No Bikes in Narnia: A Review of Wildwood by Colin Meloy

By | September 19, 2012

At first glance, Wildwood sounds familiar. Evil magical woman leader? Check. Kids as heroes? Yes. Ominous canines as femme fatales’s pawns? 10-4! Talking animals? Oh, yeah. Now that a second book is on its way, the set is even called “Wildwood Chronicles.”

I love the Decemberists. If you didn’t know, this is the band for which Colin Meloy is the singer and primary songwriter. However, I also deeply love C. S. Lewis. Enough to take a college class about him. To travel to England to see his home. Enough to search around Oxford with an old photograph from one of his books trying to find his grave (I succeeded). Suffice to say, I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia a couple of times.

And yes, the above comparisons are true. When I began reading the songwriter’s first novel, I was… concerned. Just how close was he going to stick to Lewis’s plot lines?

But now that I’ve finished, I won’t deny the comparisons, but The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and this book are vastly different. While Lewis seems out to create a world of the past, full of fauns and dryads, Meloy goes for a much more “real” world. Yes, the animals speak, but they live a life much more like and aware of the “Outsider” world around them (there’s no “Spare Oom” scenes, in other words).

And there’s another aspect of Wildwood‘s “accessibility.” Narnia is entered somewhat randomly, at the will of the lion Aslan, which reflects Lewis’s Christian slant and intentions for the books. When Aslan wants you, a way is made ready for you (which reminds one of the Buddhist maxim: the teacher will appear when the student is ready, but that’s another story).

But Wildwood is different. Though protected by magic (c’mon, the book is aimed at kids after all), the main characters are seen over and over again, to each character they meet, explaining that they did nothing special, they just walked into the woods. In fact, in a major scene, Prue (the female lead) leaves the magical woods and simply goes home for the evening. Then decides to come back. And does. No crashing trains or fuss or muss (unless a giant ghost bridge is “fuss”).

And of course there’s the aspect I alluded to with the title. This is an up-to-date story for modern times, and that doesn’t mean nothing. Prue carries into the woods a messenger bag with Gorp inside. She rides a bike she upgraded herself. Her parents visit a farmer’s market (of course, these have been around forever—but you know what I mean) Maybe the C of N felt like this when they initially were released, but they certainly don’t anymore. They are still beloved, but as time capsules.

But those are only technical observations. There’s something deeper that makes me truly love this book, and feel the need to write about it here. And that is this theme of the accessibility of the forest for our own children. As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Prue and Curtis simply walk into what they’ve been told all their lives is an Impassable Wilderness. Richard Louv, are you hearing this?

But that is only the start and most obvious instance of what I’m talking about. It’s more than access. The way Wildwood speaks to our relationships with nature encourages readers to interact with nature. Animals like owls and golden eagles who at first appear to be intimidating are later shown to be friendly and helpful. Birds in particular come off well in this book (Crane wife, anyone?). Three major characters of the story are plant life (two of these, benevolent).

We also see the city and the country contrasted in a reasonably subtle way. The northern part of the Impassable Wilderness is full of cute yet potentially vicious animals (a rabbit with a collander for a helmet, for example) that seem quaint but prove to be much more helpful in Prue’s mission than the seemingly sophisticated but dangerously narrow minded city folk (the south).

And in the wild part of the woods that separates the two live the Wildwood Bandits. These unexplainedly Celtic banditos seem to have paid a lot of attention to Robin Hood at some point in their lives (hence the accent, perhaps), but though they are essentially anarchists, they are fair and just. If I may step aside from talk about nature for just one moment, this oft-used contrast of scruffy (but noble) bandits & the beautiful (but quite evil) Dowager Governess is—to my mind—an excellent message for young female readers to hear. Not to mention the fact that the primary hero of this story is a seventh grade girl (cue smiling spirit of Madeleine L’Engle here).

The animals talk. That is an unavoidable comparison. But to suggest that they say the same things as Lewis’s Narnians is to not read either book closely enough. A little like Robinson Crusoe, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is a figurative island/world not removed from, but present in the real world. And because of that, the book suggests what any forest can be to our kids. We longed to get to Narnia, but never could. But somehow, the Wildwood is everywhere there are still trees.

 

{Also, I like the illustrations better. Carson Ellis, Bravo!}

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