The first time Lucy Pevensie opened Professor Kirke’s wardrobe and entered Narnia, she was eight years old. The first time I went with her, I was nine.
There is something especially magical about reading things as a child. You have fewer prejudices, little knowledge of things beyond face value and the all-absorbing wonder of innocence. I certainly experienced Narnia that way, drinking it in fully and unaware of hidden symbols and meanings. Edmund was a jerk, the White Witch was a terribly mean lady, and Narnian talking beavers put Canada to shame.
I skipped happily through the series, oblivious to anything beneath the veneer of adventures in a magical land. I journeyed first with Lucy to defeat the White Witch, then sailed aboard the Dawn Treader with Caspian, and finally watched Narnian heroes unite after the Last Battle. I watched the movies, owned the boxed book series and begged my father buy me Turkish delight. I even dreamed about living in Narnia, once. It is the only dream where I’ve cried after waking up, because I’d wanted so badly for Narnia to be real.
I didn’t revisit Narnia until I was 16. By that time, I had read and seen and certainly experienced a great deal more than my nine-year-old self. Going back through the wardrobe was a jarring and strange experience, to say in the least. Suddenly Aslan was Jesus, the White Witch was a Temptress, and Turkish delight was not Turkish or delightful at all but a symbol for original sin. Certainly not what I’d seen as a child, but that was it: I couldn’t see the characters as just characters anymore, nor objects simply as objects.
Studying English literature and being taught how to study English literature moulds our minds in this fashion. As we grow older, our curriculum teaches us to read in a specific way. To look for certain cultural cues that scream allusion and to analyse the symbolism of every single thing described down to the colour of a character’s eyes. It’s the process of translating literal narrative to figurative representation that’s been ingrained through years of schooling, one that helps me reason out the equation of Turkish delight = apple + sin, something I would never have understood as a child. And once you learn how to analyze literature, it never really goes away; it’s a second nature or a sixth sense that lurks in the back of your mind, criticizing, deconstructing, reconstructing.
Once you learn how to analyze literature, it never really goes away.
Some people find this constant analysis suffocating or draining. I personally find it enriching. Like seeing a face in the clouds, it adds dimension to a work and connects it to a dialogue larger than itself. But there’s no doubt that the simple Narnia I’d known as a child no longer existed for me. Understanding Narnia’s underlying complexity means I can now analyse literature, sure, but what it really means is that I can think complicated thoughts about something that used to be so simple. And what that means is that I’ve grown up.
And having grown older and peering past the words on the page, I realized things about the series that I hadn’t seen through blind, childish eyes. Susan’s banishment from Narnia had always bothered me, but now it disturbed me. Was she excluded purely for her lack of faith, or also because of her desire to reach sexual maturity? Why was it that the dark-skinned people of Calormen are profiled as brutal and savage, seemingly for the sole purpose of elevating the values of white-skinned Northerners, whose countries are juxtaposed as glorious, free lands? Also, did Reepicheep just sail off into the sunset to die?
Although the lessons I’ve learned from Narnia will always be near to my heart, I can no longer see the books the way I used to. I don’t know I can find solace in the place where good and evil are so stringently dichotomized, where some cultures seem to be debased in order to glorify others. I can’t see the story with the innocent eyes of a child again either, where lions were simply lions and witches were simply witches. I will always appreciate the books, but what I took away from them as a child is not what I can take away from them now.
Unlike the three faithful Pevensie children, I don’t have an Everlasting Story in Aslan’s blessed, timeless land. Nor am I similar to Susan, stuck in the limbo-like Shadowlands, trying to grow older but never aging. My world and the world around me is ever-changing, evolving. If I enter the wardrobe again, I don’t know where it will take me. Only time will tell.
Kristine is an English Literature and Psychology double major at UBC. When she’s not glasses-deep in projects, Kristine enjoys listening to falling rain, inventing bad puns for unlikely scenarios, and cultivating her coffee snobbery. The em dash is her aesthetic.