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The Last Battle: beginnings and endings

Treasure from N’s trip through the floor tile to Narnia

N has adopted some Narnian expressions. “By the Lion’s mane! What shall we have for breakfast?” Or, “By the Lion’s mane! What shall we read when Narnia is done?”

We’ve got a few pages left in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book in the series, and she has already suggested that we read them all over again when we’re done. She said the same thing when we finished the Harry Potter books, and we managed to steer her in a different direction, so hopefully that will happen this time too.

I’m so curious to see what our reading tonight will bring. With their beloved Aslan the Lion, the characters from all seven books have returned, and are prancing through a transformed Narnia — a Narnia even more beautiful than the earlier Narnia — and N hasn’t yet realized it’s because all the characters have died in the real world and now will live forever in Narnia-heaven. It is the end of all the stories, CS Lewis tells us, but for Lucy and Edmund and Peter and Eustace and Jill, it is “only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

What will N make of this ending/beginning?  I suspect she won’t be pleased that Lucy et al are dead, nice as Lewis makes it sound. And she will be full of questions — direct, eye-locking ones about what happens when you die and how does one know it is an ever-greatening Great Story that goes on forever if no one on earth has ever read it?

By the way, what did you read today?

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Secret entrance to Narnia …

We’re on the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, and N wants to read at night before bed but also in the morning, at breakfast.

She was nearly inconsolable at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when she learned that Lucy and Edmund, like Peter and Susan before them, would not be returning to Narnia.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

Lucy sobbed.

So did N.

She was determined not to enjoy the next book if Lucy was not in it — poor Edmund, being a boy, was dispensable. But page by page, she adjusted, and she fell in love with Eustace and Jill, the new main characters, just as CS Lewis predicted she would. He knows how to tug a child this way and that just enough to keep them engaged.

The Narnia books have been less wonderful than I expected. So far I’m not bothered by the Christian undertones, as many critics of Narnia are, and N draws no parallels at all, since she hasn’t been raised in a religious environment. When Aslan tells Lucy she must come to know him by another name in her own world, N rolls her eyes at his carelessness — “Oh Aslan! He forgot to tell her what that name is!”

I don’t offer my own ideas here; I just keep reading and answer questions when she asks them. And though I’m enjoying the stories, I do find the series uneven. A friend who was reading the books with her sons recently described it well — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a great book, she said; the rest are just okay adventure stories, some better than others. But with the exception of The Horse and His Boy, N has been enthralled right the way through.

If animals talk in Narnia, they must read as well.

I love the books because she loves them. When she’s having a difficult day, she tells me she thinks about either our upcoming Thailand trip, or else Narnia.

And I can picture her there, walking between a unicorn and a faun, with a particularly chatty mouse perched on her shoulder.

A few days ago, after she’d left for school, I went into her room to put some laundry away, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. A loose tile on her floor had this message neatly filling the square:

This is the place
to get into
NARNIA!

When we asked her about the floor that night, she looked a little sheepish, realizing one probably shouldn’t write on one’s floor, no matter how badly it needs replacing. Is it a secret door, we asked? Does it really lead to Narnia? Is that why you’re sometimes tired in the morning, because you’ve spent the night as a Narnian queen?

A smirk and a giggle.

“Yes,” said she, and showed us a treasure she’d found there just the night before. It was a gold button with a royalish-looking emblem on it.

“Sometimes I take the dogs with me too.”

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Flying to Narnia

Something wonderful happened last week, aside from the fact that we started Prince Caspian, book 4 in our read of The Narnia Chronicles: N learned to ride a two-wheeler.

This is something we’ve been trying to teach her for years, but even a bike with training wheels proved to be an enormous challenge for her. Each summer we’d haul it out, plunk her on it, and she’d go rigid with fear. “Don’t let go!” she’d plead. “Whatever you do, don’t let go!” And this was with the training wheels. Every excursion ended the same way — N dissolving into whines, or maybe tears, the grown-ups growing increasingly frustrated, and finally all of us losing our temper and stomping home. Walking the bike, of course. The only fun times we could manage were with “the doubler,” which was fun indeed, but independence seemed a long way off.

And then.

At the bus stop a while back, AW, a friend of N’s asked if she’d like to go bike riding that Saturday morning. My ears perked for N’s answer. “Sure!” she said with enthusiasm. And when AW skipped away, N scooted over to me and whispered “I’ve got to learn to ride by Saturday, Mom!”

So out came the bike. Every day after school she practiced and whined and told us she couldn’t do it. She would never be able to do it. Everyone else could do it except her. I asked her how she learned to do cartwheels, to skate, to play piano, to speak French, to read? But she sat on her bike, looking dejected, as three boys tore by on their bicycles, practically soaring. They looped around the block and came whizzing past again and again as N inched forward with a crumpled expression, just like the one I wore at her age, when I rode leaning into the one training wheel I would not let my dad remove. Clinging to it like a drowning person clings to a lifebuoy.

But every day she got better. Every day she whined less.

By Friday, though, she had still not mastered it, and she was sick with the thought of her Saturday morning bike ride. But when we woke up, there was thunder and lightning, and it was teeming rain. N, of course, was delighted. The bike ride was moved to Sunday, and Saturday evening, when the rain ceased, we squeezed in a bit more practice — she was definitely improving, moving herself forward with her feet and ever so tentatively lifting them to the pedals for a second or so at a time. When she made her first complete revolution, she turned to me, beaming, and said, “Mom — I felt like I was flying!”

But she was still not really riding by Sunday morning. So (sorry to say) she was doubly delighted that poor AW had fallen ill overnight, and the excursion was cancelled.

That day, she did it. She put her feet on those pedals and wobbled forward, and we stood in the street behind her, hooting and hollering and clapping our hands. What a sight, to see her zooming away from us with not-exactly-confidence but courage and determination. I told her she reminded me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  When the wizard admits to being a good man but a bad wizard, Dorothy and friends are dismayed, realizing he can’t give them what they came for.

“How about my courage?” asked the Lion anxiously.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

So it is with my bell-ringing N. The more riding she does, the less she wobbles. On the weekend, we all got on our bikes, and went on a lovely ride — a family bike ride! — up the West Toronto Railpath, all of us smiling. At least I think N was smiling — she was so far out in front I couldn’t tell. I watched her cycling along with her head a little bit tilted, and I realized she must be humming, because a tilt always goes with her hum, and I thought my heart might burst with happiness. I glanced at my compass-bell and saw we were going north-ish, and I thought of Bree and Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. They couldn’t wait to get to Narnia, where all creatures were equals. So I shouted their rallying cry: “To Narnia, and the north!”

And we all cycled on, separately, but together.

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Chronicling Narnia

Tineida by Ernst Haeckel, 1900

School begins again. N claimed there were monarchs and luna moths in her belly this morning — big ones. She’s going into Grade 4 French immersion, so this will be her first year with some English instruction in the curriculum. I’m curious to see how she does with it. As much as I appreciate the opportunity for her to learn another language as part of her schooling, I’ve missed our own language being part of the mix.

I remember being a kid, and recognizing the crazy spelling patterns of English, and the exceptions too. I loved grammar — I remember thinking I get this, and not knowing why I got it — understanding that I had a feeling for the language from a very early age. And because I was not a child who excelled at a lot of things, it felt wonderful to understand at least this in a deep and natural way. When to use I or me. Color vs colour and zed vs zee. The sing-song rhymes that help you remember odd rules: i before e, except after c.

Reading with N as much as we have over the years has given her a good grounding in the language. She already has a rich vocabulary, and she’s curious about meanings. The other day she heard something on the radio about a “chronic illness,” and she said “Mom, mom, chronic! Get it? Chronic-les of Narnia!” So we talked about the connection between chronic and chronicle as things that go on and on.

We’re reading The Horse and His Boy right now, the third in the series of seven if you follow the story chronologically rather than in the order the books were published. We chose to read that way just because that’s how the series we bought was packaged, but it’s quite a debatable topic for fans of Narnia. According to wiki:

When Harper Collins took over the series rights in 1994, this numbering was revised to use internal chronological order at the suggestion of Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham. To make the case for his suggested order, Gresham quoted [C.S.] Lewis’ 1957 reply to a letter from an American fan who was having an argument with his mother about the order:

I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

Scholars far and wide seem to disagree with this view, and suspect Lewis was just being gracious to his fan when he replied this way. “The only reason for reading The Magician’s Nephew first,” writes Peter J. Schakel, “is for the chronological sequence of events, and that, as every storyteller knows, is quite unimportant as a reason. Often the early events in a sequence have a greater impact or effect as a flashback, told after later events which provide background and establish perspective. So it is, I believe, with the Chronicles. The artistry, the archetypes, and the handling of Christian themes all make it preferable to read the books in the order of their publication.”

Well — too late for us. But we are enjoying the series nonetheless. We liked The Magician’s Nephew, and we loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, though I must admit there are long passages in The Horse and His Boy that are difficult to get through.

For those who don’t know the story, a poor young boy named Shasta escapes from his cruel father-who-isn’t-really-his father with a talking horse named Bree, who longs to return to his native land of Narnia, where animals and people are equals. Along the way, they encounter a rich girl named Aravis, on her talking horse, Hwin. Aravis is running away because her father wants her to marry a wealthy and powerful old man with a hump back, who talks like this:

“How blessed is Calormen … on whose ruler the gods have been pleased to bestow prudence and circumspection! Yet as the irrefutable and sapient Tisroc has said it is very grievous to be constrained to keep our hands off of Narnia.”

When these passages come up (and sometimes they go on for a whole chapter), I steal glances at N to make sure I’m not losing her. I try to read as clearly as possible to  make sure she understands. And for the most part I’m pretty impressed. She gets what’s happening. But I can see she’s less engaged than she was during The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

N’s response to Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was extreme. As we read the chapter that saw Aslan sacrificed by the witch on the stone table, I could feel N tensing beside me. When they shaved his mane, hit him, spit on him and called him names, she gripped my arm a little tighter. When they bound and muzzled him, even though he wasn’t resisting, she looked up at me to see if I was getting what she calls “touchy.” And  when the witch finally killed him and told him to “despair and die,” we closed the book and laid together a while.

“So he’s dead?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She paused. “I’m going to brush my teeth,” she said, and she scooted from the room and closed the bathroom door behind her. A few minutes later she came rushing back and wrapped her arms around me. She was sobbing and sobbing, inconsolable.

The only fix was staying up late and reading the next chapter, to see him rise again.

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The chronicles of summer — melodrama, tree frogs, giants, and all

Summer is flying by. We’ve devoured The Magician’s Nephew and are well into The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. We brought both on a little road trip, taking in Brockville, Otter Lake, my hometown of Deep River, and Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. It was a wonderful trip, N with the dogs in back. We had to remember to use the master lock each time, because our puppy Polly never fails to stand on the button that makes the window go whirring down.

We took lots of side roads, searching for bears and moose and deer — N is crazy for animals — and while we never spotted such high-ticket items, we saw blue herons, loons, wild turkeys, turkey vultures, partridge, swooping bats, bunnies, and a lone treefrog that lives in my sister’s back yard. It was great to get out of the city and be surrounded by green — like the Wood Between the Worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia.

When we were getting close to the end of The Magician’s Nephew, N started flipping through The Lion, reading the back cover, the first page and so on, in anticipation. Much to my surprise, she was soon in tears, distraught over the realization that Polly and Digory seemed to be absent from the second book. “What kind of series is that?” she asked, choking and spluttering.

The despair went on and on, as it tends to on summer days with loosey-goosey bedtimes. It eventually passed, but was a surprisingly melodramatic response — so perhaps it’s fitting that she’s been at a musical theatre camp at her school this week and last. I’ve been at my computer again, trying to make things compute. But the work comes in fits and starts, and I find the most enjoyable part of my day is the long walk to take her to school and the long walk home.

N’s school is one of the lovely old ones, built a century or so ago on top of a hill that looks south on the city. There are lots of big leafy trees, so it’s shady and breezy even on the hottest days. Inside it’s a pretty magical place too. Recently my husband shot some footage there, and used it to make this book trailer for my novel, The Girl Giant. I hope you’ll watch and enjoy. Thank you Husband, and thanks also to Spencer Barclay and Alex Kingsmill for all their help in putting this together.

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August 15, 2012 · 12:04 pm