I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and I think one of the most influential ones in my life has been The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. All told, I would read the first four (in chronological order) of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian. I never quite made it to the three final books, though I owned them all. If anyone ever asked me which book was my favorite (and no one ever did), I would have told them The Magician’s Nephew. It was the first in the Narnia series that I ever read, and it opened up a world of magic to me.
When I was in grade school, my Aunt Linda was sick with ovarian cancer. I spent many weekends traveling to hospitals two or three hours away from home to see her. It was a hard time for me, and I think one of the reasons I really fell in love with fantasy books was because I needed some magic in my life.
Right from the first few pages of this book, though, I realized that it wasn’t just a need to escape that compelled me to read — and love — this book as a child. When the main character, Digory, meets his friend Polly for the first time, she can see that he’s been crying. He explains:
‘And so would you [. . .] if your father was away in India–and you had to come and live with an Aunt and an Uncle who’s mad (who would like that?)–and if the reason was that they were looking after your Mother–and if your Mother was ill and going to–going to–die.’
I also forgot how quickly children’s books start. Digory and Polly meet, they’re friends, they go explore houses. There’s not much build-up before they reach Uncle Andrew’s study and begin their real adventure.
Now, there’s plenty of criticism about C.S. Lewis, but there is at least one thing he does right: captures the enchantment of childhood. Polly has a secret “cave” in the attic of her house, and it’s a place that I would have loved to have as a child. Re-reading this, I still wish I had a place like this.
Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers’ cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers’ cave.
Childhood is a common theme throughout the Narnia series. Peter and Susan get booted out of Narnia at the end of Prince Caspian because they’re too old, and the only people who can save Narnia are children. There’s a little sadness when it comes to leaving your childhood behind, knowing that magic isn’t really real, that you’ll never find a secret world in your closet or get a letter delivered by owl. (My owl with my Hogwarts letter just got lost! I swear!) There’s one passage in the first chapter that captures this exquisitely, when Digory and Polly are discussing what might be in the empty house they’re trying to sneak into.
‘But I don’t expect it’s really empty at all,’ said Digory.
‘What do you expect?’
‘I expect someone lives there in secret, only coming in and out at night, with a dark lantern. We shall probably discover a gang of desperate criminals and get a reward. It’s all rot to say a house would be empty all those years unless there was some mystery.’
‘Daddy thought it must be the drains,’ said Polly.
‘Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations,’ said Digory.
When we talk about the end of childhood, we talk about children losing their innocence, or gaining responsibilities. Maybe every so often, we should think about their imaginations, too, and keeping our own ones intact.
We all have to grow up, but our imaginations don’t have to be a casualty of adulthood.