The Man Who Created Narnia: The Faith and Fiction of C.S.Lewis

C.S.Lewis is one of the most unlikely children’s authors you could ever meet. He was an academic all of his life, teaching first at Oxford and later at Cambridge. He was not married till he was over fifty, and had no children of his own, nor any nephews or nieces. His closest friends were other male academics. He traveled outside the British Isles only twice: he fought in France in the First World War and went on holiday to Greece towards the end of his life. And he dressed like a typical absent-minded professor, “in baggy flannel trousers and tweed jackets”[1]. His brother Warren wrote about him:

Jack’s clothes were a matter of complete indifference to him: he had an extraordinary knack of making a new suit look shabby the second time he wore it. One of his garments has passed into legend. It is said that Jack once took a guest for an early morning walk on the Magdalen College grounds, in Oxford, after a very wet night. Presently the guest brought his attention to a curious lump of cloth hanging on a bush, “That looks like my hat,” said Jack; then, joyfully, “It is my hat.” And, clapping the sodden mass on his head, he continued his walk.[2]

He described himself in one of his letters to children:

I am tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.[3]

He was born in 1898, and died on November 22, 1963 (the same day as J. F. Kennedy).

So what made him the writer he was, and what made it possible for him to write the kinds of fiction he did? I’m going to talk mainly about the Narnia stories, but this applies to the rest of his fiction—The Cosmic Trilogy and Till We Have Faces.

I think we need to understand three things about Lewis: one is religious, the second spiritual, and the third intellectual.

  1. Religion

C. S. Lewis grew up as Anglican in Belfast. He says of that time:

I was taught the usual things and made to say my prayers and in due time taken to church. I naturally accepted what I was told but I cannot remember feeling much interest in it.[4]

He recalls two particular experiences, neither of them good.

  1. His grandfather’s preaching

He went to the church where his grandfather was the preacher. Two things he didn’t like. He found his grandfather’s preaching emotional and embarrassing, and mainly denunciations of RC church. He also realised that people went to the church for political reasons, mainly because, if they went to the Anglican church, it showed they weren’t Roman Catholic![5]

  • Boarding schools

At one school, the religious instruction emphasized the reality of hell (he says “I feared for my soul”[6]) but obviously didn’t tell him much what to do about it. At another, he tried to learn to pray, but found he became obsessively introspective about whether he was doing it “right.” “Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.”[7] He was eleven years old.

Looking back, he called it “the dry husks of Christianity,” not the real thing. Not surprisingly, around the age of thirteen, Lewis “was desperately anxious to get rid of my religion”[8] and was relieved to find he could escape. By the time he got to his last boarding school, where chapel attendance was mandatory, chapel meant “no more than two hours of blessed inactivity in which to dream his dreams secure from interruption.”[9]  By his mid-teens, he considered himself an atheist.

  • Joy

At the same time as he was disillusioned with church, Lewis was having experiences he called “joy.” This “joy” is crucial for understanding Lewis: he comments, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”[10]

What does he mean by it? He defines it many different ways: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”,[11] “the inconsolable secret,”[12] “an unattainable ecstasy [which] has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness,” an “incommunicable and unappeasable want,”[13] “a desire no natural happiness will satisfy,”[14] and “[t]he experience . . . of intense longing.”[15]

After he became a Christian, he realised that these were actually the work of the Holy Spirit, nudging him, trying to get his attention, making him unsatisfied, and pointing him to something beyond this world where satisfaction would be found: “splashes of Godlight in the dark wood of our life.”[16]

He began to have these experiences of joy quite early in his life, particularly in nature and in literature: the Castlereagh Hills, near his home in Belfast; a toy garden his brother Warnie made; and the book Squirrel Nutkin. Scandinavian mythology was especially powerful in this way, particularly in his mid-teens when he discovered the edition of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. 

Mythology, he realised later, became almost a substitute religion for him. He felt reverence towards the gods of Norse mythology that he later realised should be given to God—but he had never felt that in church.[17]

Sadly, he saw no connection between his experience of church and his deepest (spiritual) experiences:

If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude towards it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not.[18]

  • Intellect

Lewis hated the boarding schools his father sent him to, so eventually his father sent him to a private tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was strongly rationalistic (if you said it was nice day, he would ask you what you meant, and what grounds you had for saying it. In two and a half years, he taught Lewis to think and to argue. Lewis loved it: he said later that the experience was like “red beef and strong beer.”[19] Kirkpatrick commented to Lewis’ father that “[h]is reasoning capacity is beyond his years.”[20] Lewis had no problem getting into Oxford, except for the math exam, which he failed!

By the time he went to Oxford in 1916, it was with a brilliant mind, but he was confused spiritually and imaginatively. He says:

The two hemispheres of my mind were in sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.[21]

  • New influences

What could bring two things (his imagination and his intellect) together, and how does this relate to faith? The main influences at this point were not primarily intellectual: they were his imagination and his relationships.

  1. He read the novels of George MacDonald, and sensed “the spirit of Christ.”

He also read Catholic author G. K. Chesterton and considered him “the most sensible man alive apart from his Christianity.”[22] Later he commented wryly, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.”[23]

  • Then he began to meet Christians he respected intellectually and liked personally—J. R. R.Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and Neville Coghill.[24] The most influential of these was Tolkien.

Through these various influences, he realised later, “The great Angler played his fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.”[25]

“Conversion” literally means turning. For some quick, others slow. For Lewis, his conversion to Christianity was slow with three or four stages.

  1. One turning point took place on top of a bus. He says:

I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay or shutting something out. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or shut it out. . . . I chose to open. . . . I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. I rather disliked the feeling.[26]

It’s worth noting that at the time he did not understand this as in any sense an “experience of God”: it was simply a response to a sense of something “out there.”

  • Then, in the spring of 1929:

You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. . . . I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[27]

He wants you to understand that he really didn’t want to believe.  He wasn’t excited; there was no ecstasy and no vision. It sounds more like someone saying, I guess two and two really do make four. He was still not a Christian—he was a theist—but this was a significant step in that direction.[28]

  • What finally pushed him into becoming a Christian was a late-night conversation with his friends Tolkien and Dyson in Addison’s Walk behind Lewis’ College, and it had to do with myth.[29] Up to this point, Lewis felt the stories of Jesus, the God who dies and rises again, was simply another form of a timeless myth, and not to be taken seriously.[30] Tolkien argued that in Jesus myth actually breaks into history. The mythologies of the world are from God, glimpses of God’s reality, preparing the way for the full reality.

Shortly afterwards, he wrote to a friend in Northern Ireland:

The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened . . . [I]t is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.[31]

  • According to Lewis’ own account, however, he still wasn’t quite a Christian yet. The final stage of his conversion took place a few days later as he rode with Warnie to Whipsnade Zoo. “When we set out,” he wrote, “I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”[32] It was not dramatic: but then it didn’t have to be. It was simply the final piece in the jigsaw. The whole conversion process had taken something over two years.

Now finally, the two halves of Lewis’ life—imagination, which loved myth, and reason which demanded truth—came together in the strangest and most unlikely place: the Christian faith he had once rejected.

  • Imagination, reason and faith

His writing then expresses his new faith. He wrote at least one book per year from then till his death, ranging all the way from heavy academic works (OHEL) to his children’s fiction. The Narnia stories were begun in 1950, and he then published one per year until 1956.

Some think the Narnia stories are an allegory, because there are obvious similarities with stories of Jesus —particularly Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But he says that is not the case:

You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books “represents” something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way.[33]

So what kind of stories are these? Lewis’ own answer was that the Chronicles are a “supposal”:

I’m not exactly “representing” the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying “Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the ‘Great Emperor oversea’) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?”[34]

So what is he up to?

For much of his life, he would say, he had never really understood what Christianity was all about. He had heard the stories of Jesus—they were very familiar to him—but they had not grabbed him. He had been inoculated against their real meaning.

For him, it was almost as though he had had to go away from Christianity to find spiritual reality elsewhere, and then to discover that what he had found was actually a signpost pointing him back to Christianity.

And what he discovered when he came back was the same and different. It brought meaning and stability, laughter and friendship, and satisfaction both intellectual and emotional.

The stories of Jesus had not changed: it was his understanding of them that had changed. As T. S. Eliot put it, “The end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” His challenge then was to find a way to tell those old stories so that they would strike the reader with that same freshness that Lewis experienced.

So this is my thesis about what he is doing in the Narnia stories: he is trying to create a similar kind of experience for us: to send us on a journey away from church, the Bible, and religion, to discover a world of myth ruled over by Aslan, an attractive Christ-figure but not a religious figure, and then to send us back to this world to discover where that story is pointing. The way Lewis explains this is to say:

Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.[35]

The “watchful dragons” are those instincts that guard us against anything that sounds too religious. But Lewis knows that when we defend ourselves against the religious (though the religious can be damaging), we are also protecting ourselves against Christ who gives life. Hence the need to steal past the dragons with stories that do not give off that churchy smell but convey the “real potency” he had found. And hence Narnia. As the poet Emily Dickenson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” In Narnia, Lewis is trying to tell the truth of Christianity, but to tell it slant—so that we can see it more clearly.

The way he put it on one occasion was that his goal was “a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.” Sayer comments, “His hope was that when, at an older age, the child came into contact with the real truths of Christianity, he or she would find these truths easier to accept because of reading with pleasure and accepting stories with similar themes years before.” [36]

A Case Study: Edmund

To show you what I mean, let me offer you a case study in how Lewis tries to steal past the watchful dragons:

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund is a real jerk. It’s not just that he has this uncontrollable greed for Turkish Delight. But it’s more than that. He’s also nasty to Lucy: when Lucy first gets into Narnia, he doesn’t believe she’s been to Narnia. Then when he goes too, he pretends he hasn’t, and Lucy is devastated. But this is not the beginning. Peter says:

“You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.”[37]

Greed and bullying. But that’s still not what’s wrong with Edmund. These are only symptoms of a disease. Something is going on in Edmund which makes him a bully and be greedy for Turkish Delight. What?

There is another incident that is very revealing. The White Witch says to him:

 “I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I am gone. While he was Prince he would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long; and you are much the cleverest and handsomest young man I’ve ever met.” [38]

What’s going on with Edmund? Pride. This is not the innocent pride that takes pleasure in being the person God made you to be. This is the negative kind of pride where we compare ourselves with others, and take pleasure in feeling more significant than them. (Lewis said it was his own besetting sin.)  

From this flows Edmund’s insatiable greed for Turkish Delight; his desire to be more powerful than smaller kids; and his desire to be more important than his siblings.

One of the results of is pride is that he messes up his relationships with others:

He kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it.[39]

If you think you’re better than other people, and people for some reason don’t treat you that way, of course you’re going to be upset!

But here’s the root of the problem: he’s also out of step with Aslan. You may remember that although they’ve never heard of Aslan, when the Beaver tells them Aslan is coming, they react quite strongly:

At the name of Aslan each one of them felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter suddenly felt brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated up to her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.[40]

Why do they react these different ways? Lewis would say all people are either moving towards Aslan or they are moving away from Aslan. Every choice we make brings us closer or takes us further away.

Stepping out of Narnia for a minute, something Lewis says elsewhere explains this:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you . . . into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a creature that is in harmony with God, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God.[41]

Or again:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” [42]

And up to this point, Edmund is saying, “My will be done. I want to do what I want to do.” And so, even though he has never heard of Aslan, this has been leading him away from Aslan. Hence when he first hears of Aslan, he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to know about Aslan because Aslan is the rightful king, not Edmund. It’s not just that Edmund is selfish and self-centered. More significantly, he is self-directed: he runs his own life. 

There is an old-fashioned word in Christian spirituality for what we are talking about: sin.

What Lewis is telling us is that sin is not eating too much Turkish Delight (whatever form that may take for us)—although that is often the way religious people interpret it. According to Lewis, sin is saying to God, My will be done in this world, not your will be done in this world. Sin is not co-operating with the Creator in the running of the Creator’s world.  And the result is that sin makes us less than we are designed to be.

So Lewis has helped us learn about sin not through a lecture and a lot of negativity but through a story and a character we engage with. Often we don’t feel that sin is all that bad, and we don’t feel that we are sinners. Edmund helps us see why sin is a bad thing.

But this is not the end for Edmund. Aslan has not finished with him yet. After Aslan gives his life for Edmund and for Narnia, and comes back from death because of the Deeper Magic, Edmund has still to face Aslan, and something happens.

Here is how the meeting is described:

As soon as they has breakfasted they all went out, and there they saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass . . . There is no need to tell you (and no-one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation Edmund never forgot.

We can guess. Edmund’s choices were moving him away from Aslan. Then he came to realise that the White Witch wasn’t really as interested in his wellbeing as she pretended, just in her own power, and that she is prepared to kill him when he becomes an inconvenience. So he turns, and what he didn’t know of course was that that Aslan was following him, so that as soon as he turns round, Aslan is there.

But there’s more: if a wrong relationship with Aslan leads to strained relationships with others, once things are straightened out with Aslan, the reverse happens[43]:

Edmund shook hands with each of the others and said to each of them in turn, “I’m sorry,” and everyone said, “That’s all right.”[44]

But there’s yet more. If Edmund thought only about himself before, and what others thought, now something is different:

“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.[45]

And finally, there’s one more piece to the conversion of Edmund that is in some ways the most important:

 [Lucy] found [Ed] standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but looking better than she had seen him look—oh, for ages; in fact ever since his first term at that horrid school which he was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face. And there on the field of battle Aslan made him a knight.[46]

The change Aslan makes doesn’t make you weird or religious or holier-than-thou: it makes you yourself, free to become the person Aslan intended. And the word from Christian spirituality that fits best with the story of Edmund is the word redemption.

As with the word “sin,” Lewis is trying to do is free the word from its religious and churchy connotations, and make it something that is not only intelligible but also attractive: So for him, redemption is not a mystical experience for religious people; it’s not trying harder to be a nice person. Rather, redemption is allowing your Creator to shape you into the real self you were always meant to be.

And by putting it in a story about someone we can identify with, by the end he makes us feel, “Oh, that’s wonderful: Edmund has become himself again!” It touches us imaginatively and emotionally.

But how do you get back from Narnia to our world?           

Having given us a taste of Christian spirituality—maybe more than a taste: an imaginative and emotional immersion in it—through his supposal, what then? Lewis wants us to make the same connection he did.

But he is a subtle evangelist, and he’s not going to hit us over the head with it. So how does he help us make the transition from Narnia to our world? What he does is to give us clues that we can follow if we want. There are two places in particular where he comes close to giving away his strategy. Both are in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In one scene, Lucy visits house of the magician Koriakin, reads through the book of spells, & comes across a story “for the refreshment of the spirit,” which takes up three pages and tells “about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill.” She says, “That is the loveliest story I’ve read or ever shall read in my whole life.” Yet as soon as the story is done, she can’t remember it, and she can’t turn the pages back. She asks Aslan, “Will you tell it to me, Aslan?”  And he says, “Indeed, yes. I will tell it to you for years and years.”[47]

I think Lewis intends us to imagine Lucy back in our world, knowing only that she had once read the most wonderful story, wondering what on earth Aslan meant, and then discovering in the most unlikely place people who treasure a story about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill that is for “for the refreshment of the spirit.” And as she learns more about the story, she realises that Aslan is keeping his promise.

The other place is right at the end of the book, when the children are about to return to their own world, and Lucy weeps because (she thinks) they will never see Aslan again. Aslan says, “But you shall meet me, dear one.” Edmund doesn’t understand: “Are—are you there too, sir?” To which Aslan replies:

“I am . . . But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”[48]

Again, Lewis is putting a grain of sand into the oyster of the reader’s mind: what on earth is Aslan’s “other name” in our world? How can we possibly know the fictional Aslan in our own world? How can there have been a “purpose” to our reading about Narnia? Lewis is not going to tell us: but he wants us to think about it, and (hopefully) to figure it out.

What Lewis hopes for is that our encounter with Aslan will drive us back to Christian spirituality, and specially the biographies of Jesus—the Gospels—with a new curiosity. Just as we can think of Aslan as Jesus in lion form, so I think we might be forgiven for thinking of Jesus as Aslan in human form. The challenge Lewis gives us in the Narnia stories is to let the watchful dragons sleep while we hear the good news of Jesus again with new ears and fresh imagination.

[1] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (London: Allen and Unwin 1978), 38.

[2] “Memoir of C.S.Lewis” by W.H.Lewis, in Letters of C.S.Lewis, ed. W.H.Lewis (Orlando FL: Harcourt and Brace 1966), 36.

[3] Letters to Children, May 29, 1954. One writer notes, “Kenneth Tynan said Lewis combined the manner of Friar Tuck with the mind of St. Augustine.” Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S.Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1974), 32. Tolkien told Neville Coghill that he modelled the voice of Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings on that of C.S.Lewis. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R.Tolkien: A Biography (London: Allen and Unwin 1978), 198.

[4] Surprised by Joy, 12

[5]Warren Hamilton Lewis, C.S.Lewis: A Biography (unpublished typescript in the Wade Collection, Wheaton), 232, in Jack, 217-218

[6] Surprised by Joy, 33.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Ibid., 53

[9] Warren Hamilton Lewis, 232.

[10] Surprised by Joy, 20

[11] Ibid., 20

[12] “The Weight of Glory”, in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 96

[13] The Problem of Pain, 134

[14] “The Weight of Glory,” in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 99

[15] The Pilgrim’s Regress, Preface to the Third Edition, 12-13

[16] Carnell 164. This is what theologians call “prevenient grace.”

[17] In theological terms, he was worshipping the creature rather than the Creator, but that is more the fault of his teachers than of Lewis.

[18] Green and Hooper, 33.

[19] Surprised by Joy, 111

[20] Spirits in Bondage xxiii

[21] Surprised by Joy 138

[22] Ibid., 222.

[23] Ibid., 153-154

[24] I met Dyson and Coghill when I was an undergraduate at Oxford.

[25] Ibid., 169.

[26] Ibid., 179. The same image of snow melting is of course the sign that Aslan has returned to Narnia.

[27] Ibid., 182

[28] Billy Graham’s first crusade in the UK had happened in 1954; Surprised by Joy was published in 1955. It is possible that Lewis writes this way in part to counter the criticisms made of Graham’s evangelism that it provoked emotional, flash-in-the-pan conversions.

[29] Lewis’ poem, “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” with its moving conclusion, “Quick, quick, quick, quick, the gates are drawn apart” is now engraved on a stone at the entrance to Addison’s Walk.

[30] An attempt to revive this argument has been made by Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ (2005).

[31] The Letters of C.S.Lewis to Arthur Greaves, October 18th, 1931. Cf. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” C.S.Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock, 166.

[32] Surprised by Joy, 189

[33] Letters to Children, May 29, 1954. The Pilgrim’s Progress is by John Bunyan (1628-1688). Certainly there are parallels. But also significant differences. For instance, Aslan dies for one person only, Edmund, whereas Christians believe Jesus died for the whole world. Or, again, Aslan takes different physical forms in different stories (a cat in The Horse and his Boy, an albatross and a lamb in The Magician’s Nephew), which Jesus never did.

[34] Ibid., June 8, 1960. A parallel kind of “supposal” happens in Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus, two parts of The Cosmic Trilogy (London: The Bodley Head, 1938; Pan Books 1990), where he applies Christian belief to the possibility of life on other planets.

[35] “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”, in Of This and Other Worlds, 72.

[36] Sayer, George, Jack: A Life of C.S.Lewis (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 318, 419-420.

[37] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 45

[38] Ibid. 39

[39] Ibid. 82

[40] Ibid. 65

[41] Mere Christianity, 87

[42] The Great Divorce, 75.

[43] In The Problem of Pain, Lewis calls this “Adam’s dance backward” (100).

[44] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 126

[45] Ibid., 128.

[46] Ibid., 164.

[47] The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 209

[48] Ibid., 209.