Did Lewis himself have a Magician’s Book, a story that bewitched him at a crucial age, a reading experience he kept trying to recapture forever after? If I believe, as I do, that my early encounters with the Chronicles helped make me the reader I am today, then which books made Lewis one of the great readers of his generation, and are there traces of them in the Chronicles?
Of one thing we can be sure: Lewis found these books on his own. In Surprised by Joy, he writes that his parents didn’t share his imaginative, dreamy temperament. “Neither had ever listened for the horns of elfland,” as he puts it (paraphrasing Tennyson), and there wasn’t much poetry around the house. His father was a spirited story-teller, but Albert’s material came from the everyday comedies he encountered in courthouses and railway carriages. As a reader, he preferred the political novels of Anthony Trollope and the essays of the Whig historian Thomas Macaulay, a great proponent of the progressive ideals his son would come to mistrust. The earliest literary inspirations Lewis lists include some retellings of the Arthurian legends (by Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, whose satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he savored for the chivalry, ignoring the “vulgar ridicule” Twain directed at it — a delicate operation indeed) and E. Nesbit’s children’s novels, specifically the trilogy comprising Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet.
Nesbit is the most immediately apparent influence on the Chronicles; she more or less invented the sort of children’s adventure story in which resourceful young characters like the Pevensies tackle predicaments that would flummox many a full-grown adult. The events described in many of her forty-odd books — including the Treasure-Seekers series about the Bastable family — are reasonably naturalistic. But she wrote other novels, the ones Lewis preferred, that introduce child characters to irascible, wish-granting creatures like the Psammead (or sand fairy) in Five Children and It and the eponymous Phoenix, who instructs the same five siblings on how to operate a magic carpet that can transport them wherever they ask. In the final book of that trilogy, an enchanted amulet gives the children the power to travel through time.
These are examples of “intrusion” fantasies, stories in which the fantastic elements break into an otherwise realistic setting — in the case of Nesbit’s fiction, the London townhouses and country cottages of Edwardian England. Stories set in wholly imaginary lands, like Tolkien’s novels, are often called “secondary world” fantasies (a term invented by Tolkien himself). The Chronicles are a combination of the two. They take place in an invented, highly fanciful country, but they usually begin in mid-twentieth-century Britain with ordinary middle-class protagonists instead of hobbits or princes. If anything, the Pevensies intrude upon Narnia, but Narnia also infiltrates them, albeit more subtly and always to salubrious effect; in Prince Caspian, Edmund triumphs in a sword fight with the battle-hardened Trumpkin because “the air of Narnia had been working on him ever since they arrived.” The child heroes of the Chronicles save Narnia time and again, yet they are also saved by it — well, at least, Edmund and Eustace are.
In Nesbit’s fantasies — always comic rather than heroic — the stakes remain child-sized; at their most desperate, her characters want nothing more than to reunite with distant parents. The events in the story may tax their ingenuity, but not their souls. Their adventures amount to scrapes that the children get into (usually as a result of handling magic sloppily) and then out of, not transformative events, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a single one of them without going back to the books, although I re-read them only a few years ago. As a child, I’d stumbled upon Nesbit’s fantasies during my ceaseless search for more Narnia-ish fiction, and at once knew them to be akin to the Chronicles, if not, in some undefinable way, quite as potent. They gave me the nestled pleasure that I felt reading Lewis’ books, but I never closed them with the same longing, or wishing that I could walk right through them into another world.
A few years ago, I found an omnibus edition of Nesbit’s three fantasies in a used bookstore, complete with the original illustrations by H.R. Miller — here again were the thick-haired little girls in white pinafores and black stockings and the boys in sailor shirts and short pants I dimly remembered from the slightly musty copy in my old neighborhood library. From the first page, I realized that what I had recognized as a child, what Lewis had borrowed from Nesbit, was the narrator’s voice: companionable, confiding, occasionally ironic, and conversational in a tone that hovers between big sister and eccentric uncle.
Lewis can be amusing in this voice: “Edmund did not like this arrangement at all,” he remarks dryly when the White Witch suggests that the boy climb into her sledge to warm up. Nesbit, however, is funnier and more free with it, more interested in tweaking her readers about their dealings with the adult world. She begins Five Children and It by explaining that she could have easily written a book about all the ordinary fun things the children did during a stay in the country, “…just the kind of things you do yourself, you know, — and you would believe every word of it; and when I told about the children’s being tiresome, as you are sometimes, your aunts would perhaps write in the margin of the story with a pencil, ‘How true!’ or ‘How like life!’ and you would see it and be annoyed. So I will only tell you the really astonishing things that happened, and you may leave the book about quite safely, for no aunts and uncles are likely to write ‘How true!’ on the edge of the story.”
Could there be a better account of the conspiracy between the author of a children’s fantasy story and his or her readers? Although the grown-up Lewis often objected to the relegation of fairy tales to the nursery, from a child’s point of view, one of the great advantages of the adult bias toward literary realism is that it helps shield one’s readerly privacy. That deft, mock-officious reversal of the current of condescension— suggesting that children have to worry about leaving the wrong sort of book lying around where grown-ups might find it — is another Nesbit signature. The “really astonishing” things that happen in Five Children and It, she implies, are just as true as “the kind of things you do yourself,” but less vulnerable to the corrupting effects of adult approval. Nesbit colludes with her readers without going so far as to pretend to be a child herself; the teller of the tale must necessarily be more knowing than her audience.
From Nesbit, too, Lewis borrowed a way of writing about the helter-skelter doings and tumultuous concurrences of small groups: “Everyone got its legs kicked or its feet trodden on in the scramble to get out of the carriage that very minute, but no one seemed to mind,” she writes at the beginning of Five Children and It. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensies, fleeing to safety with Mr. Beaver, reach a place where, “just below them a dam had been built across this river, and when they saw it everyone suddenly remembered that of course beavers are always making dams and felt quite sure that Mr. Beaver had made this one.”
For reasons not entirely clear to me, adult fiction seldom accounts for the way that a handful of people, especially when they know each other very well, sometimes think collectively as well as individually; perhaps we’d prefer not to acknowledge how readily we abandon our independence of mind. Children, although also fierce protectors of the solitary will, seem less ambivalent about the notion that a group can be a kind of character — and sometimes they crave exactly this feature in a book. I remember talking once with a college friend about how much we had both enjoyed some children’s books (Half-Magic is the best-known) by Edward Eager, who applied Nesbit’s approach to a series of novels about American children in the 1960s; he has a foursome of siblings who unearth various magical talismans and cope with the unpredictable results of granted wishes. My friend came from a more atomized family than mine, so while I remembered the magic in the stories most vividly, what she recalled best was the family’s unity. “The brothers and sisters did things together,” she said fervently, “that’s what I really liked about them.”
Having come from a big bunch of siblings who played together all the time, I tended to take this aspect of my favorite children’s books for granted. (Accordingly, I’ve also never been especially susceptible to movies like The Sound of Music or the terrible 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch, highly sentimentalized visions of life with lots of brothers and sisters.) The fictional togetherness that was an object of longing for my college friend, amounted to mere verisimilitude to me, but I appreciated it all the same. Phrases like “everyone suddenly remembered” and “no one seemed to mind” mimicked the intermittant flocking of my own thoughts and feelings with those of my brothers and sisters or close friends. I couldn’t yet see how the language accomplished this — what, to quote my old Rhetoric teacher it was doing there — but I felt it and recognized it all the same.
Lewis devised his own variation on this technique, a sort of dialog cloud which has become one of my favorite items in his bag of writerly tricks. A flurry of unattributed voices, often from a group of talking beasts, replaces description of whatever the characters are doing and conveys an air of amiable chaos. Here is how the liberation of the White Witch’s palace and all of its enchanted stone prisoners goes down:
“Into the interior they all rushed and for several minutes the whole of that dark, horrible, fusty old castle echoed with the opening of windows and with everyone's voices crying out at once, ‘Don't forget the dungeons — Give us a hand with this door! -- Here's another little winding stair -- Oh! I say. Here's a poor kangaroo. Call Aslan — Phew! How it smells in here -- Look out for trap doors -- Up here! There are a whole lot more on the landing!’”
Is this sort of thing too jolly for an adult novel? Possibly, at least for the kind I usually read, which tend to be written by and for people who spend a lot of time alone in a room. Yet isn’t it perfectly true, and true of some of the best moments in our lives, without being the least bit syrupy? (Of course, no one reading this book is a talking beast who once helped to decommission an evil sorceress’ house, but most of us have been to painting parties or helped someone move house or cooked a big holiday dinner with friends or relatives.) Lewis’ dialog clouds suck the reader into the story in a way that a more conventional description of fauns running up stairs and badgers opening old cupboards never could. If you happened to be one of the Narnians ransacking the witch’s castle in the search for your supernaturally petrified countrymen, you wouldn’t see any of that — you’d be poking your head through a trapdoor or checking in closets of your own — but you’d hear all of those voices, some near and some further off, and know that you weren’t alone.
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