Friday 17 December 2010

'The Voyage of The Dawn Treader', Lewis, and Language: A Rant

I really loved the new Voyage of the Dawn Treader film, having expected to completely hate it. It was one of my favourite books as a child, one of the books which shaped my whole imagination, and very certainly one of the influences which made me a medievalist today. There's no way any adaptation can live up to that kind of love for a book; but even I was impressed by the film, which achieved the (what I would have thought impossible) feat of making a Narnia story more explicitly Christian. All that stuff about evil green mist and temptation and the constant struggle against evil is hardly glanced at in the book, but it actually, implausibly, worked well in the film.

I only had one complaint. So many things grate in modern adaptations of classic books, but the language is always the worst: either film-makers honestly can't tell when they have characters talk anachronistically, or they don't care. One gets used to these things, and most of the audience can't tell either; people in general aren't sensitive to the historical niceties of language. But it especially bothers me in the Narnia films because Lewis was so tenderly, playfully careful to get his levels of discourse right. Of course his English children speak 1940s slang, which was entirely absent from the film (I loved that slang so much as a child, in the early 1990s - it was exotic and fun to me, but I imagine the film-makers assume modern children will find it alienating). Even better, Lewis takes any excuse to let his Narnian characters to speak in a pastiche of medieval or Elizabethan language, especially when they're being official. This is how Oxford professors of English literature get their fun, so it's hardly surprising; and even less surprisingly, none of this makes it into the films.

This is my favourite example, the letter sent by Peter to the usurping king Miraz in Prince Caspian:

"...I will dictate," said Peter. And while the Doctor spread out a parchment and opened his ink-horn and sharpened his pen, Peter leant back with half-closed eyes and recalled to his mind the language in which he had written such things long ago in Narnia's golden age.

"Right," he said at last. "And now, if you are ready, Doctor?"

Doctor Cornelius dipped his pen and waited. Peter dictated as follows:

"Peter, by the gift of Aslan, by election, by prescription, and by conquest, High King over all Kings in Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands and Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, to Miraz, Son of Caspian the Eighth, sometime Lord Protector of Narnia and now styling himself King of Narnia, Greeting. Have you got that?"

"Narnia, comma, greeting," muttered the Doctor. "Yes, Sire."

"Then begin a new paragraph," said Peter. "For to prevent the effusion of blood, and for the avoiding all other inconveniences likely to grow from the wars now levied in our realm of Narnia, it is our pleasure to adventure our royal person on behalf of our trusty and well-beloved Caspian in clean wager of battle to prove upon your Lordship's body that the said Caspian is lawful King under us in Narnia, both by our gift and by the laws of the Telmarines, and your Lordship twice guilty of treachery both in withholding the dominion of Narnia from the said Caspian and in the most abhominable, - don't forget to spell it with an H, Doctor - bloody, and unnatural murder of your kindly lord and brother King Caspian Ninth of that name. Wherefore we most heartily provoke, challenge, and defy your Lordship to the said combat and monomachy, and have sent these letters by the hand of our well-beloved and royal brother Edmund, sometime King under us in Narnia, Duke of Lantern Waste and Count of the Western March, Knight of the Noble Order of the Table, to whom we have given full power of determining with your Lordship all the conditions of the said battle. Given at our lodging in Aslan's How this XII day of the month Greenroof in the first year of Caspian Tenth of Narnia.

"That ought to do," said Peter, drawing a deep breath.

This, in a children's book! 'Monomachy' (I had to look that one up) and 'don't forget to spell abhominable with an H'! There's no reason at all to include such scholarly quibbles or such an (to a child) incomprehensible letter, except that I bet Lewis had all the fun in the world writing it. When I was eight years old, I had no idea what this was a pastiche of, or what genre it's self-consciously mimicking, but I thought it was so cool; it was a completely new language to go with the new imaginative world.

Note that even in Narnia, this Tudor stuff is archaic language - 'long ago' to Peter and to Narnia - and it's the language of the Golden Age...

There are some great examples in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because Caspian as king gets to say lots of very kingly things in his best elevated rhetoric - Reepicheep, too, the swaggering Walter Raleigh of the piece. It wasn't in the film and I missed it, but never mind. The only thing I did mind was the language of the spells Lucy reads from the magician's book. Lewis doesn't give the text of these, so they were invented for the film, and goodness, they were awful.

In the film, as in the book, this is an ancient spell-book, with illustrations like a medieval manuscript; and so, like most fictional spells, you might expect a bit of archaic language. The spells invented for the film didn't capture this at all; they were feeble doggerel. Here's a spell Lucy uses to make it snow:

With these words
Your tongue must sew

For all around there
To be snow.

Someone needs to get a dictionary and look up the word 'sew', because here's a rule of poetry for you, guys: just because it rhymes, that doesn't mean it makes sense. This is an illiterate sentence. It's ungrammatical, and it doesn't mean anything! Lewis would be rolling his eyes.

Worse, they replaced a good spell with a terrible one. More than once we hear the spell which most tempts Lucy, the one which will make her beautiful; this is the title:

An infallible spell to make you she,
the beauty you've always wanted to be.

Are you kidding me? What on earth is that?

The spell itself says:

Lashes, lips and complexion
Transform my reflection.

It's hardly inspired, though not quite as bad as "To make you she", which is just atrocious. Was there really no one working on the film capable of noticing that phrase is ungrammatical? And unpoetic? And immensely awkward? Maybe they just didn't point it out, since the director Michael Apted apparently wrote it himself....

But what makes this particularly stupid is that we get a good version of this spell in the book! The first words, at least: "An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals." Come on. That is so many times better than the film version, it's off the chart. You will notice, as any eight-year-old could notice (even without knowing that they did), that with the inflected ending on uttereth and the archaic use of relative pronoun that where today we would say who, and most of all the fairytale diction of beyond the lot of mortals, Lewis has made an appropriately defamiliarised, medieval-sounding spell in very few words. Did they not want a spell that sounded like a spell? They wanted a spell that sounded like a rhyme out of a Christmas cracker? For goodness' sake.

(I think they've even dared to 'correct' - wrongly - Lewis' grammar, by replacing to make beautiful her with to make you she. Lewis was a Professor of English at Cambridge, guys; you think you can do better?)

Anyway, these were my only complaints (almost) about a movie which really could have been a lot worse; but they are symptomatic of a cloth-eared ignorance about language which is prevalent in all media today, and very far from the sensitive, nuanced intelligence of Lewis' original.

I'll only mention one more language peeve. In the last scene, Caspian is tempted to go on to Aslan's country, but realises he has responsibilities to Narnia which he can't abandon. The following dialogue occurs:

Caspian: I will try to be a better king.
Aslan: You already are.

If you don't know how to use the comparatives good, better, best, you really ought not to be writing for films. Anyway, this little bit of nonsense replaces my favourite scene in the book, which is rather lengthy, but wonderful in every part. I've posted the whole thing below. Do note the archaisms of Reepicheep ("You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person"), Edmund's lampshade-hanging reference to Ulysses, and the difference between the dignified rhetoric of Caspian's first speech and his humble schoolboy language in his last ("give to all these, my shipmates, the rewards I promised them" vs. "might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger").

They joined Caspian on the poop and soon all the men were crowded together at the foot of the ladder to hear the King's speech. "Friends," said Caspian, "we have now fulfilled the quest on which you embarked. The seven lords are all accounted for and as Sir Reepicheep has sworn never to return, when you reach Ramandu's Land you will doubtless find the Lords Revilian and Argoz and Mavramorn awake. To you, my Lord Drinian, I entrust this ship, bidding you sail to Narnia with all the speed you may, and above all not to land on the Island of Deathwater. And instruct my regent, the Dwarf Trumpkin, to give to all these, my shipmates, the rewards I promised them. They have been earned well. And if I come not again it is my will that the Regent, and Master Cornelius, and Trufflehunter the Badger, and the Lord Drinian choose a King of Narnia with the consent-"

"But, Sire," interrupted Drinian, "are you abdicating?"

"I am going with Reepicheep to see the World's End," said Caspian.

A low murmur of dismay ran through the sailors.

"We will take the boat," said Caspian. "You will have no need of it in these gentle seas and you must build a new one in Ramandu's island. And now-"

"Caspian," said Edmund suddenly and sternly, "you can't do this."

"Most certainly," said Reepicheep, "his Majesty cannot."

"No indeed," said Drinian.

"Can't?" said Caspian sharply, looking for a moment not unlike his uncle Miraz.

"Begging your Majesty's pardon," said Rynelf from the deck below, "but if one of us did the same it would be called deserting."

"You presume too much on your long service, Rynelf," said Caspian.

"No, Sire! He's perfectly right," said Drinian.

"By the Mane of Aslan," said Caspian, "I had thought you were all my subjects here, not my schoolmasters."

"I'm not," said Edmund, "and I say you can not do this."

"Can't again," said Caspian. "What do you mean?"

"If it please your Majesty, we mean shall not," said Reepicheep with a very low bow. "You are the King of Narnia. You break faith with all your subjects, and especially with Trumpkin, if you do not return. You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person. And if your Majesty will not hear reason it will be the truest loyalty of every man on board to follow me in disarming and binding you till you come to your senses."

"Quite right," said Edmund. "Like they did with Ulysses when he wanted to go near the Sirens."

Caspian's hand had gone to his sword hilt, when Lucy said, "And you've almost promised Ramandu's daughter to go back."

Caspian paused. "Well, yes. There is that," he said. He stood irresolute for a moment and then shouted out to the ship in general.

"Well, have your way. The quest is ended. We all return. Get the boat up again."

"Sire," said Reepicheep, "we do not all return. I, as I explained before -"

"Silence!" thundered Caspian. "I've been lessoned but I'll not be baited. Will no one silence that Mouse?"

"Your Majesty promised," said Reepicheep, "to be good lord to the Talking Beasts of Narnia."

"Talking beasts, yes," said Caspian. "I said nothing about beasts that never stop talking." And he flung down the ladder in a temper and went into the cabin, slamming the door.

But when the others rejoined him a little later they found him changed; he was white and there were tears in his eyes.

"It's no good," he said. "I might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger. Aslan has spoken to me. No - I don't mean he was actually here. He wouldn't fit into the cabin, for one thing. But that gold lion's head on the wall came to life and spoke to me. It was terrible - his eyes. Not that he was at all rough with me - only a bit stern at first. But it was terrible all the same. And he said - he said - oh, I can't bear it. The worst thing he could have said. You're to go on - Reep and Edmund, and Lucy, and Eustace; and I'm to go back. Alone. And at once. And what is the good of anything?"

"Caspian, dear," said Lucy. "You knew we'd have to go back to our own world sooner or later."

"Yes," said Caspian with a sob, "but this is sooner."

"You'll feel better when you get back to Ramandu's Island," said Lucy.

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