Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy and The Hero's Quest

Lewis, C.S. “The Magician’s Nephew, Book 1 Chronicles of Narnia,” Harper Collins: New York, 1955

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism,” Houghten Mifflin Company: Boston, 2004

Having enjoyed a good escape in reading the “Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis over the weekend, I began to consider about how fantasy literature provides something that no other genre gives to the reader: a second world of conflict and adventure. What fantasy literature offers is the opportunity to imaginatively enter into a second world that has its own structure and rules that one assumes when temporarily living in that world. The world of C. S. Lewis called Narnia is such a special world. It is a world created by Aslan, a lion/savior figure. It is governed by magical forces and where human intentions are manifested physically. Animals talk and any object can sprout like a plant. Time is totally different from time our world. Events occur at a different pace. Time is more like eternity and death does not seem to exist. To operate in this world one must learn to live according to the new rules. But the advantage of this world is that it can teach us things that lie closer to the core than what we learn from daily experience.

Why does C S Lewis create such a different world in his fiction? It may be: because this kind of a world responds to heroic endeavor much more readily than in our world of objective laws. The very nature of the heroic quest demands such a world to frame it. The heroic quest according to the poet W H Auden, involves a call to a task for the hero that only he/ she can fulfill because of his or her unique qualities and the actions of the quest have strong influence on the destiny of the world he or she lives in. This kind of thinking helps one consider one’s identity as a reader in another light. In the pre-scientific view of the physical world in the middle ages that included miracles and magic lent itself as a setting to stories of heroic deeds and great quests. Narnia functions in a similar way to create an appropriate setting for heroic action of Digory, Polly and other characters.

But with C S Lewis there is another secondary world that appeals to us: the supposed “real world” of Victorian England that he portrays in all its detail from ornate streetlamps to horse driven carriages. His characters come from that Victorian world at the beginning of his novel and return to it at the end of the action. The nostalgically manufactured Victorian world of Lewis is as mythical to us as the fantasy world of Narnia. The furniture and fashions of Victoriana are everywhere in the Narnia saga. They are saturated with affection and homeliness. Victorian London is also a consistent world with its own laws and established patterns of action. For the modern reader contemplating that Victorian world is also an escape and one that makes certain kinds of moral reflections more real. So we are living in CS Lewis’ fiction in a two layered universe both worlds are secondary worlds, fictions of escape and settings for action. The two worlds are both set up to help reflection on human possibilities.

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