Francis Spufford on Childhood books 4: Why Narnia matters
For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic).
Of course he devoured Tolkien’s Middle Earth (which seems to have been his first introduction into the realms of fantasy and in fact serious reading), and loved Ursula le Guin‘s Earthsea (which I now feel inspired to revisit). But it was perhaps the very aspect of Narnia that Tolkien despised most was what inspired him the most: the fact that Narnia intersects with the real world (often with a deliberate and delightful cultural mash-up – after all, can you imagine Father Christmas wandering into Middle Earth on a visit to Hobbiton? I don’t think so!). [NB all the images in this post are Pauline Baynes‘ lovely original Narnia illustrations]
But my deepest loyalty was unwavering. The books I loved best 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 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 forms 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 the 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. I had a book-a-day habit to support, and there were only seven of them after all. But in other books, I was always seeking for partial or diluted reminders of Narnia, always hoping for a gleam of the sensation of Narnia. Once felt, never forgotten. (p86)
How refreshing to have a modern critic speak of books with such unalloyed and uncynical delight (something which characterises the whole of this super book). Even more surprising is to find one not only with an understanding, but also an appreciation, of what Lewis was seeking to do theologically.
Bridging the Physical and Metaphysical
To explain how Narnia does this, Spufford neatly summarises the modernist mindset that Lewis was so convinced by before his Christian conversion.
Now imagine a circle. Inside the circle is the territory of sense-experience: everything we ever touch, see, taste, hear or smell, and know to be the case because we sense it. This includes not just the initial sensations but all the factual knowledge that develops from them, al the feelings and deductions that pertain to your existence as bodies in the world: everything. Outside the circle lies the domain of metaphysics, defined as the class of all concepts whose existence cannot be demonstrated logically from the data of our senses. Here be, not dragons, but such postulates as God, eternity, perfection, a meaning to events that we do not put there ourselves, ultimate purpose for human actions. Whether or not the ideas outside the circle are nonsense according to the ordinary understanding of the word – the philosophers disagreed – they are certainly non-sense judged by the criteria used inside the circle…. For [Wittgenstein in 1921] language ended at the boundary of the circle, and with it, existence in any sense that language was capable of describing it. It was not even meaningful to talk about going ‘beyond’ that boundary. There was no outside. The line of the frontier was the curved edge of the universe. It had no other side. You could only talk about human existence happening against a background of profound mystery.
C S Lewis signed up to this map, but he did not like it. His imagination contradicted it; need to contradict it, perhaps. (p88)
So when he came to Christ, famously as ‘the most reluctant convert in England’, he never abandoned his logic, but could legitimately and emphatically integrate it with his imagination. And Narnia is the most wonderful evidence of that. For in Lewis’ creation, our world has many (what we might call) thin places to intersect with the metaphysical and eternal (a subject I’ve returned to before on Q: with reference to Robert MacFarlane’s Wild Places, and U2’s last album No Line on the Horizon)
Among the things [his conversion to Christianity] meant to Lewis, one was that he border around sense-experience was now permeable. He had found an infinitely large object for his longing, and the map was changed. Its topology was still the same. There was still a circle, and it still divided two domains, one inside, one outside. But the space beyond the circle, which had been bare and empty, which had signified the vacuum of metaphysics, now represented a fullness that could only be dreamed of, and yearned for, from within the boundary line. Beyond the circle, everything was richer, and more solid, and more real. ‘If we must have a mental picture to symbolise Spirit, we should represent it as something heavier than matter.’
… And this did not just apply to spiritual things, and to elusive sensations, but to the entire fabric of the physical world. A deeply carnal individual, Lewis always imagined heaven in carnal, you might say hyper-carnal, terms. It was not just the place where we will encounter immortal love, and see the true stars shine by comparison with which the stars of our familiar sky are dim, sad glow-worms. It was also the home of the immortal sausage, more brown, more popping, more savoury in its skin than the shadow-sausages we know now; of immortal beer, and immortal tobacco, and all the other things Lewis enjoyed. It was the place where feeling would reach its fruition, its consummation. There, when you did the Keatsian thing and burst joy’s grape against your palate fine, a hand grenade of true grapishness would go off in your mouth, and send its total message of cool pale green flesh, sweet and yet acidic, to overwhelm every nerve in your body. (p92)
It’s not every day we hear that being a carnal Christian is something to aspire to! But in the sense Spufford means it here, it’s absolutely right, and indeed, biblical (if Jesus’s Resurrection body is anything to go by).
Going through the Wardrobe
Of course, we can’t squeeze Narnia too hard into Christian parallels (a mistake I used to make and which only led to confusion). It is not itself a picture of heaven;after all, Narnia itself gets recreated at the end of the Last Battle. But it is a world where the metaphysical as well as the physical is regarded as utterly real. And that is why going through the wardrobe is so thrilling. As Obi Wan said to Luke Skywalker when he first sensed the Force, ‘you’ve taken your first step into a larger world’ (not that Lewis would have had much truck with George Lucas’ pantheism!). This is the thrill of escaping the confines of the modernist’s closed universe and breathing in deeply.
Lewis was always evoking ecstasy. His metaphors kept opening little momentary windows on paradisiacal sensation as he imagined it. (p96)
And one way he did that in Narnia was to be a cultural magpie:
Aslan was both a talking lion and something else at the same time: I already know that the story of him being sacrificed and coming back to life was a kind of cousin to the story of Jesus. And now, re-reading the seven Narnia books as I write about them, I find borrowings everywhere, of specially loved names, ideas, situations, atmospheres. Narnia is a patchwork.
… No wonder that Tolkien, with his carefully accumulated elvish etymologies, was scornful. And yet the Narnia books are unmistakably unified by Lewis’ common delight in all the heterogeneous stuff he knocked it up from, and by the poetic (as opposed to realistic) intelligence he applied, starting with such small details as the green silk ribbon around the box of Turkish delight – whose colour carries over, into an object like the work of a particularly decadent West End chocolatier, the fairy-tale sign for venom. Barring a few (a very few) tonal mistakes, all of Narnia is adapted in the same way to appeal directly to immediate, sensuous belief. The fabric may be thin, but it is always rich. Lewis beat out all his materials into one continuous, shivering leaf of story. (p100)
As a result, you could say that his legacy has been followed by mashup-merchants like the writers of The Simpsons, the Toy Story movies or Simon Pegg.
Yearning for Narnia
As a teenager, Spufford inevitably grew out of Narnia. He tried reading the classics of the Eng lit canon, but couldn’t get into them until he was an adult. His main sanctuary became science fiction. I resonated less with this in terms of my own reading – I only really got into serious SF as an adult, and that only in an occasional (and certainly not obsessive) way. But he never forgot Narnia.
None of these [science-fiction] books, though, made me yearn as Narnia had done. Although the passionate desire to be in the world of the book had faded out of the stories that stories that originally inspired it in me, it remained my most coveted emotion – my definition of the best thing that reading could give. SF interested me, entertained me, occasionally frightened me. Sometimes it ran a rivulet of true wonder through me… (p185)
He moves from that to discussing horror, meta-fiction, and even pornographic writing, before closing. But what made this book so special was the total absence of literary snootiness or condescension when talking about his childhood books. He doesn’t include books because he feels he ought to, or to appear impressive or intellectual.
He is never afraid to say that he gave up on Middlemarch after only a few paragraphs or that he loved Little House on the Prairie (and in the chapter The Town, he goes on a pilgrimage to the De Smet where the books are set). He simply opens up the world as it was opened up to him through his childhood reading.
And in a cynical and highly critical (not to say snobbish) culture, this is a rich tonic indeed.
Previous posts from the book: