Wardrobe furnished author's plot

Object Lesson

December 18, 2005|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

You know a lion when you see one. A witch, while she may take a little longer to spot, is something most of us can recognize as well. But a wardrobe?

If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, if you're not into antiques and have never needed to supplement your closet space, you might not be familiar with the piece of furniture that stars in the new movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the first in the series of C.S. Lewis children's books.

Once upon a time, up until around World War II, closets were a rarity -- and people hung their clothes on hooks, or pegs, or in tall freestanding pieces of furniture known as wardrobes. In the Lewis book, the wardrobe serves as the portal through which four siblings enter a parallel world known as Narnia.

Originally the word wardrobe referred not to a collection of garments, but to the piece of furniture that held them. The term entered the English language in the 14th century, a combination of two French words, the verb garde (to guard) and the noun robe, which is the same in English and French.

Today, both closet and ward-robe have several meanings. A closet can be where you hang your clothes, where your skeletons hide, or what you come out of. A wardrobe, meanwhile, can mean your clothing collection, the department that supplies costumes, or the piece of furniture.

While wardrobes, the furniture, are still manufactured, they are more often called armoires, and more often used to hold televisions.

It was on television --a parallel world as well -- that a "wardrobe malfunction" occurred during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl, revealing a normally private piece of singer Janet Jackson's anatomy and propelling the word back into popular culture. The movie, in a far more PG-rated way, is expected to do the same.

The wardrobe used in the movie is custom-made, and modeled after one that C.S. Lewis owned and played in as a child.

"It's a big, oblong, square wardrobe with a carving on it, and quite dark, a Jacobean style wardrobe. So that gave us the idea that our wardrobe shouldn't be too baroque or decorative," said the movie's production designer, Roger Ford.

Lewis' actual wardrobe -- one of several he owned -- is now at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, outside Chicago, which houses artifacts of Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and five other British writers.

It was built and carved by Lewis' grandfather more than a century ago and stood for many years in the family home in Belfast before Lewis had it moved to Oxford. In 1973, it was procured for the center by a couple on a trip to England, both alumni, who bought it with university funds at an auction in Banbury.

As a child, Lewis used to play in it with his brother Warren, who has said it is the wardrobe that inspired the one in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Shawn Mrakovich, a receptionist at the Wade Center, said the wardrobe has been one of the most popular exhibits, and as the movie's opening neared, it was outdrawing the desk on which Tolkien wrote The Hobbit.

At the center, a sign has been placed next to the wardrobe:

"We do not take responsibility for people disappearing."

......................

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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