Reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter reminded me that there is one place in Narnia that I would like to live. It’s a peculiar place: not the great castle of Cair Paravel on the eastern coast; not Aslan’s How where the great sacrifice took place at the end of the Hundred Year Winter; not in the Western Wild, though that wilderness has a tremendous appeal with its splendid mountain scenery and the special garden on the island at its heart.
It’s in the Lantern Waste. Not just anywhere in the Waste, but a particular spot.
(By the way, I have always wondered about Lewis’s choice of the word ‘Waste’ to describe it. To the modern imagination it suggests desolation, but with Tolkien as a philologist friend, perhaps Lewis was intending to draw on its derivation from the Latin word ‘vastus’, meaning ‘unoccupied, uncultivated’.)
When Narnia is first created in The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly -and by a sequence of ‘accidents’, Digory’s Uncle Andrew, a sorceress from the world of Charn, a cabbie and his horse Strawberry- all appear in the middle of darkness:
There were no stars. It was so dark that they couldn't see one another at all and it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or open. Under their feet there was a cool, flat something which might have been earth, and was certainly not grass or wood. The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.
A little later, as they watch the creator of Narnia, Aslan, approach slowly, the Witch Jadis throws the iron bar that she has superhumanly pulled from a London lamp-post earlier in the story straight at the Lion’s head:
Suddenly the Witch stepped boldly out towards the Lion. It was coming on, always singing, with a slow, heavy pace. It was only twelve yards away. She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head.
Nobody, least of all Jadis, could have missed at that range. The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes. It glanced off and fell with a thud in the grass. The Lion came on. Its walk was neither slower nor faster than before; you could not tell whether it even knew it had been hit. Though its soft pads made no noise, you could feel the earth shake beneath their weight.
Their attention is understandably on other things at the time, but later the watchers notice something very odd a few yards away from where they are standing:
It was a perfect little model of a lamppost, about three feet high but lengthening, and thickening in proportion, as they watched it; in fact growing just as the trees had grown.
‘It's alive too - I mean, it's lit,’ said Digory. And so it was; though of course, the brightness of the sun made the little flame in the lantern hard to see unless your shadow fell on it.
The lamppost grows into a ‘grown-up’ version of itself eventually, of course. It’s the first and most remarkable landmark that Lucy meets when she steps through the wardrobe into Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood towards the other light. In about ten minutes she reached it and found it was a lamp-post.
She wonders at finding a lamp-post in the middle of a wood, but the key point here is where exactly it is in relation to her first entrance into Narnia through the wardrobe. Now, I know I’m am being quite particular about this -perhaps too much so- but it struck me some years ago that the distance between Lucy’s wardrobe and the lamp-post is probably about the same as the distance between where the party first arrives in Narnia as it is being created, and where the lamp-post is ‘planted’. In other words, it’s the same spot. Yes, in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis says that it is ‘only a few yards from where they were standing’, and yes, it takes Lucy ten minutes of wandering to get to it. But it more or less marks where the gateway of entrance to Narnia lies.
There’s more to this. In The Last Battle, Shift the Ape either builds or finds a rough wooden stable in the Lantern Waste in which he places Puzzle the Donkey, who he has disguised as Aslan as part of an elaborate deception:
At the centre of the clearing, which was also the highest point of the hill, there was a little hut like a stable, with a thatched roof. Its door was shut. On the grass in front of the door there sat an Ape.
This stable is at the heart of the events of that story. Eventually, one by one, the tale’s central characters are pushed, propelled, urged or otherwise made to go through its door, finding themselves not in the stable as they expected, but in a whole new world. The stable door is a gateway between worlds. And, as far as we can tell from its location in the story, it seems to lie at exactly the same point as the first visitors to Narnia arrived at the beginning, and the same point as the Pevensie children entered Narnia at the time of its Hundred Year Winter.
This location at the heart of the Lantern Waste is charged, then, with tremendous significance: people first entered that plane of reality there; readers were first introduced to that universe there; and it is at that exact location that Aslan brings that fictional world to its close, calling home its stars and all its inhabitants, and finally closing the door upon it:
Then Aslan said, ‘Now make an end.’
The giant threw his horn into the sea. Then he stretched out one arm—very black it looked, and thousands of miles long—across the sky till his hand reached the Sun. He took the Sun and squeezed it in his hand as you would squeeze an orange. And instantly there was total darkness.
Everyone except Aslan jumped back from the ice-cold air which now blew through the Doorway. Its edges were already covered with icicles.
‘Peter, High King of Narnia,’ said Aslan. ‘Shut the Door.’
Peter, shivering with cold, leaned out into the darkness and pulled the Door to. It scraped over ice as he pulled it. Then, rather clumsily (for even in that moment his hands had gone numb and blue) he took out a golden key and locked it.
Of all the places to live in Narnia, this seems to me to be the most significant -the place from where both its creation and its destruction, as well as its first glimpse for readers in this world, was seen. If I had the choice, I would live there and enjoy not only the beauty and wonder of Narnia, but the light of that lamp-post too.