Children’s Fantasy Review Part 2

Divine intervention: The Horse and His Boy and A Wrinkle in Time

See part 1 of this series here.

The Horse and His Boy is my favorite book of the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, a series now considered one of the staples of children’s literature. Perhaps as famous as the Narnia series itself is the fact that it was written with very prominent Christian themes. (Aslan is not just an allegory for Jesus, in-story, he is Jesus.) Meanwhile A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, is a rare beast: an instance of Christian science fiction. These are few, and ones that are well known are fewer. A Wrinkle in Time is probably the most widely-read, but being Christian, it is really better characterized as science fantasy. Madeleine L’Engle was strongly influenced in her writing by C. S. Lewis, though she definitely has her own style.

In The Horse and His Boy, a slave boy named Shasta escapes from bondage in the Arab-inspired land of Calormen with the help of a talking horse from Narnia. Aided along the way by Aslan, the great lion, he meets up with Aravis, a Calormene noble-girl running from an arranged marriage, and the Pevensies, the kings and queens of Narnia, with whom he must thwart a Calormene invasion of the north.

I think this book was my favorite of the Narnia series because it was the only one in which C. S. Lewis left the ending open. With every other book in the series, he wasn’t expecting to write another one, with the possible exception of the prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. This leads to awkward endings in all of the other books where he tries to close the door to more adventures. It just doesn’t suit them.

In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murray, her little brother, Charles Wallace, and her friend, Calvin, must save her missing father from the clutches of a totalitarian alien overlord know only as “IT”. In this task, they are aided by three angels, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who wage a never-ending war against the Forces of Darkness.

Madeleine L’Engle is both more explicit and more subtle in her references to Christianity than C. S. Lewis. She is more explicit in that calls the angels “messengers of God” plainly and quotes directly from the psalms, while Lewis only implies Aslan’s identity. Narnia could be read at the level of an allegory. On the other hand, Lewis comes across as trying to directly illustrate the main points of his theology, while L’Engle seems to be merely telling a story in a Christian worldview.

Both of these books are very good, but they both have one major short-coming: a literal Deus ex machina.

It’s harder to write Christian literature without a Deus ex machina. Any time you include a miracle, you’re invoking a Deus ex machina. However, it can be pulled off well, and I think these books do not do it as well as they could.

My biggest problem in both cases is that the main characters are given instructions without any effort on their part, and without explanation. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is told exactly what he needs to do to warn of the imminent invasion by the mysterious Hermit. True, the Hermit’s strange powers are explained later, but at the time, this is just dropped out of the blue for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the entire Hermit subplot is really unnecessary from a narrative standpoint.

Then there’s the actions of Aslan. As a God who is personally involved in the lives of the characters, he comes across pretty well. But a few of his actions are real head-scratchers. Most notably, there’s really no reason for him to suddenly show up at Rabastan’s trial, unless he makes a habit of sentencing wicked rulers of Narnia and its neighbors in person.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the angels whisk Meg and company away to find her father not only without warning, but without even telling her what they are doing. Later, Meg is told that to save her brother from IT, she must confront IT alone. This seems like an impossible task, since she was the most vulnerable person to ITs powers before, and she was recently badly injured, but there is a good reason why she has to go. On the other hand, it is never really explained why she has to go alone. Meg may have to rely on her wits more than Shasta does, but there’s still something unsatisfying about how the story is set up.

Maybe children are more willing to accept these sorts of mysterious happenings. It would certainly explain those books where things happen more or less at random. But I am very much a realist in how I write my characters and plots, and I see no reason to keep logical story development out of a children’s book if it can be explained in few words and without confusion.

There was one other thing I noticed in reading these books. The chapter breaks are cleaner than they are in adult fiction. There are some cliffhangers, but the chapters seem to be more episodic in nature, with major shifts in action occurring at the chapter breaks. Because of this I think that in preparing to write my own children’s novel for Camp NaNoWriMo next month, I will, for the first time, write a chapter-by-chapter outline instead of just a summary of the story. We’ll see how well that works in practice.

Next time, we go really old school with Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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