Updated: Jan 24
December 3, 2021
Tags: C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis Books, NarniaFans.com, Reviews, Tumnus's Book Shelf
Hey, everybody! Welcome back to Tumnus’ Bookshelf, where we review any and all books written by, about, and inspired by CS Lewis, The Land of Narnia, and The Inklings. For today’s review, we will be looking at Patti Callahan’s Once Upon a Wardrobe!
Five of Five Shields
"I received Patti Callahan’s novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis as a Valentine gift from my mother, and read it with great interest. I was blown away by how she crafted the story, telling it not like the biographies of Jack and Joy we’ve committed to memory but a real, living breathing world-wind romance. I came away from that story feeling like I actually “knew” Jack, Joy, Douglas, and their friends much better than I had before, and the book more than earned a spot on my book shelf. Imagine my delight and surprise when I learned that the books author, Patti Callahan had written another novel featuring CS Lewis.
Once Upon a Wardrobe is in many ways a prequel to Becoming Mrs. Lewis in that the book looks at Jack’s early life, up until the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, framing it in the context of a story he is telling to a young woman named Megs Devonshire who wishes to find the story of how Narnia came to be for her ailing brother.
It’s one thing to have encountered so many of these facts about Lewis’ life in a biography, it’s another to experience them in a story. Callahan adds layers of context and texture to those events we know so well and makes them come alive. For example, it’s one thing to simply read in one sentence of a biography how Jack and Warnie’s beloved nurse told them stories as a child, it’s another thing to actually have a moment where she tells a story. In one of her many strokes of brilliance, Callahan goes so far as to have the nurse tell the Lewis boys a tale from Irish folk lor, in which time in fairie land runs differently from our world, hinting at one of the many sources that sparked young Jack’s imagination.
This goes beyond just those little details of Jack’s childhood we know so well. For example, many fans of Lewis have noted in his own book, Surprised by Joy and in his biographies that he was bullied in his first boarding school but Callahan takes that further, and we feel the sting as the bigger boy smacks Warnie in the back of the head. We cringe in fear at the watchful gaze of the distasteful headmaster. We feel the torment of younger and weaker students like Jack. We understand why he wanted even better why he wanted to leave: this wasn’t a school; it was a cross between Shawshank Redemption and The Lord of the Flies. None of this is here to frighten readers. George even reminds his sister Megs that fairy tales often have those scary moments, the ones that parents often try to gloss over or skip. However, we are reminded constantly that without the dark and dangerous moments, the joy and consolation we receive later is meaningless.
Jack features heavily in the book, now well established as a writer, scholar and tutor of English. Once again, Callahan introduces readers to a delightful person who would more than willingly invite us in for a spot of tea and a chat. She perfectly captures his wit, his wisdom, and more importantly, his generosity. You genuinely feel like if he had a way to help Megs and her brother, he would do it.
While this book does feature Jack’s biography, getting the story behind the origins of Narnia is only Megs’ quest. The book is about how the lives of Margret “Megs” Devonshire and her brother parallel and intersect that of Jack. As good as Callahan does in crafting Jack and Warnie, it’s in creating the Devonshire family where she really shines. They feel like real people who could have existed back then to the point that when I finished the book, I wanted to learn more about her as well, wondering if she made a name for herself in mathematics, only to remind myself that Megs, her brother and the rest of her family and friends were fiction.
Megs is in so many ways reminiscent of Jack’s two major heroines, Susan and Lucy Pevensie. Like Lucy she’s caring and compassionate, especially for her younger brother, but she has the logic and practicality of Susan. She’s good with numbers and logic, but when it comes to belief, it is something that seems to allude her. It’s her journey to uncover the story behind Narnia that propels her along her own personal journey, on which she will discover love, faith, and imagination and learn how they can work in concert with logic, reason and facts. Her own goal is to make her brother happy with his remaining few days.
It’s easy to see why. Like Dickon in The Secret Garden or Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol we are not given the specifics of what condition ails her brother, George. The only hint we receive is when we are told something is wrong with his heart. Even back in the 1940s and 50s, our medical knowledge is nowhere near what it is now, and it could easily be something that is now easily treatable. However, what he lacks in vitality, he more than makes up for in other ways. Throughout the story we see he’s an incredibly perspective boy, asking questions few would think of, and coming to answers that even baffle his sister. He finds not only escape but inspiration in Narnia, and through hearing the story of Jack’s life he finds a kindred spirit.
Megs learns in her search, that stories have a power: to comfort, to encourage, to inspire, and more importantly to transform someone for the better. Sure enough, along the way we see how the search for this story changes Megs, just as the story of Narnia changes her brother. She becomes more open, more inquisitive, and even finds love, with a young man named Paidrig, perhaps one of the nicest boys in literature since Calvin O’Keefe first visited Meg Murray and her brother Charles in A Wrinkle in Time. He becomes a shoulder to cry on, a good friend, and even a willing cohort in her own adventure with her brother to see a castle in Ireland that may have inspired Care Paravel.
Patti Callahan is great not only at shaping the characters both real and fictious, but crafting a post war England, right down to the proper vernacular. You can hear the crash of the waves against the shores of Ireland and feel the snow fall on your face. Even the halls of Oxford contain a sense of wonder and enchantment. Once Upon a Wardrobe doesn’t read like a historical book with dreary facts, but her England feels as magical and mysterious as the England of Harry Potter or of Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles. Considering that England is the birthplace of the plethora of fantasy worlds we love, it’s appropriate. Only a place that wonderful could serve as the fertile ground for such wonderous lands and imaginative characters.
Once Upon a Wardrobe is an enchanting and poignant winter’s tale about the world of Narnia and her creator that celebrates not only the wonder, adventure, escape, or the romance, but the consolation that friends of Narnia, and in fact lovers of all stories receive from those great tales worth telling. Not since I first saw the movie The Princess Bride, have I encountered a work that celebrates the joy of story so beautifully. Add this one to your Christmas list and give it a good spot on your bookshelf. You’ll be glad you did.
Photo Credit: Bud Johnson Photography
(5 of 5 Shields)
From Patti Callahan, Best-selling author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Once Upon a Wardrobe, is an all-new enchanting novel that follows the journey of a young woman on a search for meaning. Margret “Megs” Devonshire is a young woman caught between two words. While on scholarship to Oxford where she studies mathematics, she divides her time between school and her life back home caring for her ailing brother, George. Her younger brother is enthralled in a new fantasy adventure, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Intent to show him she isn’t a complete snob she agrees to read him one chapter before heading back to school.
Soon, she too is enthralled with Narnia, but still dismissing it as a story, wanting old logical facts and figures. That is until George sends her on a quest. Since she attends Oxford, where Narnia’s creator, CS Lewis serves on the faculty, he wishes her to ask him one question: where did Narnia come from? Her quest leads to something much deeper than just the origins of a fantasy land.