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.
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 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:
Now 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.'
"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.
"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."
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:
First, 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.
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.
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.