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.
This flies in the face of conventional wisdom as it stands among fantasy writers today—which is that you have to be very, very careful. Today’s fantasy writers feel as though the fictional worlds they create have to be full-scale working models. People talk a lot about the ecology of [George R. R. Martin’s] Westeros, for instance—how do the seasons work? What are the climate patterns? How does it function as an ecosphere? You have to think about the economy, too—have I got a working feudal model? It’s gotten so extreme that when characters do magic, it’s very common to see fantasy writers talk about thermodynamics—okay, he’s lighting a candle with magic, can he draw the heat from somewhere else in the room so that equilibrium gets preserved?
This is the school of thought that extends from Tolkien, and his scrupulously-crafted Middle Earth. Lewis was of a different school from that. Magic, to him, was a much wilder, stranger thing. It was much less domesticated. And when I re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I feel as though we’ve wandered too far from the true magic, the kind Lewis wrote. Maybe we want to worry less about thermodynamics and work harder to get that sense of wonder he achieves with such apparent effortlessness.
And then, there are things that he does that are simply not replicable. The lamppost in the woods: there’s something indescribably strange and romantic about that image, which recurs at the end of the book. In some ways, you read Lewis and think: I can learn from this guy. But sometimes you have to sit back and think, I’ll never know how he did that. You know, I’ve seen the lamppost in Oxford which is alleged to be the Narnia lamppost. To me, it looked like an ordinary lamppost. I would not have seen that lamppost, and gone home and to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You had to be Lewis to see it for what it was.
I should put on the record my mom’s other C. S. Lewis anecdote, which goes like this: After she went back to London, wasn’t blown to bits by Hitler, and grew up, she went to Oxford for college. It was her senior year, and she was on her way to her final exams, which were oral exams. As one does, she stopped into a pub to have a pint and stiffen her resolve. There was this old guy at the other end of the bar. They started chatting, and he said, “If you’re taking your exams, you should really have a brandy first.”
Well, up until that point in her life, my mom had never had any brandy. And the guy at the bar, of course, was C. S. Lewis. He bought her a brandy. She drank it. And she claims to have no memory of anything else that happened that day. She passed her exams, at least, so it can’t have been that bad.