Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lewis' Rules and How To Break Them

         Chapter 15 gave me an uneasiness that I never expected to feel from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a children's novel. At best I figured that I had reached a level of academic objectivity that something crafted to entice the juvenile mind would not have the gravity to evoke a mature feeling in me. I am shook by strong rhetoric and astute diction and an authorial acumen sharp enough to shave your hair off. McCarthy. Faulkner. Heller. Those whose command of language is only rivaled by their insight. And yet, this unassuming moral didactic inspired something that—though not as powerful—I only ever thought I would feel as a consequence of a work much more grand in scope.
         Lewis worked with what he had, and the book spoke modestly. He created this rich fantasy world full of all that makes our own world real to us and he throws the reader into it. Perhaps children experience this differently by holding looser connections to the world and an eagerness to retreat to a “secret country.” Most of us, I would imagine, understood what it was going in and were complacent in our willingness to engage. We let the world come easy but we can't help but to keep it at arms length; I did so, anyway.
        When we reach the penultimate chapter, Lewis has already set in motion his universe from page one and it persists. The characters, the places and the interactions exist separate from our world but still feel bound to an order and a fantastic rationality. We learn to live in this world as Eustace does, we do as the Narnians do, and it reaches a state of familiarity—and more importantly, consistency. Dragons can be introduced in chapter 6 and it gels with our understanding. We can begin to expect these things to come. As I am sure others can testify to (as I unfortunately have no real experience of this myself) traveling abroad and being thrown into something foreign begs you to assimilate. The society has its way of doing things and they are far larger than any attempt to go against the grain.
         By constructing a system that is consistent and to a certain extent understandable with a suspension of disbelief, Lewis sets up the tonal shift in the climax of the novel occurring specifically in chapter 14, appropriately named “The Beginning of the End of the World.” The crew reaches Ramandu's island and it maintains the facade of fantasy for a short while. However, it is in this chapter that Lewis breaks from his consistency and we are given a jarring glance behind the curtain. Caspian inquires into the reasons for Coriakin's change in cosmic nature, and Ramandu replies “it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit” (p. I left my book in class). Leaving aside the religious allegories at the heart of the novel, this sentence comes from beyond the story, presenting two allusions that break away from the character of the narrative. Lewis explicitly invokes Adam of the book of Genesis and the “Morning Star” Lucifer within the same sentence and it flies completely over our protagonists heads by not garnering even a single puzzled look from the conversation's participants; the allusions shoot straight past them for the reader.
         This hiccup is the literary equivalent of holding a conversation in French in the heart of Paris and having the person excuse their sneeze in English before continuing on without skipping a beat. Lewis creates the rules and then bends them, and it plants a disconcerted feeling. We have traveled into his world, and we think we know how it works until he starts tweaking it. It is this reason, I believe, that is the root for the tension and uneasiness in the succeeding chapter. The crew departs from the island and though we have come to believe that we are still under the jurisdiction of Narnia, we watch the rules change around us. Lewis literally writes, “All was different. For one thing they all found that they were needing less sleep. One did not want to go to bed, nor to eat much, nor even to talk except in low voices” (p. ). The characters are reacting to these changes and this does not conflate with our understanding of the mechanisms of Narnia. Something is off, dissonant. Cue tension.
         Most uncomfortable of these passages is Drinian's observation of the weather. It is not magical; it's haunting. “Drinian said: 'I can't understand this. There is not a breath of wind. The sail hangs dead. The sea is as flat as a pond. And yet we drive on as fast as if there were a gale behind us'” (p. ). Eustace's sensation of “'Hurry, hurry, hurry'” (p. ) has returned and now our surroundings exist in something akin to an orderly chaos. Drinian is describing something that is not natural or comfortable, even for a world of fantasy. It very much reminds me of the same sensation I get from a bout of several consecutive hours of reading literature in hours of the morning that no one should ever see. The book then rides this stream of uncertainty to its conclusion, where even Aslan sheds his familiar appearance.
        Lewis' writing never quite makes an about-face, and I don't think he was intending that. It changes in just slight enough of a fashion to generate emotions certain readers were not expecting to feel by the same devices that a good horror genre uses to slowly bend, twist and finally unravel. Indeed, this doesn't have to be exclusive to literature. Any art is subject to these nuances of perspective and life as well, seeing that the former is just a reflection of such. I wish I had a story to share about being taken out of place in a foreign environment as drastically as Lewis does at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Oh well, in the meantime I have my books.

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