Monday, April 19, 2010

Magical Series

I finished all of the Harry Potter books a couple of weeks ago. Having completed the series, I had a few observations. The last four books are much lengthier, but also darker and more mature. While I enjoyed the first three books, I didn't think that Rowling hit her stride until the last four, with the last two, Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows probably being the best in the series. Interestingly, The Deathly Hallows develops, in a much more specific way than the previous books, basic, Christian themes.
I was left wondering if this had been her plan all along, or if it blossomed in the midst of so many fundamentalist, evangelical Christians denouncing her work as dangerous and occultish. Was this a way to poke them in the eye and turn their arguments to dust?

Either way, she does a nice job of bringing everything together and providing a satisfying ending to Harry's adventures.

After finishing my marathon reading of the Harry Potter books, I decided to pick up C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia books from the library. I had never read any of the others besides The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I used to read Lewis ravenously, but soon became burned out with his work. Having read most of his major works and essays, and some of his fictional books, I had decided that I had had enough of him and understood the major themes running through his writing.

The Magician's Nephew, the first book in the Chronicles reminded me of several things. The style of writing has changed so dramatically. Going from Rowling to Lewis was a bit of a shock. There is a certain stiltedness, or formality to the book. I realized that Lewis tells his tale from the position of an outside, grown-up narrator. He breaks into the story at times comparing the characters' ideas and backgrounds to an unspecified "nowadays". It's a different type of storytelling that is meant to evoke the idea of sitting around a fire while a friend tells a childhood story, or an adventure they once had. It is harder to lose oneself in that type of narration because you are always being brought back to the reference point of the story-teller.

As I thought about the differences between Rowling's and Lewis' magical series, it reminded me of the Oz books by Frank Baum. The style and nature of Baum's work is quite similar to Lewis's Chronicles and makes me wonder if the Oz stories served as a pattern for Lewis to start with.

One more stylistic difference jumped out at me. In the very beginning of The Magician's Nephew, before the plot gets fully underway, we are introduce to Digory's uncle through a conversation between Digory and his friend Polly. Digory's mysterious uncle and his unknown activities are always kept from Digory by his aunt leaving an impression of an eccentric old man with a hint of possible sinister intentions.

In modern stories, a frequently relied upon twist in a plot involves revealing an unknown, quirky, possible scary person as actually being quite nice and useful, explaining away the first impression as a misunderstanding and the rejection of people who are different.

In The Magician's Nephew, Digory's uncle is as sinister as he was implied to be in the beginning of the story. This struck me as unusual, and as an indicator of the time in which it was written.

Once I finish the Chronicles, I'm going to go back and finish the few Oz books that I never quite made it to.


DH said...

Somewhere in there, I'd like you to squeeze in the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher. I checked the first book, "The White Mountains", out of the library in the thoughts of having the Rationalist read it and decided to read it again this past weekend. When I was his age, it was the first real sci-fi series I read, and I was enthralled by it, and I was curious how I would feel about it now.

The series was written in the late 60s/early 70s, and as I read it, I was struck by the writing style and how different it was from what I am more used to nowadays. It felt stiff and a bit stilted, though the story is still good.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Lewis's Sci-fi series is more powerful, but also has that older feel to it. George MacDonald's and William Morris's fantasies were more of an influence on him, and those are even more fully in the wordy, late-Victorian mode. He also mentioned E Nesbitt's (Five Children and It) and Edward Eager's (Half Magic) fantasies, which I also loved. But Lewis and Tolkien were pretty much making up the genre as they went along. The style does seem stilted now, as even The Hobbit does, and I imagine that sense will increase as the years pass. The Narnia books read well out loud, however. I also wonder how much the stilted illustrations influence the perceived tone.

My wife is a children's librarian and fantasy addict, and would recommend Madeline L'Engle's series - an offbeat Christianity - Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, the Dragonsong Series, Brian Jacques Redwall Series, and the Lloyd Alexander Prydain series. The half of that list I have read I would concur with. Susan Cooper and Alan Garner have darker fantasies, if you like that, though Cooper's don't improve as the series progresses.

That's a long list, I know. Unfortunately, we could go on much longer. There's a lot out there now, much of it crap, but much that is excellent.

Regarding Rowling, her books are also in the older English tradition of "school stories," which never caught on in the US that well.