“As far as the modern fantasy novel goes, [The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] is ground zero. You’re seeing the atom being split for the first time.”
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will always have a special place in my life. Besides Scripture, I would say it is the most consequential book of my childhood. It was my gateway to fantasy literature. My journey through the wardrobe was only the beginning of many adventures into fantastic and mysterious realms. At 16-years-old, I had never read a fantasy or science fiction novel. I had of course read Cinderella, Snow White, Hans Christian Anderson, and the like, but I had long before left those behind for a diet of biographies, Boy Scout guides, and Hardy Boys. (I still enjoy biographies today; I’ve left the Boy Scout books and Hardy Boys behind.)
Then something happened. As the winter of 2009 neared, trailers for a movie called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “based on the beloved masterpiece by C.S. Lewis,” began playing on TV. Burned in my mind are the glimpses of a dusty sheet swirling down about a young girl, revealing a majestic wardrobe. Talking wolves. A lion-like creature with wings (which I would later learn to be a gryphon) banking high above an army bedecked in blood red and gold. A unicorn rearing triumphantly. A boy at the head of that army crying, “For Narnia, and for Aslaaaan!” These images evoked in me a sense of mystery and wonder that I had never felt before. There was another world I wanted to visit.
Being a preacher’s kid, I had heard the name of C.S. Lewis, but only in the context of his great apologetic works. But one day, my father, who himself was apparently curious about a side of Lewis that he hadn’t been introduced to before, brought home a movie tie-in edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from Barnes & Noble. He read it with my siblings and me, and when we finished, we went to see the movie in a theater.
I was awed by Narnia. By the realness of this other world. By the possibilities that this brought to life in my own imagination. It seemed, by reading and watching LWW, something had awakened in me — deep magic, probably, from the dawn of time. Not for a moment did I struggle with disbelief. I jumped into the wardrobe, and — despite knowing that it is very silly to shut one’s self in a wardrobe — I locked the door behind me.
I don’t remember the order in which I read the rest of the Narnia books for the first time. But I do remember devouring each one as soon as I could get my hands on a copy at the library. And I remember knowing distinctly that I wanted more of this kind of literature. I figured out how books were categorized on the second floor of the Dallas Public Library, and headed straight for the fantasy and science fiction shelves whenever my family went there. For a time, I lost all interest in other genres. I felt starved. As if I’d just discovered something that had been hidden from me all my life — and suddenly finding it, I had to take in as much of it as possible lest I got cut off from it again.
I read The Hobbit and Redwall and Oz. I flirted with Percy Jackson, but skipped Harry Potter at the time because my father wouldn’t approve. I watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy, crossed the Bridge to Terabithia, and blasted off to Malacandra and Perelandra. I became enamored with Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman, Lewis Carroll and Cassandra Clare. Reading Edward Willett and Robert Treskillard sparked a love for Arthurian legend. I read Norse lore and Greek myths, witnessed the foibles of gods, walked with wood spirits, drank from divine waters, battled serpent-haired Gorgons and labyrinth-bound Minotaurs, and schemed with the Fairies of Grim Hill.
If it weren’t for LWW, I wouldn’t have had any of these adventures.
It it weren’t for LWW, I wouldn’t be writing fantastical stories of my own.
Returning to this book comes with a bit of trepidation. (I think I’ve only re-read it once, years ago.) Maybe because of how deeply the Narnia stories have sunk into my psyche, often coloring my vision of the mundane, I was a little afraid that the story’s luster would have softened, that the magic would have worn off. That’s what happens to the things we’re most familiar with, right?
Rereading LWW was not like entering Narnia for the first time. It was like going back to an old, familiar place after years of absence and realizing that the place had been hiding wonderful secrets that I was only too young to comprehend all those years ago. Like Aslan, like every good story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe grows with the reader.
Parsing Narnia Anew
Seeing as LWW is the most popular of the Narnia books, it can be difficult (after all these years) to separate the story itself from all the commentary one has heard about it. But since I’d been away from the book for so long, LWW hit me in the face with the freshness of a brisk winter wind after being cooped up in a stuffy, humid room.
The Pevensie children and their responses to the land beyond the Wardrobe remind me of Christ’s Parable of the Sower.
Lucy is the good ground into which the seed of magic and discovery is planted. She embraces her first encounter with Narnia even though it defies logic and lived experience. She responds to Narnia with open-eyed wonder, even finding a way to be merciful to Tumnus after he reveals that he intended to kidnap her and turn her over to the White Witch. Despite the danger that exists there, and the cold, forbidding, cursed environment — “always winter and never Christmas!” — Lucy tries to go back to Narnia. I suspect that, in Narnia, Lucy had found a world for which her little soul had been longing.
I don’t think there’s been a child in history who hasn’t played dress-up or make-believe or created their own imaginary world. (Some of us grown-ups do that too.) As Lewis wrote:
[W]ho in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire?–C.S. Lewis, “Experiment in Criticism”
Lewis draws on this commonality — not an uncommon one in fantasy literature — and does so without commentary, allowing each reader to become good ground — ground in which the seed of wonder can grow.
Edmund, on the other hand, seems to be hard, stony, infertile ground, unprepared for any real development of wonder. When he first arrives in Narnia, he is obviously upset that Lucy has been right all along and assumes that she is paying him out when she doesn’t reciprocate his offer to “make it pax.” Also, it’s freezing.
Edmund doesn’t meet a nice wood-dwelling creature who remembers the stories of Narnia before the Hundred Year Winter. Instead, he meets the Winter-bringer, Jadis herself. His encounter with the White Witch sucks any remaining innocent wonder right out of Edmund’s first experience in Narnia. Back in our world, he is sour and sulky. In Narnia with his siblings, he is pessimistic and self-obsessed. He responds to Narnia the way an unimaginative and uninspired grown-up might: not really wanting to believe it, and, at the same time, somehow being able to see ways to twist it — whatever it is — to benefit himself.
The differing responses of Lucy and Edmund hark back to The Magician’s Nephew (or, perhaps, I should say foreshadow, seeing as Lewis only started writing it after prompting from a friend). Lucy, like Polly and Digory, is curious and fascinated by the new world. Edmund, like Uncle Andrew and Jadis, is terrified of it, yet keen on how it can be adapted to his benefit. He would start out by making some proper roads, for example, and proceed to making his siblings (especially Peter) subservient.
The oldest Pevensie siblings, Peter and Susan, are fertile ground for magic, but no sooner is the seed sown than thorns — the cares of the real world — rise up and choke the budding plant. Peter and Susan treat the matter as they suppose grown-ups would (like good older siblings are bound to do). First, they try to get Lucy to give up her pretending. (“Come, Lu… You’ve had your joke. Hadn’t you better drop it now?”) Then, they make sure Edmund quits making fun of Lucy. But the situation only gets worse: Lucy becomes depressed; Edmund sulks. (And it’s supposed to be such a fun time!) Peter and Susan worry about their siblings’ happiness. They want, like most parents, to make everything “all right” for their younger siblings. The possibility of another world — “just around the corner, like that!” — is a sidelight. They can’t be bothered to take it seriously when their sister is miserable and their brother is partly responsible for that misery.
Things change only when Susan and Peter realize that the situation is getting quite out of hand and decide to take their dilemma to the old professor. Lewis, I think, places himself in the narrative as the professor who acts as an apologist for possibility. The professor is — like Lewis (and in Lewis’ view) — the right kind of grown-up: one who may not have had an otherworldly experience of magic and wonder in quite some time, but one who has not grown cynical and staid in the absence of it either. The professor appears more interested in the possible reality of another world tucked away in his house than any responsible adult has a right to be. (At this point, the history of Digory Kirke was non-existent. From what we know of Lewis’ habit of hastily drafted novels — oh, how I wish that were my vice! — it’s likely “Digory Kirke” as we know him did not even exist in his mind when LWW was written.) The professor is, I think, an analog for Lewis who was always searching for that feeling of sheer, unquantifiable Joy which he testified to only having experienced three times in his life (in Surprised by Joy).
…anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.–C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
The professor is quite logical in his explanation of why Lucy’s secret country works the way it does: It is reasonable to assume: (1) based on her history, that Lucy isn’t lying; (2) that the time of another world wouldn’t take up any time in our world; (3) and that things that are real aren’t necessarily there all the time. The professor’s assumptions are reasonable when considered on their own — that is, when one actually pauses to think about them — which is exactly what most people don’t do. Or, rather, we do think, but we only think according to patterns that we have been trained to assume are correct.
The professor’s ultimate advice — “Why doesn’t everyone try minding their own business?” — seems to be directed, not only at Peter and Susan, but at the meddlers of the author’s day who took it upon themselves to police fairy tales and stories about magic (and, gosh, don’t we still have those among us today?), and drag everything down to the level of mundane science and practical knowledge.
And that brings me to the theme of this story.
Obviously, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is thematically rich. Lewis wrote this little children’s story like he didn’t plan on writing another — and, at the time, he had no plans to do so.
But one theme that stands out — not necessarily as the most important theme, but one that is meaningful to me — is that of escape, or true (or real) escapism.
Fantasy literature, of course, is well-known for its escapist tendencies, and the genre has been sometimes maligned for the same. Lewis lived at a time when many of his contemporary academics frowned on this aspect of literature for young people (and certainly for old people). He wrote in his Experiment in Criticism:
[The] assumption — that fiction cannot be fit for adult and civilized reading unless it represents life as we have all found it to be, or probably shall find it to be, in experience — seems to lurk tacitly in the background of much criticism and literary discussion. We feel it in the widespread neglect or disparagement of the romantic, the idyllic, and the fantastic, and the readiness to stigmatise instances of these as ‘escapism’. We feel it when books are praised for being ‘comments on’, or ‘reflections’ (or more deplorably ‘slices’) of Life. We notice also that ‘truth to life’ is held to have a claim on literature that overrides all other considerations.
For a more contemporary perspective, consider Lev Grossman’s words on the same subject. Grossman is the author of The Magicians trilogy, and counts Lewis as his greatest inspiration:
I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
Escapism, in the critic’s view, is the foolish attempt to live in a fictional or imaginary world as an alternative to the “real” world. And one can’t say that those who promote such views are completely without a point. After all, each of us must navigate this time-bound, physical world every day.
What the issue needs, in my view, is a redefinition of terms. And that is what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe gives us.
Critics of escapism often view it as a willful departure (or attempted departure) out of sense and into silliness — as if escapists wish to spend all their time at Disney World. (Whee!) But that isn’t true escapism; for lack of a better term, that is indeed silliness.
True escapism isn’t an active pursuit; it’s a passive engagement. It is as much something that happens to you as it is something you do. The professor was onto something when he told the Pevensies the best thing to do was to mind their own business. When the Pevensies tried to get into Narnia they failed. When they tried to invoke magic, magic closed its fist. Only when they weren’t expecting it — when even Lucy began to suspect that Lantern Waste and Tumnus were all in her head — did the magic awaken and chase them into the Wardrobe Room and, despite their reluctance, into the Wardrobe.
True escape happens when you least expect it — when you aren’t looking for it. But one must be open to it. The true escapists know you mustn’t go breaking rocks looking for quicksilver streams; you must merely glance at magic, and perhaps you will find that it is glancing at you.
Escapist critics also seem to believe that the practice is largely about running away from difficult reality. But that is not the experience of true escapists. What the critics mean is demonstrated by the flight of the Pevensies from London to the countryside. They escape the War, trading in danger for ease and calm. What true escapists mean, by contrast, is demonstrated by the chasing of the Pevensies out of the countryside mansion and into Narnia, where they find themselves not just in the middle of a war, but the cause of the war. In Narnia, the Pevensies face many dangers — from the Witch and her winter to her wolves and the wicked trees. A mere escapist would want to wake with every dawn bringing a new Christmas morning. But true escapists embrace Christmas on the run — with Father Christmas bringing gifts of sword and dagger, bow and arrows, a horn to blow when in distress, and a cordial to heal wounded flesh.
True escapism isn’t about lulling one’s self to sleep with excitement and pleasure and leisure. True escapism is about waking up: to magic and to danger, to magnificent joy and deep sorrow. True escapism causes us to plumb the depths of wonder and wrestle with the deeper magic of the world. The “real world” is asleep. The escapists are awake.
True escapism, often achieved in fantastical stories, tells us the truth about the world.
Fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales…–C.S. Lewis, “An Experiment in Criticism”
Having recently watched The Matrix for the first time, I see parallels between the Pevensies’ experience in Narnia and Neo’s experience with Morpheus and the crew of The Nebuchadnezzar. Neo had an inkling that there was another world out there — a truth that only needed to be uncovered. He didn’t find it by going to look for it; it came looking for him. Once he escaped the “real world” of the Matrix and its shadowy agents, he took the red pill and discovered, not a paradise, but a wasteland ruled by machines who had put the human population into a kind of embryonic sleep — much like all those stone statues in the White Witch’s castle.
Look where Neo’s escapism got him: into the very real world full of death, danger, and desperation. And even then, he wasn’t free from traitors who, like Edmund Pevensie, preferred the ease promised by the enemy to the truth. It was only by escaping what he thought was the real world did Neo gain the skills he needed to deal with the struggles and dilemmas of that world. And that is what true escapism does for us today.
Escapist critics consider themselves realists, pragmatists, lucids. But what the critics call “reality” is really a dreamworld — a construct that rewards compliance and going along with things. This dreamworld eschews questions and challenges; it abhors disruption. Eyes closed, it yawns with contentment at every turn. It neither sees nor wants to see. It is the ultimate blind leading the blind.
What is true escapism but waking up from this dream and becoming aware of this world system’s crafty deceptions?
Unfortunately, we cannot escape permanently into fantastic, magical realms. Even the Pevensies, Scrubb, Pole, Kirke, and Plummer must return from Narnia. But when we return from our escape, we return as people fully alive when the rest of the world are drowsy trees walking. We return, fully awake in the dreamland. We know that what has gone on before is indeed a dream, or “a dream of a dream.”
We return, to use Lewis’ words, “quite different.”
The difference in one who has escaped is outwardly subtle, but inwardly earth-shaking. For the Pevensies, this change is first wrought when they hear the name of Aslan.
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
It is in the True Escape that we learn to face dragons — or realize that we ourselves are the dragons. It is in the True Escape that, like Edmund, we learn the dangers of our own beastliness — and overcome it. It is in the True Escape that we learn death is not the end and that dark magic can be rolled back. It is in the True Escape that we learn God has placed eternity, immortality, royalty in our hearts — and once we taste this fruit, we never want to go back.
We return to the dreamland, the shadow of the Real thing, restless for the rest of the world to wake up. We say to our drowsy fellows, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead.” Escape with us.