilian (SC) and Caspian X (PC/VDT/SC). We are told that Rilian was his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather. If we measure one generation as roughly 25 years, this would mean that no more than two centuries have passed since the events of the Silver Chair. It doesn’t seem that Narnia’s history is particularly long. I always wondered why it didn’t continue for millenia, when our world has existed for millions of years.

At first, Tirian prays for help for himself, (‘Come and help us now.’) Nothing happens. When he prays for a second time, he explicitly states that he wants help for Narnia, not himself, and is even willing to die for this cause. At this point, nothing ‘real’ changes, but he himself feels different, and more hopeful. This is just what happens in VDT. When the ship is lost in the darkness surrounding the island where Lord Rhoop is, Lucy is just as afraid as the rest of the crew. However, when she prays to Aslan, despite there being no immediate change in her circumstances, she begins to feel better.

Dreams have held significance throughout the Chronicles. Here, Rilian feels compelled to call out to our world, then enters some sort of dream state or vision.In Prince Caspian, Lewis showed us what being summoned (like a genie in a lamp) is like, from the point of view of the genie. Here, we are shown what a vision or apparition is like, from the point of view of the vision itself.

Young me was quite jealous of the seven friends of Narnia. I had plenty of friends but none who felt as I did about Narnia (or other stories such as the Lord of the Rings) to talk with about it. I imagined their cosy meals in post-war dining rooms, where they chatted about the stories of Narnia, and maybe discussed their hopes of returning one day. Keeping such a massive secret from everyone else must have made them closer. This is why the situation with Susan, discussed in later chapters, seems so strange to me. Wouldn’t she want to spend time with people who knew who she really was, and what she had achieved?

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter three. The Ape in its glory.

Synopsis: Tirian regrets his actions. He and Jewel give themselves up. Shift speaks to the other animals.

I remember quite clearly reading this chapter as a child and willing Tirian and Jewel to head straight to Cair Paravel. I simply couldn’t understand why they would hand themselves over to people who clearly weren’t particularly honourable. (Their lack of honour is confirmed when they claim that, ‘By our skill and courage… we have taken alive these two desperate murderers.’

Since we last saw Shift he has become even worse. His appearance would be comical if it weren’t so depressing. I’ve read a number of different interpretations of what Shift represents: Dictators in general, Stalin, Hitler, worldly ‘sins’ and the Antichrist. As the Narniad isn’t a straightforward allegory (see earlier posts about Lewis’ description of it as a ‘supposal’) I think the answer is that he is a combination of things. Certainly, his role is similar to the Biblical Antichrist:

‘For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.’ (Matthew 24:24)

However, he also seems to represent what happens when greed, selfishness and cruelty take over a person. And in light of Lewis having lived through both world wars prior to writing the stories, presumably such ideas would contain echoes of leaders who subjugated the people they ruled, making them miserable slaves. The idea of the animals ‘working’ for the Tisroc, and their wages being paid to Shift/Aslan for ‘everybody’s good’ is an idea which would ring alarm bells for anyone familiar with 20th Century history. The paper crown shows us that Shift has no real right to rule, he is a mockery of a true king.

‘Mouthpiece of Aslan’ reminded me of Tolkien’s ‘Mouth of Sauron’.

Seeing the ape confuse and belittle and frighten the Narnian talking animals is both frustrating and depressing.

When Shift insists he’s a man, it reminds me of King Louie in the Jungle Book, another ape obsessed with being human.

Shift shows us how terrible his dream of Narnia is, ‘roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and cages and kennels and prisons’. This idea of a miserable ‘modern’ world as opposed to a natural, rural ideal appears again and again in the Chronicles, reflecting Lewis’ own deep mistrust of ‘progress’ and industrialisation.

It is fitting that the innocent question which cuts to the heart of the problem is posed by a lamb, an animal often used to represent Christ, and used as an avatar by Aslan in VDT. When Shift spits at it, it shows us that he really is evil.

I think this chapter is even more depressing than the first two. There’s the utterly reprehensible Shift, selling his own people to slavers. There’s the misery and dejection of the innocent animals. There’s the lies about Aslan. Then there’s the frustration. Tirian isn’t allowed to speak. The animals do nothing. Aslan does nothing. No help comes rushing in from our world.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter two. The rashness of the King.

Synopsis: Tirian learns that talking trees are being felled and talking beasts are being used as slaves by Calormenes. He and Jewel kill two Calormenes.

Just in case we’d missed the pointers in the previous chapter, here we are introduced to the ‘last of the Kings of Narnia’. This isn’t subtle foreshadowing. We are being told quite clearly that Narnia is coming to an end.

Tirian is sitting beneath an oak tree. Oaks have long been used to symbolise strength, endurance and constancy, all of which Tirian will need. It also has ‘kingly’ associations: the Royal Oak in English history, the links to Thor and Zeus.

Cair Paravel is now described, not just as a castle, but as a royal city. Narnia must have become increasingly urbanised (something Lewis would likely not approve of).

Jewel the unicorn is not as I remembered him. For some reason I’d never absorbed the fact that he had a blue horn. Is this true of all Narnian unicorns? I’d also forgotten that he wore a golden necklace.  Unicorns, since Medieval times, have been used to represent purity, goodness and even Jesus. In heraldry, unicorns are often depicted wearing collars or chains, just as Jewel does. In the British coat of arms, the lion and unicorn are used to represent England and Scotland.

I wonder who Tirian and Jewel had fought wars against.

What were the decorations on the ‘curiously carved’ bowl of wine given to Roonwit?

As ever in the Chronicles, the centaur is depicted as serious, solemn and with a deep understanding of astronomy/astrology. His name follows the usual kenning-style form, discussed in my post about SC chapter 16.

Seeing the beech dryad ‘felled’ is a really poignant moment. The dryads and naiads seem to be like the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ of the tree, whereas the physical tree itself is merely the body.

Tirian, particularly in the first half of the book, is shown to be very emotional. He is sent into a rage by the news from Lantern Waste, and his words and actions are led more by emotion than by careful thought. He is too angry to pause and take stock of the situation. This subject is discussed with clarity in Ford’s ‘Companion to Narnia’. It is also worth noting that his melancholy in different parts of the story links to the Saturnine character of the book. Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’ explains this link between the book and the pre-Copernican imagery linked to the planet Saturn with exhaustive detail. As mentioned on a number of occasions in these posts, it is a highly convincing theory, with an abundance of supporting evidence. In short, themes associated with Saturn include: treachery, disaster, and death, penitence and contemplation. All of these are explored in The Last Battle.

Just as in LWW, the importance of caring for your sword is mentioned here.

Tirian and Jewel are horrified by the thought that Aslan, who they have loved and longed for all their lives, might not be what or who they thought. The words of the story at this point continue the theme of endings, sadness and pain: ‘miserably’, ‘evil’, ‘rashness’ and so on. The seriousness of the situation is shown in this exchange:

‘Horrible thoughts arise in my heeart. If we had died before today we should have been happy.’

‘Yes,’ said Jewel. “We have lived too long. the worst thing in the world has come upon us.’

The description of the wood’s desecration, and the talk of holy trees and the Tree of Protection remind me very strongly of Tolkien’s woods, particularly Saruman’s treatment of the woods around Orthanc.

Tirian and Jewel kill two Calormenes, but not in battle. It could be called a murder (although there was certainly provocation. Two chapters in and the reader has had nothing remotely positive to enjoy. On reflection, this story is quite depressing so far.

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter eight. The fight at the lamp-post.

Synopsis: Digory transports Jadis, and others, to the Wood Between the Worlds. They then travel to a new, empty world. Music begins.

When the crowd call Jadis the ‘Hempress of Colney ‘Atch, it refers to Colney Hatch, Barnet, London. Colney Hatch is the name of an area, but in this instance references the well-known ‘Lunatic Asylum’. This place was built in Victorian times, and the name became a byword for insanity.

Is Jadis left handed? Or ambidextrous?

Do children still eat barley sugar? When I was small it was given to me when I had a sore throat. It almost made being ill worth it.

Digory shows his bravery here, and his appreciation of Polly.

Jadis lists cities from her world. ‘Charn’ is reminiscent of ‘char’ (to burn) and ‘charnel house’ (a place where skeletal remains are stored. Both are relevant when Charn’s fate is considered. As far as I can discover, ‘Felinda’, ‘Sorlois’ and ‘Bramandin’ have no specific meaning other than being names which sound like they originate from different cultures. (To me, Sorlois sounds French.)

Uncle Andrew shows his true colours here: he is a coward; he doesn’t want to take any responsibility for his actions;he refuses to face consequences.

What do modern children make of phrases such as, ‘My hat, what a picnic’? (I feel like I need to shoehorn this into a conversation soon.)

I’ve always found it difficult to imagine ‘nothing’ or ‘nothingness’, particularly the nothingness which presumably preceded the existence of the universe.

When the Witch says that, ‘My doom has come upon me,’ does she really know that this is the world where her life will (eventually, after a very long time has passed) end? Or is she just being dramatic?

When the Cabby starts to talk about being thankful, mentions that death is not to be feared if you have lived your life properly, and then suggests singing a hymn, it is the first time – that I can recall – so far in the Chronicles in which a direct reference to Christianity’s beliefs and practices is made. The hymn itself is probably ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’, which includes the famous line, ‘All is safely gathered in’. (An episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ takes its title from this.) The hymn also has some relevant lyrics considering the situation which unfolds across the next six chapters:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field,
fruit as praise to God we yield;
wheat and tares together sown
are to joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day
all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store
in the garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.

Once again, Lewis describes something which is wonderful and terrible at the same time. The music which has begun is ‘so beautiful he could hardly bear it’. As seen elsewhere in the Chronicles, music has a beauty and emotional intensity which is able to profoundly affect those who hear it.

For me as a child, this entire passage felt truly beautiful. (I much preferred it to the various creation stories we learned about at school.) It seemed to capture the beauty and sense of wonder which Lewis must have intended.

The idea of a world being brought into being through a song or the voice of God is not unique to Narnia. In Christianity, God’s word brought the world into being. In Hinduism, the sacred sound ‘Aum’ began the world we live in. In Tolkien’s creation story, music brings life to the world. (The idea of creatures being ‘born’ from the ground is also found here.)

The response each character has to the Voice confirms their current state of ‘goodness’ – or not. It is similar to the way the Pevensies responded to hearing Aslan’s name for the first time in LWW.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter five. The Deplorable Word.

Synopsis: Jadis is awoken by the bell. She explains what happened to the world of Charn. She wants to travel to the children’s world with them. They try to escape.

When I was younger I was always really annoyed, on Polly’s behalf, at the Queen ignoring her and only addressing Digory.

I wonder how old the Queen is. How old was she when the enchantment began? How long as the enchantment kept her in stasis?

Polly is not in any way taken in by the Queen. She sees her for exactly what she is: dangerous and cruel. However, Digory thinks she’s ‘brave’ and ‘strong’, a true Queen. He’s allowing himself to be ‘fooled’ again, as he did with the bell and the hammer.

The Queen’s commentary on ‘dungeons…torture chambers…killed them all…’ adds to our image of this world. Inviting guests to a banquet, then killing them, shows a total disregard for the sort of hospitality ‘laws’ which were widespread in the Middle Ages. It certainly wouldn’t happen at Anvard or Cair Paravel. This kind of transgression will be familiar to anyone who has read G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin explains its historical origins here: http://nerdist.com/george-r-r-martin-explains-the-red-weddings-historical-roots/

I always loved the crown and dress of the the Queen in the illustrations. They looked exotic and otherworldly.

The lack of nature, countryside, trees in Charn reminds me of Tolkien’s portrayal of Saruman’s desecreation of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. Both authors saw the increasing urbanisation and modernisation of Britain as the destruction of what the country should truly be. The sounds of Charn were ‘wheels…whips…slaves…’. Saruman is described as having  ‘a mind of metal and wheels’.

Here were are told the Queen’s name, Jadis, and we know that this is the White Witch of LWW.

What are ‘the Powers’ mentioned by Jadis? Are they gods?

Jadis shows here that she is one of those people – there are many in our world, unfortunately – who see mercy, or the reluctance to spill the blood of others, as weakness.

The Deplorable Word taps into the ancient idea that certain words have real power (for example the names of gods). There have been taboo words for centuries.

What happened to all the dead soldiers? Why aren’t their skeletons lying everywhere? Did the Deplorable Word completely atomise them?

We see how Jadis and Andrew are alike, although Andrew is really a pale imitation of Jadis, with little of her power. They both see everyone around them as dispensable. They both speak of their ‘high and lonely destiny’. They both betray their greedy thoughts through hungry facial expressions. They both see magic as a way to gain power over others rather than genuine understanding.

Jadis refuses to accept facts which we know to be true because they don’t fit with her worldview. This is the first ‘weakness’ we have seen in her – a lack of understanding of things outside her experience. This will become important later in the story.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter three. The Wood between the Worlds.

Digory is reunited with Polly in the Wood between the Worlds. They decide to use the rings to explore other worlds through the pools in the wood.

The title of this chapter is a nod to William Morris’ ‘The Wood Beyond The World’, which Lewis greatly admired. (He mentioned him frequently in his personal correspondence, and gave lectures defending Morris from criticism. It has also been suggested that Prince Caspian was based on Morris’ character Child Christopher.) This book, by the man who is nowadays more famous for his ever-popular fabric and wallpaper prints, is considered to be key in the development of the fantasy novel. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wood_Beyond_the_World) Lewis’ friend Tolkien also acknowledged Morris as an influence on his writing.

Where is the wood? Is it somehow attached to Aslan’s Country? Is it infinite or does it eventually come to an end? Do people often go there? Why does it exist? Is it eternal, or does it have a beginning and an end? When I was younger I didn’t see the appeal of a peaceful place where nothing seems to happen, but now I do.

In Lev Grossman’s ‘Magicians’ series, I enjoyed reading about his version of the wood, the Neitherlands. All other worlds are connected by the Neitherlands, which consist of deserted Italianate buildings, which are all libraries.  Different worlds are accessed via fountains, although these can dry up. I believe he has stated that either the wood grew over the buildings there, or the buildings were built on top of the wood. (The series revolves around the magical world of Fillory, which is linked to our own and is the focus of a series of classic British children’s books. It’s Narnia, by another name.)

Polly shows her sensible, practical nature here. She realises that they have to fight against the pleasant dreaminess of the wood. She imagines the consequences of rushing into action. When Digory is carried away by the thought of exploring, he talks over her and ignores what she’s trying to say, which is a foretaste of what will happen in Charn.

It is here that we are told that Digory becomes Professor Kirke from LWW. This was written after that though, and Lewis had never initially intended to write a ‘prequel’ to LWW, and it makes his initial conversation about Narnia (with Peter and Susan) seem a little strange.

I like the fact that Polly and Digory squabble (much as Jill and Eustace do). They don’t just marvel at the extraordinary events taking place. They behave like real children do. Their arguments continue throughout the chapter.

When they try returning to London, why can they see through the walls of all the buildings? Would this happen in other worlds?

How did the dust in Uncle Andrew’s box manage to make rings which wanted to both leave and find the wood? Were there separate compartments? Who in our world would have known how to do this? How did Uncle Andrew work it out? Why did the dust behave in two different ways?

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter two. Digory and his uncle.

Synopsis: Uncle Andrew explains the origins of the magic rings. Digory decides to go after Polly with the second ring.

Mrs Lefay always sounded so interesting to me, I wanted to know more about her back story. Why was she sent to prison? Where did she get hold of the box? What ceremonies should it have been destroyed with? Why? Her name is an echo of Morgan Le Fay, the sorceress who features in Arthurian Legend. The term ‘fay’ itself can be used interchangeably with fairy or faery, which is suited to Mrs Lefay’s role as a ‘fairy godmother’.

Uncle Andrew’s insistence that the rules don’t apply to him, that he’s special and different, stand in direct contrast to Aslan’s stance. In both LWW and VDT, Aslan explains that he must follow his, and the Emperor’s, rules, for example by becoming visible when Lucy casts the spell in the Coriakin’s house. The reader is shown that his talk of a ‘high and lonely destiny’ is insincere and self-serving.

I would love to see the box itself.What were the decorations like? What exactly was it made from? How could Andrew be sure that it was Atlantean? Who did he learn this from? Who else had this secret knowledge?

Lewis was interested in the idea of Atlantis, his friend Tolkien even more so: it inspired his story of the downfall of Numenor, and he had recurring dreams about a land consumed by the sea. (These are documented in his own writing.)

How had the dust come into our world in the first place? Did it arrive here as dust or was it dust made from something else. Who travelled between the worlds? This is another unknown story.

The more Andrew speaks, the more he reveals about himself. He wants knowledge, and probably that power which knowledge that other people don’t have brings, but doesn’t stop to think about the consequences. He admits his health has been damaged, and he shows absolutely no interest in other people (or animals) apart from wondering how he can make use of them. Polly’s safety is of absolutely no concern to him, and his empathy is so lacking that he can’t understand why Digory is so upset. In contrast, we see that Digory understands the ‘rules’ – of fairness, courtesy and doing the right thing.

Andrew is the perfect example of what we become when we see ourselves as the hero of our story, rather than looking at ourselves as part of a bigger story. He can’t see that other people are equally important to him.

Do children now know what ‘the white feather’ represents?

As ever in Narnia, we see how reading the ‘right books’ helps us: Digory predicts that Andrew won’t profit from his terrible conduct. Andrew finally seems disconcerted. He dismisses Digory’s ‘old wives’ tales’ but in the Chronicles we have seen, notably in PC, that such tales are often true. They are dismissed by those who fear or misunderstand them, such as King Miraz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter fifteen. Rabadash the Ridiculous.

Synopsis: The victors discuss how to deal with Rabadash. When he refuses their mercy, Aslan punishes him.

Something a little odd happened on my re-read of this chapter. When King Lune welcomes Aravis to Anvard, I felt really emotional. I don’t remember this happening when I was young. Maybe it’s because Aravis must have felt so utterly relieved to be put so at ease after worrying what would happen to her. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed a soft spot for the formal speech employed from time to time in Narnia, when noble people are being courteous to each other. Maybe it’s because Lune is so down-to-earth and fatherly, and my own lovely father is no longer with me. I suspect it’s a combination of all three.

When Cor is initially pleased that his parent hears a story of his heroism, then increasingly embarrassed after multiple re-tellings, I think anyone can relate. Parents feeling proud is lovely, but they do love to re-tell a tale to everyone and anyone they meet.

Lucy and Aravis instantly like each other. I imagine each would like the other’s straightforwardness. This passage, again, is often cited as an example of Lewis’ sexism. Although I don’t deny that Lewis did write and say sexist things (I’ll explore this fully in an upcoming post) I never read this section in that way as a child. This was only my personal reaction to it, but as I read it all I thought was, ‘I wish I could be their friend, and have some fancy castle rooms set up just for me.’ Gender never featured in this for me, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where everyone was a feminist, so maybe that was why.

‘Even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.’ This quote is all over the internet (instagram, pinterest etc). It really resonates with people. We’ve all done things we regret, but all hope to be given a second chance.

Apes are mentioned here, being described as dishonest. This will become more significant in LB. Is there a folklore precedent for this? I couldn’t find one but it would seem likely.

Rabadash was in a comfortable room with good food, but we are told he had a terrible night due to his own sulkiness. This is similar to Uncle Andrew in MN, in that situations do affect us, but our perception of and response to them are what often decide our state of mind.

My disproportionate dislike of Corin continues with his plea to box Rabadash and his taunting of the Calormene.

According to Downing’s ‘Into the Wardrobe’, Lune calling Rabadash a ‘pajock’ references Hamlet, where Hamlet is about to call someone an ass, but instead uses this term. This is relevant considering Rabadash’s imminent fate.

After reading this book when young, I was determined to learn to waggle my ears. It’s a useless skill but one that Narnia taught me, nonetheless.

‘Lightning in the shape of scorpions’ reminded me of Doctor Evil’s sharks with laser beams from the Austin Powers films.

I don’t know why Rabadash is turned into a donkey rather than any other animal. Maybe because ‘ass’ is a synonym for ‘fool’. Maybe for no particular reason. I have read elsewhere online that it is due to the unpleasant associations the name of  this animal has in arab culture, so was used as a final insult to the ‘middle eastern’ Rabadash. I hope this isn’t the reason. (See my separate post on race issues in HHB.)

I did look in my local library for a good history of Calormen. Naturally, I was disappointed.

A grand feast is the quintessential Narnian ( or Archenlandish) way to celebrate. The setting, with lanterns hung around the moonlit lawn only make it more appealing. Similarly, I love the evening dinner on the Camomile Lawn in Mary Wesley’s book of the same name, or the birthday party in the Weasley’s back garden in Rowling’s Harry Potter. Eating outside, with friends, somewhere warm enough to stay out late, is such a lovely thought.

I’d absolutely love to hear the full version of the lay of Olvin (did anything in Narnia ever sound so Tolkien-esque?).

I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that Lucy tells the others the story of the Wardrobe here. Not long after HHB’s events, the Pevensies are utterly mystified by the lamppost and have no recollection of their origins in our world. How did change this occur?

When Corin says that ‘princes have all the fun’, it always makes me think of the British princes, William and Harry. I wonder if that’s how Harry feels?

Why did Corin box the bear? Why did this make it ‘un-lapsed’?

For some reason (most likely my personal prejudice against Corin) I was always pleased to know that Cor was the more accomplished and dangerous warrior. I’m sure he wouldn’t have boasted about it either.

Personally, I was happy to know that Cor and Araris got married, but I’ve seen people online both agree and disagree with it. It’s the classic ‘buddy/romantic comedy’ result: two very different people forced to work together, where they start off disliking each other but then change their minds. Some people think it is too hastily ‘tacked on’ to the story to be convincing. Others ‘ship it’ and have written plenty of fanfiction on the subject. I just liked the thought of two characters I liked settling down together; why, I’m not sure.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter thirteen. The fight at Anvard.

Synopsis: Shasta and the rest of the Narnians join the battle at Anvard. The Hermit describes what is happening to Aravis and the horses.

Corin’s comments on Queens Susan and Lucy are often referenced in discussions about the representation of gender in the Chronicles. This subject is important and requires proper examination, which I intend to do in a dedicated post, rather than here. However, when Corin talks about Lucy being ‘as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy’, it sounds exactly like the sort of ignorant comment which the real-life ‘Corins’ of this world (of which I have had the misfortune to meet quite a few) like to share with you, without any prompting.

I haven’t been able to find any real-world examples of the spiked armour-boots which the giants wear here.

Shasta’s involvement here is really frustrating. I never enjoyed the thought of him ending up in a battle which he didn’t understand. I always wanted him to tell Corin ‘no thanks’. I don’t think he could be thought cowardly for doing so. But then I suppose that in LWW, Peter and Edmund joined the Battle of Beruna without really knowing much about swordsmanship.

When Lewis says ‘all prayers said,’ I wonder who Shasta would pray to: would he think that Aslan could be prayed to? Would he fall back on prayer to Tash? Or something else?

The storytelling device of having the battle described to the reader via a third party ‘commentator’ – much like a sporting event would be – is very similar in feel to Miraz and Peter’s single combat in PC.

Cities south of Tashbaan are mentioned, but we never learn whether they are all in Calormen or not. (None of the maps Pauline Baynes created showed the land this far south.)

The hermit’s pool reminds me of the pool of Galadriel in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Another echo of this book is in the eagles’ appearance for a key battle.

Once again we are shown the problem of pride: Rabadash is concerned with looking and sounding grand, but when this backfires it adds to his ridiculousness.

King Lune is presented to us as the epitome of real kingliness (after having seen what a dictator is like in the form of the Tisroc). He is disciplined and fair-minded, ensuring that Rabadash is treated ‘correctly’, despite the unprovoked attack he has just led. (I was surprised that Edmund – the just – was not quite so calm.) Lewis was a monarchist and throughout the Chronicles the ‘rightful’ royal is presented as the ideal person to rule a country. Lewis’ own home country is strange with regard to royalty. There is not an Irish royal family (there were noble ruling families in earlier centuries but not one established royal line.) However, in Northern Ireland, where Lewis grew up, those who were Unionists and Protestants considered themselves part of Britain, and saw themselves as associated with the British royal family. Feelings on such matters still run very high in many parts of Ireland.

Finally, we are about to have Shasta’s true identity spelled out to us, but surely the reader has already worked it out for themself?

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Chapter sixteen. The very End of the World.

Synopsis: Lucy sees a sea-girl. The ship sails through part of the sea which is covered with lilies. Caspian says he will abdicate and continue to the world’s end, but is persuaded not to. Reepicheep, Eustace, Edmund and Lucy leave the ship in a small boat and sail onwards through the Last Sea, They reach a wave at the world’s end, which Reepicheep sails over in his coracle. The children leave the boat and walk across land, where they meet Aslan, who returns them to their world.

The passage where Lucy sees the sea-girl is totally superfluous to the book’s plot. It doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. But I always loved it. Lewis must have too, to have written it.  It doesn’t seem to have a specific religious or spiritual subtext. Lucy observes the mer-world, trying to work out how it works. For a fleeting moment, she finds herself face to face with a Sea Girl around the same age as her. In that moment, without communicating, the girls become friends. Lewis viewed friendship as one of life’s great joys. He wrote about it at length in ‘The Four Loves’. We are told here that if Lucy ever sees the girl again they will rush towards each other. Maybe it’s just the quality of the prose, but I always found this to be a memorable, moving passage. When I read ‘The Last Battle’ one of the thoughts which its ending prompted was, ‘I hope they meet again!’

As they near the edge of the world, the crew are in a dreamlike state of ‘wonder’ and quiet excitement, prompted by the light, the calm and the sweet water. Older sailors grow younger. Flexibility in age is mentioned a few times in the Chronicles. Jadis doesn’t age. For different reasons, neither does Aslan. In Aslan’s Country, age is impossible to tell.  The Pevensies become adults and then revert to childhood. Lewis warns of the folly of being either too grown up or too childish. Did the sailors ‘re-age’ upon their return? Or did their older wives and children get a surprise?

Lilies, especially white ones, carry various associations. They represent purity and innocence. They are a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and sometimes of Jesus. They also represent rebirth, due to their flowering in spring from a seemingly-lifeless bulb.

Just as sounds often trigger powerful emotions in the Narniad,  smells do too. Here, the lilies smell sweet, fresh, wild and lonely, and the scent affects Lucy emotionally. She loves it, but it is so intense she almost can’t bear it.

Caspian tries to abdicate in order to sail to the world’s end. I wonder what Lewis made of the real abdication of the British monarch in December 1936. I imagine he was unimpressed with the King’s desertion of duty. Edmund mentions Ulysses being bound to the mast of his ship in order to hear the sirens without succumbing to them. (Naturally, Lewis had read the Odyssey in its original language.) However, Ulysses was bound voluntarily. We are reminded of Caspian’s youth as opposition to his abdication leads to a teenage-style ‘strop’. He reappears, tearful, after being chastened by Aslan.

The glimpses of Aslan’s country in this chapter remind me very much of this passage from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Both are describing a beautiful shore of a heavenly country beyond the sea. Although their friendship faded in the later years of their lives, their interests, beliefs and works were interconnected in many ways. These two passages feel like the closest connection between the stories of Middle Earth and Narnia, for me anyway.

When the children leave the ship, and then watch Reepicheep leave, the story changes.They feel that they are fated to act in the way they do. They become childlike once again. They are filled with wonder, and the Lewis staple, sehnsucht, is everywhere around them.

When Reepicheep casts away his sword it shows him to be a knight in the mould of the honourable knights who sought the grail, like Sir Galahad. He doesn’t want to fight for the fun of it – he counts this as a more important goal. The sword lands upright in the sea and doesn’t sink. It reminds me of Excalibur rising from the lake.

A lamb offers a breakfast of fish to the children, in an echo of Jesus’ actions in John, Chapter 21. Both lambs and fish are traditional symbols of Jesus. The lamb becomes Aslan, and tells the children he exists in our world, but is called something different. He calls himself the bridge builder; ‘Pontifex Maximus’ in Latin. Early Christians called Jesus the Pontifex, building a bridge between the physical and spiritual world. He tells them they must cross a river – maybe an echo of the Styx, which had to be crossed to reach the Ancient Greek afterlife.

Although I didn’t read the Christian symbolism in this section as a young child, by the time I was in double figures it was impossible for me not to spot it. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about this part of the book. It felt like Narnia was changing. I was unnerved by the lamb – why didn’t Aslan just show himself as Aslan? It felt strange. I also felt  sad on behalf of Lucy and Edmund (two of my very favourite characters) on being told they could not visit Narnia again. Fortunately the last sentence in the book ends on a lighter note, with Eustace’s parents being disappointed in the wonderful changes in their now pleasant son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Chapter thirteen. The Three Sleepers.

Synopsis: The Dawn Treader reaches an island. They find a table set with a feast, where three men are sleeping. They realise that the men are the last three Narnian lords. A woman appears and explains what happened to them.

A common theme throughout the Chronicles is the coexistence or combination of apparently contradictory emotions. Here, Lucy looks at the unfamiliar constellations above her with ‘a mixture of joy and fear’.

It is at this point in the journey where the story becomes increasingly dreamlike. The weather becomes warm and  unchanging. The sea becomes calm. The sky appears larger, the stars nearer. When they reach an island, it is described using words like ‘gentle’ and ‘attractive’. Wherever they go on the island, the soft sound of waves breaking on the shore is in the background.

Ramandu’s table combines some different aspects of the story of St Breandan’s voyage. This is discussed in David Downing’s ‘Into the Wardrobe’.

Once again we are told about delicious food – this time ornate and extravagant: ‘flagons of gold’, ‘pies shaped like ships under full sail’, ‘peacock’. Apparently, similar feasts were a feature of life at Cair Paravel during the Golden Age. Pauline Bayne’s illustration (shown in this post) is reminiscent of Victorian cookbooks, with their extravagant puddings.

How much would hair and beards grow if left unchecked for seven years? Would it make a tangle like the three lords’ does here? Or is the island’s magic responsible?

For perhaps the last time in this book, we are reminded of the disadvantage Eustace is at, ‘having never read of such things … made it worse for him’.

How is a ‘sea cloak’ different from a normal cloak?

Ramandu’s daughter is never given a name. We know her by her relationships with her father, husband and son only. Was this intentional or an oversight? In the films made of the Narnia stories, she was given the name ‘Lilliandil’, which to me is reminiscent of the Elvish names created by Tolkien. We don’t know who her mother is, but presumably she wasn’t a star like Ramandu, as she herself isn’t described as a star. What happened to her? Does Ramandu’s daughter mind living on a completely isolated island with only her father? Has she always lived there?

What happened to the sailors who accompanied the three lords to this island? We are told they existed, but where did they go?

Why is the stone knife which killed Aslan being ‘kept in honour’ on a tabletop near the world’s end? What is the reason for this choice of location? Who brought it here?

‘You can’t know. You can only believe – or not,’ is a popular quote from this chapter, particularly with Christian Lewis fans. It pops up online quite regularly.

The table is set with food every day. Yet the island is only visited rarely – we only know of two instances in the last seven years. It seems a strange arrangement, particularly as Aslan is able to know who will visit the island, and when.

How does Caspian know the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from our world? Who told him about it?

 

Narnia re-read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Chapter six. The adventures of Eustace.

Synopsis: Eustace watches a dragon die. He falls asleep on its hoard. He awakes to find he has become a dragon himself. He makes his way to the others.

This chapter stands out in my memory particularly clearly. I’m sure this will be the case for other readers too.

Are there wines in our world which are so strong they have to be watered down?

Here, Lewis restates on more than one occasion his belief that reading the ‘right sort’ of books is important in knowing how to deal with problems in reality. Eustace must have been raised in an entirely fiction-free world to be completely ignorant of the existence and appearance of dragons. (I suppose, with Harold and Alberta as parents, this is not impossible!) In Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes his childhood home as being filled with books, which he read voraciously. I imagine that he would have found the idea of someone never experiencing the thrill of a good story quite alien. He formed friendships throughout his life with others who shared his passion for myths, stories, fantasy and language. His work was based on reading and analysing the written word. C. S. Lewis without books is not C. S. Lewis. This is made plainer by the narrator in this story than in any other Narnian tale.

The dragon’s death is quite an unpleasant scene, and the valley in which it takes place echoes this mood, with its ‘grim peaks and horns’.

Reepicheep shows his unwavering courtly manners when Rhince makes a joke at Eustace’s expense. Despite having been insulted – and swung around – by the boy, Reepicheep upbraids Rhince.

There is something satisfying to the reader about knowing, before Eustace himself does, that he has become a dragon. I did assume, after reading this chapter as a child, that that was exactly what would happen to anyone who was foolish enough to sleep on a dragon’s hoard. His outward appearance had come to match his character. A dragon sleeping on its hoard is a central image in Tolkien’s the Hobbit, which Lewis had read – and enjoyed – some years before he began the Chronicles. There is also an Icelandic myth which tells of Fafnir falling asleep on a golden hoard and waking as a dragon. Fafnir has a magic ring, rather than a bracelet, and his story ends less happily than Eustace’s, but the similarity is there. Wagner features this tale in the Ring Cycle, where Seigfried is shown to kill Fafnir. (Lewis loved Wagner, with its ‘Northern-ness’, and references it in his writing.)

I like the fact that Eustace eats the other dragon. It isn’t a necessary detail, but it really stayed with me after reading for some reason.

When facing the dragon, Lewis says that, ‘Everyone felt fonder of everyone else than at ordinary times’. Maybe he had experienced a similar emotion during his wartime experiences.

Lucy mentions ‘Androcles and the Lion’. This folk tale is hundreds of years old, and is sometimes attributed to Aesop. A lion with a thorn in its paw is an image which Lewis also uses in The Silver Chair. There is also the association with Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Narnia re-read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Chapter four. What Caspian did there.

Caspian and Bern arrive in Narrowhaven. They meet Gumpas, and replace him with Bern. They save the others from the slavers.

Bern’s plan is a clever one. Human nature can be relied upon – if there is a commotion, with cheering, ringing bells and a parade of ‘handsome’ soldiers, with royalty among them, then people can be guaranteed to stop what they are doing and come to watch. Many will also join in, even if they aren’t fully aware of what is going on. (I was surprised to read that Drinian was handsome. For some reason, in my head, he was more of a grizzled old sea-dog than a Narnian dreamboat.)

Governor Gumpas reminds me of the film version of the Master of Laketown, from Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. Both are officious, corrupt, greedy men who lose their position upon the return of a rightful ruler. The word ‘gump’ is an old-fashioned term for a foolish or stupid person.

Here, as in other places in the Narniad, courtly, medieval sounding speech coexists with some sort of faux cockney slang speech. ‘Uncover before Narnia, you dog,’ is given the reply: ”Ere? Wot’s it all about?’ I’m not sure that I noticed this when young, but now I find it a little incongruous. I think I’d prefer it without the faux cockney touches. Maybe this is because in my head, Narnia is a consistently medieval place, with all that that entails in terms of social structure, language and culture. (I suppose it could be argued that King Frank and Queen Helen introduced such speech at the beginning of the world itself, but it still doesn’t fully work for me.)

Lewis doesn’t seem to worry about using words which younger readers may not understand, such as postern, bilious and ingratiating. I’ve been surprised at some words when I’ve encountered them on the re-read. I must have skimmed past them as a child, without worrying about understanding them.

Lewis portrays monarchy as the ideal system in the Narniad. Kings and Queens are the right, and rightful, rulers for a country. Narnia is not a democracy. People govern because of their title, not their ability. The removal of Governor Gumpas and his replacement with a Duke, appointed by a King, is portrayed as the best possible solution to the problems in the Lone Islands. The Chronicles often show people ‘knowing their place’ or filling particular roles. I intend to devote a full post to this subject once the re-read is complete.

Bern and Drinian overturn Gumpas’ table, perhaps in an echo of the Bible story of the moneylenders’ tables being overturned in the Temple. The corruption of the Lone Islands is to be cleansed, as the Temple was.

Caspian speaks here words which perfectly reflect the author’s view of the world. When asked, ‘Have you no idea of progress, of development?’ he replies, “I have seen them both in an egg… We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia.’ In other works such Lewis warns against progress for progress’ sake, and rails against the idea that old things and ideas automatically have less worth than their modern equivalents.

We are given our first view of Calormen and its inhabitants in this book. We learn that the currency is Crescents (with forty Minims to a Crescent). The portrayal of the Calormenes themselves is probably the most contentious and problematic aspect of the Chronicles. It warrants a dedicated post so I will attempt to do that once the re-read is finished, rather than discussing it here.

The tales told by sailors of ‘islands inhabited by headless men, floating islands, waterspouts, and a fire that burned along the water,’ are reminiscent of medieval cartography, and the travel tales of people such as Joh Mandeville. Travellers told of islands inhabited by dog-headed people, people with no heads but faces on their torsos and other strange creatures. Islands with unique inhabitants remained popular in all kinds of stories, with modern tales such as The Island of Dr Moreau continuing the tradition.

Bern forsees war with Calormen over the closing of the slave market, but we never learn if this actually happens or not.

Narnia re-read. Prince Caspian Chapter fourteen. How all were very busy.

Peter meets Miraz in single combat. The Telmarines attack the Old Narnians and Miraz is killed. The trees join the battle and drive the Telmarines back. Aslan, with Bacchus, Silenus and others, moves through Narnia, meeting various people on the way.

I’d love to know what Peter and Miraz said to each other just before the fight.

Single combat between military leaderd appears in Greek literature – for example in the Iliad – in medieval literature such as the Chanson De Roland, and in Welsh and Irish mythology. The choices Lewis makes in his plots and storytelling are the culmination of all his reading, his study and his wide-ranging interest in tales, myths and legends, with familiar motifs presented in a Narnian context.

Instead of simply describing the fight, Lewis tells us what is happening via the other characters’ commentary. It is reminiscent of sports commentary, for example on a modern  boxing match. We are given the account of the fight, but with added explanations of the two soldiers’ motives and actions.

Peter asks Edmund to give his love to those he fears he might never see again. Nobody (in this book at any rate – it is mentioned later in the Chronicles) questions what would happen if someone were to die while in Narnia.

The fight is described as ‘most horrible and most magnificent’. We are shown something once again by Lewis which can be two things, often contrasting, at once. Aslan is scary but wonderful. Faces are stern and glad. Characters are afraid and excited. Places are lonely but lovely. Music is sweet but sad. Sehnsucht and ‘bittersweetness’ is never far away in the Narnian world. (I am also reminded of the ‘beautiful and terrible’ Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings.)

Peter shows mercy and chivalry even in mortal combat, and, as Edmund states, it is how Aslan would expect the High King to act.

Glozelle’s murder of Miraz proves counter-productive, delaying his attack and sparing Peter. Peter then (as we are matter-of-factly told) cuts off Sopespian’s legs and head.

Just as in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, we are shown that once the trees join a battle, the enemy is terrified and then defeated. In this, and in the destruction of the bridge, nature has its revenge upon the Telmarines.

The ivy grows magically and destroys the bridge. (A similar piece of magic can be found in Pratchett’s ‘Wyrd Sisters’ when Magrat Garlick casts a powerful spell upon a wooden door.) Nature defeats that which is man-made. The bridge is destroyed and the Bridge of Beruna is replaced by the Ford of Beruna. (According to Hinten’s ‘The Keys to the Chronicles’, ‘berun’ is an old-fashioned word which means to flow around, which would make perfect sense here.)

Apprarently, the next section of the chapter parallels Bible scenes telling about Jesus’ actions following his temptation. Aslan rights wrongs. He helps those who need it and punishes those who deserve it. Of all the different scenes of the Narnia stories, this was my least favourite. Narnia was my fantasy retreat, the country where, once I got there, everything would be brilliant. I didn’t want my wonderful, animal-peopled medieval country to have things like schools in it, or order-marks, or inspectors. I was pleased to see the animals freed from miserable lives, but confused as to why more people fled Aslan than followed him. (My lack of awareness of the religious element of the books explains this point.) The merciful Aslan, who had forgiven Edmund for terrible treachery, merrily turns humans into pigs and trees for much lesser crimes. This whole passage just felt wrong to me, and I find that it still does as an adult. Generally, not knowing Bible stories particularly well never hindered my enjoyment or understanding of the story being told. For me, this section may be the exception to that rule.