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.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love—but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. There’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.”
How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.
But 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.
The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.
The thing about the Narnia books, is that they’re about Christianity. I grew up in a household that not only lacked Christianity—there was very little Christianity in our house, even though my mom was raised Anglican—there was almost no religion of any kind. Religion was, and to some extent has remained to me, a totally baffling concept. I wasn’t experiencing the book in any way as stores about religion: I experienced them as psychological dramas. This sleight of hand in which an apparent escape becomes a way of encountering yourself, and encountering your problems, seems to me the basic logic of reading and of the novel.
In this way, the portal in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes a magnificent metaphor for reading itself. When she opens the doors to the wardrobe, it’s like Lucy’s opening the covers of a book and passing through it to somewhere else—which is just the same experience you’re having at the moment you’re reading the passage. You’re watching Lucy do the same thing you are, just in a way that’s dramatized and transfigured.
I think the standard psychoanalytic reading of the wardrobe has to do with a return to the womb—you know, passing through these furry coats back into a safe place. But that idea, while perhaps supportable on the grounds of textual evidence, never really seemed paramount to me. For me, the wardrobe’s doors open like a book, ushering Lucy—and the reader—into a new imaginative realm of imagination. That’s the kind of writer I aspire to be: one that helps the reader make that seamless passage, from the real world to the land of fantasy, from real life to the realm of reading.
It’s funny, because Lewis was in some ways a very sloppy writer. The world he created for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn’t really add up. It’s not like it has a working ecology. If he wanted fauns he put fauns in. If he wanted Santa Claus—well, here comes Santa Claus! Let’s have him in too. He took from everybody, and when he saw something shiny, he thought, “Ooh, shiny!” and put it in the book. This drove Tolkien crazy, because Tolkien was very meticulous in his world-building; Lewis didn’t care, and wrote in this exuberant, improvisational way. As sloppy as it is, people—myself included—believe in it utterly.