One of the first books I ever owned as a child was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis. Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children – my age and clearly the heroine! – won my heart, especially when no-one would believe her about the existence of Narnia. I re-read the book several times over, and whenever I crept with her through the fur coats to that icy world gripped by permanent winter, it sent tingles down my spine. It became a sort of touchstone for what I was looking for in a good story. Though I grew up disagreeing with some of its themes, as an eight-year-old the religious symbolism went right over my head. Aslan shaking his golden mane to bring back spring was, for me, about the magnificence of nature. What the book provided was a sense of wonder at the ordinary world. I made dens in my own wardrobe and lived in a land of make-believe dreaming up stories about seemingly mundane everyday things that turned out to be extraordinary. The iconic lamppost had worked its magic.
So it’s no exaggeration to say The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of the books that turned me into a writer and led me to become a member of Electrik Inc. We refer to ourselves as ‘inklings’, a fun nickname which isn’t only about digital ink and indie publishing, the group’s purpose. It also conveys a sense of magic just around the corner; that goosebump moment when your imagination is on the verge of something fabulous. How strange then to discover that the great C S Lewis himself was also an Inkling – along with his friend and drinking buddy, the author of a vastly different yet equally remarkable fantasy series, J R R Tolkein …
‘The Inklings’ were a small literary circle, mostly academics of Oxford University, who met every Thursday evening in Lewis’s college rooms to read aloud and critique the books they were each writing. Like us, they were a fellowship of friends as much as writing colleagues. Among the group was the lawyer, philosopher and author Owen Bardfield, and it was to his daughter, Lucy, that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was dedicated.
Rather more informal meetings took place in The Eagle and Child which became a favourite haunt every Tuesday for many years between 1939 and 1962. On a recent trip to Oxford I decided to visit the pub to pay homage. It’s a must for Narnia fans. Built around 1650, The Bird and Baby, as it’s also known, is a warren of small wood-panelled rooms that feel a bit like the compartments of an old-style railway carriage. ‘The Rabbit Room’, where The Inklings met, is at the back and the walls are full of memorabilia. Most intriguing of all is a framed letter signed by eight of them and addressed to the pub landlord, Charlie Blagrove. ‘The undersigned, having just partaken of your house, have drunk your health,’ it declares.
It’s probably safe to assume that a few beers had been consumed at the time of signing. Lewis’s handwriting looks especially wobbly. The document is dated 11th March 1948, the year he completed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We’re told by his biographer that he read it aloud to his friends. And apparently, Tolkein loathed it. The creator of The Lord of the Rings was meticulous in the way he crafted Middle Earth and didn’t approve of Lewis’s jumbling of different mythologies.
Were feathers ruffled at The Bird and Baby? As an Inkling used to forthright editorial debate I couldn’t help imagining the conversation…:‘My dear fellow, you’ve got a lion, a witch, a magical wardrobe, various fauns and centaurs, a pair of talking beavers, even an appearance by Father Christmas. It’s wild beyond belief. Simplify, that’s the ticket. Give Narnia some rules, for heaven’s sake.’
A jowly photo of Lewis stares down in the Rabbit Room. I could almost hear him harrumphing into his pint. ‘At least it’s about ordinary children. Your protagonist lives in a hole, has pointy ears and hairy feet!’
I must have been intoxicated – not by drink, honest! Simply by being in Oxford, that most hallowed of literary places – but, I swear, as I left and headed along St Giles something about the pub sign was different. The child, who at first glance, looked like he was being abducted by a horrible huge bird, was actually smiling … Whatever you think of the world view underlying Narnia (I’d much rather help build Philip Pullman’s ‘republic of heaven’) it’s nevertheless a fairy tale that expanded the imaginations of a generation of children like me.
The lamp light shines on, creating new inklings.
Wishing you a wondrous spring.
Jenny Landor, Co-founder