Farther up, farther in

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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.

The Princess and the Goblin

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!”

35 thoughts on “Farther up, farther in

    1. I never read these as a child, only as an adult, so find it hard to imagine how I’d’ve received them, but in that Katherine’s dual viewpoint was a great help. I’m sure you’d enjoy this, whether or not you reread the Narniad first: she gives a précis of each instalment in her discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. JJ Lothin

    Interesting idea! I had the Narnia tales read to me at an impressionable age, when I had no idea of the now-obvious symbolism (eg, Aslan), and they certainly made a lasting impression.

    Not sure I’d feel able to pick them up again and have my memories upturned …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Written for kids, and obviously enjoyed by them, but dissected by adults and often dissed by them, the Narniad is such an odd creation I feel. Should one accept it without reservation and preserve a treasured childhood experience or risk dissatisfaction and disappointment? Not an easy choice!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        I think that, for now, I’ll hang onto the memories! And some of them are particularly haunting … The Charn Bell (had to look up the name!) from The Magician’s Nephew, for example:

        Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
        Strike the bell and bide the danger,
        Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
        What would have followed if you had.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I get that. And there will be plenty of new memories to put in the bank!

          That ringing of the bell is interesting. There’s a Snowdonia folktale which you might know of a shepherd who discovers sleeping knights in a cave but is frightened off when, accidentally brushing against a bell, the sleepers start to wake. There is no instruction about ringing the bell, however, it’s done by mistake, but when the shepherd rapidly exits the cave it can never be found again.

          There are also versions of the discovery of a sleeping king with his warriors in a cave where there is no inscription about sounding an instrument but failure to do so means the warriors won’t arise to save the country in need: one rhyme says “O woe betide that evil day | On which the witless wight was born, | Who drew the sword — the garter cut, | But never blew the bugle-horn” (Sewingshields in Northumberland) or in the Richmond version (Yorkshire) “Potter, Potter Thompson! | If thou had either drawn | The sword or blown that horn, | Thou’d been the luckiest man | That ever yet was born.”

          In the Lewis fantasy the ringing of the bell turns out badly, but in the sleeping king legends not to awake the sleepers, on purpose or accidentally, nor to stick around, is the big mistake.

          https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sleep.html

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            Thanks for that, Chris – I didn’t know about the sleeping knights/kings folktales – though I imagine CS Lewis did!

            I think what I particularly like about the Charn Bell take is the idea of feeling you have to take action only because you know that if you don’t, you’ll drive yourself mad, wondering what would have happened if you had!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. That’s the cunning of Jadis, isn’t it, the literary equivalent of the big red button labelled DO NOT PRESS. 😁 And yes, CSL knew the Arthurian legends alright, using elements of it for This Hideous Strength.

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  3. Sounds terrific! These books were so formative for me but they do have problems. I will always maintain that Lion should be read first though. I really don’t think Lewis gave much thought to the reader’s experience when he was asked that question.

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    1. In fact, The Lion was the only one of the seven I read in the 1970s or early 80s, before ever I read the one-volume collection, and I agree probably the best introduction. It’s the next instalment I’m aiming to do a deep read of, having posted a review and a couple of posts about The Magician’s Nephew. I think you might enjoy Katherine Langrish’s discussion, Lory, lots of excursions into the problems you mention as well as praise for the bit Lewis got so right.

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  4. Sounds great! I read the Narnia books in my very early teens and loved then. I suspect I would get distracted by the didactic message nowadays, but hope the love of the stories would come back. Though I was always least fond of The Horse and his Boy – and I get very stubborn about reading order, as I experienced them in publication order first time round. Maybe they and LOTR need to be my next big re-reads!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is great, Karen, it’s had lots of love on Twitter, which is where I first heard about it, and luckily the Twitterati I follow got it right! I seem to have found myself in the position where I’m posting about both Narnia and Middle-earth almost simultaneously — completely unplanned as it happens — with another LOTR post in preparation hard on the heels of the last one. Happy to see another favourite blogger following a similar path… 😁

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  5. Sounds like my kind of book, indeed!
    I’m happy you were able to discover at least a tiny bit of Narnia’s magic – I agree, though, it’s much more difficult for adults than it is for children. Luckily for me, my adventures mirror those of Langrish, as I was able to enjoy Narnia as a kid and return there afterwards for an adult journey as well ;). For the record, though, I’m firmly in the anti-Last Battle camp, as you can probably imagine – this and The Horse and His Boy are IMO by far the weakest books of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Ola, both those titles did not work, either for me or it seems for many others. I’m hoping that my long slow reread of the series will give me more insights into precisely why they fail for me (though I sort of know why) but also what may be said in their favour, if anything. If it’s of interest, Langrish too expresses much the same discomfort about them.

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  6. This has given me a great deal to think about. I’ve treated myself to a copy of Katherine Langrish’s book but am saving it for when I can devote uninterrupted time to a proper read. The Narnia books were the ones that turned me into a true reader as a child and I reread them often. TLTWTW and the Dawn Treader were favourites at the time. I have never read them as an adult as I dread spoiling the memories. However I now think I should do with this book as my guide. Even as a child I felt uncomfortable with The Last Battle but as a ten year old I couldn’t articulate why. There are many issues aren’t there. Thank you for your thoughtful review, Chris.

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    1. I remember rereading The Box of Delights and feeling the same unease as the resolution of The Last Battle; though Lewis is more ambiguous about it than Masefield, the notion that Narnia and the Pevensie adventures therein might only be due to dreams struck me as a cop-out.

      And here’s the thing: Susan escaped the doom of her siblings and friends. Do you know if anybody has written a Narnia sequel involving her future in the US? Anyway, I’m pleased you found this a worthwhile review, Anne, and hope you’re soon ready for the Langrish. 🙂

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  7. Happily read these as a child and read them to my children which gave me a chance to know them again through the mind of a child. And, indeed, have re-read them just a few years ago as a mature (old) adult and enjoyed and admired them even if I found some to be brilliant, some to be merely good and I didn’t much care for The Last Battle.

    Agree with you about Philip Pullman both in that he has obviously pillaged Lewis and unjustly pilloried him. There is an injustice in the way Susan is treated in The Last Battle but this isn’t misogyny.

    Enjoyed this post very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Simon, I’ll be interested to see what I think about The Last Battle when I finally get to it for a reread, and to wonder whatever happened to Susan (she’d be about eighty years old now if that final volume is set in the mid fifties, so if still alive she might have a thing or two to say). I’m out of kilter with many commenters here as I never read the chronicles until I was advancing in years — I’ll never now know what magic Narnia would have bespelled me with in my own formative years — but I’m pleased this post recalled past pleasures at three stages in your life!

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  8. This does look very interesting indeed. I read and loved them as a child but as I was precocious and had already walked out of Sunday school aged about 8 due to the hypocrisy I perceived, I did note the religious symbolism in The Lion and The Last Battle (which I always hated). I liked Horse because I was a pony-mad child, of course didn’t see the racism and sexism in it at the time. I read them over and over again still and think I could probably manage this without rereading the Narniad itself.

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    1. I think you’d find this an easy read, Liz, it’s in no way a dry academic text but feels like the best kind of conversational writing, almost as if she was writing to you as an individual. You wouldn’t need to read the chronicles again as she does a very commendable synopsis as she discusses each volume.

      You are due the highest respect for walking out of Sunday school at that age and for those reasons! I wish I’d had the strength of character to call out hypocrisy at that age — indeed at any age until I became much more politically (with a small ‘p’) aware and atheistically strident.

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    1. That’s no reason to be ashamed, Nicola, I didn’t read the whole sequence until this century was well under way and even, a few years earlier, The Lion wasn’t a proper read, just a quick and rather disgusted skim through. With your scholar’s cap on now you may find a lot to get your intellectual muscles agitated! 🙂

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  9. Here I am still on a blogging hiatus and all I can think of is how wonderful a group read of the Narniad followed by Langrish’s book would be! (host it, Chris, host it next year!)

    Coming to the series as an adult not having read it as a child I found the books completely engaging and except for some of the sibling rivalry that got a little tedious all the books more than held my attention. My favorite book of the series, I think will always be The Magician’s Nephew, but LWW and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are close seconds. And yes, there are some problematic treatments of characters that wouldn’t pass muster today, but I am forgiving of the historical context in which writers find themselves.

    I like how Langrish’s book appeals to a reader on a variety of levels, that is always a true gem.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, you temptress! Seven books, one a month, beginning in December? Or November if we begin with The Magician’s Nephew? Hmm. I’ll think on it…

      Lewis does have an engaging style — when he’s not being too avuncular — which suits both the adult reader and the child, but he’s not always pitch perfect (the drawn out squabbling and the unfortunate period prejudices). One of the things I liked about the Langrish book was its fair approach, never patronising, which weighed the pros and cons and let readers feel they were coming to a just conclusion for themselves.

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  10. So here’s a vote for Laurie’s suggestion; it would be a great thing if you decide to host such an event, Chris! Meanwhile, this post is perfectly timed as I’ve heard mention of this book and had noted it down to pursue. Furthermore, although I read Lion and loved it as a child it’s only last winter that I read the Narniad in full. So I feel like I have all bases covered and am ideally placed to get the best from Langrish’s book! I won’t be getting to it just yet – perhaps just as well in case you do choose to follow up on Laurie’s proposal 😄

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    1. Aargh, more pressure! But I promise I’ll think about it, Sandra: I’m a phobic where commitment is concerned (yes, I know my partner and I are coming up to our golden wedding anniversary, but—!) so I shall have to work out how one might make it manageable if I do go for it. Let’s see! (But don’t feel you have to wait before reading the Langrish.)

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      1. And please don’t feel pressured, Chris! Just know that if you should decide to do anything I would love to participate! I won’t wait re the Langrish, I promise. Meanwhile, congrats on that upcoming milestone with your lovely lady. That’s a different sort of commitment altogether – a different league!

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        1. Thank you, Sandra — we first met in 1971 and were married a year and a day later (shades of The Owl and the Pussycat). I’m definitely considering a Narniathon however, come what may!

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          1. Oh my goodness, a Narniathon! Marvellous name! Not that I have any expectations 🤣 Instead I’m imagining you and Mrs Calmgrove sailing away in a beautiful pea green boat ⛵ 😉

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      2. Just popping in to say, no pressure Chris for a readathon/readalong or whatever you want to call it, in terms of commitment or complicated organizing. I am having a wonderful time with a year-long Thomas Hardy readalong that is simply organized by the month. Each month we read the title and discuss the last weekend of the month. The moderator throws out maybe three questions and we use those as springboards. You can post the questions on your blog and we could discuss in the comment section?

        And we sure do not want to get in the way of your Golden Anniversary. Wowee!

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        1. Yes, this plan looks like the sort of thing I had in mind, thanks, Laurie! The only problem is in what order to read the books in. I think that when I propose this readalong I’ll put up a poll to see what potential readers would prefer and go from there; I’ve got a volume Revisiting Narnia (edited by Shanna Caughey) which has an essay on exactly this issue which I’ll probably use as a basis.Now, the only question is, when to start the ball rolling? …

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