Through the wardrobe, and what I found there

Laura Miller's fabulous The Magician's Book is the story of her relationship with C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. It's wonderful: clearly written and honest, the story of a story as well as the story of a reader. Reading her book made me think of my own reactions to The Chronicles.

Miller writes of loving The Chronicles wholeheartedly at first, of wanting nothing more than to be able to go to Narnia someday, and then, feeling terribly betrayed when she discovered the Christian symbolism in the books. I remember a similar cycle of love and betrayal, but mine came differently.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time in second grade, and I realized on the first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus. And I was fine with that - it didn't ruin the story for me at all. If anything, that was the first time that I felt any sort of realization of what the death of Jesus was supposed to mean to me. Lewis makes it so clear - Edmund was a jerk, and he made a mistake that he couldn't take back, and then things got so much larger than that. I could see how someone could behave like Edmund much more than I could understand the disobedience in Eden or Judas' betrayal. Aslan was real, and people loved him, and you could see the horror of his death, and the joy of his resurrection - I cried at them both. (I sometimes still do.) Jesus was a guy in a story that, to be honest, I wasn't really that interested in reading, someone I loved in the way you love a relative you've never met - because you're supposed to. And the stylized and formal and flat prose of the biblical versions of the Passion did nothing to make me feel pain over his death or delight in his resurrection.

No, my betrayal came later, in The Last Battle, and it was twofold. There was, first, The Problem of Susan. Susan, who does not get to go back to Narnia because, "she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up." Here's the thing: Susan was my favorite of the four Pevensie children. And as someone who, in second grade, liked to wear pretty dresses, and put on lipstick when I played dress-up, I was furious that those things, things that seemed specifically associated with being a girl, were enough to keep you out of Narnia. The betrayal got worse a few pages later, when I realized that Lewis seemed to be saying that those things were enough to keep you out of Heaven as well. And that, in order to create Heaven, Lewis destroyed Narnia.

That, for me, was the last straw, and the reason that, while I have reread my favorite books in this series - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy - over and over, I've only reread The Last Battle when I've needed to for academic reasons. Lewis tries to create a place that's better than Narnia, one whose beauty and wonder continues to unfold as the lucky people who get to enter (and, oh, I had problems, even then, with the people left outside the stable door) go further up and further in, but he doesn't. I loved Narnia, and so, with all the passion in my young heart, I hated the new place that was supposed to be better. It wasn't. And I knew, reading, that Lewis was talking about going to Heaven, and I didn't care. Narnia was better.

Like Miller, I read The Chronicles differently now, as an adult, as a medievalist and academic, as a writer, than I did as a child. I see the flaws and the beauties, and there are many of both. And I see how these books have shaped me, as a reader, as a writer, as a person, and I'm grateful for them.

And I still wear lipstick.