You can (sort of) go home again

I was one of those Narnia kids. I read the books over and over (I was a big re-reader; I also read the Little House series and many others multiple times) — though I eventually limited myself to once a year, perhaps fearing the effects of over-exposure. I think some of my love for Narnia was in reaction to the Tolkien dominance I felt in the house — my older sister and cousins were all hard-core Tolkien devotees and those books were big and, in the hardcover boxed set we owned, rather forbidding. Narnia, on the other hand, was welcoming and manageable. And it was mine. My adoration for Narnia did not lead me far into the fantasy genre, or Christianity — brought up with little exposure to religion, I managed to miss the obvious parallels in the tales until they were pointed out to me later and even then I just accepted them as part of this particular story and not something that was supposed to apply to my life. Eventually I grew up and during adolescence transferred my affections to books intended for adults, like Jane Eyre and the works of Jane Austen. I did read The Lord of the Rings, once, and enjoyed it but never felt the fierce connection to that world that I had to Narnia.

I always wondered how Narnia would feel to me as an adult — especially once my friends started having kids and the kids grew old enough to read the Chronicles or have them read to them. I both envied them and worried that they might have the childhood magic erased. Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, I was drawn back to kid lit by the Harry Potter series and I felt a little reconnected, in a strange way, in reading (and being entranced by) Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, even while understanding it could not, in many ways, be more opposed to Lewis’ work. I read and loved The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s novel that was widely described as Harry Potter with sex and drugs but obviously owes a lot more to a childhood obsession with Narnia.

So when the movie version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came out I got a copy of the book and re-read it and, as I had feared, it felt strangely flat. I was sorry I had done it. Narnia was lost to me — I still fondly remembered loving the books so intensely, but I felt a little like the characters in the books who, once they reach a certain age, are told they cannot return.

But Narnia, and C.S. Lewis, just will not go away. About a year ago, unexpectedly, one campus of my alma mater was sold off and to become the new home of the start-up C.S. Lewis College. And the movies keep coming, too, most recently the third installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (In a slightly related side note, I am glad to see the movies are appearing in what I believe is the correct sequence, which was the order of publication and the order that my paperback boxed set back in the ’70s, rather than the series order now espoused by the Chronicles’ publishers, which conforms to the internal chronology of Narnia but makes less sense to me.)

A couple weeks ago I was shelving books in the Children’s Room at the library — always a dangerous occupation — and came across a copy of Dawn Treader with the familar ’70s paperback cover, glued onto one of those hard buckram library bindings. I opened it up and read a few lines and to my own surprise felt drawn in. So I checked it out and brought it home. (If any of my bosses is reading this, I swear don’t do a lot of reading while I’m supposed to be shelving books. Really.) I read it and enjoyed it, even while recognizing Lewis’ crankiness toward co-education and practical knowledge was a little, well, cranky. But it was also kind of funny. I thought I just might give some other Chronicles a try. I also came across Laura Miller’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal about how the approach of the Narnia films differs significantly from the source material, especially in their emphasis on FAMILY VALUES.

That led me to pull of the shelf a book I have owned since it was published, Miller’s The Magician’s Book. It’s subtitled “A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and Miller, who was one of the founders of Salon, is my favorite literary critic so I knew the chances were pretty good I was going to like it. And I did, though I also did not want to read too far until I had re-read the rest of the Chronicles.

On the day after Christmas, disaster struck. Our beloved dog died of liver failure. She was only 3 1/2 and my husband and I are one of those childless couples who are  devoted to our dog beyond all reason. Plus, she was an outrageously lovable dog, as many of our friends can attest. And it came as a huge shock. So I was in a state. I needed comfort, familiarity, and distraction. At some point, late in the day (I think; those first couple days are actually a little fuzzy), I reached for Narnia. I think it was Prince Caspian, since I decided I needed to return to the correct order and had already gotten the next few books out of the library. And it was a relief — a tale that offered an escape without challenging my brain. It had been long enough that I had forgotten the details of the story so reading was interesting but as I went along I recognized and remembered the characters and plot points as old friends.

In the week since, I have blown through the rest of the Chronicles and finished Miller’s book and yes, it is as excellent as I had expected it to be, both in its appreciation for Lewis’ achievement and its clear-eyed view of his flaws. I was a bit shocked in reading The Horse and His Boy to come across the nasty descriptions of the clearly Arab-inspired villainous Calormenes with their turbans and scimitars and swarthy skin and nasty smells of onion and garlic — not like those virtuous, fair-haired, upstanding (and odorless) Narnians! And of course I thought, oh no, how much of that did I absorb as a kid? Though as Miller points out, for many of us, if Lewis intended the Chronicles as religious treatises we didn’t take them that way — so perhaps the ethnic prejudice also rolled off. She also spends quite a bit of time discussing the differences in approaches and attitudes between Lewis and Tolkien, who were famously friends in Oxford, and the literary sources and inspirations for their respective creations.

So thanks, Narnia — which means thanks, C.S. Lewis. Even if you didn’t succeed in making me a believer as a kid and even if I am disturbed and offended by some of your attitudes as an adult, I appreciate the experience of immersion in literature that you provided for me back then — and the welcome distraction this week. I’ll continue to think fondly of the books, mostly, even if they are also now irrevocably associated with Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s brilliant Lazy Sunday video (which pops into my head every time I check out one of the Narnia DVDs at the library, usually for someone who’s about 8 years old). And thanks, especially, Laura Miller for an intelligent and interesting assessment of Lewis and the power those books in particular and literature in general can have for kids, and for writing about books in an appreciative accessible way for regular people, wresting criticism and literature back from the academics who seem to want to dissect it if not kill it for what reason I don’t know. It’s like they don’t even like books.

By the way, if Narnia is not or never was your cup of tea, a fantasy series for kids that held up even better in a lot of ways — no religious message or ugly stereotyping! — was Lloyd Alexander’s excellent Chronicles of Prydain. I re-read those a year or two ago and now recommend them wherever I go. And if you are ever in a time of crisis and need literary distraction, I strongly recommend Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, which starts with The Eyre Affair. The first time I read that book I bounced off it but I tried again in my annus horribilis 0f 2005, a year in which I was editor of the local paper, we were coping with relentless successive hurricanes that culminated with Wilma and both my husband and I went through major medical crises. Those books were exactly the right level of distraction and entertainment without taxing my already overtaxed brain and I am eternally grateful to them. And wish Fforde would return to that series already.

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Filed under fiction, nonfiction, recommended reading, YA

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