Friday, January 13, 2006


The best things in movies, as in life, are the little things. The unexpected insights gained from a barely glimpsed sight spotted at the corner of the frame. Visible only for a second or two, leaving you to wonder about what you saw, and about what it meant. When the little girl in the new movie Narnia lets her eyes wander across the bookshelf belonging to the strange creature whose house she has recently entered through the surprisingly vast back of a rather large wardrobe, we spot, briefly, a weathered, well-read book entitled: Is Man A Myth? Then her eyes shift, the scene shifts, and off we go into the story, ready or not, olly olly oxen free.

It's the little things. The title of that book suggests a world where minotaurs and witches and talking beavers are a rather mundane norm, while 'man', that esoteric beast, a mythical abstraction, an almost arcane possibility that nevertheless remains tantalizing, even as it stays clouded in doubt, and more than a little fear. For if man -- the stuff of legends -- exists, then that would mean that there is the possibility, however remote, but a possibility nevertheless, that the prophecy could come true. And if the prophecy were to be fulfilled --

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Narnia is full of Christian symbolism and allegories, a fact I know for certain because a) the movie is based on a series of children books written by famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis and b) everything I've read about the flick persistently reminds me of this fact. For some reason or another I avoided these books as a child, but I can't remember why. As an adult, however (or a close approximation of one), I can appreciate some of the religious metaphors being shoved in my face, but when the movie works, it works not because of any religious message but because of its wholehearted embrace of fantasy. (And the central hook of the story is a doozy, religious or otherwise -- four bickering siblings are sent to the safety of the English countryside during World War II. In their real lives, the children are at the mercy of adults, helpless bystanders in a war that determines their own future. In the magical realm of Narnia, they are destined to fulfill the prophecy, engage in battle, and ultimately bring peace and prosperity to an entire civilization, saving a whole world from extinction. What kid wouldn't just love this situation?)

I'm not an aficianado of fantasy books, if by 'fanatsy' we mean elves and goblins and gnomelike races battling the forces of evil. That's not a value judgement on the books themselves; they're jsut not my cup of tea. But if by 'fanasty' we're talking about that slow and steady, fast or furious entry into a world like our own but not our own, then count me in. Stephen King and Peter Straub and Rod Serling and Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury, always Bradbury, patented and perfected this kind of story. The Brits are great at it too -- Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker and James Herbert have an elegant approach to the supernatural, an airtight and economic use of prose that accentuates the dread and eloquently guides us from our elementary concerns of bills and babies, jobs and mortgages into something...else.

Yes. Perhaps that's the world. Else. Science-Fiction also gives us 'else', true, but most of it (in prose, anyways) is too high-tech, too, well, scientific for me to get a grasp on. The best stories of 'else', however, use the medium of the fantastic to explore who we are in this work, and why it is that we do what we do. Stephen King even chose to conclude this three-decade long Dark Tower fantasy saga by inserting himself into the narrative as a character, whereby the protagonists gradually realized that they were nothing more than fictional creations of King himself. And yet, they end up saving King from his famed auto accident of 1999.

It was an audacious move on King's part, at once a monumental cheat and utterly appropriate. What he's saying, I think, is that we create the fantasy, yes, but the fantasy completes the cycle by saving us. We can use the works of the fantastic, both dark and light, to view and comprehend our own lives through a more multi-faceted prism than everyday life usually allows. We can glimpse a book entitled Is Man A Myth? and once again ask ourselves (if not for the first time) that very same question. Ask if we, too, have the possibility and capability to transcend our own mortal lives, to become larger than ourselves, more heightened, almost elegaic.

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