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12/13/99: Living in the Land of Spare Oom
A reflection on 20 years spent Ignoring Reality.
by Pieter van Hiel

Less than three weeks until 2000. Soon we'll be in the last year of the 20th century, or the first one of the 21st century. Whatever the case, I'm sure you're quite sick of hearing about it.

So instead of looking ahead, let's roll back time. Saunter back to 1980, the year that I discovered the joy that could be found in illusionary realms. Picture a small brick town house in Southern Ontario. Inside, there is just enough room for a young family.

My parents (mid-30s), me (aged 6), my older sister (10), and my baby sister (1 1/2). We just moved here from Montreal, Quebec, where my parents had worked as Salvation Army pastors. The home is sparsely furnished, but comfortable. It's late November and snow is falling. My older sister is at church choir practice. Dad is working late. Baby sister is in bed. It's just me and mom awake and at home, and we're in the living room. There I am, six years old, curled up in one corner of the couch. Mom is on the other end of the couch, reading out loud.

The book is The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Lucy has just met Mr. Tumnus the faun, after traveling through the wardrobe in the spare room into the silent snowy land of Narnia.

"Daughter of Eve, from the far land of Spare Oom, where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?," read my mother, doing a passable Mr. Tumnus impression. I couldn't help myself. I started giggling, which got my mother laughing. And of course I joined in. I can't remember laughing so hard or so long at anything before or since.

There was more than just humor in those words, though. As my mother read about the land of "Spare Oom" and the city of "War Drobe," I imagined them as places. I saw a city with gold towers in a valley, with a river flowing beside it. Later that night I thought about the sort of people who might live in that city, and what it might be like to live there. Maybe better than living in the real world.

This event was comparable to the opening of a flood-gate. A few months after my mother read The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe to me, I set out on reading another book in the series by myself, Prince Caspian. It was the first novel length book I'd ever tried to read, and it took me a long time to finish. I wasn't disappointed, though. Once again, the words worked their magic in my imagination and transported me to a world of castles, talking animals, and Aslan. 

Soon after I started reading anything I could get my hands on, provided it dealt with the fantastic new worlds. I started living in the land of make-believe, and a fine and interesting place it was, I can tell you. 

At first it was dependent on the shape of the real world I lived in. The local geography would be mentally exaggerated or altered just enough to suit the needs of my internal world. Just south of the dreary town-house subdivision was an old cemetery. Beyond the cemetery was a wooded ravine, with a creek and a wooden foot bridge. North was the two lane road, and on the other side and down a ways the shore of Lake Ontario. 

Thus, I had my ocean (suitable for pirates, sea-monsters, and giant sharks), my forest primeval (home to witches and gnomes), and that cemetery... well... The cemetery was off-limits, I think, but that didn't stop me. The graveyard fence that bordered the subdivision was in disrepair, and I thought I was very clever when I found a place where I could crawl under the links without getting dirty. Passing underneath was rather like passing through the wardrobe to Narnia. The real world was all mud, rusted swing sets and cracked tarmac. Climbing under the fence transported you to a quiet green world shaded by giant pines and enormous maples.

The asphalt footpaths that threaded their way past enormous Edwardian-era tombstone became roads that lead me, the weary pilgrim, to distant castles, some friendly, some home to robber barons or evil kings. There was some real thrill of adventurous danger here as well. The groundskeepers would probably have ignored me, but I was afraid that I was trespassing on private property and so I always hid from them.

Much worse than the workers was the local bully and his friends. He either had known about my way in all along, or had seen me crawling under the fence. Whatever the case, one day they followed me in and chased me with sticks. I hid in a bush until they gave up. Not the most heroic solution maybe, but the only one I could think of.

Usually though, I was free to indulge in my own private games of siege or kingdoms. One place was particularly special.

In the center of the cemetery was a low hill surrounded by a small iron fence. Inside, in the shade of an oak tree, was a patch of ground that was the last resting place of the some rich family of 19th century settlers. The tombstone of the patriarch dominated this private area, and indeed the entire graveyard. It was a large stone Celtic cross that rose 20 feet. Around it were arrayed two dozen small mossy crosses.

The solemn stillness and hush there was almost too much for me. I used to sit there for a while and listen to the birds, or watch the squirrels carrying nuts from tree to tree. I could never think of what sort of place it could represent in my imaginative geography, and so I let it remain as it was. It was the tomb of some important man, a king maybe, and his family. That was enough.

My private jaunts into this unnamed fantasy world laid the ground for a life-long interest in the original worlds that I could create, and in the creations of others. Most certainly, if I had spent my time playing hockey with the bully and his friends I wouldn't be writing this right now. 

That is not to say that I would have been unhappy -- in many ways my childhood would have been much easier, for example, and I might have been able to discover the wide world of dating before I was twenty -- but I would have been much poorer in other ways for not indulging my fancy. My childhood games of let's-pretend, and later my more sophisticated games of Dungeons and Dragons and Marvel Superheroes, opened up access to worlds beyond the ken of most of my classmates and family. In turn this broadened my reality.

That's why fantasy of all types is so attractive. It enhances what we have. The author George R.R. Martin once wrote, "Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy is habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices, and hear the songs the sirens sang."

In those few sentences, he expresses what I've been trying to say for the last 1100 words. 

This morning, on a whim, I drove out to my old house and the cemetery, for the first time in 17 years. The rows of townhouses are pretty much the same, and the swing-set is still rusted. I don't know who lives in the old place, but they had an off-colour bumper-sticker stuck to their mailbox calling for the elimination of French as Canada's second language. Still the same old somewhat dreary place, just a little smaller in my adult eyes.

The cemetery is the same as well, and the contrast between the two places is as extreme and welcoming as it was all those years ago. It too looked smaller than it did all those years ago, but the hush, the still green trees, the giant Celtic cross, all the same as I recall.

I'm trying to express more than basic, end-of-millennium, faux 20-something nostalgia here. This article is a tribute to all the hours that I've spent ignoring reality. In some way they were worth it. They have given me a place to go to when reality becomes too dry. They represent springs from which I may draw a life-restoring draught of imagination.

As I write this, I have here at my side the very same copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that my mother read to me from that night. I dug it up to look up the exact words that Mr. Tumnus used when speaking to Lucy. Flipping through it I've noticed for the first time in years the dedication. What better way to close this piece than with the words of C.S. Lewis himself?

"My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already to old for fairy-tales, and by the time it is bound and printed you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and to old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be,

Your affectionate Godfather, C.S. Lewis."

I would like to think that Lewis intended this sentiment for all of us. May we never be too old for fairy-tales.

Pieter van Hiel is currently planning to consume his body-weight in Christmas tuck before the millenium.