“If you were in a room full of books,” Lev Grossman writes in his latest novel, The Magician’s Land, “you were at least halfway home.” For Grossman, no books feel more like home than C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which provide the template for what he likes to read—and how he wants to write. In our conversation for this series, Grossman explained what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught him about fiction, what makes Lewis’s work so radically inventive, and why his own stories must step through the looking glass into fantasy.
The Magician’s Land concludes Grossman’s acclaimed and best-selling trilogy, which has been praised in magazines like The New Republic and The New Yorker for being a darker, grown-up, and more complex Harry Potter. At Grossman’s Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, students drink, hook up, and take magic classes that are as difficult as Organic Chemistry—and dangerous, too, for some are devoured by the beasts their works unleash. The third and final installment finds our hero Quentin Coldwater as a 30-year-old man, now banished from the Narnia-like land of Fillory, as he rejoins old friends to try to find—and then save—the enchanted kingdom of their past.
Lev Grossman is a book critic and senior technology writer for Time magazine. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Lev Grossman: I can’t say with total accuracy when I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I wasn’t a particularly early reader, so I couldn’t have been much younger than 7 or 8 years old. But the Narnia books had a kind of special place in our family. My mother’s English; she was in London during the blitz, when she was about Lucy Pevensie’s age. To stay safe from the bombing, like Lewis’s fictional children, she was sent from London to the countryside. The book opens with the Pevensies arriving from London, so you have this strange, dark background—this sense of war going on, which the characters have only just narrowly escaped.
Of course, unlike the Pevensies, my mom failed to find adventures in a magical land accessed through a wardrobe. But, in fact, she claims she was so badly behaved that her host family actually had her deported back to London. I don’t know what she did—but apparently it was so naughty that being bombed by Hitler was a preferable fate. The cultural divide between poor urban Londoners and the country English was very great, and it was hard for the two factions to find common ground. I guess, in her case, they never did.
So the Narnia books had a special place for my mom. I think she must have presented them to us with a special flourish. And I’m fairly certain that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that I ever was transported by. I think it’s the book that taught me what novels are supposed to do. It’s the book that taught me how books work, and what—if they’re good—they do for you. It was the template for all the great reading experiences I had ahead.
Why is Lewis so important to me? In part, it’s because—technically, from the point of view of craft—he tells the story with truly exemplary economy. By the time we’re only six or seven pages into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we already know all four Pevensies, we know how each child feels about the other three, and he’s gotten Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia. With incredible speed, he acquaints us with the characters—just one or two well-placed details, and we’re able to know each one—and delves right away into the adventure.
Even more than that, it’s the way he uses language—which is nothing like the way fantasists used language before him. There’s no sense of nostalgia. There’s no medieval floridness. There’s no fairy tale condescension to the child reader. It’s very straight, and very clean—there’s no Vaseline on the lens. You see everything clearly, not with sparkles or a flowery sense of wonderment, but with very specific physical details. Look at the attention to detail as you watch Lucy going through the wardrobe:
This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
She feels the softness of the coats, she hears the crunching under her feet, she bends down and feels the snow, she feels the prickliness of the trees, and just like that she’s through the wardrobe and into Narnia. There are no special effects in the passage. He’s making magic, but he’s making magic out of very ordinary physical impressions. It’s very powerful, and it’s very new. I don’t think anybody wrote this way before he did. He came up with a new way to describe magic that made it feel realer than it ever had.
It works because he’s writing fantasy—but he’s working with the tools of realism. Even though he had this wonderful romantic yearning nostalgia, he writes like a modernist. He writes like Hemingway, like the Joyce of Dubliners. Though he was writing shortly after the time of the modernists, he observes reality in the meticulous, almost disenchanted way they did—but he puts those tools in the service of a totally different effect.
As far as the modern fantasy novels goes, this is ground zero. You’re seeing the atom being split for the first time. So much of what’s written afterwards comes out of that simple moment, just emerges from Lucy going through the wardrobe.