I will say straight-up that some of my favorite writers use intrusive narrators, third person omniscient narrators, direct address narrators, whatever you want to call them. That is, I like those who are not quite in the stories, but not quite out of them either, telling them. And so I’m loving the conversation going on at Betsy Bird’s post, “The Personalities of Intrusive Narrators.“
Betsy begins with a mention of Adam Gidwitz’s wonderful forthcoming A Tale Dark and Grimm which I have just finished rereading. In this case, the narrator is truly the storyteller warning his listeners when things might get overly scary, explaining things child readers may need a little help making sense of, but otherwise moving on with the story. It rings so true to me as it is just the way I read aloud a story — slipping in whatever I need to for the group of children I’m with. So, so different from the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events who starts out as a seemingly third person omniscient narrator in The Bad Beginning, but as the series goes on is clearly more and more personally deeply involved in the story he is telling. Gidwitz’s storyteller, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the story he is telling. He stands way, way outside of it, years and maybe even centuries outside of it.
A number of years ago this issue of narrator came to mind when I was listening to the splendid full-cast audio book of The Golden Compass. Here’s some of what I wrote in a post at the time:
…. author Philip Pullman, that third person omniscient narrator himself, is the narrator. I felt, as I listened, that I was being taken through the story by the teller in a way that would be completely different with a different sort of narrator. I mean, here I was listening to Philip Pullman tell HIS story which is also Lyra’s story.
Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Until recently I thought there were only two possible narrators: first person or third person. That a third person narrator could be a character in the way a first person narrator is was not in my consciousness. Perhaps it was when I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or the works of the mysterious Lemony Snicket that I started to be aware of this type of narrator. Certainly, once Philip Pullman himself began discussing his preference for this narrator on child_lit and elsewhere (such as in the above New Yorker profile), I began noticing it more and more. In 2005 I did a talk on literary fairy tales in which I featured George MacDonald’s The Light Princess which has a wonderful narrator of this ilk and then there’s Charles Dickens, someone whose works I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who is a literary master in so many ways, including this one.
But I’ve got to say Mr. Pullman gives Mr. Dickens a run for his money. Listening to The Golden Compass after A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, I was blown away by the assurance of the narration. Oh yes, the actual assurance of Philip Pullman reading, but even more so that narrator. He is steady and true throughout. The full-cast simply makes it even more striking. There are moments throughout, big ones and tiny ones, where the narrator strikes with extraordinary deftness.
For example, at the start of Chapter 8, “Frustration,” Lyra is weaving one of her wild tales to the captivated gyptian children. “…His skin was all withered like an old apple, and his eyes were starting from his head. In fact, they had to push ‘em back in the sockets….” At this point she is interrupted by the clearly irritated narrator with the terse paragraph, “And so on.” after which he moves us readers away from the hyperbolic Lyra and on to what is happening in the fen country. (p. 131 in the 2002 Knopf paperback box set edition.)….
So so cool. That irritated “And so on” is absolutely wonderful. The storyteller who most of the time keeps himself out of the picture, just shows a little of himself being a bit cranky before pulling back and going on with the story itself.
It strikes me that there is simply a narrator continuum from the completely straight omniscient sort, the kind you don’t think much about, to Pullman’s and on to those who you do think about — say Snicket’s. They have all characters with personalities that stand out to greater or lesser degrees. Or so it seems to me just now. Magical narration in my opinion.