Had you asked me a couple of months ago why I’d been waiting so long to read The Stone Table, you’d have heard excuses about needing to get through so many books for work, or my tendency to fall asleep the minute I nestle into bed with a bit of nonrequired reading. Now, a month into quarantine, I wonder if somehow I’d intuited that the time I most needed to read this book had not yet arrived.
I wish I could recommend The Stone Table to you, but you cannot get it. Only 75 copies of the book exist, which makes my two-year delay in properly sitting down with it all the more shameful.
I knew it was good, not just because I’d gotten as far as the first chapter but because it is the work of the British writer Francis Spufford, the author of several splendid volumes of nonfiction (I May Be Some Time, Red Plenty) and one equally wonderful novel, 2016’s Golden Hill. But even more to the point, Spufford wrote a memoir about his childhood reading, The Child That Books Built, that contains a half a chapter on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books so good that when I first read it while researching my own Narnia-centric book on childhood reading, I almost gave up in despair. Spufford had nailed it, particularly when he wrote that Lewis had “invented objects for my longing, gave forms to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing.”
At around age 7 or 8, each of us, albeit on separate continents, felt that the seven Narnia books “represented essence-of-book” that other books could only hope to echo with greater or lesser potency. “I essentially read other books because I could not always be rereading the Narnia books,” Spufford writes. Second only to my own desire to visit Narnia was my desire for the next best thing: more Narnia books.
That’s what The Stone Table is, an eighth Narnia chronicle, written not as a mere pastiche or parody but with deep and loving fidelity to the original seven. It recounts how Digory and Polly, the child heroes of the sixth chronicle (yes, I know the books come numbered in a different order now, but that is misbegotten pedantry and best ignored), got a chance to revisit Narnia a few years after the events in The Magician’s Nephew. They meet the last in a line of Narnia’s human kings, befriend an assortment of comical and endearing talking animals, battle a devious adversary, and go on the kind of quest my childhood self considered the only proper literary adventure: tromping through a wild countryside toward the mystical unknown.
“I am a product,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, “of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.” It’s a sentence that captures the real and imaginative stillness of childhood, at least as I experienced it—before the internet and even before there was much of anything on TV in the middle of the day. I was bored in the fertile way that only children can be bored, ripe with the possibilities of a life not yet ready to be led, my head stuffed full of impossible dreams. I wanted to escape. I filled my hours, as Spufford did, with the maximum number of library books you could check out at a time, chasing after any facsimile of the intoxication of Narnia I could find.
Now—decades later, alone in a big old house in a small Northern town surrounded by the kind of mossy, piney woods that remind me of the forests Prince Caspian rode through while fleeing his evil uncle—some of that old stillness has come back to me. The internet palls, streaming video all starts to look the same, and I can’t see anyone or go anywhere except into those lonely, magical woods. I’m lucky, just as I was lucky as a child, although this time I know it. I still want books that will take me away from the limbo we’re all stuck in. And for the first time since childhood, I feel quite unable to picture what life will be like after this long lull.
This is, in short, the perfect time to devour one more Chronicle of Narnia, a book that so uncannily captures the tone and flavor of the original seven that it’s only fitting Spufford has printed it up with the same interior design and even bound it in a fabric very similar to the binding of the hardcover copies I bought with my saved-up allowance and birthday money. He has replicated arch Lewisian flourishes, like referring offhandedly to untold Narnian legends, “the histories of Swanwhite the Queen, who was so fair that rivers ran backwards to gaze on her again, and of Bulbar the Champion of Bears, and of Wick the jester, who could make a stone laugh.” I loved such lines in the original Chronicles because they suggested that the slivers of Narnia I’d received from their pages were just a sampling of a greater, inexhaustible bounty.
The Stone Table tells the same sort of sweet homely jokes in the same confiding, avuncular voice: “If you have ever seen a lady otter try to curtsey, you will understand why they bow instead.” It has passages of incandescently sensual description, particularly a part where Polly drinks a potion that temporarily transforms her into a naiad, a water spirit, who can race through rivers and streams. And its plot hinges on the same kind of authentic moral quandaries that made me feel taken seriously as a child reader.
Spufford wrote The Stone Table, he told the Guardian, at the request of his daughter, Theodora, to whom it is dedicated, but also as a “present for my younger self, though sadly I have no Tardis to deliver it to him.” It may never be conventionally published because Lewis’ work remains under copyright through 2034, and his estate has expressed no interest in authorizing it. I did finally write my own Narnia book, in which I quote Spufford, and that’s how I ended up with a precious copy of The Stone Table, at exactly the moment I most needed it. This is my heartfelt thank you to him, and a nudge to whoever has the power to distribute this gift as widely as it deserves.