Recommended reading: The Magician's Book

Church

Last week I met a friend in our village churchyard (an outdoor, Covid-safe setting) to talk about Narnia, prompted by our reading of From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self  by Katherine Langrish, among other C.S. Lewis-related works. During our long, rich conversation, I was reminded of an earlier volume: The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, published back in 2008 -- so I went home and pulled the book off the shelf to give it a second read.

The Magician's BookIn The Magician's Book (as in the new Langrish volume), Miller examines her personal relationship with the Chronicles; explores C.S. Lewis's life and literary influences; and casts a shrewd eye over the underlying themes of the Narnia sequence. The two authors cover similar ground and yet these are two markedly different books -- largely because Miller (raised in California) and Langrish (raised in the north of England) had very different lives as children and are very different writers today: one a literary critic, and one a folklorist and author of children's fiction. Each of the books has its clear strengths and to chose between them comes down to personal taste. For me, the Narnia evoked by Langrish is closer to the one I wandered in my own youth -- and yet, reading Miller's text brings strong flashes of recognition too. She is particularly insightful on the differences between Lewis's and Tolkien's work, on the syncretism of Lewis's imagination, and on the influence of William Morris on the early fantasy genre as a whole. The chief difference between these two paeans to Narnia is that Miller views the Chronicles through a distinctly American lens, Langrish through an English one; thus reading their books in tandem makes for a rather interesting conversation between them.

Having already given you a taste of From Spare Oom to War Drobe, here's a snippet from The Magician's Book. In an early chapter, Miller writes of her young passion for Narnia:

"Do the children who prefer books set in the real, ordinary, workaday world ever read as obsessively as those who would much rather be transported into other worlds entirely? Once I began to confer with other people who had loved the Chronicles as children, I kept hearing stories, like my own, of countless, intoxicated re-readings. 'I would read other books of course,' wrote the novelist Neil Gaiman, 'but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn't an infinite number of Narnia books.' Later, when I had the chance to talk with him about the Chronicles in person, he told me, 'The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true. There was a level on which I was absolutely willing at age six, age seven, to accept them as a profound and real truth. Unquestioned, there was definitely a Narnia. This stuff had happened. These were reports from a real place.'

"Most of us persuaded our parents to buy us boxed sets of all seven Chronicles, but I also saved up my allowance and occasional small cash gifts from relatives to buy a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of the few times in my life I've ever succumbed to the collector's impulse....This was not about obtaining a possession, but about securing a portal. I was not yet capable of thinking about it in this way, but I'd been enthralled by the most elementary of readerly metaphors: A little girl opens the hinged door of some commonplace piece of household furniture and steps through it into another world. I opened the hinged cover of a book and did the same.

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague

"Why did I fall so hard and so completely, and why was a land of fauns and centaurs and talking animals so exactly what I wanted to read about? Not long ago, a friend told me about her nine-year-old daughter's infatuation with Narnia. My friend had grown up loving historical novels about 'prairie girls,' and while she didn't disapprove of her daughter's appetite for fantasy, it baffled her. 'I just don't get it,' she complained.

"If you had asked me at the same age why I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe better than, say, Little Women or any other story that was about lives more like my own, I wouldn't have been able to answer; it seemed crazy to prefer anything else. The best analogy I can make is a corny one, to the film version of The Wizard of Oz and that famous moment when Dorothy ventures out of the drab, black-and-white farmhouse that's carried her all the way from drab, black-and-white Kansas and into the Technicolor of Oz. Who in her right mind would poke her head out for just a sec, then slam the door shut, and shout, 'Take me back to Kansas'?

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague

"Once upon a time, people used to label the kind of book I would come to crave -- the kind 'with magic,' as I usually thought of it -- as escapist. Consequently, readers with this taste often have a chip on their shoulders. Lewis, who enjoyed the occasional H. Rider Haggard adventure or H.G. Wells novel in addition to Anglo-Saxon epics and medieval allegories, wrote several essays defending science fiction and 'fairy tales' from the scornful advocates of stringent realism. I, on the other hand, came up in the age of metafiction, postmodernism, and magic realism; realism no longer commands all the prestige. Lewis's arguments on behalf of fantastic literature feel a bit superfluous to me. Still, I can hazily remember, long ago, having adults -- librarians, friends' parents -- suggest to me that I liked books 'with magic' because I wanted to escape from a reality that, by implication, I lacked the gumption to face. Perhaps this still happens, say, to kids who obsess about Harry Potter. Or perhaps adults are now so thankful to see children reading that they don't quibble with the books they choose.

"Did I use storybooks to get away from my life? Of course I did, but probably no more so than the kids who chose Harriet the Spy instead of books about dragons and witches. (For the record, I read and liked Harrriet the Spy, too.) Insofar as they are stories at all, all stories are escapes from life; all stories are unrealistic, or at least all of the good ones are. Life, unlike stories, has no theme, no formal unity; and (to unbelievers, at least) no readily apparent meaning. That's why we want stories. No art form can hope to exactly reproduce the sensations that make up being alive, but that's OK: life, after all, is what we already have. From art, we want something different, something with a shape and a purpose. Any departure a story might make from real-world laws against talking animals and flying carpets seems relatively inconsequential compared to this first, great leap away from reality. Perhaps that's why humanity's oldest stories are full of outlandish events and supernatural beings; the idea that a story must somehow mimic actual everyday experience would probably have seemed daft to the first tellers. Why even bother to tell a story about something so commonplace?

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague 3x

"There were particular fantastic elements that drew me to Narnia at that age, and they were not always what people associate with fairy tales. I disliked princesses and any other female whose chief occupation was waiting around to be rescued, but I also had no great interest in knights, swords, and combat. The Chronicles, which are relatively free of such elements, spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning. The youngest part of myself loved Narnia's talking animals. The girl I was fast growing into fiercely seized upon the idea of possessing an entire, secret world of my own. And the seeds of the adult I would become revelled in the autonomy of Lewis's child heroes and the adventures that awaited them once they escaped the wearying bonds of grown-up supervision."

"The Chronicles...spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning." That's such a wonderfully concise description of the power of the very best fantasy, pulling us into the worlds we long for without even knowing we do, recognizing them, somehow, from the very moment we step inside. Worlds "with magic": yes, that's what I longed for as a child too.

It's what I long for still. And find, in the realm of story. Chagford Church

The Living Churchyard

Chagford Church

The Magician's Book by Laura Miller

Pictures: The paintings are from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Michael Hague (Atheneum, 1983). All rights reserved by the artist. The photographs are of the "living churchyard" surrounding our village church, a community bio-diversity project. The church building is 13th century, with substantial portions rebuilt in the 15th.

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Magician's Book by Laura Miller (Little, Brown & Co., 2008). All rights reserved by the author.


Books on Books, Part 7

Narnia map by Pauline Baynes

Continuing yesterday's discussion, I'd like to share a bit more from Katherine Langrish's new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self. Here she discusses The Magician's Nephew, which is the first book in the Narnia timeline (though not the first written or published):

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"For those who came to The Magician's Nephew as I did, after reading several of the others first -- this would include most of its original readers -- there is a brisk, fresh energy to the narrative with its new characters and new setting. The first four pages (three minus the illustrations) form a brilliantly economical scene-setting and tell us everything we need to know about Polly and Digory, and Digory's Uncle Andrew, mad Mr. Ketterley. Within another page or so Polly is showing Digory her den in the attic, a dark place behind the cistern where she keeps a box containing various personal treasures, a story she's writing, and of course provisions: apples, and bottles of ginger beer which make the den look satisfactorily like a smugglers' cave. 

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Polly is tough, practical, and confident, with a strong sense of self-respect. (And she is the only character in all the Narnia stories who is a writer. I wonder what she wrote about?) She is an excellent partner for the impulsive and more emotional Digory. In his 1998 article for The Guardian, 'The Dark Side of Narnia,' Philip Pullman has complained that in the Narnia books Lewis is guilty (among other crimes) of sending the message 'boys are better than girls.' Possibly it's not fair to take someone to task for an opinion in a newspaper article written so long ago, and some of Pullman's accusations are justifiable, but hardly this one. I cannot see it and never have. To base an accusation of sexism on 'the problem of Susan' alone is to ignore the strength of such different characters as Polly, Lucy, Aravis and Jill -- all gallant, courageous and memorable. I do wonder how recently Mr. Pullman had read the books.

"A little girl myself, I certainly didn't feel excluded or denigrated. The easy, bickering comradeship between Polly and Digory was just what I was used to in E. Nesbit's books. Moreover, Polly sounded like me: I wrote secret stories! With my brother, I loved to make dens -- in hedges, cupboards, in corners of the playground, in barns, in attics, sheds and lean-to's, in patches of waste ground, on building sites. (Pacing stilt-like, ten feet up, across the open floor-joists of a half-completed house, my brother fell across and through them, badly scraping his ribs. We didn't confess.)

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Just as the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers play detectives and spy on the empty house next door, Polly and Digory explore further down the attic tunnel, hoping to come out in the abandoned house next-door-but-one. They try to calculate how far they will have to go, and I don't notice any nonsense about boys being better than girls: the children are equally and endearingly erratic with their sums, getting different answers, trying again, and even then not getting it right. Their mistake leads them to emerge in the wrong house. Pushing open a little door in the rough brick wall, they see not a barren attic but a comfortably furnished room -- lined, of course, with books. Everything is silent. No one seems to be here. Full of curiosity, Polly puffs out the candle-flame and steps through the door...."

But Katherine, like many other readers, is not forgiving of C.S. Lewis's portrayal of Susan in The Last Battle, the final book of the sequence (and arguably the most flawed):

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"At the very end of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Ignorance, who has followed the hero Christian from the City of Destruction (the world) to the Celestial City on top of Mount Zion (heaven) is refused entry. Instead of keeping to the King's Highway he has taken the by-roads, dodging the hardships and not learning the lessons, so when he comes to the gates he has no passport and is turned away:

"'Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.'

The Last Battle illustrations by Pauline Baynes"Susan is made an example of by Lewis to illustrate the same point. Her sins, according to her friends, are numerous. Eustace complains that she regards Narnia as a childish game. Jill says Susan's only interested in 'nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Polly -- Polly! -- snarkily accuses Susan of having wasted all her time at school waiting to be the age she is now (is this really the sensible, responsible Susan who was so excellent at swimming and archery?) and predicts that she'll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"It is a ludicrous prediction: Polly cannot possibly know how Susan will behave for the rest of her life. Even God doesn't judge you until you're dead. What Lewis clearly hopes to convey is that Susan has been lost to worldliness, but it's a sorry try. Nylons? What else did he think a young woman would put on her legs in 1955? The reference to lipstick may have worked (a bit) when I was a pony-mad nine year-old with no conception of ever wanting to use make-up or talk to boys, but it's poor evidence for the eternal damnation of a character who simply seems to have reached adolescence or committed what A.N. Wilson has called 'the unforgiveable sin of growing up.' Lewis has grafted all this on to Susan's character, and the whole thing is trivialised by the shocking indifference of her family and friends as they line up to drop a few catty remarks and dismiss her:

"'Well, don't let's talk about that now,' said Peter. 'Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.'

"Lovely fruit trees? Huh!"

I had the same reaction to Lewis's betrayal of Susan when I was a child, though I could never have articulated the problem so well; and half a century later, I still feel that same indignation. Susan deserved better. But as for the other girls in the seven Narnia books, to me they were heroes all.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes

From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish

Words: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The Narnia map and book illustrations above (from The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle) are by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008). All rights reserved by the Baynes estate.


Books on Books, Part 6

In the Wood Between the Worlds

The next volume in our discussion of books about books is From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish, pictured here in the most Narnia-like place I know: a bluebell wood at the edge of Dartmoor.

A chroncile of the Seven Chronicles

I loved The Chronicles of Narnia when I was young, studied C.S. Lewis as an undergraduate, have read countless books by and about him since (from biographies and Inkling studies to Laura Miller's The Magician's Book), and it's fair to ask: do we really need a new book about Narnia? It turns out we do. For me, this journey back into the magic lands I'd known best as a child woke feelings I had lost since then: the intensity of my engagement with Narnia, and my utter belief in it on that long-ago day when I first tumbled through the wardrobe with the Pevensie children.

Katherine Langrish is the author of five fine books for children, a splendid book about fairy tales and the Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog on folklore, myth, and fantasy; and I can think of no better companion to have in the Woods Between the Worlds. Full disclosure: the two of us are friends, and it happened in an unusual way. In Katherine's words:

Narnia illustration by Pauline BaylesNow here is the story of how I had the happy chance to meet Terri Windling. My younger daughter is best friends with her step-daughter, and occasionally, as young people do, she would toss out a small scrap of information about her friend’s family:

"Her step-mum writes."

"Does she?  What sort of thing does she write?"

"I don’t really know, but she’s very nice."

So it took me ages to get around to asking more questions.  (Note to self: always ask more questions!) Presumably a similar rivulet of information was flowing in the other direction too....Eventually however, the penny dropped."

Honestly, what are the chances that two best friends have mothers who write fantasy, and that it took us such a long time to make the connection? But I digress from the purpose of this post, which is to give you a taste of Katherine's book, and to convey what a rich and necessary read it is for all who love Narnia too.

In the book's Introduction, Katherine writes:

"It is impossible to exaggerate the effect the Narnia stories had on me. I loved them deeply, jealously, selfishly: was so possessive about them that when my mother suggested she might read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a bedtime story to me and my brother, I vetoed it. Aslan would have growled, but I wanted to keep Narnia all to myself. (My brother read them anyway.) Another time I remember saying tentatively to my mother, 'It almost feels as if Narnia is real,' when what I meant was, 'Narnia has to be real,' because the alternative -- that it had no existence except between the pages of a book -- was unbearable. My mother didn't spoil anything for me by telling me that Aslan 'is' Christ. She just replied quietly, 'I think you're meant to feel that way.'

Narnia illustration by Pauline Bayles"Philip Pullman, one of Narnia's most outspoken critics, has suggested children enjoy the series because they lack discrimination: 'Why the Narnia books are popular with children is not difficult to see. In a superficial and bustling way, Lewis could tell a story, and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you over the bumps and potholes. But there have always been adults who suspected what he was up to.'

"It's true that children are generally inexperienced readers, but that doesn't mean they're not sensitive ones. I couldn't have explained it very well when I was nine, but I knew there was a qualitative difference between the pleasure I got from reading the adventures of Enid Blyton, say, and my far deeper love of the Narnia books. Yes, I enjoyed Lewis's storytelling, but the real enchantment lay in the rich silence of the Wood Between the Worlds, the black sky of the city of Charn, the almost unbearable light of the Eastern Sea, the bleak, gusty heights of Ettinsmoor, and the stars falling like prickly silver rain near the end of The Last Battle. These were the things I loved about Narnia, the things that drew me back again and again. When eventually I noticed the Christian messages in the books, they seemed unimportant by comparison.

Narnia illustration by Pauline Bayles "Then decades passed. The books sat on my shelves. Except for reading a couple to my own children, who were more interested in Harry Potter, I didn't return to them even though I write for children myself. Had they simply become so familiar that I didn't feel the need, or had the charm faded? What might they mean to me now?

"I thought I would read them again, remind myself of what had once enchanted me and discover if it still had the power to do so. Over a period of about eighteen months I re-read all the Seven Chronicles, and this too became a labour of love: a personal journey hand-in-hand with my nine year-old self, tracing as many paths as we could through Lewis's thick forest of allusions not only to Christianity, but to Plato, fairy tales, myths, legends, medieval romances, renaissance poetry and indeed to other children's books. There were many things I hadn't noticed when I was nine, but you don't have to know where a thing comes from before you can enjoy it. I never connected the cold queenliness of the White Witch with Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen, nor did I realise that, as Queen Jardis, she owes even more to the Babylonian Queen in Edith Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet. Even though I'd read those stories, they remained separate for me. I saw differences where I now see similarities, and both are important. The Lady of the Green Kirtle was fixed in my imagination well before I met the courtly, dangerous, green-clad queen of the fays riding down from the Eildon Tree on her milk-white steed in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:

   Her shirt was o' the grass-green silk
   Her mantle o' the velvet fine.

In fact the land of Narnia owes its character, richness and depth to precisely the heterogenous mix of mythologies and sources of which Tolkien disapproved. It is like The Waste Land, for children."

Frontispiece art by Pauline Baynes

While others have written insightful texts about Narnia, both laudatory and critical, there are three aspects of Katherine's book that cause me to love it above the rest:

Narnia illustration by Pauline BaylesFirst, she evokes the sheer wonder of falling into Narnia for the first time, calling up the child in me who loved the books uncritically, alongside the adult reader who appreciates them in a different way. Second, the depth of her Lewis scholarship is evident, but the book is never dry. Katherine unpacks the symbolism of the stories, teases out their influences and references, and explicates their history without disturbing their timeless magic....and that's not an easy thing to do. Third, as a writer herself, she has an interest in the mechanics of the books: what makes them work, what doesn't, and how they relate to other children's fantasy novels written before or since.

Through reading From Spare Oom to War Drobe I have learned some new things about C.S. Lewis, viewed his work from new perspectives, and thought more deeply about the Narnia stories than I have in years. The book made me want to visit the Chronicles again; and, better still, it inspired me to keep on writing, creating my own doors into enchantment.

Narnia illustration by Pauline Baynes

To learn more about From Spare Oom to War Drobe, I recommend the book launch video below, which contains a terrific interview with Kath by our mutual friend Amanda Craig (whose books I also love). 

The art today is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008), from the first editions of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-156). You'll find more of it, and more about the artist, in this previous post: Books on Books, Part 2.

Waiting for magic to happen

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Books on Books, Part 2

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Continuing the discussion begun yesterday....

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 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. 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."

Lucy Mangan's Bookworm is the second of the "books on books" I am recommending this week. Like Spufford's The Child That Books Built, Mangan's Bookworm combines a bibliographic text with childhood memoir in order to look at the ways books act on us in our earliest years. More on this tomorrow....and more on Narnia soon after....

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 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.


Secret Threads

Fabric Toadstools by Mr Finch

From The Problem With Pain by C.S. Lewis:

"You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

"Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw -- but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.

Moth Pulling a Tiny Coach by Mr Finch

Moth collection by Mr. Finch

"Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of -- something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

"You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' "

Hares with sprouting bulbs by Mr. Finch

Mice and Dark Grey Mushrooms by Mr Finch

This, to me, is what fantasy literature (and mythic arts) does best: it tugs on those secret threads, evokes bright worlds half-glimpsed at the corner of our eyes...where the heart's desire lies just ahead, but always just ahead, beyond the next turn of the page.

Dream Fox by Mr Finch

Owls by Mr. Finch

Rabbits by Mr. Finch

The gorgeous soft sculptures here are by Mr. Finch, a textile artist in Leeds, near the Yorkshire Dales, with a name straight out of a fairy tale.

"My main inspirations come from nature," he writes. "Flowers, insects and birds really fascinate me with their amazing life cycles and extraordinary nests and behaviour. British folklore is also so beautifully rich in fabulous stories and warnings and never ceases to be at the heart of what I make. Shape shifting witches, moon gazing hares and a smartly dressed devil ready to invite you to stray from the path. Humanizing animals with shoes and clothes is something I’ve always done and I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.

Kneeling hare and small weeping wolf by Mr. Finch

Textile Hares by Mr Finch

Magical creatures by Mr. Finch

"Most of my pieces use recycled materials, not only as an ethical statement, but I believe they add more authenticity and charm. A story sewn in, woven in. Velvet curtains from an old hotel, a threadbare wedding dress and a vintage apron become birds and beasts, looking for new owners and adventures to have. Storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten…."

Visit Mr. Finch's website see his wondrous work. I love it deeply, and we'll be looking more tomorrow.

Soft Sculpture Snails by Mr Finch

Mole Army by Mr. Finch

Botany Badger and Foxes by Mr. Finch

Spider by Mr. Finch

The passage by C.S. Lewis quoted above is from The Problem of Pain, published in The Centenary Press' "Christian Challenge" series in 1940. I first read it for a class on Lewis  way back in my university days (as a non-Christian, it's not a book I would have been likely to pick up myself), and though it is indeed quite theological, it contains interesting passages on a number of other subjects too. In class, we read it in conjunction with Lewis' Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, which was a fascinating pairing. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the C.S. Lewis estate and Mr. Finch.