"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Read the story
I think Laura Miller lets C.S. Lewis off the “smug proselytizing” hook too easily. The Narnia books are full of regretful but stiff warnings as to the consequences of failing to open one’s heart and soul to Aslan. You’ll be consigned to a hell of your own making, and there’s simply nothing the omnipotent and all-merciful Aslan can do about it. Aslan also has some choice words for a child who rails against the death of his mother: that if she lived, the son would one day wish that she had died. So there! You’d better shut up and accept your fate, or else something even worse will happen to you! This is the kind of theology that makes people hate God. Philip Pullman writes that human history has been a battle between those who want us to be free and those who want us to be humble and obey and submit. It is sadly clear which camp Lewis is in.
— Savannah Jahrling
While many of Laura Miller’s points about L. Frank Baum and C.S. Lewis are well taken, there are others I would disagree with strongly. I loved Lewis as a child and never had much interest in Baum, but in the course of reading large chunks of both authors to my own children, I developed a profound admiration for Baum and a distinct exasperation with Lewis.
Baum is the best read-aloud writer I have ever encountered, because of the absolute precision and clarity of his style. When reading Baum, I never had to restart a sentence because I had guessed wrong about the syntax or the tone of voice or the character who was saying it. My children and I never had to break off the story for long discussions of whether a sentence meant what it seemed to mean or exactly what was supposed to be happening. This sort of deliberate simplicity is not easy to achieve — it takes skill of a high order.
In contrast, I had great problems reading Lewis aloud. His style, although evocative, is frequently foggy, and he is particularly bad at action scenes. There is a climactic fight near the end of Prince Caspian that is described in just a single paragraph, starting with, “The next minute or so was very confused,” and ending with, “it was all swords, teeth, claws, fists and boots for about sixty seconds” — after which the good guys pick themselves up and find that the bad guys are all dead. That seemed like a cheat to me when I was 9, and it still seems like a cheat to me today.
I also had difficulties with Lewis’ attitudes when I read him aloud. It may be p.c. of me, but I enjoyed voicing Baum’s expressions of tolerance, embrace of diversity and freedom from anthropocentrism, while I found it actively painful to give voice to Lewis’ narrow-minded prejudices, elitism and distaste for anything that was alien to him. I got very tired of saying the words “nasty” and “horrid” with just the right degree of contempt and revulsion. I felt embarrassed trying to explain to my children why in the Narnia books nonsmoking vegetarians who send their children to progressive schools are automatically considered Bad People. I had to break off the story over and over again to explain or apologize for Lewis’ unstated assumptions.
It’s true that British fantasy has a depth and seriousness that American fantasy lacks. It’s no coincidence that the three best contemporary fantasy writers — Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones — are all British. I would like to see American fantasy grow up. But badmouthing Baum and setting up Lewis as a model are not the way to accomplish that.
— Cory Panshin
It was with a mixture of excitement and anxiety that I began to read Laura Miller’s essay comparing Narnia and Oz. Such a mixture may be entirely expected, given her subject matter (fairy tales), but my anxiety stemmed from something a little more this-worldly: How could a Salon writer write three pages on C.S. Lewis without the obligatory insult to Christianity?
I hoped she might make it through, of course, and was just beginning to believe that she would when I came across this statement:
“The well-earned reputation that Christians have for smug proselytizing …”
And so there it was: the talismanic affront, guaranteed to ward off any left-leaning, academic glowering over her otherwise favorable article on the Christian Lewis. The left used to call this technique “speaking in code,” at least when it was employed by the right. Translated, I take her “code” to mean: “Yes, yes, this Lewis fellow has produced some brilliant writing. But don’t worry, I’m praising him as a sophisticated Brit, not as a Christian, for goodness’ sake!”
It’s instructive to imagine the other forms Miller’s slur might have taken, and the reaction these forms might engender. What if she had casually referred to “the well-earned reputation Jews have for greed” or “the well-earned reputation Muslims have for blowing up ships and airplanes”?
Such statements would be seen for what they are: transparent bigotry. And they would be no different from the strangely more tolerable bigotry embedded in Miller’s statement about Christians.
— Andrew G. Smith
Laura Miller’s article raises some important points. I quite agree with her assessment of the foolish attempts of misguided moralizers to protect children from knowledge of evil, harm and death for as long as possible. Indeed, attempting to do so is the worst possible method to prepare children for the richness and the difficulties of living in an ambiguous world where moral choices permeate our everyday existence. If we claim to respect our children, then the least we can do is give them the information and the tools they need to negotiate existence as a human on this planet. If we fail to respect our children, waffling and mumbling vague, placating answers when they ask us difficult questions, such as “Why did Gramma die?” or “What’s the Holocaust?” we are robbing them of their integrity. We are robbing them of the ability to know truth from falsehood.
I’d like to thank Miller for her honesty and for (perhaps) providing an opportunity for a discussion about Americans’ collective relationship with our children.
— Solvei Blue
I was pleased to read Laura Miller’s article regarding “The Chronicles of Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis as compared to “The Wizard of Oz.” As a teacher, I have read much fiction written for children, and have found that children want to read and hear about children facing their fears and overcoming obstacles placed in their paths by life. Children are also aware of the language used in a story and can tell the difference between when a writer is speaking at them and when the author seems to have listened well enough to children to know what they are thinking and feeling. I am often reminded of a passage from T.H. White, another British writer. In “The Once and Future King,” the Wart, young Arthur, says to himself as he listens to Merlyn speak of many things: “The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.” Of course, the adult language needs to be worth the leaping. Miller alludes to that language which draws children into a story, even if the child misses some of the deeper meaning. Children understand that the world is a complicated and often scary place. What they want to know is how to navigate it.
— Marylisa Kostaneski
Overall, I would have to agree with Laura Miller’s comparison of the Oz and Narnia series. But she misses one crucial point: Perhaps, as a U.S. citizen, she does not have the cultural background to see it. This single item is, I believe, an explanation of the failure of the Narnia series to achieve the kind of status that the Oz books have, and it has nothing to do with Lewis’ religion.
I read the Narnia chronicles as a child as they came out, from age 6 to age 13 or so. By halfway through, I knew something was wrong. There were no traders, no merchants, no cities, no burghers in Narnia. Only royalty, heroes, scholars and happy workers. That these happy workers, mostly dwarves, were awfully busy tugging forelocks occurred to me when I was about 10.
The message was driven home in the Last Battle, in which the unionized dwarves (“The dwarves for the dwarves”) were consigned to a particularly dirty version of hell, where they ended up fighting over shit that they thought was a banquet.
The pervasiveness of extreme social conservatism, and its firm class structure, explain, in great part, why Narnia remains popular with children, who mostly grow out of it, while Oz endures, bad writing and all, in its appeal to adults. In Narnia, the only reward for effort is pie in the sky when you die, and shit on your plate in this lifetime. In Oz, anyone can succeed, based on his/her personal characteristics and efforts.
As it happens, neither message is completely true. But the message from Oz is far more likely to strike a chord among the large majority of literate young, and not-so-young, adults of the world, especially here in North America.
As the child of a union-oriented, left-wing family, I found the Narnia books increasingly distasteful. As an adult who managed to get an advanced postsecondary education, thanks in part to my father’s union and largely to my own determination to better myself, I find them false and pernicious.
Oh, yes, there are moments of great beauty and insight in the Narnia chronicles, as when Aslan sings the world into existence. But there are moments of great beauty and insight in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Plato, Martin Luther and a great many other writings by ideological thinkers.
That does not make them good children’s literature: They remain fairy tales. And children grow up.
— C. McDougall
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)