In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighborhood where my family lives, and I’m wishing, with every bit of my self, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so badly I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so badly again.
The place I longed to visit was Narnia, the setting for a series of children’s novels by C.S. Lewis. There are things about these books that I, at age nine, did not yet understand and did not even realize were there to be understood. My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as rocky as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement and reunion. A few years after the day I’m remembering, when I discovered some of the more obvious “secret” meanings in C.S. Lewis’ children’s books, I felt tricked, and for a long time I avoided even thinking about Narnia.
Eventually, warily, after I became someone who reads books and writes about them for a living, I decided to revisit the Chronicles of Narnia. I was thinking about origins. I’d been given an assignment: describe the single book that had most influenced me, that had changed my life. I could have written about Jane Eyre, the first “grown up” novel with which I fiercely identified as a teenager, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first literary monument that was made to breathe and bleed and yield up its splendor to me by a gifted professor. That’s the sort of title most writers would choose when presented with this question. If you’ve ever read one of those articles that asks notable people to list their favorite books, you may have been impressed or daunted to see them pick Proust or Thomas Mann or James Joyce. You might even feel sheepish about the fact that you re-read Pride and Prejudice or The Lord of the Rings or Catcher in the Rye or Gone With the Wind every couple of years with so much pleasure. Perhaps, like me, you’re even a little suspicious of their claims, because we all know that the books we’ve loved best are seldom the ones we esteem the highest -- or the ones we’d most like other people to think we read over and over again.
I vowed to be scrupulously honest about this assignment, and that meant acknowledging that the most momentous passage in my reading life came when I was in second grade. A teacher I idolized handed me a copy -- her copy -- of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was this book that made a reader out of me. It showed me how I could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own. This revelation really did make a new person out of me. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its six sequels countless times. I became one of those children who haunt libraries, checking out the maximum number of titles every week, scouring the shelves for signs that this one or that one would spirit me away to a place almost as marvelous as Narnia. I was notorious at school for sneaking a library book into my lap during class and becoming so mesmerized by it that I wouldn’t hear the teacher when she called my name. I read through recess and lunch hours, deaf and blind to whatever was going on around me.
This aspect of my story isn’t unusual, although I did have the good fortune to find a way to make a living writing about books. Still, being a literary critic isn’t really very much like being a 10-year-old girl, dead to the world in the corner of a playground as she turns the pages of The Dark is Rising. A critic has to write as well as read, and while writing about a book can reveal things you’d never get from simply reading it, it can also make reading a less immediate and visceral experience. I began the long task of learning how to read in this new way not long after I first discovered Narnia.
A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of children. They wonder why don’t they get as much out of books now. If you dig deep to the roots of what makes someone a reader, you’ll usually find the desire to recapture that old spell. But as we get older we acquire another set of reasons for picking up a book: because reading is “good for you,” for example, or because it was assigned by a teacher. People read to fend off the boredom of long flights, to find out what kinds of books get published nowadays, to stay abreast of what’s new, to catch up on what they should have learned in school, to hold their own in cocktail party conversations, to be able to say they’ve read Moby Dick.
No wonder we pine for the days when we read only for ourselves. Many years after I first opened The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I learned that C.S. Lewis, too, was a literary critic, and that he, too, was interested in readerly pleasure. He had the eccentric notion that the delight people take in a book might give us some clue to its worth. In a slender volume entitled An Experiment in Criticism, one of the best books about reading I have ever found, Lewis suggested that the literary preferences of children are significant because, “children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion.”
But the schism between childhood and adult reading can’t be entirely written off to vanity and trendiness. Although I miss the childhood experience of being engulfed by a story, I would not willingly surrender my adult ability to recognize when a writer is taking me someplace I don’t want to go. In my early teens, I discovered what is instantly obvious to any adult reader: that the Chronicles of Narnia are filled with Christian symbolism and that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe offers a parallel account of the Passion of Christ. I’d been raised as a Catholic, but what faith I’d had was never based on anything more than the fact that children tend to believe whatever adults tell them. As soon as I acquired any independence of thought, I drifted away from the Church, and what I saw as its endless proscriptions and requirements, its guilt-mongering and tedious rituals.
So I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise. I looked back at my favorite book and found it appallingly transfigured. Of course, the self-sacrifice of Aslan to compensate for the treachery of Edmund was exactly like the crucifixion of Christ to pay off the sins of mankind! How could I have missed that? I felt angry and humiliated because I had been fooled.
Part of the purpose of learning to read critically is to alert us to an author’s hidden intentions and unconscious biases. Once you realize that a good story has the power to deceive you, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly embrace the ignorance that is always a part of innocence. I was sorry, very sorry, to lose Narnia, but I always would have chosen to know the truth.
For reasons like these, most of us, somewhere along the line, are taught to read with an intellectual distance. At school, we graduate from simple book reports to writing essays in which we’re expected to ferret out the symbols and themes of stories we once might have believed to be the stuff of actual life. We learn who authors are and how to figure out what they’re really up to. But that’s not the end of the judgments we learn to apply. Later still, we will figure out that some books are in better taste than others, and that our own favorites might not number among the acknowledged best.
The critic Clive James has written with chagrin of what he eloquently calls “the radiant books of our youth”; his boyhood enthusiasm for Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction embarrasses him now. Fifty years later, he still remembers the “heft” of a volume entitled The Complete Professor Challenger Stories — remembers it so clearly, in fact, that he thinks of it every time he picks up a book of the same weight. Yet, when James reads Doyle now, he finds only a rummage sale of callow, long-discarded fantasies “superseded daydreams of glamour, sex, bravery and deductive brilliance” which “are always funny when they are not shameful.”
The novelist Graham Greene is another who marveled at the now-alien world of his boyhood reading. “Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives,” he wrote. “In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already ... But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future.” The books we happen to latch onto as children help to furnish our imagination and to a certain degree, our identity. But if we return to them as adults, we sometimes find, as Clive James did, that the décor is garish or uncomfortable. It’s not a place to which we’d care to invite our friends.
Ever since I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for that assignment over a decade ago, the Chronicles of Narnia have presented me with a puzzle, one that would eventually prompt me to write this book. When I finally came back to Narnia, I found that for me, it had not lost its power or beauty, or at least not entirely. Although I am a little bit abashed about this, I am not like Clive James; the radiant books of my youth still seem radiant to me. Yet there are aspects of Narnia I can no longer embrace with the childish credulity that Greene describes. Then again, I am like James in that I’m sometimes dismayed by the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of the Chronicles’ author, and in a way I am also like Greene, in that I re-read these books partly to find what is already in my mind. Nevertheless, what I dislike about Narnia no longer eclipses what I love about it, and the contents of my own mind still have the capacity to surprise me when I study them carefully enough.
What I am not, however, is a Christian; for all the countless times I have re-read Lewis’ books, they have never succeeded in converting me. This, to many casual observers, no doubt makes my continuing enjoyment of the Chronicles perplexing. Most of the critics and scholars who pay any kind of sustained attention to Lewis’s work are Christians themselves, and their faith is the motivation for that attention. To everyone else, Lewis is an apologist for the Christian faith, and that is the only kind of meaning that could ever be found in anything he wrote. The Chronicles are merely religious “allegory” (the term most often — and erroneously — used to describe them in the general interest press) and about as interesting to the nonbeliever as a cruise ship sales brochure is to a man determined never to leave dry land.
Besides, the Chronicles are children’s fiction. They belong to a class of literature that, in the opinion of many, doesn’t merit serious critical consideration. I can see how James or Greene might agree with this point of view: the former finds that the ugly old lamp no longer produces a genie when rubbed and the latter realizes he has nothing left to wish for. Nevertheless, I go on thinking that there is something significant in the Chronicles of Narnia, something more or less apart from their thinly concealed theological messages. I’m unwilling to resign myself to accepting a fathomless gap in the early part of my life, between the reader I was as a child and the reader I am now.
Lewis himself liked to read children’s books occasionally, both the ones he’d loved as a child growing up in Ireland in the early twentieth century, and others that he discovered later; Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite. “A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story,” he once remarked. Lewis was an Oxford don, a bachelor pushing fifty who had very little real-world experience with children, when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Unlike his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, who told an early version of The Hobbit to his children, Lewis had to rely on memories of his own childhood tastes while writing his books. Evidently, those memories lay close to hand; his facility at writing for children has ever since offered his biographers cause to describe him as a man who never entirely grew up.
Lewis always maintained that he chose to write a “fairy tale” because he had something to say which could only be expressed in this way. He didn’t offer much detail as to what that something was, but he did once write that he had fallen in love “with the form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and "gas.” To my mind, these are all ways of describing one variety of good writing, whether for adults or children, and when the Chronicles are well-written — which is often — the quality is not age-dependent. Lewis, however, would have found nothing remarkable in this fact, for he also insisted that “fairy tales” (a term he used to include writings that we’d call “fantasy” today) were not meant only for children. Although the Chronicles were patently intended for young readers, they partake of literary traditions that are as old as the act of storytelling itself.
There is yet another reason to devote the kind of attention to the Chronicles that critics ordinarily reserve for the works of writers like Flaubert or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it may be the most persuasive of all. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis floats the idea that we can determine how good a book is by how it is read. This was an offbeat notion at a time when most critics judged a book by how it was written, and it would become an irrelevant one a few years later, when deciding how “good” a book was would seem immaterial to most academics. But Lewis — who was, above all else, a passionate, omnivorous and generous reader — thought that this might be the best way to appreciate a book’s worth, especially since he regarded the literary mandarins of his day as slaves to pernicious intellectual fads.
A hater of progress, newfanglement and vulgarity, Lewis was not a notably tolerant man, but reading brought out the populist in him. He worked out a set of criteria for identifying truly “literary” readers; their ranks include people who re-read books, those who savor what they read for more than just the plot, and those for whom the first encounter with a favorite book is an “experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”
Nothing on this list dictates what type of book the literary reader ought to prefer; it is the quality of the attention brought to it that matters. There is an uncharacteristic radicalism to Lewis’s further suggestion that if we can find “even one reader to whom the cheap little book with its double columns and the lurid daub on its cover had been a lifelong delight, who had read and reread it, who would notice, and object, if a single word were changed, then, however little we could see in it ourselves and however it was despised by our friends and colleagues, we should not dare to put it beyond the pale.”
He is, among other things, describing the way certain children read certain books, with a fervor that can inspire mystification and awe in their adult counterparts. Such experiences can’t be merely ephemeral, meaningless, but they often seem entirely inaccessible when we look back on them years later. This, at least, is what Clive James felt upon returning to Professor Challenger, and so he was forced to dismiss the whole situation as merely comical. Still, how could he have failed to be formed as a man and as a reader by Doyle’s adventure yarns? We would not expect any other overwhelming emotional experience from his childhood to have left him untouched. Today, James is a gifted, witty critic. Perhaps there is more to Professor Challenger than meets the eye.
The relationship between book and reader is intimate, at best a kind of love affair, and first loves are famously tenacious. A first love teaches you how to be with another human being by choice, rather than out of the imperative of blood ties. If we are lucky, our first love shows us how to negotiate the paradox of entering into a union with someone who remains fundamentally unknowable. First love is a momentous step in our emotional education, and in many ways, it shapes us forever.