"My favorite books were the ones that took books' implicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away. I wanted exodus. I was not alone. Tolkien believed that providing an alternative to reality was one of the primary properties of language. From the moment humans had invented the adjective, he wrote in On Fairy Stories, they had gained a creator-like power to build elsewheres.
" 'The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power -- upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.'
"Anyone, he said, could use 'the fantastic device of human language' to mint a new coin for the imagination, such as the green sun. The green sun had no value, though, unless it was given a sky to rise in where it would have the same natural authority as the real yellow sun in the real sky. And after the sky, you had to invent the earth; and after the earth, the trees with their times of flowering and fruiting, and the inhabitants, and their habits of thought, and their manners of speech, their customs and clothing, down to the smallest details that labor and thought could contrive. To sustain a world inside which the green sun was credible required 'a kind of elvish craft ... story-making in its primary and most potent mode.'
"In fact Tolkien wanted to believe that fantasy was the highest form of art, more demanding than the mere reflection of men and women as they already were. He wanted to be able to look outward to story, and have it contain all that you might look inward to find, then more besides.
"But I knew there was a fundamental division between stories set entirely in another world, and stories that traveled out to another world from the everyday reality of this one. Some books I loved were in the first category. Tolkien himself, of course: the year I turned eight, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. [...] Later I discovered and cherished Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels. They were utterly different in feeling, with their archipelago of bright islands like ideal Hebrides, and their guardian wizards balancing light and dark like yin and yang. All they shared with Tolkien was the deep consistency that allows an imagined world to unfold from its premises solidly, step by certain step, like something that might really exist."
Yet the books that Spufford loved best were in the second category:
"...the ones that started in this world and took you to another. Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed.
"I wanted there to be the chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. If, in a story, you found that one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that had been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?
"And once opened, the door would never be entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shirts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside. E. Nesbit invented the mixing of the worlds in The Amulet, which I preferred, along with the rest of her magical series, to the purely realistic comedy of the Bastables' adventures in The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. On a grey day in London, Robert and Anthea and Jane and Hugh travel to blue sky through the arch of the charm. The latest master of worlds is Philip Pullman. Lyra Belacqua and her daemon walk through the aurora borealis in the first book of the Dark Materials trilogy; in the next, a window in the air floats by a bypass in the Oxford suburbs; in the third installment, access to the eternal sadness of the land of the dead is through a clapped-out, rubbish-strewn port town on the edge of a dark lake.
"As I read I passed to other worlds through every kind of door, and every kind of halfway space that could work metaphorically as a threshold too: the curtain of smoke hanging over burning stubble in an August cornfield, an abandoned church in a Manchester slum. After a while, I developed a taste for transitions to subtle that the characters could not say at what instance the shift had happened.
"In Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke, the white Rolls-Royce belonging to 'Mr. Wedding' -- Woden -- takes the eleven-year-old David to Valhalla for lunch, over a beautiful but very ordinary-seeming Rainbow Bridge that seems to be connected to the West Midlands road system. I liked the idea that borders between the worlds could be vested in modern stuff: that the green and white signs on the motorways counting down the miles to London could suddenly show the distance to Gramarye or Logres.
"But my deepest loyalty was unwavering," Spufford states. "The books I loved best all took me away through a wardrobe, and a shallow pool in the grass of a sleepy orchard, and a picture in a frame, and a door in a garden wall on a rainy day at boarding school, and always to Narnia. Other imaginary countries interested me, beguiled me, made rich suggestions to me. Narnia made me feel like I'd taken hold of a live wire. The book in my hand sent jolts and shimmers through my nerves. It affected me bodily. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis invented objects for my longing, gave form to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing. So from the moment I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me. They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books."
"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."
In Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan reflects on the fourth book in the series, Prince Caspian:
"The Pevensies return to the magical kingdom to find that hundreds of years have passed, civil war is dividing the kingdom and Old Narnians (many dwarves, centaurs, talking animals, the dryads and hamadryads that once animated the trees, and other creatures) are in hiding. The children must lead the rebels against their Telmarine conquerors. The warp and weft of Narnian life is seen up close, in even more gorgeously imagined detail than the previous books. Lucy, awake one night in the thick of the forest that has grown up since she was last in Narnia, feels the trees are almost awake and that if she just knew the right thing to say they would come to Narnian life once more.
"It mirrored exactly how I felt about reading, and about reading Lewis in particular. I was so close...if I could just read the words on the page one more time, I could animate them too. The flimsy barriers of time, space and immateriality would finally fall and Narnia would spring up all around me and I would be there, at last."
Words: The passages above are from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy" by Lev Grossman (The Atlantic, August 2014); and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The journey there and back again. Related posts: "Secret Threads," "Children, Reading, and Tough Magic", and "Ursula Le Guin on the Truth of Fantasy."