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," I told my new colleagues.
"No way," they told me. "Wheaton's wardrobe is not even close to the one described in the novel."
Then I was duly chaptered and versed by references to the sacred text. What the Pevensie children find in the empty room of the old professor's country house is "one big wardrobe, the sort that has a looking glass in the door." I had to admit that the wardrobe before me was larger than the one I remembered from my undergraduate days, and that its door was indeed covered with a looking glass. Once Lucy is left behind in the room, "she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure that it would be locked." And sure enough, the Westmont wardrobe had a keyhole—unlike the Wheaton wardrobe, my colleagues assured me.
Once inside the unlocked wardrobe, Lucy finds "a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one." This second row of coats is hanging on "hooks" or "pegs," and my colleagues opened the looking-glass door to point these out to me, hidden behind a first row of fur coats on hangers. The Wheaton wardrobe, I was told, was sadly lacking any such hooks (or were they pegs?).
With the door thrown open, I was shown how easily Lucy could have "stepped into the wardrobe"—the threshold was just a foot off the floor. The Wheaton wardrobe, I was reminded, was more like a high-waisted cabinet. Lucy could only have climbed into it at best. Finally, my colleagues reminded me that the wardrobe in question had to be "a perfectly ordinary wardrobe," just like the one in the book. Did our wardrobe have any decorative carving? It did not. Wheaton had an ornate family heirloom, but it did not have the real thing.
Wardrobe closed. Case dismissed.
Has my alma mater been impressed by this impeccable brand of literary fundamentalism? Apparently not. According to one Wheaton brochure, theirs is the "wardrobe from which Lewis drew inspiration for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Old claims never die. They just grow more specific with time.
I was back at Wheaton for a conference just a couple of years ago. During a period of announcements, a curator from the Wade Collection invited the conference participants to visit the collection and see the many books and papers that had belonged to Lewis and his associates. At the end of her announcement, she told us, "We also have the wardrobe that served as the original for the one in the Narnia Chronicles."
There it was, that definite article again. In a remarkable display of maturity I put up my hand and said, "Excuse me, but the wardrobe is at Westmont College in Santa Barbara."
The woman gave me a long, hard look of the "we are not amused" variety. That was all. I wasn't able to find her after the session was over to clear things up.
Not that we could have, really. Of course, if pressed, I suspect we would both admit the wardrobe we are really concerned with exists only within the covers of a book, and that not even this wardrobe is so important as the story of which it is a part, and that the story is not so important as the sense of infinite longing that it stirs within our souls, and that this longing is not so important as the One—more real than Aslan himself—to whom it directs us. But that would be asking too much of either the curator or myself. To worship at our respective wardrobes, whether they be in Jerusalem or Samaria, is indeed to live in the shadowlands. And that is where we like it.
Lewis himself would doubtless say that the physical wardrobes in our possession are but copies of a faint copy. He might even claim, to our horror, that no single wardrobe inspired the one found in his book. Then he might add under his breath, like the professor in The Last Battle who has passed on to the next life, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!"
The reason that the Westmont wardrobe remained at the Kilns long after the auction of other furniture was that it could not fit out the doorway of Joy Davidman's bedroom. The hallway had been made smaller in the forties—and remember, it is a large wardrobe. The new owner of the house apparently cared little for Lewis and was prepared to destroy the wardrobe to make room for an American-style built-in closet. Walter Hooper, who has long served as Lewis's literary executor, reportedly thought it a great pity that the last remaining piece of furniture from C. S. Lewis's house should in all likelihood end up as firewood. That is when a group of Westmont students and faculty bought the wardrobe for next to nothing, had it dismantled, shipped it in pieces to Santa Barbara, and reassembled it carefully near the fireplace in Reynolds Hall.
But I have a little fantasy, thanks perhaps to Walter Hooper, about our wardrobe's proper end. Late some rainy California winter evening, long after my colleagues have returned to their homes and the students have slogged back up the hill to the residence halls, I will let myself back into the building, lock the doors, raise an ax high over my head, and with dolorous strokes split the wardrobe into kindling. Then I will stack the broken wood high in the old fireplace and start myself a cheerful blaze. By the light of this fire I will settle into a wingback chair, open a tattered book that was the first book to open me, and read far into the night.
Paul Willis is a novelist and poet; he teaches literature at Westmont College.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.