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A House You Never Come to the End of...
Full of Unexpected Places
Unexpected Places (passageway)

commentary by Emilie Griffin

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

From the first words of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you know you are in the hands of an artful storyteller. C.S. Lewis knows how to spin a tale.

These four children, the author explains, are sent away from London during the air raids of World War II to stay in the house of an old professor who lives way out in the country. The house is ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the post office. The children suspect that the old professor (whose shaggy white hair grows all over his face as well as his head) is going to give them more freedom than they have at home.

Alas, the next day, sheets of rain are coming down. They are stuck indoors and have no choice but to play inside. Yet, this is not such a bad thing after all. It is a house they can almost get lost in. Stairs, passageways, long distances--in these remote rooms the adults won’t hear or reprimand them. Even though the house seems mysterious, even creepy, the children plan to do just as they please. Lewis writes:

And that was how the adventures began. It was the sort of house that you never come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places.

When first reading this book, I found it hard to focus on reflection or commentary. The story captured me from page one, and I read it straight through to the end.

It wasn’t until later that I noticed the elements Lewis had used to make his story so effective.

The old professor—that’s easy. The character is based on Lewis himself, who lived in a house outside of Oxford and was a single man with a fairly large household. The Lewis household did in fact take in a group of schoolchildren (many British people did) during the war. The Professor, like Lewis himself, is eccentric, learned, and kind.

And the Professor’s house—the one with long corridors and stairs and landings? We all remember such places in fairy tales, like the castle tower with the secret room where one is forbidden to go.

However, I think the Professor’s mysterious house is really based, not on Lewis’s house near Oxford, but rather on Lewis’s childhood home, where he first deeply tasted the joy of reading.

In Surprised by Joy (his autobiography), Lewis tells how when he was seven, his father, growing more prosperous, moved the family into a much larger house, further out into “what was then the country.” The so-called “New House” had an air of mystery to the child. The house “was a large one even by present standards; to a child it seemed less like a house than a city....”

Then Lewis unfolds the tale of how that house affected him:

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I always had the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

Lewis had time on his hands. His brother was packed off to boarding school so he had no playmate for most of the year. Lewis himself was being home-schooled:

French and Latin from my mother and everything else from an excellent governess, Annie Harper....My real life—or what memory reports as my real life, was increasingly one of solitude...I had plenty of people to talk to, my grandfather Lewis, prematurely old and deaf, the maids; an old gardener...but solitude was nearly always at my command.

Lewis fixed up a study in his attic and began writing stories, mostly about dressed-up animals and knights in armor.

As for the fictional Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis says, “it was full of unexpected places.” He shows the children exploring the hallways, and finding many surprises: a very long room full of pictures with a suit of armor; a room all hung with green with a harp in one corner; then three steps down and five steps up—Lewis describes it vividly—a kind of upstairs hall and a door that led out onto a balcony, after that a whole series of rooms that led into each other (how big was this house?).

These rooms were all lined with books, mostly old books, and some of them “bigger than a Bible in a church.” Finally they came to a room that was empty except for a wardrobe. All the other children left this room but Lucy decided to stay on.

She stole into the wardrobe and began to explore two rows of fur coats. In a moment, the magical wardrobe had opened into a startling new realm: Narnia.
So the house Lewis describes, the house of imagination, is the house you never get to the end of.

Lewis uses the figure of a house in a different way in his book Mere Christianity, when he compares the human spirit to a house that needs improvement. He is speaking about spiritual transformation, and he pictures this change that comes about through grace as an enormous work of renovation.

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing.... But presently he starts knocking the house about…What on earth is he up to? You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.

With this comparison Lewis joins an honored tradition. The Christian mystic Teresa of Avila wrote about the life of prayer in a book called The Interior Castle. She imagines the human spirit as a house with many mansions or dwelling-places: seven to be exact. A similar comparison is made by Evelyn Underhill, that distinguished modern writer on Christian faith, when she describes the spiritual life in a brief treatise called The House of the Soul. This, too, is a house of many rooms in which spiritual transformation takes place.

In much of his spiritual writing, Lewis speaks of a deep longing for God that we experience in very ordinary lives. Stories quicken that longing and point us toward heaven. Even more do stories quicken our longing for God when they have been enlivened by images of holiness and hints of awe. The house in Lewis’s Narnia stories is such a place, where children (and readers) enter into surprising realms and unexpected places.

copyright ©2005 Emilie Griffin

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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