Re­turn to Nar­nia

How con­tem­po­rary writ­ers are re­vis­it­ing — and re­vamp­ing — C.S. Lewis’ lit­er­ary king­dom

The Peterborough Examiner - - Arts & Life - RYAN PORTER Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

When Net­flix an­nounced a deal in early Oc­to­ber to de­velop new movies and TV projects based on C.S. Lewis’s “The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia,” Laura E. Wey­mouth ob­served a mixed re­sponse on­line. “Some peo­ple were re­ally ex­cited,” she says. “Some peo­ple were like, we have a lot of new fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture that’s more di­verse and mod­ern than the Nar­nia books: why not adapt one of those?”

Wey­mouth her­self was cau­tiously en­thu­si­as­tic. A Nar­nia ob­ses­sive since child­hood, her en­chant­ment with Lewis’s saga has al­ways been tem­pered by dis­ap­point­ment over how Lewis writes his fe­male char­ac­ters, re­in­forces cul­tural stereo­types and cham­pi­ons colo­nial nar­ra­tives.

That’s why Wey­mouth built her own Nar­nia, com­plete with a con­tem­po­rary up­date, in her de­but YA novel “The Light Be­tween Worlds.” Wey­mouth, who was raised in the Ni­a­gara re­gion and now lives in New York state, is part of a group of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers re-eval­u­at­ing Lewis’s se­ries.

In some ways the beloved chil­dren’s lit­er­ary clas­sics are more rel­e­vant than ever. Fan­tasy is not such a dirty word in the block­buster glow of epics such as Harry Pot­ter and “Game of

Thrones.”

Yet in re­vis­it­ing Nar­nia, Wey­mouth found el­e­ments felt out­dated. Though Lewis him­self dis­missed read­ings of his work as Chris­tian al­le­gory, the re­li­gious sub­text of the books has po­lar­ized some read­ers and Wey­mouth, who was raised Men­non­ite, steered her novel away from tak­ing a re­li­gious stance.

She also found Nar­nia to be a cu­ri­ous An­glo-Saxon bub­ble in a lit­er­ary mo­ment when di­verse char­ac­ters are en­joy­ing un­prece­dented pop­u­lar­ity. “I started to re­al­ize the la­tent im­pe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism and a white saviour as­pect of the book,” Wey­mouth says. “The Light Be­tween Worlds” in­cludes peo­ple of colour as well as a love in­ter­est who is dis­abled and dis­fig­ured.

But, most of all, Worlds shows the con­se­quences of trau­matic events.

As in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” sib­lings es­cape Eng­land dur­ing the Sec­ond

World War and visit a myth­i­cal king­dom. How­ever Wey­mouth fo­cuses on how sis­ters Philippa and Eve­lyn process what hap­pened to them once they are home from the fan­tasy world, where they have waged war along­side their brother Jamie in de­fence of the fairies, cen­taurs and tree spir­its of the Wood­lands.

The novel shows the sib­lings’ most ur­gent bat­tle is with them­selves. Upon their re­turn to Eng­land, they strug­gle with dis­or­dered eat­ing, self-harm and sui­ci­dal ideation.

Philippa’s sib­lings ac­cuse her of hav­ing an ob­ses­sion with “pow­der and pumps,” a pointed call­back to Lewis’s dis­missal of Su­san. In the fi­nal Nar­nia book, “The Last Bat­tle,” the char­ac­ter of Jill Pole sneers that Su­san’s “in­ter­ested in noth­ing more nowa­days ex­cept ny­lons and lip­stick and in­vi­ta­tions.”

“I think most women and girls from a very young age re­al­ize that C.S. Lewis did a poor job with Su­san,” Wey­mouth says.

Wey­mouth re­veals how a beauty ri­tual can carry hid­den depths as she takes the reader in­side Philippa’s head as she ap­plies her makeup.

“My face is a per­fect mask that blocks off any glimpse of the lost girl within,” she writes.

Hamil­ton play­wright Anna Chat­ter­ton (“Gertrude & Alice”) also rec­og­nized an op­por­tu­nity to give Nar­nia a mod­ern makeover. The Gov­er­nor’s Gen­eral Award for Drama short­listed play­wright is writ­ing the script for a new stage adap­ta­tion of “The Horse and his Boy” that will pre­mière at the Shaw Fes­ti­val next year.

“It’s racist,” she says bluntly. “The Calormenes are loosely seen as be­ing from the Mus­lim world. They have dark skin and they have tur­bans and it’s all very dif­fer­ent.

“They’re the bad guys and the white, blond, blue-eyed Nar­ni­ans are the good ones. We have ob­vi­ously just got­ten rid of that.”

While writ­ing the script, Chat­ter­ton, who has a six-year-old daugh­ter, was also con­scious of el­e­vat­ing the place of women in the story.

In her Nar­nia, As­lan is a woman.

“The diehards are go­ing to be up­set but that’s OK,” she says.

Chat­ter­ton has rewrit­ten an­other piv­otal char­ac­ter, The Her­mit, as a woman as well. She also gave Su­san a more sub­stan­tial role than the damsel in dis­tress she plays in the book. It wasn’t hard — she just bor­rowed lines from her younger brother Ed­mund.

For his own Nar­nia-in­spired chil­dren’s novel “The Lost Ma­gi­cian,” Bri­tish chil­dren’s au­thor Piers Tor­day saw an op­por­tu­nity to re­deem the char­ac­ter of Ed­mund who, in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “is lured into be­tray­ing his sib­lings by the White Witch with a fistful of Turk­ish De­light.

“I didn’t like the way that Ed­mund was pun­ished in the book in a very moral­is­tic way,” Tor­day says.

“He is groomed re­ally. He’s a vic­tim. He’s treated like he’s a lit­tle sneak but why do we pun­ish cu­rios­ity?”

In “The Lost Ma­gi­cian,” which has yet to be pub­lished in North Amer­ica but is avail­able on­line through re­tail­ers such as Ama­zon, Tor­day imag­ines four sib­lings in the wake of the Sec­ond World War who dis­cover a li­brary that leads to a world called Fo­lio, where sto­ries and facts share an un­easy co­ex­is­tence. Tor­day rewrites the Ed­mund char­ac­ter as Eve­lyn, whose cu­rios­ity draws her into a for­bid­den area of the li­brary called Never Read, be­cause “in her ex­pe­ri­ence, if a par­ent or a teacher told you not to do some­thing, it was im­per­a­tive to do it.”

“I quite en­joyed chal­leng­ing the or­tho­doxy that those char­ac­ter­is­tics in chil­dren, not be­ing po­lite and say­ing what you feel, ac­tu­ally maybe are at­trac­tive and are not just bad man­ners,” Tor­day says. “If you are a lit­tle girl try­ing to get her voice heard in a male-dom­i­nated world, that’s maybe how you need to be. That could be a good thing for a child to have in a story for a change.”

Tor­day hopes that Net­flix will con­tinue to re­model Lewis’s wardrobe.

“I think it would be great if they made it con­tem­po­rary and prop­erly di­verse and in­clu­sive,” he says.

“The heart of the story is gold but it’s very much of its time. I think they could find a whole new [au­di­ence] all over the world.”

WALT DIS­NEY PIC­TURES THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Net­flix is de­vel­op­ing new movies and TV shows sourced from “The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia,” which in­spired this 2005 film.

In her young adult novel “The Light Be­tween Worlds,” Laura E. Wey­mouth tried to avoid the re­li­gious over­tones and a “white saviour as­pect” of the orig­i­nal Nar­nia.

In “The Lost Ma­gi­cian,” Piers Tor­day al­ters char­ac­ters but keeps Nar­nia’s “heart.”

“The Lost Ma­gi­cian,” by Piers Tor­day, Quer­cus, 304 pages, $22.44.

“The Light Be­tween Worlds,” by Laura E Wey­mouth, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $21.

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