The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)

By C.S. Lewis

Rating: 4 stars

I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe several times as a child, but it wasn’t until I went to university, that I heard about its religious subtext, which surprised me (not growing up in a Christian household). This was the first time that I’ve re-read it as an adult and the religious subtext is pretty blatant coming to it now (I especially liked the mention of Jadis as being a Daughter of Lilith, rather than Eve), but it’s still a very enjoyable read. Despite the allegory, I still felt the pain of the temptation of Edmund and the humiliation and death of Aslan just as much as I did as a child.

It reads very much of its time, in terms of language and assumptions, not to mention style. I pretty much grew up on Lewis and Enid Blyton, so it was all very familiar to me, and comforting, in a way, but it does make assumptions about gender, class and status that would be more challenged today. The voice of the narrator talking directly to the reader is also something that has fallen out of favour in modern writing. It definitely feels, not exactly ‘dated’, but recognisable as not being a modern story (even setting aside the contents).

Even so, I still think it holds up well as a children’s book that draws the reader in and holds their attention well. Characters such as Mr Tumnus, the beavers and, of course, Aslan will live long in the memory and affection of readers for a long time to come.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006716631
Publisher: Fontana Lions
Year of publication: 1980

The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Rating: 3 stars

Structured in three distinct parts, this book tackles the slow reconstruction of society after the “flame deluge”, when nuclear warheads fall across the world like rain. Knowledge and science are blamed for the deluge, and those burning the books and bearers of knowledge proudly proclaiming themselves “simpletons”. In amongst this, an engineer by the name of Leibowitz starts an underground network for the preservation of books and knowledge. Six hundred years later, America has retreated to a new dark age, and the Church once again finds itself with the responsibility for preserving the knowledge of the past, specifically through the Blessed Order of Leibowitz. Another six hundred years after that, an Enlightenment is happening, with secular scholars rediscovering the knowledge that had been lost, and the Order of St Leibowitz gaze upon the first electric light for over a thousand years. But with the coming of the Enlightenment, once again there comes strife between the ancient Church and the emerging state. And finally another six hundred years pass and the heavens are once again opened to mankind, as colonies spread amongst the stars. But back on earth, global tensions are high and rumours are rife of construction of forbidden nuclear weapons…

This is a difficult book to discuss. Miller was a convert to Catholicism and the Catholic church is portrayed very sympathetically, as the preservers of knowledge that the secular world would otherwise have completely burned. For the first section of the book, you’re unequivocally on their side. The second section reintroduces the tensions between emerging nation states and the Church, and the age old question of whether knowledge should just be preserved for the sake of it or whether it should be brought into the light and used. The final section is more difficult, as the abbot of the abbey of St Leibowitz of that time takes a very hard line stance on euthanasia even in the face of the immense suffering through radiation poisoning that he sees around him: crystallised in one woman and her child who are dying anyway and want to go to the state-sponsored clinics.

The abbot espouses the age-old doctrines of the church, but in the face of immense suffering, I saw it as nothing more than the ancient fact of a bully trying to hold power over the powerless. But then you’ve got the final few chapters which may be just the ravings of a dying man, or may be something else entirely.

The themes of the book seem to be about the inevitability of the cycle of history; about how man will raise himself up to be like a god, but can never sustain himself and lose his feet of clay. It’s quite a depressing message: after the first two sections in which (despite the inevitable death and destruction at the human level) civilisation is on an upwards trajectory, the final one seems to suggest that we’ll never be able to overcome our animal natures, and may even spread the cycle to other worlds.

There is a seam of mysticism that runs throughout the book that I’m not entirely sure what to make of, with Rachel in the last section, and the old hermit (or something like him) showing up in all three. Miller does seem to be clearly hinting towards a conclusion that God definitely exists and is an interventionist God.

Finally, for those, like me, whose Latin is restricted to the odd phrase here and there, the wonderful Wikipedia has a handy translation of each Latin phrase in the novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552094740
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 1959


By Roberto Calasso, Tim Parks

Rating: 3 stars

This book is going to be difficult for me to review because it’s not what I was expecting or wanting. I was hoping for a book that would take me through some of the stories of Hindu mythology, an area in which my knowledge is woefully inadequate, being limited to hazy childhood memories. However, it turned out to be more a setting out of some of the principles of Hindu philosophy, using some of the stories to hang that on to. This is a noble aim in itself, but it’s not what I was looking for.

Taking the book in its own right then, there’s a lot of dense material here. Often you’ll find a short story or parable from one of the ancient texts, and then a large amount of philosophy hung off the back of that. I must confess that I did struggle a lot with that, and a lot went sailing over my head. Difficult, dense, but probably rewarding, if you were willing to put more effort into it than I was.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099750710
Publisher: Random House
Year of publication: 1996

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

By James Hogg

Rating: 2 stars

This book is a satirical deconstruction of an extreme religious pre-deterministic position. The protagonist firmly believes himself to be saved by the Grace of god and so feels free to indulge his religious position to engage in some mightily unchristian behaviour. It’s difficult to say more without spoilers.

I think this book has problems with its structure. I nearly gave up with it several times before I had even got to the confession. The editor’s narrative is very slow to start with and the whole grammar feels awfully convoluted at times. The structure of a framing narrative, with a “found manuscript” in the middle didn’t work for me at all, and the whole book did rather feel ‘backwards’ in that I would probably have swapped the preceding and following portions of the editor’s narrative.

Without giving away spoilers, once we got into Robert’s (the titular sinner’s) narrative, I feel that the plot device used to get him to start sinning was not only somewhat obvious, but it also detracted from the strength of the argument and the philosophical underpinnings of the absolute pre-deterministic position.

An interesting idea, perhaps, but I’d be more interested to read a more contemporary take on the same issue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853261886
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1824

Perelandra (Voyage to Venus)

By C.S. Lewis

Rating: 2 stars

This is the second in Lewis’s Space trilogy, which started with Out of the Silent Planet. It’s been a while since I read it, but I quite enjoyed the first book, but the second has been a real chore to work through. It’s less a novel and more a theological discussion and, in my opinion, not a very good one at that.

The basic plot, what there is of it, sees Dr Elwin Ransom travelling to Perelandra (Venus) to find that planet’s Eve being tempted by the devil, possessing the body of his old enemy from the first book, Dr Weston. Most of the book is taken up with what Ransom’s encounter with the Lady of Perelandra and his argument with Weston. The arguments put forward in the book for Christianity didn’t seem that convincing to me, they seemed like the arguments of a man who couldn’t cope with the rate of progress of his time.

And towards the end, when he realised that he can’t out-argue Weston, he resorts to physical violence. He tries feebly to justify this by saying something like it being a new world and new rules, but it really doesn’t pass muster. His arguments weren’t as strong as his enemy’s so he resorted to violence. So he “wins” by brute force, rather than through discussion. Just like religions have done for millennia.

I’d avoid this book, unless you’re interested in a theological debate, although even there, I’d say it’s somewhat unsound.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330281591
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 1943

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