Thursday, August 7, 2014

CSL, fantasy, and realism

Lev Grossman explains how C.S. Lewis differed from earlier writers of fantasy and why he is so good. Grossman first read Narnia when he was seven or eight years old.
...I’m fairly certain that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that I ever was transported by. I think it’s the book that taught me what novels are supposed to do. It’s the book that taught me how books work, and what—if they’re good—they do for you. ....

Why is Lewis so important to me? In part, it’s because—technically, from the point of view of craft—he tells the story with truly exemplary economy. By the time we’re only six or seven pages into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we already know all four Pevensies, we know how each child feels about the other three, and he’s gotten Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia. With incredible speed, he acquaints us with the characters—just one or two well-placed details, and we’re able to know each one—and delves right away into the adventure.

Even more than that, it’s the way he uses language—which is nothing like the way fantasists used language before him. There’s no sense of nostalgia. There’s no medieval floridness. There’s no fairy tale condescension to the child reader. It’s very straight, and very clean.... You see everything clearly, not with sparkles or a flowery sense of wonderment, but with very specific physical details. Look at the attention to detail as you watch Lucy going through the wardrobe:
This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two further.

Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
She feels the softness of the coats, she hears the crunching under her feet, she bends down and feels the snow, she feels the prickliness of the trees, and just like that she’s through the wardrobe and into Narnia. There are no special effects in the passage. He’s making magic, but he’s making magic out of very ordinary physical impressions. It’s very powerful, and it’s very new. I don’t think anybody wrote this way before he did. He came up with a new way to describe magic that made it feel realer than it ever had.

It works because he’s writing fantasy—but he’s working with the tools of realism. .... [more]