J is turning four tomorrow. Since that is about how old my brothers were when my parents taught them to read, I asked him if he would like to learn to read. “I already know how to read,” he said, with supreme confidence. OK, I said, but would you like to learn how to read for real? “I already know how to read for real,” he said, getting annoyed now. The next time we sat down with a book I pointed out some of the words to him, asked him to try reading them, asked if he recognized the letters. “Just read the story,” he said, so I did. I have no idea how to teach a child to read.
I do remember that I was slower than my brothers, and resisted learning to read for a long time. I dug my heels in and shouted I HATE READING. I DO NOT WANT TO LEARN TO READ. My mother sat down with me to practice reading every day anyway. By the time I fell in love with Mildred from The Worst Witch and her little tabby cat, I had invested so much energy in fighting my mother on the reading front that I couldn’t admit to enjoying it. I vividly remember waiting impatiently for reading time, too proud to ask for it. When at last my mother sat me down, out of sheer stubbornness I offered up my usual protestations, declared that I hated reading and I hated this book and so on and so forth. We got through a chapter or two and then my mother told me I could go play. I skulked off, but as soon as she was busy with something else I crept back to finish the book on my own.
Not long after this, I took a book off the shelf called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remember the cover, which had two girls dancing with a lion on it. I was five years old, and reading at about the level of The Worst Witch. I wasn’t ready for C.S. Lewis. I had no idea what a wardrobe was, and pronounced Lucy as “Lucky,” but in spite of all that I misunderstood or half-understood, I read it cover to cover. That book was the end of any pretense that I didn’t want to read, and I have been A Reader ever since.
In fact, the things I didn’t understand were almost as compelling as the things I did. Talking animals were fairly standard fare in children’s books, but I had no idea what an air-raid might be, or mothballs, or a wardrobe, or Turkish Delight, but all these things felt full of mystery, the unfamiliar words evocative and exotic, only adding to the thrill of the book.
The real magic began, of course, with Lucy in the wardrobe, which I gathered was something like a closet. I remember the furs brushing against her face, and how there was another unexpected row of coats behind the first, how she made her way through this tunnel of coats and the coats became the branches of a tree. When she came out onto the snowy ground in the nighttime of Narnia and met Mr. Tumnus under the streetlamp – that was my first reader’s experience of wonder and awe.
I adored Lucy, I wanted to be Lucy, bold and inquisitive and pure of heart, but I felt throughout the book uncomfortably akin to prickly, petulant Edmund. (I didn’t understand yet how cruel and unforgiving C.S. Lewis could be to his protagonists – that sank in a few years later when I read the later books to find Susan summarily dismissed from the series for being interested in lipstick and stockings.) It was all delight for the first couple of chapters, but then the White Witch appeared, luring Edmund into her sleigh, giving him Turkish Delight (whatever that was), and I remember so well her chilly falseness, Edmund’s sticky mouth, his passivity, the sullen, sulky pride I recognized and wished I didn’t, how he didn’t seem to realize the danger – that was my first reader’s experience of terror.
Obviously, I did not understand the Christian mythology underpinning the story. The next thing I remember is burning with rage at the animals tormenting Aslan and gloating over his defeat. I read on, vengeful, wrathful, certain that he would triumph. I had a child’s sense of justice and I was confident of a happy ending. Of course, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe does in fact offer about as straightforward a good-triumphing-over-evil narrative as ever there was, but first evil triumphs over good and that was something no story had ever forced me to endure before. Spoiler alert! Aslan died. They shaved his mane and my beloved Lucy wept over his shorn, scarred face, his bound feet, and so did I, uncontrollably. Aslan’s death shook me to my core, rattled my belief in the safety of stories. I learned that a story could crush your heart. That was my first reader’s experience of grief.
The magic of the book ended there, for me. I read on to the end. Aslan returned, breathed life into the statues, bringing Mr. Tumnus and the others back. I was confused by what was happening, but more importantly, I didn’t buy it. I wanted to believe in this happy ending and I think I half convinced myself that I did, but I remember a sort of leaden feeling when I got to the end. The story had devastated me with Aslan’s death, and now it was trying to give him back to me with no explanation that I understood, with a few pat lines about love or old magic or something. It’s a little bit funny in retrospect but I suppose my inability to believe in his resurrection foreshadowed the failure of religious faith that caused me such distress and discomfort as a child. I wanted to believe, but whatever the step was between wanting to believe and truly believing, I was missing it. At the time, though, I made no connection between Aslan and Christ. The book took me to a very dark place, and it failed to rescue me in a way that I believed.
In spite of that, I still think of it as the purest and most powerful reading experience of my life, in the way that first times are often the most intense, because I didn’t know, yet, that a story could be like this, could take me to these places, wound, restore, and terrify me. This was not the small, funny magic of The Worst Witch. This was a doorway to another world. What I remember best, and all that really matters, is the doorway – Lucy opening the wardrobe (what is a wardrobe??), the mothballs falling out (what are mothballs??), the feel of fur against her face, the thrill and the chill when the wall is not where it ought to be, the cold crunch under her feet, and that’s not a coat, it’s a branch, and the ordinary rainy day lies back at the other end of the door, still visible, but she doesn’t go back – how could she? Ahead of her, in the strange snowy night that should not be there at all, she sees a light of some kind among the trees.