bonny_kate: (doctor and rose)
When I took astronomy over interterm my junior year, I had a hard time reconciling the scientific facts about stars (how they begin and end, their development, etc) with the Lewis idea (and to go further back, Dante) that the stars are not necessarily what they are made of. There's the lovely bit in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace says that 'in our world, stars are flaming balls of gas' and the star tells him that 'even in your world that is not what stars are, but what they are made of.' With such a grounding in Lewis, I shouldn't have had such a difficult time reconciling the two ideas, but I did. I would look up at the stars, and I could see all the constellations with all my knowledge about the specific stars, their composition and so on, or I could see the medieval heavens full of stars moving as intelligent beings (or at least the possibility of the stars as intelligent beings), but I couldn't see both at once. It took me most of interterm to finally be able to see both at once, and reconcile both views. I finally realized (in what is, I suppose, a stunningly obvious epiphany) that astronomy is rather like biology. One may know everything there is to know about the biology of a person, how every cell works at the most basic level, but that is not what a human is; merely what they are made of. In the same way, a star is made of very hot hydrogen or what have you, but it does not follow that this is what a star is in essence (I am not arguing that stars are intelligent, I am merely arguing for the possibility that they might be).

But looking back, I don't think this entire issue, framed as it was with the question of stars, was really about stars. It was about an insidious materialism that I had bought into, and finally found my way out of. I was used to thinking of humans as being more than their physical reality, but I did not extend this any further. I think this materialism (if this is the right word) is very prevalent in our society, with the possible exception of humans. You see it particularly in the instance of animal cloning. There are people who clone their pets in the expectation that a cat with the same physical self will be the same cat. They seem to think that a cat with the same DNA must have the same personality, as though a cat is no more than its DNA. But the truth is that two cats, even if they are exactly, physically alike, are not the same because they have different personalities, and different selves. Animals are easy, I think, because we intuitively grasp that they have personalities.

Stars. Stars are a little harder, because they are not organic, and we don't generally think of them as being alive. (I am not going to make the argument that they are alive, or intelligent, but I think there are no strong arguments against this.) Stars are, on one level, a large sphere of fire, but they are more than this, even if they aren't alive. But I think we have got into the habit of thinking about stars as being only large spheres of fire. This cannot fully explain stars, because it cannot account for the beauty and poetry of stars. Even if stars are not alive, they are beautiful, and a purely physical understanding cannot account for their beauty. Now, I had fallen into the trap of thinking that a star must be one thing or the other. The truth is that it is both at the same time.

Further, I think it is a useful idea to think of the stars as being intelligences moved by love. I am not suggesting that we accept as fact that stars are personalities, the same way that we accept as fact that animals are personalities (the evidence does not seem as conclusive about stars in either direction). But it is a useful thought experiment. Stars are not organic, and do not fit our understanding of what life is (as a sidenote, it would be a lovely sort of irony to find in the end that Mars never had life, which we looked so carefully to find, but that our sun has been alive all along). It is precisely because they are not organic, though, that stars are so useful as a thought experiment. If the stars are intelligences, then to look up at a starry night is not to look out, but to look in (as I think Lewis puts it). We are not looking out from a lone bastion of civilization and life into a universe empty of life, but rather we are looking from a world of imperfection into a universe full of a more perfect life and love. We are looking into the heavens from the silent planet.
bonny_kate: (Default)
Out of the Silent Planet fails miserably at being science fiction.

cut, in the off chance that I might write something rather like a spoiler )
bonny_kate: (narnia)
One thing that appeals to me in books is a sense of place. This is more subtle than other elements such as voice or characterization, and harder to define. However, I shall attempt to give a basic definition of what a sense of place is in a book.

For some reason, this came up in one of our Dante discussions. Dante manages to give a very good sense of place within his Divine Comedy. How does he do this? Let us take Purgatory as an example, although either of the other two books would work equally well. He gives a very clear organization of Purgatory. It is quite possible to draw maps. Further, the geography of Purgatory is loaded with significance. It really matters which cornice is on top of which other cornice. If he had stacked them just any which way, it would not have been nearly as compelling, or interesting. But he also doesn't spend pages and pages explaining the arrangement of Purgatory; that would be dull. He gives enough of an outline for the reader to understand the basic significance, and leaves the reader to discover the further meaning if they are so inclined.

Another author who is particularly good at giving a sense of place is C.S. Lewis, specifically with the Narnia Chronicles. While the geography is not nearly so significant as in Purgatory, it is still important. Cair Paravel is by the sea, on the East, because it is royal, and associated with the Emperor over the Sea, and Aslan, who is depicted as coming from the East.

So, in order for there to be a sense of place, the geography must matter, and must not merely be a place for things to happen.


Purgatory is also very dependent on time. It is almost unusually dependent on time, in that one can only move upwards during the day, and every day has a specific significance. Because it is so important, it is easier to see the connection. It takes Dante (the character) measurable amounts of time to climb the cornices. It feels like it took him a while to climb Purgatory, rather than just being pushed along to see the particular attractions. It feels kind of like an amusement park. If I want to describe, for instance, Knott's Berry Farm, I shall probably tell you about the rides ("Ghostrider is the best, but Excelerator was cool too"). But this actually gives you a very poor understanding of what the park is actually like. If I want to give you a true understanding of what the park is like, I will give you a rough idea of how it is arranged ("the best rides aren't together, but are kind of spread around, but that let's you go on different sorts of rides, and there are also loosely themed areas, although not nearly as clearly defined as Disneyland"), what the good parts were ("it was a warm day, so we went on the water ride, but I didn't get drenched, even though I wanted to"), the bad bits ("there was a really boring and weird show that we went to, and I don't know why we went to it, except to dry off after that water ride"), and even what the lines were like ("mostly not too bad, and there were some interesting people in line, but there were also those annoying couples who insisted on making out while standing in line, and I was glad when we were no longer in line with them"). This sort of thing gives a much better sense of what Knott's is like.

Tolkien does this particularly well in the Lord of the Rings. The characters seem to go on walking forever. You don't lose the journey for all the exciting bits. It may (or may not) make the journey seem less exciting, but it does make it seem like it actually happened somewhere, instead of just jumping between places (and really missing out on the places in between places). It is really easy to underestimate the signficance of all the walking bits. But I think that we wouldn't appreciate Rivendell, and the Last Homely House, if there wasn't that entire journey from Hobbiton. We wouldn't have a sense of what it means to be the last Homely House, if we felt that there were other houses quite close by on one side, and Lothlorien merely a jaunt away on the other side.

In other words, the journey must take time, and must include all the bits that are like waiting in line for a ride. Sometimes you can just hop right onto the ride, without a wait at all, but most of the time you are in line for much longer than the actual ride. (Of course, a good author makes it just as interesting to wait in line, although in a different sort of way.)


There is more, of course, to what creates a sense of place. But these two ideas, that it must really matter where the story takes place, and that it must take time to get places, are essential. It doesn't fully explain why Narnia is what she is, though, so I shall have to try again in another post, I think, and continue to think about it.
bonny_kate: (spring again)
There are, to my way of thinking, quite a few problems with the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I shall, however, gloss over the use of modern slang, the departures from the plot, the problems with the characterization of Aslan, and in short, all but one of the problems with the movie. That would only be a rant. However, I should like to address one issue that this adaptation of Narnia showed me, which I do not think is unique to the movie. Modern culture does not understand the nobel warrior.

Look with me, for a moment, at the four children. Lucy is much the same as in the book, her beautiful valiant self. Edmund is portrayed surprisingly well, both his betrayal and redemption are shown. Susan is, perhaps, more of a mother figure than she is supposed to be, but it is still a decent interpretation. The movie fails, though, when it comes to Peter (I must say here, in order that you fully understand my feelings, that I have always wanted to be Peter. Lucy is absolutely magnificent, and I look to her as my guiding light (Lucia means light, and is one of the guiding saints in Dante), but she is better than I. Edmund is like a brother to me, and I especially love him after his redemption. Susan is beautiful, and good, although I have never liked her as much as the others. But I have longed to be magnificent Peter). In the books, Peter is the noble and true knight, fighting for justice. Occasionally he may lead the others in the wrong direction, as in Prince Caspian, but he never backs down from the battle.

What the movies have done is to take Peter and water him down. They make him caught in a terrible dilemma of whether or not to fight at all. I don't see this in the book at all, which I re-read the other day specifically looking for instances where he was unsure whether he should fight. It doesn't happen. The closest thing that I found is that Peter feels rather sick after killing the wolf. Why then, this need to add this conflict to Peter's character?

If this was the only instance taking a noble warrior and giving them internal conflict over whether they should fight, I should not think too much of it. But, it seems to be a mindset. In the Lord of the Rings movies, Faramir is given the same sort of conflict. These people do not understand how these noble warriors can simply accept the necessity of fighting evil, with little or no conflict.

Peter is magnificent, though, without the need for conflict to show that he is human. Is it not a good human tendency to fight for the truth, against evil? It would seem a failing on our part if we must debate with ourselves and convince ourselves of the necessity to fight against the White Witch. The White Witch wants to kill the four children, destroy Narnia, and is quite obviously evil. Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and you will see that it is not only Lucy, but Peter and Susan who understand that they must fight the White Witch. It is a great moral question, of what to do when your friend, Mr. Tumnus, is in trouble because he helped you. But for the children, it is not an issue. What appears, then, to be an attempt on the part of the movie to make Peter more approachable, more understandable, has made him less praiseworthy. Gone is the knight who fights for good, not irrationally, but instinctually, because he is virtuous in this way. Instead we are presented with someone who must overcome his own instincts in order to persuade himself to be good. It is not an improvement of his character, and if this is the only way that we can understand Peter, we are in pretty sorry shape. This, then, is the error, of making Peter less good, and therefore, less human.

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Kate Saunders Britton

April 2017

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