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An unlikely portal

22 November 2013

A wardrobe is not the most obvious choice of entry-point into another world; so why might C. S. Lewis have chosen this as his route into Narnia? Brian Sibley makes some suggestions


Open door: this wardrobe, now in the Marion E. Wade Center, in Wheaton, Illinois, was made by Richard Lewis, C. S. Lewis's grandfather, and stood in Lewis's childhood home, before he brought it to his Oxford house, The Kilns

Open door: this wardrobe, now in the Marion E. Wade Center, in Wheaton, Illinois, was made by Richard Lewis, C. S. Lewis's grandfather, and stood in...

"THEY looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe." Not, as it turned out, any old wardrobe, but a piece of furniture blessed with enchantment. But why a wardrobe? Why on earth did C. S. Lewis chose a wardrobe as a doorway into Narnia?

An allegedly biographical story is told of how, as a child, young Jack Lewis used to climb into a wardrobe in the family's Belfast home, and, in the secret, closeted darkness, tell stories to his brother and himself.

There are those, however, who dismiss this engaging anecdote as unlikely, if not impossible, since Lewis was known to suffer badly from claustrophobia. Indeed, just pages after the legendary wardrobe has been discovered, the author is reminding his readers, more than once, that "it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe, even if it is not a magic one."

Whatever the truth, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is now so firmly rooted in pop-culture mythology that we no more question C. S. Lewis's choice of a wardrobe as an entry-point into Narnia than we ask why Lewis Carroll should have selected a rabbit hole as the way into Wonderland, or why L. Frank Baum settled on a cyclone as the most convenient means of getting to Oz.

APPARENTLY a pointless question, it is one that, I find, will just not go away. Why a wardrobe? As a portal to another world, the door of a wardrobe seems less than promising. It is neither a way out, nor a way through. It is quite unlike those other literary doors of fairy tale and fable: the hitherto unnoticed door at the end of a dimly lit corridor in some ancient, rambling house; or the ivy-covered, rusty-hinged door discovered in a remote corner of a garden wilderness.

A wardrobe door should lead nowhere - other than the inside of the wardrobe. But then, maybe, this is precisely Lewis's point: that the doorway to Narnia does not look like a doorway at all, and can be found only by those willing to suspend their disbelief - or, rather, suspend their belief - in conventional rationality. An act, if you like, of faith.

After all, because the events played out in the land between the lamp-post and the great castle of Cair Paravel can be seen as allegorical, then, maybe, the access route to that world can be similarly viewed.

Although Lewis never made such an analogy, his spiritual conversion had parallels with Lucy's choice of the wardrobe as a place of concealment, when playing hide-and-seek with her sister and brothers.

After sudden and traumatic insecurities wrecked Lewis's previously happy childhood - the loss of a mother taken by cancer, isolation from an emotionally buttoned-up father, and the sudden horrors of banishment to a boarding-school that he found hellish - he retreated into a hiding-place that seemed secure, unassailable, impregnable.

CLOSING the door on his feelings - anger and grief, a fear of life and death, of anything and everything that made him vulnerable - he seemed, for a while at least, to be protected both from the hide-and-seek attentions of a God whom he had no wish to encounter, and from the perils of that most unpredictable and heart-threatening of emotions, love.

Then, after many years, there came a knock at the wardrobe door. It was the God whom Lewis had so long evaded, and, as the door inched hesitantly open, light - although at first no more than a glimmer of understanding - began to creep into the darkness.

But, even then, Lewis did not immediately relinquish the safety of his emotional wardrobe. After all, what is a wardrobe but a fancy name for a cupboard? And a cupboard is simply a box for keeping things neat and tidy and out of sight: a practical way of avoiding unwanted and embarrassing clutter. And, after so many years, Lewis was determined to keep his emotional and spiritual life securely fortified.

The story of that life - the Oxford scholar, the gradual conversion to Christianity, the acclaimed apologist, popular author of science fiction and children's fantasies - is now well known through his autobiographical writings, posthumously published diaries and letters, and a veritable library of volumes de- voted to every aspect of the author's life, works, and beliefs.

There are biographies, ranging from the hagiographic to the iconoclastic; analyses of his ethical and theological books; studies devoted to the land of Narnia, and all the minutiae of its history, geography, and denizens.

AS WITH every publicly owned personality, from princes and presidents to actors and authors, Lewis's personal life has been subjected to microscopic scrutiny, and never more so than in respect of his late-flowering love for Joy Davidman, a divorced, American, Jewish writer who was struck down with the same disease that stole away his mother.

Over the past 30 years or so, this unlikely, yet moving love story of two lives, intrinsically different, yet unexpectedly connecting and en- twining, has been portrayed on TV, radio, stage, and film until it has all but entered the realms of romantic fiction.

And yet, at the very heart of this tale, real life, with all its joy, pain, and human awkwardness, merges with this enduringly famous literary image.

For Lucy, it was the wardrobe - dark and stuffy, filled with the fustiness of old clothes and mothballs - that became magically transformed into a border-crossing to Aslan's kingdom; a realm of revelations and resurrections.

For Lewis, there was the metaphorical wardrobe, filled with doubts and uncertainties. And there was love - first divine, and then human, with their different claims and insistences - relentlessly seeking out his hiding-place, prising wide the door and leading him not out of the wardrobe, but through it, to a place where the ordinary was transformed into the truly miraculous. Here, fear was destroyed by faith, hopelessness gave way to holiness, and death became simply another door.

Brian Sibley is the author of Shadowlands: The true story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £8.99 (Church Times £8.10).

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