Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Doug McLean

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“If you were in a room full of books,” Lev Grossman writes in his latest novel, The Magicians Land, “you were at least halfway home.” For Grossman, no books feel more like home than C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which provide the template for what he likes to read-and how he wants to write. In our conversation for this series, Grossman explained what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught him about fiction, what makes Lewis’s work so radically inventive, and why his own stories must step through the looking glass into fantasy.

The Magicians Land concludes Grossman’s acclaimed and best-selling trilogy, which has been praised in magazines like The New Republic and The New Yorker for being a darker, grown-up, and more complex Harry Potter. At Grossman’s Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, students drink, hook up, and take magic classes that are as difficult as Organic Chemistry-and dangerous, too, for some are devoured by the beasts their works unleash. The third and final installment finds our hero Quentin Coldwater as a 30-year-old man, now banished from the Narnia-like land of Fillory, as he rejoins old friends to try to find-and then save-the enchanted kingdom of their past.

Lev Grossman is a book critic and senior technology writer for Time magazine. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

Lev Grossman: I can’t say with total accuracy when I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I wasn’t a particularly early reader, so I couldn’t have been much younger than 7 or 8 years old. But the Narnia books had a kind of special place in our family. My mother’s English; she was in London during the blitz, when she was about Lucy Pevensie’s age. To stay safe from the bombing, like Lewis’s fictional children, she was sent from London to the countryside. The book opens with the Pevensies arriving from London, so you have this strange, dark background-this sense of war going on, which the characters have only just narrowly escaped.

Of course, unlike the Pevensies, my mom failed to find adventures in a magical land accessed through a wardrobe. But, in fact, she claims she was so badly behaved that her host family actually had her deported back to London. I don’t know what she did-but apparently it was so naughty that being bombed by Hitler was a preferable fate. The cultural divide between poor urban Londoners and the country English was very great, and it was hard for the two factions to find common ground. I guess, in her case, they never did.

So the Narnia books had a special place for my mom. I think she must have presented them to us with a special flourish. And I’m fairly certain that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that I ever was transported by. I think it’s the book that taught me what novels are supposed to do. It’s the book that taught me how books work, and what-if they’re good-they do for you. It was the template for all the great reading experiences I had ahead.

Why is Lewis so important to me? In part, it’s because-technically, from the point of view of craft-he tells the story with truly exemplary economy. By the time we’re only six or seven pages into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we already know all four Pevensies, we know how each child feels about the other three, and he’s gotten Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia. With incredible speed, he acquaints us with the characters-just one or two well-placed details, and we’re able to know each one-and delves right away into the adventure.