Sunday, May 08, 2005

From A Master Storyteller

We all know someone for whom storytelling is a craft, a talent carefully honed until we, their very willing audience, are hanging on every word. My brother Rick is one such storyteller. His tales of outdoor adventures never fail to captivate me, and they always promise to send me into hysterics one or two times along the way. His yarns of hunting and hiking exploits with his trusty (albeit stubborn) mule, Louie, are a highlight of family gatherings (for everyone save his wife). I’ve spent many a spare thought trying to pin down just what makes Rick a great storyteller.

Now, it should be noted that no one else in my immediate family has such a flair for legend-making. Any attempt I might make exceeding a good one-liner, for instance, leaves my audience simply yearning for a conclusion. But Rick has that “special something” down to a fine science—that certain combination of innate talent and practiced technique that draws you into a story as if you were there experiencing the travails with him.

In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis seems to have found that careful equilibrium as well. His myriad writings in both fiction and non-fiction demonstrate his prowess as a powerful writer; yet one can be a skilled writer without being able to tell a decent story. Likewise, one can spin a good yarn and still not have the slightest idea how to relate the story effectively in writing. This is not to say that the first two books in the Narnia series are weak stories or are poorly told—but here Lewis’ storytelling abilities and writing skill converge, I believe, to create a fully-fledged tale.

But what makes a well-told story well-told? What transforms a narrative into a legend? In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis fleshes out the realm of his stories—and finally the world of Narnia becomes one into which the reader can fully enter.

One foundational strength of this segment of the chronicles is that there is a strong sense of place, something which is less well-defined in the first two installments. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is some unsettled-ness over the coming and going between worlds. Since no single world—not just “place,” but entire world—is “The Setting” of the first two books, the audience may feel somewhat ungrounded, perhaps even uneasy. In The Horse and His Boy, not only do we have single place to call The Setting, but we have a sense of geography, of the lay of the land. We see how different areas of this world interact, and we travel with Shasta and his cohorts through numerous climates, cultures, and countries, on the way to The Great Land of Narnia itself. Knowing exactly where we are, where we have come from, and where we are headed allows us to become more fully absorbed in the other details of the travels.

While written stories and oral accounts have their differences in language (one rarely speaks in the same style as one writes), language is the basis of a story. One doesn’t use poetic language and flowery descriptions in a calculus text; neither are sunsets or a lover’s eyes frequently expressed in mathematical terminology. Instead, we use specific language styles to communicate our purposes most effectively; English words and grammar may serve both expository and descriptive purposes, but the language used is almost invariably different. Thus, with storytelling (both written and spoken), a look at the language sheds light on the art itself.

In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis delights us with a perfect example of both written and oral storytelling. While his own skill in descriptive narration is evident throughout the book, he also offers unusual insight into oral storytelling by dedicating an entire chapter (“At the Gates of Tashbaan”) to Aravis’ introduction of herself in expert oral-tradition style. Her life to this point becomes the story.

In a similar way, Lewis’ storycrafting takes a rather poetic turn in this book—poetic language takes a more prominent role in his descriptions of the people, the lands, the animals. More than either The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we are left with vivid mental images of The Horse and His Boy. We can smell the dirty fishiness of southern Calormen. We can picture old Arsheesh wheedling and conniving the Tarkaan stranger over the price for poor Shasta. We feel the warmth of the outsized cat against Shasta’s back among the tombs. The travels through the desert leave us slightly thirsty. Lewis’ skilled descriptions play on all five senses, with heat “shivering” up in waves from the sand, and the Lion “tearing” Aravis’ shoulders; and the experience becomes that much more real for us, his captive audience.

Not to be overlooked, the issue of language itself has bearing. In Calormen, we find Calormene terms—Tarkaan, Tarkheena, Tisroc, just to mention a few—that convey a sense of foreignness unknown thus far in the Narnian Chronicles. In Narnia itself, everyone spoke the King’s English—for all we knew the characters were white Anglo-Saxons, and people as well as speaking animals spoke modern-day British English. Even Jadis, though from the world of Charn, experienced no language barrier (though the cultural barrier was evident). Yet in Calormen, there are indications of racial differences (southern vs. northern, dark and light skin, etc.), and the Calormene vocabulary emphasizes a sense of the exotic—the introduction of a truly “new” place in which we are aliens.

Yet another strength of The Horse and His Boy is the development of characters into people (and animals) with whom we can identify. Though The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all have numerous good and evil and somewhere-in-between characters, when reading The Horse and His Boy we might find ourselves empathizing with the characters more than in the previous novels. It is easy to share Shasta’s shame upon his first confrontations with the somewhat haughty and proud Aravis, who seems to put on airs and condescend to the poor boy. In the dark night of waiting at the tombs, we can feel Shasta’s fear creep in as the light fades. The horrible dread is nearly palpable when Aravis and her irritatingly self-absorbed friend Lasaraleen are breathlessly hiding in the same room as the secret council of the Tisroc, the Grand Vizier and Aravis’ betrothred, Ahoshta Tarkaan. Even these three men, though only occupying a small part of the story, leave a lasting impression—perhaps moreso than even Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew, for all her hateful behaviors. And, of course, what child has not hoped—even slightly believed, at some point—that he, like Shasta, is a long-lost prince, just waiting to be found by his royal family?

Such empathetic characters draw us into the story until we are a substantive part of it—breathing quietly with Aravis during the secret council, so as not to be heard by the illustrious men; jumping ever so slightly when the Lion’s claws rake across the girl’s back; laughing in spite of ourselves at the humiliation of Rabadash: such things are evidence of our incorporation into the story, a direct outgrowth of our connections with the characters.

We would be quite mistaken, I believe, to address Lewis’ art of storytelling in The Horse and His Boy without giving adequate attention to foreshadowing. While it can be overused and oversimplified (and some might argue that Lewis’ use of foreshadowing is a bit heavyhanded in this case), the technique does draw the audience into the story by hinting at what is to come. From the first page of The Horse and His Boy, we know that Shasta’s current living situation is not as it might appear. Arsheesh is described as a man whom Shasta “calls father,” not as “Shasta’s father.” Moreover, just a few lines later much is made of Shasta’s “Northern” likeness—rather fair-skinned and light-haired, unlike the southern Calormene “darkness of cheek.” So from the very beginning of the story we are engaged and enticed, wondering what Shasta’s past and future have in common. And when, near the end of the tale, Cor’s true identity is revealed, we are at once happy for him and happy for ourselves—for we have grown to genuinely like Shasta/Cor, and his good fortune serves the audience as well.

So what makes this story a good story well-told? I suppose I could try to use mathematical terminology and root-cause analysis to offer some sort of explanation. Above, I’ve noted some specific literary strengths which certainly contribute to the success of a story’s telling, but I would be hard-pressed to think that I have in some way uncovered that certain aspect of storytelling that keeps us wide-eyed and open-eared and glued to our seats. Rather, I think I have merely rediscovered that—mathematically—a good story well-told is more than a sum of all its literarily skilled and crafted parts.

It is a good story—and that, in itself, is enough.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How nicely put. The Horse and His Boy certainly is a good story. It's my favourite. You've showed it's strengths very well and given me something to think about as I try to write. I also really like the pictures there very well done and look very much like how I imagine them to look.

1/26/2007 4:23 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

Jenn says, "Your welcome. Cool." Thanks for taking the time to comment!

1/28/2007 1:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home