Waiting for Mr. Tumnus

Waiting for Mr. TumnusLong ago, on windy, win­try nights, I’d look out the win­dow by my bed as trees shift­ed for a glimpse of a light deep in the woods.  The yel­low light — on and off as the wind tossed — kept me up late, won­der­ing.  We had no neigh­bors on the oth­er side of our woods. 

Day­time, I’d stray into the woods, fol­low­ing rab­bit snow-tracks, walk­ing until my nose froze. I nev­er found a house. The light, I believed, came from a hid­den world. I was eleven and had just read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Our house, sad­ly lack­ing in wardrobes, had only dis­ap­point­ing clos­ets. I longed to feel, as Lucy did, soft fur coats giv­ing way to scratchy branch­es and hard floor turn­ing pow­dery and cold underfoot.

Most of all, I want­ed to come upon the source of the mys­te­ri­ous light in our woods, sure­ly a lamp­post with a faun named Mr. Tum­nus hur­ry­ing past. “Fan­ta­sy,” as J.R.R. Tolkien says in his essay “On Fairy-sto­ries,” “starts out with an advan­tage: arrest­ing strange­ness.” Lewis found­ed Nar­nia on arrest­ing strange­ness, ele­ments that didn’t nor­mal­ly go togeth­er, like lamp­posts and pack­age-laden fauns. 

Nar­nia was a world seem­ing­ly with­out order. Fauns serv­ing sar­dines on toast for tea, beavers with gum boots, a wicked witch, Father Christ­mas, a wish-grant­i­ng stag, and Aslan, the majes­tic gold­en lion. I’m aware that Lewis bor­rowed lav­ish­ly from Ander­son (“The Snow Queen”), Gra­ham (The Wind in the Wil­lows), E. Nes­bit (“The Aunt and Ama­bel”), but as a child, I didn’t care. Nei­ther did author Lev Gross­man. He admits Lewis’s “exu­ber­ant, impro­vi­sa­tion­al” method inspired his Magi­cians trilogy.

Lewis’s close friend Tolkien did care. He felt the Nar­nia books were hasti­ly writ­ten and the world-build­ing was slop­py, a mish­mash from dif­fer­ent mytholo­gies. It has been said that the lamp­post in The Lion caused a rift in their friend­ship. In his essay, Tolkien declares mod­ern inven­tions have no place in fan­ta­sy: “The elec­tric street-lamp may indeed be ignored, because it so insignif­i­cant and tran­sient. Fairy-sto­ries have many more per­ma­nent and fun­da­men­tal things to talk about.”

Yet Lewis plant­ed the lamp­post in Nar­nia, often attrib­uted to a par­tic­u­lar one in Oxford where both Lewis and Tolkien taught. To nee­dle his men­tor who’d metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed The Lord of the Rings over many years? Doubt­ful. Tolkien con­vert­ed athe­ist Lewis to Chris­tian­i­ty and Lewis ran with it, writ­ing books and giv­ing stand­ing-room only lec­tures. His pop­u­lar­i­ty eclipsed Tolkien’s own career and they depart­ed ways. In the end, though, Tolkien received more atten­tion and acco­lades than he ever wanted.

I fell upon The Lord of the Rings at age four­teen, gob­bling one vol­ume after anoth­er, hid­ing the ones I hadn’t yet read behind the shelf in the pub­lic library. From the moment I fin­ished the final page of The Return of the King, I des­per­ate­ly want­ed more, just as I’d des­per­ate­ly want­ed to find Nar­nia. Men­tal­ly I moved into Mid­dle-earth and stayed there for ten years.

Even now when I re-read the books, I can’t see myself any­where in Mid­dle-earth. If I were a female hob­bit, I’d be rel­e­gat­ed to draw­ing pints at the Green Drag­on or rais­ing lit­tle hob­bits. I still love the place, but I don’t fit there. The chil­dren in the Nar­nia books are like me (or like I was). I could eas­i­ly imag­ine myself push­ing through the back of a wardrobe or slip­ping into a paint­ing to reach that world.

The lamp­post in the woods is nev­er explained. In The Magician’s Nephew read­ers learn that the lamp­post grew from Aslan’s mag­ic. But there’s no elec­tric cord, no lamp­lighter to ignite the gas. It’s where Nar­nia begins, the bound­ary between a land trapped in end­less win­ter (in the first book) and the “wild woods of the west.” It is as alive as the trees in the for­est. “There is,” Lev Gross­man writes, “some­thing inde­scrib­ably strange and roman­tic about the image.”

These days, fan­ta­sy writ­ers fol­low­ing Tolkien’s path must deliv­er a believ­able Sec­ondary World. If that world has a green sun, only “through labour and thought,” as Tolkien decrees, will that green sun be con­vinc­ing. Gross­man says writ­ers today “feel as though the fic­tion­al worlds they cre­ate have to be full-scale work­ing mod­els … Mag­ic, to [Lewis], was a much wilder, stranger thing …I feel as though we’ve wan­dered too far from the true mag­ic, the kind Lewis wrote.”

I’m back­ing into fan­ta­sy myself, at last writ­ing the kind of books I loved as a kid. As much as I adore Tolkien, I’m aim­ing for the sense of won­der Lewis flung like con­fet­ti in his Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia. And when I find the lamp­post, I know who will be there. Keep the tea hot, Mr. Tumnus.

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