Since the autumn I have been revisiting Narnia. Does CS Lewis’s imaginary world, first described in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, count as Universal Knowledge these days, especially for the generations brought up on Harry Potter? As a child I read the seven Narnia Chronicles more than once and have been re-reading them over the last few months, aloud, to my children. With my son (aged 11) we are halfway through “The Last Battle”, the last of the books, and last month I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to my daughter, who is 9.
Until December I had never read a single page of any Harry Potter book, but since then I have joined in my daughter’s reading. They are reading the first book (The Philosopher’s Stone, as I now know) at school (and they haven’t finished it yet), she has read the second (The Chamber of Secrets) and is now 100 pages into the third (The Prisoner of Azkaban). I started partway through that second book, reading a few pages, then listening to her read a few pages. I am told that this way of reading – alternating between listening and reading – is very helpful for a child’s imagination and understanding, better than either reading alone, or being read to.
[A digression at this point: I am happy with finishing sentences, and indeed paragraphs, like that last one, with a preposition (to, for or from, for example). There is a school of thought that you shouldn’t do it. People might wonder what you are up to. They might wonder what you are doing it for. This school of thought led to the phrase that is attributed to Churchill, after a civil servant re-wrote something to avoid ending in a preposition: “That is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put”. I am also reminded of something that I read in a style guide, long before the internet was widely available. A parent is reading to a child, from a book that the child doesn’t like, and the child asks, “What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”]
In both sets of books – set in Hogwarts and Narnia – there are two or three words or phrases per page that a reasonably well-read 9 year old wouldn’t necessarily know yet. I have enjoyed explaining them to her, happy to use a different approach to describing new words and concepts than my father’s. His approach can be summarized as, “How come you don’t know that yet? I knew that when I was your age”. Even the words in the titles have needed explaining: philosopher, phoenix, goblet. My daughter now knows that a hatchet is a word for an axe, pail means bucket, and she has at least come across words like “whom” and “one”, when used in the old-fashioned way, as a third person pronoun, “in the way one used to use it”. Nobody we know speaks that way. Maybe even the Queen no longer uses it as much as she used to. Why should one?
Re-reading the Narnia Chronicles was mostly my choice, having not read them since I was in my 20s, over 20 years ago. We have also revisited the BBC series on DVD, broadcast between 1988 and 1990. They adapted four of the books (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” in one 3-hour series, and “The Silver Chair”) and these adaptations have aged pretty well. The animanotrics for Aslan would be no doubt much more impressive these days but what they have works well enough for us.
Last year I finally watched “The Narnia Code”, a documentary that I had recorded many years ago, about Michael Ward’s books. These argue that CS Lewis “secretly constructed the Chronicles of Narnia out of the imagery associated with the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos”, as it says on Ward’s website. I have also been dipping into the books and realize how little I know about the ancient and medieval views of these “seven heavens” (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). I knew the associations for Venus and Mars (love and war respectively, among other things) but didn’t know that Saturn was associated with old age and death. All those decades reading and watching Shakespeare and this often-repeated reference had passed me by. I often recall these last two lines from the first poem in Ted Hughes’s “Birthday Letters”, “Fulbright Scholars”:
At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh
By my ignorance of the simplest things
I am way past 25 but dumbfounded almost daily by my ignorance of simple things, and the things that other people know. At least I now know what a Muggle is. That wasn’t true a year ago.