Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Boxen by C. S. Lewis

Boxen: Childhood Chronicles Before Narnia is a collection of C. S. Lewis's juvenile writings related to the fantasy world he created with his brother W. H. Lewis, all that remains of what was originally a huge quantity of stories, plays, maps, invented histories, and illustrations; very unfortunately, only a small number of these works have survived. Walter Hooper, one of the most prominent of Lewis scholars and a frequent editor of his work, particularly what has been published posthumously, estimates that all of the Boxen work (or certainly what is extant) was written between 1906, when Lewis was eight, and 1913, at which point Lewis started school at Malvern College, with the exception of "Encyclopedia Boxoniana," written on a visit home when Lewis was 29. The extraordinarily rich world of Boxen, politically, economically, historically, and socially defined, was an amazing achievement for the little boy who would as an adult write The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity.

Jack, as Lewis was called familiarly, and Warnie, his brother, created Boxen as an amalgamation of their respective fantasy worlds; Jack had created Animal-land, where animals in dress became knights and had medieval adventures, while Warnie imagined a fictionalized India, in which his fascinations with railways and steamships were predominant. The two countries were united, though they retained separate monarchs, and became Boxen. Careful chronologies were devised, maps were drawn, and, best of all, "novels," or stories divided into chapters were written. Most, if not all, of this writing can be attributed to Jack, though the book is kindly credited to both Jack and Warnie. The book is illustrated, sadly with only black and white copies, of the boys' illustrations, maps, and diagrams, many of them incredibly detailed and quite charming.

The first section is made up of the earliest stories, those concerned with Animal-land centuries before its unification with India (the chronology is entirely separate from our own real-world chronology). Misspellings and mistakes are retained, giving a real sense of Jack's youth but also making the stories at times tiresome to decipher. For instance, this is the introduction to the earliest piece (1906?), a play: "Interesting carictars. Famous ones. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it." There is then a footnote in which Jack indicated an exemplary "comic tint." Despite this, these early stories have real charm and show a burgeoning intellect at work. The hero of these stories, Sir Peter Mouse, is alternately a valiant knight and an amateur detective, but more fascinating than these brief sketches are Jack's histories of his invented country, in which he describes the establishment of the Animal-land monarchy, various wars, and the creation of the "Damerfesk," the equivalent of parliament, as well as the geography of the country, which would change drastically after Warnie's India became a part of the world.

The second section has much longer works, called by the boys "novels" and treasured by Warnie after his brother's death. These are extraordinarily sophisticated, both in subject matter and structure. They primarily concern the political doings of prominent Boxonians, most conspicuously Sir John Big, Little-Master of Boxen (the most powerful political position in the government, combining the duties of a prime minister with those somewhat equivalent to the speaker of the house in American politics), during the Boxonian nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most remarkably, Jack was able to portray his characters with moral and political complexity, not favoring any political party, and allowing each and every character both likable qualities and unappealing foibles. Thus Sir John Big, a frog and a Walterian or conservative, is as well-rounded a character as James Bar, a bear, a lazy rascal, and a firm opponent willing to stoop to the lowest pranks, or Viscount Puddiphat, a fashionably dressed owl of leisure who supports himself with the proceeds of a chain of music halls called "Alhambras." This struck me as even more remarkable, given that, according to Warnie, "what we heard [of political conversation] was not discussion and the lively clash of minds, but rather an endless and one-sided torrent of grumble and vituperation." Jack, by the age of ten or so, had completely mastered mature political writing - invented the politics may have been, but this is a rare skill. In fact, had I not known that these longer stories were written by a child, I would have imagined they had been written by some eccentric adult, not unlike Lewis Carroll or perhaps J. M. Barrie, though a sub par speller.

A particularly fascinating aspect of Boxen is the status of the Chess, or Chessmen, who also inhabit this world alongside the animals and men. "The Chess, as everyone knows, are a homeless nation, whose hoards have settled on the shores of every civilized country, where they reside without paying taxes, lodged in their common homes or 'Chessaries'. This body had been originally regarded as aliens by the Boxonians, and justly so, but in course of time they had grown to be a part of the community, till at length, in 1760, they had been granted entrance to the Double House by a Diripian [liberal] government. To repeal this measure was one of the frog's [that is, Big's] most treasured ambitions... and he began elaborate preparations for the introduction of his Exclusion Act." It is possible, though this is entirely a theory of my own and thus unsubstantiated by any real research, that the Chess could be regarded as the Boxonian equivalent of the Jewish, or perhaps the Romany, people. The saga of the exclusion, oppression, and struggles for basic social and political rights of the Chess makes for one of the most compelling Boxonian political dramas. Different points of view are considered on this issue - Big fights long and hard for their exclusion, while Polonius Green, a parrot, wants to monopolize their trade, and a Chess character, Macgoullah, is one of the noblest and least pretentious political actors. All of these characters, as I said above, are affectionately rendered, warts and all.

There are almost no female characters and none that engage in either political action or warfare, the main preoccupations of the stories. Female characters are present only on social occasions, in which case they fall under two categories: music hall actresses and, more rarely, aristocratic guests. Both varieties tend to wear "impossible hats." The adult reader may feel a bit queasy by the innocently described and yet decidedly creepy question of Big's possible illegitimate daughter - whether she's an animal or a woman isn't explicitly stated, but it's puzzling to comprehend how she could be the product of a frog and a woman, and then marry a bear. I admit, I'd rather not think about how precisely reproduction works in an inter-species world, but Jack was aware enough of adult social mores to copy a strong disapproval of pre- and extra-marital sex. I doubt he was conscious of the even racier suggestions he was actually making about inter-species relationships.

There is also much discussion of fine wines, a luxury of which all Boxonians seem very fond. I found these frequent oenological conversations exceedingly droll, given that they were written by a child and yet don't sound ignorant.

If Jack and Warnie have fictional counterparts in Boxen, they are the two monarchs, King Bunny of Animal-land and Rajah Hawki of India. These two are good-natured and always ready to have a good time, though they invariably require "a superhuman exertion of their protean skill" to dress for formal occasions. They find the mundane duties of government tedious, displaying the most disinterested political apathy, and almost always defer to Big the Little-Master, but they have a great love of fun sorts of work, like navigating a steamship on the way to a victorious battle.

Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepson, provides a short introduction to the book. It offers no new information for anyone familiar with Lewis's life, but it's rather touching and a pleasant way to open the book, summarizing the childhood conditions that both provoked and allowed the boys to create their fantasy world with empathy and warmth. Walter Hooper contributes, as a sort of epilogue, a history of the creation of Boxen, which would be more useful as an introduction. It's rather hidden away and not expected unless one carefully reads over the table of contents and might have proved far more useful as a reference had it been placed before the stories. To my great surprise and delight, Boxen is one of the finest collections of juvenile works I've ever come across, and I highly recommend it to any enthusiast of C. S. Lewis's works.

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