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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 11, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Narnia, cellphones, nature, keys, Fire Sale, Wedding Hymns, IGMS

I love C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. I didn't read them till I was an adult, but I read them to my children, and I know that for many readers they are powerful stories -- as adult literature and as children's literature, as fantasy and as allegory.

The new movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is better than the book.

C.S. Lewis's close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, was every bit as committed a Christian as Lewis -- though he was always a bit annoyed that when Lewis converted to Christianity, he only became an Anglican and didn't go the whole way, as Tolkien would have viewed it, to Catholicism.

Tolkien was also annoyed by Lewis's efforts to write allegory -- fiction in which the characters are meant to represent something or someone else.

Lewis wanted to write fiction that carried the Christian message. He tried it first with his science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Whatever interest they might hold as allegory, they are not very good fiction, and not very interesting as science fiction, either.

Narnia was his second attempt, and the books were much more successful -- as fiction, and as allegory.

The problem with allegory is that it can so easily overpower the "surface" story. In fact, most allegories are thinly disguised moral lessons or theological discourses, as a character named "Christian" or "Everyman" visits places like "Vanity Fair."

You are invited to think about the ideas presented, perhaps receive them as sermons; but you are not invited to experience them as stories, or the characters as people you can care about.

Lewis did not fall into that trap with the Narnia books, or at least not as badly as Tolkien seemed to fear. If you know nothing of Christianity, they are still powerful stories -- you don't have to be able to decode the allegory in order to care. And if you happen to be a believing Christian, the allegory adds resonance that deepens the entire story.

If, however, you know something about Christian doctrine but don't believe in it, then some bits can been rather annoying -- you do feel preached at.

It's bound to be a personal thing. The core Christian mythos, the story of the voluntary sacrifice of a perfect innocent to redeem those he loves from destruction, is actually present in many, many cultures that have nothing to do with and indeed pre-date Christianity.

The story of Aslan the lion, who gives his life to save a remorseful traitor from execution, would seem (and is meant to seem) like the often-found story of the king who must die as the sacrifice to save his people.

Wonderful as I believe the Narnia books are, they suffer just a little from their allegorical nature. I believe that despite Lewis's best efforts, in the book the four children who are transported through a magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia are not very well-realized characters.

I suspect it has less to do with their allegorical roles -- for except for traitor Edmund, they are not particularly Christian, merely observers and peripheral participants in the Christian mythos -- than with the fact that Lewis was not particularly well-acquainted with children. His own upbringing had been painful; his experience at school awful; and he seemed to think it was enough to give each of the children one trait that set him or her apart from the others.

The movie does it better. The script, by Ann Peacock (In My Country, A Lesson Before Dying) and the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), subtracts almost nothing from the Lewis book, and adds a few very nice touches, establishing the children in their family and in World War II England far better than Lewis did.

The writers had the advantage that the Narnia books are short -- far closer to the length of a feature film than most novels, so that they could play the story straight.

Director-and-co-writer Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) does a superb job -- indeed, a surprising job, for someone who came into the movie biz through computer graphics -- of drawing full, real performances from the four children.

It is the very reality of the children that allows this movie to transcend the weaknesses of the original material. Each does a good job of representing precisely what Lewis wanted them to represent -- but they also behave like children with a full range of human feelings. Georgie Henley is more than merely cute as Lucy; Anna Popplewell as Susan can be crabby but also more tender than Lewis makes her; William Moseley as Peter is quite moving in his portrayal of an older son who tries to bear more responsibility than is within his reach.

And Skandar Keynes, as Edmund, makes us believe both his crimes and his repentance. Astonishingly enough, we like him throughout, even when he's behaving badly. Most of his sins are almost -- not entirely -- inadvertent; but we can see his mind working. He has the depth-of-face, for lack of a better term, that allows us to see what is going on inside a character without being aware of the actor acting at all.

As the White Witch, Tilda Swinton is powerful and scary on a very personal level. Though the movie does come perilously close to being stolen by a pair of beavers, convincingly animated and delightfully voiced by Ray Winstone (Bors in King Arthur; Teague in Cold Mountain) and Dawn French (who plays, of all things, the fat lady in the painting at the Gryffindor door in the Harry Potter movies).

The animation is excellent: The beavers, the fox, the wolves, as well as the centaurs and many other impossible creatures, all seem real. Alsan himself is beautifully animated -- he even walks well; you feel, throughout the film, that Aslan may be loving, but he is not, in fact, a tame lion. And Liam Neeson voices him with exactly the right mix of strength and compassion.

In reading the book, I was only moved once, by the sacrifice of Aslan; in watching the movie, I was moved far more often, and delighted more often as well. I was already a believer in the Christ-story; the movie made me a believer in the people and creatures of Narnia as well.

*

You know, when I hear people complaining about other people's cellphones, it just makes me tired. Sure, some people are annoying as they walk along in the store, loudly talking on a cellphone and making it almost impossible to make yourself think. And it's disconcerting to watch teenagers walk home from school "together" -- though one can hardly call it that, since they are all on cellphones with someone else.

But you can be rude with anything. There are also people who talk so loudly with actual people they're with that they make everyone else uncomfortable. Does talking on a cellphone make you drive less safely? I'll take the cellphone over the food that they keep reaching for, and I dare you to tell me that the cellphone makes a driver less aware than carrying a vanful of whiny children.

Life has its risks. You have to weigh them against the benefits.

We first got a cellphone back in the days when you mounted them in your car. Within a few weeks of getting it, having a cellphone saved our child's life. We left the kids with a babysitter to watch Mark Russell speak at UNC-G, but just as we were arriving, the sitter called. It seemed that our youngest at the time, who was frail of body anyway, was sick, running a fever. The sitter's intention had been to wait till we got home a couple of hours later. But since our oldest child knew our carphone number, the sitter called.

My wife headed for home while the rest of us watched the show. I can't even remember if I enjoyed it; that memory is swamped by what happened with my wife and our youngest child. By the time she got him to the hospital, he was turning blue. It was sudden-onset pneumonia, and if we had waited to take him to the hospital till after we got home from the show, he would certainly have died.

There are those who say they don't want a cellphone because they don't want people to be able to call them all the time. Here's a clue: Don't give anybody your number. Or just switch it off when you don't want to be called.

But most of the time, I love having a cellphone -- so I can have the following conversations:

"They don't have both the size and the brand you wanted. I can get the brand, larger size, or the size, wrong brand. Or I can get both. Or try a different store."

"Honey, I'm running late. Can we just meet at Chick-Fil-A instead of going home first?"

"I've got the wrong address written on the note you gave me. Can you check the address again?"

"My flight is going to get in late. Can you secure my hotel room for late arrival?"

"I'm completely lost. How do I get to where you are so we can have this meeting?"

Add to that the fact that having a cellphone allows me to be immediately accessible for phone meetings in New York or LA even as I'm driving between Roanoke and Buena Vista to teach a class, and our cellphones have paid for themselves a dozen times over. Think of all the hours that I did not have to stay home waiting for an important call; all the hours that I did not waste waiting for someone and wondering if they forgot or are just a little delayed; all the times I was lost and was able to call for directions ... and you know what? I'll put up with hearing other people yell into their cellphones now and then, just for the convenience of occasionally being able to yell into mine.

Yes, even in restaurants. I was at Il Moro in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago having a lovely dinner before attending a Christmas concert, when my cellphone rang. It was my agent, asking a crucial question in the middle of a delicate negotiation with an ironclad deadline. If I hadn't had a cellphone, I would have had to miss that dinner and that concert in order to sit by the phone just in case something came up. I was discreet -- I went and stood in a corner and did not shout, while my friends continued their conversation unimpeded. But because of the cellphone, I could do it all.

*

I've about had it with nature. I really try not to hit squirrels in the road. I don't kill flies unless they come in my house. If mice didn't defecate wherever they eat, I'd share my food with them. I leave spiders alone, unless they're poisonous or someone in my house is screaming for me to kill it. I didn't even set a trap for the chipmunk that kept digging up my herb garden; he couldn't help it that he was too dumb to know that we completely changed out the soil and the nuts he hid there the previous fall were gone.

So why, when I'm innocently driving along (well, innocent except for 10 mph over the speed limit), does some strange beast come bounding out of the woods on US220 and hit the side of my formerly new Ford 500, leaving a big dent?

It had to be a deer -- possums skitter like roaches, they don't bound; and a rhino would have punched a hole (setting aside the paucity of rhinoceroses in southern Virginia). I only caught a glimpse with peripheral vision.

Nor did it seem to be much harmed by the incident. At least, in my rear view mirror I saw no cars swerving to avoid a deer-size creature.

For all I know, this is one of those reindeer games they wouldn't let Rudolph join in. Wait by the side of the road, and time your leap exactly so you hit the nice, cushy door. If you're too slow, you miss the car entirely; too fast, and you end up sprawled across the hood.

I'm not surprised that the deer got through unscathed. Deer are the sheep of the wild-animal world -- really dumb. The females choose their mates by watching the males ram each other in the head; whichever one is least damaged by these collisions gets the doe. Deer have been breeding for thick-headedness for thousands of generations. Running into the side of a speeding car is nothing to them.

But it's gonna cost me hundreds of dollars. And the worst thing is, the last time I came in for body work at the same dealership, the guys there made fun of me. That accident happened when I was going north on US29 (warning: Stay away from Virginia!) and a big truck on the far side of the highway blew a tire, which bounced across the median and smacked into the side of my pickup truck.

Apparently the guys at Bob Dunn's body shop thought this was so improbable that they mocked me for lying. Why I would be lying, I couldn't imagine; and if I had been lying, why would I come up with a story as unlikely as that? But I dread taking my 500 in to them tomorrow. If they didn't believe the tire, are they going to believe the deer?

*

OK, here's my Christmas present for everybody. It's just a story, but it'll make you feel really good.

Last time I was in LA, the company that flew me out there also rented a car for me. It wasn't one of the major rental companies, it was a little one operating out of the Radisson. But because they had a major studio as a client, they had all kinds of luxury cars -- SUVs, Mercedes.

I've never understood this Mercedes thing, by the way. Sure, in Europe they're the biggest car you can get. I rent them there, when I have to drive at all. But in America, they're kind of small and cramped and low. When I'm in a country where I can rent a car that I don't have to slide into like tight jeans, why in the world would I ever choose a Mercedes?

But the studio thought they were doing me a favor. (Town Cars, those are a favor.) And I wasn't paying, so fine. This little rental company picked me up at the airport (don't be impressed -- it took longer than the regular buses) and drove me to the Radisson and the guy made a big deal out of checking out the car and starting up the engine.

He left the engine running for me. I went directly to pick up my daughter and her roommates and take them to dinner. So when I stopped the car in the parking garage under the Chin-Chin in Brentwood, I had never actually touched the car keys.

I did notice that the car key was a little sluggish coming out of the slot, but hey, that happens. I put the keys in my pocket without looking.

Now it's after dinner, we're coming back to the car; I pull the keys out and look at them for the first time. Unlike Hertz and the other big boys, who put four keys on the same unopenable keyholder, this rental company had apparently improved on this by not giving me a key at all.

I had the remote, which was weird-shaped, and the keys were hard to read in the semi-darkness, but I could unlock the car. What I couldn't do was start it, obviously, because the remote was only thing on the key ring.

How had the key fallen off? I went back up to the restaurant to see if we left it there; my daughter and her roommates scoured the route we had taken. The poor waiter even rummaged through the garbage looking for the key. I showed everybody that all I had on the key ring was the remote.

Only when I showed it to the parking garage attendant did the truth emerge.

The remote was the key. Mercedes apparently has keys that are all-electronic. There is no metal shaft with teeth on it, just the weird nubby end of the remote, which you stick into a weird nubby slot in the dashboard and turn just as if it were a real key.

I had the key all along.

But it's not a real key. It pretends to be a real key, and I'm sure Mercedes owners are very proud of being so cool that their cars don't need old-fashioned keys like the peasants who drive American cars.

I'm still not sure whether to be embarrassed that I didn't at least try to start the car with the weird remote, or proud that I don't go trying to stick obvious non-keys in keyholes. Nor am I certain whether this incident proves I am too stupid to drive a Mercedes, or am so above the Mercedes that I never bothered to learn how to turn on their little engines.

But the reason this story is a present to you is:

1. If you own a Mercedes, or had other reasons for knowing about their unkeys, you can feel superior to a Rhinoceros Times columnist.

2. If you had no idea about this weird pseudo-key thing that Mercedes does, now you can say to your friends, "Of course, you know that the Mercedes uses an electronic key, with no metal shaft to put into a keyhole" and you'll look smart and classy, which is what Mercedes' exist for anyway, only you can do it without having to actually buy and/or drive one.

3. And if you couldn't care less about the whole story, you can feel better about yourself because you never are so lacking for conversation that you have to tell a lame story like this one.

At the beginning of this section I promised that my story would make you feel good. Not sentimental. Not amused. Just superior.

*

Sara Paretsky's new V.I. Warshawski mystery, Fire Sale, may be the best in the series so far. Warshawski finds herself at her old high school on the South Side of Chicago, filling in as basketball coach for a friend who is dying. The only way she'll get out of doing this miserable job is finding somebody to donate enough money to the school to pay the salary of a real coach.

So between searching for donors and trying to deal with hostile or alienated kids, naturally she nearly gets killed and cracks open a fraud-and-murder case. It's especially entertaining that the company is a big national retail chain that bears no resemblance whatsoever to Wal-Mart.

We barely see any of the regular characters, which is fine -- rather like the most recent Spenser novel, in which Robert Parker left both Hawk and Susan offstage so we could watch the sleuth tough it out on his own. Paretsky is perfectly able to create new characters in order to tell a whole new story -- something I wish Janet Evanovich would try from time to time.

*

I heard a great album on XM Classics the other day and had to order it for myself. It's called Wedding Hymns. No, it's not fifteen different fading pop acts singing various arrangements of "Here Comes the Bride." It's the Choir of Queens College, Cambridge, with James Weeks conducting. Few of the hymns actually suggest weddings to me -- what they are is celebratory choral music, beautifully performed.

My favorites: "Morning has broken" (even better without Cat Stevens); "All things bright and beautiful," "Guide me, O thou great Redeemer," and "Amazing Grace" (without bagpipes, thank you). All are performed with the ethereal sound of a choir in which individual voices are deliberately subsumed in an ensemble of pure song.

*

Still reading? Man, this must be a long lunch hour you're taking while you read the Rhino. Hope you don't get in trouble with your boss.

My last bit is shameless self-promotion. I've started an online fiction magazine called, modestly, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, at http://www.oscims.com. We have terrific fiction, mostly by new writers; and there's also a story set in the Ender's Game universe in each issue. We have a complete comic book and a serialized novel in this issue as well.

The cost per issue is only $2.50, payable through PayPal. But even without paying, you can look at small versions of the illustrations, read the openings of the stories, and check out our reviewers and commentators.

I hope you'll try it and like it so much you'll give the first issue as a gift to your friends who like a good story. (Of course, they also have to own a computer connected to the Internet.) We don't sell subscriptions, but once you're registered we'll notify you when new issues come out and when new material is added to the existing issue.

My goal is to make this the best fiction magazine you can buy. But heck, if "best" eludes us, I'll settle for "really good."


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