Today is the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. According to Wikipedia, it is the 9th bestselling book of all time with over 85 million copies in print. You can read about the other bestsellers here: Bestselling Books of All Time.
43 years ago, almost to the day, is when I first walked through the wardrobe door into Narnia. Everyone who has read the Narnia books and loves them has their own story to tell of what that reading has meant to them. For me, that first introduction to Narnia has led to a lifelong journey with C. S. Lewis. I have told that story in, among other places, my book, The Professor of Narnia. Here is an excerpt....
Our story begins when I was nine years old. I was living in Southern California with my family. I was in the fourth grade in public school, and that year I had the great blessing of having one of the most wonderful teachers in the world. Her name was Mrs. Ewing. She was a fantastic teacher for any number of reasons. I remember at Christmas time she would decorate our classroom with a Christmas tree, a hand-painted nativity scene atop a bookshelf and popcorn strings hanging from the ceiling.
Mrs. Ewing was the first person to teach me how to write. I had been writing and illustrating my own unpublished stories since I was very young. However, Mrs. Ewing taught me how to really write by giving me a big assignment: the writing of my autobiography! Though a child of nine, it seemed such a difficult task to write up my whole life story. I still have the book; it consists of twenty-one chapters, handwritten in cursive on sixty-four half-pages of newsprint, bound in decorated cardboard. On the first page is written in pencil: “A book to be proud of. Mrs. E.”
Mrs. E could be tough as well as kind. I remember each day when we came in from recess we had to stand in a perfectly straight line outside her classroom door. Mrs. E would rattle off some mathematical equation and the first person to give the right answer would have the honor of being the first person to enter the classroom and take his or her seat. Mrs. E would continue shouting out equations for us to complete until everyone had given a correct answer. I, however, often had the sad distinction of being the last person to give the right answer to an equation. Though Mrs. E persisted in her attempts to make me a more expert mathematician, I liked her anyway.
Of all the wonderful things that Mrs. E did for our class, the best thing she ever did was to introduce us to a whole new world. Every day in class she would read to us a chapter from some sort of storybook. And so one day Mrs. E opened a book and began to read aloud to the class: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” By the end of the first chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was enchanted. My parents had never read any fantasy books to me when I was growing up and so, up until that day in Mrs. E’s class, I had never chosen to read a fairy tale for myself.
I think, at first, I was enchanted with C.S. Lewis’s description of winter itself, after Lucy enters the snowy wonderland of Narnia through the wardrobe door. In New York, where I had lived till age seven, it snowed a lot, but we had moved to California where I missed winter; I missed white Christmases. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reminded me just how magical winter could be.
I learned, years later, that C.S. Lewis was entranced with winter, just as I was. He lived in the British Isles where it doesn’t snow very often, or even very much when it does snow. And so I think he longed for snowfall just as much as I did as a New York refugee transplanted to desert-like Southern California. Lewis’s love of winter is portrayed in a letter he wrote to a young correspondent in 1955: “We had our first frost last night—this morning the lawns are all grey, with a pale, bright sunshine on them: wonderfully beautiful. And somehow exciting. The first beginning of the winter always excites me: it makes me want adventures." (Walter Hooper, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. 659.)
Lewis shared with me this magical sense of wintertime adventure
through the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His words cast a spell over me and thus I was transported into the even deeper magic of Narnia itself. I fell in love with Mr. Tumnus the Faun, the Beavers and, of course, the great lion, Aslan.
The Lion was the only one of The Chronicles of Narnia that Mrs. E read to our class, but by the end of her reading of that book, I was hooked. I felt I just had to read the rest of the series. And so, at my insistence, my parents bought me the boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia. I still have those treasured, dog-eared, paperback copies, with black and white drawings by Pauline Baynes. I was a slow reader, but gradually I devoured all seven books. Prince Caspian was perhaps my favorite at first—partly because of the battle scene where a Telmarine head gets walloped off. I think every nine- year-old boy loves a good battle with knights in shining armor!
I don’t remember when some of the Christian meaning in The Chronicles first became clear to me. I’m sure that, at first, I just loved the books because they were wonderful stories. There was no obvious connection for me between Narnia and the Bible. At that time in my life I found Sunday school and church, the few times I attended, to be boring beyond belief. And so nothing could have been further removed in my mind from the adventure of Narnia than the tedium of church. Eventually I did start attending church more regularly, once I began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but that is a story for another day and another book....