Book Review: Tales Before Narnia

That's the Snow Queen on the front, looking for all the world like the White Witch.

Title: Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction
Editor: Douglas A. Anderson
Format: Book; Collection of short stories and poems
Pages: 339
Published: 2008, by Del Rey
Reason for Beginning: Lewis is one of my “literary mentors,” as it were, in both fantasy and philosophy, and I love exploring the things that inspired him.
Reason for Finishing: It’s a wonderful collection! And some of the stories are now among my favorites.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A collection of tales that inspired C.S. Lewis or shared similar themes/ideas with his works.
Re-readability: Definitely high. The variety of authors ensures a variety of writing styles, so if some don’t suit you, something else likely will. I borrowed this from the library, and will have to buy a copy for myself.
Recommendation: I loved this collection – it played right to my tastes. An excellent read for anyone interested in fantasy literature, loosely defined, especially that which is fifty or more years old. Anyone interested in C.S. Lewis would be interested in this collection. Also, Douglas Anderson has also edited Tales Before Tolkien, which I will try to get hold of sometime.

Key Thoughts

A few of the tales are famous ones from over a hundred years ago, like Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, while others are very obscure, like “The Dream Dust Factory” by William Lindsay Gresham. The stories which have already been featured or reviewed here at the Warden’s Walk are: Undine, “The Dragon’s Visit” by Tolkien, and “The Coloured Lands” by G.K. Chesterton. You can learn my thoughts on those at their respective pages.

“Proem: Tegner’s Drapa” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

No, I don’t know why there’s an “r” in Proem, or what that means. This is the poem that Lewis says, in Surprised by Joy (1956), gave him his first thrilling shot of “Northernness,” a numinous feeling that pierced him with visions of cold northern tundras and mountains and the deep colored skies above them. The first stanza is especially evocative:

I heard a voice, that cried,
‘Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!’
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

The poem mourns the loss of Balder, treacherously slain through the wiles of Loki, who killed him through the mistletoe, the one existing thing which had not taken the oath to never harm the beloved Norse god. Balder, who is generally recognized as a loose Christ figure, is given an honorable Viking funeral on a burning ship by the other gods, never to return to Valhalla, no more a living deity. So it is, says Longfellow, with all pagan gods, who were only ever shadows of the real God and His angels. It is this element especially where you see reflected the ideas of Lewis and Tolkien. The idea that even in pagan mythology we can see shadows, however gray and misty, of the beauty of the Christian gospel. Longfellow acknowledges the beauty of the Norse mythological tradition, but goes on to say that it is not enough. Christ came with a different message, a “law of love” rather than the old “law of force,” and Longfellow enjoins Christian poets to preserve the good of the old cultures while singing to the praise of their own Lord.

“The Aunt and Amabel” by Edith Nesbit

A pleasant little children’s tale that has some early Narnian elements. It’s about an eight year-old girl named Amabel who tries to please her grumpy great aunt by cutting some of the flowers in her garden and making them into a pretty arrangement. This, of course, only angers the aunt, and poor Amabel is in a state of very childlike despondency, when a magical world sort of shuffles its way into reality, in order to make everything alright between the two of them. The whole thing is kind of a deus ex machina, but is mostly okay for it. Not great, but nice. A story to cheer up little children.

“The Snow Queen: A Tale in Seven Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen

More varied than I expected, “The Snow Queen” takes its sweet time getting to the eponymous character, and that’s okay. I’ll want to reread it to understand better why Andersen does this, but most of it serves to establish the character of the little girl Gerda. Gerda’s beloved playmate, the boy Kay, gets infected with a shard of a demonic mirror (explained in the story’s first brief “chapter”) that burrows into his eye, and then to his heart, and causes him to see everything in a negative light. Soon after he is kidnapped by minions of the evil Snow Queen, who claims him as her own, and Gerda must set out on a quest to save him. On the road she meets talking flowers, kind gypsy bandits, a Prince and Princess, among others, and has adventures that prove her bravery and love.

The similarities with Lewis’ Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are clear, but not intrusive. In some ways, I think “The Snow Queen” might be about the proper way to grow up. But it’s not a coming-of-age story, I don’t think. More like a story about the importance of children being good. At the beginning, both Gerda and Kay are innocent, naïve, sweet little kids who care deeply about the things they love, including each other. After Kay is infected by the mirror, he starts to make fun of things which previously he loved and appreciated, including Gerda. He abandons her to go play dangerous games with older boys in town. He makes satiric imitations of elderly folks, and causes adults to laugh and say he’ll “turn out a clever fellow.”  This seems to represent much of society’s ideas about growing up, that properly it is about being cynical and irreverent, or at least worldly-wise, and that true intelligence comes from being able to tear down, rebel, and deconstruct. Kay’s selfish antics are what get him kidnapped in the first place. It is only through Gerda’s steadfast love and belief in his goodness that he ever gets free. Gerda, in fact, seems to grow up a bit through her quest. Gradually, organically, and with her innocence still intact, but wiser than Kay. His “growing up” by the influence of the mirror shard was false and forced, while hers took place naturally as she sought to do the right thing out of love. And the ending, when they are back home, sitting joyfully together with hands entwined as they revel in the gorgeous summer, “grown up and yet children at heart,” is absolutely beautiful.

“The Magic Mirror” by George MacDonald

This fairy story is from Chapter 13 of MacDonald’s Phantastes, one of the most amazing fantasy novels you are likely to ever encounter. The story is self-contained, and very much in the Romantic and Gothic traditions, as I understand them.  It tells of a university student who buys a strange antique mirror and discovers that in its reflection he can see a beautiful young woman going about her life in his own apartment, but apparently unable to discern much of his existence. His obsession with communicating with her lays the groundwork for a truly haunting, enthralling, and even romantic tale.

“Letters from Hell: Letter III” by Valdemar Thisted, and “Fastosus and Avaro” by John Macgowan

Truthfully, I didn’t make it through these, although they are very short indeed. Not because they weren’t interesting, but I guess mostly because of style. I didn’t feel motivated to just sit down and read them all to the end. The first one is a chapter from a novel about a man trapped in Hell. Douglas Anderson’s little intro notes that Lewis himself was bored by Letters From Hell and didn’t finish reading it, though he admitted it contained some good ideas. The second is a conversation between two demons. It, in particular, bears similarities with Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, as the demons are uncle and nephew, God is seen as the Enemy and humans as targets, and their lively upper-class British language just barely masks their bestial, evil natures. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem Lewis ever read Fastosus and Avaro, even though it is more reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters than Thisted’s book.

“The Tapestried Chamber; or, The Lady in the Sacque” by Sir Walter Scott

A simple ghost story well-told, but without much to it. Scott is an excellent writer and he builds a lot of tension and atmosphere through the application of realistic details. But in the end, this is a pleasant but forgettable effort, something which can be read around a campfire or on Halloween, but isn’t likely to be much use otherwise.

“The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” by Charles Dickens

The most important thing about this story is that it’s a precursor to A Christmas Carol. A grumpy old man, who hates Christmas and anyone who enjoys it, is visited and tormented by creatures from the otherworld until he learns that being a good, kind, unselfish person is far more rewarding than being a mean ol’ killjoy. The main difference from the classic novel is that while Scrooge is upper-class and wealthy, old Gabriel Grub is a poor grave-digger (a sexton). I liked the story well enough, although it’s a bit too heavy-handed. The change in the old man comes far too easily.

“The Child and the Giant” by Owen Barfield

A fellow Inkling with Lewis and Tolkien, Barfield’s fairy story is at once touching, surprising, and a little alarming. Hard to know much of what to say about it, but the premise is the friendship between a fearsome giant and a young boy. The giant stole the boy as a babe and raised him in his cave, so that the boy knows nothing at all of other humans or the world. Unbeknownst to the child, the giant goes out every night and eats humans, but he keeps this secret from the boy because he loves the boy, who is his only friend. However, as the years pass, the boy begins to grow up and wonder about his origins. Then things get complicated. Well, about as complicated as they can in 8 pages, but still. Not sure how I feel about the ending – it’s far more sudden and surreal than I expected, and doesn’t easily fit into a “happy” or “sad” category.

“A King’s Lesson” by William Morris

An interesting, very well-told tale that approaches a classic (or clichéd) type of story, then draws a different, and somewhat shocking, moral out of it. Thing is, Morris was a socialist, back when it was more reasonable to be one. And his message here is apparently one of the few times he let politics be the message of his fiction. Fortunately he is an excellent writer.

The format is that of the king teaching his nobles how to appreciate the serfs who toil under them. He takes them out to the fields and has them work under the direction of the serfs, yet after many sweaty hours they’ve only done a fraction of what they require the serfs to do. Yet as the nobles ride away and discuss the lesson between them, the king remarks that if he was a peasant having to work like that all his life, he would rise up and overthrow the whole feudal system, to be replaced by a peaceful utopian world where each one can work for himself. His captain of the guard then says that they, the nobles, have not to worry, because the only people who would believe such a revolution possible are those who would stop those who would revolt. And thus, he says, their oppressive regime is safe for “many and many a generation.”

So it’s not really an uplifting story. However, it is very well-told, and since Morris is one of Lewis’ favorite authors, a master of “Northernness,” I’d like to read some more of him.

“The Waif Woman: A Cue – From a Saga” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Ah Stevenson, one of the English language’s great authors. It’s a complex tale, set in Iceland, and seeming to take much from harsh Norse mythology. A strange woman, possibly a witch, sails into the town of Snowfellness, with rich possessions and beautiful clothes. The wife of the local innkeeper is vain and shallow, and conspires endlessly to get the woman’s belongings, despite repeated warnings from her husband and the woman’s own otherworldly, unfriendly nature. Let’s just say it does not end well for her or her husband. Again, not a particularly cheery story, but the kind of tale you might hear locals tell when you visit an out-of-the-way place.

“First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows, which I have not read, originated in letters to Grahame’s young song Alistair. These letters were later edited into their own book, to give scholars and lovers of Grahame’s story a peek into their development, and what I have here is an excerpt. It’s pleasant and lively, telling of how Mr. Toad escapes from prison, rejoins his loyal friends Rat, Mole, and Badger, and successfully retakes his home, Toad Hall, from the dastardly weasels and stoats. The style is fast and heavy on amusing dialogue, and feels very much like it was meant to be read aloud. I look forward to reading The Wind in the Willows itself sometime, although I must admit that Toad is not a character I particularly like.

“The Wish House” by Rudyard Kipling

The premise, of a mysterious haunted house that enables people to wish on themselves the pain of their loved ones, is fascinating, and similar to that which is explored in Stephen King’s The Green Mile. The execution, however, is intolerable. At least for me. The entire thing is a long conversation between two elderly British women, who speak in such a thick country accent (written out) and in such roundabout ways that it near drove me mad! It felt as if 90% of the text was unnecessary to the story. The style is confusing at best, irritating at worst. This is probably the only story in this collection that I didn’t like at all.

“Et in Sempiternum Pereant” by Charles Williams

Another Inkling, Williams is clearly a thoughtful and talented writer of fiction. Not sure what to make of this story, though. It builds suspense excellently for a few pages, but in the climax it is very difficult to make out what is actually happening. The narration just got too psychological and surreal when I think it should have been more literal. Anyway, I think it is basically about a British lawyer on walk through the countryside, who encounters a seemingly-abandoned cottage by itself in the middle of nowhere. Seeing smoke puffing from the chimney, he hurries inside, fearing that the house has caught fire while its owners are absent. Then, he suddenly encounters a damned soul which is pulled into hell before his eyes. He runs out of the house, is picked up by a bus, and quotes to himself the final line of Dante’s Inferno: “and thence we issued forth to see again the stars.” Which I do not understand in this context. So, yes.

“The Man Who Lived Backwards” by Charles F. Hall

The only real science fiction story in this bunch, it’s kind of like a Twilight Zone episode. Explores one concept for a dozen pages or so, then resolves its issue and ends. Not much of a plotline really, more a rumination on a couple ideas. It’s about a physicist in the 1930s who, through a combination of a cutting edge experiment and freak lightning (of course), find himself transported outside of his body and watching as the whole world rewinds itself. That is, time itself starts moving in reverse, with everyone and everything repeating the actions they have just done, but backwards. Only he can move about with freedom, like his own personal Time stream is still flowing normally.

The fascinating part is how it deals with the time-travel paradox. Here, the Past is utterly unchangeable because it has already happened – this is accepted as a fundamental rule of the universe. The result is that the main character, Rostof, literally cannot interact with anything. Nobody sees him or hears him, nor can he in any way change anything physically. For instance, trying to stop his friend from walking backwards only gets him knocked violently out of the way as if hit by a truck, because his friend’s actions are set in stone and cannot be changed at all. Wind cuts right through him, because if it went around him then the Past would be changed. Neither can he eat, because that involves the lifting and manipulation of food; at one point, starving and desperate, he claws at a mere crumb until his fingers are bloody, because it cannot be budged.

This makes the whole world dangerous. Almost anything could kill him. A leaf falling from a tree could cut him in half, because its descent to the ground is predetermined, having already happened. He wonders into the country, hoping to escape the deadly bustle of the city, but finds that he can only walk on roads and paths, because the grass in the fields is like a sea of tiny waving swords that would slice his feet to ribbons. The most fascinating incident is when a storm comes, or shall we say the storm leaves, and he reaches shelter just as the bullet-like raindrops begin shooting up from the ground and into the sky.

It’s this whole idea, the world of the Past being more solid than Rostof himself, that inspired the solidity of Heaven in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.  The story is a good one – perhaps not a great one, but its central idea is really interesting and well-handled. It’s an enjoyable read.

“The Wood That Time Forgot: The Enchanted Wood” by Roger Lancelyn Green

Three girls explore a neat stream in a forest and see a vision of an otherworldly elven girl. It’s a chapter from an unpublished novel by one of Lewis’ own students. Although Lewis liked the drafts he saw and encouraged Green, and even was inspired by the story while writing Narnia, ultimately Green decided that his novel was too similar to Narnia, and he didn’t want it to detract from Lewis’ tale. This chapter is nothing too special, but the writing style is strong and the teenage girls are well-written. Too bad the whole novel isn’t published, as it does show promise.

“The Dream Dust Factory” by William Lindsay Gresham

This is easily the most unique tale in this collection for a number of reasons. One, it’s by an American (and the ex-husband of Joy Davidman, Lewis’ own wife, no less). Two, it has more of a social-realist style (as I see it), and would probably be classed more as magical realist than straight fantasy. Maybe. Because of these reasons, in part, it has a very casual, conversational style, with lots of slang and contractions. And very American, especially in contrast to all the other British stories preceding it. Hard to say exactly what makes a story of this time period (1947) American rather than British, but that’s the feeling you get.

It’s essentially about a man who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, who escapes from the pain and harshness through his imagination, which a fellow inmate calls the Dream Dust Factory. The only way out of the terrible prison is to build yourself a new place to live with dream dust, and train your mind to live there and make that place real. The prisoner does this a number of times with varying levels of success, until one day, he dreams of a girl. A wonderful girl who loves him, and becomes just as real to him as the cell he sits in, and she brings him happiness and comfort. And then…oh, but there are some things you should just read yourself.

Is our man going crazy, or is the vision real? Hard to say. There’s no clear magic here, it seems to be all in his head. If I had my choice, I’d want Gresham to give clearer magical indications. That would make the story happier. That would leave me more emotionally happy. But I doubt that was Gresham’s goal, and while I would write it differently, I can still appreciate what he’s done here. It’s a really skillfully-written story, and I confess I did enjoy it a lot. Reminded me a lot of The Great Escape (1963), of all things. But escape of a different kind. It’s an odd story, one where you can’t decide if it’s romantic or depressing. Probably a bit of both. A poetic story, though. Very poetic.


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Tales Before Narnia”

  1. “The Snow Queen: A Tale in Seven Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen: Seems to me that the ‘shard of a demonic mirror’ and it’s penetration into the child’s heart thru his eye symbolizes the Fall of Man and his seeing everything in a cynical negative light represents man’s sin nature.
    “The Magic Mirror” by George MacDonald: This one makes me think of a typical episode of the “Outer Limits” TV series, the 2nd generation of the late 1990’s. Makes me want to read MacDonald’s “Phantastes”… so many books & so little time!

    1. re: “The Snow Queen”: almost assuredly.

      Yeah, “The Magic Mirror” does have a bit of a Twilight Zone feel, especially in the first part — well, Twilight Zone as filtered through the mid-19th century. The rest of the book is far more strange and spiritual.

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