Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Summer I Discovered Narnia

Today is the birthday of Clive Staples Lewis (b. 1898), so I thought I'd reprint a review I wrote in 2000 for another website to mark the occasion.  Here then is the account of the time I tamed three restless children with C. S. Lewis' words.....

C.S. Lewis’ perfect fable The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is subtitled “A Story For Children.”  Lewis may have been one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and a devout follower of Christianity, but he was a big fat liar when he wrote those four words.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the six other books in the Chronicles of Narnia are Stories for Everybody.  In fact, if you’re sitting here reading this and you are older than your shoe size and you have never entered the world of Narnia, shame on you!  Your life is truly the worse for not having read at least one of Lewis’ fantasy-allegories.  Please, I urge you, stop what you’re doing—quit the obsessive mouse-clicking, turn off the television, quiet those demanding inner voices that say you don’t have time to read “a story for children,” and go find a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  And don’t try to give me any of that I’ve-got-bills-to-pay-and-dinner-to-make-and-the-symphony-fundraiser-to-plan-and-my-boss-wants-those-reports-first-thing-Monday song-and-dance.  Forget all that brain-noise and go discover Narnia.  You owe it to yourself.

Now, having wagged my tongue and shaken my finger at you, I’ve got to confess I didn’t read—didn’t really read—the Chronicles of Narnia until I was 30 years old and the father of three grade-school children.  It was one of those mystical intersections of a near-holy literary event and the ragged state of my spirit (similar occasions include the first time I read Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor).  Back then, I was starting to feel the encroaching stresses of job burnout and parental worries.  In the summer of 1993, Narnia was the perfect balm.

First, to backtrack for a moment…

As I mentioned, I’d read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before.  I was 12 and a regular patron—um, okay, inhabitant—of the town library (the head librarian even offered to reserve a corner in the fiction section for me if I wanted to bring in a cot and a sleeping bag).  At that age, I read books like college students drink beer—perhaps even more so.  “A Book a Day” was my motto.  I crammed so many stories and characters and foreign lands in my head that pretty soon it got overpopulated and little literary wars broke out (the Hardy Boys started arguing with Nancy Drew and then Old Yeller bit Sherlock Holmes on the foot and someone—not mentioning names here—vandalized the Little House on the Prairie....it all got pretty ugly).  In the midst of all that word-gorging, I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I read it with mild interest; then I moved on to the next book in the series, Prince Caspian, but lost interest somewhere in the middle.

Looking back, I realize I wasn’t ready for this “Story for Children.”  Many children are, I suppose, and I can only envy their early experience with the books.  Me, I came late to the feast.

I sometimes wonder how my life might have been different if Narnia had intersected my spirit 18 years earlier.  Maybe I would have been a gentler man, a more hopeful human, someone who sees the unseen magic in the world.

I was none of those things in the summer of 1993.  I was an exhausted father and husband working late hours for meager pay which had to be stretched to incredibly thin-and-wide proportions to pay the monthly bills.  By that point, I'd been in the Army for five years and its demands had worn me down to the shred of one nerve clinging to the nub of a bone.  On top of that, I didn’t understand my children.  They were scampering little creatures—loud and silly and just short of uncontrollable.  This, you understand, was not their fault—they were just being children—it was my inability to find that bonding place which was to blame.

Then, one night, I found the key which opened the door to that bonding place.

It was in the midst of the usual routine—rounding up the children to get pajamas on, teeth brushed and tucked into bed (for the first of four up-and-down gymnastics)—when it hit me: I needed something to calm them down.  If I could just get my kids to hush the babble and pay attention to me for just one pickety-pucking minute, my life would have at least a sliver of peace.

“Aha!” I thought.  “I’ll read to them.  Whether they like it or not.”  (Thinking that they probably wouldn’t, but I was game for anything at that frazzled point.)

I went to my bookshelf and trailed my finger along the spines.  I was about to pick out Charles Dickens (“David Copperfield,” I muttered, “now that will put them to sleep!”) when I went a little farther along the shelf and saw it: the boxed (and unread) set of Narnia Chronicles.  Hallelujah!

I strode back upstairs, full of parental vigor and shouting, “Kids!  Kids, c’mere.  I’ve got something for you!”  I brought them into my bedroom and tucked them under the covers of my bed, snug as three peas in a pod.  “Listen, just listen,” I said.

I turned to the first page.
      Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.

I kept reading about how the four children stumble across a magic wardrobe and, pushing their way through the mothballed fur coats and hangars, enter a land of snow and forests and fauns and lampposts and a white-skinned/black-hearted Queen who dispenses Turkish Delight candy like deadly heroin.  Welcome to Narnia.

When I paused to take a breath, you could have heard an eyelash drop.  Three sets of eyes—once droopy with sleep—were as wide as Montana horizons.  Three mouths hung open, a thin glisten of drool running down unnoticed on one particular chin.  By the time I reached the end of the second chapter, I could practically hear my children’s heartbeats.  I was amazed.  Nothing—not even the nosiest, most colorful Disney cartoon—had ever held them this rapt, this silent, this obedient.  When I reached the end of the third chapter that night, my voice hoarse and faint, I dog-eared the page and closed the book.

“No, Daddy, no!  Just a little bit more!  Puh-leeeeze?!”

“We’ve had enough for tonight, kids.  It’s already a half hour past your bedtime.”

“Puh-leeeeeze, Daddy?”

“Tomorrow night.”


“I promise.”

And I kept that promise all summer long.  I read nearly every night as the four of us wound down from the day’s stresses (oh yes, I’m sure my children had their own share of grade-school stresses, too).  It became part of the ritual: don pajamas, brush teeth, slip under covers, read Narnia, kiss good-night.  I sailed through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then we journeyed through the other books, in order:
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader"
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician's Nephew
The Last Battle

I read the books like a hammy radio actor, varying the pitch and tone and timbre of my voice.  For the four children, I spoke in a clipped British accent; for Aslan the lion, I adopted a rumbling James Earl Jones throatiness; for Reepicheep the brave little mouse, I squeaked; for Puddleglum the web-footed Marsh-wiggle, I sounded like a rainy day full of wet blankets.  I shouted, I whispered, I sang.  Sir Laurence Olivier had nothing on me.

The nights I didn’t read—the nights I worked too late and stumbled home bone-weary and bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained—the children were as downcast as Puddleglum himself.  But those nights were few and far between because I made it a point to return to Narnia as often as I could—not for my children’s sake, but for the sake of my own ragged soul.  Lo and behold, the spell of the books was being cast over this slump-shouldered 30-year-old man himself.  It is just possible that I was enjoying the books even more than my under-10 audience.

Now, seven years later, that Summer of Narnia has a special place in my memory—a reserved spot on the shelf labeled “Golden Moments to Treasure Even When You’re Senile and Wearing Adult Diapers.”  But encased in that memory is the image of a particular night when the five of us (this time my wife sat in on the reading) were camping in the Alaskan wilderness 50 miles south of Anchorage.  We roasted marshmallows, made s’mores, watched the still-bright evening sun slide across the glaciered mountains.  Then, when the mosquitoes swarmed too thick, we retreated inside the tent.  Don pajamas, run a dry toothbrush across teeth (the one modification for camping), crawl into sleeping bags and then…Narnia.

I’m sure people in the neighboring campsites must have wondered at the sounds of the mouse and a bunch of British kids calling out “Reepicheep!  Reepicheep!” coming from that tent.  But I didn’t care because I was glowing with fatherly love and, for once, gentle kindness.  And it was all due to a lion, a mouse, a Marsh-Wiggle, one-footed Dufflepuds, a talking horse and a lamppost in the middle of a forest.

Now, I tell you this story to show you that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and all the ensuing volumes are most definitely not just stories for children.  They are for the very young and the very old, as well as for very distracted 30-year-olds.

Lewis’ writing is incredibly fine-tuned and, as one who read every word of these books aloud can attest, sits on the tongue like silky caramel candy.  He has created an entire fairy-tale kingdom (complete with maps and histories), but yet it’s one that is completely believable—at least, you want to believe you can find your own passage through an old wardrobe.

Humor, of course, abounds.  It is the quaint, dry British humor which you can also find in Agatha Christie novels and old movies with Alec Guiness.  Lewis knows what he’s doing, playing to both the adolescent and adult audiences with his delicate balance of Christian allegory and downright exciting adventures.

I suppose at this point you want me to talk about the plots of the books.  Out of the question.  For one thing, there’s just not enough space on your computer screen for a full description; for another, I could never do Narnia justice.  Let’s just say that there are many battles between good and evil, there are sea voyages and journeys to underground caverns, there are deaths and joys and redemptions, there are enough wildly fantastic creatures to keep Jim Henson puppeteers busy for a lifetime and there are page-turning cliffhangers to keep a father reading long into the night, even after his throat is all but bleeding.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, an adult love letter to Lewis' creations written by Salon editor Laura Miller a few years ago. Jonathan Lethem praised it by saying: "Conversational, embracing, and casually erudite, Laura Miller's superb long essay is the kind that comes along too rarely, a foray into the garden of one book that opens to the whole world of reading, becoming in the process a subtle reader's memoir, and manifesto."

1 comment:

  1. Every time I try to do a voice when I'm reading to my kids (typically a bad Charles Emerson Winchester imitation on Green Eggs and Ham) my wife stares at me like I've lost my mind.