Thursday, January 8, 2009
I Wanna Be A Narnian
"Wouldn't it be dreadful if some day, in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so you'd never know which were which?" Lucy.
Ovid, cast out for being a clever pain in the arse at the Emperor's court, is exiled to a mislaid outpost of the Roman empire, the civilians there too busy surviving to think about philosophy, poetry and art.
Adding to the brutality of their white winter, these people live with the constant Damascus sword of invasion hanging over them. Whooping swathes of horsemen swoop down upon their small village every winter when the great moat fortress of a river is frozen over.
Maybe these frights are the origins of the Centaur. People who'd never domesticated a horse were over run with murderous beings attached to the bodies of beasts, moving as one, sinuous, swift and just too powerful.
It's myth of the same gestation as those dastardly Fin-Folk, who invaded the Orkneys of the far north in kayaks, paddling so far across the strait that their animal-hide canoes absorbed water and still floated. To the lookout on land, they looked like half-human, half-seal creatures that rose out of the sea, sodden and hungry, and they stole the young women away.
Perhaps new mythology is borne of new technology. There is another arterial theme too, the marrying of the cerebral and the physical, civilisation and savagery, enlightenment and intuition.
Most of us want a nice car, whilst also feeling the need to howl at the Moon on the weekend.
There's Chiron, the kind Centaur who tutored Apollo in the arts and brought up Jason, Achilles and other children of the ancient Glitterati. Yet it was the Centaurs in the same neighbourhood who got into terrible fights and were definitely not to be messed with when on the wine. (They made for rather unpleasant drinking company.)
Ovid dreams of the Centaurs:
Suddenly, not out of the dust of the plain but out of the swirling sky, a horde of forms come thundering toward me - men, yes, horses, yes, and I thought of what I do not believe in and know belongs only to our world of fables, which is where I found myself: the centaurs.
But these were not the tamed creatures of our pastoral myths. They were gigantic, and their power, the breath of their nostrils, the crash of their hooves, the rippling light of their flanks, was terrible. These, I knew, were gods.
In whom I also do not believe.
I stood silent in the centre of the plain and they began to wheel in great circles around me, uttering cries - not of malice, I thought, but of mourning. Let us into your world, they seemed to be saying. Let us cross the river into your empire. Let us into your lives.
Believe in us.
My own infatuation began with Ancient History 101, meeting Chiron and moving on to reading four Harry Potters and all of the Narnia Chronicles out loud. (The italics mean I'm just a little bit proud of that.)
There were four great Centaurs. the horse part of them was like huge English farm horses, and the man part of them was like stern but beautiful giants.
The zenith of my Centaur appreciation arrived when we sisters took the boys to see Prince Caspian. I wanted so much to be a Narnian. I would have put up with all privations of war and no public toilet and the Telmarines and the snooty Peter Wolfsbane, just so I could hang out with the Centaurs of the forest.
Here Trufflehunter called again, 'Glenstorm! Glenstorm! and after a pause Caspian heard the sound of hoofs. It grew louder until the valley trembled and at last, breaking and trampling the thickets, there came into sight the noblest creatures Caspian had yet seen, the great Centaur Glenstorm and his three sons. His flanks were glossy chestnut and the beard that covered his chest was golden red. He was a prophet and a star-gazer and knew what they had come about.
It was at about ... oh ... this moment in the darkened cinema that my sister and I swivelled our heads to look at each other, paws desperately fanning our heaving bosoms.
"Phwooaar!" Said I.
She whooped a low wolf whistle, not quite under her breath.
It was not missed by the whole row behind us, who collectively cracked up, despite the grim themes of statesmanship and betrayal.
For ages I carried around a photograph of a Centaur skeleton, created from the bones of a man and a shetland pony. (The derogatory phrase Small Pony Syndrome hadn't been coined at that stage.) The skeleton is now on permanent exhibition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
I lost the photo. No, actually I gave it to a Sagittarian. You know ... half great philosopher, half back end of a horse ... I thought he'd appreciate some evidence of his planetary origins but he didn't get back to me on that one.
Speaking of planetary, the word centaur is a mix up of 'ken' (I kill) and 'taur', which, moving right along, or actually back a moon or so, conduits to Taurus the Bull. 'I kill the bull'. Sagittarius wipes out Taurus with less wine and more finality than Hemingway, year after year in our WineDark skies.
Arnold Bocklin, The Battle of the Centaurs, 1873.
David Malouf, An Imaginary Life, Picador, 1980, p.24.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the With and the Wardrobe, Geoffrey Bles, 1951, p.117.
C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, the return to Narnia, Geoffrey Bles, 1951, pp. 114 & 75.