SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The tall wardrobe in the office of the Westmont College English department isn't much to look at, but visitors from near and far keep visiting to peek inside.
A previous owner described this piece of oak furniture as a "perfectly ordinary wardrobe," a big one of 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 -- perhaps a girl playing hide and seek -- could step into it.
It helps to know that this previous owner was a scholar named C.S. Lewis and that he wrote this precise description of this wardrobe, or an imaginary armoire just like it, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." This was the first book published in his classic fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Naturally, legions of Lewis lovers want to see and touch the wardrobe.
"Day after day you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into the land of Aslan, the Christ figure in 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. Why is that?"
There is no sign of declining interest in the life and work of Lewis and this is especially true of the Narnia novels, with more than 100 million copies sold over the past half a century. Meanwhile, the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $745 million worldwide and the first sequel, "Prince Caspian," is slated for a May 2008 release.
Willis has a unique perspective on this phenomenon and not just because he teaches at Westmont, a liberal arts college on the coast north of Los Angeles. The professor and novelist is also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, which includes the Wade Center, a famous center for Lewis studies. This collection includes his desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters and an ornate, double-door oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Wheaton obtained this item in 1973 and researchers stress that, according to the famous author's older brother Warren, this spectacular wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.
Willis remembers the emotions stirred by the arrival of this wardrobe on campus. Some people seemed to think it was an object worthy of worship, because of its connection to the "unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College." Willis even wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, jokingly suggesting that administrators could cut slivers out of the back and sell them as relics.
It's crucial to remember that the Narnia wardrobe is the "threshold to fantasy," wrote Willis, in a 2005 book of essays entitled "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness." For many readers devoted to the novels, this physical wardrobe had become "a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia."
And then there were two, when Westmont obtained its wardrobe in 1975.
This was the last piece of furniture left in The Kilns, the house near Oxford in which the Lewis brothers lived while the Oxford don wrote his Narnia novels and many other books. This wardrobe was about to be destroyed because it was too big to be removed through a narrow doorway created by renovations Lewis had made to his bedroom.
Thus, Wheaton has a beautiful wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales about magic lands full of talking animals.
Westmont, meanwhile, 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.
"Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing," said Willis. "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."