Monday, December 27, 2010

3 Things I love in a Great Adventure Novel

My wonderful, late great-aunt Blonda was a very special lady. She paid a lot of attention to me when I was little, and was one of the most relaxed and fun adults I knew. She actually played games with me--games I wanted to play--which was unusual among the adults I knew. I was an only child so someone who was willing to play at my level was a favorite. Blonda was also refreshingly honest, and told things like they are. And, she and I had a deal: I could curse if I wanted, and she wouldn't say a thing. One of my earliest memories of her is in her farm house in Ohio, and how we'd pick blackberries together. Some of my last memories of her are the times I spent with her after she'd moved to California.

One of the things Blonda did was send me the boxed set of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, probably when I was about 11 or 12. Blonda, I think, loved fantasy and mystical stories; she may or may not have been religious (I just don't know). I still have this box set. I kept it for my own children because the books are so fabulous. (The books I've kept for my own kids are another subject of another post coming soon.) The editions I have are Collier Books. Cover photo at right.

My favorite book from the Narnia series is book 3: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I will. The last time I read it, I was probably 13 or so. But I loved it so much. The whole Christian allegory thing totally went over my head when I was a kid (sorry, Mr. Lewis), probably because I had no background or understanding of Christianity at that point.

I am a Catholic now, however, so re-reading the books is interesting from that perspective. But after seeing the first Narnia movie some years ago (The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe), I tried to re-read the book and I just couldn't. I'd moved beyond it. Sadly, I placed it back on the shelf. The books in the Narnia series are not fantastic--not like Lord of the Rings, but they are decently good adventures.

This is particularly the case with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is so full of adventure and solid plot and great characters that when I picked it up again the other night, I just dove into it. Of course, I'm reading it with different things in mind now: as a Christian, on the look-out for the allegorical elements; as a writer, on the look-out for craft, plot, and character; as a fan of a damn good adventure novel. It didn't disappoint on any front.

I wanted to just call your attention to some of the finer elements:

A fantastic first line
"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
Holy Krakow, what a first line! He almost deserved it! Need to know more! This is about as fine a first line as I can think of.

Identification with a character
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we had four kids to care about. But in the Voyage, we have a different cast--the disagreeable Eustace, who we don't actually care about because he's such a twerp (until he proves otherwise), Caspian, and two of the original four kids: Lucy and Edmund. Lucy is the only girl and everyone on board the Dawn Treader treats her with a genteel-like respect and courtesy. And she's a kid! This tickled me when I was 13, and I still enjoy this element now. Is this limited in the sexual characterization? Yes! But who cares. What I liked about it is that a girl was treated with courtesy by grown men.

Solid fantastical elements
The story more than any other in the series, perhaps because it is a seafaring adventure, really has some great classic elements that remind me a lot of Enid Blyton-style fantasy. There's dragons, sea serpents, mer-people, and tables full of delicious food that magically replenish. And, of course, there's the overall message for each of the main characters. There are also moral elements like honesty, loyalty, bravery, and behaving kindly and compassionately to our fellow humans. You could say these are the Christian elements of the story, but whatever--these are just plain excellent story elements for an adventure.

Vivid imagery
When Eustace lands on the pile of dragon's treasure, you can almost feel the sharpness of the metal and see the glint of yellow gold and red rubies in the dim cave light. When the ship enters the Dark Island, you can feel the cold and sense the nasty things on the island waiting, creeping. You can feel the horror reflected in the bulging eyes of the passenger they pick up there. You can taste and feel the lightness of the water and sun in the Last Sea. It's all very, very clear and even now at my advanced age, I was swept away by it.

I haven't seen the movie yet. I suppose I will soon, but for now I wanted to relive everything I loved originally about the book (because, as I'm sure you'll all agree with, what is better than a well-written tale?). If you haven't read this, please pick it up even if you're not interested in the rest of the Narnia series--it's a great one in a standalone kind of way.

What adventure stories were stand outs for you, either as a kid or now? I'd love to hear.

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