Our journey began with two friends—Jack and Tollers—walking together, and reflecting that if they wanted to find stories they loved—the kind of stories they wanted to read—then they themselves would have to write them. They went on to create a variety of works that caught our imagination and set us out walking through the woods and saying to ourselves, well, if I want more of what I love in stories I suppose I’ll have to write it myself…
In this, our final article on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books in the Great C.S. Lewis Reread, I wanted to share some thoughts about the ways that Lewis has shaped my own creative world, my novels, and my thoughts about what is possible as an author. I’d love to hear about your own creative journeys and where (or if) Narnia fits into them in the comments as well! It’s great timing, as the final book in my own fantasy trilogy—which was, in many ways, me wrestling with my love of Lewis and Tolkien and trying to wring something more from that tradition—has just come out this week!
So: When two of my dear editor friends wrote to say they wanted to take me to lunch to talk about doing some books together, my first question for them was, “What are you looking for?” (My second was what they liked to eat!) They were launching a YA line, and they immediately said, “We’d love for you to write a young adult fantasy series.”
To say I was thrilled was an understatement.
We sat at the Country Cat Café in Portland, and I spilled my whole idea to them over lunch. They asked questions, and I did my best to outline this story… What if there was a portal world where teenagers could go, and in exchange for a year of service get their heart’s desire?
As we explored the idea further I realized that this was, more than anything, me grabbing hold of Lewis and Tolkien and wanting to drag them with me, out of my childhood and into my world, today. I wanted an adventure that contained some of the things I loved, dropped the things that bothered me, and included the things I’d always wished their books had held.
It wasn’t subtext for me. It was part of the core of the story, and I felt an effusive excitement to get started. I wrote the proposal, pitched the trilogy, and sent it off—and as soon as I got the green light, my frenzied typing began.
Some of the things I loved about Narnia that I wanted in my books:
I love that Lewis’s kids are largely committed to each other, no matter what happens. Your brother might betray you, but he’s still your brother. Your cousin might be a pill, but you’re not going to abandon him on some desert island. I was tired of reading books where the conflicts centered on kids who aren’t allowed to get along. I wanted to read (and write) kids who loved each other, who had friendships you would cheer for and maybe wish you had something a little more like it. There aren’t angst-ridden teens making dour faces at each other in my books. They love each other. Yes, there are occasional misunderstandings, hard conversations, disagreements about what’s to be done…but at the end of the day they have each other’s back.
I also love portal worlds. Even as a kid this rang true to me. I believe there are worlds in the spaces between worlds and that we can fall through them. I believe there are forces that are hard to see at work in our world. That sounds like fantasy, but I believe it’s true. I knew my story had to be a portal world, some other place that might have been represented in a pool in The Magician’s Nephew.
More that I loved: that story of Reepicheep sailing into Aslan’s Country, the story of Digory’s mother, the sadness in Aslan’s eyes when he talks about knowing grief, even, yes, the whole story of what happens at the end of Narnia resonated with me. I love that Lewis didn’t shy away from grief, even in his kid’s books. My close friend was dying of cancer as I wrote the first book in my trilogy, The Crescent Stone. I remember being up late into the night at her house, writing downstairs, while she and her mom were settling in to bed upstairs. I didn’t want to shy away from grief, either, so the first character I brought into the novel was Madeline Oliver, a teenager with a terminal disease. Her heart’s desire in exchange for a year of service in The Sunlit Lands, is, of course, for her healing. The first book is dedicated to my friend.
I also love the sense of humor in Lewis’s work. There are many moments of laughter, of joy, in the books, and I wanted to bring that into my own novels. Madeline’s close friend, Jason Wu, joins her on her adventure to the Sunlit Lands. When he’s told he has to choose his own heart’s desire in exchange for a pledge of fealty to the Elenil, the rulers of the Sunlit Lands, Jason refuses. He just wants to stick close to his friend. After a bit of haggling he makes no promise of service, but he’ll tag along for a life’s supply of chocolate pudding. Oh yeah, and a unicorn. Jason’s really curious about the plumbing situation in the Sunlit Lands, a strange side quest that brings some important insights as the novel progresses.
I loved the magic and the sense of wonder in Narnia, and that clear feeling underlying all of the books that the author was having the greatest time of his life. If it made Lewis happy, he threw it in. A faun walking through the woods with parcels? Sure! A bear overseeing a chivalric duel? Yes, please! Talking beavers? Santa? Cannibalistic giants? Pirates? Creatures from the center of the earth? Yes, yes, yes, and of course yes. So when my daughter showed me a picture of a winged cat and said, “This is Remi, she is the Guardian of the Wind” and asked if she could be in the second book of the trilogy, I said, sure, let’s have a flying cat. (I was sternly rebuked. Remi is the Guardian of the Wind. Not a cat. It’s a common mistake.) There are at least three magic systems in the Sunlit Lands. There are bog creatures and rocs and necromancers and shape-shifting troublemakers and a culture that uses stories as currency. There are battles and Black Skulls and riots and an accidental engagement and a Spanish knight in a doomed romance and everything.
Yes, there was joy and fun and humor but Lewis also pushed into deep waters addressing things like power, spiritual abuse, and dangerous leaders. I knew I wanted to do that, too, and in fact those three themes are deeply embedded in the Sunlit Lands trilogy.
I loved that Lewis had no embarrassment about writing spiritual truths into his works for a broad audience. There were plenty of books I read as a kid that pretended religion wasn’t a part of life in fantasy worlds, or in the future, or if you got past the rings of Saturn, and I wanted to be able to embrace that some of my characters—fantastic creatures as well as humans—might have some connection to spiritual things. That’s not to say it’s simplistic…multiple faith stories and myths, even conflicting ones, exist in the Sunlit Lands. There’s no Jesus lion in my books but there is…well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers here. Let’s say that Lewis inspired me, but I also subverted a few Narnian tropes.
Why no Aslan? Well, I love the big guy (I really do), but as far as stories go I didn’t want the literal deus ex machina to show up and give instructions, point out missed signs, put things on track, or punish the evildoers. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that overall in the Narnia books, but it doesn’t match my personal experience of God in the world (so far) and it moves the narrative tension from “what’s going to happen?” and toward “when will Aslan show up?”
There were things I wanted to do differently, too. I wanted to expand the audience a little…make it less narrowly ethnocentric than Lewis. I didn’t start with four British school kids. In fact, the Elenil are recruiting teens (largely teens in some sort of difficult situation, hmmmm, why is that?) from around the world… Madeline’s roommate in the Sunlit Lands is Shula Bishara, a teen on the run from her past in Syria. I wanted to talk about women differently than Lewis. Women in the Sunlit Lands aren’t all children, matrons, or monsters. And when we do come to a woman who is a terrifying monster, we eventually dive into that…why is she seen this way? Is that accurate? What’s her story? One of the great strengths in bringing in a broader set of characters was the rich story world they created. Their insights taught each other, their histories brought unique knowledge and skills to the table.
Having kids from all these different backgrounds also forced the narrative into some questions about the intersection between the real world and the spiritual, questions of justice that matter in the Sunlit Lands and in our own world. Lewis dealt with some of this intersection…often by showing how Aslan would deal with badly run educational systems. I wanted something bigger. My teens and their friends are looking at systemic issues in a portal world and working to change them. I think teenagers can be and often are heroes who see the broken places in the world. They’re the ones who keep looking at the adults in wonder and asking, “Are you okay with this? Really?”
So, yes, in The Crescent Stone we talk about power. We explore privilege and how you can be like Madeline—born into majority culture, beautiful, smart, wealthy—and also be someone who is dying and would trade it all to be able to live. And we explore how big the questions get when you realize that maybe, just maybe, the people providing you with your heart’s desire aren’t the Good Guys.
In the second book, The Heartwood Crown, we talk about how to destroy evil that’s deeply embedded in a culture. It’s not as easy as throwing a ring into a volcano or having a god-lion kill the witch. It could and probably will (and maybe should?) destabilize society. It might cause harm to both victims and victimizer. And what if you suspect that the answer may not come from violence? What if it’s not a magic sword that you need, but something deeper and sharper and more personal? What if it costs you something?
In the third book, The Story King, we explore questions related to common memory, to history, to the lies we tell ourselves so that we can be okay with the world we live in, and the stories we tell that illuminate and ultimately transform the world.
The last thing I wanted to focus on, in terms of enhancing what I love about the Narnia books, was to complicate the simplistic path to dealing with evil. I—like Lewis—believe there is an ultimate judgment coming for evil, but I wanted to explore what it looks like in the everyday world, not just at the end of it. The solutions to destroying evil are not always easy and are almost never entirely external. What I mean is, more often than not when we discover true evil we find that it needs to be rooted out of our own lives, too. It’s not just destroying the Bad Guys, it’s allowing ourselves to be transformed into people truly able to stand against evil by removing evil from our own hearts. I wanted my heroes—like me, like all of us—to be surprised to discover their own complicity in evil. I wanted them to make sacrifices. I wanted them to disagree about the right thing, the best thing to do. I wanted them to learn lessons that we could look at and say, wait a minute…if that’s true then maybe I can be a hero here, in my own world.
The third book in the Sunlit Lands trilogy, The Story King, is out this week. This trilogy is a love letter in the truest sense…to C.S. Lewis and specifically to Narnia. It’s three books where I gather up all the wonder, all the love, all the moments of joy that I got from Narnia and set them against the pain and confusion and frustrations and say, “I would do it a little differently, seventy years later, but I can’t deny my love for you came first and shined brightest.” And The Sunlit Lands are named (of course) for the world of Narnia that lies above the Earthmen in The Silver Chair.
And so, my friends! My dear companions! This brings us, at last, to the end of the Narnia portion of our reread. In a few weeks we’ll return to take a quick look at a standalone book, The Great Divorce. Then on to the Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces, and maybe even The Screwtape Letters! I am deeply, deeply humbled by your kindness, your excellent comments and insights, your questions and feedback along the way so far.
Now, before we go, I want to hear your stories. What do you create? Are you writing, painting, sculpting, making films, something else? How has Narnia shaped you or your work in some way? And hey, don’t be afraid to really sell it…I’m in the market for some new entertainments now that we’ve come to the end of Narnia (again).
Remember, dear friends, we may find ourselves too old for fairy tales and magical portal adventures for a time. But we are all part of the royal family in Narnia. And there is, we are told, a wood between the worlds. Perhaps if Narnia is not to your liking there is another pool by another tree, and if you were to wade into it…well, who knows where we may find ourselves?