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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-05 04:37
The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

First Edition Dustjacket

source Wikipedia

 

 

"In the last days of Narnia, far up to the west beyond Lantern Waste and close beside the great waterfall, there lived an Ape."

 

The Last Battle is the final book in the Narnia Chronicles. With the last three books Lewis seemed to be moving further from the realm of children's novels and into a more intellectual adult world of surprising complexities.

 

Esoteric in its make-up, The Last Battle begins with an ape named Shift, who, by dressing a donkey named Puzzle in a lion's skin, tries to convince the Narnians that Aslan has returned to Narnia.  Prompted by Calormen treachery, they soon combine Aslan into Tashlan, a mixing of Aslan and the Calmoren god Tash, and force the Narnians to work, cutting down the Talking Trees of the forest for profit. Prince Tirian and his trusty unicorn, Jewel, discover the falsity of their enterprise, but are taken captive by the Calormens, only to be freed by Eustace and Jill  They discover the fraud of the false "Tashlan" while rescuing Jewel from the stables, but learn that Cair Paravel has fallen to the Calormens.  The Battle of the Stable is fought with the Calormens and their forces, whereupon Eustace, Jill and the one faithful dwarf, Poggin, find themselves inside the stable, followed by Tirian in his battle with Rishda Tarakan, the leader of the Calormens.  Instead of a stable, they find that they are in a beautiful and wondrous land, but then, to the surprised horror of all, Tash unexpectedly appears and snatches Rishda under his arm.  The Pevensie children appear (minus Susan) and Peter orders Tash to leave, whereupon Aslan comes and all the dead people and animals either file by on Aslan's right and enter Aslan's country or file by on his left and disappear. The old earthly "outside" Narnia begins to be devoured by dragons and giant lizards, and finally the sun is squeezed out by a giant, yet Aslan leads his people "further up and further in" to the real Narnia.  It may appear to be the end of the chronicles but, as Lewis says, "… it was only the beginning of the real story …… they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

 

 

 

 

Emeth, the Calmoren warrior who is allowed into Aslan's country, is a curious insertion by Lewis.  Emeth has followed another god with a sincere belief all his life, yet when he meets Aslan, the lion tells him, "Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me …… if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he is truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.  And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted."  Lewis is not advocating universal salvation, only that anyone who is truly and openly seeking the truth about God, will surely find him.  In contrast, the Narnian dwarves are true cynics; while they have been raised in Narnia and told about Aslan, they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the truth and, though Aslan gives them a marvellous banquet, in their self-deception they are not able to even properly taste the good food set before them.  In spite of being raised in Narnia, their wilful refusal to entertain any ideas but their own will prevent them from seeing Aslan's Country.

 

While this novel is written for children, Lewis has included concepts that would be beyond some adults.  Professor Digory's comment near the end of the book, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato …." gives us a clue to one Platonic theme, although there are a few enmeshed in the chronicles.  In Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave, cave-dwellers believe images on the wall in front of them are real, but find they are only flickering shadows cast by more original objects held up against a fire which is behind them.  One of the cave-dwellers turns around to see what is behind his back and why the objects on the wall appear as they do, then he ascends out of the cave into the world above where he sees that the artificial copies on the wall of the cave and the fire itself were only themselves inferior copies of a much more original reality. Plato believed that every evident appearance in the material world is a communion with a higher, perfect spiritual reality.  For example, anything that attempts to capture beauty, will never capture the reality of beauty perfectly. An overworld of self-subsisting ideas exists beyond the world of material things, and these ideas, or forms, themselves participate in the one single highest reality, Plato called "the Good."  Thus, in The Last Battle, the earthly Narnia is only a copy or a shadow of the Heavenly Narnia which is the form of the perfect reality.

 

 

 

And lastly, it would be appropriate to touch on the fate of Susan Pevensie. All the Pevensies appear in the real Narnia because they have recently died in a train crash, all except Susan, who has grown vain and self-absorbed, and has moved away from their adventures and beliefs of Narnia.  I am a little perplexed as to what to make of this revelation.  On one hand, I am bothered that Lewis treated her fate in a rather short, curt manner, after she had been such an important character in the other stories.  On the other hand, I am glad that Lewis did not make a perfectly "happily ever after situation."  Given that Susan had replaced her faith with material desires, it was providential that she did not perish in the crash that killed her family; there is still hope that she can find the real Narnia in the end.  As Lewis wrote in a letter to a child:

 

"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's plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end ……. in her own way."

 

Wow!  What a finale!  And now I can say that I've read all the Chronicles of Narnia and have a much better understanding of them.  I can hardly believe all the themes and ideas that Lewis wrote into them and though I know another reading will bring more enlightening details, there will always be more to discover!

 

 

 

Other Narnia Books

 

 

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review 2014-04-22 23:13
The Odyssey (an Oral Tradition) by Homer

"Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel."

 

It is nearly 20 years after the Trojan War and Ithaka is still without its king, Odysseus.  Anarchy reigns, as numerous suitors vie for the hand of his wife, Penelope, while ravaging his household goods and disrespecting his memory, and his son, Telemachos, is helpless to prevent them.  Has our hero perished in his quest to reach his homeland, or is he still alive somewhere, struggling to reach home?

 

The Odyssey begins in media res, or in the middle, where Odysseus is near the end of his journey, becoming shipwrecked on the land of the Phaiakians. These people, who we learn are very close to the gods, give Odysseus an audience for the retelling of his story and the various adventures he has experienced, while attempting to return home from the battlegrounds of Troy.

 

From a violent assault on the land of the Cicones, to narrowly escaping a drugged existence in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus endangers his men by deciding to stay in the land of the Cyclops in hopes of gaining host-gifts, and they must set to perilous flight.  Poseidon, angered at the maiming of his Cyclops son, Polyphemus, plots their suffering and Odysseus and his men must endure captivity by Circe, an island goddess; a trip to the land of the Dead; a narrow escape from the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis; and further imprisonment by the nymph, Calypso, lasting seven years, before he is released and lands on the island of the Phaiakians.  Yet, mainly because of the rage of Poseidon, but due also to Odysseus' and his men's misguided judgement, his whole crew is killed on the way home and he is left to continue the final part of his journey alone.

 

 

Fame and glory, or in Greek, kleos, are the most important values in this society. It appears that the suitors can disrespect and commandeer Odysseus' household, only because there is no story attached to his fate.  If he had died fighting in Troy, and therefore receiving a generous helping of fame and glory, this inheritance would have passed down to Telemachus, which would have engendered a reverence and respect among the people. It might not have prevented a few of the more aggressive suitors attempting to utilize their power, but Telemachos certainly would have received more support and sympathy from other Ithakan families.   Gifts and spoils are another aspect of fame and glory.  The more one acquires, the more renown is added to their reputations.  This perhaps explains why Odysseus pours on the charm with the Phaiakians, who bestow on him more gifts than he could have won at Troy, then taxi him to Ithaka, unaware that they have angered Poseidon, who turns their ship to stone in the harbour on their journey back.

 

The guest-host relationship, or in Greek, xenia, is another aspect of Greek culture unfamiliar to modern readers.  If a guest visits your house, you are required by the tenets of hospitality to give him food and shelter.  These acts are even more important than discovering his name and peoples, as we often see this information offered after the initial formalities are served.  The concept of xenia is emphasized because one never knows if one is hosting a man or a god.  As a modern reader, it was amusing to see poor Telemachos attempt to extricate himself from Menelaos' hospitality and avoid Nestor's, in an effort to avoid wasting time in the search for his father.  I'm certain amusement wasn't Homer's intention but it wasn't surprising as to the emphasis placed on this tradition.  Any deviation from this custom could result in dishonour and a possible feud with your potential host or guest.

 

 

1. Mt. Olympus   2. Troy   3. Kikonians   4. Lotus-Eaters   5. Cyclops

6. Aeolia's Island   7. Laestrygonians   8. Circe's Kingdom  9. Land of the Dead

10. Sirens   11. Scylla & Charybdis   12. Kalypso   13. Ithaka

source Nada's ESL Island

 

Greek literature has been a surprising passion of mine.  From my first read of The Iliad, I was hooked and I often wonder why?  The heroes are chiefly concerned with fame, glory, reputation, pillaging and the spoils of war; the gods are jealous, capricious, vindictive and possess far too many human traits for comfort.  Yet I think what draws me to these characters is that they are so real …….. fallible, vulnerable, imperfect, yet they exhibit these deficiencies through an heroic, courageous and larger-than-life persona. They have their customs and traditions, institutions designed to help their society flourish, and which are important enough to sacrifice happiness, comfort and, at times, even their lives, to preserve.

 

A note on translations:  if you plan to read only one translation of The Odyssey, I would highly recommend Richard Lattimore's translation, as it is supposed to be closest to the original Greek, while also conveying well the substance of the story.  Fitzgerald is adequate but likes to embellish, and the Fagles translation …….. well, as one learned reviewer put it, "they are so colloquial, so far from Homeric that they feel more like modern adaptations than translations."  I would have to agree.

 

For people who are interested in introducing their children to the tales of Homer, there are a number of excellent books for children which I will list here:

 

 

This book counts as Plethora of Books Classic Club Spin, so I finished her book and my spin book, as well.  I'm going to give myself a pat on the back and less guilt for not finishing my previous spin book (yet). :-)

 

Translated by Richard Lattimore

 

 

 

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review 2014-04-21 06:35
The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

"This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child."

 

When Digory's father is posted to India and his mother becomes ill, they must leave their country life and settle in London with Uncle Andrew and his sister, Aunt Letty. Fortunately Digory soon meets Polly, a girl who lives in one of the connecting row houses, and the adventure begins!

 

While trying to find a passage through the attics from Polly's house to Digory's, they inadvertently stumble into the workroom of Uncle Andrew.  To this point, Digory has not had much contact with his scientific uncle, but this experience proves without a doubt his uncle's evil nature.  With a magic ring, he sends Polly into another world with no chance of returning, without Digory entering the world as well, with two magic rings that will bring them back.

 

 

Aslan in the process of creating Narnia's animals

Pauline Baynes 1955

 

 

Lewis believed that each one of our actions in life either took us one step closer to Heaven, or one step closer to Hell.  Now, this didn't mean that by doing something bad, you would go to Hell; Lewis wanted people to be aware that their actions matter.  Our actions are what form our character and each action works either towards forming a good, trustworthy, amiable character, or a bad, prideful, self-centred character.

 

Uncle Andrew is a fine example of a character gone rotten.  He is untrustworthy, lacks a conscience and is extraordinarily narcissistic, believing because of his perceived superior intellectual skills and his ability as a magician and scientist, that he is exempt from societal conventions and moral obligations.  His cultivated vanity is uncontainable, and in his selfishly aggrandized mind, the ends always justify the means.

 

At the beginning of the story, while being different from his uncle, Digory, however, shows some disturbingly similar traits.  He exhibits the same weakness as his uncle when, in The Wood Between Two Worlds, he suggests that instead of going directly back to the study, they explore another pool.  Curiosity overcomes his common sense and a stubborn prideful attitude closes his ears to Polly's initial prudent advice. Fortunately he agrees to Polly's insistent demand to test the rings to see if they are able to return easily; unconstrained curiosity can get one into unexpected perils and it is important that a thirst for knowledge is tempered with a respect for the nature of things.

 

Similarly in Charn, even though Digory senses that it is a "queer place," he once again ignores Polly's suggestion to leave, using words to deride and mortify her to make her abandon common sense.  Finally, he again allows his curiosity to override his good judgement, when he rings the bell in Charn, waking an evil that is beyond his imagination.  Curiously, just before this act, Polly remarks, "You look exactly like your uncle when you say that."

 

Yet finally Digory starts to make wise choices.  In spite of being initially captivated by the evil Empress Jadis, his enchantment begins to dissipate after he hears of her ruthless destruction of Charn and of her plans to travel to their world.  He also has the integrity to make a full confession when Aslan asks him about the evil that he brought into Narnia, and his bravery and honesty serve him well, as Aslan trusts him with the quest of bringing back a magic apple to grow a tree to protect Narnia from the evil that lurks there.  Within the garden there is a replay of the temptation of Eve, this time with Jadis as the tempter and Digory the intended victim.  Yet Digory shows surprising resilience, faithfully resisting the witch's manipulations and temptations, returning to fulfil his quest.  Through the characters of Uncle Andrew and Digory, we see the formation of a virtuous character who makes prudent choices (with mistakes along the way), and the result of a deceptive and corrupt character who makes the wrong choices .

 

The Mountains of Mourne

…. inspired Lewis to write the Chronicles of Narnia …

source Wikipedia

 

 

Ah, this post is already too long but there are so many other elements enmeshed in this fascinating tale. Lewis' use of "supposition" to represent the creation of Narnia was just lovely. There are obvious parallels to Genesis and the creation of Earth, but also differences, that are as creative as they are compelling.  Aslan singing the entire world of Narnia into existence, evoking edenic and pastoral images, is a beautifully captivating scene.  The Deplorable Word is thought to be a reference to the atomic bomb; when Lewis began writing this book, the world was at war, and its annihilation would certainly have been foremost in his mind.  And there is also an example Plato's theme of self-deception, which we see played out in the character of Uncle Andrew.  Plato believed that self-deception was a state of mind where irrational desires supersede natural reason as a guide for ethical behaviour, and while the person believes that their conduct will bring them happiness, in effect, it only brings them misery.  Socrates also levelled the charge against his countrymen that blindly pursuing knowledge through any means, with the goal being the resulting power attained, can only be realized at the expense of truth and morality.

 

The last book in the Chronicles of Narnia series is, of course, The Last Battle.  I can't wait!

 

 

Collage by Moonlight Reader 

 

 

Other Narnia Books

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review 2014-04-19 15:45
Candide by Voltaire

"In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters."

 

Published when Voltaire was 66 years old, Candide was expressly written to satirize the philosophy of Optimism.  This optimism was not simply the positive hope of better circumstances, but the belief that everything that happened was for the best, no matter if good or bad, happy or tragic.  This philosophy disgusted Voltaire because he felt that it left no facility for bettering oneself or one's surroundings and that it supported fatalism and complacency.  The tragic earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 seemed to precipitated the writing of this novel, causing the author to question justice in such a calamity, and reflected in his poem, "Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon," written weeks afterward.  Candide was further emphasis of Voltaire's rejection of the attitude that life was the "best of all possible worlds" and that everything that happened in it was for the best.

 

 

Voltaire

detailed portrait by Maurice Quenton de la Tour

source Wikipedia

 

Voltaire was an established writer and thinker by the time he wrote Candide, yet a controversial figure who by many was both admired and hated.  He  was continuously clashing with the government and the church, suffering two periods of incarceration, and most of his adult life was spent exiled from Paris, the city of his birth.  Much of his works were published under a pseudonym to avoid prosecution.  During a stint in exile, he spent three years in Great Britain and, impressed with the freedoms of England, particularly that of speech, his stay intensified his desire for reforms in his home country.  In 1758 he settled in Ferney in eastern France, spending his time farming, writing and supporting local business.  Candide was written there, not long after his move.

 

Satire:  the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues

 

Candide is a young man who has grown up living in a state of perfect happiness, guided by his tutor, Pangloss, who is entrenched in the doctrines of Leibnizian Optimism.  Leibnizian Optimism, a philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, believed that this world is the best of all possible worlds because it was created by an omniscient God who would not create flaws if a better world could have been created, therefore, whatever we experience in this world, be it good or bad, must work towards good.  When Candide is thrown out of his paradise, he travels the world, at times escaping persecution, and at others, searching for his love, Cunégonde, experiencing many horrific trials and suffering that challenge the philosophy entrenched by his tutor, causing him to question over and over, if this really is "the best of all possible worlds."

 

 

I really whiffle-waffled over how I felt about this book.  On one hand, Voltaire can write a fast-moving, engaging tale.  His storyline was amusing and it did contain deeper themes that, if the reader had a strong attention span, challenged him to think about his view of the world, his place in society and his response to injustice.  Yet Voltaire's method was rushed and honestly, just too absurd to ellict introspection for long.  Candide flew from one adventure to the other, characters threw philosophical comments around, but there was no time or room for philosophy itself.  Voltaire never took a thought or comment from a character into deeper conversation; he simply told the reader what the characters did or thought, but we weren't privy to the conversation.  As a reader, you were often left swimming in a murky haze of Voltaire-imposed ignorance ……. Yet perhaps this was Voltaire's intention.  Perhaps at the end of the book, as Candide states, "we must cultivate our garden," Voltaire meant that we should all mind our own business, not examine things too closely, and just work with what is at hand.  Okay, but it is self-introspection that causes a human being to better himself, it is dialogue and discussion that can often help a society, as well as having the possibility to harm it.  People need to have hope, and to cultivate hope it often means having dreams that reach outside our immediate circle of life.  Within the light-hearted narrative that almost masked the tragedy, I felt a fatalism with which I could not accept or sympathize.

 

That said, these were only my impressions of a book that touch on topics of which I have a limited understanding.  To give an informed opinion on Voltaire's stance, you would really need to have more than a cursory knowledge of Leibnizian Optimism, as well as having at least summary knowledge of his contemporaries, with a dollop of the study of the Enlightenment on top.  So I will count this as the beginning of my inquiry into the Enlightenment and Voltaire, and hope that my journey fairs better than the journey of Candide.  And until my next foray into Voltaire, I will be cultivating my garden.

 

Translated by Lowell Blair

 

 

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review 2014-04-01 03:00
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

The Silver Chair

First Edition Dustjacket

source Wikipedia

 

 

"It was a dully autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym."

 

Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole seek shelter from bullies in their Experiment House school and, after stumbling through a door, find themselves in Aslan's country, not realizing that Aslan has called them there for a very special purpose.

 

Ten years ago after the death of his mother, Prince Caspian's son, Rillian, disappeared into the North without a trace.  With Puddlegum, the pessimistic Marshwiggle as their guide and companion, Eustace and Jill set out to discover his fate.  However, Jill missed some of the four signs that Aslan had given her and the adventurers wonder if their quest has not been made more difficult because of her oversights.  Will they be able to save the heir of Narnia from the evil Emerald Witch, and even more importantly, what will they have learned by the end of their adventure?

 

Lewis makes me laugh with some of the symbolism he inserts into these tales for children.  In one scene, the Witch attempts to enchant the children, striving to convince them that their world is only a dream and that her world is, in fact, the real thing.  Bravely, Puddleglum, in desperation, stamps on the fire, hoping the resulting pain will break the spell.  He declares even if they have imagined all the wonderful things of their world, he prefers them to the cold, dark, menacing world of the Witch, and he pledges to live as a Narnian even if Narnia does not exist.  Puddleglum's curious statement echoes Blaise Pascal's famous wager that argues that even if God does not exist, to live by His precepts will ensure a better earthly life; what one would gain would be infinitely more valuable than what one would lose.

 

 

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

 

This book is my least favourite of the Chronicles so far, but Lewis still manages to tell an engaging tale that keeps the reader interested and invested in the characters.  Next up is The Horse and His Boy!

 

 

Other Narnia Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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