Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume 1


I just picked up a memoir by Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1, 10 years after it was published. I’d recently heard about it, but not seen it before.
I was a Bob Dylan fan in the middle 1960s, but stopped listening to his newer music long ago. What he has to say is interesting, though.
He begins with arriving in New York City, finding places to work and stay, and how he saw things at that time. He was meeting lots of people and getting exposed to lots of things. The period he’s writing about is before he got a recording contract or began writing any songs, though he’d begun to vaguely think about the latter. He was working in folk clubs, sometimes singing or playing with other musicians, and staying with various people, as he couldn’t yet afford his own place. In the places he stayed he found people he could learn from, and he also found lots of books.
He began reading both widely and deeply, somewhat, but not entirely at random. For instance, he delved into the microfilmed newspapers of the 1850s and 1860s to understand the atmosphere of the times. He read books about the Civil War and its personalities. He also dug deeper, and perhaps more randomly, into the past: authors like Milton, von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Lord Byron. A lot more deeply and widely than I’ve ever read.
He felt things moving, felt he was going somewhere, but didn’t know where yet. He only mentions one of his original songs in this section of the book, and it’s one he hasn’t yet written. He’s getting an idea of who he is, and looking forward to the future.
I became aware of him a little later, when he had a recording contract, had begun to write songs, and have them recorded by others. Blowing in the Wind was probably the first I heard, and I didn’t care that much for it. But when I heard Mr. Tambourine Man, as done by the Byrds, I was definitely intrigued. I bought his album, Highway 61 Revisited, and was amazed, though I didn’t understand the lyrics to any great extent. What he was doing lyrically was different from any other music I’d heard, and still pretty much is, though some have imitated or emulated him. I bought several of his albums leading up to that one, and Blonde on Blonde, his next, and another great one. But after that things changed.
The next period he writes about is later. He’s written ground-breaking songs, gotten rich and famous, toured the world. But in 1967 he had a motorcycle accident, broke a bone in his neck (if I remember correctly), and decided to rest. During the preceding period he’d also gotten married, and while he was resting he and his wife started having children. At that point he mainly wanted to be with his family, but people kept intruding on his privacy, breaking into his property, and increasingly demanding he lead them somewhere. He didn’t want to lead them. He had written songs that many people took personally, and a lot of them felt he owed them something, or had responsibility for them. He didn’t think so, and tried to deflect their attention.
His next albums didn’t sound at all the same. They sounded like he didn’t want to be popular anymore, or at least was deeply conflicted about it, and indeed, that’s pretty much what he says about this period. He figured he had to change people’s perception of him to get the attention away from him, and deliberately made albums much different than before, albums he wasn’t very invested in, maybe even deliberately bad albums. I bought almost everything he put out for several years, but by the mid-1970s I had almost entirely lost interest. There was one song he put out then that I really liked, Tangled up in Blue, but I hardly even listened to the rest of the album. And what came later I liked even less.
The next period he writes about is much later, and he begins at a time when he’s almost completely lost the thread of what he’d been doing, feels that he hasn’t done work that’s been very good for a long time, and is considering retirement. But just at this time he begins getting some new ideas bout how to play guitar and how to perform. And virtually out of nowhere, he begins writing songs again, not particularly because he wants to; they just come to him, and he writes them down.
Elsewhere he is quoted as saying that in the 1970s he had lost the ability to write songs almost automatically, as he had in the 60s. Maybe that was because he hadn’t really cared about songwriting for awhile. It had become a struggle. By the late 1980s it seems to have been even more so. He felt that he’d written enough, toured enough, and had gotten tired of it all.
That’s when he starts getting the new ideas, without having particularly been seeking them. How to play guitar, how to perform, and then songs start spontaneously coming to him. He seems to be writing about a sort of rebirth, but it’s unclear how deep it went.
He’s concerned first about how he’s performing, and having had ideas about how to sing differently, in a way that won’t take as much energy, and how to play guitar differently, that’s where he starts. Sometime in that period Bono, the singer and songwriter of U2 visits and suggests that if he wants to make an album, Daniel Lanois is the producer to work with. They call Lanois, who is in New Orleans, and he suggests Dylan come by if he’s in the area. They can decide if they want to work together.
They do decide to work together, and at first it doesn’t go smoothly. Lanois has assembled some good musicians, but the songs don’t come together. The first one that does is Dylan playing with only two other people. He’s tempted to leave it at that, but Lanois wants to work on it more.
Eventually he manages to record an album, and thinks it’s a pretty good one. Perhaps it could have been better. Lanois would have liked songs like he wrote in the sixties, but circumstances are different, and those kinds of songs aren’t coming to him.
He credits Lanois for assembling good musicians, for wanting the best possible take of each song, and for creating an atmosphere good to work in, but he doesn’t go overboard with praise, or overestimate the quality of the album.
The final period he writes about in the book begins with his childhood, his trip to Minneapolis from his home town in northern Minnesota, his pursuit of folk music (hardly popular at all then), and especially Woody Guthrie, when he finds out about him. He learns as much as he thinks he can in Minneapolis, and heads for New York.
In New York he fast-forwards through most of the things he’s already written about, tells about getting a recording contract, and some of the things going on in his private life.
He felt that folk music was the most profound kind of music he knew, though he listened to and liked virtually any form of music. He talks about liking Ricky Nelson, as many people in the 1950s did, but feeling there was no future for that kind of music. Things were changing, but at the same time there was a lot of meaning in the songs of the past, many of whose authors were unknown.
He went with his girlfriend to art museums and plays, as well as concerts. He started drawing around that time too. He saw Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and was impressed with its ideas, and the ideas it stimulated in him. After he got his recording contract, John Hammond, the famous record producer, gave him the recordings of Robert Johnson, about whom almost no one knew then. They inspired him too.
By now he had some inkling of where he was going, though the details remained obscure. He was going into a brand new world, not knowing what he would find there, but with some idea what he would be creating.
It’s fascinating to hear how great artists began, sometimes especially in their own words. Some particular form of some particular art fascinates them, and they follow that fascination. Dylan’s original ambition was to be a musician; he didn’t originally know just what kind, and began finding that out as he went along. He had played rock & roll, but others stole his bands, so he decided to play alone until he was in a position to have a band and keep them. Folk music was a perfect kind of music to play solo, and it helped that many of the songs, as well as the history, fascinated him. He was feeling his way.
The middle part of the book seems to be about doing the same again. The early part of the book is about being born. The next part is about why he turned away from what he’d been doing, how he’s been kind of doing things at random to see what will happen. A couple of years after the time he writes about he released the last song of his I really liked, which seems to be looking at his past and starting over again. The later segment of the book suggests that he didn’t find a “right” way to start over again until the late 80s. Deliberately leaving the path he’d been on, he’d gotten lost.
He’s done a lot of recording since then, written this book, hosted a radio program (which I didn’t hear about until it was long over), all of which suggests that album from the late 80s was a sort of rebirth. That’s certainly suggested by the structure of the book, but his comments about that time leave it indefinite.
It seems pretty clear that the sixties were the most exciting time of his life, when he was going somewhere unknown, but beckoning to him, and was wealthy in the people he met, as well as the books, art, and music he was discovering. He almost suggests that his life has become poorer after making a lot of money and having a family. That it’s more difficult to find something new in his career to keep him interested and creative.
But he was rarely a person to insist on one interpretation of things, and doesn’t in this book. Still, his writing about his younger self is exciting, maybe partly because I remember those days too. If his life is still exciting, meaningful and rewarding, it’s hard to tell from how he writes about it here, but I hope it is. If nothing else, he was a great inspiration to a lot of people 50 or so years ago, and not just musicians. I hope he’s been happy with the rest of his life.

5 Things you CANNOT disagree with


Five things you CANNOT disagree with:

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anyone what the government doesn’t first take from someone else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.
5. When half the people get the idea they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them; and the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because someone else gets what they work for, that is the beginning of the end for any nation.

These statements were posted on Facebook by a friend with whom I went to high school, and I managed to disprove the title of the post by disagreeing. Let me explain why.

You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. No, but you can legislate against the ways wealthy people take advantage of the poor, and legislate to create more equal opportunities. For example, predatory lending. Companies lend against people’s next paychecks or their car titles. They also charge really high interest on the loans, which land poor people in deep debt. One of my coworkers had to have surgery, didn’t heal well, had to have several subsequent procedures, and wasn’t able to work again as soon as expected. Because of that, her paycheck (not high in the first place) got garnished. She was just about to pay off one of those debts when the person she was paying said they had no record of her payments. She had to start all over again, and lost her house and car. Most of us have other options when we need money. She didn’t.

What one person receives without working for, another works for without receiving. That sounds axiomatic, but who does it refer to? Absentee landlords might receive without doing the work of maintaining their properties. Corporations receive subsidies. Do they deserve them? The implication is of the stereotypical poor person receiving welfare, the “welfare queen”. One of my friends, a social worker for 25 years, told me he never met one.

Government cannot give to anybody anything it doesn’t first take from someone else. When I mentioned this one to a friend, he replied, “True, but irrelevant.” Why do we have government in the first place? If government is evil, why would anyone want to have one? Anarchism is a nice fantasy, but history tells it doesn’t work. Governments (according to the Founding Fathers) are supposed to protect ALL their citizens. If they’re too weak, they can’t. Consider Russia, China, and Germany in the last century. They were too weak to keep from being taken over by fanatics. One of the ways government is supposed to represent all its citizens is by providing equal justice. That’s always been a problem in this country, as in the rest of the world. Governments aren’t supposed to arrest, imprison, or kill without good reasons. They ARE supposed to prevent theft and extortion. When elites run a government strictly for the benefit of elites, that’s not good for most. We then get ideas about how certain groups are “unnecessary” or “immoral”. That’s an excuse to exclude them, or worse. I think we all are supposed to contribute something to make the country and government work. It makes sense to me that those who have prospered more because they live in this country ought to contribute more. Many think they should have to contribute less.

You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it. Why not? Is one person supposed to have ALL the wealth? Money will never be divided absolutely evenly in a society, but if more people have it as a resource, more people can contribute to the health and wealth of the society. The question this proposition raises is, should any society be exclusive or inclusive? If it excludes, does it get the best possible contribution from all its members? I think American inclusiveness has generally benefited the whole society. I don’t think it has included ENOUGH.

When half the population gets the idea they don’t have to work because the other half is going to take care of them; and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

This is the proposition I identify with least. What kind of society doesn’t take care of ALL its members? According to Rick Ungar, in an article in Forbes Magazine, most people who don’t pay income tax are people with disabilities or illnesses, students, soldiers in active duty in a war zone, the elderly, and those who don’t make enough money to pay income tax and raise their children too. Forcing any of these groups to pay taxes would force them to go on welfare. And not paying income taxes doesn’t mean they pay NO taxes. Those able to work can’t choose not to pay payroll taxes. Those buying things pay sales taxes. And there are excise taxes on commodities like gasoline, on which most people rely.
Recent stories have said that Wal Mart employees frequently have to get food stamps to get by, which means that Wal Mart is making its profits from YOUR tax dollar. Do you approve of that?
Do you approve of the government bailing out Wall Street, but not the people who unwisely bought mortgages they couldn’t pay? If the companies selling those mortgages represented them accurately, would people have bought them?
When I express my liberal opinions someone will occasionally accuse me of jealousy. I don’t think that’s true. I live a pretty comfortable life, though I support my stepdaughter and her two children, and sometimes help out friends. If I sometimes don’t feel like working, it’s not because I don’t want other people to live comfortably too. People have helped me when I needed help. Not everyone has people in their lives willing to help, but I suspect many successful people do. For those who don’t, people from broken homes, unable to go to good schools, does it make sense to deny them help? Do that on a large enough scale, and you can foment revolution.
Does it make sense to help people who are already doing well? Corporations can afford to lobby effectively for that help. Those with less money usually lobby less effectively.
Lobbying by various groups has borne some interesting fruit. Industries left a number of large cities for places where they could pay employees less and not have to obey environmental regulations. Their departure destroyed some cities, whose residents now can’t get decent jobs. The companies mistreated employees in other parts of the world, and increased industrial pollution. Are these good outcomes? They’re exercises of power, and many powerful people exercise power for their own benefit, and no other reason.
Other interesting fruits of lobbying include deregulation. In the 1980s that led to leveraged buyouts, where one company would buy another, sell all its assets, and loot its pension fund. They left the employees behind without comparable jobs. I would call that theft. I don’t know what you’d call it. Deregulation also increased industrial pollution. Climate change deniers call the changes advocated to reverse or manage climate change (which, most scientists say, is largely due to human activity) dictatorial. I call polluting and degrading the environment we depend on for life without legal consequence dictatorial. Many will disagree, but I believe this is a place government has let us down.
In the 1990s downsizing became fashionable. I expect companies to downsize when they’re not doing well. They have to reorganize to produce and sell their products more efficiently. In the 90s companies with good, even record profit-margins, would downsize. No doubt they had other rationales, but I see that as depriving employees of the profits they helped to earn. In other words, theft.
Lobbying also presented us with NAFTA, which Ross Perot said would create a vast sucking sound as jobs left our country. Is there any question that he was right? It also, according to news I heard this morning, has created an imbalance of trade between us, Mexico, and Canada. We’re buying much more from them than they from us. Was NAFTA a good idea? If so, for whom?
One comment on my post replying to the above propositions was that the military is what keeps us safe in a violent world, but that the military is the only department of government facing cuts. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that. Republicans are constantly talking about cutting Medicare, Medicaid (if not ending them and Social Security), and have already ended unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed. The latter would make sense if those unemployed were simply lazy. Considering all the jobs sent abroad, does that seem plausible?
On the state level, teachers, police, and firefighters have been laid off to manage budgets. Any responsible person wants the government to cut spending. Does it make sense to cut it there?
A government that serves only the elites (who can pay politicians for services rendered) is not a good government. It’s the kind of government most countries in the world have, but this country started out with a better idea. That idea is familiar enough that I shouldn’t have to quote it for anyone.
The post I’ve been talking about had this for a heading: 5 truths you CANNOT disagree with. Who has the right to tell me, or anyone else, what I can or can’t disagree with?

Ayn Rand and her philosophy


Last week I wrote a poem about Ayn Rand and the Randites. I read her two most famous novels in my teens, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. The first I didn’t actively dislike. I could sort of agree with the hero’s point of view, and sympathize with his inability to make a living following his dream. I could somewhat understand his pity for the man who stole and bowdlerized his work, and his eventual unwillingness to allow his work to survive in impure form. But for me there was something off about the novel. For one thing, the sex scenes didn’t seem very sexy to me, something quite important to me then. Was it because they were written from a woman’s point of view? I don’t know if that was it or not.
Atlas Shrugged I more actively disliked. Mainly for its dogmatism, which seemed to me its primary message. I could understand the idea of people who are parasites taking power away from the people who do the really valuable work, but resented the insistence that I had to agree with the thesis.
The books were interesting in a way, but I didn’t find them terribly important. Only recently have I discovered that some prominent people have taken them seriously, have decided they know who the parasites are, and are currently warring against them.
This is part of a greater war, conservative against liberal, which takes place in an atmosphere of distortion. Not all conservatives are inspired by Rand. Her atheism is a turnoff to some, who are traditional conservative Christians, but her narrative seems to fit into theirs: that parasites are poor, usually with dark skins, live on welfare, and vote for Democrats. There’s just enough truth in the stereotype to make it plausible to many.
That greater war has to do with the struggle between Capitalism and Communism. Rand was Russian, had been educated in Russia, and was rather brilliant, speaking several different languages. Her family was Jewish, but non-observant, and she decided in her teens that she was an atheist. After graduating from a university she managed to come to this country in 1926, before the worst of Communist rule there began, but had probably seen some pretty terrible things. Once here, she sought work in Hollywood, where she worked as a screenwriter and costume designer, along with many odd jobs. She sold at least one screenplay, had a play produced, published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936, and a novella, Anthem,before publishing her first bestseller, The Fountainhead.
She endorsed laissez-faire capitalism as the best system for promoting individual rights, including property rights, and defined evil as initiating violence. Her views could be paradoxical, though. She supported Israel’s 1973 war against Arab countries, as “civilized men fighting against savages”. She also approved of Americans taking the western hemisphere from the Indians.
I’ve heard more about Rand in recent years because she seems to have become a conservative icon. Some prominent politicians have said she greatly influenced them, including Paul Ryan, who later tried to back away. He’s Roman Catholic, and she was an atheist who supported abortion. That doesn’t go over well in some conservative circles, but her endorsement of capitalism does.
I, however, have trouble with some aspects of capitalism. I’m not sure Rand ever knew (or acknowledged) the extent to which capitalism has been based on violence. Slavery was capitalistic. The labor movement and Communism were born as a reaction to Capitalism. And it’s not like Communism didn’t try to make a profit. They just denied profit-making to most of their population, forcing it underground.
Capitalism in this country wasn’t quite as overtly brutal, though it’s had its brutal aspects and episodes. Underpaying workers and violently breaking strikes, of course, but that brutality extends to brutality to the earth and its resources too, which I think is going to have even worse repercussions.
Wendell Berry, the fine writer who is also a traditional farmer, farming land his family has owned for 200 years, compared the migration of farmers (in The Unsettling of America) to the city to work in factories with the forced migrations and expropriations of Stalinist Russia. In this country, economic force was used, usually not military, but it was still force. Many farmers were forced off their land because they could no longer make a living if their farms weren’t big enough. They didn’t necessarily like working in factories, but had little other choice if they wanted to make a living. And when they struck for higher wages and better working conditions, they were often met with violence. That’s why unions were formed, and why unions often met violence with violence.
Another problem with the shift of the nature of the country from agrarian to industrial was that many fewer people could be self-sufficient, and capitalism by this time one hundred years ago was discouraging self-sufficiency through advertising to sell more products. As the century went on, more and more family farms disappeared, to be replaced by factory farms, and these farms were industrialized with the addition of tractors, artificial fertilizers, and artificial insecticides. These increased production, but also greatly increased costs, and Berry makes the case that careful farming’s production isn’t that far less than industrial farming, which he says is usually careless. It plants where it ought not to, encouraging soil erosion, allowing fertilizer to be washed into rivers, and is in other ways careless with the land. Planting the same crop on the same acres year after year drives down its fertility, and land sometimes needs to lie fallow for a year or two to allow its fertility to return.
Parallel problems are in animal husbandry. Animals are imprisoned where they can hardly even turn around, and dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease (which may increase antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Male chicks are ground up alive because the farms have no use for them. The chicken we eat is all female. The industrial motto is, Bigger is better. And profit is its only ethic.
Berry says small farmers used to be able to survive in part because they could sell the produce they didn’t need locally. Regulation in the name of sanitation changed that. One such regulation was the requirement to store the milk a farm produced in a tank. The catch was that a farm had to have a herd of at least thirty cows to be able to afford such a tank.
Regulation is an issue in other industries. Coal, oil, and other miners and manufacturers dump their wastes anywhere they please, which is convenient for them, but not so convenient for those who have to drink the water they pollute. Being large enterprises, they’re able to have regulations changed, or prevent them from being enforced. Small farmers didn’t have that power.
Convenience has been a selling-point of capitalism, but capitalists have wanted to make people pay as much as possible for it. Electrification of rural areas was rejected for a long time, because electric companies didn’t believe it could be profitable. When a program was pushed through to provide electricity to a remote area in Texas (where Lyndon Johnson grew up), electricity made the lives of ordinary people immeasurably easier. Before that, the drudgery there had been brutal.
But convenience isn’t always a sufficient justification. That which is convenient isn’t always a good idea. Plastic is an example. We make almost everything out of it, but it doesn’t biodegrade. The impact of this isn’t immediate, so we don’t generally notice, but eventually we will, as the world fills up with trash, which interferes with natural processes.
Reliance on coal and especially oil for energy has also been convenient, while plunging us into several wars to ensure our supply doesn’t get cut off. The air pollution it has produced has been less convenient, but hasn’t been enough to move us to other energy sources.
Coal companies essentially conned people living in the Appalachians out of their property, forced them to work in mines to support themselves, and took the profit made out of the states where it was made. After deep mines (where working conditions have always been dangerous), companies began strip-mining: digging up the land to get to the coal, which destroyed the productivity of the soil. They also began blowing tops off mountains to get to the coal, dumping the waste anywhere they pleased, including rivers and streams, without concern for the health problems that caused people in the area, and potentially further downstream. That’s laissez-faire, and it’s violent.
I don’t see much evidence that Rand was aware of this side of Capitalism. She preferred the system, understandably, to Communism, but didn’t see that both were exploiting natural resources in similar destructive ways, and that Capitalism’s brutality was only less overt than Communism’s.
I find her writing interesting partly because she’s trying to construct an overall philosophy which seems to have no room for families, children, and ordinary people. She has heroes and heroines, and what she calls “second-handers”, who take advantage of the creativity of others. No one else seems to exist.
In her philosophy she opposes all forms of religion or mysticism, and considers all knowledge to be based on the physical senses. I think in doing this she closes a door to other forms of knowledge that others testify do exist, though they’re often misunderstood.
And ironically, though she claimed to be in favor of freedom and human rights, she was extremely dogmatic, as I mentioned above. She founded a movement she called Objectivism to spread her views, and attracted a number of people to it. Nathaniel Branden, with whom she had been very close, she eventually expelled from it. He, in turn, apologized in an interview to Objectivists for “contributing to that dreadful atmosphere of intellectual repressiveness that pervades the Objectivist movement.” Was the repressiveness he mentions what Ayn Rand really wanted?
In some ways I have to admire her. She was a strong woman, who overcame a number of things. She escaped from the Soviet Union, struggled to succeed in this country, and wasn’t successful for some time. When she was successful she had to overcome disdain for her work. Though some, and eventually many liked it, there were from the beginning many critics who thought it badly done and philosophically shallow. It’s possible that she found being a woman in a man’s world difficult, and perhaps being Jewish too.
But I think she got onto a wrong track, that people following her also misunderstood what she was saying, and drew wrong conclusions from it. She was an apologist for laissez-faire capitalism, which is as liable to corruption as any other human endeavor. She opposed “collectivism”, by which she meant Communism, but individualism (which she supported) is too often understood as being allowed to do anything one wishes, regardless of the rights and welfare of others. Capitalism can be as totalitarian as Communism. And in a complex society individuals can’t succeed without at least some cooperation from others.
She said she opposed the initiation of violence, but the system she supported has often initiated it. As have many other systems. She opposed regulation of Capitalism, but Capitalism (like humans in general) doesn’t have a good history of self-regulation.
She was, like many, a paradox unable to live completely up to her ideals. Her ideals weren’t entirely bad, and her insights weren’t entirely wrong, but I find her contribution more negative than positive. Others will surely disagree.

The Magician’s Land


Beginning to read a trilogy with the third book doesn’t sound like a good idea, but that’s what I recently (and accidentally) did. The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman, is a fantasy, and rather well done. It doesn’t have a lot of new ideas, but recycles some old ones well, and is fairly imaginative.
The thing about it that got me, though, is that it’s largely based on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which I have always loved. It has some Harry Potter thrown in (a school of magic), but that’s less interesting for me. The idea of a magical world one can visit and come back from certainly fascinated me as a child and later. I loved the Oz books too, but they don’t resonate for me as they once did. I suspect that idea is still an attractive one for many children.
If the plot and dialogue in this novel aren’t up to the minute, they’re still pretty hip and entertaining. But what really made me sit up and take notice was an exploration of the underside of the Narnia idea.
The magic world is called Fillory, and has two rams as its gods. Four English children who have been more or less abandoned by their parents and foisted on an aunt (or some similar sort of relative) who has little time or attention for them, are drawn into the magic world, where they become kings and queens, and then return to our world to find only five minutes or so have passed. This happens during the First World War. So far so similar. Rams instead of a lion, WWI instead of WWII. No great difference.
One great difference does emerge, though. The oldest of the children (about 12, maybe a year or two older) begins to be frozen out. He doesn’t get summoned to the magic world as often as the others, which he bitterly resents, because he doesn’t feel there’s anything for him in England. He more or less forces his way into the world, gives himself to its gods, and is turned into a monster for his pains, or so I gather. No doubt there’s more about this in the preceding two novels. One character (I think one of the two gods) comments that he sacrificed his humanity to stay in Fillory. That’s the Peter Pan theme, and there are certainly people who want to remain in childhood. I’m one, and pursuing that desire was clearly not a good choice. It may be far worse for others than it was for me.
The author, in the voice of one of his characters, reflects that maybe Lewis’s message to children to face everything with courage and honor isn’t the best possible advice for adulthood. That’s an interesting point, which hadn’t occurred to me. Much as I love the worldview of the Narnia series, I hadn’t considered Aslan (the god of Narnia) playing favorites, and that is what seems to happen in much of life, adult or childhood. Lewis implies, like most storytellers, that behaving well will bring a happy ending. Not always true in this world, and few of us know about any others. I still think Lewis’s advice is generally good, but Grossman’s novel shows Narnia’s goodness as being a bit superficial. Not as superficial as some–Lewis wasn’t a particularly superficial man–but it lacks the seeming realism of a world where Good DOESN’T always win.
I happen to believe there are higher worlds, and possibly these more closely resemble Narnia, though I suspect they are also a great deal more complex. Narnia isn’t a bad conception, but it may be slightly over-optimistic, which is why it’s still seen as a children’s series. Lewis brings some fairly complex ideas into the books, but can’t deal with them in great depth. He has to walk something of a line to do as much as he does.
One great difference in Grossman’s novel is that other children are later drawn into the world that have no connection with the original children, except that some of them have read some of the books written about the children and the world by a man the children run into in England, to whom they tell their stories. It is one of these children, now grown up, who saves the magic world.
Grossman’s novel is NOT for children. And it does still manage to have a happy ending in a fairly traditional way. The hero grows up, finds his love, saves the world. The magical world, that is. Not bad, but not a masterwork either. Despite any of its flaws, Lewis’s series, in my opinion, is more attractive, if only because it doesn’t try to be hip. It does have a sense of fairness that doesn’t seem justified by what we seem to see in the world around us. Oversimplified it probably is, but I’m not so sure that Lewis’s vision was that wrong. The series is one I hope to read to my grandchildren, if Narnia hasn’t already been spoiled for them by the movie version. I hope it hasn’t.