The Big Idea: Patti Callahan

For Once Upon a Wardrobe, author Patti Callahan considers a story and a world most of us know, to tell a story that many of us may have not considered — but without it, that earlier beloved tale would not exist.


Nearly every culture in the world has an origin story – but don’t stories have origin stories?  Especially the ones that somehow enter our universal consciousness, stories that impact all of us even if we haven’t read them cover to cover. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of those stories.

There are very particular stories and myths that endure in the world; they show us what it means to be human in all its terrors, joys and griefs, and yet they are also life-affirming. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of those tales. 

Where did Narnia come from? That is the question that was the spark-flying big idea that had me take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard (depending on the day). But the idea or question is bigger than Narnia because the real question is – “Where do stories come from?” And can we truly answer that?

I often wondered about the time in C. S. Lewis’s life when he decided to start writing about Narnia. What was the origin story of this mythical land? What made Lewis start and then stop and then start again? Had he meant to create this land and or did it grow into Narnia as he wrote? I began to ponder how much of his life ended up in his stories. As authors, how much of our lives end up in our stories? How much is conscious and how much is unconscious?

I leave the final answer to the experts in psychology, philosophy and religion, but, as usual, I turned to story for our answer.

When I was in high school, I studied Latin in preparation for a medical career. In those classes, we studied the great Greek and Roman myths. The knowledge that story is built on story has followed me from a medical career to a storytelling career and has continually fascinated me.

I am astounded at the way stories touch the numinous, how inexplicable and mysterious they are at their best. It is nearly impossible to answer the question, “Where did your story idea come from?” Mythology at its core often tries to answer such questions. Every culture and religion has its own origin story – from Danu and Dan in Ireland, to Greek mythology with its deities, creatures and myths, to the Hopi, the Mayan, and the In Nihilo stories (out of nothing).

And isn’t, I thought, isn’t Narnia a world unto its own? A place that has enchanted, enthralled and captured generations. Most likely you feel the same — Narnia was and is a powerful part of our collective lives and imaginations. I’ve never felt the need to dissect it like a specimen on a laboratory slide or take it apart to find its inner workings, but I did find myself wanting to convey the power of it in our lives. I felt a story stirring that might reveal exactly what C. S. Lewis meant when he said, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.”

As a child, I felt that if I could find it, I too might walk through the wardrobe door of Narnia. I searched for that snowy forest in the woodlands and marshes of Cape Cod, in the closet of my bedroom, and the pages of other books. Narnia seemed to be waiting for me, even calling to me, if I might only find it. I would wager some of you did the same.

As I considered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a young boy named George Devonshire and his sister, Megs visited my imagination. Living in Worcester, England in 1950, seven-year-old George is dying and his seventeen-year-old beloved sister can’t save him; she loves him fiercely and will do anything for him (Just as C. S. Lewis and his older brother, Warnie, loved each other) This young boy asks his sister to find the answer to his most pressing question, “Where did Narnia come from?” Narnia comforts George. Narnia thrills him. He wants Narnia to be real. And although he asks his sister a question that can’t be truly answered, his sister goes looking for that very answer anyway.

Megs, a mathematics student at Sommerville College in Oxford, who wants logical answers, ones that might be ticked off like the equations she solves, sets off to track down Mr. C. S. Lewis and timidly ask him about Narnia’s origins. He answers her, but not as we expect. He doesn’t give her simple answers or logical ties; instead, he tells her stories from his life for her to take home to George. Stories both dark and light; stories of triumph and heartbreak: true stories.

In Megs’ search for the infallible, she receives stories in return, sending her and George on a journey where they discover that part of Narnia’s mystery is that we, too, have the privilege of entering Narnia, even without a wardrobe.

Although bits and pieces of Lewis’s life can be identified in Narnia, there continue to be mysteries in Narnia that are both imaginative and transcendent.

As Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher John O’Donohue once wrote, “A book is a path of words which take the heart in new directions.”  And that is what I long to show you: how Narnia changes our view of the “real” world and allows us to see the unseen with our hearts. 

Once Upon A Wardrobe: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s  

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter and Instagram.

5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Patti Callahan”

  1. My Latin is very rusty these days, but “out of nothing” should be “ex nihilo”, shouldn’t it?

  2. Great concept – I know when I was hiding in closets, I always hoped the fur coats would slowly change into fir branches.

  3. Q: are the bits about Lewis actually from Lewis’s life and letters (there’s… a lot… of material) or are those parts made up? (it would drive me bonkers if Lewis in the book contradicted what Lewis himself said about the various bits of origin of pieces of Narnia, unless those disparities were very cleverly explained!)

  4. (in other words, this would be exactly my cup of tea if the Lewis-y bits are in fact well-researched and well-founded, and I will hunt a copy down, but would be a great frustration in the other case and thus nope)

  5. Start assembling your rotten fruits to throw, folks. I read LWW in my sixties, and though I felt passionate about it for a few days, I’ve forgotten most of it. The biggest thing I remember was that I kept spotting parts of Harry Potter in it and having to remind myself that LWW came first.

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