i suspect that most bookish childhoods begin unhappily. When I entered the second grade and Mrs. Beldon — a teacher as crisp and tart as Mary Poppins and a woman I adored — loaned me a copy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” I felt I had been sucked entirely into the book. It seemed to close behind me, shutting out the dullness and low-grade misery of my actual life. Now I understand that the force drawing me in was equal parts attraction and aversion — I was as eager to get out of my own world as I was to enter Lewis’ imaginary country, Narnia.
The story, in this first of seven “Chronicles of Narnia,” begins when a little English girl, Lucy, hides in a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek played with her brothers and sister. The children have been sent to a big country house during “the war” and are desperate with boredom. Lucy gropes her way to the back of the wardrobe, and keeps going, the coats around her turning into the bare branches of trees. She finds herself in a snowy wood, where she meets and befriends Mr. Tumnus, a faun. Eventually, she brings her siblings through the wardrobe and the children become involved in saving Narnia from a wicked ice queen with the help of the land’s resident deity, a lion-god named Aslan.
I liked about Lewis’ books what children usually like in stories — talking animals, magical events and thrilling adventures — but I also found in them a confident, lucid morality that made sense to me, unlike the guilt-ridden Catholic muck I was raised in. It seemed clean and fresh and, best of all, based on the idea that being good and being happy weren’t mutually exclusive, were, in fact, intimately linked. I didn’t know what World War II was yet, and I studied the illustration of the wardrobe, a type of furniture I’d never seen, but at last I’d found an understanding of life that I could believe in.
Most of all, I loved the idea that a girl might walk through an ordinary door and into a whole new universe. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is full of battle scenes and moments of high metaphysical drama, but none of these are as vivid to me as Lucy’s blind fingers feeling wool and fur turn to brittle twigs. I used to long so powerfully for that same passage, I could almost sense the transformation against my own palms. It seemed to me that the need (my need) for Narnia’s existence was so great that the place had to be real, somehow, somewhere. There had to be something more than the world I was stuck in.
Lewis’ books are very, very English and very Christian, in a particular way. The latter I didn’t realize until I was a good deal older, and this discovery filled me with anger and bitterness. I had been betrayed, tricked into giving my heart to the very noxious, twisted religion I had tried so hard to elude. Recently, I re-read them and, although I’m not a Christian, I found myself admiring still the clarity of Lewis’ sense of what really matters in life: treating each other decently, not succumbing to the temptation to feel superior, the courage to defend our own integrity. The writer in me was impressed by the easy grace with which he sketched atmosphere and character. But, at the same time I formed all of these adult evaluations, some part of me responded to Lewis’ words as if they were more than just the artful creation of a shy Oxford don. This is real, that voice said, this must be real. I think that this must be how many people feel when reading the Bible.
I don’t know if Lewis’ books merely spoke to a fundamental, smothered part of myself, or whether they actually helped create the person I am today. I do know they made a bookworm out of me; again and again I sought the same engulfment in novels. Even now I view each book as a sort of wardrobe — most are full of old clothes and other uninteresting items, but every once in a while, one turns out to be the portal to a brilliant new world.