Friday, 16 April 2021

Back Through the Wardrobe - My Interview with Katherine Langrish by Steve Gladwin



As you know, Kath, this series of interviews has the theme of landscape as its starting point. What I usually do is to focus on both the landscape of the subject's birth, and one or two others that have been significant and special throughout their lives. However, in your case, and as your latest book is soon to prove, there has always been one special landscape, or world that has occupied you, and that of course is Narnia. 

So, to begin with, could you perhaps revisit the moment when you first made the discovery and how Narnia happened for you. 

Actually, the first Narnia book I ever read was the 'Silver Chair', which my mother bought me for Christmas when I was eight. I didn't think I was going to like it, since the illustration on the cover showed lots of little gnomes and I had been put off little gnomes ever since reading an appalling book in my school reader, called The Hobyahs'. When I finally got around to it, as my mother knew I would: I could never resist a new book), I fell in love with the story and with the very Northern world of this particular story. I grew up in a house below Ilkley Moor, which with its rocks and heather and prehistoric carvings isn't so dissimilar to the wild Ettin Moors of the Narnian borderlands. Also, don't we all love sitting in the cosy comfort and reading about a winter journey? It seemed the perfect Christmas book and after that I read all the other Narnia books, mostly out of sequence.

Were you aware that this was something which could prove significant to you, or were you more just caught up in the moment?

Probably more caught up in the moment, I think. I was a child who read all the time, spent my pocket money on books, asked for books as presents --- I had many favourite I could read over and over again. All the same, the world of Narnia gripped me like nothing else. There was no other series that affected me (and many of my friends) quite like it. I could enjoy reaading about Kay Harker's Tatchester in John Masefield's 'Box of Delights' without wanting to go there, but I passionately wanted Narnia to be real.

Could you trace for us how you, the schoolgirl obsessed with Narnia, became a proper grown-up writer?  Did Narnia stay with you all the way through that journey? And what other stories and writers did you become interested in on that journey?

Having read all seven of the chronicles, desperate to read more, I wrote my very own 'Tales of Narnia'. Fan-fiction it's called now, although perhaps the burning admiration of a child deserves a better name. My grandmother was a novelist, my mother wrote stories, so it seemed a natural thing to do. Of course my stories weren't very good, but I enjoyed writing them, and learned that I had the capacity to finish something. After that, I simply went on writing in imitation of the sorts of books I loved. Between the ages of 10 and 20 I completed five unpublished and unpublishable children's novels. One was influenced by Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels with their carefully researched world-building, strong story lines and lyrical  writing. Alan Garner, with his use of Celtic and Norse folklore was another massive influence. My, let me see, (counts on fingers) fourth unpublished novel, written when I was 15 or 16, was all about menacing moon goddesses pursuing fugitives through dripping English woods, and indifferent golden-faced elves walking along straight tracks and dancing in stone circles. C.S. Lewis, Sutcliff and Garner were chief among the writers who opened worlds for me; the worlds of the past, the worlds of fantasy, the worlds of folklore and mythology, and I have been walking in them ever since. It's probably not a coincidence that all three of them, more especially the last two, wrote so well about landscapes.

 You are about to publish a book which is surely the culmination of that journey from eager child explorer to discerning adult/critic. Of course, Narnia itself has not been without its critics, most famously J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis's fellow Inkling, who objected to his jumbling up different mythologies, and more recently -  and more acerbically - Philip Pullman. Part of his objection is to the overt Christian teachings in the seven books, but especially in the seventh, 'The Last Battle'. Even the first time that was read to me as a child, there seemed to be something deeply unforgiving about the last book, and particularly in the authors's rather dismissive and somewhat condemning attitude to Susan, who is denied the chance of paradise. I wonder how much of that you were aware of as a child, or has it coloured your enjoyment since?

I wasn't very aware of the Christian symbolism or messages in the Narnia books, and what I did become aware of, I pretty much ignored; but it wasn't really possible with 'The Last Battle', where the message become overt. For that and for other reasons it was my least favourite of the seven chronicles and one I rarely re-read. Of course I noticed what Lewis does to Susan, and I didn't like it, largely because her brothers and friends are so callous about it. There they are in the foothills of the heavenly Narnia, just past the portal of death (the stable) and all they can do is be nasty about Susan! Lucy is the only one who doesn't join in, but she doesn't defend her sister either. Re-reading the book as an adult I'm still blown away by much of it - the imagination, the writing - but it has a lot of faults too, notably some indefensible racism.

Now your book 'From Spare Oom To War Drobe - Travels In Narnia With My Nine-Year-Old Self', is due to be published on 29th April. This is your close analysis and reappraisal of the Narnia books. You clearly believe - as I and many others do - that there is a great deal still to be learned and enjoyed from Narnia. What sort of things would they be.

Well for one thing, Lewis was a remarkably well-read man, and there are more literary, classical, mythological,legendary and philosophical references in the Narnia books than you can shake a stick at, and it can be great fun suddenly recognising them as an adult. He never talks down to his readers and he is very good indeed at giving us serious food for thought -whether we're children or grown-ups. The first time I ever heard about Plato was in 'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe'. More than that, though, the books are full of beauty, talk about landscapes, talk about the light-filled spaces of the Eastern Sea in 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', the spring coming back to the woods in 'The Lion --', the stars falling from the black sky in 'The Last Battle'. And the characters - Puddleglum, surely the best pessimist since Eeyore, or Reepicheep, Narnia's Galahad. The books afren't perfect, but they're rich and they have much still to give.


C.S. Lewis wrote seven Narnia books, and I've always been a great one for the magic of sevens, which, of course, abound in folk stories and faerie tales, and in folklore in general. You called your blog 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles'. How did that come about, and do you also perhaps have a thing about sevens?

Ah, no, I have a thing about threes! But the title of my blog comes from a west Irish fairie tale called 'The King Who Had Twelve Sons', and there's one of those wonderful mantras in it that fairy tales often have: a young man has to leap his magical pony over 'seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistle, and seven miles of sea. There are similar mantras in other tales; in several Scottish fairy tales it's 'over seven bens and seven glens, and seven mountain moors'. But I like the Irish one best. 

Now I think your blog is wonderful in the true sense of the world, but for me its rather like a treasure map, where you can get caught up staring down a well, only to realise that the sun is shining on a certain spot on the crown of the mountain, or the river bed has dried to reveal the once-only-every-five-years, spot where the prophecy is concealed. For someone approaching 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles' for the first time, how should they negotiate the perils and opportunities? There's a lot there!

Oh thank you! Well, there's a search box at the top right and the side of the screen, so you can enter search terms there and see what comes up. Or you can look along the page index under the blog title; I've sometimes done a long series of posts linked by a theme. One was the 'Fairy Tales Reflections', to which I invited some wonderful authors to pick a fairy tale which meant something to them and write about it. And in 2020 I ran a series featuring 'Strong Fairy Tale Heroines', which is what it says on the tin: thirty fairy tales with strong heroines (there are many more!) with an introduction to each. I created the blog in 2009 and to date it's had over 1.1 million hits. There are lots of posts to explore, but my focus has always been on the fairy tales, folklore, fantasy and children's literature.


What do you feel about the taxonomy applied to traditional tales - useful as it might be as a way of categorisation. To me it's rather like pinning down a moth and giving it a Latin name, when it should be flying high above woodland. Having said that, there's some astonishment when you discover that there are over a thousand versions of the Cinderella tale-type alone. Is it something you're particularly caught up in, or enthusiastic about?

I think they're tremendously useful as study tools. Luckily you can't ram a pin into a fairy tale. I'm very interested in the study of fairy tales and their variants, but reading them, or better still telling them, or hearing them told - that's what they're for. 

Apart from Narnia, Kath, do you have any more figures, themes and obsessions which you've followed up by writing about them?

Oh, lots. My first three novels for children are based on Scandinavian folklore and tales about trolls (not the Norse myths). Selkies came into the second one, and I've also written a short mermaid story, a 'quick read' for children called 'Forsaken', which is a twist on Matthew Arnold's 'The Forsaken Mermaid' - itself based on a Scandinavian ballad. I'm also interested in the fairy lore of the mid-medieval period, which is significantly different from that of later centuries - and some of that found its way into my fourth novel, 'Dark Angels'. I've also written some ghost stories too.

Finally - and I usually ask this at the beginning - can you describe for us the place you were born and where all this started. if you like, imagine you are on a favourite walk, or even looking out of the back door.

I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne , but I can't remember anything about it, as we moved to Ilkley when I was eighteen months old. We moved down to Ross on Wye in Herefordshire when I was eleven and back to Yorkshire when I was fifteen.


It was a fair bit of upheaval but I was lucky, because all of it was beautiful in different ways. The red soil of Herefordshire, and the lush hedges and steep banks covered in wild flowers, and the close, wooded hills....  Then the bare tops of the Dales, especially the limestone, and the dry stone walls and long views, and the sheep and harebells. And the snow in winter! As for looking out of the back door, here's me doing just that. This is from a diary I kept.

January 11th 1979

Waking this morning the big window was covered in frost, every pane blank and opaque but glowing with morning light. The frost in each pane took the form of a great coiling sunspot

Just now I stood at the side door and looked out: the snow brilliant and the sun low in the south, striking my forehead and the raised palm of my raised  hand with warmth that's travelled all that way, and through the cold air. It feels like spring out there: Now I know what Eliot means: 'Midwinter spring is its own season'

Thanks, Kath for rekindling such a wonderful memory and your generosity with your answers.

Thanks, Steve. I really enjoyed it!

We will be hearing from Kath in June too, when she starts the ball rolling for a series of blogs on Selkies.

For now here are all the important links you need.

First, the Narnia Book.

Here are the details for Kath's blog


And finally her own website


Apologies if these links don't work, which sometimes happens, but at least I've pointed you in the right direction.


Coming Soon on 28th April

It will be my great pleasure to interview writer, broadcaster and enthusiast on so many words fantastical, Brian Sibley. In this first part interview, (the second to follow in the autumn), Brian and I will also be concentrating on Narnia, as well as Middle Earth and his connection with Peter Jackson and 'The Lord of the Rings' and Hobbit trilogy.



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