Francis Spufford pens unauthorised Narnia novel
Francis Spufford has taken a break from writing award-winning adult literature to fill in the details of what exactly went on in Narnia before The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But he isn’t expecting his novel, set in CS Lewis’s magical world, to be published any time soon.
Spufford, who has been writing for the past three and a half years without the permission of the Lewis estate, began Narnia story The Stone Table on a family holiday to entertain his daughter Theodora. After he had published books including a novel of 18th-century Manhattan, a personal exploration of Christianity and a study of the USSR melding fact and fiction, his daughter “had been lobbying for me to write a book she would enjoy for some time”, he said. But the novel was also a “present for my younger self, though sadly I have no Tardis to deliver it to him”.
“I was a deeply, passionately Narnia-loving child myself,” Spufford said, “and I’d always wanted there to be one more novel. Not that I had a specific gap in mind, I just wanted to stay in Narnia a little longer.”
The series is “finished as it stands” he continued, “but there is a gap in the history of Narnia between The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That was the only gap I thought was large enough for someone to do some impertinent fiddling.”
As Spufford worked on the novel, he became steadily more fascinated by the challenge of “re-embodying a writer’s voice”.
“It’s not exactly my Narnia,” he said, “though there are bits of me in it. It’s my best guess as [to] what a conjectural CS Lewis might have written, if he had written another Narnia novel.”
The Stone Table follows Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke, who watch Aslan sing Narnia into being in The Magician’s Nephew, as they return to Narnia. Spufford said he was cautious in giving clues as to what happens in the adventure, but the novel “explains why there are four empty thrones in the castle of Cair Paravel, and where the Stone Table came from”.
Spufford said he was acutely conscious of his responsibilities towards Lewis’s creation.
“If you’re going to play with someone else’s toys, then you need to be very clear that they are someone else’s toys. You need to be clear that you’re not profiting by it, that it’s a homage that doesn’t tread on the toes of the real books.”
The much-loved world of Aslan is under copyright until 2034. After finishing the novel, Spufford made a “tentative” approach to ask the Lewis estate if they might agree to publication, but did not receive a reply. Eventually he printed up 75 copies and started giving them to friends. According to the writer Adam Roberts, the novel is “superb”, a rare match of literary ability and authorial sensibility.
‘It really is a seamless recreation of Lewis’s writing-style at its best,” Roberts said, “and a brilliant read in its own right. It enriches Lewis’s heritage.”
The writer Frank Cottrell Boyce agreed.
“Francis has caught Lewis’ voice to a point where its uncanny,” he said. “It really does feel like him writing,” Cottrell Boyce said. “Also he has found a subject – the creation of the Stone Table – that you think Lewis might well have got round to thinking about.”
Cottrell Boyce was so thrilled after reading the novel, he asked Spufford if he could share it online, posting the first two chapters online as a kind of “teaser trailer”.
“People are usually very wary of sequels to beloved books,” he said, “but the reaction to those two chapters of The Stone Table on Twitter has run from positive to ecstatic.”
For Roberts, Spufford’s novel shows that UK laws of copyright, which give authors the exclusive rights to their work for 70 years after their death, are no longer fit for purpose.
“I think it was inevitable that a book like this, a sensitive and brilliant addition to the Narnia corpus by a major contemporary writer, would start to leak out into the public domain. I would certainly love to see it published in full – and it will be. It’s just a question of whether it’s published when the copyright lapses in 2034, or whether some arrangement can be brokered with the Lewis estate to see an authorised publication in the nearer future.”
The Lewis estate gave no indication of the likelihood of any deal, but Spufford is still hopeful The Stone Table will be “welcomed by the estate as something that’s faithful to the spirit of the Narnia books”.
“I don’t know if it will be published,” he said. “I live in hope.”