Thank you to so many of you who joined us for our journey to Narnia with Katherine Langrish last week! We are delighted to share a report on this event by School of Education PhD student Anita Lawrence. Anita tweets at @lawrea.
Sometimes when we are engrossed in the study of literature, especially that written for children, it’s easy to forget who the target audience is. Sometimes we need to step back from the application of reading theories, from the search for authorial intent and read a book again through the eyes of our childhood selves. And that’s exactly what the children’s author, Katherine Langrish has done with her evocative new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe. Her journey through Narnia as an adult reader in conversation with her nine year old self was the topic of her talk for the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic – a journey along with which the international audience was whisked away at breathtaking speed as we revisited the books which have had such a profound impact on children’s reading, and children’s literature over the last 70 years.
Katherine described how her book came about following a series of blogs on fantasy, fairytales and folklore (steelthistles.blogspot.com) when, upon sharing the Narnian Chronicles with her own children, she found they weren’t as keen on them as she remembered herself being. Harry Potter, it seems, had taken over from the world of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter. In order to try and find out why, Katherine revisited the books to see how they had changed when reading with an adult eye. What did she remember of them from her childhood, and what new revelations would they hold for the grown up reader?
Exposure to Narnia evokes strong memories in many readers – Katherine spoke of the tangible recall of “bristly armchairs” when reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. My memory of my first encounter with Narnia is listening to my mum reading it aloud to me – the books lend themselves to reading aloud beautifully and I know exactly where I was sitting and how it felt during those precious read-aloud times. I’ve read the books aloud to countless classes since then, even holding whole school story sessions to read The Magician’s Nephew to children aged 4 to 11 and I hope they remember not only the story but also the visceral sensations of the hall floor, and the swoosh of local traffic and the smells coming from the canteen as we shared the magic of the book together. Because the thing about Narnia is that we desperately want it to be real. For the nine year old Katherine, there was no option for it not to be real. “You’re meant to feel that way,” explained her mum, when the young reader expressed her belief that Narnia had to exist.
The books are explored not in order of their publication, but according to their ‘internal chronology’. Katherine explained how this approach helped to create a coherent approach. It isn’t without its problems, however, as she explained – Lewis’s eclectic take on events leaves gaps which the adult reader on revisiting can see clearly, where events and characters don’t always relate to the subsequent back story. But reading them in order of how the story unfolds made narrative sense.
Katherine talked about Lewis’s distinctive voice, explaining how his voice remains the same regardless of his audience, be they child, literary critic or Christian apologist. She suggested that he read with a child’s directness and that this influenced the way in which he wrote – was he an ardent reader of children’s books as an adult, she mused? – and compared his directness of approach to that of the medieval writer. Medieval literature, she suggested, has the same candour. It can be subtle and nuanced, but at its heart, it aims to tell a story with colour. Narnia is like that, she said.
The specialness of Narnia as a place was apparent throughout Katherine’s talk. She described the sense of longing for Narnia which forms a thread through all the books, even though the reader knows little of the history of the land at all. Lewis provides glimpses of a great and long history but little in the way of detail. And when Narnia is restored, the children are sent away leaving the land as something almost too slippery to grasp. Narnia remains on the edge of our understanding and experience; a place to be visited and to be desired, but, perhaps, not to be known. And that brings us to Aslan. The terrifying, beautiful, all-knowing, all-seeing lion who frightens us with his roars and his fearsome power, and yet into whose mane every reader wants to snuggle as Lucy and Susan did before his sacrifice at the Stone Table. Katherine talked about how Aslan’s character changes throughout the Chronicles – the lion incarnate in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; remote in The Horse and His Boy; his late appearance in Prince Caspian as a faith character; his manifestation as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; as remote, good but absent lawgiver and redeemer in The Silver Chair; and finally, in The Last Battle appearing only at the very end on the Day of Judgement. Katherine explained how she wished she could have spent more time exploring the changing character of Aslan in her book. But would the nine year old Katherine have seen Aslan changing? Perhaps not. Perhaps for a child, Aslan will always be the soft, protective, frightening but just creature that you want to hold and stroke and feel. Perhaps for the grown up, Aslan is necessarily more remote.
In exploring Lewis’s inspiration, Katherine spoke about his childhood in Ireland and the Irish imagery and scenery that comes through in the stories. There are clear influences from numerous classic texts, not least of which include Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the stories of St. Brendan. His Irish roots are reflected through the storytelling, and the sense of longing which is apparent throughout the Chronicles. But there are well-documented problems with the books – the racist undertones and the accusation that his stories are sexist amongst them. Katherine refuted the latter, describing feisty girls who hold their own just as much as the boys, and suggesting that writers envisaged their readers as either boys or girls and that the reader mentally shifted gender in the reading and read as a boy or a girl accordingly. The mental gymnastics of the child reader, accepting and internalising worlds and stories and realities which, as boring, rational adults we sometimes struggle with, are celebrated and, I would suggest, yearned for, in Katherine’s work.
The many questions from participants about influences, television and film adaptations, maps, food and imagery (there’s a whole blog to be written on the architectural aspect of the books with their passageways, attics, labyrinths and doorways!) showed just how ingrained the Chronicles of Narnia are in our rememberings of childhood readings of fantasy. As adults, we still yearn to explore all those aspects of Narnia which entranced us as children. Perhaps, suggested Katherine, writers for children are particularly skilled at preserving the child within? And whilst she acknowledged that we don’t get more than a fraction of the story on first reading of Narnia, somehow Lewis has managed to create a world which enables us as adults to return to its Chronicles and find new things which resonate not only with our adult selves but the child we preserve within. In wrapping up the session, Katherine suggested she would find it easy to go on talking about Narnia into the night. I suspect many of the audience would have willingly continued with her.
It’s impossible to put into a short blog the entire world of Narnia. Katherine has made an exceptional job of re-exploring that world in her book. What would the child Katherine make of the book, asked one audience member? She would definitely disagree with some bits, admitted Katherine! And therein lies Narnia’s, and Lewis’s power. We come at the books and the world of Narnia in multiple different ways as we grow older, as experiences change us and our view of our world. For my children, aspiring to be Harry Potter has coloured and influenced their world view – I’m sure my youngest still expects a letter to arrive from Hogwarts at any moment apologising for the delay in summoning him to school. For my children, being magical like Harry has been something to aspire to, to yearn for throughout their childhoods. For me, growing up with Narnia, it was the very fact that Lucy and her siblings were so utterly normal that made me want to be with them. Magical things happened to them – and so maybe they could happen to me as well. It’s been many years, but I remain hopeful. As Katherine explained, Lewis built on the Platonic view that, if you desire and believe in something enough, it must exist. And with that in mind, I’m off to explore the back of the wardrobe in the attic.
If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:
More information about the book here.
You can access Katherine Langrish’s website here.
To join the Centre’s mailing list to receive newsletters about our events, activities, and opportunities, please click here.