House You Never Come to the End of...
Full of Unexpected Places
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:
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
first reading this book, I found it hard to focus on reflection
or commentary. The story captured me from page one, and I read
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
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.
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
Lewis unfolds the tale of how that house affected him:
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.
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
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.
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?).
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.
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
and he pictures this change that comes about through grace as an
enormous work of renovation.
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.
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
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.
©2005 Emilie Griffin
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