24 June 2008

The medium lost in the message

(Where did this one come from? Passing a poster for the new film of Prince Caspian, in the street, and a stimulating lunchtime café conversation with Andy Gray...)

As a child I enjoyed C S Lewis's “Chronicles of Narnia” books as simple fantasy adventures, unencumbered by all the Christian payload. As an early adolescent, I read his SF-esque “Ransom Trilogy” (Out of the Silent Planet , Perelandra and That Hideous Strengthmost recently republished in single volumes as "The Space Trilogy" or "The Cosmic Trilogy") in the same spirit of cheerful ignorance. Then, at somewhere around sixteen, the penny dropped – and the enjoyment evaporated. Of course, by sixteen my tastes were changing (what doesn't change at sixteen?) and I had begun to find Lewis's characters somewhat two dimensional ... but mostly it was the killjoy result of realising that I was being preached at.

The amount of didacticism which literature (or art in general) can bear before collapsing under the weight varies. A well written fiction can support more than a poorly constructed one. A fiction with complexity and depth is a more effective vehicle than a shallow and simplistic one. Other things being equal, the capacity of a story is generally (not always) greatest in its own day and declines with time. It varies with the reader, too: I am alienated by any overt attempt to proselytise me, but a story which preaches to my preconceptions can get away with more than one which challenges them. And, as with Lewis's Narnia, what is invisible in childhood can come into view as the reader grows.

My use of the word “overt”, in that last paragraph, is deliberate. There is no such thing as a story without a message, even if the author is unaware of it; but messages can be implicit or explicit. A story which assumes certain values or, better still, discovers them without trumpeting the fact, is a different beast from a story written purely to convey them.

Reading Phillip Pullman's “His Dark Materials” trilogy I was captivated by first volume, Northern Lights (inexplicably renamed The Golden Compass for both US publication and film). This was intellectual play of a wonderful kind, not thrusting lessons at the reader but presenting questions and situations then leaving her or him to wrestle with answers. There is a challenge here to think critically, not to take the word of established authority without question, to confront moral ambivalence and weigh individual against greater good. The Subtle Knife was pretty much in the same vein, extending the lessons in both breadth and depth, adding intensity to moral decisions, generally (though slightly less s than in Northern Lights) without bringing them up above the storyline horizon. The third and final volume, The Amber Spyglass, alas, loses the touch: though it still has all the qualities of the other two, the author's voice rises too often above them in lecture mode. In The Amber Spyglass I too often found myself losing the joy of reading, instead reacting against its evangelical atheism just as as much as I did against the too insistent religion of Narnia.

Rowling's Harry Potter, by contrast, though far less complex and layered than “His Dark Materials”, manages to walk the tight rope with complete success through seven volumes. As I have commented elsewhere, Rowling confronts her readers with big questions and points out social ills, challenges them to think critically and take personal responsibility, but never hectors them. The story is always primary, the message flowing and evolving with the narrative, “a good read” setting the pace with the message a silent partner along for the ride.

I don't, personally, enjoy Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; but that's personal taste. Whatever I think of it, it is is far better fiction than Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia – because its message is buried in the fibre of its storytelling. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings paved the way for box office successes by Narnia and His Dark Materials films; it could never have worked the other way around.

Everything in life has its exceptions, and this is no different. I read Sally Miller Gearhart's Wanderground stories, and enjoyed them, and would recommend them, despite the transparency of their feminist and lesbian separatism message. At the same time, though I reread it from time to time, I have not returned over and over again to Wanderground as I have to, for example, Joanna Russ's Extraordinary People or Josephine Saxton's Queen of the States. Russ and Saxton have just as strongly feminist (and sometimes, in Russ's case at least, lesbian too) messages to deliver as Gearhart, but they weave it less visibly and, as a result, deliver it more effectively.

To find an example of overt didacticism which does unequivocally work for me, I have to go outside literature altogether. Even then, I can (offhand) only think of one: Käthe Kollwitz' passionately propagandist drawings and posters ... the burning passion being what turns the trick.

It's interesting that in the first filmed volume of a Narnia book in the current run (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 2005) dispensed with most of the message to concentrate on the story, the characters (notably Tilda Swinton's White Witch, Dawn French and Ray Winstone as the beavers, and James MacAvoy's Mr Tumnus) and the scenery. A wise decision.

Following a private train of thought at a tangent: the filmed version of a children's classic which I'd really like to see is Hilda Lewis's The ship that flew.

  • Andrew Adamson et al, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe (film). 2005, Los Angeles: Walden Media.
  • Sally Miller Gearhart, The wanderground : stories of the hill women. 1979, Watertown, Mass: Persephone. 0930436024 (pbk)
  • C S Lewis (Illustrations Pauline Baynes), The Chronicles of Narnia. 2005, London: HarperCollins. 9780007215027 (pbk.) [contains: The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, 1950; Prince Caspian, 1951; The voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952; The silver chair, 1953; The horse and his boy, 1954; The magician's nephew, 1955; The last battle, 1956.]
  • C S Lewis, The cosmic trilogy. 1990, London: Pan. 0330313746 (pbk) [contains: Out of the silent planet. 1938; Perelandra, 1943; That hideous strength. 1945; all London: Bodley Head]
  • Hilda Lewis, The Ship that Flew. 1939, London: OUP. (Reissued 1993, 0192717197)
  • Philip Pullman, His dark materials. 2001, London: Scholastic. 0439994349 [contains: Northern lights, 1995, 0590541781; The subtle knife, 1997, 0590542435; The amber spyglass, 2000, 0590542443; all London: Scholastic.]
  • J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the...
    • ...philosopher's stone. London, 1997, Bloomsbury. 0747574472.
    • ...chamber of secrets. 1999, London: Bloomsbury. 0747538484
    • ...prisoner of Azkaban. 1999, London: Bloomsbury. 0747545111.
    • ...goblet of fire. London, 2001, Bloomsbury. 074754971
    • ...order of the phoenix. London, 2004, Bloomsbury. 0747569401
    • ...half blood prince. 2005, London: Bloomsbury. 0747581088
    • ...deathly hallows. London, 2007, Bloomsbury. 0747591075
  • Joanna Russ, Extra (ordinary) people. 1984, London: Women's Press. 0704339501 (pbk).
  • Josephine Saxton, Queen of the states. 1986, London: Women's Press. 0704339927 (pbk).
  • J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 2001, London: HarperCollins. 0007123817 (pbk.) [contains: The fellowship of the ring, 1954; The two towers, 1954; The return of the king, 1955 all London : Allen & Unwin.]

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