Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy

Author Lev Grossman says C.S. Lewis taught him that in fiction, stepping into magical realms means encountering earthly concerns in transfigured form.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

“If you were in a room full of books,” Lev Grossman writes in his latest novel, The Magicians 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 Magicians 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.

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.