Stepping Through the Wardrobe

Posted on October 28, 2011 by

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“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more mothballs?” she thought, stopping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.

 Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light head of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowlfakes falling through the air.

And this is how everything begins. Lucy Pevensie steps into a wardrobe, and into a magical wood filled with talking animals, a kindly faun, an evil witch, and a Great Lion. And at the same time, she stepped into our hearts and minds, and made the phrase “stepping through the wardrobe” mean so much more than it ever had.

Some quick searching on Google for the words “stepping through the wardrobe” will reveal just how deeply this metaphor has ingrained itself in our psyche. To step through the wardrobe is to abandon the mundane for the magical, to cast off the humdrum of everyday life for the thrill and adventure that awaits us on the other side.

Or is it?

Lewis believed that there two different kinds of fairy-stories: Those that free you and open your mind to greater realities, and those that enable you to escape reality and indulge in self-gratifying fantasies. The power of what I have labeled fairy-stories – by which I mean the genres of science-fiction or fantasy – is that through them we are willingly led by the hand two whichever of the two outcomes the author intended.

Here’s what Lewis said, in his essay An Experiment in Criticism:

What then is the good of – what is even the defence for – occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist…? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself… We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hears, as well as with our own… We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors…

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis’ longtime friend and fellow author, when accused of writing escapist fiction, responded succinctly: “Maybe, but it’s not the escape of a deserter from the front lines, but of a prisoner from a cage.”

When Lucy steps through the wardrobe, she is not fleeing reality – she is embracing reality. When she steps through the wardrobe, she is not fleeing the uncomfortable, stuffy grown-up world for childish self-indulgence. Perhaps if the other side of the wardrobe had been a land where the trees were all made of candy, or a land where you got to get even with allegorical representations of those who’d bullied you – perhaps then the metaphor of fleeing reality for the fantastic might hold. But that is not the case.

She is entering a world where her actions and interactions have often-grave consequences. She is entering a world where even little girls must make very adult decisions. And ultimately, she is entering a world where Aslan’s purpose all along was that she might know him there so that she would know him better in his own world.

So it is for us. When we escape into fiction, let it not be as a deserter, abandoning the front lines of life. Let it be as a prisoner, who escapes from the dungeon of preconceived notions and misplaced priorities to find the things that are truly meaningful in life.

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