Saturday, January 30, 2016

The compelling mystery of ruins, and the things that lurk in them

If you've read The Lord of the Rings, what's your favourite part? My favourite of the three books is The Fellowship of the Ring. And my favourite part of The Fellowship of the Ring is when Gimli persuades the fellowship to enter the abandoned Dwarf realm of Moria. I have loved it ever since I was a child and my Mum read the book to me and my brother during long car journeys.

I'm not sure what it is about Moria, but I think that whole sequence is the best plotted and most compelling part of the entire book. It starts with Gandalf trying to work out how to get in. Then, just as he opens the doors, the fellowship are attacked by a hideous creature that lurks in the pool by the gate. After running into safety they hear the doors behind them being barricaded shut. From this point on, the only way out is forward. I guess that's part of the thing - everywhere else the characters have a choice. Here they have no choice. They have to keep going forward. Into the dark.

The gates of Moria

The film actually showed the journey through Moria quite well, although it was obvious immediately that there were no dwarves here. Just dusty, long-dead armoured skeletons. You don't learn that as quickly in the book. You have to wait until the fellowship find the annals of the dwarves who tried to retake Moria. As Gandalf reads the final, hurried entries, with the accounts of which dwarf heroes fell where, the sense of danger and impending doom is truly claustrophobic. Something evil has befallen in the ruins. And it is most likely still out there.

Discovery in the dark

That sense of evil lurking in the ruins is also present early on in The Magician's Nephew, which I think has been my favourite of the Narnia books since I was a kid. Written as a prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, some time after that book, The Magician's Nephew tells the story of how Narnia came to be, as witnessed by two small children, Digory and Polly, who had been given the opportunity to move between different worlds. But here's the thing. Before they discovered the world that would become Narnia, the two children discovered Charn.

Exploring Charn

Charn was a nearly dead world, a ruinous, gigantic, deserted city under a blood-red, tired sun. Drawn by enchantment, the children enter a hall of kings and queens and wake the last Queen of Charn, a cruel and wicked tyrant called Jadis. She tells them about the grandeur of Charn; the magnificence of the world before it met its doom. And we learn that Jadis was the author of that doom, using a deep and terrible magic to win a civil war against her sister, by extinguishing all other life on the planet.

The mystery of Charn

It's a magnificent, evocative tale, which I always found more interesting than the birth of Narnia that follows. And while it provides an origin story, of sorts, for evil in the good and perfect world of Narnia, the emergence of Jadis in Charn is a much more interesting story. The series of royal statues grow harsher and crueler as the children walk along them, reaching the pinnacle of hatefulness in Jadis. The implication is that power corrupts and poisons people, leading to a situation where a wicked queen would rather eliminate every other living being than not rule over them.

I've often felt this was a commentary by C.S. Lewis on the existence of nuclear weapons and the folly of the idea of mutually assured destruction preventing someone from starting a nuclear war. What if you got someone so totally warped and wicked that they would rather turn the world into a burning atomic husk than allow their opponents to continue to exist?

I'm not sure why as a kid drawn to the idea of ruined civilisations. I think both Moria and Charn exuded a mystery that you didn't get in many imaginary worlds. There was a sense that something has happened here - something terrible. And you need to find out what it was. But finding out won't make it better. In fact, it might make it even more terrible.

But at least you will know.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I like exactly the same part of Fellowship, although I also like the travel through the empty lands of Eregion where Elves used to live. The sense of mystery and loss is so intense. Likewise the visit to Charn is way more memorable than the rather cheesey birth of Narnia. Did you find any other stories like these?