Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Lion, a Witch, and 2 Wardrobes?

A battle of Narnian proportions has raged for years over who owns the “real” wardrobe that inspired C.S. Lewis when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (TLWW). One contender is Westmont College of Santa Barbara, California, and the other is Wheaton College, Illinois. Both Christian colleges claim ownership of the famous armoire.

The Simple Wardrobe at Westmont

Lewis describes the wardrobe in TLWW simply as “a big wardrobe, the sort that has a looking-glass in the door.” It was big enough to hold “a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one,” yet the threshold was low enough that a small child could step into it. Based on this description, Westmont seems to have an edge.

In 1974, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Arthur Lynip and 30 Westmont students studying literature in England learned that the wardrobe was still at The Kilns, Lewis’ Oxford home. The large size of the wardrobe explains its having been left in house after other furniture and belongings had been auctioned off or donated. After the house was remodeled, the 1901 wardrobe was too big to remove from its upstairs room without taking it apart piece by piece. The wardrobe was to be demolished at the time the Westmont students learned of its existence. The students quickly purchased the wardrobe sight unseen from the new owner of The Kilns, and Dr. Lynip engaged a cabinetmaker to dismantle the wardrobe, crate it, and ship it to Westmont College. It has been on display in the English Department offices for the past 35 years.

"Day after day, you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into Narnia. "There is that part of me that wants to say to each and every one of them, 'Hey! It's just a wardrobe!' ... Yet part of me also thinks that it's funny, and significant, that we are so serious about our literary relics."(a)

The Ornate Wardrobe at Wheaton

Wheaton College has a famous center for C.S. Lewis studies—the Wade Center. (See Note #1.) Their collection of memorabilia includes Lewis’ desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters, and an ornate, double-door, dark oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Ireland. Lewis’ brother Warren confirmed that this wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.

A Lewis cousin often talked about how, when they were children, they would climb in the wardrobe and Lewis would tell made-up stories. "So, when he was writing the story (TLWW), I'm sure that was part of the impetus," recalled Marjorie Lamp Mead, associate director at the Wade Center.(b)

The ornate wardrobe that the Lewis brothers grew up with moved with them to The Kilns in Oxford, where it remained until 1973 when, at Warren’s death, it was purchased by Wheaton College.


Wheaton has a beautiful, ornate wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales of magic lands full of talking animals (as compiled in Boxen). To increase the connection with the Narnian Chronicles, the college has filled its wardrobe with fur coats and affixed a warning sign: "We do not take responsibility for people disappearing."

Westmont, on the other hand, has a Lewis wardrobe that fits the description of the one that the adult writer inserted into his most famous fantasy. It is an ordinary, everyday wardrobe like thousands of others in homes throughout England. To bolster the wardrobe’s credentials, the trustees at Westmont have hung fur coats inside, and crowned it with a stuffed lion in homage to Aslan.

So, who has the “real” wardrobe that served as inspiration for TLWW? Neither campus appears willing to concede defeat in this battle of the wardrobes.

According to professor Willis, "Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing. They are merely copies. They are what Lewis would call shadows of the wardrobe. What really matters is the wardrobe in the story, because that is the doorway into the land beyond our own—the true land of Aslan."(a)

Photos: My niece Anna, 1986 (above), Lucy Pevensie, during the Blitz, 1940-41 (right)

Personal Reflections
: I’ve always loved that the Pevensies entered Narnia through a wardrobe, the door of which opened to a world of excitement and enjoyment. I grew up in a home with a large armoire in which my mother kept vintage fairy tale books, the World Book Encyclopedia, our favorite card and board games, and a record player (later tape/CD player). Our armoire, like the famous wardrobe, opened to a world of fun and learning, enjoyment and entertainment. It was also the backdrop for family photos over the years. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

Note #1: The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, houses a research collection featuring the books and papers of seven British Authors, including four Inklings: Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Other authors included at the Wade Center are Dorothy L. Sayers, a contemporary of the Inklings, who was born and raised in Oxford; George MacDonald, an author whom Lewis thought of as a great Christian teacher and whose writings helped reconvert Lewis to Christianity; and G.K. Chesterton, an influential 20th Century writer in many genres, including Christian apologetics, who contributed to Lewis’ own Christian apologetics viewpoint.

Note #2: It is interesting to note that the written description of the wardrobe in TLWW (looking-glass in the door) does not match the original illustration drawn by Pauline Baynes (two doors, no mirror). This disparity is curious because Lewis approved each drawing before it was published. This duality seems to support the credibility of claims by both Westmont and Wheaton as to the ownership of the “real” wardrobe.

Note #3: It was a year ago this month that illustrator Pauline Baynes passed away in the cottage in Dockenfield, Surrey, where she had lived and worked for many years. She was 86. Baynes never married, but cared for her father until his death, and illustrated books in the evenings while he slept.

Baynes attended the Slade School of Fine Art in England, but after a year she volunteered to work for the Ministry of Defense, where she made demonstration models for instruction courses. This work did not last long as she was soon transferred to a map-making department (knowledge of which she later employed to good effect when she drew maps of Narnia for C.S. Lewis and of Middle-earth for J. R. R. Tolkien).

Baynes is probably best known for her illustrations of all seven Narnian Chronicles. She also illustrated Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Smith of Wootton Major, Tree and Leaf, and after Tolkien's death, the poem Bilbo's Last Song.

While Baynes and Lewis worked very closely together, their interaction was primarily long-distance. The two met personally only twice. Of the first time, Baynes recorded in her diary, "Met C S Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes."(c) Little did she know at that time how the association would affect her life. When the final book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, was awarded the British Carnegie Medal, a prize similar to America’s Newbery Medal, Baynes wrote to congratulate Lewis. He graciously responded, “Is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text.”

In advance of the Lewis Centenary and the 50th anniversary of TLWW, Baynes was asked to go back and add color to her original black-and-white drawings.

A very heartfelt tribute was written by Brian Sibley, personal friend and associate of Baynes. It is filed with personal remembrances and wonderful illustrations. His blog can be accessed at:


(a) “The Real Wardrobe,” by Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service, posted March 29, 2007.
(b) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobes, The Guardian, Jan 5, 2006.
(c) Brian Sibley blog, URL above.
(d) Inside Narnia by Devin Brown, 2005, Barker Books.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an interesting perspective on the Great Wardrobe Debate - and for the link to my blog!