The back cover of Through the Wardrobe (2010, by Herbie Brennan) invites the reader to: “Step through the wardrobe and into the imaginations of 16 friends of Aslan as they explore Narnia—from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle, from the heart of Caspian’s kingdom to the Eastern Seas. Unlike some books, this one delivers on its back-cover advertisement. Though I had never heard of any of these authors before, I enjoyed almost every one of their essays.
Since I wrote a book on the spiritual themes in the Narnia stories (The Hidden Story of Narnia), I think it is important to note that this collection of essays is not about the spiritual themes in Narnia at all. However, these essays do remind us why The Chronicles of Narnia are, and should be, valued by people of all faiths, as well as those of no faith at all.
I can’t agree with editor Herbie Brennan when he writes in the Introduction: “When stuffy academics discuss the influence religion had on Lewis, they talk of something profoundly unimportant.” However, I can agree with him when he says, in the next sentence, that Lewis’ archetypal, mythic spirituality “enabled him to reach out across every culture and creed to the children of the world.” That Lewis has done this, I think, is undeniable. It is also significant.
In reading these essays I was reminded of the words of the character, C. S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie, Shadowlands: “We read to know we are not alone.” If I didn’t know it before, now I am certain that when I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a pre-teen, growing up in 1970s suburban Southern California, I was definitely not alone. What, in one sense, is more solitary than the act of reading? And yet, the authors of these essays clearly remind us, that reading good literature unites us with many people of many cultures and many times.
Thus, I totally identified with the experience expressed by Deb Caletti in her essay, “Just Another Crazed Narnia Fan.” I was delighted to discover that Caletti walked through the wardrobe at almost the same age, probably during the same decade and in the same state where I did. I also agree with what Caletti states as the reasons for the lasting appeal of The Chronicles. You’ll have to read the book to find out what those reasons are! What I most enjoyed about Caletti’s essay is that she tells us what she loves about Narnia. I get very tired of reading literary criticism that tells me mostly what is wrong with certain books. For the most part, this collection of essays avoids that error.
Brett Hartinger in his essay, “Forgotten Castles and Magical Creatures in Hiding,” shows us how Narnia stimulates in the reader a hunger for the supernatural while at the same time returning us to a joy found in the world of nature.
Diana Peterfreund gives us countless reasons to believe that Edmund is the best character in all of the Narnia stories. Whether you agree with Diana in the end or not, I think you will be entertained by her argument along the way. Her essay, like all the essays in this book, is jargon-free—another plus about this collection.
Ned Vizzini’s essay on “Reading the Right Books” provides an excellent summary of the themes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Sara Beth Durst in her essay, “Missing the Point,” reminds us that reading a good story is better than reading about a good story. So why, you might ask, do some people keep writing and others keep reading books about Narnia? We do it because it’s another way to enter through the wardrobe again into Lewis’ delightful creation.
In his essay, “The War of Light and Darkness,” Herbie Brennan tells us practically nothing new about Narnia, but he does tell us some fascinating stuff about the time-period in which Lewis wrote the Narnia books. Specifically, Brennan reveals to us some fascinating anecdotes about the evil backdrop of WWII, Hitler and the Nazis.
If you are a foodie like me then you will devour with watering mouth the longest chapter in this collection: “Eating in Narnia” by Diane Duane. The only thing better than reading her chapter is actually concocting some Narnian fare using Doug Gresham’s now out-of-print Narnia Cookbook.
A lot of ink has flowed in recent years attempting to cover the topic of Lewis’ supposed sexism, especially as that relates to the Narnia books. Kelly McClymer offers a fresh perspective in her essay—”Serious Action Figures: Girl Power in the Chronicles of Narnia.”
Another hot topic recently has been Lewis’ supposed racism as expressed in his creation of the kingdom of Calormen. Lisa Papademetriou provides a nuanced outlook on this troublesome subject.
Another essay of note in this collection is Susan Juby’s “Waking Up the Trees;” Juby highlights Lewis’ environmentalism.
Then, just when I thought the essays in this book couldn’t get any better along came Orla Melling with her contribution: “Being Good for Narnia and the Lion.” Her essay was autobiographically intriguing as well as being a top-notch reminder of how reading great literature can help to make us better people. Melling also serves up her own personal reasons why she thinks Lewis is not a sexist or a racist.
While I don’t agree with everything that every contributor to this collection says about Lewis and/or Narnia, my margin notes in my copy of Through the Wardrobe attest to my thorough engagement with almost every one of these essays. I think every adult lover of Narnia and serious student of Lewis will find something, and perhaps a lot, of value here.
Will Vaus is the author of Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis, The Professor of Narnia: The C. S. Lewis Story, The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C. S. Lewis’ Spiritual Themes and Speaking of Jack: A C. S. Lewis Discussion Guide (to be published by Winged Lion Press, Spring 2011). He may be found on the web at www.willvaus.com.