The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

I was intrigued into reading Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia because my own experience was similar to hers: I loved the Narnia books as a kid, but felt rather betrayed when I learned they were generally seen as blatant Christian propaganda. At which point, though it hadn’t been obvious at all to me when I read them (or, rather, had them read to me), it suddenly was, and obtrusively so. I was hoping, in reading Miller’s book, to resolve the question of whether the Narnia books can be redeemed, and re-read, despite their didactic intent, or whether, once the childhood bubble of their purely imaginative world has been burst (by the pin of propaganda!), the magic can ever be recovered.

Miller’s book is divided into three sections: one covering her childhood love of the books, another covering the difficulties with them she became aware of as she grew up, and a third about revisiting them as an adult. Her method is basically discursive. She explores, chapter by chapter, various aspects of the Narnia books, and of C S Lewis as a writer, academic and person. This book is not a single, focused, critical argument, but more a literary stroll through Narnia and associated topics. I like books about books, and prefer most of all books aimed at a non-academic audience — books that focus on the joys of reading, and its links to everyday life, rather than on some particular aspect of literary theory. Miller’s book is, thankfully, not academic, and though the lack of footnotes or even a bibliography was sometimes annoying, it at least meant the book was written on my level. And, while she doesn’t treat the book as an argument in Narnia’s defence so much as an exploration of its various aspects, good and bad, she does provide some worthwhile insights on the way.

To Miller as a child, the Narnia books were a revelation. In a rather magically-tinged incident in her young life, a teacher lent her The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, having decided she was a “child who needed to read C S Lewis”. This teacher later said that, on handing the book back after reading it, “You told me, and this I have always remembered, that you didn’t know that there were other people who had the kind of imagination that you did.”

It’s the middle section that really confronts the issues an adult (or even adolescent) reader has with the Narnia books. First, that they’re sometimes blatantly propagandist; second, that they contain all of Lewis’s faults as a person — his dated attitudes towards women and race for instance, which nowadays go as much to spoil the paradisal nature of Narnia as, in Lewis’s mind at least, they once went towards building it. Miller doesn’t attempt to justify the Narnia books in the face of these faults, but makes the point that “A perfect story is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being”. The Narnia books have flaws just as Lewis, the person, had flaws, and as an adult you have to accept that is how they — and, really, all books — are. In literature (and fantasy, particularly), we may seek ideal worlds to make up for the real one’s flaws, but all we’ll find in the end is more flaws, even though very human ones.

In the book’s final section, Miller spent so much time talking about Tolkien, rather than Lewis, I wondered if she was tacitly proving Lewis’s faults by saying you couldn’t justify the Narnia books on their own terms. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, it’s easy, as an adult reader, to think the Narnia books a lesser effort, because less consistently imagined, less unified in vision. (Tolkien certainly thought so.) But, Miller says:

“The Chronicles are unified, not by anything resembling the exhaustive cultural stuff that Tolkien invented for Middle-earth, not by a single aesthetic or style, and not even, really, by a cogent religious vision, but by readerly desire. Lewis poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he’d enjoyed as an adult.”

That wonderful phrase “readerly desire” is they key to appreciating the Narnia books. “Narnia,” Miller says, “is the country of literature, of books, and of reading, a territory so vast that it might as well be infinite.” Like certain other fantasy worlds — Oz and Xanth for instance — Narnia isn’t designed to live up to Tolkien’s ideal of something that demands “credible, commanding Secondary Belief” from the reader, as set out in his essay, “On Fairy Tales”. Narnia, Oz and Xanth are more like grab-bags of all the imagination can contain, and so come to represent imagination itself. Access to Narnia is access to the imagination; the cupboard that, like the TARDIS, proves to be larger on the inside than out, and contains a whole, living, magical world, is just the human mind. Which may be why, once a relationship with such books is forged as a child, it can be so difficult to break, and feel so much like a betrayal if it is broken. But also why it is well worth recovering as an adult.

Michael Powell’s Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books have been adapted for the screen twice, once as a TV mini-series in 2004 (which Le Guin didn’t like), and once as an animated film from Studio Ghibli in 2006 (which fared a smidgen better with Le Guin, though she originally sold the rights on the understanding it would be Hayao Miyakazi making the film; in the end it was his son), but there was another, earlier, attempt at adapting the first two Earthsea books, a live action feature film written and directed by Michael Powell, he of Powell & Pressburger (The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann), and, on his own, the notorious Peeping Tom (1960). Apparently, Powell wrote to Le Guin to tell her how much he’d enjoyed the books, a correspondence ensued, and that led to their collaborating on the script by mail. (There’s a good account of how the two got started in a comment over at Tor.com.)

Powell had grand plans for the film, including bringing in David Hockney as designer (because of some illustrations he’d done for an edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales — you can see some of them here, and, if you’re like me, wonder what he saw in them); Francis Ford Coppola was to have provided financial backing. The whole project never got further than the script, though — one account says it was due to Coppola going bankrupt, another that it was down to the ageing Powell not being able to get insurance — but the script is available to read over at Scribd.com. As the first two Earthsea books are perhaps the earliest-read books I still own, and occasionally re-read, I was curious to see what such a reputable filmmaker, with a definite artistic talent of his own, would have made of them.

Although it’s titled A Wizard of Earthsea, the script actually adapts the first two Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea (which makes up the bulk of the film) and The Tombs of Atuan (which is mostly a subplot till the two come together at the end). And, apart from some jiggery-pokery needed to squeeze that pair into a two-hour film and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion, it generally remains very faithful to the books. The ending of Wizard (where Ged sails beyond the Archipelago in order to face the shadow he’s brought into the world alone) is lost, that final confrontation being merged with his and Tenar’s escape from the subterranean labyrinth of Atuan. For a long time, I preferred The Tombs of Atuan to its predecessor, and I couldn’t help being disappointed at how abbreviated Tenar’s story ends up in the script — her rejection of the gods she was brought up to serve is pretty much over in a line (“Oh Nameless Ones! My name is Tenar — Tenar — TENAR! I am not your servant any more!”), whereas, of course, she had a whole book to build up to that point in Atuan. But, allowing for the necessary abridgement, the feel of the stories is still very much intact in the script.

One question, though, is would it have remained that way? It’s notable that one of the scenes from A Wizard of Earthsea that didn’t make it into Powell and Le Guin’s script is probably the very one that would have sold it to a modern-day producer: the bit where Ged goes head-to-head with a dragon. Dragons appear in the script’s prologue, which ranges over the lands of Earthsea, introducing the Archipelago to the viewer, but aren’t seen again. Perhaps that was due to FX concerns, but it seems more to be because they were deemed extraneous to the story Powell and Le Guin were telling. Still, a dragon at the beginning (rather like a gun on the wall in the first act of a play) implies a promise of further dragonry to come, and in this case, the audience would have been disappointed.

There are some FX sequences left in. There’s a lot of illusion-weaving in the School for Wizards, for instance, and one intriguing scene where we first see the Archmage:

173. THE TALL WHITE FIGURE OF ARCHMAGE NEMMERLE materialises out of the shape and the spray of the falling water. A great black BIRD, a RAVEN of OSKILL, walks across the COURT to the Archmage and pecks at his STAFF.

Most of Le Guin’s magic, though, is understated and probably not as cinematic as a modern audience would expect — no flinging of fireballs or bolts of magical energy, for instance. If the film were to be made today, in this post-Peter Jackson age, that would almost surely be changed, or certainly cause the filmmakers to come under pressure from their more commercially-minded backers.

Another interesting point was that Powell obviously wasn’t thinking of this as a children’s film. His reaction to the books was, apparently, surprise that they were being published by Puffin, a children’s publisher, because he thought they were for everyone, adults included. I agree, but they certainly start off as being accessible by children. Powell, though, seems to have put his foot firmly down on the “for adults” camp, with a section of the script that details Ged’s stay with the people of the Terranon. Having just made it into their stronghold after being chased by the shadow-creature he loosed upon the world as a student mage, Ged collapses; there follows a slightly feverish sequence as he recovers, which starts with this scene:

486. HOT SPRINGS. Colors — weird rocks — old dwarf trees — NAKED WOMEN IN THE STEAM — THEIR VOICES. MUSIC AND SINGING. MUSCULAR MEN. EROTICA.

…and that mood continues with the appearance of Serret, a woman who “is elaborately dressed, she gleams with jewels, rings, earrings, toerings: her body, which can be glimpsed through the diaphanous gown she wears, shines with jewels. The nipples of her breasts are ornamented with rubies, her navel is set with diamonds. She is definitely a Princess.”

Definitely a Princess; definitely not for children, either.

Having read the script, I’d love to have seen the resulting film. If it had managed to stay true to what they’d put down on the page, and not be changed by producers wanting something more commercial, I think it would have been one of the better fantasy films of the eighties — or even the current decade.

Pity it wasn’t to be.

In which I mingle with rock stars and academics…

Towards the end of 2009, I was invited to contribute an essay to a festschrift for Colin Wilson‘s 80th birthday in June of this year. Originally to be published by editor Colin Stanley’s Pauper’s Press, the project was taken on by O Books, and is to be published in May this year. I was invited because of my David Lindsay site, The Violet Apple, and so of course my essay was about Wilson’s writings on David Lindsay, and the enormous influence he’s had on the fact that Lindsay is still in print today.

Within the pages of Around the Outsider, I mingle with academics, writers, and several musicians, including the onetime bass player from Blondie, Gary Lachman, whose books (including A Secret History of Consciousness, and The Dedalus Book of the 1960s — which I used in researching my Lindsay essay) seem to me to be continuing very much in the spirit of Wilson himself; and also David Power, who has published a book on David Lindsay, David Lindsay’s Vision (which has an introduction by Colin Wilson).

There’s more about Around the Outsider at Colin Wilson World, and Colin Wilson Online, and it can now be pre-ordered through Amazon.

BioShock 1 & 2

I play one or two video games a year, partly because I don’t spend many hours per week playing them, and partly because my tastes (and gaming abilities) seem to be different enough from the marketplace in general that I can’t find many I know I’m going to enjoy. (And also, of course, because they’re expensive, which puts me off too much experimentation.) I like, above all, games which tell stories — and I don’t just mean those which have a cutscene or two to explain why we’re moving from level one to level two, but games with some sort of genuine emotional content. Failing that, games which allow me to explore an atmospheric environment. Among the former, I’d place the Myst series (particularly Myst III), Final Fantasy VIII, and Ico; among the latter, the early Tomb Raider games. (I haven’t finished any of the more recent Tomb Raider offerings, but the first five are among the few I’ve played twice, all the way through.)

BioShock 2, which I finished recently, sits sort of halfway between.

The BioShock games take place in the city of Rapture, built in the 1950s by plutocrat Andrew Ryan, whose idea was to create a place in which people could live without government interference — specifically, without the government placing any limits on what profit-hungry businessmen and knowledge-hungry scientists could get up to. And as the only place to build such a city is the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s where he builds it: a magnificent Art Deco temple to consumerism, leisure, and wild genetic experimentation. In its later, semi-ruined state, it makes a wonderfully weird game environment.

Ryan’s ideals are based on those of the writer Ayn Rand. What little I know about Rand comes from my one attempt at reading her brick of a book, Atlas Shrugged, which seemed to be mostly about self-indulgent industrialists moaning at how labour laws interfere with their profit margins. Rand believed governments shouldn’t get in the way of business tycoons by imposing such things as minimum wages and worker’s rights. Life, for Rand, was meant to be a fight for survival in which the strong impose their will on the weak as much as their strength allows. Rapture was conceived of as the living example of her ideals, but it quickly descends into chaos, and by the time you visit it as an outsider in the first BioShock game, it’s nothing but a once-beautiful ruin populated by deranged, feral “gene splicers”, and a handful of holed-in entrepreneurs clinging to their failed ideals.

But the core story of BioShock is about rescuing innocence. Fifties America, from which the games get so much of their look and feel, was one of the last modern eras to have a culturally-accepted idea of innocence. It was an era that allowed itself to believe in simple ideals. This tends to be seen, nowadays, as a veneer over the decade’s intolerance and repression — as typified by the image of the housewife going quietly insane trying to live up to advertisers’ ideals of perfection, or the awful race riots in the country at the time — and anyway it was all put paid to by a combination of Senator McCarthy’s paranoia, the fear of atomic war, the disaster of Vietnam, and the assassination of JFK, among other things. By the sixties, the belief in innocence was relegated to the hippie counterculture, and then was pretty much laughed out of court. Since then, cynicism has become the cultural norm, to the point that it’s often referred to as realism.

The ruined Art Deco beauty of the city of Rapture is ruined innocence in concrete, glass and formica. But it’s the figures of the Little Sisters who are the real focal point. The Little Sisters are little girls, dressed to the girliest in Alice bows and petticoated dresses, but who have evilly glowing eyes and go around draining corpses of the gene-modifying substance known as “Adam” with monstrous syringes. In this, they’re accompanied by their protectors, the Big Daddies — dumb, lumbering giants looking like old-fashioned deep sea divers, who tramp obediently after their charges and attack anyone who gets too near. But the Little Sisters are in fact real little girls — orphans, as if the screw needed a further turn — who’ve been genetically altered by Rapture’s scientists to harvest Adam. The story of both BioShock 1 & 2 is ultimately about freeing these little girls from the tyranny of Rapture, and returning them to being innocent children once more.

BioShock allows its players to make a few moral choices. You need to capture Little Sisters to get supplies of Adam, for instance, but having captured them, you can choose to rescue them, or harvest them (which gets you more Adam, but kills the girl). I, being an awful softie, just couldn’t harvest them, even to find out how it alters the game’s outcome.

Other than that, BioShock is basically a shoot-em-up. The story part progresses mostly through taped journals from a variety of characters you find throughout the game, but the gameplay generally consists of collecting a wide variety of ammo and blasting the hell out of gene-splicers and Big Daddies.

Which was fun.

As a game, I found both BioShock 1 and 2 to be wonderfully playable, and though the story never quite reached the heights of the games that really involved me in their characters (Final Fantasy VIII, Myst III), it at least had some thought-provoking ideas behind it. Games achieve their effects in a different way from films and books; the major factor is the time you spend in the game’s world, doing the same sort of action (exploring, puzzle-solving, fighting) over and over again. It’s in this area that the real meaning of a game comes out, not in the cut-scenes. And it’s in this area — the gameplay — that BioShock works best.

Nice to know there’s a bit of artistry as well as mere commercialism in games, still.