Views and Reviews
This page contains book, film and play reviews by people at St John's Roslyn, and other bits and pieces which don't logically fit on any of the other pages of our website. Contributions for this page are welcome!
Please click on one of the titles below to go directly to that section.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (20-Sep-08)
Crevices: A poem for Christmas (26-Dec-05)
Winning the Battle of Trafalgar (19-Oct-05)
The Magician's Nephew (17-Sep-05)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (21-Jul-05)
The Theology of Star Wars (3-Jun-05)I bought my copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince thirty seconds after it went on sale. While the careful people queued neatly for their pre-ordered copies, I was in the jostling mob taking their chances as the crates of extra books were opened, and being both motivated and large, was home by the fire reading my own copy while the queue was still gradually shortening back at The Warehouse. Even though I have spent a couple of decades asking the question “Why do people listen to the stories they do?” the Harry Potter phenomenon is still a bit of a mystery to me, even as I am swept up in it.
There's something about voyages of exploration that appeals to me, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has always been my favourite of the seven Narnia books. The main characteristic of voyages, though, is that they involve movement and lots of changes of scene; this makes them inherently difficult to translate to the stage. In its fourth Narnia play, which opened at the Mayfair Theatre on the 18th of September, the Dunedin City Baptist Church has risen to the challenge.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, scripted and directed by Erina Caradus, is structured almost like a cinema film, with rapid cuts between scenes but no breaks in the action. The set design and stage management is complex and very effective. Fine painted backdrops set the scene on many of the islands, while a mobile and versatile Dawn Treader set fills much of the stage for the shipboard scenes. (The ship's crew double as stagehands, to the extent that handling the ship is sometimes indistinguishable from handling the scenery.)
The script is very close to the book, with none of the major scenes missing - pirates, monsters, enchanted lands, invisible people, magicians and the Great Lion all packed into a two-hour play. The story is largely a series of separate incidents, but they're connected by the characters, particularly the odious Eustace (inadvertently turning into a dragon takes the phrase "character development" to new heights), and by the quest to the eastern end of the world, where the three main plot strands - the lost Narnian lords, Reepicheep's destiny, and Aslan's relationship with the visitors from our own world - all come together.
The play has a fairly small cast, but some of those people play five or six different roles in the course of the performance. Characters of particular note are Eustace (played by Matthew Scadden and, briefly but expressively, by Shari McCabe), and Lucy (Dara Caradus), both of whom have substantial scenes of their own. The dragon costumes are wonderful. Mike Crowl as Reepicheep makes a memorable if over-tall mouse, and Greg Brook reprises his role as a solemn and reassuring Aslan. I missed the numerous talking animals of the earlier plays, but the excitable and colourful Duffers almost make up for their absence.
The conversation between the Duffers in their invisible phase (pre-recorded) and the visible characters (live) must have been very difficult to time properly, and this is just one small example of the skill and problem-solving ingenuity that permeates the whole play. In fact, the only real problem with the performance I attended was the disappointingly-small audience. This is a production that deserves to be seen.
Reviews of the previous two D.C.B.C. Narnia plays can be found below. Click here to visit the Narnia Productions website.
Prince Caspian, which opened at the Mayfair Theatre on the 14th of September, is the third Narnia play produced by the Dunedin City Baptist Church. (A review of their previous production, The Magician's Nephew, appears below.) Now, you might wonder why you should bother with a stage play when there's a big-budget film on the way. After all, in a film you can portray talking animals and walking trees in a believable way. You can follow characters from one room to another and back without having to pause to shift the scenery. You can cut back and forth between two scenes taking place simultaneously. You can even go for a trip in a rowing-boat. Whereas on stage . . . well, actually, you can do all of the above.
Once again, the D.C.B.C.'s set design and stage management people have demonstrated their unfamiliarity with the word "impossible". The script, by director Erina Caradus, closely follows the book, much of which is about two journeys - those of Prince Caspian, fleeing his wicked uncle and meeting a variety of Old Narnian allies, and of the four children from Earth, on their way to Caspian's aid. This means that numerous scene changes are inevitable, but the clever use of pre-recorded dialogue and bridging scenes in front of the curtain, as well as some substantial but very mobile scenery pieces, meant that there wasn't a significant pause anywhere in the play except for the interval. (The designers have also learnt from their mistakes - unlike in the previous play, the characters could pick apples without making Velcro noises.)
And the animals? Well, they all had two arms and two legs (even the Centaur), but they were made as believable as stage talking animals are ever likely to get by costume, excellent makeup and some spot-on portrayals of the different species' characteristics - from flittery squirrels to sleepy bears. More elaborate were the walking trees, which didn't look significantly like human actors.
Prince Caspian has a large cast with no one central role, but two characters deserve particular mention. Firstly, the dwarf Trumpkin (Susan Irvine), who ties both halves of the story together and is present in almost every scene. The part was played to a high standard throughout, with considerable humour. Secondly, the small but valiant mouse Reepicheep (Mhairi Duncan); I think I can honestly say I have never seen a mouse with such stage presence.
There were many other highlights - Prince Caspian's swordsmanship, a dance of Fauns with live music, the chilling scene where Nikabrik conspires with some Dark allies to bring back the White Witch, and the rather wonderful sequence where Aslan wakes the magical creatures of the forest. Several of the central characters delivered large amounts of dialogue without any apparent difficulty.
I am looking forward to the film . . . but the play was definitely worth seeing as well. There was no mention in the programme of any future plans, but near the end of Prince Caspian the title character vowed to sail to the East in search of the seven lost Narnian lords. This isn't actually in the original novel; it's a piece of background from the next Narnia book. So perhaps we can also look forward to a D.C.B.C. production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader . . .
'Prince Caspian' was performed by Narnia Productions in September 2007.
A few minutes ago I watched through binoculars as the star Antares approached occultation by the Moon. Normally a bright star, it was all but invisible in the Moon's glare. According to today's newspaper, it should reappear at about midnight - precisely the beginning of Easter Day.
It's a very nicely timed symbol of death and rebirth, but the metaphor goes much deeper than that. The Moon represents death. From where we stand, it looks (and is) big and bright and overwhelming. The star stands for God. It looks faint and frail, and it's so easy to lose sight of it. But the star is never overwhelmed. In reality it's very much larger and brighter than the Moon. The Moon hides it, but in real terms it can never really affect it.
This is the message of Easter - not that pain and death and suffering aren't real, but that God is more real, more bright, and entirely eternal.
A poem for Christmas
(When Jesus was born He was placed in a phatne. This Greek word can be translated as 'manger', but a phatne is not the piece of wooden furniture shown in many Christmas cards. It's a cavity made in the thick earth wall of a building, and used as a manger or for storage.)
A hand-scooped crevice in an earthen wall;
A new-born baby wrapped in linen bands
And watched by shepherds, and with fragrant oil
Anointed King by men from distant lands,
While angels beckon forth with clarion call.
A crevice carved in cold and ancient rock;
A body covered by a shroud, forlorn
While mist drifts by and solemn soldiers watch,
And Mary brings anointing oil at dawn,
And angels turn back sadness with a touch.
A heaven-made crevice in a world of night;
A deity enwrapped in mortal shape;
A God incarnate and anointed Christ,
While Humans watch, and wait, and pray, and hope,
And angels call towards still greater light.
by Alan Firth
by Alan Firth
"It's the World, dear. Did you expect it to be small?" - Mrs Beaver.
The Narnia books have been favourites of mine since I was very young, and until now the only real picture I had of them was in my own imagination. (I saw a cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe many years ago, but it didn't make much of an impression.) My imagination is a reasonably active one, but my internal Narnia was always a sort of tame Narnia - perhaps a more English Narnia, where the forests are tidy and the grass is cropped and the mountains aren't actually all that big. The line drawings in the books, though excellent, don't convey size very well.
I doubt if C.S. Lewis's imagination was so limited. There are plenty of clues in the books - particularly the travel stories The Horse and His Boy and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - which suggest that Narnia is both large and dangerous. I have heard that C.S. Lewis himself considered the Narnia books unfilmable.
He was wrong.
We now have a 'big Narnia'; a Narnia brought to life by the combined skill and imagination of many people, and the result is stunning. As it did in the Lord of the Rings films, New Zealand provides a sort of 'Europe but older and wilder' landscape that perfectly suits the nature of the story. But this isn't just a copy of Middle-Earth; it's a world in its own right, and with its own character. All the contrasting scenes are there, from the quiet clearing with snow falling around an ancient lamp-post, to the magnificent castle of Cair Paravel on the cliffs by the Eastern Ocean.
It's a world with its own set of inhabitants. All of them are well-realised. Tumnus the Faun is charming, and Aslan the Lion - who I understand is computer-generated - has just the right mixture of power, sadness, compassion and joy. Technology has come far enough so that even the talking animals look believable. The old saying about the dangers of working with children or animals in theatre has never been more effectively countered. (The wolves, incidentally, are real.) And who would have thought that Father Christmas could be portrayed in such a plausible and dignified way without the loss of all the tradition that has grown up around the character.
Visual design is everywhere superb - both in the big landscapes and battles, and in the little details such as Edmund's Turkish Delight box. There are a number of nice little touches which aren't in the book - watch Mr Tumnus's fire while he's contemplating treachery.
And the story? The Narnia books have one huge advantage over Harry Potter when it comes to film-making; they are short. Very little has been left out, and some scenes - including additional background and character development for the four Pevensie children - are entirely new. The battle scenes are certainly intense, but they don't take up as much of the film as the trailers suggested. The story is well developed and well told, with competent actors and some beautiful photography. Practically nothing anywhere in the film seems out of place.
On the theological side, the film is also everything it should be. It remains true to the book; God isn't mentioned once in the whole thing, but the Christian themes of betrayal, forgiveness, sacrifice and bravery are an integral part of the story, and no attempt has been made to water them down. Scenes like Aslan's forgiveness of Edmund - only seen from a distance, with no dialogue - are well portrayed. I could write for a very long time about the many theological concepts, obvious and subtle, embedded in the story - the fact that there are 'pagan' creatures on both sides, Peter riding a unicorn, Aslan's establishment of four thrones to rule over Narnia - but this review isn't really the place to do it. All that matters for the moment is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been turned into a film, and it's been done very well indeed.
by Alan Firth
The 21st of October 2005 is the 200th anniversary of one of the most important naval battles in history, and a decisive engagement in the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar off the Spanish coast.
I don’t know a lot about naval history, but I have a particular interest in Trafalgar, because there’s a rumour in my family (and I hasten to add that it’s entirely unconfirmed and it may well be completely untrue) that I’m a descendant of Thomas Masterman Hardy, who was captain of Nelson’s flagship the Victory, and who was by the side of the famous admiral when he died.
It’s interesting that the Royal Navy at the time of Trafalgar, rather like the Church of England, owed quite a lot to the historical influence of a certain Henry the Eighth. It’s also interesting that the Battle of Trafalgar makes a surprisingly neat metaphor for some of the problems currently facing Christendom, and gives some clues as to how those problems can be addressed.
(Incidentally, you can define Christendom in different ways. If you use the word to mean Christianity as an instrument of the state, it’s probably something we shouldn’t try to rescue. But if you define Christendom as something like ‘a society whose principles and cultural background are Christian’ then it’s something that, although it seems to be in grave peril, should be revived if we can possibly manage it. And Christianity has a long tradition of things not being as dead as they seem!)
I’ll start with the basics. How do you win a naval battle? By sinking (or disabling, of which more below) the enemy ships. And how do you sink a ship? Well, the underlying principle is that a sinking ship has lots of water in it, and an otherwise identical but non-sinking ship hasn’t.
So it’s obvious; to win a naval battle, you spray water on the enemy ships. Actually, this isn’t the best strategy, for obvious reasons. Firstly, it’s slow. Secondly, it presupposes a complete lack of reaction on the part of the bad guys. You can sink a ship this way, but in practice it’s quite likely that the enemy will be bailing faster than you can pour, and they may well be doing sneaky things with firearms and boarding parties at the same time.
But the ‘spray water on the enemy’ technique is exactly the strategy adopted by large sections of the Christian Church. I am referring to evangelisation by going round knocking on doors, or by standing in public places and accosting innocent bystanders. This is not in itself a bad thing. If it’s done properly, so that it brings people into the Church rather than scaring them away, it’s a most excellent thing. But it’s a mechanism for helping individual souls, not for rebuilding Christendom as a whole. Evangelisation of this sort is simply not big enough to affect the size of the Church significantly. Water trickles into one side of the ship, and a variety of pumps and leaks remove it from the other side, and the ship stays pretty much where it was.
How do you really sink a ship? Yes, you fill it with water, but the standard naval approach to doing this is to knock a great big hole in the side of the hull. Then the water will go in of its own accord, and the pumps won’t make much difference. In other words, the Church needs the equivalent of a broadside of naval cannon.
So what are our ‘big guns’? They come in all shapes and sizes, and many of them are things we probably don’t recognise as weapons. One that particularly comes to mind is the combined art, literature and culture of the world.
A weapon? Yes, because it’s something that, to use the analogy above, makes the water ‘go in of its own accord’. All people are hugely influenced by their cultural background, and many of the unstated assumptions that make life so difficult for the Church are drummed into us by what we hear, what we read, and what we watch, from a very early age. For example, there’s the materialist philosophy so prevalent in the Western World; the idea that solid, measurable things are ‘real’ and everything else is not. Christianity is based on the opposite premise that the ultimate realities of the Universe are subtle things which we can’t (yet) perceive directly. To become a Christian, or to stay in the Christian Church, means unlearning much that the secular world takes for granted.
But the ‘big gun’ of art and culture and literature isn’t a weapon the enemy have created, but one they’ve captured. Until recently, it was in Christian hands, and the European ‘worldview’ was a Christian one. The existence of God and eternal life, and the divinity of Jesus, were assumed, and they still form the backdrop to much of the culture we’ve inherited.
I happen to think this is a weapon we can win back, if we realise how important it is to whichever side holds it. A single J.K. Rowling or (dare I say it) Dan Brown would be a greater asset to the Church than ten thousand people knocking on doors. (And I, unlike some commentators, think that J.K. Rowling is largely on our side already, whether she realises it or not.)
Regaining the place that the Church once held as a major driver of the world’s culture is a long-term and large-scale task, but there are two things we can keep in mind as worthwhile short-term objectives. Firstly, those of us who do engage in one-on-one evangelisation could keep an eye out for people with talents that can benefit the whole Church. Commercial organisations ‘head-hunt’ for capable people; why shouldn’t we do the same? (God apparently does this, too; just look at the conversion of Paul.) Secondly, the Church should encourage and support all sorts of cultural and artistic endeavours arising from within it. This doesn’t just mean support for plays and books and poetry and paintings about Christianity. It’s enough that they have the Christian ‘worldview’, rather than the secular one, lurking in the background.
Back to Trafalgar; sixty ships, over four thousand guns, hours of fierce fighting. How many ships went down during the battle? The surprising answer is: none. (Some damaged vessels sank during the night, when a storm blew up.) It’s hard to sink a wooden warship, but much easier to disable it. The trouble with sailing ships is that putting thick armour plate around your sails is a Very Bad Idea. So we have the irony that the very thing that drives a sailing ship is also its greatest vulnerability.
The Christian Church has precisely the same problem. A few months ago I had an article about Christian belief published in the Otago Daily Times. It generated a ‘decay trail’ of ten or fifteen Letters to the Editor. The interesting thing was that only the first two or three had anything to do with the content of the article. Then the correspondence degenerated into a slanging match between the usual two groups.
On one side were the dogmatic atheists, highly annoyed at the slightest mention of religion in public. They pointed at the factual errors in the Bible and claimed that, since Christians believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, all of Christian belief is rubbish. On the other side, of course, were the extreme Christian fundamentalists, beautifully supporting the atheist position by making exactly those claims of Scripture.
The Bible is our array of sails and rigging. We can’t do without it, and it works well as a propulsive mechanism in certain sorts of weather. But it’s also horribly vulnerable. The first ‘lesson from Trafalgar’ regarding the Bible is that it is not a weapon. It guides and supports people who are already Christian, but it’s not particularly useful (although some of its content may well be) in trying to talk to those outside the Church. I hope that most of us recognise that ‘the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible’ is a circular argument. Faith has to begin elsewhere.
But the big question is this: if the Bible is ‘the Word of God’, as so many people glibly claim, why is it so vulnerable? Couldn’t an omnipotent God produce a Word without so many flaws and glitches?
I think ‘the Word of God’ is a poor description. It seems to imply that some aspect of God can be contained within Human language, and set down in ink and paper. God is too big for this, and too completely outside Human control. The Bible is (to quote from a sermon I heard recently) a channel for the Word of God. It’s a history of Humanity’s gradually increasing awareness of a God so big and awesome that He can’t ever be contained within a book.
The fundamentalists and the atheists are both wrong. The Bible isn’t everywhere a literal truth – as its authors would be the first to point out, if given the opportunity. But neither can it be dismissed as ‘wrong’ or irrelevant. Parts of it are plain history, and the parts which aren’t literally true are often the ones which contain truths deeper and more real than the merely historical.
So the Bible has surface flaws, but a solid foundation. But its vulnerability actually goes much deeper than the visible cracks. There’s an obvious problem with the descriptions above: ‘a channel for the Word of God’, and ‘a history of Humanity’s increasing awareness’. Both of these things ought to be ongoing, and the Bible is not. If it’s a channel, we’ve shut the tap leading into it.
Why? Well, in the very early Church there was an expectation that the Incarnation was an immediate precursor to the end of the world and the Last Judgement. The writers of the New Testament assumed (quite reasonably, in the circumstances!) that a personal appearance of God as a Human, and something as traumatic as the Crucifixion and Resurrection of that God, could only be the final stage of a great plan. The Bible is very plain; the Second Coming was expected within the lifetime of the contemporaries of Jesus.
Well, it didn’t happen . . . but, in a way, it did. At Pentecost there was a Second Coming, but this time God chose to be with Humanity in quite a different form, and in a form that implied that God’s plan is actually not yet finished. And if God’s plan is still developing, why then is Scripture frozen in time, reflecting our relationship with God as it was two millennia ago?
The closing of the Biblical canon is actually a result of the whims of history. A chap called Montanus claimed to be the Paraclete, or the Holy Spirit, in about A.D. 172. The young Church, dismayed at the prospect of a stream of controversial words from would-be prophets, decided that the only writings acceptable as New Testament Scripture were those of the Apostles, or people personally connected with them. By about 200 there was rough agreement on which books were Scriptural and which weren’t, although it was another two centuries before the list was formally set in stone.
So the Church had good reasons for closing the canon of Scripture. Nonetheless, I suspect that it was the wrong decision. The whole point of the Holy Spirit is that God does speak to individual people; our relationship with God continues to develop. Yes, the Church would have found it very difficult to decide what was really from God and what was just the ego-driven raving of individuals. But the Church faced this task with the New Testament, as the Jewish people faced it with their own body of Scripture. It wouldn’t have been impossible; the Holy Spirit would, presumably, have guided the compilers as well as the authors.
So the Bible we have is a dead Bible; the Word of God up until the time when we stopped listening. It’s not surprising that it comes increasingly into conflict with the rest of society, which continues to develop. If we had never closed the canon, I suspect that fundamentalism as we now know it simply wouldn’t exist, and the atheists would be very short of ammunition.
What can be done? What the Royal Navy did, eventually, was to adopt steam propulsion. (It still drives the ships, but you can put armour plate around it.) Can we similarly ‘modernise’ the Bible, or is it too late? Are we so stuck in our ways that we can’t do anything without causing more harm than good?
I am not suggesting that we edit bits out of the Bible. As I said above, the fact that parts of Scripture aren’t literally true doesn’t mean that they’re ‘incorrect’. Besides, they are all now part of our history and our background – for better or worse. What we can do – perhaps what we must do, if Christendom is to survive – is to reopen the Biblical canon.
It won’t be an easy task. It will need a great deal of agreement between the major Christian denominations, and a great deal of time. (I suggest a probationary period of at least a century during which new texts have the status of, say, the Apocrypha rather than the main body of the Bible.) But if we do nothing this problem is just going to get worse, and besides, All Things Are Possible.
The issues I’ve talked about above are what might be called ‘structural’; they’re important, but the key factors in Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar fell into a different category; the ‘people’ category. The English didn’t win due to any technological or numerical superiority, but because of the quality of their commanders and sailors. Firstly, of course, was Nelson’s inspired and inspiring leadership.
I don’t need to say much about leadership; there is a long tradition in the Christian Church that, whenever we really need a great leader, one will turn up. Often they are the most unlikely people, and many of them (Martin Luther comes to mind) have had a greater impact than you would think possible for a single, ‘ordinary’ person.
But one particularly notable factor in Nelson’s leadership at Trafalgar was the amount of latitude he gave to his individual captains to act as they saw fit, according to their own initiative. They were all working towards the same end, but in different ways. In other words, they knew how to separate tactics (‘furl the larboard mizzenmast’) from strategic aims (‘stop Napoleon’).
This is something the Church has frequently been very, very bad at doing. Throughout our history, we have often slipped into the trap of treating rules and procedures as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end. We’ve been particularly prone to doing it with Scripture. We need to remember – as Jesus Himself pointed out very plainly – that the rules are there to serve us, rather than the other way around. So the commandment ‘keep the sabbath’ is a tactical aim. It definitely doesn’t mean ‘keep the sabbath even when you are causing more harm than you are avoiding.’ Remember that Jesus broke this rule! He was following the strategic aim: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and your neighbour as yourself.
I’m definitely not saying that the rules are irrelevant. In most circumstances they’re a very good guide, and they give us a framework within which we can safely operate without having to think too much. But a guide is precisely what they are – they are there with the sole purpose of furthering the strategic aims. Life’s complexities are such that there will sometimes be situations when the rules are irrelevant or simply wrong. Then we need to test our actions against the strategic aims. If we stick to the letter of the law at all times we risk causing great harm to those aims, and to ourselves as a Church.
The commanders of the English fleet knew how to direct their ships and crews so that the strategic aim would be fulfilled, and Napoleon learnt the usual lesson: don’t try to invade England! But, in the end, the battle was fought and won by masses of sailors and soldiers, inspired by Nelson’s famous signal before the battle: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’
This is the last lesson for us: just add ‘The Church of’ to the beginning of Nelson’s message and, if you like, substitute ‘person’ for ‘man’ and get into horrible linguistic tangles over what to do about ‘his’. The thing the Church really needs is a committed membership – not just the clergy and the paid staff, but the ordinary people in the pews. We all need to remember that Christianity is something very big and very serious. It isn’t a hobby, or a pleasant social club for Sunday mornings.
All the decisions Christians make now, all the things they do – and, more importantly, the things they don’t do – are going to mould the future history of the world, and the permanent and inextinguishable souls of many billions of people. The members of the early Church, when it was a tiny, local organisation meeting in private houses in the Middle East, were people just like us, and there were only a few thousand of them, but remember what they did, and what the Church for which they fought has become. We are all significant.
I am no Nelson (not even a half-Nelson, although possibly a small fraction of a Hardy), and I have no great grasp of naval or Church strategy. I have undoubtedly missed many other important points. But one more thing is clear from the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was outnumbered and, on paper, outmatched by the French and Spanish fleet. In other words, the facts and statistics don’t mean a thing until the battle is fought. We can win.
The earliest novel in the Narnia series will doubtless make an excellent cinema film one day, but at first sight it isn't something likely to translate well to the stage. There are all the talking animals, of course, but the story also involves a flying horse, a whole world being sung into existence by Aslan the lion, and scenes ranging from a London street to the ruined, ancient world of Charn. Oh, and there's the small matter of the characters making quick trips between worlds by jumping into magic pools.
All of this, on stage? Well, the talented people of the Dunedin City Baptist Church are evidently well acquainted with the phrase All Things Are Possible. Their production of The Magician's Nephew, which opened on the 16th of September, is simply stunning. None of the things I mentioned above have been omitted from the story. There were a couple of pre-filmed video scenes (which were impressive in themselves), but the magic pools were done 'live'. The play, scripted and directed by Erina Caradus, is in fact very close to the original story, with very little left out. The numerous scene changes were well choreographed, with bridging scenes taking place in front of the curtains so that there were hardly ever any interruptions to the flow of the story. Clever scenery design helped; two or three times a door opened and then the walls folded smoothly away to reveal the space beyond.
The animals were of course people in costumes, but some effective acting combined with excellent makeup design made this work very well. The two leopards, and a delightfully exuberant rabbit, come particularly to mind. Aslan (Greg Brook) may not have looked much like a live lion, but he played the part with a suitable quiet dignity. The real highlight was John Rawstorn as Strawberry/Fledge the horse (the first animal to appear); he kept up a stream of slightly-over-the-top horsey noises and gestures throughout. And he grew wings . . .
And the humans shouldn't be forgotten either. Mike Crowl played eccentric Uncle Andrew wonderfully well, but most of the story rests on the two children, Digory (Josh Chignell) and Polly (Dara Caradus), both of whom handled a huge amount of dialogue without any evident difficulty. The other characters are too numerous to mention, but Cherianne Parks made an impressively nasty Queen Jadis.
This is a church production, so the Christian themes (although never explicitly identified as such) are there just as C.S. Lewis intended them. But The Magician's Nephew is a good story as well, and here it has been well told. There's really nothing bad I want to say about this play, and many things about it are wonderful. Go and see it!
'The Magician's Nephew' was performed by Narnia Productions in September 2005.
I found the latest episode a welcome return to the style of the earlier Harry Potter books, after the somewhat frenetic and dark Harry Potter and the Order Of the Phoenix. Once again the action of the book is set largely within Hogwarts, and the familiar rhythms of school life regulate the plot and make a comfortingly domestic background against which the huge events of the plot unfold. The story opens with the Muggle Prime Minister in conversation with the Minister of Magic about the wizard war which is rapidly spilling over into ordinary Muggle life. This gives a sense of scale to the dastardly events with which Harry must struggle, but after another scene-setting chapter outlining the relationship of the Malfoy family and Severus Snape, the great events of the wizard world are relayed only in reports from the wizard newspaper the Daily Prophet.
The main concern of the book is Harry’s quest to find out exactly what Draco Malfoy is up to, but of course there are other things happening, and as usual the various strands of seemingly-unconnected events are found to be neatly plaited together at the end of the book. Harry, Hermione and Ron have all aged a year since we last saw them and as sixteen-year-olds they are now coping with the agonising but delicious pitfalls of gender relationships. The romantic subplots are appropriately intense and, for the characters, distracting and embarrassing. I greatly admire the way J.K. Rowling can capture the particular preoccupations of her characters as they age through the series. As usual, there are some delightfully complex secondary characters and a whole range of sharply-drawn bit players but the character who is eventually central to this book is Severus Snape. He is as ever unfathomably paradoxical, and even his apparently unambiguous role in the denouement leaves questions that I am sure cannot be answered until the end of the next book in two or three years’ time.
Much of this book is occupied with giving the reader information – about Lord Voldemort in particular. The method employed to do this is a series of meetings between Professor Dumbledore and Harry in which Harry is given access to memories collected by Dumbledore from various sources. The parallels between Voldemort and Harry are clearly but subtly drawn and one of the great themes of the whole series is demonstrated thereby – namely, choices. The choices made by Harry and Voldemort in very comparable circumstances are what separate them, but also, paradoxically, what bind them inextricably together.
One of the great joys of this book, as it has been of the whole series, is J.K. Rowling’s inventiveness. I had suspected, reading Harry Potter and the Order Of the Phoenix, that perhaps this particular well was running a little dry, but no, here in book six we have new spells, new characters, new wonders from the wizarding joke shop run by Ron’s twin brothers which made me laugh out loud at times. But these are not what give the book its force and power. This is a book in which huge themes are dealt with in ways which make no apologies or compromises for the sake of the age of Rowling’s readership. She asks her young readers to front up to six hundred pages of text and then leads them into discussions of the nature of good and evil, choice and responsibility, selfishness and selflessness, life and death. Millions of them respond. Given their diet of carefully-constructed, educationally-correct, age-appropriate fiction on the one hand, and mindless commercial multimedia entertainment on the other, when they respond well to a book which entertainingly presents them with the issues that they really want to know about, should I be so surprised?
Click on the link below for more on Harry Potter - but only if you've already read the book.
This article is about the ending of the novel, and it gives away details of the plot.
A poem for the 125th Anniversary of St John’s Roslyn
A stalk of candles flickers in the church.
I sit within this fragile, wavering glow
And gaze up to the still and silent dark
Of time-worn timbers in the vaulted nave,
And think I see faint glimmers; not of light,
But more than light; an echoed memory,
A rustling presence in the empty pews.
For echoes fade past hearing, but remain;
And so the marks of history abide
Just past the pale of vision’s boundary.
Those night-black windows glimmer with the rays
Of forty thousand sunsets. Every pew
Creaks silently beneath the phantom weight
Of countless congregations past and gone;
Now light as floating dust, yet each as real
As that which filled the church with life and light
And laughter just a few short hours ago.
A hundred years and more of history;
A thing so large I scarce can comprehend . . .
Until I turn, and in my roving thoughts
I glance the other way, into the future,
Stand dizzy on the edge of Time’s abyss;
As in a doorway, looking on the storm
And grasping for the solid walls and warmth
Of that small room behind me, while beyond
Is emptiness and shadow, raging wind
And mile on mile of cold and gale-swept moor.
But not afraid; the path is dim, but straight,
The emptiness illusion, and the gloom
No more than ignorance and the unknown.
For as we walk, we take the fire-glow with us
And build new walls, and push away the night.
The coming dawn illumes the way ahead,
An ever-changing panoply of years;
And every day and moment of that age
The offspring of our words and actions now.
And it may be, in distant future days,
That songs are sung about our Early Church
In English rich with new-invented words.
Ten thousand billion praying, yearning souls
Spread half across the jewelled Galaxy;
And one may sit and think as I have thought,
And see, deep in the shadows of the past,
Us, in faith's timeless continuity.
by Alan Firth
One gets the impression that the writers and producers were more interested in including lots of visually dramatic set-pieces (pod-racing comes particularly to mind; think of Ben Hur with turbojet engines instead of horses) than in telling a coherent story.
However, I think the recently-released Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a considerably better film than its two predecessors. Why? It still has the complex political background and the implausibly frenetic action sequences. At times it's very difficult to maintain your 'suspension of disbelief'. General Grievous, the leader of the Separatist droid armies, looks very impressive with four whirling lightsabres gouging holes in the floor. Then he politely slows down when Obi-Wan Kenobi (who only has the one lightsabre) is within striking range. And R2-D2 seems to be armour-plated, indestructible and highly mobile, quite unlike the droid we know and love from the three original films.
The difference in Episode III is that the story isn't about the politics or even the battles. They're just background - annoying at times, but sometimes fun to watch and always technically clever. This film is about the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and the process by which he becomes the evil tyrant Darth Vader.
The important point is that people don't become evil by a single decision. Near the end of his allegorical tale The Pilgrim's Regress C.S. Lewis writes that we fall into evil ways by many small steps, that there is a point somewhere beyond which we cannot return, and that - crucially - we cannot see except in retrospect where this point lies. Episode III is all about how this slow journey from good to evil can happen, and it portrays it fairly well. It's also of interest that Anakin's ultimate motives are mostly good all the way through, although he's being manipulated and misled. Anakin wants to be powerful, at first, so that he can prevent evil.
The problem is that he sets up one good thing as an absolute standard - as, for example, Nazi Germany did with patriotism. In effect it becomes an idol. Anakin stops judging each individual action by its own context and consequences, and adopts the fatal principle of the end justifying the means. The teachings of Jesus are clear on this point; look at things on a case-by-case basis. Thus He heals people on the Sabbath - breaking one of the Ten Commandments - because He knows that the rules are there for their effects, not for their words. As Obi-Wan tells Anakin late in Episode III, 'Only the Sith deal in absolutes.'
And so Anakin makes his journey, each step seemingly small and safe, towards the Dark Side. It was Anakin's love for his mother which began this journey, and in the end it is his possessive love for Padmé which destroys her. (There are echoes here of the novel Till We Have Faces, particularly if you remember that Darth Vader spends the rest of his life behind a mask as did Orual.) Anakin's real failing isn't a hunger for power; it's an inability to trust. He fears for those he loves, and he tries to take all the responsibility engendered by that fear onto himself.
As Yoda (the little green chap with the big ears) said in Episode I: 'Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.'
But, as Christianity tells us, it doesn't end there. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: 'Suffering leads to endurance; endurance builds character; character leads to hope, and hope does not disappoint us.' And so also in Star Wars: there are another three films after Episode III, and the climax of the last film, Return of the Jedi, sees Darth Vader turn against the Emperor to save the life of his son, Luke Skywalker, who was born amidst the pain and destruction that Vader caused in Episode III.
The good thing about evil, you see, is that it's ultimately destructive for the person who wields it as well as those in the vicinity. That means that there will always be a point at which someone like Darth Vader realises that there is a better way; that his current path simply isn't sustainable. And the message of Christianity - and of Star Wars - is that there is always a way back. No matter what you've done, or how twisted you've become; God offers complete, unconditional forgiveness and healing. Darth Vader killed billions of people during his reign of terror, and yet Luke was able to put all of that behind him, and see only the redeemed Anakin as he was in the last moments of his life.
It's very hard for people to accept this part of Christian belief, as the continual calls for harsher prison sentences make clear. But the Gospels are very firm on the subject; God forgives us, absolutely, at the slightest opportunity, and we have to forgive each other in the same way.
This isn't to say that we can blithely use evil as a tool because we know its effects won't last. Darth Vader's repentance doesn't bring those he has killed back to life. It doesn't restore the Old Republic . . . but it does clear the way for the founding of a New Republic. In some sense, every decision we make is eternal, and so are all the scars we inflict on ourselves and on others. But they are scars, not wounds; for God's eternity is greater, and all wounds will heal with time. Evil, by its very nature, cannot endure. The Star Wars series ends with the spirits of Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin Skywalker reunited, together, and at peace with themselves and with their Galaxy Far, Far Away.
by Alan Firth
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