Sunday, 11 November 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole and Into the Wardrobe

Books: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
             The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Context: Historical Time and Christian Time

For people living in a western society, perceptions of time are found everywhere. As children, we used to play games such as ‘What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?’ in which we crept across the playground in a race against the clock. As adults, we become bound to our diaries and routines, keeping appointments at specific times and, more often than not, feeling as though we never have enough time. The composer Leonard Bernstein said: ‘To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.’ Time appears to us as something over which people have no control – which, in fact, controls us. This is an understandable conclusion to draw: mathematical knowledge of time, after all, comes out of the intricacies of cosmic physics which very few understand fully. We can’t stop or turn back time. In fact, if you can imagine this to be possible, those who could control time would have to have some sort of science-fiction superpower, or be a form of deity.

As a thing which creates structure within the lives of humans, whilst being beyond our control and much of our comprehension, it is fairly easy to draw parallels between time and God. I’m not talking necessarily of the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though this is an important example of the type, but of any Supreme Being or Beings into which human beings place trust, fear and awe. I want to explore this relationship more, using examples from children’s literature – specifically Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. Both of these, I think, illustrate the nature and passing of time in a way that more ‘adult’ books don’t.

In Alice, time appears very much with a capital T, as a personified entity.  

‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’
 ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.
 ‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never spoke to Time!’
 ‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’
 ‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.’

This is just like many deities throughout the world’s religions – almost human, with a gender, powerful, desirous of respect, and occasionally slightly cantankerous. Although there is little evidence that Lewis Carroll was deliberately equating time with any religious power, it is very tempting to search for the similarities. The first time the reader encounters Wonderland is when the White Rabbit runs down the rabbit hole, clutching a pocket-watch and muttering: ‘I’m late, I’m late.’ Add this to the Mad Hatter’s depiction of Time himself as being a self-possessive authority, and one almost feels that Wonderland is somehow governed by time in the way that a god might rule over a religious world.

However, C.S. Lewis definitely does make explicit the link between religion and time. Throughout his Chronicles of Narnia, he plays with the concept of the passing of time. Indeed, the title Chronicles itself suggests a profound relationship between the narrative of the books and time. These are an account of the ‘times’ of Narnia. Many years can take place in this mysterious and magical other world, while taking up no time at all within ‘our’ own world. This concept allows the principal characters from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to return, in Prince Caspian, only one year later in Earth Time to a Narnia of 1300 years in the future. In doing so, they appear to Narnians as figures appearing out of legend, inextricably tied up with the fate of Narnia and the existence of Aslan, Lewis’ incarnation of God. Over the span of the Chronicles, Lewis deliberately creates a very linear and Christianised portrayal of a world, albeit a fantastic and magical one, which spans from its creation (in The Magician’s Nephew) to its end (The Last Battle). The apocalyptic scenes in The Last Battle (LB) heavily echo those in the Biblical book of Revelations (R), as the end of the world comes as both a punishment for sin and a reward for goodness. Compare these two passages:

‘It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, carved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head... and its fingers – all twenty of them – were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails.’ – LB
‘And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads... And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.’ – R

The idea of a better version of the world after the end of time appears in both also:

‘“This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below.”’ - LB
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’ - R

In both cases, the ending of time comes at the point when common virtue, morality and belief appear at their lowest ebb. Moreover, in The Last Battle, Time appears personified, as a giant, who awakes on the day that the world ends to literally extinguish it. The passage of time is decay, and Time itself comes to end all things, as a form of cleansing process.

Lewis’ world also makes much of prophecy, in a similar way to the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. This gives the impression of everything happening at its appointed time – that time is somehow pre-planned and stationary. This fatalistic approach adds to the conception that time is beyond terrestrial control – that it, in fact, is more the controller, as well as the destroyer.

These two literary examples, while they certainly do not fit into the historiographical canon, do demonstrate the way in which western writers and audiences perceive time. Both deal with the fantastic and other-worldly, having characters cross over from a world recognisable as our own to another where the rules of time are not quite the same. In this new setting, time is treated as a character in itself, highlighting its role within the wider world and, by extension, within history. Though there are many other examples like this in western literature, these two in particular exemplify the type, and depict what seems to be a quite traditional and Christian perspective on time.

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