I recently read through Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy: “The Golden Compass”, “The Subtle Knife”, and “The Amber Spyglass”. People seem to call them the “not-the-Harry-Potter” books, which is almost fair. Instead of a Tom Brown’s School Days with magic, the Dark Materials books are from another well-defined genre, in which the hero seeks to right a fundamental flaw at the axis of parallel worlds. The theme is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (as Stephen King’s Dark Tower theme is taken from Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.) Unlike Stephen King’s parallel-worlds books, though, Pullman’s books are very religious, much more like C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle.
So, once I was finished hoovering “The Amber Spyglass”, I decided to pick up the Chronicles of Narnia books again — basically, reading my way through the whole right side of the “Young Adults” section at the bookstore around the corner*. I found The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on the shelf, and I discovered two things. First, the Narnia books are incredibly speedy reads: I polished the Dawn Treader off in four hours. Second, like Roald Dahl, — and unlike Pullman — C.S. Lewis really is a children’s writer. His prose is direct, simple, straight, and funny as hell. Viz. the first paragraph of the book:
Chapter 1: The Picture in the Bedroom
There was a boy called Clarence Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother”, but Harold and Alberta. The were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on bets and the windows were always open.
Eustace, of course, is a terrible grind in the beginning of the book, but ends up redeemed, and goes on to be the hero in The Silver Chair. It’s this quality of redemption, I think, that really makes C.S. Lewis’s books feel like a breath of fresh air: J.K. Rowling’s books are at least as compelling (though maybe written to an audiencce a year or two older, or fifty years later in history), but you never get the feeling that Crabb and Goyle will ever have a change of heart.
C.S. Lewis’ characters also seem to be their age, in the book — everyone suffers from temptation, and everyone has a childish hissy fit at some time or other during the book. Even Prince Caspian storms off to his cabin and slams the door when he can’t visit the Uttermost East, and emerges an hour later tearful and penitent. This kind of characterization rings true, and I remember seeing myself in the characters when I read the books for the first time. Usually, when Eustace made up his mind not to be a horrible pain in the ass, I’d go downstairs ond offer to wash the dishes, or something.
It’s also striking how little happens in the Narnia books, compared to Harry Potter or the Dark Materials books. There’s a striking absence of twelve-foot cave trolls, and nowhere in the book do any smelly, treacherous cliff ghasts get gorily beheaded by an ancient, occult nanotech knife. The creepiest part of the Dawn Treader consists of Lucy walking down the silent second-story hall of a magician’s house in the middle of the day. I can remember, however, every hair on my head standing up when Lucy looked into the little mirror and saw a bearded reflection of herself looking out. I don’t think I could use a hair dryer for a month after reading the Dawn Treader: I’d have to turn it off and listen for whatever it was that I didn’t just hear.
* The left side of the Young Adults section is entirely crammed with Mary Kate and Ashley books.