Monday 24 May 2021

Guest review by Lesli Wilson: FROM SPARE OOM TO WAR DROBE by Katherine Langrish


"Imagine revisiting a magical place you loved as a child, a place that engrossed you so much that you had to revisit it again and again..."

Lesli Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Lesli Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

It is a very risky business to write about such a much-loved children's book series (to say nothing of films, but I like the books way better) as C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. I used to think I was the only child who ever walked hopefully into wardrobes (I chose my grandmother's rather small one, which did, however, have a moth-bally fur coat in it). Of course I wasn't alone. Katherine Langrish was one, for a start. I should think many thousands of kids did. Langrish also wrote her own Narnia stories, based on the stories that Jewel the Unicorn tells Eustace and Jill in the dying days of that world. She was trying to create more magic, but discovered that the hard work of writing made that difficult. This is a different way in, and whether she recreated the magic for herself, she certainly succeeds for the reader of her book.

Imagine revisiting a magical place you loved as a child, a place that engrossed you so much that you had to revisit it again and again, and even when you went back as an adult the enchantment still gripped you, almost in spite of yourself. Now imagine that you go there with a guide, a guide who has always found it as exciting and enchanting as you did, who is able, not just to walk you back along those old paths of thrilled delight and sadness, mountains, forests, seascapes, but who has extra information you didn't have when you went there - but whose information increases your understanding without threatening to spoil the magic; explains without explaining away.That's how I felt when I was reading From Spare Oom to War Drobe.

Langrish shows us the roots of many of the stories' motifs. The green serpent-witch who abducts Prince Rilian is rooted in the Lindwurm dragons of Norse (and Germanic, incidentally) legend and North of England folk songs, but also in the 'Dame of the fine green kirtle' in a Scottish fairy tale. Aslan's How, in Prince Caspian, so much resembles a Neolithic passage-grave in Ireland, that Langrish reckons Lewis must have known of it, if he didn't visit it (Lewis being a Northern Irishman, born in Belfast). Langrish is well-versed in a wide range of folk tale, this being the theme of her Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog, and the author of a previous book about myth and legend. In addition, she supplies the answer to something that has puzzled me for about 60 years: why it is important, in writing King Peter's challenge to King Miraz (Prince Caspian) to put an h in abhominable (ab homin in Latin, inhuman) Though maybe, I think, it is all too human to murder for a crown.

None of this destroys the wonder of the books. That it doesn't is partly due to Lewis's artistry; he used these themes and images and set them to work in his own story, in his own way. But what we learn from Spare Oom to War Drobe is how no story, of any kind, exists in a vaccuum. All of us who write are swimming in the sea of motif and poetry that has been washing around in the human psyche since language began and the first stories were told; before that, probably, for in the basement of the psyche, as in Jung's dream of descending there, which is recounted in the introduction to this book, there are images and moving objects that stem from pre-verbal times. I am not strictly speaking a Jungian, but I'm quite sure there is such a thing as the collective unconscious.

Langrish even refers to The Waste Land, in terms of the rich infiltration of other writings into Narnia. I would reference the Four Quartets myself, because that poem enchanted me from a very young age, when my parents got the record of Eliot reading it. But there's nothing self-consciously post-modern about Narnia.

We are also reminded of the genuine sadness that infuses the books, particularly when Digory, in The Magician's Nephew, asks Aslan for 'something that will cure Mother', and Aslan's answer is 'Grief is great.' Lewis lost his mother as a boy; when I read The Magician's Nephew, it wasn't very long after I had been taken to say goodbye to my mother in hospital, lying on the pillow, weak and white-faced, like the mother in that book. Luckily, my mother, like Mrs Kirke, did not die after all, but the resonance went to my heart; there are terrible things that adults, with the best will in the world, cannot protect children from. Children need books that boldly acknowledge the pain of that.

Of course the books have aspects that are repellent to modern readers. Langrish doesn't feel that the book is misogynistic, as some have claimed, pointing out that the initiative is often taken by female characters, in particular Lucy, but also the resourceful and skilful Jill. The portrayal of the Calormenes, however, is loathsome, and Langrish as an adult is repelled by it. As for the demonisation of progressive schools, pacifism, vegetarianism, and the glorification of corporal punishment as a means of developing character – well, it was a different age.

But I so agree with Langrish about the dreadful ending of The Last Battle. I read that book with a sense of mounting outrage – though now, reading her account of it, I can see the link between the confusion of truth and falsehood there and what we see going on in our own times. Like her, I hated the idea of a Narnia that was expanding, and the constant travel to a bigger Narnia – what was the point if you couldn't linger? And though I know more about neo-Platonism now than I did, I still think it has been far better described by Plato himself and theologians like the Quaker Isaac Penington. But I also disliked the way in which Aslan morphed into the He who was ubiquitous in church services. Langrish was a child brought up in conventional Christianity, but for her also Narnia was never an allegory of the Gospels. What she does point out is the disturbing parallel between the use of lies to gain power in that final book and the issues that trouble us nowadays.

I referred to the Four Quartets earlier; in its last stanzas Eliot writes that the end of all our exploring should be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time. Reading this book took me back to the children in the apple tree, to the child I once was, (lying on my stomach and eating apples,like Polly in the attic, in The Magician's Nephew) and yes, it has helped me to understand so much more about that place than I did when I first went there.

 From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Katherine Langrish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is reviewed on this blog by Penny Dolan.

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