The Summer I Discovered Narnia -- And Fatherhood
If you'd been camping near Alaska's Portage Lake in the summer of 1993, you might have heard a lion's roar shattering the arctic stillness, bouncing between trees, skimming across glaciers, skip-hopping across the lake.
That was me, sitting in my tent, reading C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles aloud to my three children who were zipped up tight in their sleeping bags.
I was Aslan the lion, roaring majestically for the delight of my kids. I was also the chitter-chattering mouse Reepicheep, the gloomy Marshwiggle Puddleglum, the White Witch of the North (who sounded a lot like a drag queen doing Bette Davis) and a whole cavalcade of creatures who came parading out of my mouth as I read my way through the series—from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.
That summer, my children were 5, 7 and 9—the Age of Whine and Clamor—but in that tent, you could have heard a pine needle drop in the moments I stopped to take a breath.
I was deep in the throes of ecstasy which should come to every parent at least once in their life. If I'm not mistaken, reading aloud to your children is one of Dr. Spock's Ten Commandments for Better Parenting. Start reading to them when they're still in the womb and you get extra credit on the final exam.
In the beginning, I'd been an active parental reader—my tongue tripping lightly through Where the Wild Things Are and Are You My Mother?—but gradually, I'd surrendered my children to television and video games, electronic magnets that pulled their attention like they were so many metal shavings.
My children were only drawn away from books because I allowed them to stray; I was just too damned tired and distracted to fight the Mario Brothers for the souls of my children.
And so I surrendered. I’m not proud of this and knew at the time that I was letting something good and necessary melt away. I agonized every night when I came home and heard those beeps, whistles and zoings! coming from my children's bedrooms.
I needed something to help me get reacquainted with my children. I was floundering as a father.
And so it was then that I came to discover Narnia and set out on a voyage that summer, navigating my children through its pages.
This was not my first visit to Narnia. I’d skimmed the stories two decades earlier, when I was my children’s age, but I don’t think I was ready. I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, read it with mild interest; then moved on to the next book in the series, Prince Caspian. But somewhere in the middle, I lost interest.
I sometimes wonder how my life might have been different if Narnia had intersected my spirit 18 years earlier. Maybe I would have been a gentler man, a more hopeful human, someone who sees the unseen magic in the world.
I was none of those things in the summer of 1993. I was a burned-out father and husband working late hours for meager pay which had to be stretched to incredibly thin-and-wide proportions to pay the monthly bills.
On top of that, I didn’t understand my children. They were scampering little creatures—loud and silly and just short of uncontrollable. This, you understand, was not their fault—they were just being children—it was my inability to find that bonding place which was to blame.
Then, one night, I found the key which unlocked the door between father and child.
It was in the midst of the usual routine—rounding up the kids to get pajamas on, teeth brushed and tucked into bed—when it hit me: I needed something to calm them down. If I could just get them to hush the babble and pay attention to me for just one goshdarned minute, my life would have at least a sliver of peace.
“Aha!” I thought. “I’ll read to them. Whether they like it or not.” (Thinking they probably wouldn’t, but I was game for anything at that frazzled point.)
I went to my bookshelf and trailed my finger along the spines. Martin Chuzzlewit. Remembrance of Things Past. Atlas Shrugged. No, no, and certainly not. I went a little farther along the shelf…and saw it: the boxed set of The Narnia Chronicles.
I strode back upstairs, full of parental vigor and shouting, “Kids! Kids, c’mere. I’ve got something for you!” I brought them into my bedroom and tucked them under the covers of my bed, three restless peas in a pod. “Listen, just listen,” I said.
I turned to the first page.
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.
I kept reading about how the four children stumble across a magic wardrobe and, pushing their way through mothballed fur coats and hangars, enter a land of snow and forests and fauns and lampposts and a white-skinned/black-hearted Queen who dispenses Turkish Delight candy like deadly heroin.
When I paused to take a breath, you could have heard an eyelash drop. Three sets of eyes—once droopy with sleep—were as wide as Montana horizons. Three mouths hung open, a thin glisten of drool running unnoticed down one particular chin.
I was stunned. Nothing—not even the nosiest, most colorful Disney cartoon—had ever held them this rapt, this silent, this obedient. When I reached the end of the third chapter that night, my voice hoarse and faint, I dog-eared the page and closed the book.
“No, Daddy, no! Just a little bit more! Puh-leeze?!”
“We’ve had enough for tonight, kids. It’s already a half hour past your bedtime.”
And I kept that promise all summer long. It became part of the ritual: don pajamas, brush teeth, slip under covers, read Narnia, kiss good-night.
I read the books like a hammy radio actor, varying the pitch and tone and timbre of my voice. For the four children, I spoke in a clipped British accent; for Aslan the lion, I adopted a rumbling James Earl Jones throatiness; for Reepicheep the brave little mouse, I squeaked; for Puddleglum the web-footed Marsh-wiggle, I sounded like a rainy day full of wet blankets. I shouted, I whispered, I sang.
Sir Laurence Olivier had nothing on me.
The nights I didn’t read—the nights I worked too late and stumbled home bone-weary and bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained—the children were as downcast as Puddleglum himself. But those nights were few and far between because I made it a point to return to Narnia as often as I could—not for my children’s sake, but for the sake of my own ragged soul.
Lo and behold, the spell of the books was being cast over this slump-shouldered 30-year-old man himself. It is just possible that I was enjoying the books even more than my under-10 audience.
My children are grown now—adults who have married and flown from the nest—and I often wonder if they think of that year we explored the land of fauns and lampposts and marching forests. Is that Summer of Narnia encased in their memories like it is in mine? Do they also remember a particular night when my Aslan roared on the shores of Portage Lake in the Alaskan wilderness?
After a day of hiking, we’d roasted marshmallows, made s’mores, and watched the still-bright evening sun slide across the glaciered mountains. When the mosquitoes began their nightly kamikaze runs, we retreated inside the tent and began the nightly routine: don pajamas, run a dry toothbrush across teeth, crawl into sleeping bags and then…Narnia.
I’m sure people in the neighboring campsites must have wondered at the sounds of the mouse and a bunch of British kids calling out “Reepicheep! Reepicheep!” coming from that tent.
But I didn’t care because I had found a bridge to my children, a way to leave adult office politics and to-do lists behind me and walk over to their world.
And it was all due to a lion, a mouse, a Marsh-Wiggle, one-footed Dufflepuds, a talking horse and a lamppost in the middle of a forest where, every so often, a father reading long into the night until his throat was nearly bleeding, stopped to rest and smile.
David Abrams is the author of Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq War, coming from Grove/Atlantic in September. His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career which took him to Alaska, the Pentagon, and Iraq. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com.