Photos: Winter wonderland (Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld/Getty); Once Upon A Wardobe cover; Stars (Liubov Khutter-Kukkonin/Getty); Lion (GlobalP/Getty)
Once Upon a Wardrobe
U.S. author Patti Callahan returns to C.S. Lewis in 'Once Upon a Wardrobe,' and shows Narnia's magic and myth are as real as love itself. / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / November 25th, 2021
When Becoming Mrs. Lewis was published in 2018, Patti Callahan thought she was finished with C.S. Lewis. She had entered the Irish author’s world by telling a fictional version of U.S. writer Joy Davidman’s life, and her improbable love story with Clive Staples Lewis, the academic, theologian and acclaimed writer she married in 1956 when he was a 58-year-old bachelor and she was a 41-year-old divorcée. Callahan, who always has women, family, love and sacrifice at the core of her books, had moved on to write two other female-focused novels that take place in completely different eras.
“I had no intention of going back to his life,” Callahan said recently from her hotel room in Hawaii, where she was visiting her daughter and new grandchild. “But then, this little boy name George came to me and wanted to know where Narnia came from.”
The idea for her new book, Once Upon a Wardrobe, coincided with the first COVID-19 lockdown. The paperback tour for Becoming Mrs. Lewis was cancelled and her follow-up novels, Surviving Savanah and Wild Swan – an Audible Original novella about Florence Nightingale narrated by English actress Cynthia Erivo – were complete. With time on her hands amidst the confusion of a world-wide pandemic, this “beautiful, still point of little George and his sister Megs” pulled Callahan into their story, “and I returned to it every single day during lockdown.”
Callahan admits she probably would have written the book eventually, but the pandemic provided the perfect backdrop. “It’s one of lockdown’s silver linings, because the story itself is about going inwards and questioning the presence of joy when there’s so much devastation around us.”
“That’s important,” she emphasizes. “To be still and quiet and not be able to have permanent answers.”
In the book’s opening lines, we learn that eight-year-old George Henry Devonshire of Worcester, England, is dying. After reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he wants to know the origins of the mythical place called Narnia, where it is “always winter, never Christmas.”
George’s 17-year-old sister Megs is studying mathematics on scholarship at Oxford University, where Lewis – or Jack, as he is called by friends and colleagues – lectures, and the boy entrusts his sister with the task of asking the famous author about Narnia. Megs has doubts about approaching the towering figure of 20th century literature, but does it out of sisterly love.
Callahan once again gives a female spin to a famed male narrative by dropping a young, intelligent woman smack-dab in the middle of an old boys’ club – like she did with Davidman in Becoming Mrs. Lewis – and creates a story around the transformative nature of love and the importance of joy and the imagination.
“Megs, to me channels a bit of Joy Davidman, in that she’s intelligent and isn’t afraid to ask questions. The biggest difference, of course, is that Megs gets to live,” Callahan said, referring to Davidman’s death in 1960 from cancer, “and she needs to understand her fear about the big grief right in front of her instead of trying to fix or control it or finding the right equation that explains the world.”
Once Megs makes her way to Magdalen College, the all-male campus at Oxford where Lewis has his office, and asks her assigned question, she discovers the answer is anything but straightforward. Lewis tells Megs that the fantastic and the imaginative aren’t escapism, but an introduction to “the marvellous.” Stories, he says, strengthen “our relish for real life,” send us back “with renewed pleasure to the actual world,” and provide us with meaning.
While Megs and Lewis may seem opposites, the co-existence of logic and the imagination is something Callahan has championed throughout her life. “It can’t be either-or, it has to be both,” she said. “You can have both. My first job – and career and education – was all in medicine, so logical. Now I’m an author who lives in the world of imagination.”
Callahan attended Alabama’s Auburn University before obtaining her graduate degree at Georgia State University to become a pediatric clinical nurse specialist. All the while she dreamed about becoming a writer.
“At 35, I was a stay-at-home mum, and one day my six-year-old daughter, Meagan told me she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. I said, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up, too!’” Callahan laughs. “Meagan, her eyes wide, said, ‘You’re already grown up!’”
This nudged Callahan to realize her dream. She picked up Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and got up every day at 4:30 a.m. to give herself two hours to write her “morning pages” before Meaghan and her two younger brothers got up. She took writing classes at Georgia’s Emory College, joined a local writing group and started sending out her work. Four years later, her agent read her submission for a contest and her publishing career began – that was 17 years and 17 books ago.
Despite Megs’s brilliance at mathematics, she can’t get her mind “in the right place” to embrace Lewis’s sentiment. Her questions fall away in his presence, as he shows, rather than explains, the answer George seeks through stories about his early life. Callahan mirrors this approach by having Megs transcribe the stories Lewis tells her when she returns to her residence room in Oxford before going home and reading them to George on weekends.
“I needed George to change Megs’s heart, not Lewis, so I decided to separate the story by three from the reader,” Callahan said. “Lewis tells the story, but we don’t hear it. Megs writes it down and we don’t see it, but when she reads it to George, we experience it through his child-like innocence. It’s no longer Lewis’s story and it’s not logic-driven by Megs – it’s a child’s interpretation of it on the wheels of their imagination.”
While Lewis teaches Megs that storytelling is a means to uncover truths about the world we live in, George shows her how to embrace these truths through stories that go beyond logic. Megs also learns that once we experience joy, we want to experience it again and again, in the same way Edmund wanted more Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the story that ignited George’s curiosity.
Callahan peppers her narrative with historical facts – how Einstein gave three lectures at Oxford and Hitler wanted the university’s Bodleian Library preserved for himself – while slipping in reminders that nothing lasts forever. While George’s vibrancy masks his impending death, it also allows him to speak without judgment or sorrow, which illuminates the life around him.
When Megs cries, “I don’t want this to end,” after reading one of her transcribed versions of Lewis’s stories to George, he replies, “I don’t either, but everything ends.”
While it is true everything does come to an end, does this mean Callahan is finished digging into the world of C.S. Lewis?
“You know, I said no the first time, so I’m not going to say it this time,” the author said. “If a story visits me or it grows into something bigger, I will always keep my mind and heart open to what stories want themselves to be told. I know it sounds crazy, but I sometimes feel that stories want to be told.”