The Library of Tumnus: Book Reviews from NarniaFans: Once Upon a Wardrobe
Hi everyone! Welcome back to the Tumnus library, where we review all the 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 Once upon a time there was a wardrobe!
TITLE: Once upon a time there was a cupboard.
AUTHOR: Patti Callahan.
PUBLISHER: Harper Muse (October 19, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 0785251723
ISBN-13 : 978-0785251729
From Patti Callahan, bestselling author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Once Upon a Wardrobe, is an enchanting new novel that follows the journey of a young woman in search of meaning. Margret “Megs” Devonshire is a young woman caught between two words. While on a scholarship at Oxford where she studied mathematics, she divided her time between school and her life at home to take care of her sick brother, George. His younger brother is captivated by a fantastical new adventure, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Intending to show him that she’s not a complete snob, she agrees to read a chapter to him before returning to school.
Soon, she too is captivated by Narnia, but still dismisses it as a story, wanting old logical facts and figures. That is until George sends him on a quest. Since she’s been attending Oxford, where Narnia creator CS Lewis is on the faculty, he wants her to ask him a question: where is Narnia from? His quest leads to something much deeper than the origins of an imaginary country.
I got Patti Callahan’s novel, Become Mrs. Lewis as a Valentine’s Day present from my mother, and I read it with great interest. I was blown away by the way she crafted the story, telling it not like the Jack and Joy biographies we’ve memorized, but like a real, lively, living romance. I came away from this story feeling like I “knew” Jack, Joy, Douglas and their friends far better than I had before, and the book has more than earned a place on my bookshelf. Imagine my joy and surprise when I learned that the book’s author, Patti Callahan, had written another novel starring CS Lewis.
Once Upon a Wardrobe is in many ways a prequel to Becoming Mrs. Lewis in that the book examines Jack’s early life, up to the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, placing him in the context of a story he tells. to a young woman named Megs Devonshire who wishes to uncover the story of Narnia’s birth for her ailing brother.
It’s one thing to have encountered so many of these facts about Lewis’s life in a biography, quite another to experience them in a story. Callahan adds layers of context and texture to these events we know so well and brings them to life. For example, it’s one thing to just read in a sentence of a biography how Jack and Warnie’s beloved nurse told them stories when they were children, it’s another to have a when she tells a story. In one of his many strokes of genius, Callahan goes so far as to ask the nurse to tell the Lewis boys a tale from Irish folklore, in which time in fairyland is different from our world, alluding to one of many sources that sparked young Jack’s imagination.
It goes beyond those little details of Jack’s childhood that we know so well. For example, many Lewis fans 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 it a step further, and we feel the sting when the most big boy punches Warnie in the back. of the head. We recoil in fear before the watchful gaze of the disagreeable director. We feel the torment of younger, weaker students like Jack. We understand why he wanted even better why he wanted to leave: it was not a school; it was a cross between Shawshank takeover and The lord of the flies. None of this is here to scare 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 over. However, we are constantly reminded that without the dark and dangerous times, the joy and consolation we receive later is meaningless.
Jack figures prominently in the book, now well established as a writer, scholar, and tutor of English. Once again Callahan introduces readers to a lovely person who would more than gladly invite us over for tea and a chat. She perfectly captures his wit, his wisdom and, most importantly, his generosity. You really feel like if he had a way to help Megs and her brother, he would.
Although this book presents Jack’s biography, understanding the origin story of Narnia is only Megs’ quest. The book tells how the lives of Margret “Megs” Devonshire and her brother parallel and intersect with Jack’s. As good as Callahan is at crafting Jack and Warnie, it’s in crafting the Devonshire family where she really shines. They feel like real people who might have existed back then to the point that when I finished the book I wanted to know more about her too, wondering if she had made a name for herself in math, to remind me that Megs, her brother and the rest of her family and friends were fiction.
Megs is in many ways reminiscent of Jack’s two main heroines, Susan and Lucy Pevensie. Like Lucy, she is caring and compassionate, especially to her younger brother, but she has Susan’s logic and practicality. She’s good with numbers and logic, but when it comes to belief, it’s something that seems to hint at her. It is her journey to uncover the story behind Narnia that propels her on her own personal journey, during which she will discover love, faith and imagination and learn how they can work in concert with logic, reason and the facts. His own goal is to make his brother happy with his few remaining 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 details of the condition suffered by his brother, George. The only clue we get is when we are told that something is wrong with his heart. Even in the 1940s and 50s, our medical knowledge was far from what it is today, and it could easily be something that is now easily treatable. However, what he lacks in vitality he makes up for in other ways. Throughout the story, we see that he is an incredibly insightful boy, asking questions few would think of and coming to answers that baffle even his sister. He not only finds escape but inspiration in Narnia, and upon hearing Jack’s life story, he finds a kindred spirit.
Megs learns in her research that stories have power: to comfort, encourage, inspire and, most importantly, 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 curious, and even finds love with a young man named Paidrig, perhaps one of the nicest boys in literature since Calvin O’Keefe 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 on his own adventure with his brother to see a castle in Ireland that may have inspired Care Paravel.
Patti Callahan is excellent not only at shaping the real and fictional characters, but also at creating post-war England, down to the proper vernacular. You can hear the waves crashing against the shores of Ireland and feel the snow falling on your face. Even the halls of Oxford contain a sense of wonder and enchantment. Once upon a time there was a wardrobe doesn’t read like a historical book with dull facts, but its England feels as magical and mysterious as the England of Harry Potter or Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles. Considering England is home to the plethora of fantasy worlds we love, that’s fitting. Only such a wondrous place could serve as fertile ground for such wondrous lands and imaginative characters.
Once upon a time there was a wardrobe is an enchanting and poignant winter tale about the world of Narnia and its creator that celebrates not just the wonder, adventure, escape or romance, but the consolation that Narnia’s friends, and indeed lovers of all the stories, get these tall tales worth telling. Not since I saw the movie for the first time The princess to be married, have I come across a work that celebrates the joy of history so well. Add this one to your Christmas list and give it a good place on your shelf. You’ll be glad you did.
Five out of five shields.
Buy the book on Amazon.com