Around fourth grade there was very little that I liked about going to school. I liked recess and library time, and like any kid in school back in the 90s I eagerly looked forward to going the Mac Lab to play Number Munchers, and Oregon Trail. However, every month or so we received the ever exciting school book orders. Those orders were as exciting to me as the annual Sears Wishbook that used to come out. In fact, school book orders were even better as they came in every month, introducing me to new worlds and new friends.
I would spend a few days pouring over the order circling the books I liked, hoping my mother would order them. Being a nice big brother, I’d let my sisters look for any books they liked too. I don’t remember what books I circled, and frankly it doesn’t matter .What my mother ordered was something of far more worth, something that led to what CS Lewis called “The Baptism of my Imagination.”
The long awaited books my mom ordered arrive not long after. To my surprise it was not any of the books I requested, but a boxed-set of CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I saw the word “Chronicles”, which I associated with the biblical book of Chronicles and I admit I was a little concerned when one of them had the word “Witch” in the title. However, like the Wardrobe in the Spare Room, the books would beckon to me.
Back then, I was struggling a lot in school. At the time, there was speculation that it was ADD. The doctors had prescribed for me an antidepressant to help me focus, but the side effect was chest pains and insomnia. Realizing that it would be better for me to get a good night’s sleep then be wound up and in pain, my mother took me off the medication only to find I was still not sleeping well at night. That is when she took the Narnia books off the shelf, and began a tradition that would carry on from those nights in fourth grade traveling to Narnia, and up until the summer before my Senior Year of High School when read me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: bedtime stories.
After our family devotionals and making sure my sisters were in bed, my mom could get in the big comfy arm chair in my bed room and read me a chapter each night from the Narnia books, in a British accent of course. From the moment Lucy Pevensie and her siblings stepped into the Wardrobe, I was sucked into that enchanted land. From talking animals, to sea serpents, to mythical beasts, there was no shortage of strange wonders to encounter. Further, while the books were connected each book told a separate story that could stand on its own.
You don’t have to even have a BA in Literature to note the religious symbolism in Narnia, at least when you are an adult. However, at the age of nine, I was more than able to pick up on the imagery and would stop occasionally to discuss it with my mom. In fact for years CS Lewis’s The Last Battle was the only end times story I would read as it was no where nearly as direct and didn’t contain as much of the scary images found in grown up books dealing with the Last Days. It wasn’t as direct in a lot of ways as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it was still enough to give me something to think about. Lewis describe the books not so much as “allegories” but “Let us suppose” stories and this got my imagination going.
Between Star Wars and Narnia I learned just how to weave spirituality into literature. While it can be overt, symbolism, allegory, myth, and metaphor work just as well. Considering how much religion relies on symbolic language, using talking animals and mythic beasts to convey those same truths works perfectly.
And there was so much to take in. Humans becoming dragons, talking animals, enchanted chairs, centaurs, fauns, winged horses, witches, anthropomorphic stars, and magic seemed to leak from the page. But more over Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and later their cousin Eustace and his friend Jill, and their old friends Professor Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer would become great “friends” of mine. As such I couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter of the book at night.
However, on rare occasions, perhaps more often then I’d like to admit, I was so enchanted, I’d ask for another chapter. Sometimes, mom would oblige me, other times not. None the less these bedtime stories helped me relax, helped me focus and get a good night’s sleep. In fact if I misbehaved the best way to punish me was by threatening to take away story time.
While the first book is arguably the most well known of the series, the rest only seek to deepen the mythology and make it so much better. From such fan favorite characters as Reepicheep the Mouse and Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle, to such locations as the kingdom beneath Narnia in the Silver Chair or the very edge of the world in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to even other worlds as the dead world of Charn or the Wood Between the World.
In fact along with the snowy woods of Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as the land is held under a spell of a Hundred Year Winter, ( which being from Minnesota is what we call a “typical winter”), and Aslan at the stone table, was the dead world of Charn. Much like the twin suns of Tatooine in Star Wars, the red sun over Charn was enough to tell me that this was another world. Moreover, Lewis, perhaps without meaning to exposed me to a more advanced concept of astronomy by explaining that the Red Sun meant that the star in question, and the world was dying.
However there were two things that made Narnia stand out amidst the sea of juvenile novels at that time. The first of these was that Lewis actually allowed his older characters to grow-up, and then semi-retire them to allow new characters to take center stage. For many a juvenile book, especially those that are part of a long running series, the kids never grow up, and in some cases they will be de-aged. In doing so, Lewis does not create a Peter Pan level fantasy where kids never grow up, but one were growing up was reflected upon, and this meant looking at all it’s facets including pain, loss, faith, betrayal, and death.
Going to Narnia for the kids was a spiritual experience, one that was supposed to help them grow and change and help them become better adults. As Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they learn they have made their last trip into Narnia,
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?” “But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan. “Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund. “I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
The second thing that made Narnia unique is that it is a finite series of only seven books. Most juvenile series go on long after the author had died, only to be ghost written by other writers. Not so with Narnia. Everything we know about the world and its characters comes only from the pen of CS Lewis. Lewis himself admitted, when children asked for more books that he had no plans to write more, nor did he want to as he felt there were two ways of handling a series, one was to go on until you are done with it, the other was to go on until everyone else is sick of it and begs you to end it. Thankfully, Lewis chose the former.
I would go on to read all of CS Lewis’ other books, including his Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, and is magnum opus, Till We Have Faces. I eagerly read all of his non-fiction, including essay on literature. I regret that for a brief time, I felt I had out grown Narnia, and in fact all fantasy literature, in exchange for more passing literary fads. However, I found my way back to that land and to myth and fantasy through another fantasy series, but that is a story for another time.
However what remains is the simple fact that those books made an indelible mark on my life. If I were to pick one book I encountered as a child that made me want to be a writer it would have to be The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. While I have enjoyed the recent movies, and have read the books many times by myself since then, my definitive Narnia will always be the one that I encountered when my mom first read the books to me as a child.