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Interview: Katherine Langrish, author

30 April 2021

‘Why shouldn’t Susan like stockings and lipstick?’

There’s a small exercise book in which I wrote, aged five, about the moon “floting jently up like a silver ball”. I began seriously writing stories when I was nine. The inspiration was the Narnia books. I wanted more; so I wrote my own highly derivative Tales of Narnia in an old blue exercise book, and copied some of the illustrations and maps by Pauline Baynes.


I never actually climbed into a wardrobe, but I almost felt Narnia was real, and was grateful when my mother said: “I think you’re meant to feel that.” My parents had some of his Christian apologetics and The Screwtape Letters, and I read his literary criticism, too. I loved the books he loved: medieval poetry, Malory, The Faerie Queene, and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.


My grandmother was a Yorkshire novelist, writing as Leon or Leonora Thornber. Her best novel, And One Man, was about a Yorkshire farming family, and Portrait in Steel was set in the Sheffield steel industry during the First World War. The title’s rare because the warehouse containing the second edition was destroyed in the Blitz. She also wrote radio plays and short stories.


She wrote short stories, too; so writing seemed perfectly normal. I wrote the sorts of books I liked best: fantasies, fairy tales, and historical fiction. After Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Alan Garner were my main models, but I was reading all the time, everything I could.


Fairy stories were one my first loves — Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm — and I carried on reading them. I joined an English storytelling group for pre-school children at Fontainebleau. When we moved to America, I told stories in schools. I picked up writing when we came back to England, and began a Scandinavian trilogy in a Viking age that never was. Once you’ve got Thor in a story, there’s not much more for other characters to do; so I found inspiration in Scandinavian trolls, little house spirits, and nixies.


My fourth book was set on the Welsh Marches, drawn from Gerald of Wales and medieval folklore of Henry II’s court, and underground fairylands in the 12th century, like Sir Orfeo, with an English happy ending.


I’ve had so much fun researching. I’ve been to Roskilde Fjord rowing and sailing a replica Viking ship. I’ve crawled down the tunnels of a Roman copper mine on the Welsh Marches. I’ve explored the old motte-and-bailey castle of Hen Domen, the Montgomery lords’ first keep. I also spent months in the Bodleian studying the culture and stories of North-East Woods First Nations like the Mi’kmaq. I had some idea of North American forests from living in the States three years.


Lewis’s Narnia contains magical elements drawn from a heterogeneous mix of sources: dwarfs and giants from German and Norse legends, fauns and centaurs from classical mythology, Green Ladies from medieval romances, even Father Christmas. Tolkien disapproved, believing that fantasy worlds should be self-contained, without internal contradictions, but I think Narnia owes its richness to the fact that Lewis filled it with all the things he loved. It’s a treasure chest.


Platonism is also an element. In The Silver Chair, when the Green Lady tries to convince the children that they’ve only imagined Narnia, and her underground kingdom is the only real world, Puddleglum stamps on her magic fire and declares, even if she’s right, that Narnia still “beats her real world hollow”. This isn’t St Paul’s “If Christ was not raised then our faith would be in vain,” but Plato’s claim that if, in this imperfect world, we can imagine perfection, then the Perfect must, indeed, exist.


There’ve been a lot of books written about Narnia, but the nine-year-old me was a passionate, opinionated little girl. I wanted to have a dialogue with her about Lewis’s books, and it’s illuminating when our opinions diverge. At the end of The Silver Chair, Aslan encourages Jill, Eustace, and Caspian to thrash the bullies of Experiment. I don’t approve of corporal punishment, but my nine-year old self, who’d experienced bullies, cheered them on.


Lewis was very unhappy at school, and his father sent him away to live with a tutor; so perhaps that’s why he has nothing good to say about schools. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children — grown up to be adult kings and queens — stop young fauns and satyrs being sent to school; and one of his favourite metaphors of heaven is the holidays.


I really enjoyed pulling out all the strands of allusions that I couldn’t have known then, or didn’t connect. I‘d read Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, with the rampaging Babylonian queen demanding her jewels back from the British Museum; but I didn’t connect them with Queen Jadis. The donkey in the lion’s skin in The Last Battle must be inspired by one of Aesop’s fables, and a poem by Spenser called “Mother Hubberd’s Tale”.


The Christianity in the books was something I didn’t notice until I got to the end of The Last Battle, when the identification of Aslan with Christ becomes explicit. And I didn’t like it: it felt like the lights going up in the theatre when the play’s over. Children take what they read at face value. They don’t go looking for meanings; so I was moved by Aslan’s death in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe without connecting it with the Passion. It’s very easy to love Aslan at that age, and one can come to a later understanding of the feelings that the Passion evokes for devout Christians.


I’m not really a Christian any more, and that’s to do with questioning things. Life isn’t static. But Lewis makes the Passion of Christ come alive for a child. I couldn’t understand how we could “love Jesus” as a child, or how to feel about the crucifixion, but it’s very easy to love Aslan at that age and understand the feelings that the Passion evokes for Christians.


The Narnia books have their faults. Lewis eventually dismisses Susan because she becomes interested in lipsticks and boys. Why shouldn’t she like stockings and lipstick? He liked tobacco and beer very much, and he’s just making a theological point. She was practical, sensible, a good shot, and perhaps she’s Martha to Lucy’s Mary. The other girls are wonderful, too. Arabis is gallant and fiery, Jill competent, reliable. Polly’s downright confident and clever — and she’s a writer.


The male villains are as bad as the women, but without the glamour. How does Diggory avoid ending up like his magician uncle? He has the same fatal curiosity which Polly can’t restrain.


Narnia is still wonderful. Read the marvellous description in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader of the almost unbearable light of the silver sea and the “drinkable light” of the sweet water as the ship approaches the edge of the world and Aslan’s country. . . Such an evocation of the experience of holiness.


I had a very happy childhood. We lived near Ilkley, and then moved to Herefordshire for four years, before returning to the Dales, because my mother was homesick. My brother and I were free to roam about together or with the dog.


I live in Oxfordshire with my husband now, and I write, read, and walk our present dog, my brown-spotted Dalmatian, Polly. We have two grown-up daughters.


If you’re asking about an experience of the divine, could you mean that feeling of awe looking up into the night sky, the glory of nature which Coleridge calls “the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language with thy God Utters. . .”? That’s what it means to me. I visited Iona years ago, and felt the light of the sky and sea there was holy.


Standing on a hilltop and looking away to the horizon is when I’m happiest. And I love the sound of waves breaking on the seashore.


The governments of the world finally seem to be taking climate change seriously. That gives me some hope.


I’d like to be locked in the Dales church I was married in, please — and I can’t think of anyone I would rather spend those few hours with than my mother.


Katherine Langrish was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine-year old self is published by Darton, Long­man & Todd at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-913657-07-9.

Read an edited extract of the book here.

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