Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The unavoidable conversation: Christian themes in Narnia

I spent all day Friday in a waiting room, and during that time I finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At one point a man and a woman were sitting next to me in the waiting room. The man was reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, the woman was reading a sci fi novel that I am not familiar with, and cannot remember the title of. We talked a few times, and the woman told me a little about the book she was reading. I showed her that I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and confessed that I never read the entire series as a child.

"I never did either," she said, "and now that I know about all the religious themes in it, I don't really want to read them." She didn't say this in a mean sort of way, and I actually appreciated her frankness on the subject. I don't often find people in Alabama who can openly say that religion turns them off with out sounding confrontational, but she pulled it off admirably. I let her know that the religious themes are poorly disguised to an adult, but that I also didn't catch them when I was a kid watching the animated film or reading Wardrobe.

Which figures, and is sort of the way it is. I was a teenager when my peers began to tell me that The Chronicles of Narnia were all about Jesus. The teen years seem to be the age at which we are obsessed with disguised meanings. This is the same age at which I learned that the Alice in Wonderland stories are about drug use, and The Wizard of Oz is about politics and economics in the late 19th century. I received these interpretations with interest, or amusement, or disapproval. I decided that all books must be about something deeper than the story they seemed to be telling, and that this was the mark of a good book.

Now that I am no longer a teenager, these deeper meanings don't matter that much. They are interesting bits of trivia that I've picked up along the way, but they are otherwise meaningless. I have a greater interest in whether the stories are good and entertaining. I didn't hesitate to buy my niece the full box set of The Chronicles of Narnia for Christmas several years ago for fear that she will be indoctrinated with Christian subtexts. She lives in Alabama. She attends church. Christianity need not be delivered to her through subtle means.

Besides, children take away from stories what they want, and keep very little of the rest. So even as I easily recognize the subtext in The Chronicles of Narnia, I still read Wardrobe with a sense of comfort, as I remembered so much of the story from the animated series. It was pleasant just to revisit a familiar story.

So that one is finished, and now on to The Horse and His Boy.

In other news, I realized today that a title that I'd been counting as one book is actually a series - His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is actually a trilogy, not a single book. So the individual novel count is now up to 198. No doubt, I will find more instances of titles that I did not recognize as a series as I continue.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The ones I have already read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (or Philosopher's) Stone

This is the entry I am the most mystified about, and is the choice that I feel the greatest level of disagreement with. In the entire Harry Potter series, why is the first title the only one on the list of excellent books?

There are a few instances in the list in which only one book from a series is listed. Foundation, for example. Dune. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I disagree with, but which also lets me off the hook because I've never finished the entire series. In each of these situations, however, it can be argued that the first book in the series is the best, the one to read if you must only read one.

Not so with The Sorcerer's Stone. Many fans consider Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the series. I am personally fond of the Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry and his friends learn that most adults are motivated by self interest, and cannot be relied upon to do the right thing. Rebellion is introduced to the series in that novel. I always hear the Sex Pistols in my head when I think about it.

I suppose the point of selecting only the first book of a series when the entire series is not excellent makes sense from the point of view that the first book will make more sense than picking up in the middle. But this is Harry Potter. It wouldn't be all that hard to start in the middle and still understand everything that is happening. In fact, you could just watch the films up to the book in question, and then read Prisoner of Azkaban, or Order of the Phoenix. Both books are far better than their film versions, and the films leading up to each are sufficient to catch you up to date.

Or you could just read the entire series. It's not that hard. If scads of 9 year olds can finish a Harry Potter novel in one all-nighter, an adult can read the entire series in the space of two months, easily.

Meanwhile, the entire Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is on the list, which is 36 novels. Soon to be 37. I doubt that I will read that series all together - I'll probably have to read other novels in between. I really doubt I could finish it in two months time. I wonder if I will finish that series in one year's time.

Which brings up a point that I've been dodging for a while now. This isn't actually a list of 149 novels. It's a list of 149 novels and series. It's much more than 149. It's actually 196 novels. And also 7 short stories in the Earthsea series by Ursula K LeGuin.

If we count in individual novels, I've finished 20 so far. In completed titles/series, I've finished 17. I'm going to stick with the original 149 novel count, but I think it's worth noting that at times, I am reading well more than it seems like I am reading. Especially once I start on that Discworld series.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More on the order of The Chronicles of Narnia

My young niece, whom I mentioned in the previous post, also read them in the new order. She seems to think this order is fine. When discussing this reading order with people my own age, however, I've been told by one person my own age (so far) that the new order is stupid.

I still think that the quality of the stories does not hinge on the order in which they are read. They are very simple stories. The plots are not difficult to follow. You could probably read them in any order at all and follow along just fine.

There is only one reason I can see, so far, for putting them back in the old order: The Magician's Nephew was not exciting, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is. So I guess for children who bore easily, the original order may be better.

But then, I was one of those children that bore easily, and I started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was a child, and then went no further. So most likely, it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Moving along with The Chronicles of Narnia

Finished The Magician's Nephew. My young niece let me know that this was not her favorite book in the series. That made me feel better, because I was not crazy about it.

I'm now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which already seems like a much better book. Of course, I've seen the old cartoon and the film, and both of them seem to tell the story very faithfully. Meaning that so far, none of this is new to me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nightmarish memories of cover art

When I was a kid, my sister or I had the full collection of the Chronicles of Narnia. I say "or" because I can't remember who actually owned them. I recall that I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then stopped, while she read the full series. So in that way the books ended up being hers, regardless of who they were originally given to.

One thing I do remember about that collection was that all the covers were odd looking. They have what I now think of as a tarot card-like quality about them. The strangest one of all was The Magician's Nephew, which shows two children falling upwards out of a pool of water, while a large woman hangs onto them by the girl's hair. The children look frightened, but it's hard to tell if they are more afraid of the woman or of the horrifying fate they will meet if they continue to fall into the sky.

Combine that with the strangely quiet animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which also has sort of a tarot card look about it. As a result of these, I often felt that the Narnia series contained strange mysteries that were better left unlearned. Upon opening one of these novels, you might learn that at the center of your spread is the Children Who Fall Up card, which means you will find yourself having to choose between two equally awful things, both of which may hurt a lot. In the position of who you are, you may find the Lion's Breath card, which means that you are currently unwilling to make changes and are suffering as a result.

Honestly, makes you wonder why these books always get a free pass when the more extreme Christians decide to condemn the inherent evil of the fantasy genre!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sheep finished, beginning Narnia

I finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? today, and also skimmed the afterword, which is all about how Philip K. Dick originally didn't like the idea of the film Blade Runner, but over time changed his mind, and when he saw the first 2o minutes in a private screening, he loved it and said that it would become a classic (Dick was never able to see the full film; he died of a heart attack before it was completed).

The afterword made me realize that I've made mention of the film Blade Runner quite a lot while discussing the book in the blog. It's hard to avoid referencing a sci-fi classic when reading the book that it is based on. However, making constant comparison between the book and the film are not really the point. The point is that I'm reading a lot of books, and having finished the first one that I had not read previously, I am beginning to wonder why I'm doing this.

I think partly, any list that says "these books are worthy" makes me wonder if they really are. There is also my originally stated motivation, which is simply to expand my acquaintance with the genre. Beyond that, I suppose I'm doing it for the same reason that someone attempts to run a marathon or break a world record - just to see if I can do it.

And on that note, one down!

As I neared the end of Electric Sheep, I decided the time had come to pay off some long-standing library fines and check out the next book I would like to read. I set out with the intention of checking out The Man in the High Castle, because I enjoyed Electric Sheep so much that I felt like reading another novel by Dick. That novel had been checked out, and so I went with The Magician's Nephew from the Chronicles of Narnia. Sometimes the universe makes our decisions for us.

As for why I'm not starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: When I was a kid, the Chronicles of Narnia were arranged in the order in which they were published. These days, they are arranged chronologically in order of the events that occur within the books. I've decided that I'll comply with the new order, because all the copies at the library are numbered in the new order, and it just makes it easier. Besides, if Wikipedia is to be believed, C.S. Lewis approved of this reading order.

By the way, in that Wikipedia article I'm ammused by the vague reference to "some readers" who think that the novels ought to be read in order of publication, because The Magician's Nephew assumes you have some awareness of Narnia, while The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe introduces you to this new world. In geek circles, it is unimaginable that you would not have at least a general awareness of Narnia and Aslan. That's tantamount to asking someone what his Han Shot First t-shirt is all about.