Once Upon a Wardrobe

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.

Book Review: The Last Battle

Last BattleThe Last Battle is the last book in the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. It opens with a false Aslan: a confused donkey coerced to wear a lion skin by a conniving ape, who in turn is being controlled by others. In Aslan’s name, talking beasts are turned into slaves, dryads are dying because their trees are being cut down, Calormenes are overseers. Strange things are afoot, everything seems not quite right to everyone, but Aslan is not a tame lion, after all, so his ways will of course be a little different, and they think they must obey.

King Tirian sees at once that something is wrong, but he sets off rashly without thinking and winds up in trouble, He calls out for help, and Eustace and Jill show up. Together with the few Narnians who don’t believe in the false Aslan, they wage a last battle to save Narnia.

Even though the Narnia series is not an allegory per se, it’s still not hard to see the Biblical allusions to the end times and the antichrist. In Narnia as on Earth, things will get much, much worse before the end comes. And “Aslan’s country” has always typified heaven. All the beasts and creatures and people going “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country, the joyful reunions with those who have gone before, the sense that “this is what I have been seeking and waiting for my whole life” are the best parts of the books to me.

I think this time through the series, that is most what I have carried away with me: that longing, as in the song “Beulah Land”: “I’m kind of homesick for a country where I’ve never been before.” I have to admit that too often I am caught up with the joys and cares of this life. I look forward to having no more sin, sorrow, suffering, and tears some day, but I don’t always carry that personal longing just to be with Christ there, and this series as a whole stirs up that longing for Narnia and Aslan that all who visit experience while they’re away. It calls to mind Biblical texts like Hebrews 11:16: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city,” and Colossians 3:1-2: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth,” as well as Lewis’s own words from Mere Christianity: , “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…I must [therefore] keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death.”

There is sadness for those who choose not to believe, such as the dwarves who are only for the dwarves and refuse to be “taken in.” As Aslan says, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Unfortunately there will be people like that as well.

There is a point of confusion with the Calormene Emeth, who served the Calormene god Tash, yet is admitted to Aslan’s country, not because Tash and Aslan are one, as some tried to proclaim (Aslan shook the earth with his growl at the very thought), but because Aslan took to himself everything Emeth had done for Tash. For, he says, “he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted…unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” I don’t know how much of this reflects Lewis’s personal belief system, but I can’t endorse the idea that someone sincerely serving and seeking a false God is really serving the one true God unaware.

A couple of my favorite quotes:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it til now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”

“Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begin. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

It was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now, at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever.”

I have to thank Carrie for sponsoring the Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, which spurred me on to revisit the series. I’ve so enjoyed being in Narnia again! I also marvel at how someone with an intellect as large and complex as Lewis’s can write something simple enough for children to understand yet engaging to adults, too, with such nobility and depth and beauty.

Here are my posts from the whole series:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
Voyage of the Dawn-Treader
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician’s Nephew
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Graphic Novel.
The Way Into Narnia
Narnian Magic.

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Magician’s Nephew

Magicians NephewI read The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis for Carrie‘s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge. It’s the fifth book in order of publication but the first book in the Narnian time line. I liked reading it as the fifth book very much, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

The story opens with two children, Digory and Polly, meeting. Polly lives in London, and Digory has just come there to stay with an aunt and uncle because his mother is very ill and his father is in India. Digory is not happy about leaving his pony and nice home in the country to come to London, and he is concerned about his mother, but after his meeting with Polly gets off to a shaky start, they become friends.

Digory’s uncle is thought by some to be mad, but if he’s not exactly mad, he’s at least strange. One day Digory and Polly go exploring in an attic corridor that seems to run along the length of the row of houses (the description of stepping on the rafters reminds me of a description of Lewis doing the same thing when he has a boy in a biography I read years ago – I don’t remember which one). They’re trying to get to an empty house to explore, but they miscalculate and find themselves in Uncle Andrew’s attic room. He dabbles in magic and has made some rings which he thinks sends people to other worlds – at least that seems to be what’s happened to the guinea pigs he has sent through. He suddenly sends Polly through and then manipulates Digory into going after her.

The children find themselves in what looks like a land of ancient ruins, where Digory inadvertently awakens an ancient evil, which follows them to London and causes a ruckus. In trying to get everyone back where they belong, they end up in an uninhabited world, and witness the creation of Narnia, beautifully and wonderfully described.

But they’ve brought the evil with them into the brand new world on its first day, which Aslan predicts will cause further evil later, but he promises to “see to it that the worst falls upon myself,” an echo of Christ’s taking the punishment for our evil on Himself.

More of those echoes to Biblical truth are found when Aslan breathes life into his creatures, when Aslan questions Digory as to how the evil came to be in Narnia, and Digory finds that Aslan won’t let him fudge the truth at all, when Digory concludes “the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with,” with the freedom of choice that might lead to evil and its consequences, when Digory is sent to retrieve a particular apple from a particular tree enclosed by a particular gate and reads a sign that one must come through the gate, that stealing or climbing over the wall will lead one to despair, when Digory is tempted by forbeidden fruit, when Aslan welcomes him back from his quest with “Well done,” and probably in other ways as well which I am not remembering. With this book as well as the others, as Aslan told the children in Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, “You were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

I’m leaving our great chunks of the story on purpose so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet. But this book as well as the others leaves me with an appreciation of its underlying truths and a wistfulness for Narnia.

And personally, I think I got so much more out of this book reading it at this stage rather than the beginning because of the thrill and anticipation when I recognized certain connections – realizing just who the children were waking up, recognizing the lamppost in the woods as that lamppost, finding out who Digory turns out to be, etc.. If I had read this book first I think I would have had a hard time caring much about what was going on with Digory and Polly at the beginning: I even had to almost fight to care this time, even knowing, from having read the book before, where their adventures were going to lead. But I suppose people who read this book first might experience the same thrill of recognition when they get to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s just hard for me to fathom experiencing these stories without starting there.

I ended up loving this book much more than I thought I would at the beginning, and I’m very much looking forward to The Last Battle next.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)