The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 18, 2020 1:00 am

Through the wardrobe

Classic's lessons continue to captivate, 70 years after first publication

Joe Martyn Ricke

I don't have particularly fond memories of standing in line, except for those happy times in long lines with my children at midnight waiting for wonderful books to make their first public appearance (we call it publication, after all).

We were there. Dressed like Hermione and maybe Hagrid. Sorry.

That boy named Harry was called “the boy who lived.” And great books “live,” too, don't they?

We are celebrating one of the greatest this weekend. On Oct. 16, 1950, C.S. Lewis's first fantasy novel for children – “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – was born. Based on my highly scientific survey (I asked seven friends on Facebook), it is more alive, more important, and more influential than ever.

No, I was not alive for the birthing of the magical world of Narnia. But every time a new reader discovers this great book, a magical wardrobe is entered and readers are changed.

I was already in college when I first read the words, “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.” I had just read “The Lord of the Rings,” and a professor suggested I might like Narnia.

“Watch out, though, you might dream in technicolor for awhile.” Right.

When Lewis himself was asked about the origins of the stories, he claimed that they all “began with pictures in my head.” “LWW,” specifically, “began with a picture of Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Despite the religious symbolism and moral overtones, the imaginative element has come to be more appreciated than ever in recent years.

Many great fantasists, such as Neil Gaiman, disagree with Lewis' ideas yet pay tribute to his visionary storytelling. Lev Grossman claims that all fantasy writers since have felt the need to “talk back to Lewis” through their own novels – “to ask him questions, to share his sense of wonder, and to tell him stories the way he told us stories.”

As a someone drawn to storytelling, I was drawn as much to the strange creatures, the alternate universe and the moments of wonder as I was to Lewis's themes. Local visual artist  Bryan Ballinger says, “What sticks out to me as an artist is how 'LWW' pulls you into its world and its characters. Even now I can clearly picture the mental images in my mind as a child when reading it. That was some powerful stuff.”

How powerful? Just last week my sister Missy gave me a call from Texas in tears. She had been rereading “LWW” and had come to the “death of Aslan” scene. “It is so sad,” she kept saying. “I'd forgotten how sad it is.” Then she added, “This is for children?”

Missy loves her animals (26 at last count). Like Lucy and Susan mourning their beloved Lion, she has more than once held her favorite as it was dying. Part of the greatness of Lewis' novels for children is that he takes suffering seriously, while also providing examples of hope and courage. And talking animals.

My friend Andy is a police officer. He claims that this “simple children's story,” especially the arc of selfishness, betrayal and forgiveness in the story of Edmund, helps him remember what he's doing in a profession “rife with complexity.” The grace extended to Edmund by those he has wronged – his siblings and Aslan – ultimately produced a better person, one who knew his own flaws and showed mercy to others.

Of course, one of the great ways this book lives on is by being read aloud from one generation to another. One friend of mine, a mom, pointed out how specifically reading the lessons learned by Edmund and Peter applied to her two sons. Another friend made reading Lewis her life's work. Sarah Waters, a Shakespeare scholar, works in Oxford where Lewis lived.

My parents read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to me when I was 7. I still remember my father's “beaver voice.” A little older, I was bought my own edition, blue clothbound and silver leafed, a much-treasured possession.

More recently, when I came to choose a topic for my research, it seemed obvious to match Shakespeare with Lewis and the stories that had captivated me since childhood. I am still filled with wonder that I now get to devote my research to delving into and beyond Lewis' magical wardrobe.

Since a hundred of us Zoomed from around the world Friday to read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in its entirety, I predict it will continue transporting our imaginations, helping us face the realities of loss and sorrow, and yet encouraging our hope and faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness and sacrificial love for years to come.

Huntington resident Joe Martyn Ricke, host of Inkling Folk Fellowship, is former director of the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University in Upland.

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