Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Auralia's Colors Reconsidered

I apologize for being so late with this; I had some deadlines (one unexpected) to meet, and then needed to post about Nor Iron Bars a Cage, so I got this one in much later than I intended. I'll pre-date it and include a link; I hope that helps.

After an e-mail exchange with Mr. Overstreet, I thought I should post his explanation of the Keeper situation.

These were the lines I used in my last post about Auralia's Colors:

Her mouth moved, searching to name that creature, that force of water, wind, or fire the presence so clearly resembled. But after a timeless moment, she knew--it reminded her of everything. Or maybe, as she looked at the forest and the sky, everything reminded her of the Keeper. All things in the landscape seemed to yearn, leaning toward the creature the way flowers lean toward the sun. Through the Keeper, all things seemed to draw color and vigor. And for the Keeper, waves splashed, trees swayed, stones protected knowledge, and wind waited for orders. (p. 267; emphasis in original, please note)

Then the Keeper reared up, and a roar came from the trees above as if they had split their trunks from their crowns. But it was not a challenge, nor was it a threat. It was a roar of affirmation, of completion. She could not comprehend it, nor could she translate it into words. But she had been given an answer, one that dissolved all her fears, leaving only laughter.

Her name was in the music of that voice. She was part of its secretive scheme. It would not forget her, had never forgotten her. (pp. 268-269)

Overtstreet points out that these are from a dream, and they should not be pressed too far. That's a valid point. It is possible, for example, that God wanted to reveal himself to Auralia, and she interpreted that revelation in terms of the mightiest creature she knew: the Keeper. It's also true (as he pointed out) that stories and characters change in the telling. This could move toward the possibility I mentioned last time that the divine aspect was unintentional, though if introduced, it should be admitted.

I do have some problems with the explanation given, and the reader may sort out the arguments for himself.

1. While it is true that dreams are more symbolic than literal, they are also more dreamlike than the one described. You can have sheaves of wheat and heavenly bodies bowing down (Gen 37:5-10) and cows eating cows and stalks eating stalks (Gen. 41:1-7). The dream Auralia has is very realistic, without the usual trappings of a dream. Also, it is echoed later by a death scene with much the same format. Oddly, this scene has the same realism as the dream, but it is presented as a dream in the end and is written in the present tense--the only such scene in the book, as I recall. Yet it has details that are clearly literal, not symbolic, with a level of effectively irrelevant detail that fits neither dream nor vision. This is an important clue, I think.

2. It is odd in any case that this is essentially an area without a god. The closest thing to a god is in fact the Keeper. (On p. 93 we twice encounter "May the Keeper protect" someone, which in context certainly sounds like the invocation of a deity or at least an angel.) Given the fundamentally religious nature of man, I find that incredible: there should be A god or SOME gods, even if the biblical God isn't mentioned. The point is that if God wanted to reveal himself, he would likely make some kind of comparison to a mythical rival. If the Keeper is the closest thing to a god, I would expect there to be something that indicates that there is someone even greater. There is no such indication, only identification of the Keeper in divine terms. It is also interesting that those who are afraid of the Keeper or try to suppress the mere idea that it exists come off as irreligious, almost atheistic: they are the unbelievers. The sign of a righteous person in the story is usually belief in the Keeper. (Sometimes the question does not arise, but when it does, the response is always indicative.) Compare belief in unicorns: does it demonstrate righteousness in any way? No. Why then is the Keeper unlike other mythic entities?

3. There remains the problem that the tracks of the Keeper mark out the proper path for characters to follow--something that again suggests deity. We may emulate a godly person's behavior, but we do not truly follow their steps, which would imply trying to reproduce their journey and life.

From these points I would say that Overstreet unconsciously patterned the Keeper after God in Aslan style, but he consciously rebelled against that resemblance--yet without stripping the signs of deity. The result is a contradiction: he desperately wants the Keeper not to be what he has already said (if indirectly) that it is. If he continues in the course he mentioned in his e-mails, the contradiction will increase, and the Keeper will become impossible in more ways than one.

The unfortunate result is likely to be the perception that he is redefining God in ways more congenial to our relativist, revisionist age. (Such confusion is perhaps inevitable: there are places in the Chronicles of Narnia where the "theology" of Aslan is inconsistent, especially when comparing the later books with the first ones. This is one reason why I reject the idea of reading them in "historical" order rather than "writing" order: it obscures the development of Aslan, among other things.)

Now, the reason I had rejected such confusion as an explanation was that Overstreet normally seems very orderly in his analyses, such as his reviews. But then I encountered evidence of the confusion, and matters began to fall into place.

For example, though I had specified that the theological elements were the most mportant to me, he did advance an apologia for the problematic explosion I mentioned, and part of it was indicative. He observed that Yoda's lifting a small starship out of a swamp isn't good physics either. That's true. It is, however, good magic, which is what "the Force" is in the Star Wars universe. Magic means never having to say you're sorry about your physics, so when someone invokes magic, he's admitting that what follows doesn't work in the real world apart from miracles. That's why the idea of magically shaping stones by hand in Auralia's Colors didn't bother me: it was magic. Ditto for a character plunging into an inferno and emerging unharmed: it had already been implied that he had that curious ability.

Yet the explosion was presented and explained as real-life physics: there was no implication, however faint, that magic was involved. Yet absent magic, there is no explanation for the event. So again there is a kind of confusion at work.

For what it's worth, I think I would've dropped or minimized the Keeper unless I intended it to function like Aslan. That would make the most theologically interesting character Scharr ben Fray, the mystical teacher who acts almost like a prophet. The "ben" echoes Jewish names, where it means "son of," while "fray" is a Spanish-derived title for a monk. (Alternatively, the German root scharr refers to shredding and English fray to fraying, but neither reflects the character well.) It seems to me to imply a Judeo-Christian element breaking in. But regardless of the name, he is a mentor character, and he would in the absence of the Keeper serve as the theological focus of the story. That would probably have been a better path than the contradictions of the Keeper.

I'll amend my conclusion roughly back to what it was before the questions about the Keeper arose: I would recommend this with reservations, though I don't foresee a proper resolution to the contradiction. The book is good stylistically, and it's worth a look if only for that. Some of the ideas are likewise good, and if you can somehow ignore the language of deity and remember that the Keeper is NOT God, the follow-ups will probably be worth a look, especially if Overstreet removes such language from them.

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