Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 12, 2012

Haunted Images: Finding a Way to Story

I don’t expect I’ll ever write a novel with fauns, lions, or even witches in it, but I’ve been inspired by reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Laura Miller’s  The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Miller discusses her changing reactions to a series that enchanted her as a child, then later left her feeling betrayed when the Christian subtext was pointed out to her. After investigating what might give these books their power, she returns to some allegiance with the young reader she’d been. “At nine I thought I must get to Narnia or die. It would be a long time before I understood that I was already there.”

I was moved by the information she provided about how Lewis created the series. She refers to the youth he described in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which joy isn’t synonymous with something jolly, but is tinged with yearning. He remembers a flowering currant bush, and a toy garden his brother brought into the nursery, and the sense of longing –“though not for a biscuit tin filled with moss” – that stayed with him, and recurred dramatically on other otherwise ordinary days. This might be the feeling he ascribes to Lucy as she receives her gift of a magic healing ointment. It’s “the gladness you only get if you’ve been solemn and still.”

We can’t predict such feelings, or do much with an analysis, though I like Miller’s suggestion that any small garden contains wild green growing things, just as a short story can seem to contain life. What’s most interesting to me is the connection of haunting memories to C.S. Lewis’s creative process, which was also dependent on imagery. Lewis and his brother played in a wardrobe when they were little boys. He dreamed of a faun under a gas lamp in a snowy wood when he was sixteen. He began a story called “The Lion,” then put it aside. During WWII, children lived in his big house to escape bombing in London. All of these images stayed in his memory, and came into the books with a wardrobe that’s a delightfully specific portal, with its smells and softness of fur coats that can make the children hot and sticky. No one knows why it’s sometimes just a wardrobe and sometimes it lets one through to another world.

In “Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis wrote about how he he thinks through pictures, comparing writing to bird watching. He says imagination “stirs and troubles” the reader with a “dim sense of something beyond his reach.” Much like what he called joy.  We’ll never know exactly how this felt for him, but why not let it inspire our own creative urges?  When I look back to being a girl, I remember that sometimes quiet sometimes yearning self: the girl who felt sometimes shaky, but just as sure that someday things would change. Maybe that’s what I’d call joy, and like his, it wasn’t cheery, but had a strength that came from stillness. I accepted being shy and sometimes lonely, and found solace in reading books. Now, when I write my own, that girl is with me. Both shaky and sure, focusing on small things, and trying to hold a sense of something bigger beyond.

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Responses

  1. Oh, yes! The feeling of something needing to be written is definitely a kind of yearning.

    It’s funny how one’s view of Narnia changes over time. I found it as a child on my own (book order), and didn’t see the Christian references until I was older, either. But I loved it all the more for that. And as I’ve read them over the years to my children, I see more things as well. Places that are now Narnia to me (where I love but somehow can’t stay in any more than Lucy could). Part of a book is what the writer brings, but part of it is also what the reader brings. And I find that the more living I do, the more I bring to that series. Which is curious, because with some books, the more I living I bring to reading it, the flatter the book seems.

    • You said so much in a short space, and thank you for all of it. The layers of a book, the layers of our lives. In the children’s lit class you see the array and the mystery, that some books they reread and love less, some fall flat, and some they find things to love in new, richer ways. C.S. Lewis writes about the best children’s books being for both child and adult, just as you don’t have to give up favorite childhood foods but broaden your taste as years pass. It’s so great you can find more richness here, and I expect it’s quite something to see your children encounter these, too.

  2. Brava!!

  3. I had the same reaction to the Narnia books–when I realized the religious aspect, I felt deceived. Then I remember the hurt I felt when the characters couldn’t stay, almost as painful as the end of the Lord of the Rings, when the key characters go to Grey Havens. I wanted to get on the ship with them.

    There have been a number of books about readers taking literary sojourns, like the one to Wilder’s world. I’ve always started these books eagerly but wound up disappointed. Thomas Wolfe was right–you can’t really go back.

    • Oh, it’s all so complicated. Maybe you can’t go back, but I think it’s sort of fun to try, or watch others. I liked Laura Miller’s book a lot and I liked Wendy McClure’s book about Laura Ingalls Wilder, too, how they bring an older wiser perspective, but still carry the love. But for some books I’m better off with the memory. Read A Wrinkle in Time not long ago, and thought, really, young Jeannine, this is what blew you away? But I can remember that, and still cherish it, even if more critical me is looking for other books.

  4. I can’t help but wonder why there is a sense of betrayal after reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Though C.S. Lewis wrote with is own intentions, what matters in the end is the reader’s reaction, and what they take with them page after page and well beyond reading the final line. If the reader heads off with a sense of wonder, a sense of place or even a surge of heartache as the final moments ensue, then really the words and the characters have done their part.

    I really loved this post, by the way. Thinking about how much our own world and dreams influence our writing, like C.S. Lewis was influenced by his own experiences, makes you want to close your eyes and remember everything, if only to catch a glimpse of a great story waiting to emerge.

    • I think those who feel betrayed often return to what you described, just as you said, claiming the initial wonder. And I think some of what people dislike is simply having people say things like “x really means y.” I have a few students who read this in Catholic high school who loved it as children, but when “taught it” felt the magic disappear. And I’m sure C.S. Lewis would have felt that was a shame, which is why, whatever his intentions, known and unknown, he resisted questions nudging him to make explicit connections. Thank you for writing!


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