“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”
-Madeleine L’Engle, in The New York Times, 1985
With the topic of this month’s book club and the upcoming release of the final movie, I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter, and it’s reminded me both of what I used to find in it and the fact that I find completely different things in old favorites than I once did. Books have always been an escape for me, a place to go when the world wasn’t right and I needed something safe and comfortable and familiar, and in that sense I’m more at home in many books than I am in the places I’ve lived.
Growing up, I had three favorite series: Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I was always a fast reader, and because we couldn’t keep me in new books, I had to learn to re-read books and still enjoy them. Though some volumes in these series have only been read once or twice, others have been devoured upwards of ten times, and I suspect it might be this habit that makes me such an avid spoiler-seeker– I find a great deal of pleasure in being able to pay attention to the action without the corresponding tension that comes from not knowing what’s coming.
That comfort with these books means that in many ways they hold an elevated status. They rest comfortably on my shelf or bedside table, waiting for a bad day when I need a place to hide with friends. I rarely evaluate them as carefully as I do books I pick up today, because I don’t want to lose that comfort. But more and more, as I go into new worlds of my own and find myself as a feminist and increase my awareness of intersectional social justice, I find myself having brief catches– moments when I cringe at a piece of dialogue or a character description, flinching at the awareness that I’ll never be able to go back to not knowing. I always mourn those little losses.
Madeleine L’Engle, for example, was a remarkable woman. She was an Episcopalian who believed in universal salvation, and her books were often banned from Christian bookstores (and many libraries). She placed a great value on equality and the idea of a God who loved everyone equally, not one that punished people for who they were. Her personal philosophies are certainly respectable. But the last few times I’ve re-read her books (or, in the case of the other family stories she wrote, encountered new stories for the first time), I’m reminded of how outdated they are in their presentations of gender roles and relationships. I still love L’Engle and her work; I mourned when she died in 2007 and sometimes still do. The character of Charles Wallace is so reminiscent of my youngest brother that I frequently ache with missing him when I read that character, and am glad to know that although L’Engle never wrote the end of his story, she was certain until the day she died that he was “alive and well until I hear otherwise.”
As a kid, though, I obviously wasn’t thinking about all that. Littlest brother wasn’t even born until I was 12, well after my first discovery of tesseracts and Proginoskes. I was casually feminist in my teenage years, but I would never have noticed the roles Meg had to fill, or the fact that Hermione’s life is really incredibly different from her friends’ because she’s Muggle-born. I noticed the holocaust analogies in Harry Potter, of course, but not the degree of their presence. I noticed the Christian allegory in Narnia, but missed out on the problematic exclusion of Susan from The Last Battle and the racism implicit in The Horse and his Boy.
No, in childhood, I loved that Meg Murry was a math whiz who taught her jock friend Calvin to do his homework; I never noticed that she gets left behind to hide when the world is faced with destruction in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I loved that Hermione got to be the one who solved problems, and that eventually she got to be in on the action, too, but never recognized the complexity of her backstory because she’s just a brainy sidekick to Harry. I liked the idea of Aslan-Jesus, who always struck me as a much better illustration of what I saw (and still see) as my faith than the Jesus I met in church, without ever realizing that Lewis himself would probably have vehemently disagreed with my childish interpretations of his texts, which were, after all, meant to reinforce rather than challenge.
Most of all, though, I loved the idea that magic is hidden everywhere and that love can change the world. It’s there, in L’Engle and Rowling, and in Lewis. Though I’m no longer remotely religious in any traditional sense, my personal philosophy boils down to: “Love matters. Love each other. Inform your decisions based on the love of and for others. Ward off the darkness.” Am I a cheeseball? Probably. Do I care? Not really. I know most of that is built around and out of and into my love of these books. I’m just no longer certain–I can’t be certain–that the books themselves gave it to me.