1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.
Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.
C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are loved by both the young and the young at heart all over the world. Whilst they can certainly be enjoyed on their own merits as pure, escapist fantasy adventure stories, their writer often implied that they had a deeper meaning. Lewis, a prodigious letter writer, once wrote to a young reader as follows: “I’m so thankful that you realised the ‘hidden story’ in the Narnia books. It is odd, children nearly always do, grown-ups hardly ever”. It is noteworthy that Lewis, who was otherwise quite willing to talk about his work, never elaborated as to what precisely this ‘hidden story’ was, leaving literary critics to speculate endlessly over this in the years since the Narnia novels were first published. For over half a century, scholars have laboured to show that Lewis’s apparently disorganised Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the structure of Narnia’s symbolism has remained a mystery. That is, until a little known Cambridge scholar named Michael Ward came along recently and apparently solved the enigma. His theory was that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. In Ward’s view, the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets – Jupiter, Mars, Sol (the Sun), Luna (the Moon), Mercury, Venus and Saturn. Although this intriguing theory has not won universal acceptance, Ward certainly makes a compelling case.