The books that shape us: Ursula K. Le Guin
That books that shaped me

The books that shape us: Francis Spufford, Lev Grossman & Lucy Mangan

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford recalls the children's tales that sparked his love of reading, and of writing:

"My favorite books," he says, "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. "

But there's a difference, he notes, between stories set entirely in an imaginary world and stories that start in our own world but then take you to another.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate," Spufford explains. "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?

Aslan by Pauline Baynes

"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.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"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 so 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.

Through the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes"But my deepest loyalty was unwavering. 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 Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Lev Grossman was also ensorcelled by Narnia as a boy. In a fine essay on the subject he writes:

"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. The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline BaynesThere’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 Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

"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 Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

In her delightful book Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan reflects on the fourth book in the series, Prince Caspian:

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"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."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The art today is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008), from the first editions of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-156).

Pauline BaynesBaynes was born in Sussex and spent her early childhood years in northern India, where her father worked with the Indian Civil Service. At the age of five, however, Baynes' mother took her children back to England (leaving their father, ayah, and pet monkey behind) -- a traumatic rupture that haunted the artist for the rest of her life. After miserable periods in strict convent and boarding school, she was allowed to move to the Farnham School of Art at age 15, where she formed her desired to become an illustrator of children's books. She clung to this goal through further studies at the Slade School of Art and Oxford. The war intervened, and the Woman's Voluntary Service sent Baynes to work as model-maker with the Royal Engineers in Falmouth Castle, and then to draw maps and naval charts for the Admiralty in Bath. A colleague from this period belonged to a family firm that published children's books, and it was through this connection that Baynes received her first illustration commissions. 

After the war, Baynes built a solid career creating book cover art and interior illustrations, most notably for J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of Middle-Earth, and the C.S. Lewis' journeys into Narnia. (She had a close friendship with Tolkien throughout his life, whereas her relationship with Lewis was professional and distant.) She also illustrated texts by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Rudyard Kipling, George MacDonald, Mary Norton, Arthur Ransome, Alison Uttley, Richard Adams, and many others over the years -- winning the Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrations to Grant Uden's A Dictionary of Chivalry in 1968. 

Baynes worked from her book-crammed study in Surrey, her desk looking out to a high-hedged garden, her beloved dogs sprawled at her feet. She continued illustrating books until the day she died at the age of 85.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

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 to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.

Comments

Pauline Barnes 's lovely illustrations were to me feminine before I knew she was a woman. There is a softness and a kindness to her art as well as great talent. I gaze at them even now with wonder and I am quite old. I hope she had a lovely life; she certainly added beauty to our world. Onwards and upwards!

I might have said all of this before, in which case I apologise, but I'm going to say it again anyway! I didn't get to read the work of C.S.Lewis until I was a student in my twenties. I loved them despite some of the rather judgemental elements in the narrative, but I would've loved them even more as a child. The reason I didn't read them at that time was because I was rather a timid boy and I was terrified of the woman who ruled our local library like a despotic potentate. She was of the old school be-quiet-in-the-library type and had a pair of steel rimmed glasses that glittered almost as fiercely as the eyes that lurked behind their glass shields. She also had a 'PERM', one of those sorts of hairstyles that middle aged ladies of a certain era indulged in. My mother had a PERM three or four times a year and a fortnightly shampoo-and- set between times. But my mother's was simply a hairstyle, whereas the librarian's was a helmet that looked as unyielding as steel. This was appropriate as she did battle every day with the people who entered her domain. Withering her opponents with blasts of sarcasm and reducing overly enthusiastic enquiries to silence with a shush that sounded like a pit of vipers.

I'd heard of a book that had a talking lion in it and unicorns and centaurs and fauns and I thought it sounded wonderful. But I didn't know who the author was and neither did I know the title. Being a massive fan of Enid Blyton I thought that perhaps it'd been written by her and so went through everything by the sainted Enid on the shelves, of course to no avail. So the only thing I could do was ask the Librarian; but one look at that PERM, complete with its vizor of steel rimmed glasses and the Viking visage frowning beneath it, and my small reserves of courage dwindled to nothing. I was destined never to read the Narnia books until adulthood, something I still regret. But I suppose I gained some small revenge and recompense by writing my own fantasy novels in later life.

Just in case I've offended any modern day librarian, can I just say that apart from despot that ruled my local branch, I've only ever met friendly and helpful people in the libraries I've visited since.

Dear Terri Windling - possibly not a comment to publish, but did the copy of The Stone Table I sent you turn up? I was never sure whether I’d posted it to the right address, or just flung it out into the blue, postally speaking. Anyway, I’m glad the Narnian part of The Child That Books Built spoke to you. Best wishes, Francis Spufford

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