It’s May the Fourth, and I was going to try very hard today to not write about You Know What. I mean eeesh. I remember when Star Wars Day was a joke, a reasonably amusing pun. Now it’s gained mass and substance and turned into an excuse for memes and toy sales and huge events. It’s complete overkill. Experiencing it these days is like reading through a dozen of Moffat’s press releases in advance of a ‘heart-rending’ episode: you’re sick of it before it even airs.
I did have an amusing conversation the other week with an American who was convinced that “British people can’t do sci-fi”, citing Star Wars and Star Trek as America’s shining examples of the genre, ably supported by Asimov and Philip K Dick. We were good at fantasy, he conceded, but science fiction was not one of our strong points (you may have gathered that he was not a Doctor Who fan). In holding this assertion he entirely ignored the works of Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Alistair Reynolds, Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham, C.S. Lewis, J.G. Ballard, Nigel Kneale, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, and we told him so. “C.S. Lewis wasn’t sci-fi, dumbass,” he said, at which point I directed him towards Out of the Silent Planet.
But when you’re being trolled, the second-best response is to troll back. “You don’t have Star Wars,” I told him. “It was written and produced by an American and some of the leads are American, but a significant chunk of the cast are British (the ones who can act, anyway) and an awful lot of it was filmed here with British crews.” When he whined that “the creator was American, bitch”, I told him about the obvious plot connections with Lord of the Rings. “Dumb ass,” he said. “Lord of the Rings is ripped off Wagner’s Ring Cycle”. To which my response was “Those connections are arbitrary and coincidental (and unproved). Storywise, LOTR has its roots in King Arthur. Even if you’re right, the roots for LOTR – and, by association, Star Wars – originated here in Europe. You know, the people with the history? Come back in six hundred years, then we’ll talk.” At this point the troll realised he was being played, and disappeared back below the bridge, although I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.
I said I wasn’t going to write about Star Wars, but it does lead rather neatly into Narnia (via the wardrobe in the corner of my attic room). I had cause to revisit Narnia again recently – we’re talking figuratively, of course – when my house group did a Lent course that explored the supposed Christian allegories in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tying it in with the nature of suffering as explored in Shadowlands. Shadowlands, of course, tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s romance with Joy Gresham, who turns his comfortable world upside-down before dying of bone cancer. Various liberties are taken – the film moves Joy’s death to a snowy winter’s evening, rather than summer, and gives you the impression that far less time elapsed than it actually did (in reality, the couple had several years together). I’m also not sure what David Gresham made of it, given that he’s airbrushed from the film entirely. Nonetheless it remains compelling drama, and Anthony Hopkins is magnificent.
Lewis, of course, argued that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was not actually an allegory at all. It’s a parallel universe existing concurrently alongside this one. Can we just use the word parallel and be done with it? As Lewis explains, “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair (Pilgrim’s Progress) represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”
But it’s interesting tracing the history of Narnia – a country with its own time stream, where time is compressed and the entire country is formed and destroyed in a span of fifty earth years. The land is breathed into existence by a singing lion and destroyed in much the same way, after an apocalyptic battle and a kerfuffle involving a false prophet (a naive, well-meaning donkey who is duped into wearing a lion skin by a devious and untrustworthy ape). There are stories of arranged marriage and cats (The Horse and His Boy, which owes an awful lot to The Prince and the Pauper), tales of dragons and fallen stars (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and an enchanted prince strapped to a chair. Some books are better than others, and Lewis’s attitude to women, the working classes and progressive education has raised eyebrows over the years, but that’s not something we have time to unpack. Suffice it to say that I get uncomfortable at the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. These children go through puberty twice. Is that something we’re supposed to just gloss over?
What’s also interesting is that while Lewis was writing about satyrs, nymphs and old unmarried men who own wardrobes full of fir coats, one of the other Inklings was polishing off a magnum opus of his own. It’s no secret that Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit on an exam paper during a bored marking session. Middle Earth sprang (supposedly) out of Oxfordshire (Shropshire / Birmingham / Switzerland / France). I don’t know what Lewis and Tolkien discussed on those smoky, ale-soaked afternoons in the Eagle and Child, but I find it inconceivable that one didn’t somehow influence the other. (There is an old story, of course, that when Tolkien got up during one such session to read what would become A Long-Expected Party, Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.)
Consider something for me. The Elves sail into the West, to the undying lands. The Narnians sail East, toward’s Aslan’s country. Is there no reason why they can’t meet in the middle?
(If you have to ask why Aslan’s country is banana-shaped, you’ll never know.)
I’ve written about my complex relationship with Lord of the Rings before, and I’m really not the type to draw connections between universes the way that some people insist the Disney films are all interlinked. (Don’t visit that Disney hyperlink. It’s borderline clickbait. I’m just proving a point.) Ultimately, this is all about bridge-building. I mentioned my house group: last Thursday, over an impromptu cheese and wine evening, we got into a discussion about Doctor Who versus Star Wars and Star Trek and the rivalry between them. “It’s all so stupid,” I remember saying. “I like pizza. But I also like lasagne. If I had to pick a favourite it would be pizza, because I’m always in the mood for pizza, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever turn down lasagne. Never would I say ‘I refuse to eat this lasagne because it’s not pizza’.”
Seriously, the people who insist that this is some sort of rivalry, that one is ‘better’ than the other and that you can’t like both? They do exist, and they can shampoo my crotch. If I choose to hold Babylon 5 in contempt (I don’t, I’m just thinking about that scene in Spaced) it’s not because I think Deep Space 9 is better. There’s a difference between picking on something because it’s bad TV and picking on it because it’s lasagne, rather than pizza. That’s the sort of mentality that rival football fans have, and that’s the sort of thing I thought we were above.
So I’ve always liked the idea that Narnia and Middle Earth are like different ways to the same country. It’s a bit multi-cultural, but when you’re exposed to as much intolerant religious hatred as I’ve gone out of my way to see, you find another way to fight it. And somehow I can picture the elderly Gandalf, having hopped off into the West, strolling along the beach by those white shores, chilling with Aslan.
(Yes, yes, wrong Gandalf. Best I could do.)
And where, you may be asking, does Doctor Who fit into this? Well, the closest the series actively came to talking about Narnia was the 2011 Christmas special – still the one I hold up as the only one they really got right, ‘Husbands of River Song’ aside). It has sentient tree people, a moonlit wood dripping with snow, and a pointless but amusing cameo from Bill Bailey. What’s lovely about the whole episode is the way it subverts the traditional behaviour in stories like this: the children are hesitant and afraid, while it’s their mother who strides purposefully into the magic wood, accepting everything the Doctor tells her and happily carrying a forest in her head. Moffat isn’t always good at writing women, but on this occasion he got it spot on.
I haven’t even touched fan fiction, and wasn’t going to, but a quick perusal threw up these, among others:
The Lion, the Doctor and the Cybermen (TARDIS1039) – “The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Narnia and meets Aslan, then he summons Peter,Edmund,Susan and Lucy from England. But the Cybermen begin to invade. So it’s up to The Doctor, The Pevensies, Aslan and the Narnians to stop them.”
The Time lady and the King (TorchwoodFallenAngel) – “They’re the last of their kinds, both lost and stranded on Earth. There, Edmund and Romana wait.”
Songs in the Dark (secooper87) – “The White Witch rules Narnia with an iron fist, fearing only the prophecy which foretells her downfall. But then a Time Lord appears in Narnia. He could be the answer to all her prayers, or he could be the cause of her destruction. Now whumpy!”
The Annual Fantastic Characters Meeting (wholockgoddess97) – “Every year, the Doctor hosts a party in the TARDIS with all his favourite characters. As usual, something has to go wrong – but nothing’s really out of the ordinary, considering the guests. Super mega ultimate crossover!”
And what about me? This isn’t exactly a part one of two. Still, there are other dots you can join, and I’ve joined them, although not in ways that you might expect. But we’ll deal with that next time…