C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia
Author of the Chronicles of Narnia
Step through the other side of the wardrobe and meet the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia - the man whose rich imagination and deep Christian faith made this fantasy series a favorite for generations. Readers of all ages will enjoy stories of Lewis's boyhood in Ireland and the imaginary world he and his brother created in their secret attic hideaway. They will also gain a better understanding of Lewis's quest for joy, the personal struggles that formed his compelling character, and the ways in which his stories reflect his deep and powerful experience of God.
Reviewers praise "C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia"
"A highly readable exposition of a warm, amiable, and brilliant man." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Gormley does an excellent job of introducing Lewis, a Christian philosopher and author, to the many young people who have enjoyed his Chronicles of Narnia." Booklist
"Gormley does a good job of focusing on her subject's spiritual life while providing a solid biographical context against which to examine it. . . . Students looking for more than the basic biography will certainly find it here."
School Library Journal
"This extraordinary book is for young readers with their teachers who know and love the writings of C.S. Lewis."
The Lion, the Witch -- and the Sugar-Coated Pill?
"The Holy Pleasures of Narnia"
By Beatrice Gormley
A talk given November 12, 2005, at Borders Books and Music, Shrewsbury, MA
“Well-sugared pills” is what a professor of English at Brandeis, recently reviewing an anthology of children’s literature, calls the Chronicles of Narnia. They are, he says, examples of “literature written by adults to instruct children.”
(William Flesch, The Boston Globe, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005, “Ideas & Books,” p. E2)
Is this a reasonable assessment of the Chronicles of Narnia? Or is it an egregious misunderstanding of how and why C. S. Lewis wrote these stories? Those questions are the subject of my talk today.
My special connection with C.S. Lewis, the reason I was asked to give this talk, is that his writing greatly inspired my writing; the first several books I wrote for children were fantasy novels. Also, I had the privilege of writing the story of Lewis’ life in my biography C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).
Let’s review the basic facts about Lewis, and how he came to write the Chronicles of Narnia.:
C.S. Lewis was born 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. His parents were both college graduates, and his father was an attorney. He had one older brother, Warren.
All the Lewises were great readers, and their big, rambling house was crammed with books. Jack, as Lewis called himself, read voraciously and wrote constantly from an early age. It’s not surprising that he decided, when he was only six, that he wanted to grow up to be a poet – a famous poet.
Jack and his brother were close. They played one of their best-loved games in their attic hideout, constructing an imaginary world called “Boxen.” They started out playing with stuffed animals and china figures, but gradually Boxen became a whole elaborate alternate universe. They drew maps and pictures of it, they wrote plays and stories set in Boxen, and when Warren was away at school, Jack sent him reports of current events in Boxen.
At the age of nine, Jack Lewis suffered a trauma that shaped the rest of his life. He’d had a carefree childhood up until that time, and he’d never been away from home except on family vacations to the seashore.
But when he was nine, his mother died. And only two weeks later, Jack’s father sent him off to boarding school in England.
From that time on, Jack spent only holidays at his childhood home in Belfast. Most of the year he lived in England: first at boarding school, then with his tutor, then at Oxford University.
World War I had started before Jack reached Oxford. As soon as he was old enough to volunteer, he joined the army and went to France to fight in the trenches. He was wounded and sent home; the war ended, and he returned to his studies at Oxford. After graduation, he began teaching English at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Lewis was still determined to become a famous poet. In his spare time between studies and teaching, Lewis labored at writing a long epic poem. The poem was published, and Lewis had great hopes that it would make his reputation as a poet -- but no one except his friends read it. As Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he had “unmistakably failed” at becoming a great poet.
At the same time, Lewis (in his early thirties by now) gradually realized he was also a failure as an atheist. Lewis had considered himself an atheist from his teenage years (I believe confirmation was the last straw for him). But now that certainty was also slipping away, eroded by exposure to Christian friends and Christian writers.
About the age of 33, C. S. Lewis finally gave up and became a Christian. He went to church and took communion for the first time since he was a boy. Almost immediately, he started writing books about his Christian journey and the Christian life. Now he had some success as a writer. Now, people actually wanted to read his books.
Many years went by as C.S. Lewis continued to teach English at Oxford and write books for adults about Christianity. He became world-famous for his Christian writings, and in 1947 he was on the cover of Time Magazine. But no one expected that Lewis was going to write a children’s book. He wasn’t married, he had no children, and he was quite the intellectual -- a literary scholar.
There were a few indications, though, at least in hindsight, that C.S. Lewis might write for children. For one thing, he liked and respected children's books. Lewis believed that a truly good children's book was one that was enjoyable for an adult, too. Lewis had no snobbery about reading; he enjoyed what he enjoyed. He got great pleasure from reading Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek – but also in reading The Wind in the Willows for the first time as an adult.
C.S. Lewis still remembered what it was like to be a child. He’d always had an extremely vivid imagination. Stories he heard or made up were very real to him. He and Warren used to have a nanny, Lizzie, who told the boys many stories.
The boys were especially interested in Lizzie’s story about the pot of gold buried at the end of the rainbow. One day Jack and Warren saw a rainbow that seemed to end in their yard, right on the path to the front door. So they got shovels and dug quite a large hole, without finding any gold. Then it got dark and they went in the house. And their father came home from work in the dark and stumbled into the hole. (The boys were never able to explain to Mr. Lewis what they’d been up to.)
Another childhood connection with stories was a carved oak wardrobe that Lewis’s grandfather had made. Jack and his brother liked to crawl into the wardrobe, shut the door, and tell each other scary stories in the dark. Years later, after Lewis’ father died and the family house in Belfast was sold, Lewis had that wardrobe brought from Belfast to Oxford. So there it was in his house.
Although Lewis never had children of his own, he did have children living with him during the Blitz of London. At the beginning of World War II, when the Nazis were bombing London, thousands of city children were sent to safety in the country, to anyone who could take them in. Some of them lived with Lewis.
One of these city children took an interest in the wardrobe, and he asked Lewis what was on the other side.
Now a normal adult answer would have been, “What do you mean? Nothing.” Or, “The back of the wardrobe, of course.” But Lewis, being Lewis, started thinking. What if you could walk through the wardrobe and come out – someplace quite different? Maybe in another world?
As C. S. Lewis described the process later, this idea started joining itself up with other ideas. Like the picture that just popped into Lewis’ mind: a picture of a faun, that mythical being like a man but with the horns and legs of a goat. This faun was walking through wintry woods carrying parcels and an umbrella.
Then there was Lewis’ idea for a story about four children who come to the country to escape the Blitz. They stay with an old professor in a rambling old house, rather like the house Lewis grew up in, in Belfast. The ideas kept joining together until they reached critical mass, and then, as Lewis put it, a magnificent lion jumped into the middle and pulled the whole story together.
Lewis now understood what the story was going to be about: it would answer the question, What if there were another world – a kind of alternate universe – called Narnia, that like our world was in need of redemption? And what if Christ appeared in this world -- not in the form of a man, but a lion? The literary form that seemed natural to unite all these images and thoughts was a fairy tale.
So in his spare time Lewis sat down and wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in just a couple of months. He felt, as he said later, as if he must write this story or burst. And the other six Chronicles followed quickly, within the next six years. Lewis wrote with great gusto. He loved being in Narnia, and he wanted to share his pleasure with children.
“Well-sugared pills”? I don’t think so. I think these books express Lewis’ conviction that God intends for us to enjoy ourselves – not in some repressed, wishy-washy way, but with earthy, full-bodied pleasure. Lewis liked to quote Psalm 16, v. 11: “in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, the same thing as hedonism, whose motto is, “If it feels good, do it.” You can see the difference in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the way to enjoy pleasures is not to seek pleasure, but to seek good. For instance, while Lucy, Peter, and Susan are trying to do the right thing during their adventures in Narnia, they enjoy some delicious food. Here’s the supper the children eat with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:
There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes and all the children thought – and I agree with them – that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle on to the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier Books paperback, pp. 70-71)
How do the children enjoy their food? They’re hungry, they’re offered good food, and they eat in fellowship with each other and their hosts. Then the pleasure of eating is over, they’re satisfied, and they go on to the next thing.
In contrast, when Edmund meets the White Witch, here’s how he enjoys her Turkish delight:
While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive. . . . “You are sure there are just four of you?” she asked. “Two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve, neither more nor less?” and Edmund, with his mouth full of Turkish Delight, kept on saying, “Yes, I told you that before,” and forgetting to call her “Your Majesty” but she didn’t seem to mind now.
At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier Books paperback, p. 32)
So the pleasure Edmund gets from gobbling several pounds of Turkish delight is brief, it’s unsatisfying, and it makes him sick. Worse still, it blinds him to the fact that the White Witch is setting him up to betray his family.
The reason I’m making such a point of the pleasures of Narnia is to dispel a mistaken idea about Lewis. It seems to be widespread, especially among people (like the reviewer I quoted at the beginning) who disapprove of Lewis. That is, the idea that Lewis didn’t enjoy life, that he didn’t want other people enjoying life, and that he believed that God didn’t want us to enjoy life, either.
Unfortunately this impression was reinforced by the movie Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis’ marriage to Joy Gresham. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis, looking pale and thin and acting very repressed. Shadowlands was a good story in many ways, but I think it gave the wrong idea of Lewis’ personality. In fact, Lewis was a hearty, red-faced man with a booming laugh, a sociable man who loved to sit around talking with friends.
Lewis enjoyed earthly pleasures enormously. This is obvious throughout his writing, but perhaps most of all in the Chronicles of Narnia. In one of his essays on stories, Lewis explains why he wrote about the particular pleasures in the Narnia books. An adult said to him, “Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, ‘That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.’”
In fact, Lewis gave them “what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.” (On Stories, Harcourt Brace paperback, p. 31)
But food is just one of the pleasures of Narnia. Another is the pleasure of getting to know other people, in all their strangeness and variety. Take Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She seems to have been modeled on Janie Moore, Lewis’ adopted mother. She was the kind of person who, if you were in a hurry to go somewhere, was sure to plunge into elaborate preparations. Which is what Mrs. Beaver does, when they ought to be fleeing for their lives before the White Witch arrives:
As soon as Mr. Beaver said “There’s no time to lose” everyone began bundling themselves into coats, except Mrs. Beaver who started picking up sacks and laying them on the table and said: “Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here’s a packet of tea, and there’s sugar, and some matches. And if someone will get two or three loaves out of the crock . . .”
“What are you doing, Mrs. Beaver?” exclaimed Susan.
“Packing a load for each of us dearie,” said Mrs. Beaver very coolly. “You didn’t think we’d set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?”
“But we haven’t time!” said Susan, buttoning the collar of her coat. “She may be here any minute.” . . .
“Well, I’m nearly ready now,” answered Mrs. Beaver at last allowing her husband to help her into her snow boots. “I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring?”
(The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier Books paperback, p. 95)
Lewis took great pleasure in the natural world – in the various moods of the weather and seasons, in the character of a landscape, in animals, in trees. This heightened sensitivity to nature comes out so clearly in the Chronicles of Narnia. Here Edmund steps through the wardrobe for the first time:
. . . He found himself stepping out from the shadow of some thick dark fir trees into an open place in the middle of a wood.
There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country. There was not even a robin or a squirrel among the trees, and the wood stretched as far as he could see in every direction. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier Books paperback, p. 25-26)
I could cite any number of examples from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as well as the other Narnia books. One of my favorite passages is the description of the Wood Between the Worlds, in The Magician’s Nephew. Lewis describes it as an intensely quiet place, so still that you can “almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots.” If you’ve ever walked through an old-growth forest and stood in that holy silence, you have an idea of what Lewis means.
I began this talk by citing what I think is a misunderstanding of Lewis, of his attitude toward pleasure, and of why he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. The critic I quoted goes on, “Lewis, one senses, wants to make children feel guilty and depraved, to see themselves as wicked – for example, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where children are supposed to recognize Edmund’s selfishness and greed in themselves.” (William Flesch, The Boston Globe, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005, “Ideas & Books,” p. E2)
I don’t think that’s what Lewis was trying to do at all. I think he intended, first of all, to entertain his readers – to delight them, as he was delighted, writing these stories. And on another level, he was trying to share his own experience of sin and redemption. Including his own experience of greediness and selfishness.
Also, Lewis was sharing a truth from his own experience: that one bad choice often leads to a worse one, and another, and another. Edmund starts out by going into the Wardrobe to tease Lucy, which is a mean thing to do but not all that serious; this leads him to Narnia and the White Witch, where he falls under the spell of the magic Turkish delight; he is then drawn into betraying his own brother and sisters to the evil Witch.
C.S. Lewis was an academic and a scholar, but he wasn’t the stereotype of a dried-up academic who lives in his head, unconnected with real life. Lewis took pleasure in a whole range of things, from reading medieval Latin manuscripts to taking a bath. In one of his letters to children, he described how he liked to get way under in the bathtub so that just his nose was sticking out – “like a hippopotamus.”
(Incidentally, it might surprise a lot of people to know that one of the things Lewis didn’t particularly enjoy was going to church. He especially didn’t enjoy singing hymns with other people. In a word, he wasn’t “churchy.”
Lewis enjoyed his own pleasures in a forthright way, not in a sneaky or guilty way. And he didn’t offer his readers guilty pleasures, or pleasures as a bribe or a sugar-coating on a pill. He believed that God created these pleasures, including the pleasures of the imagination, for us to enjoy.
Lewis brings this out explicitly in one of his Christian books for adults, The Screwtape Letters. As you may know, The Screwtape Letters is a sort of instructor’s manual in how to tempt human beings, written by a senior devil to a junior devil. Screwtape explains to the junior demon that humans’ simple pleasures, like watching a cricket game or drinking cocoa, are hateful to devils because they encourage “innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness.” And later on Screwtape points out that the Enemy (that is, God) has actually admitted – in writing! -- that “at His right hand are pleasures evermore.”
As for spiritual pleasures, Lewis’ idea of the spiritual wasn’t that it was less real than the physical, but more so. In The Great Divorce, a fantasy journey to Heaven, he explains this effect explicitly. And you see this idea of the spiritual in the way Lewis describes Aslan, the Christ-like lion, in the Chronicles of Narnia. The numinous effect Aslan has on the children is all mixed up with the way they experience him physically: the feel and smell of his fur; his rich, deep voice; his breath on their faces. Here’s what it’s like the first time the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe see Aslan:
People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, there were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.
. . . His voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them. They now felt glad and quiet and it didn’t seem awkward to them to stand and say nothing.
. . . Aslan said nothing either to excuse Peter or to blame him but merely stood looking at him with his great golden eyes. And it seemed to all of them that there was nothing to be said. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier Books paperback, p. 123]
C.S. Lewis did not write this way condescendingly. This wasn’t a kind of watered-down theology for children who couldn’t understand the real stuff, the intellectual stuff. Lewis, I think, wrote the Chronicles of Narnia to express his own deepest experience of the holy. His own experience of God.
© 2005, by Beatrice Gormley. All rights reserved.