“Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country but for most of us it is only an imaginary country. Edmund and Lucy were luckier than other people in that respect.”
– The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
We'd like to think that Oxford's snowscapes and cobbled streets - not forgetting the Stone Table in Merton, as well as the fauns and lion on St Mary's Passage - come as close as this world gets to that other, magical one. We asked four Oxford writers to tell us about their first encounters with Narnia and its unforgettable cast of characters.
My writing life stammered to a start in Oxford, with a blog—inventively called OxBlog. As often as not, this meant converting gin to words in the corner the Inklings formerly favoured in the Eagle and Child. I was never quite insouciant enough to call it the Fowl and Foetus. My living links were stronger with Tolkien, from whom a Mertonian friend had learnt Elvish. (And, notionally, English).
CS Lewis I knew mainly from association, from Mere Christianity, and more especially from his writing on arts and religion, with which I intended to make an assault on the virtue of a particularly religious artist living in Ireland. The plan, though bold, failed.
I came late to Aslan, and to Narnia. Narni, in Umbria, is not so distant from my mother’s Garfagnana in Tuscany. Lewis’s late-childhood house in Belfast, rich in stretches of corridors and empty rooms, inspired Lucy’s discovery of Narnia, and the Dawn Treader really is a mediaeval Irish iomramh tale. This pleased me.
In time, I will read to a new daughter here...of young girls and wardrobes. Doubtless, preparing her for her own sea voyages to magical other worlds.
At present, I am making words in an Irish-speaking village of Donegal. And in time, will read to a new daughter here, quondam foetus, of young girls and wardrobes. Doubtless, preparing her for her own sea voyages to magical other worlds, whether the Broad and High Street in an adjoining island, or the almost as magical ones of the imagination.
– Pádraig Belton
I fell in love with Oxford long before I lived here. I remember visiting when I was seventeen, wandering the streets alone and thinking that the stones were steeped in knowledge. I remember my childlike glee when I stumbled upon the ‘C.S. Lewis Door’, tucked away down St Mary’s Passage, and the cast iron lamppost beside it. Every time I walk past it, it reminds me of how I first came to own the books.
Narnia was my childhood. I would paw over the books in the local library, elated that there was more than just ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.’ I remember being about seven or eight, on Christmas Eve, late in the day. My dad had just asked if there was anything I had forgotten to ask Father Christmas for that year - a fair concern, he didn’t want to further disappoint a little girl who wouldn’t be getting a pony or a puppy. He scoffed when I timidly told him I wanted all of the Narnia books. But the next morning, under the tree, I opened a vividly coloured box-set of the entire series. In the days before Amazon Prime, in a small Midlands town where nothing really happened, I couldn’t believe it was anything but magic.
Narnia was my childhood...I couldn't believe it was anything but magic.
Now that I’ve grown and read more of the larger Lewis canon, I have gained so much respect for his writings, but the Narnia books will always be close to my heart.
– Amy Maidment
That summer we were at Moose Lake to get away from the heat of the city. Every time we sat down on the dock, horse flies rose up from the water and bit us with their horse-sized teeth. We’d retreat into the cottage, dark and cool and fly-free with screened windows, where my sister would read to us about four children walking into a world of winter.
In my imagination, spring in Narnia was a Canadian summer.
Winter, I knew: we opened the door to winter and snow every year. Four children, I recognised: like Lucy I was the youngest of two boys and two girls. And the green resurrection after the sudden thaw as icicles dripped, the pines shook their branches to release their sharp scent into the sunshine, the rocks by the lake harboured drying patches of lichen. The pauses on the lake fell between the notes of birds returned from far away. In my imagination, spring in Narnia was a Canadian summer.
I could have read the story on my own, but I liked the way my sister told it. As I grew, I’d read and reread each book, coming back to know in my spirit the greenness that follows once winter is done.
– Laura Lamont
I re-read the Chronicles of Narnia every June and December when I was around 8 to 14, during the heady days of school vacations when the hours were light as light after the stresses of term. Those were days before I understood the meaning of allegory; all that mattered was the story’s depth and rhythm, as fresh on each rereading as the first time I discovered Aslan, cried at his death, never quite forgave Edmund for his betrayal, found Caspian a little self-consciously irritating, and never managed to enjoy The Silver Chair as much as the earlier books. As a PPE undergraduate and MPP student, there were always copies of the chronicles on my bookshelves, however limited the excess baggage allowance from Singapore might have been.
I found a home in Narnia before I even understood what such a metaphorical home might look like.
Like the best stories, each reading brought new discoveries: fresh realisations about the symbolism of Santa Claus’ gifts; insights into Lucy’s quiet courage; new ways of seeing the gentle, loving depth in the beavers, Reepicheep, Jill and Eustace’s characters. Like all introverted readers, I think I found a home in Narnia before I even understood what such a metaphorical home might look like. But Jewel the Unicorn had the answer for me all the time, once I knew where to look in The Last Battle: “This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now ... Come further up, come further in!” Even today, I am grateful for how Narnia takes me further up and further in each time I return.
– Aaron Maniam