Maureen re-visits one of her favourite gothic horror films in time for Halloween …
This July to August I did an epic re-read of The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s been years since I’ve read the series, though they were a mainstay of my childhood (to the point I even owned an activity and recipe book inspired by Narnia and spent my school holidays working through them). I’m now more aware of the accusations of Lewis’ sexism, racism and sledgehammering Christianity over children’s heads and wondered how I’d fare. From this white straight woman’s perspective (which is not the be all and end all by any stretch), it was in some ways better and in some ways worse than I remembered. I think I agree with Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, who wrote;
Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.
I’ve split my thoughts into categories for ease of blogging.
The oddly modern nature and humour of Lewis writing
Look, it’s not all the time, and there’s a lot of points in these novels where I wanted to fling my book across the room, but I had genuinely forgotten how readable Narnia is given its age. Aside from the occasional reference to things like the war or antiquated language around clothing or exclamations of feeling, the books read easily. There are also many moments which are laugh out loud funny (many of which I missed the humour in when I was younger). For example:
On our protagonists being stuck underground with no way out to safety: And you must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses. The Silver Chair
(Pretty much everything Puddleglum says is A plus gold).
On Jill and Eustace’s school getting a makeover: When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled. After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after. The Silver Chair
On the folly of mice vs dragon:
Caspian: “A dragon has just flown over the tree-tops and lighted on the beach. Yes, I am afraid it is between us and the ship. And arrows are no use against dragons. And they’re not at all afraid of fire.”
Reepicheep: “With your Majesty’s leave-” began Reepicheep.
Caspian: “No, Reepicheep,” said the King very firmly, “you are not to attempt a single combat with it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
On girls vs boys:
Edmund: “Girls aren’t very good at keeping maps in their brains”, said Edmund.
Lucy: “That’s because we’ve got something in them”, replied Lucy. Prince Caspian
On education in Calormen (putting aside the slightly uncomfortable Orientalism): For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays. The Horse and his Boy
These are just examples and there are many more besides.
Hodge podge mythology and talking animals
When I was a kid this was a good deal of Narnia’s charm and damn the world-building and I have to admit I’m still the same today. Who could forget the time Susan and Lucy attended a bacchanalia (minus the sex), all those dryads and naiads, centaurs (and the quote about breakfasting with one being a serious business), Father Christmas showing up randomly in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, dwarfs, witches, giants and all manner of talking animals. This post on Tor.com explores this more thoroughly than I ever could. But I still love the riot of clashing cultures, myths and allegories today. Plus the food porn!
Pauline Bayne’s wonderful illustrations
When I was a kid, these illustrations were the bomb and now on a re-read, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic at the wonderful images throughout the Chronicles, with many of them so memorable, I recognized them instantly or in some cases even knew when they were coming. I used to try and copy the illustrations and paint them, and spent one school holiday drawing and painting Pauline’s White Witch. They are definitely lovely and add to the charm and imagination of the series for me.
Issues with plot structure and well-drawn characters
Even as a kid, I recognized Narnia was no Pulitzer prize winner on this front. It used to bother me (without me being able to articulate why) how Aslan always swooped in and solved all the plot problems with a deux ex machina (and I get it fitted with Lewis’ Christian worldview but it does not a good story make). This time around, I really noticed how this device undermined the grand finales of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Horse and his Boy and Prince Caspian by taking any conflict out of the protagonist’s journeys. In addition, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle seriously suffer in my opinion from too much allegory at the expense of good story-telling. Both of these books have some seriously cool moments that get overshadowed by evangelizing.
Interestingly as an adult, I found the Pevensie children seriously annoying. Where once Lucy was my ideal role model, this time it was Eustace and Jill who really shone, and I suspect that’s because they have proper character flaws that impact on the story as well as more of a character arc alongside Puddleglum (incidentally, The Silver Chair is by far my favourite Narnia book as an adult). The Pevensies (aside from Edmund that time he sold out his family for Turkish Delight) are that bit too good and proper and squeaky clean for my liking.
So much has been written about this topic, I probably can’t say much that hasn’t already been said, but there’s no two ways about it; Lewis has a particular way of presenting women. They are all virginal and innocent children, scary house matrons, talking animal 1950s house wives, absent, or evil. Jadis and The Lady of the Green Kirtle as the devil stand-ins is more than a little problematic for obvious reasons, but then there is also The Problem of Susan (this link takes you to Neil Gaiman’s most excellent short story on this issue) to contend with. Susan does not follow her siblings and parents into Narnia because she has come to love the superficial and forget Narnia. This is the full conversation about Susan in The Last Battle often discussed:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Though I don’t *think* I am a Narnia apologist, I tend to disagree with J K Rowling and Phillip Pullman who see this as Lewis being squicked out by women becoming sexual creatures and agree with those who see this more as Susan has become too superficial and placed her belief and love in the material which precludes her from Narnia. Lewis himself intended to write a sequel where Susan made it back to Narnia. He wrote in a letter dated January 22 1957:
The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way.
Having said that, the lipstick and nylon bit is super uncomfortable in terms of having a particular sexist connotation and I do think others make valid points about Lewis being pretty mean spirited about Susan. For example, I think this Reddit commentator makes a pretty valid point:
In LWW they grow up. Into adults with adult worries (running a kingdom), adult desires, adult bodies, adult logic. They live full lives. Have friends, maybe lovers. Then suddenly they’re kids again. That’s got to be confusing at best, traumatizing at worst. They live two years in the real world. Get back to normal life, then bam, back to Narnia. They help Caspian, discover that thousands of years have passed, and all they knew and loved is dead. They start to hope they get to stick around, make a new life in Narnia, and then they get sent home and Peter and Susan are told they can never go back. How could you not try to forget? To pretend it was all a game, to focus on the real world, and lipstick and maybe boys and relationships and normal human things. Remembering would be painful.
This particular issue is why I think Gaiman’s story is particularly powerful and why excellent fan fiction pieces abound on the internet about poor Susan. This one from Tumblr is particularly great.
I am not a person of colour, but there’s no two ways around this, Narnia can get pretty racist, particularly with the Calormenes in The Horse and his Boy, with Lewis coming across as Orientalist in a lot of his world-building and descriptions (lest I forget the part about the city smelling of refuse, onions and garlic). All of the Narnians are described as ‘fair’ and ‘beautiful’ compared to their dark skinned treacherous allies and Aravis’ arranged marriage situation isn’t super nuanced. Plus, you could also argue that Shasta is the white saviour who gets Aravis safely out of this terrible situation (though Aravis does do quite a lot in the novel, which was written later when Lewis’ views about women were beginning to change). In The Last Battle, a Calormen does make it to Heaven, but no one else gets a speaking role and it is still clear that his way of speaking is ‘other.’
Then there’s also the uncomfortable colour coding of good and bad characters. The black haired dwarfs are coded as bad (or at least seriously flawed) in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle with Susan (who had dark hair) banned from Narnia and Lucy seen as the perfect child (with her blonde hair and blue eyes). Pauline’s illustrations also depict Jadis/The White Witch as having black hair (though this is never specified in the books themselves). Whether intentional or not, as a kid I definitely picked up on dark hair/darker skinned people as being flawed and/or the other while the fair skinned, blonde types were bound to be good. There is some pretty interesting defence of the books on the sexism and racism score that you can read here and an account of a Muslim man reading Narnia here.
That weird ending in The Last Battle
It’s quite strange. I oscillate on how I feel about the ending of The Last Battle. Some years I like it and other years I hate it as many others have done before me. These days I tend towards the latter. Mainly because as a kid, it was pretty damn traumatizing to read about a whole world being brutally destroyed after a bunch of misery and death and finding out everyone was dead for real and in heaven.
How you stomach that ending I suspect depends on your worldview. Personally, I find Pullman’s ending in His Dark Materials about the republic of heaven far more inspiring than that given to us in the Chronicles. It just seems pretty damn mean to end a seven book series with, Hooray kids, all of Narnia is brutally destroyed and you are DEAD but don’t worry, forget about your sister and friends and head on over to heaven. These days, I’d probably tell those who aren’t ardent fans to stop at The Silver Chair.
In conclusion …
Are these books worth a read? Definitely. Should that read be taken with a grain of salt? Absolutely. And if your kids are reading, prepare for some awkward conversations about Calormenes, the problem of Susan and when Christian allegory can interfere with good story-telling. But will I be watching the Netflix adaptations? You can bet the entire contents of my wallet.
Argh apologies all for the delay in getting this one up. Ben did his bit but I had some sad news about a friend and didn’t touch anything writing or blogging related for a full fortnight. Also, let’s be honest. We all know this Dalek two-parter sucks balls …
The Pre-Title Sequence
Ben: The pre-title sequence in Daleks was, well, kinda weird. It featured show girls, a sad clown and some very strong Noo York accents. Our loved-up couple Tallulah and Laszlo seem to have the best ahead of them, the world is their oyster! And then Laszlo goes and gets himself got by a weird pig man. Yeah … I wouldn’t say it’s one of the better openings to an episode.
Maureen: Yep. Pretty much my thoughts. Egad! It’s Miranda Raison! Egad! Her bad accent! Egad! Le corny romance! Admittedly, the theater corridor and the creepy wax hand was good, but the pig thing ruined any credibility the story had earnt up to that point.
Ben: Poor Martha really doesn’t do much on her own in these episodes, unfortunately. And the stuff she does do … Well … On the bright side, she does have one rather sweet conversation with Tallulah where they talk about boys and Tallulah decides the reason he and Martha aren’t together is because he’s “into musical theatre”. Which, same. The next scene Martha’s in is just weird and unnecessary – while Tallulah is performing a cute little showtune number (Inkashlings interjection: I actually love this song on the soundtrack) she spots Laszlo in the other wing, and instead of going around backstage to find him she has to go across the stage and mess up the performance? Like, why? There are so many easier ways to get her kidnapped by a pig man. Hell, the only reason it happened was so she could be a damsel in distress, forcing the Doctor back into the sewers to rescue here so the story could move forward. Talk about lazy writing.
Maureen: Yeah, this two-parter felt a lot like a kitchen sink had been thrown at it. I’m not too sure the Tallulah sub-plot was at all necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Miranda Raison on Spooks, but she hung in the background for most of the first part of the two-parter for the story to catch up to her. The whole thing felt oddly paced and like a lot of the plot twists were sign-posted a mile off. I did enjoy Martha knowing her history, however. She really is one smart cookie companion which I find refreshing! Also, she got a traditional companion scream!
Ben: With The Doctor taken captive by the Daleks, Martha is left to figure out what to do. And like, The Doctor gives her his psychic paper but doesn’t tell her what to do with it? It’s been established in The Shakespeare Code that Martha is susceptible to the paper, so surely you’d use it to leave her a message? And then we get yet another “so tell us how you met The Doctor” Tallulah talk with Martha. It’s getting a bit annoying hearing the same “I don’t really know him etc etc” conversation episode after episode. What I would consider to be Martha’s one big contribution to the episode would be electrocuting a lift full of pig men, but even that made not one lick of sense.
Maureen: I hate the stupid Martha un-requited love bullshit. She is so much better than Ten. Just saying. Also, yeah, it was super weird that The Doctor was so unhelpful because … plot reasons …
Ten: I’m sorry Martha, but you’ve got to fight.
Frankly, Doctor, how un-illuminating!
Also, I felt like every time the episodes had an interesting idea, they’d run away from the idea five seconds later. Take, for example, the below exchange:
Martha: They were people and I killed them.
Laslo: No! The Daleks killed them long ago.
Well, Laslo, way to kill off an interesting concept.
Martha: And I’m telling you I’m not going.
Ten: That’s an order.
Martha: What are you? Some kind of Dalek?
And then it’s not discussed further. Fine then.
Ben: Frank (played unexpectedly by Andrew Garfield) was a real sweetie and does a much better job of world-building than Solomon in my opinion. He doesn’t do much this episode (not that anyone does, really) but this must’ve been one of Andrews first acting credits, therefore it’s worth a mention.
Maureen: I got Frank mixed up with Laszlo. There are way too many superfluous characters in this episode. I liked Frank, but yeah, he was just there. Also, I found it odd that everyone was sad about leaving Frank behind but immediately forgot about him when they joined Tallulah. Like, OK then.
Ben: Solomon was I guess created to be the two parter’s moral compass and boy did he have a lot to say. Not that they weren’t valid points, but it all came across as incredibly preachy. Also, not that I’m an expert in 1930s America, but is a black man leading Hooverville realistic? But then he isn’t really developed beyond that, and then he dies. Even his death felt pointless. Hell, the whole attack on Hoovertown felt like padding.
Maureen: So much padding! I found Solomon so over the top I couldn’t take his morals seriously. I’ve googled Hooverville and apparently one did exist, but I can’t find a reference to a black leader either. I’m assuming the name of Solomon is a biblical reference. As I said earlier, kitchen sink. Also, I did not give a damn about the humans vs. daleks conflict in the episode.
Ben: Tallulah and Laszlo were just so unnecessary too, although her assertion that some men are pigs but not her Laszlo was kinda funny considering how it was supposed to be all ominous and foreboding. It’s a shame because she was a really sweet character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her. And then in Evolution of the Daleks we had Laszlo insisting that he was fine when we just had Dalek Sec explaining that the pig men only last a few weeks before dying. Like, I get wanting to be stoic and see the mission through or whatever, but just stop brushing off everyone’s concerns. And then of course The Doctor had to go and save the day and stabilise his biology or whatever. Like they’re gonna be 1930’s America’s version of Beauty and the Beast or something and have a happy ending living in Hoovertown. You just know that people are gonna get hungry and he’s gonna end up as bacon.
Maureen: A bad taste joke, Ben, but no doubt true!
Ben: The Doctor quoting the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty was a bit depressing, considering our current political climates. The huddled masses are forced to go elsewhere these days. Beyond that, in Daleks in Manhattan he doesn’t really do anything worth writing about. He does a bunch of generic Doctoring and investigating, but for most of this episode it seems like we’re just treading water until the interesting part of the story comes around. That happens around the start of the next episode, Evolution of the Daleks.
Maureen: Yeah, I feel like this should have been a one shot story. So much felt like random padding and the audience being five steps ahead of The Doctor and Martha because the story contrived it so.
Ben: We open the second episode with a great confrontation between the Doctor and Dalek Human Sec, perhaps the highlight of this two-parter. They have further conversations once the Doctor is kidnapped, all of which I feel could have been used as the seed from which to build a more interesting episode where humanity and Daleks and their similarities and differences are explored.
Maureen: Again, I can’t help but agree. Moffat did take up these seeds in some of Twelve’s better Dalek stories and it made for a more thoughtful time. As I said earlier, every time something interesting happened, the episode shied away to the next thing. I really enjoyed the part where the Dalek was talking to megalomaniac foreman saying something about how humanity was fascinating because we hide from the dark yet build great cities and have out-lived the Daleks. I wanted more of that dialogue!
Ben: But then in the end his dramatic solution to stop the new human daleks from being created in the gamma ray strike didn’t make a whole lot of sense. How did Time Lord DNA get spliced in from the lightning/gamma strike? And how was the Time Lord part of them so strong that it overwhelmed the Dalek part? And to make matters worse, the Dalek controlling them could have destructed them at any time, so the two Daleks died needlessly. Hell, they didn’t even need to attack them! The hybrids could have been killed remotely, and then the Doctor and his companions would have been defenceless. And then in the most BS of endings, he saved Lazlo from death – and condemned him to life as a pig/human hybrid. It was a nonsensical end to a nonsensical two-parter.
Maureen: I have to be honest. I have no idea what happened at the end. It was a lot of shouting and explosions and hand waving to me. My notebook comment was, ‘how does any of this denouement make an iota of sense?’ Also, why is Ten cool with helping a Dalek-human hybrid, but not Harriet Jones #stillbitter.
The Alien of the Week
Ben: Well, they sure didn’t waste any time introducing the Daleks as the baddies of the week, but what interest do they have in the Empire State Building? And why the pig men? Mr Diagoras has shown that the threat of unemployment is enough to keep the builders risking life and limb. They do make for a rather scary enemy to be chased by through sewers.
Maureen: I think the pig people were failed Dalek hybrids or some shit. I don’t know. I stopped paying attention to the logistics of the plot pretty soon in.
Ben: Anywho, after a bit of back and forth between the Daleks about how the humans are weak but also strong and how Daleks have to change to survive but also have to remain pure, Dalek Sec finally unveils it’s plan to further the Dalek race! Merging with Mr Diagoras and creating a new type of Dalek. It looks like it would have been very painful for Mr Diagoras, that’s for sure. Well, at the end of the first episode we get introduced to the new human-Dalek hybrid in a very dramatic matter, but honestly, I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the truly horrific design they came up with for the Dalek Human.
Maureen: That design was so distracting. Also, his voice got on my tits.
Ben: Admittedly, things did get a little interesting in the second half of the two-parter when Dalek Sec decides to spare the Doctor, because having him on their side is better than having him dead. Again, something that could have been more interesting to explore in another setting. Unfortunately, the other Daleks decide Dalec Sec is an enemy of “true” Daleks, so things quickly became less interesting. Even when the new human Dalek army awakes, it ends with more of a fizzle than a bang. There’s just so much potential in these episodes. It’s maddening to see it squandered like this.
Maureen: I know right? It’s like there’s about five good ideas here buried in total dreck.
Ben: Yeah, this new hybrid storyline could have been so much more interesting in the right setting, especially with the old Daleks questioning the new hybrid. Instead the episode ends with one dead Human Dalek (and honestly, considering how annoying I found his cadence when talking, I was glad when it happened), a bunch of dead Human-Dalek-Time Lord hybrids, and one regular Dalek making an emergency temporal shift.
Maureen: Basically, everything sucked. Also, the human Dalek learning empathy was so bloody predictable. Oh, like 90% of this episode actually.
Ben: Bad. Just so bad. There was no reason for this to be a two-parter – the number of scenes that existed purely to pad out the episode’s lengths can attest to that.
Maureen: OMG YES. The stupid scene where Tallulah looks at the New York sky from atop the Empire State Building and says stuff that’s meant to be insightful and touching but just sounds dumb for example.
Ben: Furthermore, why even are the pig men necessary? They have enough humans working on the Empire State Building, and the foreman, Mr Diagoras has shown he can keep them under thumb working 24/7. Surely you could have just taken over a few gangs and put them to work? The number of extras in these two episodes, and they couldn’t find a couple extra dumb looking white guys with bad NY accents? The large cast of extras and ensemble characters this episode seemed to really dilute down the opportunity for individual characters to move the story forward in substantial ways, or play anything other than a stereotype. I really do think if they’d cut this down to one episode and eliminated a bunch of characters and then completely overhauled the story there could potentially be a good episode in here somewhere.
Maureen: Yeah, I started losing track of characters relevance to the story which is a bad thing. No one had time for any flesh to their bone.
Ben: Also, the elevator had some awfully erratic trip times; in the first episode it brought one of the daleks up in 10 seconds flat, but the elevator trip carrying the pig men up took 6 minutes! And the final egregious act was the Doctor somehow magicking up a potion to save Laszlo in 30 seconds flat, showboating the whole time. I’m giving this stinker of a two-parter a 1/10.
Maureen: I think I’m with Ben on this. Some potential, but too many characters, a refusal to explore interesting ideas, a weird propensity for filler, bad acting and stupid hand-waves make this a tough two-parter to stomach. Still, it’s less shit than the Season Two cybermen two-parter so there’s that I guess. 1/10 inky stars