Once upon a time, a child called Lucy climbed into a large, wooden wardrobe in an English manor during a game of hide-and-seek. It was in that wardrobe that she stumbled onto a doorway to a magical world – Narnia. And children have been climbing into wardrobes worldwide on the off-chance Narnia might be there ever since.
C.S. Lewis, the author of the celebrated children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is most often associated with Oxford, England. Yet, the author was actually born in Belfast in 1898, where he spent his early childhood.
Although the recent Narnia films were filmed largely in New Zealand, your best chance of ‘finding’ Narnia (short of climbing into all of the wardrobes of the world!) is by hiking through the meandering and magical countryside of Northern Ireland.
Lewis grew up in an elegant Victorian home (not unlike the homes lived in by his characters) at the edge of Belfast, and his childhood was spent roaming the countryside, reading folklore, and playing with animals. He was intrigued by mythology – Norse, Greek, Roman, Irish – and Christianity, all of which helped him create Narnia.
So, put on your hiking boots and head out to the countryside – you’ll start to see Narnia in Northern Ireland everywhere you look! The woods of the Mourne Mountains feel magical, as if a lamppost and centaur or two wouldn’t be out of place. The sweeping vistas down to the coastline remind one of the wide plains of Narnia where talking animals, stomping giants and dryads made of flowers could roam the land.
But more than anything, his native Northern Ireland was his biggest inspiration for the magical world of Narnia. Lewis said so himself: “I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge,” he wrote in his essay On Stories. He writes, “I yearn to see County Down in the snow, one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true.”
The crumbling Dunluce Castle, which clings to a basalt outcropping in Co. Antrim, is cited as the inspiration for Narnia’s royal seat, the castle of Cair Paravel, described as “towering up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea, and long lines of bluish green waves breaking forever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls!” And in Prince Caspian, set hundreds of years later, the castle was in ruins – very close to Dunluce Castle’s current state.
In creating Narnia, Lewis was looking for “the lost simplicity of country pleasures, the empty sky, the unspoilt hills, the white silent roads on which you could hear the rattle of a farm cart half a mile away” of Ireland, left behind when Lewis moved to England.
And in a letter to his brother, he said point-blank: “That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia.” Carlington Fjord, marking the eastern border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, is one of Ireland’s three glacial fjords – certainly a magical place.
The best way to see the “Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests” as described in the Chronicles of Narnia, visit the low, wooded landscapes of Co. Down, which hugs the North Channel. It fits the above description of Narnia in Northern Ireland to a T!
Short of a magical wardrobe, the best way to experience Narnia is by hiking through the landscapes that shaped C.S. Lewis’ youth and continued to inspire him for the rest of his adult life. You may not get to meet Aslan (but then again, not many people do!) or sail on the great Dawn Treader (but then again, there are plenty of non-magical ships in the harbours of counties Down and Antrim), but you can find your own version of Narnia in Northern Ireland, the one that Lewis found a hundred years ago.
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