Shadowlands & Reflections

I wrote this a while ago as a sort of joke 2012 retrospective piece, and initially wasn’t going to post it on here at all. However, in the wake of the popularity of my previous post wherein I visited the location of a BBC adaptation of a classic novel, it seems more appropriate. Forget country houses and nineteenth-century romances and read on if you fancy a trip to Narnia by way of the Great British countryside…

Wrapping myself more tightly in my inadequate layers I attempt to minimise the possible gaps in my clothing through which the wind can creep, and peer over the ship’s railings to see if I can catch a better glimpse of our destination. Cee is standing a little ahead of me on deck keeping a weather eye on the horizon. The first hint that there was something other than sea out there appeared about an hour into the voyage, a smudge on the border between sea and sky that disappeared almost as soon as it had arrived, leaving us in doubt as to whether it had been visible at all. Weather conditions weren’t great, the sky was moving with cloud and the horizon shifting. The sea wasn’t rough but it certainly wasn’t calm. I was enjoying the pitch and heft of the ferry and the occasional lifting of the bows above the water as we rode from trough to crest of a wave, but I was glad I’d taken the precaution of some travel sickness tablets. The cold wind and constant motion was starting to lose its novelty and I was ready for solid ground, a hot drink, and shelter from the headwind. I could have gone inside, but I was afraid the confinement would exacerbate the ship’s motion and make me ill, and I also wanted to watch the view. To travel hopefully, they say, is a better thing than to arrive. Perhaps. I think that depends on where you’re going.

They’re getting bigger. Cee turned to point out what I was already observing for myself. Other passengers had started to notice them, and there was a sense of anticipation among the cold bodies on deck. Four or five definite shapes now, low and grey under the cloud.

The first of the Lone Islands, I point out, more as an aside, a joke that I’d only expect a handful of people to get.

Cee smiles back at me in agreement. That’s exactly what they look like! Are they really, do you suppose?

I think so. Well, on the TV version anyway.

I’m referring to the 1980s BBC adaptation of C S Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, which I watched relentlessly from the age of four upwards. It was my first encounter with that fictional world: by the time I came to read the books I was already more than familiar with the tales, at least the ones they’d got around to adapting. Of course they have since made three of the novels into what pass as pleasable, passable and barely plausible (in that order) big budget Hollywood movie adaptations, but for myself it’s the early versions that have stuck with me. Arguably they are dated and low budget, full of midgets in animal costumes and one dimensional animation, but having first encountered them at such a young age, and then had them form such a memorable part of my childhood has definitely raised my estimation of them. Besides which, they are entirely filmed on location in the UK which makes them a little more bland on a fantasy scale, and a little more special in other ways. After a somewhat lacklustre Prince Caspian, the Beeb rigged up a real life ship with purple sails and a dragon prow and gave us The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989) in four episodes, with the Isles of Scilly standing in for the various islands of the novel.

Inspired by Caught by the River’s annual retrospective posts ‘in which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments’ I thought it might be fun to do the same. Initially I looked back at 2012 and thought I’d had a pretty static and uneventful year. Then I reflected on my small travels and travails and mentally listed my highlights. I’d finally returned to the Isles of Scilly after having meant to do so for seven years. I love the theatre and go so rarely that when I do it almost always ends up on my list of favourite trips and activities; earlier last summer I saw The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in a circus tent in Kensington Gardens. It was full of high-conceptual Icelandic-inspired design; masks; stilts; acrobatic phoenixes on wires; tree branches; bark and roots; and a War Horse-style Aslan who moved like a real cat and was propelled by three puppeteers. Having made the connection between the Isles of Scilly and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I had to indulge in a little internal chuckle at my unintentionally recurring Narnian theme. I then laughed at myself even more when I later discovered that they used parts of Derbyshire – High Peak, Peak Cavern, Castleton, Haddon Hall, to stand in for the Wild Lands of the North, Ettinsmoor, the Underworld, and Harfang Castle respectively – in The Silver Chair (1990). An earlier camping trip in June, during which the unseasonably wet and cold weather was not so much a highlight but definitely a memorable feature, had seen me clambering onto the millstone grit tors and into the blue john caverns of High Peak. I encountered a fair few giant stones but no stone giants on my explorations. Had Speedwell Cavern not been closed to the public due to its being completely flooded after the region received 250 percent of its usual amount of rain for the month I could have taken an underground boat trip just like Jill and Eustace. Maybe next time. Meanwhile ‘Puddleglum’ seems a bit of an understatement considering the state of my tent – and my flooded left wellie boot – after it rained continuously for two days and two nights when I arrived in the Vale of Edale. All in all, I reflected, I did manage to inadvertantly cover quite a bit of ‘Narnia’ over the summer of 2012 – or at least its comparable equivalent landscapes in Britain.

One of the most common criticisms of the BBC Narnia adaptations is their use of the British landscape to depict that of the fantasy world. I know there are plenty of people who think the scenery used is just not spectacular enough. Of course the series were made on a fairly low budget, and technology just wasn’t available to digitally adjust the landscapes or – as is often done in big-budget fantasy movies – compile a landscape from a combination of photography and digital matt paintings to create something completely new. In some ways I agree with those ‘location critics’, but otherwise I quite enjoy a version of Narnia that is so recognisably British. C S Lewis created ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ on one level as a sort of fantasy mythology for England, so to see British and English landscapes used to depict it is quite fitting. The children who visit Narnia from our world are always English, and if you go back to The Magician’s Nephew which is a sort of alternative creation myth, the first humans to inhabit Narnia were Cockneys.

Although C S Lewis spent much of his life in Oxford, he was born in Ireland. He first moved to England to attend school in Worcestershire. Initially he hated it here. He hated the English, he hated the English accents; but ‘what was worst’ he said ‘was the English landscape’. As often as possible Lewis would return to Northern Ireland, and it was the Northern Irish landscapes that inspired the idyllic scenery of Narnia. None the less, the fictional land he created has a distinctive overall Britishness about it with its woods, flowing rivers, rolling hills and meadows representing a sort of idealised British countryside, unspoilt by much human interaction, industrialisation, urbanisation or technological development. Narnia is set out as a ‘better’ Britain, just as in The Last Battle Aslan’s Country, which is the equivalent of paradise, heaven or wherever it is we supposedly go next, is set out as a ‘better’ or ‘Real’ Narnia. C S Lewis parallels Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with this series of realities or perceptions of realities, and ‘superior’ realities, referring to our world as the Shadowlands because their reality is supposedly a dim shadow of the true world which living mortals are yet to come to:

“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (HarperCollins: New York, 1956)

I am neither agreeing with nor condoning this viewpoint by referring to the British landscape’s equivalents to Narnian scenery as ‘Shadowlands’, but it is interesting to explore the implications of comparing real landscapes to fictional ones. After all, can they ever live up to what our imaginations can invent? How many times have you watched a screen adaptation of a favourite novel and remarked that it just wasn’t how you pictured it in your head? That is the joy of fiction: the internal landscapes conjured by our minds are as unmatchable as they are individual.

And as to whether or not some of the places I visited around Britain in 2012 were acceptable alternatives to getting into Narnia through the back of a wardrobe? Personally I’d say better, because I know for certain that I’ll be able to get back to there whenever I chose, and I hope that won’t be too far in the future. I’ll just have to make sure when I return to the Peak District I don’t do so in a tent.

More on this?

Shadows & Reflections is an annual series of retrospective pieces by contributing authors on Caught by the River. It has now finished for 2012/3 but the archive include some interesting and insightful pieces but people such as Tim Dee, Kurt Jackson, Mathew Clayton and Lisa Samson.

You may also like: Wetton Mill, Memory Lane


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