The Outer Circle

Eighteen years after leaving Old Earth I’ve made planetfall, and my ship has fallen silent.

Can you understand what that means to me? For the first time in eighteen years the cabin has ceased to throb to the pulse of the generators. Throughout my life I’ve been so accustomed to engine-noises that they have been my silence. Now one by one new silences are entering the cabin. I sit very still and listen as I’ve never done before.

The first thing I notice is the hum of the blood in my ears, very far away like a little lost astronaut singing in space. Behind the hum I hear the silence of the cabin, a small silence often interrupted by the creaking of my space-suit as I shift in the pilot’s chair. Beyond this small silence, beyond the red-hot hull of the ship I hear a larger silence, the hush of expectation after my rockets have blasted a pit in the soil of this wild planet. And behind that larger silence if I strain my ears and hold my breath I can detect the largest silence of all: the quiet of deep space, the endless noiselessness in which the occurrence of galaxies and nebulae are no more than the squeaks and scuffles of insects in an empty room.

Have you noticed the insects? With all our sprays and toxins we’ve never managed to kill them off. There’s an ant crawling over the instrument panel even as I talk. It must have accompanied me from the beginning of my journey, along with germs, fleas, microbes, perhaps even mice. This ship is a miniature world teeming with life, which I haven’t even thought about till now, when I’m about to leave it.

As you can guess, I’m talking to kill time. I’m trying to put off the moment when I must leave the ship.

My ship rests in the centre of the pit she has made, like a severed hand reclining on outspread fingers. Above her I’m intensely conscious of an absence. This planet has no armoured ceiling like the one that protects my own world from the stars. There is only a sky as blue as the ones in stories, and above that the vacuum through which I’ve fallen for so many years: layer upon layer of space, each layer retaining a discarded husk of my former self. And now I lack courage to enter the airlock and open the outer hatch.

The measure of civilization is the number of layers between a man and his confrontation with himself. By that measure I’m now a thousand times more savage than I was when I took off. Often in the last part of my journey I stood in front of the cabinet that contains the only mirror on board, never daring to open the door and inspect my face.

In the early days I made a point of meeting my own eyes each morning, knowing I would soon have other eyes to meet. Let me remind myself of what I saw when I first looked in the mirror. My head was almost spherical, with a few lank hairs decorating the scalp. My cheeks were two quivering fields of flesh, irrigated by a network of tiny veins. Little lost eyes half-buried in folds of fat peeped timidly from the shadow of my shapeless nose. A series of miniature mountain-ranges supported my chin. Yes, despite all my sufferings I retained a degree of the elegant obesity I possessed in the prime of my youth.

But as the pressures of travel began to show I became frightened of seeing myself. I wasn’t afraid of human contact as most men might have been; space quickly inured me to strange company. I was afraid because I was beginning to change. No, I must be specific; before I leave the ship I must strip off the last layer of civilization and tell the truth, no matter how it hurts. I’ve become emaciated. I’ve sat helpless in my seat as the light of unknown suns burned away the layers of corpulence, the hanging gardens, the orchards, the rich pastures of my body. I’ve watched in horror as my noble bulk shrivelled to bone and sinew. I’m sorry to use those obscene words, bone and sinew, but I want to stress the irony of it. Before I left old Earth I was the most respected body builder in my segment, I had won prizes for Weight Gain and Fat Cultivation, my digestive tracts were the subject of dissertations; even after I’d passed my prime the media as the very picture of an intergalactic hero. Yet here I am at the end of my quest, shrunk to the dimensions of a common rent-boy!

I’m thin!

I never knew what the word meant before. Oh, I’m no innocent, I’ve seen thin bodies in my time. When I was a kid we were always tampering with the school computer, switching programmes while the robo-tutor wasn’t looking so as to pass porno-pics of skeletal nudes from screen to screen. But never in my most fevered nightmares would I have imagined that I might one day be reminded of those living skeletons by looking at my own magnificent body. Never, never would I have believed that I myself could be thin.

I must stay calm. I’ll try to think of something positive. I’ll think about my heroism.

But am I really such a hero? Heroes perform grand, simple feats which everyone understands. Do you understand what I’m doing, you citizens of old Earth? All you know about my mission is what you’ve seen on the visiscreen; and how many of you are still capable of following a coherent sequence of visual signs? After a lifetime’s viewing all the average citizen sees on the screen is the dance of innumerable coloured dots. I’m afraid mankind no longer possesses the concept of reality.

I’ve often mulled over the details of my take-off, and they only add to my uncertainty about my heroism. You’ve seen the newsreels: I was given a hero’s farewell. Even now I love to remember it. The ship rests on the long disused launching-pad of the Middle Circle as if balancing the earth on its fingertips. Dignitaries and statesmen throng the tarmac; when I appear in the door of the Film Academy they wave their tiny arms and burst into feeble cheers. Flags snap, fireworks explode in torrents of shooting stars, cameras flash, a thousand synthesisers strike up a martial symphony. I waddle down miles of undulating carpet, showered at every step with honours (those little greasy cakes with which a hero is expected to cram his jaws until his stomach rebels and he throws up, saluting his rapturous audience with a stream of multicoloured vomit).

But details jar. A faint atmosphere of seediness pervades the event. On close inspection I see that the dignitaries aren’t real; they’re battered plastic models left over from the last local election, their cheers and waves operated by teams of hidden puppeteers. When I look carefully I can spot the puppeteers at a bank of keyboards behind the cameras on my right. The robots which bustle to serve cocktail canapés are rusty and the canapés covered in mould. By the time I reach the ship and turn for a final wave the carpet has already been rolled up. Beetles fall out of it and dust rises in clouds. Puppeteers, cameramen and producers stand around knee-deep in conversation, which the robots spread for them in quivering and aromatic gobbets. The artificial dignitaries remain fixed in mid-cheer, their eyes shining with the hope and joy inspired in humanity by my glorious mission. I suspect now that my send-off was only a low-budget production.

And was it really heroism that made me undertake the mission? Perhaps I have really retained an unhealthy adolescent obsession with thinness, as the tabloids were quick to insinuate. It’s true that I first heard of the Third World while watching an obscene programme about ‘slimming’, but I don’t usually indulge myself with such trash. I’d fallen asleep in front of the visiscreen after a heavy meal and the programme came up before I’d fully recovered consciousness. I watched in stupefaction for a few minutes as a cavalcade of dancers who had starved themselves for erotic effect capered across the screen, flaunting their ribs. After a while I realized that the presenter was no longer discussing the more tasteless methods of weight-loss. Instead he’d turned to another subject likely to appeal to his target audience of freaks and perverts: the discovery of a new world in another solar system, whose entire population was starving.

The idea of the Third World gripped me at once. The planet had been given its name by the tabloids, who had taken it from banned pornographic documentaries of the distant past, when an entire section of the earth’s population was kept undernourished for the titillation of the rich. Although I can’t stand the tabloids – I find them indigestible, and much prefer to munch my way through a good broadsheet – the name was well chosen, since the planet might easily have been lifted bodily from a roll of ancient film. It was entirely populated by skeletal savages whose livelihood still depended on the cycle of the seasons. I was entranced by descriptions of its jungles where real wild animals prowled, its oceans filled with living fish, its grasses cropped by innumerable herds and its grain harvest which shrivelled year after year under the pitiless heat of a genuine sun. I think my excitement stemmed from the sheer range of activity still available to the planet’s inhabitants; and I don’t just mean sexual activity. You see, I’m a romantic, a lover of solid old-fashioned adventure movies rather than the interminable soaps consumed by most of my friends; and sordid though it may seem, adventures are best undertaken by thin people. You may call me retrogressive, but I’ve always maintained that adventures lose their credibility when the hero weighs eight hundred pounds and possesses only rudimentary arms and legs. Adventures need limbs, and whatever else the people of the Third World lacked they possessed limbs of great length and mobility. I began to think of the Third World as a planet of adventure, a scented wilderness where every night was one of the Thousand and One Nights. I would fall asleep dreaming of a slender Third World Scheherezade, who sat cross-legged in my cubicle and unfolded endless interlocking stories, each one more labyrinthine than the last. I never dreamed I might one day be Sindbad.

While I was watching the programme I did not ask myself how its makers had come to hear of the Third World; I half suspected that the whole thing was merely a far-fetched erotic fantasy. But later I learned that the programme had been based on fact. A visitor had arrived from the planet only a few days before it was made. Images of him appeared on every channel – tastefully blurred so as not to shock the fastidious, for he was thinner than the most obsessive slimmer; and again and again we heard the tale of his arrival. Out of the void an unknown ship had burst, blasting its way through our derelict security systems. Its powerful rockets punched a hole in the Outer Circle and it landed with a terrible roar on the roof of the Film Academy. We heard how the hatch had opened and a limp figure had tumbled out, crawled a few metres, gasped a few words, collapsed and died. The words had been picked up by one of the Academy’s ubiquitous mikes, and these too we heard again and again: halting, harsh, incomprehensible. Interpreters told us that the visitor had appealed for food and technological aid for his starving people, and that he had offered his ship for the use of any volunteer who would undertake this mission of mercy. The ship could be inspected on a dozen different channels, dented and blackened by its interplanetary voyage.

To my surprise it haunted both my dreams and waking hours, that vessel in the likeness of an open hand, its fingers spread in supplication. I would spread my own chubby fingers to resemble it and lay them on the visiscreen, and the touch of the cold glass with the ship seemingly so close on the other side would send shudders through my flanks. For a while the rest of the world seemed as interested as I was. Celebrities appealed for volunteers to deliver the promised supplies; movies about glorious and mostly unsuccessful rescue attempts dominated the late-night slots; baseball caps with HAND AID on the front flooded the market. But very soon the ship was forgotten and the usual soaps and pornographic documentaries returned to the screen. I woke up one afternoon with a jerk, realizing that I hadn’t seen an image of the ship for days, and worse, that I’d stopped dreaming about it. My heart was beating wildly, nausea clung to the back of my throat, a sudden vision of the endless succession of days to come flashed before my mind’s eye. I was terrified that my dreams of adventure had vanished forever. That was when I decided to volunteer. No courage involved; just a dream I longed to recapture. No pride either, though that came later; simply a huge and shapeless fear like the one that grips me now. Perhaps huge and shapeless fear is the stuff heroes are made of.

I know now that I took the denizens of the Outer Circle by surprise. I know that they regarded the ship, the visitor, the message, as an eccentric joke, a brief alleviation of their all-encompassing boredom. They had given no instructions regarding the treatment of volunteers. In the absence of such instructions, I learned later, the World Computer took matters into its own hands. It devised a rigorous training programme which almost killed me before I set out. And it issued me with an invitation to visit the Outer Circle.

The Outer Circle! Largest and most exclusive of the Circles that imprison the withered Earth inside their vast revolving cage. What visions do the words conjure up in your mind? Perhaps you imagine golden halls paved with precious stones, trestle-tables groaning with roast meats and bursting fruits, all the infinite variety of tastes, smells and sensations that have long ago vanished from Old Earth. Perhaps you imagine pools of cool water where your bloated bodies can float in everlasting serenity, forgetful of the torments they suffered as you pumped them full of hyper-nutrients in your efforts to gain the weight required for promotion to the upper levels of society. But what do you really know about the Outer Circle? Nothing but what your dreams reveal to you.

The Outer Circle is the storehouse of the dreams of humanity, just as the Inner Circle is the repository of its foodstuffs and the Middle Circle the location of its automated administration, as well as of the fabled Film Academy. In ancient times the Earth was said to lie at the centre of a nest of concentric spheres. Each sphere was made of crystal, and each contributed its own musical note to the harmony of the cosmos. The outermost sphere was the sphere of fire, the Empyrean, Heaven. Only in Heaven could the spheres’ full symphony be heard, only here could the design of the whole be appreciated. Did the ancients have some premonition of the future? With unimaginable labour we have built the spheres they dreamed of. At their centre lies the Earth, our ravaged mother who century by century yields more of her exhausted substance to her children. And her children in their turn pour their substance into their dreams. All the painful cultivation of our bodies, all our ambitions, all our yearnings are directed towards one end: the hope that we might one day be chosen to ripen everlastingly in the light-filled chambers of the outer Circle. Those who are not chosen eventually die, and contribute their rich mould to the vegetable gardens of the Inner Circle. Those who are chosen – but I soon gained an insight into their fate.

I won’t describe the pain I felt when the tubes were first torn from my belly, mouth and anus – tubes that had been buried in my flesh from the moment my foetus took shape in its perspex flask. I’ll omit from this account the agony of my training, when the blubber threatened to tear itself from my frame, when the sweat poured from my pores in torrents. My sufferings were recorded; no doubt you’ve seen the documentary. Even the passage through the many levels between the Middle and the Outer Circles, a hundred cranes hoisting the battered ship (with me inside it) from level to level, was an excruciation of a sort; for I was aware that in the heat of the exercise my fat was melting from me like butter. I became terrified that when I confronted the denizens of the Outer Circle my appearance would disgust them. My terror shrivelled me still further. By the time the ship docked in one of the ruinous space-ports of Old Earth and I stepped out into the regions of which I had dreamed so long I was already no more than the palest shadow of my former self.

I said I stepped out, but in fact I tripped and fell out of the hatch. I rolled sweating down an interminable chute full of grit and dust. At the end of the chute I dropped onto a mattress covered in mould, bounced several times and lay still. It took all my courage to stand up and look about me.

A long dim chamber stretched away before me as far as the eye could see. The walls on either side were festooned with ducts and cables; some of these had snapped and were dropping slow showers of sparks or oily fluid to the floor. The floor wasn’t paved with crystal or precious stones; in fact I couldn’t see what it was paved with, it was so thick with dust, dead flies and broken tiles. Curtains of cobwebs trailed from the ceiling, where rows of naked light-bulbs stretched into the distance. Many of the bulbs were broken, and the rest dispensed a cold blue light which failed to penetrate the shadows at the room’s edges.

In the row down the middle of the chamber stood many large crystal spheres mounted on tarnished metal legs. The spheres emitted a continuous humming. Dust veiled the upper part of each globe and the crystal underneath was streaked where liquid from broken pipes or the droppings of bats had struck it. Inside the spheres I could make out the dim outlines of things that might be alive. Hesitantly and with what I hoped was reverence I approached the nearest sphere and polished the crystal with my glove, hoping to see more clearly what was inside. The action set off a faint ringing which mingled with the other harmonics in the chamber.

What I saw made me step back with a cry of horror. The thing inside was itself almost spherical: a grey, pulpy mass floating in some sort of liquid, like an ancient internal organ preserved in formaldehyde. Its surface was dimpled with little valleys and disfigured with purple-green blotches. I wouldn’t have been so sickened if I had thought the putrescent lump was dead. But in the middle of the lump, half-buried among folds of blubber, a single tiny eye looked out, full of intelligence and despair. And the eye had seen me.

Even now I don’t understand why this intelligent eye so frightened me, why my gorge still rises when I think of it. Wasn’t this the most highly developed human form I had ever encountered, the culmination of centuries of physical culture? Wasn’t this the body I had dreamt of possessing since childhood? I can only attribute my revulsion to the fact that I was already in the grip of the wasting disease that has consumed me ever since.

A shudder went through the lump and somehow I knew that it was about to speak. A click sounded somewhere overhead, followed by a hiss as long-silent speakers were activated. The voice when it came had a metallic weight that shook the floor, as though a hundred metal tongues had spoken at once. ‘Who are you?’ it said.

This was the last question I had expected. Surely the denizens of the Outer Circle, with their unlimited access to every untrodden info-retrieval corridor in the most ancient recesses of the World Computer – surely they must know perfectly well who I was? ‘You know who I am,’ I stammered. ‘You sent for me. I’m the volunteer who… er… volunteered for the mission.’

A short pause followed. ‘We remember the mission,’ said the voice or voices at last. ‘That was one of our best ideas of recent years. But there was no volunteer.’

In my confusion I became angry. ‘Of course there was!’ I said. ‘You appealed for one on the visiscreen, and I put myself forward. You sent me a letter of congratulation, one of the finest I ever tasted, and put me through a gruelling training programme. Then you invited me to come and meet you before I set out for the Third World. Don’t you remember?’

‘Did we appeal for a volunteer?’ mused the voice. The eye, at which I was still staring, vanished suddenly, as the lump furrowed what might have been its brow in thought. ‘Yes, I think we did. That was a good idea too. But the invitation was an error. There must be a fault in the World Computer’s communication circuits. You see, there was no volunteer.’

I took a step forward. ‘No volunteer?’ I cried. ‘Who am I, then?’

‘Precisely,’ said the voice with an air of self-satisfaction. ‘That’s just what we’d like to know. Who are you?’

I must have looked so shocked and desperate that the creatures in the glass jars took pity on me. The eye reopened and I fancied it looked kinder than before. ‘Let us explain,’ suggested the voice. ‘There could be no volunteer because we didn’t invent one. We are the inventors; inventing is our job, here in the Outer Circle. We are responsible for dreaming all the dreams, thinking all the thoughts, and scripting all the conversations of any significance that occur on any level of Old Earth. Nothing happens unless we make it happen. All human beings in all the circles beneath us are either the actors who shadow forth our ideas or the audience who absorb them. The mission exists because we made it up. But we didn’t invent a volunteer. Therefore there isn’t one. Have we made ourselves clear?’

Can you imagine the new horror that stole over me, the worst I had yet experienced? My self-confidence had already suffered several damaging blows, but I still thought myself a hero, even if a somewhat shrivelled one. Now abruptly the speakers assured me that I was merely an automaton, a puppet like the artificial dignitaries who had seen me off; and these – things – were my puppeteers! What I had thought to be the bravest deed of my life turned out to be an illusion, generated by a tiny maladjustment in the vast network of the World Computer: a glitch that permitted me to think for myself for a fraction of a second, long enough to answer a scripted call for help from an imaginary alien before sinking once more into the ocean of artificially generated dreams. The doubt still returns to me sometimes in my sleep, and with it the horror: am I really no more than a thought conceived by a blob floating in a sealed glass jar? My mind groped for evidence that the mission at least had not been an illusion. ‘The ship,’ I whispered. ‘The ship that brought me here. Surely the ship is real?’

‘We could easily have made it up,’ answered the voice. ‘But you’re right: the ship is real. It’s a relic of the distant past, a piece of flotsam washed up by the tides of space. Hundreds of similar odds and ends are orbiting Old Earth even as we speak, jostling the epidermis of the Outer Circle. Every so often something crashes onto the Earth’s roof: the outer surface of the Outer Circle is a litter of shattered satellites and broken spacecraft. Very few of these falls are dangerous. But now and then – once every hundred years or so – a falling wreck succeeds in punching a hole in the canopy and doing some serious damage.

‘That’s what happened a few weeks ago,’ it went on. ‘A particularly sturdy starship managed to smash a section of the Outer Circle adjoining this one; the accident destroyed some of our best thinkers. In tribute to the dead we decided to construct a story around the starship; we tell very good stories, here in the Outer Circle. That’s how we came up with our affecting little drama about the Third World. But we never intended anyone to take it seriously. There was no one inside the ship. There was no mission.’

I hardly registered the last few words. All the futile agony – all the humiliation of my training came back to me. But this was as nothing compared with the revelation that my dreams were no more than the fantasies of a fantasy. Strangely enough, it never occurred to me that the denizens of the Outer Circle might have been lying when they told me they invented the mission. One of the many absurd beliefs I entertained about the Outer Circle was that it was the abode of truth. Only sheer luck taught me otherwise.

In my agitation I had begun to stride up and down the chamber, struggling to recover a sense of my own identity. My footsteps ran ahead of me and behind me like a column of eager robots hurrying about their appointed tasks. I had completed one of my agitated marches and had turned to stride back the way I’d come when I caught sight of a glass case by the chamber wall – an elongated rectangular box, half-hidden by cobwebs. Acting on impulse – or guided by some cosmic puppeteer – I decided to inspect it more closely. In a few steps I’d reached the case and torn down the dusty veil that concealed its contents.

Inside stood a man: the tallest, thinnest man I’d ever seen. He wore a baggy atmosphere suit much like my own, tightly fastened at waist, wrists and ankles and open at the neck to reveal his scrawny chest. His skin had been blackened by the light of distant suns. Masses of black hair floated about his head in the preservative fluid, as if he drew webs of night behind him wherever he went. His dead eyes shone like stars in the darkness of his face. I recognized him at once from the visicreen, and knew beyond all doubt that he came from far away, that he had crossed infinite vastnesses to reach Old Earth.

‘The visitor!’ I cried, turning to face the spheres. ‘The stranger who came in the ship! You said it was empty!’

‘Did we say the ship was empty?’ the speakers asked sharply. ‘We don’t think we did. We said there was no-one inside the ship, and we were right. Look at him! Have you ever seen a more repulsive specimen? He clearly hadn’t eaten properly for months before he died; he’s nothing but bone and sinew. Perhaps he isn’t a man at all.’

‘He’s as much a man as I am!’ I shouted.

‘Precisely,’ replied the speakers. ‘But we haven’t yet established that you are a man. Which brings us back to our initial question. Who are you?’

Their circular arguments made my head spin, but by this time my rage succeeded in conquering my fear. A piece of half-rotten cloth had wrapped itself round one of my boots as I tramped. With no little difficulty I stooped and picked it up. ‘I’ll show you I’m a man,’ I said as I wrapped the cloth round my right gauntlet. Before the speakers could say another word I’d swung back my cloth-bound fist and hit the glass front of the case that held the stranger. The case exploded, spraying me with glass and liquid; you can still see the rips and stains in my space-suit where the splinters cut me. The stranger flopped forward and struck the ground at my feet. A sweet smell rose from his body, and I was violently sick on the floor beside him. Afterwards I noticed that I’d vomited out the last of the greasy cakes from my send-off.

Layer upon layer of echoes radiated from the shattered case, getting louder and louder till I thought my head would burst. I cowered by the corpse, trying to protect my ears with my bloody gloves. After a while the echoes subsided and I became aware of another sound, one that came from the speakers. The sound puzzled me until I recognized it for what it was: an antiquated form of accolade known as clapping, which you can still hear on the soundtracks of old sitcoms. The blobs had evidently enjoyed my little demonstration.

‘Well done!’ said the voices with metallic enthusiasm. ‘What a spontaneous gesture! What a masterful display of self-assertion! We see now that you are indeed a man. We must confess that we didn’t believe in you at first. You see, most of the visitors we have here are exquisite illusions, downloaded by the entertainment programmes of the World Computer. But the Computer could never have invented such a daring statement, such an act of raw aggression! You’ve given us material for many years of dreaming. Well done indeed!’

Behind the cobwebs near the ceiling hundreds of tiny visiscreens flickered on. Each screen replayed some detail of my act over and over from a hundred different angles. Again and again my fist swung at the glass; again and again the case exploded and the splinters tore through the fabric of my suit; again and again the corpse struck the floor at my feet. Shielding my eyes from the relentless barrage of images I groped my way past the spheres, looking for an exit from this chamber of horrors.

‘You may go now,’ the voices murmured sleepily. ‘Go back to your cubicle and get some rest. Put on a little weight. Stop taking violent exercise. We’ve recommended you for transfer to the Outer Circle as soon as you’re back in shape. It will give us the deepest pleasure to welcome you to our little community. We will be honoured for you to share our dreams. They are very well worth dreaming. You can’t imagine the visions… the sounds and the visions…’

I was standing once again in front of the sphere whose surface I had polished. The sad little eye that had examined me glittered as if with the ghost of a smile. Then it winked shut and vanished into the surrounding pulp.

Suddenly a deep weariness filled me, as if the sleep that permeated the chamber were contagious. My dreams had come true. I had won a place alongside the inhabitants of the Outer Circle, and could look forward to unending suspension in a crystal jar, rocked to sleep in the ocean of eternity by the celestial harmonies of the World Computer. Why shouldn’t I accept their offer? What more could I wish for?

Sometimes on my journey I’ve imagined that I did indeed accept the offer, that I never went back to the starship, never left the earth. I imagine that the entire journey has been a hallucination induced by a potent cocktail of drugs and electronic simulators. I imagine I’m about to wake up in that immense dusty chamber, that I’ll try to open my eyes and find I’ve only one dull eye to peer through, try to stretch and find that my limbs have vanished, that the most I can do is wriggle a vestigial toe or ripple the sea of blubber where my stomach once was. On these occasions I scream and thrash and pinch myself as I did in the chamber when I felt the lethargy of acquiescence creeping over me. Once I’ve convinced myself I’m awake, I calm my shattered nerves by replaying the details of my escape over and over in my head.

‘Wait!’ I cried as the lump closed its eye. ‘The mission was real! The stranger exists! The Third World needs our help!’ But the lump merely quivered and rotated on its axis as if to find a more comfortable position. Half-blind with apprehension I fumbled my way to a hatch marked EXIT. Behind me the chamber fell silent. But no, it didn’t fall silent; even as I squeezed myself into the chute that would return me to the ship my ears rang with the sounds that filled the room. The walls hummed, the speakers buzzed, the ghosts of the metallic voices chimed, and over all I could detect the distant boom of thunder from the shattered glass case, as the echoes spread in ever-widening circles into other chambers. Casting back one glance I saw the circles made by my feet in the dust of the floor. I imagine they are still there, the scribbled testimony of my last moments on Earth.

I reached the ship without incident. Activating the flight programme proved simple: I had only to lift a lid marked GO and lay my hand on the cool panel beneath. The ship blasted effortlessly through the frail doors that separate Old Earth from the chill of space.

In fact, I’ve often wondered why my escape was so easy. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Outer Circle had forgotten there’s a universe beyond Old Earth, and ordered their cybernetic police to seek me out among the corridors of the lower levels, where only the insects scurry. Perhaps they let me go because the force of my dreams threatened the stability of their world. Or perhaps, perhaps in their limblessness and the circularity of their thinking, my escape was their only way of extending a hand to their fellow creatures: a helping hand, an appealing hand, albeit a severed one. In that case my delusions of heroism aren’t so far-fetched after all.

I don’t believe that the dreams they dream in their jars can possibly match the visions of space. As soon as I left Old Earth the visions began. Forests rustled their leaves in the gaps between stars, and the stars themselves took human shapes. I was attacked by space pirates in the third week of my journey, but this may have been only the first of the complex illusions that crowded in on me as I entered the outer reaches of the Solar System. Scheherezade sat with me in my cabin. Asteroid storms became tiny fists pummelling the ship’s outer shell. A cloud of gas became a muslin-veiled woman whose breasts took a week to cross. Far off I saw star-children playing with comets among dark magnetic mountains. Often I was tempted to abandon my mission and join in their games, but I didn’t know how to change the ship’s course. Saffron-robed merchants offered me scarlet cakes which I couldn’t reach through the portholes; when I looked closer I saw that the cakes were planets rolling around a distant sun. most persistent of all these appearances, a tall thin man ran after me with suns on his belt, drawing jewelled webs of night behind him in his hair. Accompanied by this host, and feeling my mind and body assume a new identity at each stage of my journey, I’ve never felt closer to humanity than since I entered space.

As I’ve come closer to my destination the apparitions have grown rarer. I have the feeling I’m approaching the place where stories end and action begins. My feeling is strengthened by the increasing material evidence of man’s presence all around me. I’ve found ruined mines on planets and their moons. Broken satellites and derelict spacecraft have floated by, knots of twisted cables have obscured the starlight, cascades of broken glass have tinkled over the ship’s hull. My final descent onto the planet’s surface plunged me through seas of swirling debris. Once upon a time this planet must have supported a civilization as powerful as that of Old Earth. A lump of rock rushing past the porthole made me think of the lumps of flesh I had left behind, and I managed to convince myself that an eye was about to open in the rock and look at me. I completed my descent with my own eyes tightly shut.

There’s little more to say. The ant I’ve been watching all this time has reached the end of the instrument panel. Soon I’ll switch off the microphone in my space-suit. Off and on I’ve been talking into that microphone for eighteen years, never knowing if you could hear me back on Old Earth, and if you could hear me never knowing if you understood. But I’m certain that once I’ve stepped through the hatch I’ll truly have passed into regions beyond your understanding.

Before I do that I must open the cupboard door and look into the mirror. I’m standing in front of the cupboard now. My hand is reaching for the handle, then drawing back. The only way to do it is to take myself by surprise.

The door’s open.

And there’s the face I shall present to this new world. For a moment I thought the visions had returned and someone else was standing in the cabin with me. But when I turned my head to look, the head in the mirror turned too. Now, little by little, my reflection and I are getting to know each other. My hair has grown until it floats in a thick black mass round my head, as if I’ve drawn deep space down into the atmosphere of this planet. My skin has been scorched black by the light of nebulae. My eyes glitter in the darkness of the cabin. It’s a hungry face, seamed all over with wrinkles. It’s the face of the stranger I saw in the Outer Circle.

I’m no longer afraid to meet the stranger’s people. Once before I set him free with a blow of my fist. Now I free him again by entering the airlock and opening the outer hatch.

Beyond the crater in which my ship stands, a grove of trees has been uprroted by my rockets and tossed into a blackened and disorderly heap at the edge of a forest. Beside the heap I think I can see something moving, a creature walking upright on two legs. It might be a man, but my sight is so dimmed by the sun that I can’t be sure. But the man, if that’s what he is, doesn’t arrest my attention so much as the sky above his head. I squint up at it in amazement. When I first described this sky I called it blue, since that’s how it looked from inside the ship. But now I see I was wrong; blue is only the dominant colour in the bright triumphal stained-glass dome that covers the planet. Sunlight filtering through innumerable crystal shards, the microscopic splinters of a shattered civilization, creates jewelled arches of colour from horizon to horizon and lays an ever-shifting mosaic on the earth. The sight holds me spellbound and breathless, and I stare at the brilliant dome until something else is revealed to me. All over the sky spreads a network of silvery lines. After a while I see that this shining web is an immense construction of twisted girders which floats many miles above the planet’s surface. A little later I understand that the girders are all that remains of an Outer Circle like our own, a skeleton revolving in exquisite lifelessness above forests, plains and seas. My ship must have traced an intricate course through the girders as I sat with my eyes shut, thinking of Old Earth.

The man has walked forward and is standing in front of the ship, looking up to where I stand framed in the hatch. He is very tall and thin. Behind him a group of equally thin aborigines, bearded men, women with waist-long hair, children naked and scampering, have left their hiding-places among the trees and hover at the rim of the crater. After all my talking, all my puzzling, all my dreaming, now that the moment has come I can think of nothing to say.

Suddenly the man smiles and extends his hand palm upwards, fingers spread like the fingers of the ship. Without thinking I scramble down the ladder, reel across the little space that separates us and place my hand in his. I’m trembling as I do this, because this is the most intimate gesture I’ve ever made.

Inaugural Address for GIFCON 2017

[I gave a version of this address at the opening of GIFCON 2017 in March, and am publishing it here as a brief historical record of the activities that led up to that event. When I gave it I forgot to mention that I convene the Fantasy Masters Programme at the University of Glasgow, which led to some confusion. I’ve put that right in this introductory paragraph; and I’ve also added some missing acknowledgements to the original text.]

In September 2015, the first intrepid group of seven graduates arrived at the University of Glasgow to study on a new Masters Programme. Somehow, nobody quite knows how, the university had agreed to let them study for a Masters in Fantasy within its august premises – the first of its kind in the world, according to our dedicated team of researchers – and I’m not sure whether they had any idea what they were letting themselves in for.

Or maybe they did. They called themselves the Fantasy Canaries, after the small yellow birds taken by miners down the shaft to test for the presence of poisonous gasses. I imagine they wanted to give themselves a healthy dose of realism along with all the fantasy.

Logo designed by Kat Ward

Well, despite this name they seem to have enjoyed the experience. Just seven months down the line the same group of graduates had been joined by a keen team of doctoral students, and decided to apply for funding to set up the first major event in the programme’s history: the event that begins today, and is known as GIFCON.

We have had other events in our brief history. We have had a remarkable collection of visiting speakers: among them the novelists Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson, Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Claire North, aka Cat Webb, aka Kate Griffin…

The Head of Books and Commissioning Editor with Rebellion Publishing, Ben Smith and Jon Oliver…

The SF author Adam Roberts, who entertained us at the 2016 Aye Write! Festival, and the novelist and short story writer Kirsty Logan, who took part in the University of Glasgow’s series of Creative Conversations…

…and the academics Professor Edward James and Dr Anna Vaninskaya.

We have twice held joint events with the School of Education, thanks to our much-loved colleagues Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell. At one of these, a mini conference called ‘Other Worlds and Story Worlds’, the novelist Julie Bertagna gave a keynote which was so well received by our graduates that they have invited her to speak again today.

We had an event with Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae, who discussed their fantasy opera The Devil Inside with the director of Scottish Opera, Alex Rijdeek.

 We’ve been on field trips – most notably to Glasgow’s astonishing kinetic theatre, Sharmanka.

We’ve watched movies together in the Fantasy Film Club. We’ve had fun.

This year, we’ve also had published authors on the programme. There have been four book launches for our graduates since September 2016: the brilliant anniversary anthology of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, Thirty Years of Rain, to which our own Ruth Booth is a contributor; Oliver Langmead’s visionary novel Metronome; Caighlan Smith’s superb YA dystopian fiction Children of Icarus; and most recently a book of feminist cocktails co-written by two of the Fantasy Canaries, Laura Becherer and Cameo Marlatt, and wonderfully titled A Drink of One’s Own.

These successes, as well as the large uptake for the Creative Writing optional course led by Elizabeth Reeder in the second semester, resulted in the establishment of our first Fantasy at Glasgow Reading Party in a private room at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, where a large proportion of our students revealed themselves to be talented writers of novels, poems and short stories. The programme has become a blend of the creative and the academic, which was always its intention. This makes me proud.

Some of the Fantasy at Glasgow Readers at the Dram

But the event I’m proudest of by far is this one, GIFCON, because it was conceived, named, imagined and organized by a team of fantasy enthusiasts, scholars and practitioners who would never have met if we hadn’t started up the fantasy programme on that day in 2015.

In honour of their achievement, I’d like to make some acknowledgements.

The event was funded by a generous donation from the Graduate School of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. Warm thanks to them for all their support; above all to Adeline Callander, Brooke Gordon and Rhona Brown, who came to the rescue at moments of crisis.

Thanks to Liz Caldi for playing the piano with such panache.

Thanks to the dedicated team of organizers – and here I really mean dedicated. Some are doctoral students, from as far afield as Creative Writing, English Literature, the School of Education and the School of Engineering. Others are past and current students from the MLitt in Fantasy. In alphabetical order, the GIFCON committee are:

Laura Becherer, Helen Bleck, Ruth Booth, Thaleia Flessa, Lan Ma, Chris Lynch, and Dimitrios Xanthakis. Also involved in the committee at an early stage were Alex Atkin, Matteo Barbagallo and Ieuan Ledger.

Friends, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty – as one would expect from committed fantasists. I’m overawed by your commitment.

Finally, we’d like to thank the University Chaplain, the Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie, for allowing us to use this magnificent building for the conference plenaries. Thanks to him, we can start the proceedings in a place that has a decided air of Hogwarts about it.

That’s enough from me, I think. Over to you.

Let GIFCON begin.

Programme, designed by Dimitrios Xanthakis

 

 

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 3: The Pevensies

[This is the third part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and this third part deals with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The next interface between our world and Narnia involves all four children, and is this time triggered by the apparent segregation of child time – play time, so to speak – from the ‘official’ adult work schedule. The children enter the wardrobe together to avoid Mrs Macready, the housekeeper, as she entertains visitors – part of her duties as the Professor’s employee; she has told them to ‘keep out of the way whenever I’m taking a party over the house’, and they are in any case keen to avoid the fate of ‘trailing round with a crowd of strange grown-ups’. It seems to escape their attention that the ‘strange’ grown-ups in question are already bound up with the Pevensies – aligned with them, that is, in certain crucial ways. The adults have come to the house in quest of the ‘strange stories’ associated with the building: stories at least as strange, Lewis claims, as the chronicles of Narnia. In addition, two of the four children have already spent some time trailing around after extremely ‘strange grown-ups’ (both of them keen to show off their houses) in previous chapters, while the other two have sought out a more or less strange grown-up in this one: the Professor himself, who showed such unexpected (not to say ‘strange’) willingness to believe the unbelievable. Despite the emerging ‘rule’ in the later Narnia books that only children can enter Narnia, and that their visits will cease when they reach a certain age, Lewis is quite deliberately clear in this first volume about the continuities between their ‘impossible’ Narnian experiences and the ostensibly serious business of adulthood.

The ingenuity of Lewis’s account of this third entrance into Narnia lies in the apparently ‘collective’ point of view it adopts. The first two entrances were narrated from the perspective of two different individuals, and the radical difference between these two perspectives – as well as the way each perspective of the country in the wardrobe changed as it went along – may have led the reader to expect a considerable disparity between the experiences of all four children when they finally found themselves, in Lucy’s words, ‘all in it together’. Instead Lewis narrates the chapter as if from a consensual position – as if all four of the Pevensies were in agreement about what is happening to them and their attitude to it. Lewis repeatedly uses the term ‘everyone’ and its analogues to imply this solidarity among the siblings: ‘everyone asked her what was the matter’; ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’; ‘Everyone agreed to this’; ‘They were all still, wondering what to do next’, and so on. But it quickly emerges that this apparent consensus excludes Edmund. For one thing, the sentence ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’ marks the moment when Edmund’s brother and sisters realize he has been lying about not having been in Narnia before: three of the children are looking at the fourth with surprise and loathing. For another, this moment is followed by a muttered comment from Edmund that signals his exclusion of himself from what he sees as the intolerable smugness of their collectivity: ‘I’ll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs’. Both before and after this moment of revelation, Edmund’s voice repeatedly sets itself in opposition to those of his siblings, reminding the reader in the process that he has good reason (as he thinks) to see things very differently from the way they do. As a result, the tendency of the other children to read their experience first as a game and then as a thrilling adventure is given an added dimension of seriousness, generated by the reader’s mounting sense of how easily the younger brother’s petty nastiness and contrariety might turn to something more destructive (we can hardly have forgotten Mr Tumnus’s fear of being turned into stone, or how near Edmund himself came to suffering the same fate).

From the beginning of chapter six, Edmund’s dissent is conveyed with admirable precision. When the children first find that there’s something physically ‘strange’ about the cupboard (it’s cold and damp and bristly) Edmund is the only one to suggest they simply leave it: ‘“Let’s get out,” said Edmund, “they’ve gone.”’ When they reach Mr Tumnus’s cave and find it trashed, it’s Edmund who has the first word: ‘This is a pretty good wash-out,’ he comments, ‘not much good coming here’ (and his disagreement with Lucy on what constitutes ‘goodness’ in Narnia lends an uneasy moral weight to the observation). It’s Edmund who spurns Lucy’s suggestion that they try to rescue the captured Tumnus: ‘A lot we could do […] when we haven’t even got anything to eat!’ And it’s Edmund who draws Peter aside at the end of the chapter to express his doubts about the robin they’re following: ‘We’re following a guide we know nothing about. […] Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?’ Peter’s response is to call on his knowledge of stories as a guide to the behaviour of intelligent animals in magic adventures: ‘They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read’ – and Lewis would have known very well that robins have been associated with Christ (the red breast was traditionally stained by the blood of Christ) and with fairies (James Stephens identifies the robin as under the protection of leprechauns in The Crock of Gold, which Lewis liked well enough to replicate its ending in Prince Caspian). But Edmund again represents the contrary or resistant reader – much as Eustace does in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where he is the only one of the visitors to Narnia who has no knowledge of or interest in imaginative fiction. Edmund tells Peter, as he told Lucy, that the children have no idea whether they are taking the right ‘side’ in the Narnian conflict: ‘How do we know that the fauns are in the right and the Queen […] is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either.’ This is not wholly true, of course: the note they found at Tumnus’s vandalized cave was signed by one ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’, and the mere existence of a Secret Police in the Second World War would for English readers have linked their employer, the Queen, to the Nazis and hence to ‘wrongness’. But Edmund backs up his claim with a couple of statements that can’t be denied, whatever Peter’s views on Narnian politics: that the children are lost, and that they still have nothing to eat (‘no chance of dinner either’ are the last words in the chapter). A chapter that opened, then, with Edmund as the sole dissenting voice amid a strong consensus ends with his voice as dominant. In the same way, his isolation, which was emphasized shortly after the children entered Narnia when he inadvertently revealed his knowledge of the country, ends with all the children isolated in a country none of them knows well at all – and where Lucy’s closest friend has just been arrested for ‘High Treason’. At the end, in fact, Edmund is in the strongest position of the four, since he at least knows where to find his only ally in Narnia, the woman who had Tumnus arrested. The chapter, then, performs yet again the reversal, or change of tone and emphasis, the reader experienced between the first two entries into Narnia, as well as within them. And in the process it demonstrates, better than any of the previous chapters, that the act we are engaged in as we follow the chapter – reading itself – is a serious business.

Chapter six, in fact, contains several points at which the act of reading is foregrounded; in particular, the act of reading in relation to the ‘real’ world of the reader. When the Pevensies decide, at Susan’s suggestion, to put on some of the fur coats in the wardrobe to protect themselves against the Narnian cold (after all, Susan points out, ‘it isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t even take them out of the wardrobe’), they at once take on a look of storybook heroes – kings and queens – in the oversized garments: ‘The coats were rather too big for them so that they came down to their heels and looked more like royal robes than coats when they put them on’. The robes anticipate, of course, their future status as ‘real’ kings and queens of Narnia; and they soon sense that the sort of make believe that in our world would be merely playful – such as dressing up – here takes on a new significance; that fictions here harbour truths or realities, just as the apparently fictional Narnia turned out to be an actual country. Noting their resemblance to Scott and Amundsen in their furs, as depicted in films and books, Lucy suggests they play at being Arctic explorers, but Peter at once rejects the suggestion because ‘This is going to be exciting enough without pretending’. Despite this, he proposes that they appoint Lucy their ‘leader’ as if in a game (‘follow my leader’ comes to mind) – another decision about which there is a general consensus which must exclude Edmund – and she at once suggests they visit Mr Tumnus. At this point the children are still in playful mood, not fully aware that they have left the territory of petty fabrications and small pleasures, of tea and cake and enchanting stories; and even their encounter with the Faun’s ruined cave doesn’t fully alert them to the seriousness of their situation. It’s only the discovery of a piece of written text among the ruins – the sinister note left by ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’ – that alters their reading of Narnia, leaving them more susceptible to Edmund’s gloomy perspective on its beauties.

The formal language of the note is carefully calculated to effect this alteration. In a single sentence it declares that Tumnus has been arrested for crimes against ‘her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc.’; and the location of the note – nailed to the carpet in the middle of Tumnus’s sitting room – gives these words additional weight. It was in this room, after all, that Tumnus first told Lucy about ‘Queen’ Jadis, challenging the Witch’s right to the titles listed here and stressing the danger he was in from informants and spies. The note, then, provides additional evidence that stories come true in Narnia, even nasty ones (and one might again think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the island where dreams come true also harbours nightmares). And it is Lucy – to whom the Faun told these Narnian stories – who first identifies the link between the note and the children who read it. The Pevensies’ first reaction to the text is a collective one: ‘The children stared at each other’, seeking support in their efforts to process the information it contains. Susan then proposes that they all go home, since Narnia no longer seems ‘fun’ or ‘particularly safe’ – language better suited to a game gone out of control than a land ruled over by a fascistic dictator. But Lucy vetoes the proposal on the strength of her recognition that they themselves are referred to in Maugrim’s message, and that they are therefore intertwined or bound up with the politics of Narnia, just as they were previously caught up in the politics of wartime Europe:

‘Oh, but we can’t, we can’t,’ said Lucy suddenly; ‘don’t you see? We can’t go home, not after this. It’s all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the Witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternizing with Humans. We simply must try to rescue him.’

What Lucy has seen, as Susan has not, is that Maugrim’s note contains direct references to Lucy herself, and that these textual references entail real-life consequences. Because he helped Lucy, and because helping her led to his arrest, the children owe the Faun a debt of gratitude by virtue of the rules of the very serious game called obligation.

At this point Lucy doesn’t know, of course, that the children are yet more deeply implicated in the arrest than they are through her debt to Tumnus. It was Edmund who revealed the Faun’s act of ‘High Treason’ to the Witch; and the reader is reminded of this fact by the scornful response of Edmund himself to Lucy’s insistence that they help her friend (‘A lot we could do’). Lucy’s reading of the note is countered by Edmund’s rejection of her proposal – and hence of her supposed leadership of the siblings – as unrealistic – that is, as still locked in the fantastic mode of a childish game. But by this time in the book we are well aware that Edmund has a shaky hold on the relationship between the ‘real’ and the imagined, the possible and the impossible, playfulness and bullying or abuse. Despite her misgivings, Susan accedes to Lucy’s plan a few lines later precisely because she finally recognizes they are no longer pretending: ‘I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,’ she comments, invoking an attitude of reluctant and fearful acquiescence which is the very opposite of playful. And she agrees because she is following the rules of the kinds of stories in which obligations must be repaid – fairy tales, romances – as against the ‘realistic’ fiction to which Edmund’s comment appeals. The children continue to follow the rules of fairy tale and romance when they choose to follow a robin as the first step on the road to rescue. For them, the rules of games and stories are no different in kind – only in scale – from the rules that govern a decent person’s conduct in ‘real’ life, and they carry over their expertise in reading and game-playing into the task of achieving the impossible – of rescuing their friend against dreadful odds. It is Edmund’s unwillingness to commit to these rules – an unwillingness he has displayed since the book began – that makes him an unsatisfactory reader of the ‘real’ world of Narnia.

Clearly, then, the interface between our world and the secondary world that contains Narnia is something more complex than a series of entrances and exits through the portal of the wardrobe. The difference in attitude of those who pass through the portal is what drives the action of this first of the Narnia chronicles, and these attitudes are carried over from their attitudes to our own world – and in particular by their attitudes to games, which include the games of reading fiction and telling stories. Those who are willing to participate in games and stories as collective and active processes find themselves able to ‘read’ the land of Narnia positively; to seize the opportunities it affords, to revel in its pleasures, to interact with its friendly inhabitants, and to participate actively in liberating it from the despotism that suppresses its best identity. Those who refuse to participate in collective games, including stories, find themselves rapidly enlisted by the despotic self-styled Queen, and consequently read the landscape and every other Narnian they encounter as hostile. An enjoyment of playfulness, which embraces playful or imaginative fictions – fairy tales, romance and fantasy – has a serious role in preparing the enjoyer for what Lewis convincingly represents as resistance against a Nazi-like occupying government. Hostility to playfulness of this kind, on the other hand, is both symptomatic of and likely to reinforce an attraction to power games aimed at personal advancement, and to oppressive authority figures who adopt the same philosophy. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in other words, amounts to a defence of reading and writing fantasy, the most playful literary mode of all, in that it demands the most active imaginative engagement from its readers. Those who can believe ten impossible things before breakfast are better suited to placing themselves in ‘strange’ mindsets, and of resisting the temptation to empathize only with those who share their narrow view of what is ‘realistic’ or ‘real’, than those who mock imaginative games or fables.

The games played by the Pevensie children after their third and final entry to the country underscore the book’s commitment to the concept of playfulness, in both its good and bad manifestations. The most striking example of the difference between these forms of playfulness can be found in Edmund’s and his siblings’ responses to Aslan. The first mention of the lion’s name – in chapter seven, long before they meet him face to face – strikes each of them in different ways: Edmund feels only ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’, as if alone and unsupported, while the other three children respond as if to a game, a story or a work of art. Peter feels ‘brave and adventurous’, sensations suitable to the hero of a romance or to one of its readers. Susan responds like a listener to ‘some delightful strain of music’. Lucy gets ‘the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays’, a period of unrestricted play. Once again, Edmund is the outsider, and his next encounter with Aslan – or what he thinks is Aslan – confirms his continued resistance to collaborative play, as indicated by his horror. On seeing a stone lion in the Witch’s courtyard he assumes that it’s the beast whose name disturbed him earlier, petrified, as he hoped it would be, by the Witch’s wand. At once he does ‘something very silly and childish’ in revenge for the horror it inspired in him: he draws a moustache on its upper lip and a pair of spectacles on its eyes. What’s ‘childish’ for Lewis here is the assumption that you can make yourself feel big at another person’s expense by putting them down – that is, by mocking them. This isn’t real play, the novel insists, but the kind of bullying Edmund had earlier practised on his sister; and accordingly he discovers that he doesn’t ‘really get any fun’ out of it, because of the lion’s continuing look of dignity and power in the face of his unimaginative scrawlings. The wrongness of Edmund’s view of playing is underscored, of course, by the fact that the lion is not in fact Aslan; the boy continues to have little grasp of the distinction between what is real and what is imagined, despite – or rather because of – his by now well established tendency to scepticism.

‘Real’ playfulness, so to speak, is the province of Aslan, and is first figured in the unlikely person of Father Christmas. Mr Tumnus had told Lucy when he first met her that the Witch had banished Christmas, so that the arrival of its most familiar symbol in chapter ten is clearly Aslan’s doing; and while in our world Father Christmas has become a measure of the distinction between adults and children (children believe in him, adults don’t), in Narnia he is ‘so big, and so glad, and so real’ (my emphasis) that any ‘childish’ associations he may have are banished completely. To confirm his new connection with maturity he dispenses gifts which are emphatically real: ‘tools not toys’, as he puts it, a sword for Peter, a bow and an ivory hunting horn for Susan, a flask of magic potion for Lucy. All four items would be toys in twentieth-century England, but in Narnia they are in fact what in our world they only mimic: the practical means of active resistance against oppression. When the children first meet Aslan he encourages them to use two of these tools against the chief of the Secret Police who wrote the note they found in Tumnus’s cave, and in doing so they take another of the many steps from fiction and play to practical engagement with a tyrant. One of the first such steps, as we have seen, was the discovery and reading of Maugrim’s note; so that reading, too, progresses in this book from a pleasant pastime to a stimulus for action.

Aslan doesn’t lose his connection with play, however ‘real’ or ‘terrible’ he might seem in person; though he only fully manifests this connection after he has sacrificed his life for the traitor Edmund. Appropriately enough, the act of self-sacrifice begins with a display of bullying playfulness on the part of the Queen and her hideous entourage, as they subject the lion to a succession of humiliations designed to point up their triumph over him, their climactic victory in the long war game that has been going on between them. The awakening of Aslan from the sleep of death, however, brings a new form of playfulness of Narnia: the collaborative sort that enacts the terms of mutuality and egalitarianism by which it must be conducted. The lion’s first wakening is at once attached to the notion of realness: ‘Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh Aslan!’, cry the girls as they feel the evidence of his materiality in the warmth of his breath and the touch of his tongue. And the lion’s conquest of death quickly becomes what Lewis calls a ‘romp’ (there’s another at the end of Prince Caspian, modeled on the romp in the final chapter of The Crock of Gold). ‘Oh children, catch me if you can!’ Aslan calls, and the challenge triggers a delightful yet somewhat dangerous playground chase, which connects the large and the small, the potent and the petty in a sentence that quite deliberately links childishness with maturity and power: ‘It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind’. The three interfaces between our world and Narnia were all building up to this moment, when an imaginary enactment of a deadly game – that of hunting – succeeds in articulating the gigantic joke or trick the lion has played on his power-hungry enemies. Aslan returned from the dead because he knew old stories, and believed in them, better than the Witch did; and the celebration of his return is appropriately conducted in a communal, rule-bound activity (keep your paws velveted at all times and don’t outrun the weakest player), since play of this kind is the best model for the proper conduct of social practices.

The final interface with Narnia in the book comes at the end – as it does in all the Narnian chronicles but one – with the return to our world, in this case through the familiar medium of the wardrobe. In this case, too, the return reenacts the game played by the girls and Aslan on the lion’s revival. We have already heard from Tumnus about the ‘White Stag who would give you wishes if you caught him’, and since Narnia is the place where fantastic stories come true, it seems fitting that the subject of this particular story should enter the ‘real world’ of the narrative in its closing stages. The four children, now grown up, decide to hunt the Stag ‘with horns and hounds in the Western Woods’, in the process pointing you the continuity between childish games, fairy stories told to children, and the more dangerous games and equally challenging stories enjoyed by adults. By this stage in the story the adult protagonists also talk in the language of the literature three of them loved as children; even Edmund speaks as they do, having been naturalized to romance thanks to his reconciliation with his siblings. The effect is literally charming. A Victorian lamppost becomes for him ‘a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof’; and in the process an everyday object from Britain’s city streets is estranged or enchanted into a wonder – much as it was from the other direction when Lucy first saw it improbably planted in the middle of a snowy wood. The sight of the lamppost triggers memories in all four siblings, though for these heroes and heroines of romance it is our world rather than theirs that is the stuff of the fantastic imagination: ‘It runs in my mind’ Edmund tells the others, ‘that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream’. Not only does this make our own world fantastic, but it also gives a seriousness to dreams and the imagination that they aren’t often accorded: we, the readers, know this ‘dream of a dream’ to have a solid foundation, and can also predict that Lucy will be right when she tells her brothers and sister that going beyond the lamppost will lead to ‘strange adventures’. By this point in the story, too, ‘strangeness’ itself has become something to be treasured for the sake of its very unfamiliarity, the surprises it entails. The search for strange things is a ‘quest’, as Peter points out, and a quest is a ‘high matter’, like ‘feats of arms’ or ‘acts of justice’. The link between the imaginary and the important, the fantastic and the real, the playful and the deeply serious, has become central to the philosophy the children live by, a founding principal of the culture they inhabit and the language they speak. And the reader, by following the children on their journey from this world to the next and back again, have become acculturated to the same perspective, the same reading of ordinary and extraordinary people and objects.

The book ends by bequeathing this climate or culture to the world beyond its pages. The four children pass the lamppost and find themselves tumbling out of the wardrobe – in their old clothes, children once again, at the very moment when Mrs Macready and the visitors are moving past the doorway of the room where the wardrobe stands. The Professor, when they tell him his adventures, accepts the story readily as potential ‘fact’ – just as he accepted Lucy’s when nobody else did; and he proceeds to lay down the rules of the game they must play in future, the game of having been acculturated to Narnian mores while living in a world where the very existence of that land is an impossibility. They must not tell many other people about their adventures – must not even discuss them much among themselves – for fear (we might suppose) of disenchanting what they have experienced by the inadequacy of their verbal descriptions of it, or else perhaps of being ostracized, ridiculed, bullied, like immigrants from a despised community. It will be clear to them who can be told about Narnia without courting mockery: people who have undergone ‘adventures of the same sort themselves’. As with the ‘strange stories’ about the Professor’s house, the Professor’s confidence that there are indeed other people in our world who have had experiences as strange and wonderful as visiting Narnia suggests that the interface between the real and the fantastic is well established in the world of the reader, as well as in the book we are coming to the end of. And Lewis makes sure he casts the spell of this confidence into the environment beyond the book in the final sentence. ‘And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe’, he tells us; ‘But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia’. The challenge of this final sentence lies in the potent word ‘if’. The conditional indicates that Lewis is affirming or asserting nothing, like the poets in Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry; instead he is inviting us to consider the implications of accepting that what we have been imagining may have some sort of substance, some direct and quantifiable impact on us and on the mental and physical places we occupy. The challenge is a bold one, and its boldness marks the remarkable contribution Lewis makes in the Narnian chronicles to the evolution of children’s fiction in the postwar years.

The term ‘if’ also points up the extent to which Lewis is reliant on his reader to construct his ambitious new bridge between the possible and the impossible, the real and the fantastic. One of the most astounding things about the Narnian chronicles, for an adult reader returning to it after long absence, is its sheer economy: the simple, crystalline and not-so-numerous sentences with which Lewis brings his imagined country to life. When I asked students in a class on The Silver Chair what had surprised and interested them about their re-reading of Narnia, many replied that they remembered the book as much longer and denser than they now found it: packed with material details, colour, and diverse incident, where on re-reading it seemed remarkably, even disappointingly slim and succinct. This is because Lewis asks us in his fantasy series to do the major legwork of world-building ourselves, as readers – to make Narnia our own. As I suggested earlier, we never really see the ‘real’ Narnia described by Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it’s the Witch’s version we spend most of our time in – except in the final chapter, whose title, ‘The Hunting of the White Stag’, indicates its focus on the exit from Narnia, not on its construction. The fullest description of the country comes in the brief account of the children’s coronation, which wittily invites the reader to participate in its imaginative composition:

The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And, oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?

There’s nothing fantastic in this passage; instead it invokes what many of Lewis’s readers will be familiar with, a Northern seaside, and in the process calls on their collective memory to collaborate in composing the coronation scene. Having deftly sketched a place we may remember well, Lewis proceeds to enchant it by introducing the impossible, the things we can’t remember because they never happened: ‘And through the eastern door, which was wide open, came the voices of the mermen and mermaids swimming close to the shore and singing in honour of their new Kings and Queens’. Because these mer-voices are inserted into a real context so expertly conjured up, they are utterly convincing; and it’s perhaps inevitable (if we paused to reflect, on being asked to do so, at the end of the previous passage) that we will associate them with the ‘cry of the sea-gulls’, or at least allow the sea-gull voices imaginatively to mingle with the quasi-human ones, producing a new and strange combination that might well have a genuine impact on our next encounter with the sea. We are dignified with the status of co-authors; we participate fully in Lewis’s fictive game.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out something else about the Chronicles, which relates to gender – always a contentious subject in commentaries on Lewis’s writing. Another experience a modern reader will undergo when reading these books is that of discomfort, rising at times to real distaste, at the segregation of the sexes in Lewis’s universe; the most striking example in this first novel being Father Christmas’s paternalistic refusal to let Susan and Lucy take part in the final battle against the Witch. As he hands Susan her bow and hunting horn with one hand, the gift-giver takes them back, or restricts their use, with the other: ‘You must use the bow only in great need,’ he says, ‘for I do not mean you to fight in the battle’; and shortly afterwards he tells Lucy with infuriating glibness that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Women, then, have one set of roles in Narnia, and men another, and there would seem to be no interface between them; indeed, part of what marks out Jadis as evil may well be her readiness to take on masculine traits such as fighting, commanding, and political manoeuvring against her enemies. At the same time, it seems to me that there is a real attempt in this novel to achieve a kind of parity between the status of boys and girls as protagonists, and that this was something Lewis thought of as central to the fantasy tradition – however inadequately he may have succeeded in bringing it about.

The clue to this belief of Lewis’s about gender equality in fantasy lies in a statement he makes in his essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’, written soon after the publication of the first Narnia book in 1952.[1] Here he makes a clear distinction between fantasy fiction for children – he carefully chooses the genderless term – and realistic fiction specifically aimed at boys and girls – segregating the sexes much as the school system it so often describes segregated them in the 1950s. Admittedly, like most writers of his generation Lewis proceeds to refer to the reader of fantasy as if she were male (‘the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring’, while the boy reading the school story is unhappy because he cannot have what he desires – sporting prowess and universal popularity). But elsewhere he sets the ungendered fantasy reader against the boy who reads about, and yearns for, a success often specifically gendered as male in the 1950s: ‘In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven’. And once one has noticed this, it’s hard not to notice how scrupulously he divides his Narnian adventures between boys and girls. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two boys and two girls enter Narnia, and it’s Lucy’s perspective that may well seem privileged to a reader thinking about the book in retrospect, since she’s the one who finds Narnia and whose understanding of Narnian politics is vindicated by the actions of the Witch. As a boy who grew up at a time when ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books’ were often very clearly demarcated – to my shame, I have to admit my youthful tendency to avoid reading books whose protagonists were female, perhaps as a result of having been educated in largely single-sex schools – it seems to me that the Narnia books may have had an important impact on my ability to empathize with girls, at least in fiction. Lewis’s efforts to treat boys and girls equally may have been flawed, and may also have been strongly influenced by the mixture of genders in earlier children’s fantasy – especially that of his favourite practitioner of the genre, Edith Nesbit. But his willingness to have his girls participate fully in the physical dangers and metaphysical wonders of high fantasy seems to me to have made a crucial contribution to the genre’s emergence in later years as a fruitful space for imagining gender parity.

I hesitate to suggest this, but I wonder too if Lewis’s decision to exclude Susan from the number of the Pevensies who are reunited in Narnia in the final book of the series may be explained by her excessive attachment to desires and activities gendered specifically female? The girls who do re-enter Narnia in The Last Battle are represented as capable of what might be called an interface between the genders – of wearing armour and fighting alongside the Narnian resistance, as Jill does with the aid of a bow and arrows much like Susan’s. By this stage in the series Father Christmas’s prohibition against women fighting in battles seems to have been forgotten; Jill kills several Calormene invaders without demur. Again, the girls from our world in all the Narnia books share a literary background with the boys; they don’t read exclusively male or female texts, but like Lucy know the ‘rules’ of fairy tale and fantasy just as well, or are just as ignorant of them (in Jill’s case), as any of the male protagonists. Lewis doesn’t offer us, I think, a boy protagonist with an equally flexible gender identity – unless it’s Shasta in The Horse and his Boy, a fisherman’s adopted son whose ignorance of all traditions of male heroics is problematically aligned with his upbringing among an Orientalized people – and this is unfortunate, to say the least. But he clearly means the fantasy tradition to be an ungendered one (it’s Prince Caspian’s nurse, for instance, who first tells him stories of the old ‘fantastic’ Narnia); and it’s this, I think, that makes Susan’s wholesale commitment to desires conventionally gendered as female a bar to her continued inclusion in the mixed company of Narnian adventurers. That’s hardly an excuse for her banishment from Lewis’s land of heart’s desire, of course; but it makes it, I think, just a little more interesting.

To conclude: I think its fascination with what I’ve called the interface between our world and the secondary world of the imagination is what distinguishes Lewis’s Narnia series from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien’s work is founded on an elaborate and continuing process of world-building, which has an existence independent of the books set in Middle Earth, Lewis is concerned instead with the collaborative process of imagining the impossible as it is necessarily shared between writers and readers of fantasy. This concern extends itself to other forms of interface: between childhood and adulthood, between male and female, between past, present and future, between human and animal, between Nordic and classical mythologies, even between good and evil, which he is so often said to set too simplistically at odds – the list could go on. I hope my over-detailed analysis will have shown that his apparently simple stylistic and narrative structures mask a really considerable moral and philosophical complexity. I hope, too, that it may prove a bit of an intellectual springboard to thinking about interfaces more widely in relation to fantastic fiction.

And with this wish, desiring reader, I bid you farewell.

NOTE

[1] C. S. Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), pp. 56-70.