Posted by: trevormeers | September 27, 2011

Who Knew Narnia Was in Italy?

Though it feels strange to say it, we’ve been giving a fair amount of attention to fantasy literature in our house over the last year or so. To clarify, we haven’t gotten into the kind of books that fill a depressing number of shelves at the public library with stories centered on wizards or guys that look like Fabio and swing a sword like Conan.

If we'd all had a closet like this growing up, being banished to our rooms would've had a whole new appeal.

I’m talking about fantasy stories written with an eye on teaching us something about the world we really live in, which means we, like millions before us, have gotten into The Chronicles of Narnia. We read The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe about a year ago, and now, without really setting out to, have found ourselves nearly done with the entire series. Well, Allison is done; I’m still catching up and sticking my fingers in my ears every time she tries to give away all the plot points of The Last Battle.

Living in C.S. Lewis’ world off and on over the months has given us the thrill almost everyone gets at the idea of talking animals, quests to strange lands and a benevolent, all-knowing lion that guides our steps, even if he’s usually fairly cryptic about his methods. The stories recently led us into a discussion that sprang up very naturally, even if it sounds like one of those cheesy “conversation starters” parenting books suggest for people who apparently don’t know how to talk to their own kids: What magical thing did you most wish was real when you were a kid?

Allison said she always imagines how cool it would be if she could be invisible or shrink down small enough to wander through a doll house filled with all the tiny furniture and little eating utensils. Teri recalled (and she gave me permission to state this publicly) that she used to dream of really getting to go to Candyland. “Who wouldn’t want to bounce around on Gumdrop Mountain?” she said. She’s probably channeling some latent Charlie & The Chocolate Factory dream in there, as well, because that factory was undeniably awesome in both the modern movie and the 1970s version, even if Gene Wilder somehow managed to be even freakier than the Michael Jackson-esque Johnny Depp.

Here's some classic Herb Mignery. Click the image and look closely at the right headlight for the eyeballs.

My own daydreams followed the same paths as most kids’, but I also harbored an unusual captivation with a pair of mysterious eyeballs. I grew up in a house that greatly treasured the monthly arrival of Western Horseman magazine and kept a carefully cataloged basement collection of back issues. For several years in the 1980s, the magazine featured a monthly cartoon by an artist named Herb Mignery. Most of the pictures served jokes about the sardonic life of modern cowboys who were always beset by bad weather and bad livestock markets. But what I looked for were the little eyeballs Mignery hid somewhere in each cartoon. They peeked out of cracks in barn boards and peered from under cowboys’ boots. I wondered if it was the same critter each month and what it was up to. I loved the eyeballs so much that when my dad built a livestock shed at our place, I climbed up to the 2x4s supporting the tin roof and drew my own eyeballs to peer down at the horses.

More than a quarter-century later, I doubt the eyeballs are still there, drawn as they were with a fat carpenter’s pencil that probably didn’t even indent the pine board, much less survive 25 springs’ worth of rain and 25 winters of damp horse breath rising from below. But reading the Narnia books has reminded me that even if adulthood brings on the loss of Mignery eyeballs and any real hope that storybook magic may come true (Lewis wrote the Pevensey children out of his books when they reached their upper teens, after all), it doesn’t have to shut down our radar for the amazing.

Even without a parenting book suggesting it, we took the magic conversation to this topic the other night. We wanted Alli to know that you don’t have to glimpse a unicorn or a sword-bearing centaur to feel your skin go all goose-bumpy and wonder at the fact that you’re so fortunate to see this thing at this moment.

We talked about the real world because magic and whimsy can pretty quickly carry you a bit far. My eyes involuntarily start rolling when I see that someone has painted the word “Imagine” on their wall in whispery type, and people who put out signs welcoming fairies into their gardens tend to worry me. I do admit that I tried fantasy gaming for about 20 minutes when I was figuring out who I was in junior high. But when the kid inviting me into his club started getting agitated over my lowball offer of 72 Centaron Credits for the tinted goggles my Yazarian ape warrior needed to do battle, I gave up and went back to basketball and military history.

With that “what’s amazing in real life?” theme going, I told Alli about standing on a glacier halfway up Mount Rainier at 3am, a place so far removed from anyplace I’d been before that it was as good as anything you’d find on the far side of a magic portal. We talked about the canyons of Utah, where there’s hardly a sound or scrap of vegetation to hide the bones of the earth or keep the colors in the rock from painting the sky in front of you. We pulled out a picture of Sunday on La Grande Jatte and stared, just like Cameron in Ferris Bueller, wondering how Seurat made all those dots turn into all those people.

The real-life door knocker that stuck in young Clive Staples Lewis' imagination and eventually worked its way out as Aslan.

Real-life amazement can be tough to come by these days, thanks to high-def TVs delivering daily visions of alien worlds, exploding planets and city-sized monsters. But as we were looking up The Chronicles of Narnia on Wikipedia one night last week, I pointed out to Alli that Narnia (or Narni, in modern language) is a real-life town in Italy, and that Lewis’ inspiration for Aslan was a lion’s-head door knocker hung at the family home in England at perfect eye height for a six-year-old boy. And then, just to make sure we were all clear about an important detail, we reviewed the fact that the reason we’ve spent so much time on Narnia and so little on other fantasy lit is that Aslan and the whole world around him were created to point people back to a real story in the real world with real implications. And that particular story will always have plenty of wonder left to give, no make-believe required.

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