Worlds Beyond: How The Chronicles of Narnia Introduced Me to a Life of SFF
I had come to Narnia as a child after spending an entire year making my way through the Fellowship of the Ring. When I said “more!” to my father, he took me to the living room and showed me seven books in a box. I sat down and immediately thought, “Well, they’re easier to read” and devoured them over the summer. It was a bit like discovering a magical wardrobe in the guest room. I kept thinking, these were sitting in the living room the whole time! When I finished Narnia I asked what the next step would be and set out to find more books on magic or space or talking animals or time travel.
Looking at how reading The Chronicles has impacted my life as a reader, I see four different paths that start from the summer I read. The last battle Until today. These are basically: looking for “more books like this”; the looting of my father’s speculative fiction books; books directly related to Lewis; and the search for a more religious or religiously motivated speculative fiction.
When I first started looking for “more books like Narnia,” I didn’t have the easiest time. It was in the early 1980s, so we didn’t have the same embarrassment of wealth that elementary school kids have today. But my parents managed to find two books that I immediately fell in love with: The phantom toll by Norton Juster and The old and future king by TH White. The first taught me that books can be weird, funny, and delicious, and the second taught me to love King Arthur and sent me The death of Arthur and later to Chrétien de Troyes and throughout the present day and my almost irrational excitement about the recent The green knight movie!
I don’t know how I missed Robin McKinley or the Redwall books, but I did. It seemed like it was hard to find fantastic children’s books at this time, but maybe it was my location, the bookstores available, and (probably at stake here) going to Christian schools where the books from the library did not diversify. certain territories (but where I read The war for Mansoul, an adapted version of John Bunyan’s story about a besieged city called Mansoul and I’ll leave it to you to see if you can understand the metaphor. This is also where I read the strange apocalypse novel 666 by Salem Kirban who besides being incredibly dark and weird – there is cannibalism in this book and also ruby ring lasers – had the added benefit of a foreword where the author said that it ‘was “mostly fiction” but also true because it was based on the Bible. If you haven’t been scared of serious religious followers who start by saying the story you are about to read is true then you really missed a deep terror.)
By far the most influential and beloved series of books to come to me through this “Can I Find More Books Like Narnia” portal were the Earthsea novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve found A Magician of Earthsea in sixth grade and I was so deeply fascinated that I drew pictures and reread the book during recess. (This is also why Jay Hightower got arrested and then “disciplined” for copying my drawing of the Shadow Hunting Ged thing. The professor saw it and thought it was a demon, and Jay took the belt instead of firing me. Which, again, Christian school in the 80’s, and also sorry, Jay!) I still love these books!
Now the “what’s on daddy’s shelf” path from Narnia was considerably more difficult. Dad is one of the early sci-fi nerds, so there was a lot of sci-fi from the golden age and a really big bunch of all the top sci-fi magazines. But, also, there were a lot of novels from the 1970s, which, uh, weren’t suitable for nine-year-olds.
So I had some great adventures with Ray Bradbury (I particularly liked The Martian Chronicles and one of the short stories set on Halloween) and Isaac Asimov (I robot!). There were even a few young Asimovs buried in there, so I read Lucky Starr. I discovered some Doctor Who and Star trek novelizations. And a little later I came across The Rift War Saga books by Raymond A. Feist, which I absolutely adored.
I also discovered, far too early in my life, the book Ariel by Stephen R. Boyett, on all tech that ends with the return of magic, a young man befriending a unicorn, and oh yes something about a sexual arousal. I remember asking my dad while I was reading, “What is an erection?” And he said, “Something you set up like a building.” And I was like, hmmm, I don’t know how to make sense of that in this context. I was quite confused by the detailed sex scene that takes place towards the end. My dad, years later: “Yeah, well, obviously I didn’t remember that part or I wouldn’t have let you read it.”
As for the books directly related to Lewis, well, I ended up reading everything the man had ever written including his schoolwork, his poems, his letters. I had mixed feelings about The space trilogy, including one that I loved and one that I hated (look forward to discussing this here with all of you in the future). My experience with This hideous force left me behind his novels long enough that when I came back and read Until we have faces I was old enough to understand and appreciate.
Lewis directly referred to many authors he loved or respected throughout his writing, and some of those I have grown to love and respect also include Charles Williams (especially Lion square and All New Years), GK Chesterton (in particular The Notting Hill Napoleon and the stories of Father Brown, as well as Eternal man), Dorothy L. Sayers (I’ve only read a handful of her novels, so I still have a lot to read!), And of course George MacDonald.
By the time I got to MacDonald, I thoroughly enjoyed his children’s fairy tales (I actually bought some beautiful editions illustrated by Maurice Sendak), but I was also probably too young for the weirdness of Fantasies and Lilith. I was confused by him. Was it for children or for the elderly? I discovered, much later in life, that what I liked most about MacDonald was his sermons. His Unspoken sermons are beautiful, interesting, and describe God in a way that resonates with my own experience in a powerful way.
Then, finally, the last category Narnia opened up to me was the search for more religious or religiously motivated speculative fiction. I don’t mean “Christian fiction” (meaning “fiction written by Christians”) when I say this, although I have no problem with those who like this genre. What I mean are stories that seriously struggle with the faith, or at least are nuanced in their religious character.
Of course, there are a variety of amazing books that fall into this category, many of which are highly regarded by people of different faiths: A hymn for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Fred Saberhagen falls into that category for me, although he’s a lot less open about it. Also Clifford Simak. Susan Palwick’s incredible work, both short story and novel, often has transformative and healing properties that I find refreshing.
Connie Willis, winner of eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebulas, has written many novels that are close to my heart, including Book of the end of the world. I can’t tell you how many times I think about this book and the awesome emotional picture it paints of someone doing the right thing even knowing they can’t change what’s going to happen.
I also deeply liked the work of Gene Wolfe. I was amazed when I started to read The shadow of the torturer and I was like, “Uh, is this a book about Jesus? And as I read on the show got to the point where I wondered if, well, maybe Severian was literally meant to be Jesus? A lot of Wolfe’s short stories are beautiful, complicated explorations of faith in intergalactic contexts, or the future, or just, you know, a quiet story about staying in a bed and breakfast just outside of Hell. .
I also like religious and spiritual stories that don’t come from a Christian perspective, like the work of Ursula K. Le Guin (The tombs of Atuan might have the most frightening and accurate picture of corrupt and perverted spiritual work I’ve ever read… I was so relieved when Ged finally appeared!) or recent books like this by SB Divya Machine cover, which has Atheists, Christians, Neo-Buddhists, and Muslims all living in the same future with all of the complexities, misunderstandings, and bounties you might expect after living in the real world, today.
There are many, many more… and I can trace my introduction to many of them to Lewis and Narnia. I’m sure I would have met some of them anyway, through another path, another portal, another closet. But I’m thankful that once upon a time my father took me into the living room and handed me a box of those seven books.
Now I would love to hear about your trip. Where and when did you first read the Chronicles? What doors have these stories opened for you and what books have you discovered as a result?
An earlier version of this article was published in May 2021 as part of CS Lewis Reread.
Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow it on Twitter or log in on Facebook.