Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy

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. 

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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