My particular inability to lose myself in these worlds as an adult is tied to my no longer believing.
Revisiting beloved childhood novels can be a fraught process. So it was with some ambivalence that, as part of the research for my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I picked up my old copies of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.
My edition of Lion has a color map on the inside back cover, one I’d been obsessed with as a child. It features a drawing of Aslan, his mane set off in crimson light against an epic night sky. And I’d reread my copy of Wrinkle so often as a kid that the spine is held together by masking tape now turning stiff at the edges. When I sat down with them, I was ready to go back through the wardrobe and greet Mr. Tumnus again. I was ready for Aunt Beast to wrap me in her warm furry arms.
I was also aware that both Lewis’s and L’Engle’s stories were deeply informed by Christian theology. As a kid, this influence was a plus. I was the girl who went to church every week, wrote poems to Jesus in my journal, and taught Sunday School as soon as I was old enough.
But by my mid-twenties, I was an atheist. There was no scene at the dinner table, no stomping out of the church after a bigoted sermon. Just a slow unwinding of faith until I didn’t believe any of it anymore. Leaving the church was so anticlimactic that sometimes I forget how important being Christian was to me, until it wasn’t. But I got a reminder of just how fundamental this shift has been when I tried to go back through the wardrobe into Narnia, to tesseract with Meg one last time.
When I was young and religious, these writers took me on adventures that not only felt deeply imaginative but also deeply real. Aslan gave his life to save Narnia, and this “magic from before the dawn of time” mirrored the power of Jesus’s resurrection. When, in Wrinkle, Meg and Charles Wallace spot the evil Black Thing while visiting the planet Uriel, they watch Uriel’s inhabitants fighting the malevolent force by dancing and singing a loose translation of a few verses from the Old Testament. The lyrics reminded me of a song I sang in church. I could finally be a part of the mythic battle.
But what once felt like an opening up to the weird and the wonderful around me now feels like a closing down. The Christian worldview that seemed so mysterious and all-encompassing when it was the only one I knew now seems like a limited narrative decision. In Lion, the New Testament allegory is so literal, the assumptions so assumed — that the Emperor is good because he is the Emperor, that humans should have power because they are human — that rereading it felt like I was trapped in a wardrobe myself. A wardrobe that would open not to a magical world, not to some unknowable core of things, but simply to another wardrobe, and another, on and on into a tautological infinity.
L’Engle’s work leaves a little more room for ambiguity than Lewis’ does, like when Mrs. Whatsit gives Meg “her faults” as a gift, foreshadowing how they’ll “come in handy” when she travels to the planet Camazotz. Yet these moments of gray shade into black and white when Meg must face evil directly. Mrs. Who tells her, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” What once read as subtlety now seems like a uniquely Christian brand of paradox, copied and pasted from every Sunday morning of my childhood. It felt like L’Engle had promised me the stars — then given me a Bible lesson on the hand of God in the night sky.
I don’t think you have to be Christian to enjoy these books. I definitely don’t think being Christian means you’ll enjoy them, either. (Wrinkle, in particular, has been critiqued by fundamentalists for its secularism.) But I do think that my particular inability to lose myself in these worlds as an adult is tied to my no longer believing. Turning the books’ yellowing pages feels a little like the last time I took communion. A glistening cup. The smell of old paper. The moment the wine-sip reaches the tongue. The way the words sound in the mind. The ritual is the same, sure. But the signifiers no longer hold any meaning.
Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.