Tonight was Book Club night, a Tuesday I look forward to every other week. I wrote earlier about my special book club, which focuses on the works by the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and more.) It was one of the regular meetings – yet every one of them is special.
First the wine and snacks
We can’t have Book Club without wine. Our host offered a lovely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Another member brought chips and guacamole, as well as flavored popcorns. We always spend the first 30 minutes catching up with each other and sipping wine.
Discussions go everywhere
We’re still working our way through The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Our talk tonight started with the facilitator asking the group simple questions – and then we were off, from sharing thoughts about the magic, the “between lands” and the character’s names, to the philosophical questions raised by Lewis to even the new Amazon series set in the Lord of the Rings world. We speculated where a traveler from another pool, and another world) would land if he jumped into the pool leading to our Earth. Most of us thought he’d show up in a big city. And we spent time thinking about how closely the sub-creation of Lewis’ world tracks to the Scripture. The temptation of both Polly and Diggory at the Bell of Charn has such close ties to the apple in the Garden of Eden.
A happy fellowship
Each Book Club evening ends with joy and much talking. Even though we “officially” end one hour after the start of the discussion, often people will linger. There are suggestions for the next book we tackle; someone has to sign up to bring snacks for the next time. It’s such a joy to find people with whom you can have a deep discussion with, on theology, fantasy, philosophy, and fairy tales, that it is hard to let go. Trudging out to your car is like leaving a party – you’ve left all the fun, brilliance, and fellowship inside, and now you must make your way through the winter weather on individual journeys to your separate homes.
When my book club chose “The Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis for our next book, I was unsure. How were we adults supposed to enjoy this book, and stretch discussion out over several weeks? Isn’t the book for children?
It may have been written for children, but the book has so much to offer on second reading as an adult. Our first meeting (which I had to miss due to a cold) was devoted to talking about just chapters 1 and 2. In them we meet the children at the heart of the story: Polly and Digory, and Digory’s wretched Uncle Andrew, who entices them into a magical land far away. In those first two chapters Lewis builds out the characters of each child, and Uncle Andrew with careful descriptions. The children are written as children, who after meeting each other find an empty attic to explore, with a long corridor over their attached rowhouses. Lewis writes their daring and egging each other on to explore as anyone who remembers their tweens would:
“Shall we go and try it now?” said Digory.
“All right,” said Polly.
“Don’t if you’d rather not,” said Digory.
“I’m game if you are.” said she.
Uncle Andrew thinks so highly of himself he tells Digory:
“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
…while Diggory shows his native 12-year-old smarts as he “saw through Uncle Andrew’s grand words:”
“All it means, he said to himself, is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”
Lewis closes each chapter with a cliffhanger designed to keep even his youngest reader following the story. At the end of Chapter One Polly vanishes; at end of Chapter Two, Diggory follows. And the pattern continues; at the end of one, Lewis ends with the characters thinking the trouble was over, “but they had never been more mistaken in their lives.” The depictions of the different worlds are so rich that it was easy for illustrator Pauline Baynes to create the beautiful artwork in the book (2001 HarperCollins edition.) The descriptions are not only visual; you can almost hear the songs that created Narnia as you read the chapter “The Founding of Narnia.” And to find what becomes of Uncle Andrew – that is a delight!
If I had one quibble with this book it is the description of Aslan. The description isn’t as rich, or full, as the careful description that Lewis gives Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” It makes sense that Lewis would describe Aslan more fully in the that book – since it was the first time he’d written about Aslan. To me, that is an indicator that the reader should start with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” then read all the other books in the publication order. No matter that Lewis himself said that he preferred the chronological order, which makes this Book 1 in the series. I’ll always prefer the introduction to this wonderful world in that first published book.
Dear readers: as you know, my site now focuses on four things: gardening, baking, cooking, and books. Today it’s time to focus on my love of reading.
So many books have famous first lines. There’s “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Herman Melville started Moby Dick with “Call me Ishmael.” And “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.” My favorite is from the book I just finished with my book club: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Of course, that’s from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
As much as I love the first line, the first paragraph of this adventure is what truly draws me in:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
We gathered Tuesday night for the final session on The Hobbit, and we all were sad to leave it. Everyone was quoting favorite lines from the book to each other, just to hear Tolkien’s lyrical prose. One of my favorite parts of the book, aside from the sheer adventure of it all – the dramatic journey of our little hero, the modest hobbit, fighting with evil spiders and a DRAGON – was some of the poetry Tolkien crafted as the songs sung by the dwarves and the elves. The songs reflected the characters’ nature: light, cheerful verse for the elves, cruel consonant-heavy lines for the goblins. And of course, our hero Bilbo Baggins, invented silly verses on the fly when he distracted the spiders away from his friends.
Old fat spider sitting in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Won’t you stop
Stop your spinning and look for me!
-The Hobbit, chapter 8
A complete world
Beside the poetry, everyone who has read Tolkien knows about the care he takes with what the sci-fi community calls world building. I’ve always thought of it as scene setting. The maps on the inside covers of the book were created by the author. But you can get it all from the descriptions Tolkien gives of the Shire, of Bilbo’s very nice hobbit hole, of the paths the adventurers take through the deep forest of Mirkwood, the wastes near the Lonely Mountain and finally in the dragon’s cave. Everything is described so beautifully that I can picture every scene of the book. But of the first Hobbit movie – I remember nothing except the first dinner scene. That’s the magic of books – you, as reader, collaborate with the author in creating the story in your mind.
A brief, final battle
I’m thankful that Tolkien resorted to the “Deus ex Machina” technique of the using the Eagles to shorten the final battle – because it nicely shortened a brutal war scene. I thought that at least 30 minutes of graphic fighting could have been cut from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy movies – which I DO remember – without sacrificing the story. And it was somehow so hobbit-like for Bilbo to be conked on the head with a rock, causing him to go unconscious and miss the last part of the battle.
A humble hero
Bilbo Baggins is described as a hobbit who “looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father” and indeed he lived a decorous life until he was 50 years old. But then, with the visit of Gandalf the wizard, the part of him from his mother’s people, the adventurous and less respectable Tooks, came out. The two halves of his personality warred within him starting with the unexpected tea party he hosted for the 14 dwarves. In shock the dwarves were expecting table service (and knew his larders better than he did) he muttered “Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!” Then after being thought a grocer instead of fierce, he marched forth to join the fray. On the journey Bilbo went back and forth from bemoaning the lack of a pocket handkerchief to devising ingenious plans to save his friends from danger. That was Bilbo’s charm: he was a hero who didn’t think highly of himself, who forgave those who did him wrong (witness his weeping over Thorin) and who was pleased to be “quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
I’m sure I don’t have to tell this erudite audience from whence the lines in the first paragraph came, but in case you don’t know: A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens Moby Dick, Herman Melville Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen