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The Wardrobe Wars

In my freshman year at Wheaton College, back in the early seventies, the Wade Collection in Blanchard Hall acquired some new closet space—a wardrobe, to be exact. This wasn't a wardrobe that anyone actually used.

It was just to look at, or perhaps to admire, or maybe even to worship. One student editorial in the campus paper suggested we cut slivers from the back of it and sell them as relics.

For this, of course, was not just any wardrobe, but one that had once belonged to C. S. Lewis, the unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College. And a beautiful piece of dark oak furniture it was—painstakingly handmade and elaborately handcarved by C. S. Lewis's grandfather and brought by Lewis from his boyhood home in Belfast to the Kilns, the house he shared with his brother, Warren, outside Oxford. The college bought it at auction just after Warren died.

Other items of Lewis furniture from the Kilns were purchased by the college as well, including the obvious choice of a desk. But the wardrobe was particularly important because of its role in the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The wardrobe in the story is the threshold to fantasy; in the Wade Collection, it became a tangible symbol of Lewis's powers as a writer, a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia.

The problem with literary relics, however, is that some Chaucerian Pardoner will always claim to have better ones. When I began teaching in the late eighties at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, I was surprised to see a somewhat plain but rather old wardrobe in the English Department across from our secretary's desk and not far from an equally old fireplace. On top of it lay a huge stuffed lion, which should have been my clue. This was the wardrobe, I was told. The wardrobe. (Surprising, isn't it, how definite that definite article sometimes becomes?) It had been obtained from the Kilns in 1975.

"But I thought the wardrobe was at Wheaton," ...

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