THE SACRED IMAGINATION: Stories for the End of the World
In the year that I was born, a little girl named Lucy Pevensie walked through a wardrobe door and discovered a whole new world. The place Lucy entered was quite different than the one she left, for she left a rainy spring and entered winter. Indeed, the landscape around her rather resembled the world in which human life itself awoke, the glacial age of the Pleistocene. Like the deep past itself, the land Lucy discovered was inhabited by different creatures than ours. A faun named Tumnus asked her home with him for tea. It was from Tumnus that she learned that the icy terrain wasn't exactly natural: Narnia (for such was the name of this land) lay in the chill enchantment of a certain white witch who turned all her enemies to stone.
I am sure that Lucy wondered how she had stumbled into this place and what on earth she was doing there. She would soon learn that she had been called, that her existence was necessary to the evolution of this enchanted land. She would discover that she, and later, her sister and two brothers, arrived in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
In 1950, the year that C.S. Lewis published The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, no one doubted that the book was anything but pure fantasy, or allegory, if one chose to accept its Christian storyline and premises. But stories, like lives, change over time, and the distinction may be less clear today than it was in 1950. Many generations of children have longed to follow Lucy into Narnia, and, in the way of the deep magic that existed before time, many of them, or so I am told, have managed to find their way there.
Magic is contingent upon words. Numbers may have the capacity to describe things like curves, acceleration, velocity, distance, quantity and set as these things absolutely and truly are, but an equation cannot transform the rate of gravity into a supernova. Only words, uttered properly, can perform the task of transformation. We know this from Lucy herself. It was words that transformed an idea in the mind of a writer into a curious little girl who wandered into a wardrobe one rainy afternoon and found, on the other side, the unknown country of her heart.
And she would need a very great heart when she came back through after her adventure and tried to tell her sister and brothers what she had found. Although Susan, Peter and Edmund were quite as imaginary in their way as Lucy was in hers, they refused to believe in imagination. They accused her of letting her imagination get away with itself as was sometimes the case with small children. (Lucy was about eight years old when the story begins.) No wardrobe on the upper story of a large house could give way to another country without ones taking a nasty fall; and besides, the seasons were wrong. Finally, and in the age of watches and train schedules, this fact clinched everything, had Lucy visited a snowy country and taken tea with a faun, hours would have needed to pass, and in fact, Lucy emerged from her hiding place before her brother Peter even had time to find her.
Of course, words are quite as capable of dissolving time as they are of transforming themselves into people: have you never lost yourself in a book? Who can read War and Peace or Anna Karenina and not inhabit 19th century Russia, or the Iliad and not be in god haunted Troy, or the Bible, and not get a good whiff of ancient Jerusalem?
Some might call such deep reading escapism, and they would be partially right, especially with reference to Narnia. In every way, Narnia was a place of escape. Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund Pevensie were war evacuees, put on a children's train in London and sent to the country house of a professor. The house itself was a grand old place, many stories high, where the Professor lived with his housekeeper, the dread Mrs. Macready and three maids. And as befitting a house of many stories, the place was itself storied: hence its extraordinary wardrobe.
Although Lucy was born eighteen years before me in calendar time, our births in so called real time coincided nonetheless. Just as I could not count myself fully born until I had emerged from the womb and into the sight of others, neither could Lucy be said to fully exist until she had found readers. But the year in which we both first saw the light of day is not the only thing Lucy and I have in common. Neither is our predilection for mythical landscapes which turn real in surprising ways. Perhaps the most important thing about us both is that we each came to light as World War II raged furiously offstage. For Lucy, the distance was spatial. For me, born five years after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and V-J day it was temporal. But in both cases, war remained indispensable to our tales.