Saturday, December 10, 2005

The mythic

The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe
I've been to Narnia, and it was magical.

On returning home I immediately reached for my ratty old paperback. The film is remarkably faithful. The opening sequences are not original to the novel but add substantial dimension to the young characters.

We'd left the theater with a few questions, myself not having read the Chronicles for quite a few years and J-F not knowing them at all.

One change for the worse: On finding Aslan dead, Lucy is tempted to try her healing potion on him but Susan stops her, saying, "it's too late." Who wouldn't try it anyway? Better in the book, that Lucy has completely forgotten she is in possession of such an elixir until she is reminded to make herself useful with it.

The prevalent question in my mind: is the witch human? I found the answer in the text:
"She'd like us to believe it," said Mr Beaver, "and it's on that that she bases her claim to be Queen. But she's no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam's" — (here Mr Beaver bowed) — "your father Adam's first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That's what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes from the giants. No, no, there isn't a drop of human blood in the Witch."


(I first came across mention of Lilith in Michael Moorcock's The Warhound and the World's Pain, and for some time was intent on researching her origins, her myths, but was frustrated by dead ends at every turn. Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but Lilith ate of the tree of life, gaining immortality, preserved by feasting on children. How do I know this? I read it somewhere, but am unable to confirm it now. I've filled in some blanks, assumed some things to be "true," and have created my own mythology of her.)

J-F had questions about the prophecies, assuming shortcuts had been taken with this backstory. In fact the prophecies are not much fleshed out in the novel. As in the film, there are only the merest hints as to the Deep Magic of the place.

This indicates to me the deep magic of the chronicles themselves, of the child's imagination, and the reader's leap of faith — that as child reader I filled in the blanks, buying into the aura of the mythology without having to know its details.

As for the Christian allegory, I had trouble seeing it then, and I still don't think it's obvious.

The New Yorker on Narnia:
For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.


Penelope, Odysseus, and the hanged maidens
Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is disappointing. It's barely a sketch of a story. Penelope is certainly never developed sufficiently to be sympathetic. It's a stringing together of what-ifs and don't-you-thinks and maybe-it-transpired-this ways, but it never fulfills its marketed promise to tell the hardship of the faithful wife holding the fort while her adventurer husband goes off to war and fails to return for 20 years. It's not a window on domestic drudgery.

I do not have the benefit of having read the Odyssey, but Atwood's acknowledgements led me to Robert Graves' Greek Myths, which conveniently does sit on my shelf. References to Penelope are scant, so while it's a wonder that Atwood could fashion any story at all, I wonder that she didn't take freer reign.

(Myths become myths only after we've filled in the blanks, fleshed out the outlines.)

I have to agree:
This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that comes dangerously close to being a spoof. Most fatally, the maids, whose tragic end in the "Odyssey" is what in part inspired Atwood to choose this story, also remain mere outlines of characters.


The minotaur
Of all the book in the Myths project, I most look forward to Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror:
His text is structured as an Internet chat room, where several people discuss the strange experiment in which they have landed. Each of them has been presented with a labyrinth, but the details of these mazes vary widely, from a Gothic cathedral to a table with a loaded gun on it. It gradually becomes clear that the whole thing may be happening in the Minotaur's mind. The ending turns everything upside down in trademark Pelevin style.


I read Pelevin's Homo Zapiens a few years ago. All I can muster to say about that book is that it's, well, pretty fucked up.
For two reasons, it is disturbing to think that Western readers may regard Pelevin as Russia's most representative writer. First, Pelevin does not readily distinguish between things as they are and his arcane elaborations. A naive reader may confuse his phantasmagoric ravings for true descriptions of Russian reality; this reader will never talk to any Russian again without a burning desire to run for his life. Second, Pelevin might actually be Russia's most representative writer.
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