In Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan, Megs Devonshire is a college student at Oxford in the 1950s. Her 8-year-old brother, George, has a heart condition and is not expected to live long.
George has become enamored with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. George wonders often if Narnia is a real place. If not, where did it come from? When he learns that the author of the book is a professor at Megs’ school, George begs her to ask Lewis about Narnia for him.
Megs demurs. First, she explains to George, Oxford is made up of different colleges, and Lewis doesn’t teach at the one she attends. Plus, Megs studies math and physics and is not much for stories. She prefers logic and black and white answers. Of course Narnia is just a figment of the author’s imagination, she insists.
But George keeps asking, and Megs loves him. So she finds a way to meet Mr. Lewis.
Lewis is very hospitable. But he doesn’t answer Megs’ question directly. Instead, he tells her a series of stories about his life over several visits.
George enjoys the stories. But Megs is frustrated that she can’t get a straight answer. And their mother wonders if George is spending too much time thinking about an imaginary world.
There are three levels, or threads, to this story. One is Megs and George and their family. One is Lewis’ biography. And another is Megs’ learning the value of stories. Having read On Stories by Lewis, I recognized a lot of his points in this novel. He’s not saying that the world doesn’t need logic and math and facts. Rather, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning” (p. 52).
The middle section of the book seemed a little formulaic. Megs’ point of view is written in the first person. She’d visit Lewis and come back with a story for George. As she begins to tell it, the point of view switches to George’s, but in the third person. Then, as if the scene is unfolding in George’s imagination, a section of Lewis’ story is told in the third person.
In the final third or so of the book, the action picked up and there were no more switches, so it was easier to get caught up in the story.
The scenes with C. S. and his brother, Warnie, made me feel like I was there in their room with the fireplace going, listening in. Callahan had studied Lewis’ life for her first book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and I am not surprised another book about him grew from all that research. The details shared showed a familiarity with Lewis’ home and school without overpowering the story.
Callahan writes in her note after the story that she wasn’t interested in “ascribing logic, facts, and theory to the world of Narnia,” as that has been done by so many others. But she wanted to explore how Narnia changes readers and how, as Lewis said, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.”
I’ve read many biographies of Lewis, so most of his story was familiar to me. There were parts that surprised me, though. For instance, I knew he took some children from London into his home during the Blitz, but I had never heard anything about them until this book. It also occurred to me that, though I had read much about Lewis, I had never read his book about himself: Surprised by Joy. I’d seen that book quoted in anything else I’d read about him, so I thought I knew it. But I should read it some time.
There were a couple of places the theology was a little wonky. I wasn’t sure whether these were from the author’s beliefs or a character’s.
But overall, this was a sweet and touching story.
I listened to most of the book via audiobook, read nicely by Fiona Hardingham. But I had also gotten the Kindle version on sale and looked up many sections there.