Nostalgia Trip: The Chronicles of Narnia

Revisiting nostalgic favorites: a pleasant return to comforting, cherished memories, or a one-way ticket to disillusionment.

The Chronicles of Narnia may be the literature that most informed my early years. Like many a child, I dreamed of stumbling upon a portal that would lead to thrilling, magical adventures with Aslan, the Pevensie children, and the daring, diminutive Reepicheep. I habitually checked the backs of closets, knowing that my hands would meet the resistance of a wall, but still disappointed when my fingers didn’t brush against snow-covered pine needles. Walking through woods, or slipping through the gap in a hedge, I always imagined that, upon passing through to the other side, I would find myself in a different world.

Narnia was my first exposure to many fantasy tropes that continued to fascinate me for many, many years. I’m still a sucker for stories about alternate worlds and dimensions: Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame, Matthew Stover’s The Acts of Caine…  Just about any half-decent story of dimension-hopping has been able to grab and hold my attention.

I’m even tempted to blame my fondness for Doctor Who and British sitcoms on Narnia’s innate and obvious British-ness, but that might be stretching it a bit. The culprit could as easily be the adolescent fascination I had with the adorable Elizabeth Sladen and Felicity Kendal.

Point being, I had placed Narnia on a pedestal stacked so impossibly high with childhood wonder and personally mythic importance, that I wasn’t at all surprised when revisiting the books as an adult resulted in disappointment. I was, however, surprised at the source of my disappointment, which was my discovery that the books were so blatantly, heavily, and simplistically allegorical.

I don’t have a kneejerk, negative reaction to literature that’s influenced and inspired by religion, or even literature that celebrates religion and faith (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is unapologetically a Catholic text, and it’s one of the seminal pieces of fantasy fiction for damned good reasons), but there’s a thin line between stories with religious elements and stories that proselytize, and when a story is as transparent a religious allegory as Narnia, it’s slipping into preachy territory.

I still have a fondness for Narnia, to the point where I’ll still geek out and rant over things like the newer printings of the books being reordered chronologically (they’re not meant to be read in chronological order, damn it!) Still, I can’t help but be saddened when I think of C.S. Lewis dedicating The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter.

“I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.”

Either Narnia is not a very good fairy tale, or I have outgrown fairy tales.

Either option is sad, though I feel fairly confident that I have not outgrown fairy tales.

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Stranger than Science Fiction

Do you ever have one of those moments where you realize that reality has become more science fiction than science fiction? And then you realize that the moment really shouldn’t be so surprising, because the time we’re living in is already so science fiction.

Gas stations are amazing. It’s utterly futuristic that you can scan your credit or debit card at the pump and avoid the hassle of dealing with the station attendant or cashier (pesky human interaction). The majority of convenience stores have only been using this technology since about 2002. Just over ten years, but it feels like forever. But it’s not a big deal. Banking is all electronic, and credit and debit systems have been in existence for at least decades, and we all know that everything is connected through a vast web of data, and automatic teller machines are everywhere. Pay-at-the-pump only makes sense. It would be dumb to not have pay-at-the-pump.

But then there’s that moment where everything you were taking for granted suddenly feels like science fiction. My family and I pull our mini-van into the local gas station. We don’t have our smart card on us (another nifty bit of technology that allows you to save a few cents on each gallon), but the wife, being stubborn, uses her smartphone to access the smart card site, which auto-enters our location with the phone’s global positioning system, which then prompts us to enter the pump number, which then activates the pump. We activated the pump and paid for the gas with a telephone. It feels like magic, but it shouldn’t. It’s just another clever use of existing technology.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly has a throw-away scene that is an example of these little moments of epiphany. Or, I suppose, un-epiphany, once the quick rush of epiphany wears off and you realize that the moment is actually rather mundane.

Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Zoë: You live in a spaceship, dear.

Wash: So?

Nah, I’m going to stick with epiphany, because no matter how commonplace the science fiction realities we experience become, we’re still living the reality of science fiction. How cool is that? We’re living in a freaking spaceship.


Metaphors Be With You

Metaphors are capable of cutting to the truth of a matter, or of casting images that sear and brand the mind, in a way that simple descriptions or statements of fact are not always capable of.

Odysseus threw the stool.

Odysseus let the stool fly.

The first example perfectly explains what happened. Odysseus threw the stool. The second example explains the exact same action, but it simply and poetically implies the grace and strength with which Odysseus hurls the stool, as though the stool has a mind of its own and wants to fly toward its target. The second example is laced with a sense of power and truth that the first lacks.

Fantasy and science fiction can have a lasting, hard hitting impact on audiences because fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally geared toward the delivery of striking, powerful metaphors. More than that, fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally geared toward being read and interpreted as extended metaphors. When a story is set in a fictional world, or an altered world, it’s easy to begin perceiving it all as symbolic and metaphorical. Witness the compulsive need that some readers have to interpret The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The human brain is so adept at perceiving patterns that it perceives patterns even where none exist. Fantasy and science fiction, lacking a one-to-one parallel to reality, is open to being formed into very personal and deeply held patterns that the reader places onto them, even in the lack of such a pattern.

I wonder if this is why some fans (myself included, if I’m being perfectly honest) develop fan obsessions that can resemble some form of religious zealotry.

Luke Skywalker is not really a young farm boy who becomes a Jedi. He’s a metaphor for the pains of transitioning from youth to adulthood.

Buffy Summers doesn’t really battle demons, but rather the perils and hurts of high school adolescence.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds isn’t really hiding from and ineffectually railing against the Alliance.  In truth, he’s the geek’s patron saint of lost causes.

These are metaphors that can speak to us in very personal, meaningful ways.

I wonder if this is why some of us fly into a rage when our favorite properties “betray” us by transitioning to a new mood and tone, to a new storyline, to new characters, to new themes… Perhaps we become so lost in our personalizing of these stories that when these stories change, it doesn’t simply feel like change, but like a personal attack on aspects of ourselves that we hold dear.

But before we become angry, maybe we should consider the opportunity that’s being offered us to discover and formulate new metaphors, new patterns, and new meanings.

And sometimes we simply outgrow our stories, or our stories outgrow us. That’s just life.

And sometimes something is just not very good, but still, that doesn’t mean that the Star Wars prequels kicked your puppy or ate all your french fries.

Metaphors be with you.


When Fans Hate

**Some not-so-nice imagery and language may follow**

What is it about fandom that causes fans to voice such hate and anger toward the writers and creators of their favorite shows, movies, and books?

Sorry, that’s rhetorical. I actually know the answer to this question. I’m sure we all know the answer to this question. I well know the feeling of being disappointed, even resentful, when a franchise you once loved has declined in quality, or when it’s gone in a direction that seems to be abandoning everything that made you like it in the first place. It’s silly, but it’s almost like a sense of betrayal when you witness a beloved property go completely off the rails. For me it’s happened with Star Wars, Star Trek, Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, Northern Exposure, The X-Files

So I get it. I really do. I understand where the hate and anger come from, and I understand why the hate and anger is triggered.

But hate and anger? Really? Disappointment, frustration, sadness maybe, a sense of loss that something you were enjoying is slipping away… but hate and anger?

I was going to write in length about a specific television writer who has been spawning more spiteful, over-the-top, disturbing fan hate than I ever recall seeing before, the kind of stuff that’s typically only reserved for child molesters and occasionally politicians, but it’s just not worth it. With this kind of rant, you’re either preaching to the choir or pounding your head against a brick wall. Many of you will probably already know who I’m talking about, and if you do know who I’m talking about, there’s a chance you’re one of those who thinks the hate is justified. I just wonder how some of us have become so bitter and twisted that we can decide, based solely on disliking his style of characterization and plotting, a few awkward interviews, a few out-of-context quotes, and a sarcastic sense of humor, that a man we don’t even know is a proud and evil misogynist, racist, and homophobe. I wonder and worry about those of us who have jumped to conclusions such as “he probably rapes his wife,” and I’m greatly perplexed by those of us who wish for horrible things to happen to him, such as “I hope someone cuts off his cock and shoves it down his throat and chokes him to death.”

It’s gotten so bad that I’ve seen people not even question the validity of the accusations; “I used to really like his work, but then I heard that he didn’t like women. What a douche!” I feel like I’m seeing mob mentality in action; “You say he killed someone? Lynch him!” Even when someone says something nice about him, it often comes with a disclaimer; “I know he’s a misogynist, but…”

Try reading Dave Sim’s Cerebus if you want to actually experience the writing of a vocal and proud misogynist.

Honestly, people. Let’s get some perspective.

Or maybe the problem is that I’ve been perusing the wrong online communities lately. I really hope that’s the problem.


Rewriting Tolkien

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings because it’s dense, sprawling, and epic. I love it for its fractured but organized structure, its sense of depth and verisimilitude, its melancholy tone, and its sense of loss even in the face of triumph.

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit because it’s light, focused, and personal. I love it for its simple structure, its immediate sense of childish wonder, its lively tone, and its sense of triumph even in the face of loss.

These are generalizations, of course. The Lord of the Rings is not without its light moments, and The Hobbit is not without depth, but there is no denying that these are two works that, despite some similarties, are inherently and deeply different from each other; different in authorial intent, different in theme, different in characterization, different in mood, different in tone, and different in audience.

I like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings because, despite several qualms I have with the films, they are largely an attempt to capture the dense, sprawling, epic, melancholy nature of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I am greatly disappointed in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because, despite some things that I like about the movie, it is largely an attempt to capture the dense, sprawling, epic, melancholy nature of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I wouldn’t have even brought this up until seeing all three parts of The Hobbit (as if there could be anything more damning than adapting The Hobbit into three long films), but the trailers for The Desolation of Smaug have clinched it for me. A trailer for The Hobbit where two characters who never appeared in the book (one of whom is fabricated solely for the movie) are focused on as much or more than the title character is all the further evidence I need to know that these movies are not for me.

I had been reading The Hobbit to my five year old daughter. We were about halfway through when An Unexpected Journey was released on DVD. My daughter, being the sweet child she’s sometimes capable of being, excitedly convinced her mother to buy me the movie for Father’s Day. She was so pleased and happy that I agreed to sit down that afternoon to watch the movie with her. About fifteen minutes into the movie she turns to me and says “I thought we were going to watch The Hobbit!” Yeah. That would have been a nice movie to see.


Making the Doctor a Woman

*possible spoilers if you haven’t finished Series 7 of Doctor Who*

The character of the Doctor has always been male. It’s possible within the context of the show for the Doctor to become female.

Some fans are adamant about wanting the Doctor to stay male, some fans are adamant about wanting the Doctor to become a woman. Both sides can devolve into extreme nastiness when it comes to attacking the other. It’s nearly impossible to state your preference for the Doctor to stay male without being labeled as sexist or misogynist. It’s nearly impossible to state your preference for the Doctor to become female without being accused of being an agenda-pushing nut.

Both sides have a point. Too much of the pro-male crowd is clearly revealed to be sexist creeps once they begin arguing their point (“We’ll get stories about how she can never choose an outfit and how she’s on her period every month!”) Too much of the pro-female crowd is revealed to be agenda-driven whack-jobs (“Shame on Moffat for casting another man! He had a chance to deliver a powerful message to female fans across the world! I hope the sexist bastard chokes and dies!”).

Both sides have perfectly valid and sensible reasons for their preference.

On the one hand, the Doctor frequently experiences regeneration, which changes his appearance, his physical age, and his personality. Even his tastes change. The show has revealed that there has been at least one Time Lord who sometimes changed their gender when they regenerated. End of story. It’s completely possible for the Doctor to become female, and some fans think it would be interesting to see what a female actress would do with the role.

On the other hand, the Doctor frequently experiences regeneration, which has always resulted in him remaining male. This has happened ten times, soon to be eleven times (possibly soon to be 12 times, but more on that later). Clearly a precedent has been set, and to suddenly start making even more drastic changes in the Doctor’s appearance, when it’s obvious that he’s physically or mentally locked into a particular type of form or mentality, would seem strange, even by Doctor Who standards.

Some fans don’t really care one way or another, but whatever. Neutrality can be admirable, but non-position is boring.

Like it or not, we will eventually have a female Doctor. I’m firmly convinced that this is a foregone conclusion. I think that maybe Steven Moffat, the current show-runner of Doctor Who, is setting the show up to finally give us a female Doctor. I think that maybe, just maybe, Moffat has concocted a way to give us a female Doctor that will be an attempt to keep both sides of the argument happy.

The following points begin to paint a picture:

  1. Moffat’s Who has been placing a huge emphasis on how much the Doctor hates endings.
  2. Moffat has recently stated that he recognizes the canonical conceit that the Doctor can only regenerate twelve times, meaning that it’s possible that there can only be thirteen incarnations of the Doctor.
  3. The Series 7 finale The Name of the Doctor reveals the existence of a Doctor who may be a forgotten/hidden incarnation, meaning that the next Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, may be the thirteenth incarnation.
  4. The same episode spoke of the name of “The Doctor” as though it were a title as much as a name. The Doctors that we know don’t refer to the forgotten/hidden incarnation as “The Doctor” because he didn’t live up to the title. The Eleventh Doctor calls the name of “The Doctor” a “promise” that the forgotten/hidden Doctor broke.

So what we have is a perfect setup for the Doctor having to face his true, final death, which is thematically perfect because it’s been repeatedly noted that the Doctor hates endings. Combine this with the idea that “The Doctor” is a promise and title as much as a name and you have the perfect setup for a completely new character to take up the mantle of “The Doctor.” Kill off the Doctor, and have someone else take up his name. Have the Doctor breath his true, final breath, while someone else takes up his promise to help and heal the universe.

Steven Moffat has created a framework that, if followed through on, would allow the BBC to cast a woman as the Doctor without making the actual Doctor a woman.

I’m surprisingly okay with this idea.


Escapism

The fantasy genre falls prey to some harsh criticism. Sometimes the criticism is so harsh and mean-spirited that many fantasy fans have developed a strong resentment toward the “literary snobs” that look down their noses at us.

Sometimes we have more personal reasons for our resentment. The sentiment that fantasy is worthless is so prevalent and deeply ingrained in people that sometimes the criticisms aren’t even criticisms, but are instead personal insults intended to belittle and demean. My negative encounters with anti-fantasy zealots have been thankfully brief and easily dismissed as the mindless nattering of small-minded bullies. There was the fellow student who spitefully snapped “aren’t you too old for that crap” when they caught a glimpse of the book I was reading. There was the English teacher who haughtily and condescendingly informed me that my choice of reading material was a waste of my time because fantasy is nonsense. The irony that her favorite unit to teach was mythology was completely lost on her. I’m sure many fantasy fans have had experiences similar to (or even much worse) than my own. We’ve been primed from an early age to hiss and raise our hackles whenever someone says something derogatory about a genre that we love.

Much of the negative criticism of the fantasy genre can be written off as being overly generalized. Their attempts to discredit the genre’s entire field of work clearly indicate an unreasonable bias or an attempt to codify and justify their purely subjective preferences. Their claims that the fantasy genre produces nothing but inferior product betray an ignorance of the genre’s broad and varied offerings, or at the very least a view of the genre that’s far too narrow and specific. Not that attacks on fantasy are completely warrantless. Any fantasy fan who is remotely honest will admit that the genre is full of problematic material. Of course, this is a problem that plagues literature as a whole, so I’m not sure why some critics single out fantasy. I guess we all just have our pet peeves.

The criticism I encounter the most often is that fantasy (or any genre fiction, for that matter) is “escapism.” This is an attack on fantasy that actually carries a lot of weight, because “escapism” is undeniably why many fans read fantasy, as many fans will be happy to attest. It’s a criticism that I love because, on the face of it, it’s so damningly accurate, but at the same time it manages to miss the heart of its intended target.

While I’ve encountered compelling arguments for why reading purely for escapism is not ideal, I’ve never encountered a convincing argument for why escapism is inherently a bad thing. The anti-fantasy zealots have accurately identified a trait of fantasy and fantasy readers, but have never been able to successfully color that trait as negative.

Escapism is one of the reasons why anyone, even “literary snobs,” read fiction. To vicariously experience other time periods, locations, cultures, genders, mindsets, and ideas is one of the reasons why we read, and it’s all a form of escapism. When the anti-fantasy zealots attack fantasy for being escapist, they’re attacking much of the literature that they elevate above fantasy.

Escapism is only one of the reasons why most of us read fantasy. While it’s true that I’ve encountered the rare, fluffy-minded fantasy fan who reads fantasy solely for its romanticized, sanitized fairy tale simplicity where the story always has an uplifting, happy ending, there is far, far too much fantasy in existence that does not fit the needs of such fans. Perhaps some of you have witnessed the wrath of the “they lived happily ever after fan” upon reaching the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Like most of their criticisms, the anti-fantasy zealot’s accusation of escapism is too narrow and generalized. If we read fantasy in order to escape the harshness of reality, why do we choose to vicariously explore so many fantastical worlds that embrace the harsh grittiness of reality?

Too often, when some actor or writer or director is asked to explain what makes science fiction special, the same pat answer is given. (Yes, I know that science fiction and fantasy are different genres, but they are related, despite how vehemently this is denied by some genre fans, so I hope I can be forgiven the faux pas in my effort to make some kind of point.) What makes science fiction special, they’ll respond, is that it allows the writer and the audience to safely explore sensitive issues by being comfortingly removed from the issue by protective layers of metaphor and symbolism. In other words, you can talk about something like racism without actually discussing racism. I call bullshit.

When science fiction gets topical and starts dealing with issues, what makes it special and powerful is that it can strip away some of the excess baggage of our societal norms, our expectations, our everyday experiences, our preconceptions, and our prejudices that obscure and cloud our view of an issue’s core truth. Science fiction doesn’t put up an obscuring mirror or window through which we peer at an issue from a distance. It strips away such obstacles and shoves our faces straight into an issue’s smelly guts.

The escapism that many of us fans find so appealing about fantasy is much the same. Fantasy, when it’s at its best, doesn’t try to distract us from reality with its colorful descriptions and stories of mystical creatures and magical worlds. It rather uses such fantastical elements to highlight and magnify its perceived truths about humanity and reality.

The fantasy genre does not exist to put up a soft, stained glass window in front of our reality that we can wistfully gaze through as we ponder how nice it would be to escape to a world that was actually colored by such blurry tints of warm rose. It exists to open and shatter such windows so that we can see to the heart of our reality all the more clearly.

Escape can be both to and from and back again. Fantasy simply opens some of the many doors that allow such escape to be possible.


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