Sunday, March 20, 2011

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light

I've been trying to read Little Women to my eleven year old sister, Madeline. She likes the March sisters tolerably well, but unfortunately it's pretty hard for the four well-behaved little ladies to compete with the harum-scarum toil-and-trouble of Harry Potter and the Etcetera. Madeline recently finished all seven Harry Potter books in two and a half months. I think that's okay. (I raced through them too, although I had to WAIT for 7 years to finish them.) Looking back, I find them pretty sensational and fluffy, but she says she likes them because "they aren't JUST about wizards. They're about Muggles too." They've got a foot in the real world, which makes them believable.

I've been thinking about this quality of "realness" in children's books, especially fantasy and science fiction. The most captivating stories are always about "real people," "kids just like me," to whom something unexpected and exciting happens. I'm thinking of the Pevensies of Narnia, L'Engle's Murry family, Omri of The Indian in the Cupboard, and Harry Potter as well. These kids were just going about their humdrum business, when out of the blue, they wandered into a magical world, they were visited by a mysterious neighbour, they found a magical key, or they received a strange letter. Now the world is different, absolutely and forever. Now they lead two lives. Now their bodies might be oppressed by the mundane or the miserable, but in their hearts and imaginations they are warriors, royal and free. They might wonder at times if their adventures were just a dream, but most stories like this conclude with a thrill of delight-- it's all true.

As a child closes each of these books with a sigh, he or she has to wonder, "Is it really true? Could this happen to me as well if I wish for it fervently enough?" At least I did. I investigated all dark closets, and always tried slamming cupboard doors on little army guys, screwing my eyes shut and searching for an incantation. When I got to Harry Potter, I was old enough to know that this was certainly NOT going to happen to me, but Madeline has been carrying around a stuffed owl and a wand-sized stick for months. I haven't asked her how seriously she takes the Harry Potter stories, but I suspect that there is a little bit of hope in her heart.

To me, The Chronicles of Narnia are still the best stories of this kind. And this is why:

Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back
into our own world so often."
"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.
"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are-- as you used to call it in the Shadowlands-- dead. The term is over:
the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for
us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all
lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real
story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only
been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One
of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in
which ever chapter is better than the one before.

The simplicity and direct correspondence of the allegory in The Chronicles has been criticized (even by Lewis' close friend Tolkien,) and I've heard people (usually "big kids") scoff at them because of this. But of course the symbolism is obvious. These are stories for children, who need practice with abstraction. If the obvious parallels to the Christian story bother you, that's probably because you take offense at the Christian story. But if you want desperately for Narnia to be real, then with joyful sorrow will you close The Last Battle. The symbolism is obvious, and the story is true. Narnia spills into the world that we know, and now "it can
happen to you." It was open to you all along.

These things occurred to me at the beginning of Liturgy today, and after that everything seemed hopeful and luminous. Now we see through a glass darkly, but...

The term, the dream and Lent will be over.
The holidays will begin. Spring and Pascha will come.
We will be reunited with everyone whom we love and pray for.
Angels and saints are holy warriors, and they protect us.
Blind men really did, and will, see.
The paralytic really did, and will, take up his mat and walk.
Everything beautiful is true.
All that we hope for will come to pass, and in fact has come to pass already.
And we shall see Him as He is.
It's all true.

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