Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #21: Favorite classic revisited

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The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
(bonus: great Christmas vacation reading!)

Okay, I'm totally cheating on this one: not only was it not published this year, but it wasn't even on my original list of favorites. I realized I miscounted and needed one more to push it up to a full Advent calendar 24. Reading Laura Miller's appreciation of Lewis, and especially his association with Christmas, convinced me that it's not totally out of bounds to declare my love for this many-times-read series, especially at this particular season.

On a visit to my family in California this summer, I joined them at a Ventura movie theater for a viewing of Prince Caspian, since all of us grew up having the Chronicles read to us until we could read them ourselves. The movie was pretty terrible, at least for us purists -- the directors added a nasty power struggle and an unbelievable romance that are entirely absent from Lewis' pre-adolescent adventures -- but on returning to my childhood home afterward I was moved to pick up the barely-hanging-together paperbacks of our old boxed set. I read Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader in quick succession, and with great, great pleasure.

Like Miller (whose Magician's Book I look forward to reading) my relationship with Lewis has changed over the years. Like Tolkien, Lewis's English-white-man-of-the-early-20th-century prejudices become more clear as one grows up and learns of things like post-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and gender studies. It's unfortunate that the bad guys are vaguely Arabic, that unattractive or fat people tend to be unpleasant or stupid, and that gender roles are pretty narrowly defined.

But that's hardly the point. They are stories doing what stories are supposed to do: entertaining, inspiring, sparking imagination, instilling values (of courage and compassion and loyalty, if not all the more modern virtues). And they defined my childhood, as they did that of many. My love of Michael Chabon and Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman can hardly be separated from those evenings of "one more chapter" about Eustace and the dragon or the Lord Rhoop. And even with a more cosmopolitan reader's eye, those stories hold up and bring the thrills and chuckles as they always have (the humor I'd almost forgotten).

Now is a great time to revisit Narnia, in the quiet lull around Christmas dinner or while waiting for guests to arrive. And even if you don't do the Christmas thing and you share Miller's distaste for Lewis's Christian themes, his skill as a storyteller is consummate, and reading him is a pleasure all the sharper for being able to see him as a human.

(A side note: I noticed that the contemporary HarperCollins edition of Dawn Treader has significant textual differences from the one I first read, particularly in the passage about the horrific Island Where Dreams Come True. No mention is made that I can see of these content changes, and I wonder who made the decision to alter the original. Anyone with inside information, step forth -- I'd be very curious to know.)