An Anniversary for Narnia

October 16 saw the sixty-eighth anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis published the Narnia books once a year, until The Last Battle appeared in September of 1956. Lewis was also writing his spiritual biography at the time, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life—not to mention whatever else he was writing, as well as performing all the duties and responsibilities of an Oxford tutor.
But why a children’s story? Lewis was a scholar. He wrote about books, he wrote Christian apologetics, and he wrote fiction, but all this was for adults. Lewis had nothing to do with children. So again, why a children’s story?
There are enough books about Lewis around to keep you busily reading for years. Writers of every kind have opinions about Lewis and his life—about Lewis as a child, about his time in the war, about his more than thirty-year relationship with Mrs. Moore, which, interestingly, some writers are unwilling to explore.
Lewis is something of a puzzle. He was gregarious and fond of argument, a man who valued openness and friendship; he also flatly refused to talk about his relationship with Janie Moore with anyone, including his brother, Warnie Lewis.
Why Lewis wrote the Narnia books is perhaps less of a puzzle. He valued myth and story, and he wrote about both. Lewis claimed that he was writing a fairy tale because that was the best expression for what he had to say about Narnia and about Aslan. I’m sure it’s true—for the most part.
Lewis carried with him the memories of living at Little Lee, the house his father had built on the outskirts of Belfast. Lewis’ mother, Flora Hamilton, died in that house when he was nine-years-old. Two weeks after her death, a young Jack was shipped off to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, England.
Such events as the death of a parent have a profound effect on the mind of a child. Lewis had the company of his brother for the first year at boarding school, which he calls Belsen in Surprised by Joy. But his school-life was shadowed by the death of his mother, and the relationship with his father deteriorated until Albert Lewis’ death in 1929.
Something was speaking across the years to Lewis as he created Narnia. It’s no surprise Lewis was writing about his own boyhood as he wrote the Narnia books. There is more of the child-like in Narnia than there is childishness. And in Lewis’ own words: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty” (Lewis, “On Stories”).

From One Island to Another

Two weeks ago, I walk out of a hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to find the ground covered in wet snow. today, I’m standing on my mother’s deck on Vancouver Island in sun and twenty-seven degrees. It’s not just the difference in weather that strikes me. There’s a fundamental difference in the people and landscapes on these opposite sides of the country.
I’ve come to think of Vancouver Island as a second home. I first came here as a boy in the 70s, brought here by my parents with my brother and sister on a family holiday. My father was a steam engineer, which meant little to me as a kid. He worked hard, every week of every year, save the three-week holiday in the summer. My mother would pack enough boxed and canned food to last the trip, and off we would go, with a tent trailer in tow. We camped and drove, drove and camped, getting as far as Regina one summer and all the way to Long Beach the next.
I never thought about those trips from my dad’s perspective. He had to drive most days, fight with the trailer, listen to squabbling kids, and put up with us asking him to buy expensive junk he couldn’t afford. But he took us—and we saw the mountains, bighorn sheep perched at the edge of cliffs, ravens that were bigger and blacker than the crows back home, and finally long sandy beaches, where we explored over the rocks, discovered sand-dollars, and gathered shells that stank of the life they once housed.
Now, four decades later, I’m a regular on this island—I could become an islander, if I wanted, just by moving here, something I couldn’t do on that opposite coast. Once, in a store out here, I said I was from Alberta. Flat-lander, said the clerk. It took me a moment to decide if I was being insulted or not. I decided not—teased, maybe, but in a relaxed sort of way. These islanders are perhaps more relaxed than their east coast cousins, but they aren’t wedded to place in the same way: for one thing, most people here come from somewhere else.
I love both these coasts, but the wash of prairie that runs down from the Rocky Mountains until it spills over the Canadian Shield has always been my home, the place where I grew up and where my roots go deep into the glaciated soil. But if you ratchet back the clock far enough, the prairie, too, was once a sea—the vast inland Bearpaw Sea where lived the stuff of nightmare and textbook. You can still find them there. Just take a drive down to the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller and you’ll get your fill of those creatures who once inhabited what we call the prairies.
I think about these places I visit and the ways in which they alter over time. People move away; people die—something of which I’m reminded every time I walk by the tiny Brethour Family cemetery that stands beside the Victoria airport. I used to walk here with my brother, Don. He would read the inscriptions on the stones, and we would talk about who these people were and what they were like. He died here last March, after a long struggle to overcome cancer. And now when I come to this island, I think of him, how he brought Christmas to this little street, with his endless strings of lights and blow-up Christmas characters. He lies out here in a quiet cemetery outside of Victoria, a lovely natural area planted with trees and wild shrubs. And when I think of my brother, I also think of my father, whose ashes we left a thousand kilometres inland, in another cemetery just outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, amid the flat, expanse of the prairie and far from the sound of the sea.

New Fiction this Week

This week is an unusual week for me. I’ve had two stories come out in the same week, one in the spring issue of Verdad Magazine, and the second in daCunha, an online journal out of Leeds, England.
First, thank you to the editors of Verdad Magazine for publishing “Suicide Blues,” a story I wrote several years ago. This story is about the feelings that come with the contemplation of suicide. It’s a difficult story that addresses difficult issues, and it’s one that I’ve had rejected more than a dozen times. I’m grateful Verdad was willing to accept the story and glad it’s finally found a home.
Second, I want to thank Veronica and the people of daCunha for publishing “And Tears Fell No More.” I’m excited about this one; it’s my first robot story.
A couple of years ago, I read through Isaac Asimov’s robot collection. I wanted, in a small way, to contribute to this genre—and it is a genre. My problem was trying to write a story about robots that hadn’t already been done.
Given my reliance on technology in so many aspects of my life, I thought, hey … and along came the story. It wasn’t that easy, of course; it’s never that easy.
You will need an account with daCunha Global to read “And Tears Fell No More,” but the contribution you make will be in support of the journal and its writers—plus you get access to a whole range of awesome stories. Enjoy!

Waiting for A Wrinkle in Time

If you’re like me, you’re anticipating the filmic release of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time this March. I read this book as a kid—on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which, if you’re wondering, is a dinosaur from the analog era. Just so we’re clear, the analogue era is that point in human history before everything went digital.
I was an impressionable reader at fourteen. Everything I read blew my mind, and everything I read was going to change my life. Reading about Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their search for their father introduced me to a new kind of fantasy—fantasy that wasn’t Lord of the Rings and THAT crossed THE line into science fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I read by Madeline L’Engle. I of course wanted more, but I quickly discovered she didn’t exclusively write fantasy. L’Engle is known for her Time series, which includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. But she wrote more than fifty books. If you want to read more about the series and the author, check out this fine 2004 piece by Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker.
As a teenager, I felt a little weird reading a fantasy/science fiction book that made reference to God. At that time, I hadn’t yet read any C. S. Lewis. At university, I studied A Wrinkle in Time with Jon Stott, my children’s literature mentor, who talked about the book in terms of what he called the Isis archetype—girl characters who had to confront, and often save their flawed fathers. That gave me something to think about, although I hadn’t yet become a flawed father myself.
Eventually, I read C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy, which gave me another way of understanding L’Engle’s AWiT. Lewis’ series, especially the first book, draws on the tradition of H. G. Wells, the man who, I would argue, invented science fiction. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is by far my favourite of the trilogy, with its depiction of deep heaven, the angel-like Oyarsa who govern each of the planets, and Earth, or Thulcandra, as the silent planet. All this, I think, looks forward to AWiT, the angel-like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Witch, and the dark thing, or shadow that envelops the Earth.
I always need to fit the books I’m reading into a larger literary picture. Call it an obsession. L’Engle may very well have been drawing on Lewis, but she gave us something new in 1962: a contemporary girl character who fights evil. Some aspects of the book now seem dated, But Meg Murry, with her stubbornness and belligerent attitude, remains a forerunner to the spunky girl characters of the twenty-first century.

Dreaming of Snow

Winter arrived here in Edmonton on November 1. It does that here—one day it’s fall, cool but lovely, and the next day it’s winter, snowy and cold. Even the geese who stop here on their way south were caught unawares by the sudden change.
This happens every year, and every year many are taken by surprise at the abrupt start to the winter. People scramble to find their winter-clothes; they line up to have winter tires put back on their cars. For this season, which is sometimes fully half the calendar year, it takes longer to get ready to leave the house, and it takes longer to get anywhere. This longest season of the year has an inevitable effect on the way people think and the way they interact with their world. If you live here, you simply can’t ignore what’s happening outside your window.
A few years ago, I wrote a flash fiction piece about snow and about winter. I’ve never tried submitting the story, mostly because I didn’t think it would mean much to anyone living south of the fifty-third parallel. Nonetheless, here’s the story, Dreaming of Snow. Enjoy!

***

He dreamed. All day the snow fell heavily and deliberately, dropping down in great white flakes that gathered themselves into clinging crystalline faces that vanished as they kissed the ground. The air was thick and alive with falling snow.
He sat on the couch and watched the gathering whiteness through the window. The snow fell and fell. It obliterated the green of pines and the brown of branches. It swirled and settled, leveling the ground to an implacable plain of whiteness that steadily rose and rose.
Once, he opened the front-door. It smelled sharp and clean and cold, and the snow hissed and sighed as it jostled its way down, filling the air with its crystalline whisper and clogging coldness. He closed the door.
Back at the window, he watched as the level of whiteness crept up the side of the house. He knew he was drowning, drowning in snow and cold. It would rise to the level of the window, then it would rise even higher, and it would bury the house—and keep falling and falling. Sooner or later, he would be entombed in snow.
Eventually, he would suffocate, or perhaps the inexorable weight of the falling snow would simply crush the house with him inside. Watching the white wall creep up the window, he knew he could do nothing. There was nothing to do save remember the dream of summer that had fled forever. And as he remembered sun and leaves and the song of birds, he could see individual snowflakes pressed against the glass, flakes that formed patterns and frozen faces, faces that peered in and took no account of the heat that for now still ran throbbing through his veins in a rhythmic pulse of denial.

Remembering Back to School

The return to school in September is always an energetic time. At university, students are often overflowing with enthusiasm, which usually lasts until exams start in October. Then, things get hard.
I remember back to school for my kids. Through their elementary years, junior high, then finally high school, September was always about routine, about settling in, about finding a rhythm for a new year. And September was the New Year, not January.
While my fondest memories of back to school are those of my kids—the shopping for school supplies, the new clothes, the anticipation, the tears—my most poignant memory of back to school is my arrival on the UofA campus for the start of my undergrad degree in 1985.
As a blind student, I found the UofA campus an intimidating place. It was sprawling, confusing, and hard to navigate. I had some help from the people at Disabled Student Services, but I simply had to learn my way around. The bookstore was in the Students Union Building, and Disabled Students Services was in Athabasca Hall—both on the west side of campus
My classes took me from the Humanities building, through HUB Mall, to Dentistry, to the Old Arts building, to somewhere in the Engineering Wing. I got lost repeatedly as I found my way around.
I didn’t own a computer in those days—it was the 1980s and computers were just becoming a thing. I took braille notes in class using a slate and stylus. It usually threw off my professors the first time they heard the rapid punching of metal through thick paper. My god, that slate and stylus was loud. By the end of my undergrad degree, I had a four-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille notes. One of my prized possessions during my undergrad degree was a seventy-five volume braille dictionary that filled a six-foot-by-six-foot bookcase.
My first-year English class was an introduction to literature with Jim Nelson. I loved that class. We started with Chaucer, which blew my mind. I had the anthology on cassette tape—three dozen four-track cassettes that required a special tape player. I listened to the “Prologue” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” over and over again. Professor Nelson would walk into the class, write page numbers on the whiteboard, then lecture for forty-five minutes, leaving five minutes for questions. Those lectures were packed with information. He gave close readings of the texts, filling in historical background and pausing occasionally for anecdotes.
The first essay I wrote for Nelson’s class was an examination of three stories: “Araby” by James Joyce, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D. H. Lawrence, and “Road from Colonus” by E. M. Forster. I can’t remember what I wrote for that first English essay—I’m sure it was terrible. I do remember, however, reading the stories while the rain fell that September. I sat in the room I called a study—the second bedroom of the house where my wife and I lived. I had been a reader since I lost my sight in a car accident at the age of ten, but reading those stories was like finding literature again for the first time. I read them over and over. The dark streets and the narrator’s obsession with his friend’s sister in Joyce’s story haunted my imagination, while the darkness and strangeness of Lawrence disturbed my universe. I started university thinking I knew something about literature; I was finding out I knew much less than I thought. I had quit a job to go back to school, and I was feeling my world opening up and bottoming out at the same time. I loved university, but I always felt like an outsider. I had access to books, but only books on tape. I had it in my head that listening wasn’t the same as reading, and when I needed to use the library, I always needed help.
I got through that first year—god knows how. And near the end of the winter term, Professor Nelson ask me and a couple of other students to stay back. I was nervous—I was always nervous talking to my professors. These were the halls of learning, and I was just one more Jude the Obscure, a working-class, blind kid who didn’t belong.
Professor Nelson sat in a desk beside me, and he gave me a letter. It was a recommendation to the honours program in English. It was an important moment. Someone was telling me I had something valuable to contribute. I’ve realized since such letters are about recruitment as much as anything else, but I’ve been grateful to Professor Nelson ever since.
Universities are different places now. I have the good fortune to work for two of them, and I feel more at home now that most people work digitally. The move to an online world has enabled me to work more effectively as a teacher and a researcher. In spite of all of it, I’ve never lost that early sense of being something of an outsider—the blind guy who reads and teaches but who doesn’t use actual books. I get a whiff of this sense every time I walk into a library—a building full of books, that are to me so many bound volumes of smooth paper that always keep their secrets.