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  • Such Was Charn, That Great City
  • Hugh Crago (bio)

The title of Hugh Crago's column is taken from Tennyson's poem, "The Splendor Falls" (The Princess), and is intended to suggest that "the horns of elfland" are indeed faint; relatively rarely are writers of fantasy able to bring them to our ears. The column considers literary fantasies as products of their psychological, historical, and socio-cultural contexts, rather than as purely literary phenomena. There have been two previous columns in this series, "Nineteen Thirty Seven," erroneously titled "How This Column Originated" (13:3, Fall 1988: 145-48), and "A Strange, Dark Shop" (16:1, Spring 1991: 33-37). Future columns will take up and develop themes only alluded to previously.

The scene is a small Youth Refuge in Southport, Australia. The year is 1990. The Gulf War is about to demonstrate George Bush's "New World Order," and the Evil Empire, having led the way to nuclear detente, is lurching uncertainly towards collapse. I am in charge of four youth workers and an ever-changing household of four or five "homeless young people," better (in this case) defined as teenagers who, for reasons ranging from compelling to implausible, claim that they cannot live with their families and refuse to return home.

The evening shift is about to begin, and as a day worker, I would normally be on my way home. However Jo (the incoming worker) has agreed with me that tonight we will watch our own choice of TV program, instead of the residents' preference, in the half hour before I depart. Both of us are keen to see the penultimate episode of the BBC's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Surprisingly, sixteen-year-old Jackie, the most mature of the residents, settles down to watch with us, eating a plate of nachos. Jackie is half Vietnamese. She despises her ex-GI father and fights fiercely with her mother. She is intelligent and very, very angry. Later, we are joined by Debbie, a narcissistic nymphet of fifteen who acts even dumber than she is, and Brett, sixteen-going-on-thirteen, a pathetic lad who has just emerged from a two-year stint in Boys' Town. Debbie is the least committed to the show, moving in and out of the room, speaking loudly at moments of high emotion, and paying little attention to what is happening on the screen.

When Asian tells Edmund, "There is no point in talking about the past," Jackie observes, "Logical Lion! He should've been an accountant!" Being an accountant is her own announced goal, and the past of her family probably contains horrors that would make Asian's advice sound particularly apposite. As the Lion and the girls walk forward to the Hill of the Stone Table, and it is obvious that something ominous is about to happen, Debbie breaks in loudly. She has been peering through the window at the houses opposite, but I doubt if her timing is entirely accidental. She reckons that two of the neighbors are having an affair (no doubt she would have liked to be part of it). Can't you be quiet, Debbie?" I ask, "this is the big climax." "Ha, Ha! Climax!" sniggers Debbie: she is, after all, only fifteen. But when Asian walks forward to his doom, offering no resistance to the Witch and her creatures, Jackie exclaims passionately: "What a loser! He should've fought!" Jackie herself would have been guilty of no such passivity, that is clear. The Witch's minions muzzle Asian, and Brett observes quietly, "They should've at least knocked him out first!" There is every reason why he would wish Asian the comfort of an anaesthetic: Brett persistently wets his bed, and the whole house stinks of it, yet he is unprepared to do anything about it or even to acknowledge that the problem exists.

"Hmm. Not bad for a kiddies' movie!" is Jackie's assessment as the episode ends. One reason for her deeper involvement is now obvious: it seems that her class heard the book when she was in elementary school. She claims that she was the only one in the whole class who...


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pp. 41-45
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