From Spare Oom to War Drobe:
travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self,
by Katherine Langrish,
introduction by Brian Sibley.
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021
C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.From the Afterword.
In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.
Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.
That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.
We’re taken through all seven books in what’s sometimes called the Narniad: they’re treated according to the chronology of the narrative rather than the order of publication, a process approved by Lewis for readers once all the instalments had appeared. We discover the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew and are introduced to Aslan and Jadis the Witch, both of whom reappear in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the best known of the tales. Langrish has justifiably harsh words to say about The Horse and his Boy, both as a child and an adult, but points out its positive points. Prince Caspian again stars the Pevensie children from The Lion, with Caspian serving as a link with the next book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. So far the geography of these new lands has taken us via the Wood Between the Worlds to Narnia, thence to Archenland and Calormen and across the Great Eastern Ocean; The Silver Chair will lead us across Ettinsmoor to Harfang in the Wild Lands of the North. The Last Battle draws us back to Narnia for a final showdown and what may be seen either as the logical end to all these events or the biggest and cruelest disappointment ever, which for child and adult alike could seem like a betrayal.
Through all this Langrish is an able guide, pointing out what delighted her nine year-old self and what went over her head, but she also adds in the details that have become more evident to her over the intervening decades. Many of these take the form of analogues and sources that both inspired Lewis and fed into the saga. These vary widely, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales to Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, from classical mythology to the medieval texts that he taught in his day job at Oxford, from The Arabian Nights to Christian theology and the Bible. Such a weird jumble of influences that exasperated his fellow author Tolkien for mixing fauns and talking animals and Father Christmas, for blurring the line between analogue and allegory, and for general carelessness in plotting and so on. The adult Langrish points out all these borrowings and transformations and is even-handed to awarding bouquets and brickbats; the younger Langrish was troubled by the disappearance of the familiar as the saga worked towards its conclusion.
She takes issue with a piece Philip Pullman wrote in the 1990s critiquing what he saw as the shortcomings of Lewis’s chronicles, including what Pullman saw as misogynistic treatment of female protagonists. I don’t disagree with her assessment of Pullman’s blanket criticism but it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Pullman uses so many motifs common to the Narniad in His Dark Materials, from a wardrobe to other worlds, from talking animals (now in the form of dæmons and armoured bears) to sea voyages and epic battles involving a Creator (the Authority in place of Aslan). We even have the beguiling of a child by a witch-like figure when Mrs Coulter grooms Lyra as Jadis groomed Edmund. Interestingly, though Langrish includes Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia in her bibliography she chooses not to discuss Lewis’s probable appropriation of planetary symbols for his septet of books, I suspect because she had more than enough material for her purposes.
This is, I must admit, my kind of book. It appeals both to my nerdish nature in numerating so many motivic parallels, and to my emotional self which had very strong reactions, some good and some bad, to my first full read of all seven volumes (I’d only read The Lion around half a century ago). From Spare Oom to War Drobe is beautifully and engagingly written, making it easy to follow and accept without reservation. It’s done what I thought mightn’t be possible — make me keen to continue my reread of each chronicle rather than dread the prospect — armed as I now am with a sense of Lewis’s artistry and an appreciation that the Narniad isn’t the clumsy didactic narrative I’d first experienced it as. As the cry in The Last Battle goes, “Farther up and farther in!”