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: when he fought in France during the First World War and when he 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” and a shapeless hat.
This is how he described himself:
I am tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.
He was born in 1898, and died on November 22, 1963 (the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated).
So how come he became so famous, and especially how come he could write children’s stories like The Chronicles of Narnia?
There are three strands to understanding Lewis: the religious, the spiritual and the intellectual.
Lewis grew up as an Anglican in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. He said this about his childhood religion:
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.
There were two particular experiences of religion in his childhood that he recalled as an adult, and neither of them was good.
a) Problems with the church
The Lewis family went to the church where his grandfather was preacher. Lewis as a child hated his grandfather’s preaching, because it was frequently highly emotional and embarrassing. In terms of the content, it consisted mainly of denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church. He also observed that people seemed to go for political reasons, if only because, by attending the Anglican church, it showed they were not Roman Catholic!
b) Boarding schools
Lewis attended several boarding schools. At one, he found that the religious instruction emphasized the reality of hell (he says “I feared for my soul” ) but it obviously didn’t tell him much of how to avoid it. At another he tried to learn to pray but found he became obsessively introspective about whether he was doing it “right.” He comments later, “Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.” He was eleven years old.
Looking back, he said what he was experiencing was “the dry husks of Christianity,” and not the real thing. Not surprisingly, around the age of thirteen, Lewis “was desperately anxious to get rid of my religion” and was relieved to find he could escape. Thus in his mid-teens, he became an atheist. He remained so until he was around thirty.
By the time he got to his last boarding school, where chapel attendance was mandatory, he was no longer worried about either hell or prayer, and chapel meant “no more than two hours of blessed inactivity in which to dream his dreams secure from interruption.”
At the same time as he was disillusioned with church, Lewis was having experiences he called “joy.” “Joy” is crucial for understanding Lewis: he comments, “the central story of my life is about nothing else”–except this joy.
What does he mean by it? He defines it many ways in different books:
“an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”,
“the inconsolable secret,”
“an unattainable ecstasy [which] has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness,”
an “incommunicable and unappeasable want,”
“a desire no natural happiness will satisfy,” and
“[t]he experience . . . of intense longing.”
He realised later that these were actually the work of Holy Spirit, nudging him, trying to get his attention, making him unsatisfied, pointing him to something beyond this world where satisfaction would be found. They were, he decided later, “patches of Godlight in the dark wood of our life.”
He began to experience joy early in life. The first came when his brother Warnie created a miniature garden in the lid of a cookie tin. Reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin brought a fresh experience of joy. Later, the feeling returned as he discovered Scandinavian myth. Then, as a teenager, discovering Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Wagner’s Siegfried brought a new experience of joy. As a result, mythology became almost a substitute religion for him. He came to feel the kind of reverence towards the gods of Norse mythology that he later realised should be given only to God—but he had never felt that in church.
It seems sad that he saw no connection between his experience of church and his deepest spiritual experiences, but others would say the same. He himself comments that this disconnect does not reflect well on his childhood religion:
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.
Lewis hated boarding school so much that in the end his father sent him to study with a private tutor. 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, and whether it was a thing a rational person should say ) and a strong atheist. In two and a half years, he taught Lewis to think. Lewis loved it, describing it as being like “red beef and strong beer.” Kirkpatrick commented to Lewis’ father, “His reasoning capacity is beyond his years.” Lewis had no problem getting into Oxford, except for the math exam, which he failed!
When he went to Oxford, it was with a brilliant mind but much confusion, both spiritually and imaginatively. This is how he described this time:
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.
What could bring these two halves of his personality together, and how does this relate to faith?
Firstly, he read the novels of George MacDonald, and sensed “the spirit of Christ.” He also enjoyed G.K. Chesterton, whom he described as “the most sensible man alive apart from his Christianity.” As these books began to work on him, he commented, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.”
Then he began to meet Christians he respected and liked, such as Neville Coghill and Hugo Dyson. The most influential of these, however, was J.R.R.Tolkien, later to become famous as the author of The Lord of the Rings. As these influences on Lewis increased, he said later, “The great Angler played his fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.”
The word conversion simply means turning. For some it is a quick thing, for others it is slow. For Lewis, it was slow, with three or four clear stages.
First of all, there was an experience on top of a bus going up Headington Hill in Oxford. He became aware of a growing spiritual pressure on him and realised that he was “shutting something out.” In a sense he didn’t do anything, but he did choose to stop resisting, and felt like “a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.” It was as though he was acknowledging that there was a spiritual reality beyond himself, whatever it might be, and with which he had to come to terms.
Then, in the spring of 1929, he found himself overwhelmed with the reality of God, and finally “admitted that God was God” and became “the most reluctant and dejected convert in all England.” On one level, he did not want to believe. There was no excitement, no ecstasy, no vision. It was more on the level of saying with a sigh, 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.
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 the talk centred around the subject of myth. Up to this point, Lewis felt that 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. Tolkien argued that in Jesus myth actually breaks into history. The mythologies of the world are simply preparing the way for the reality, which is Jesus.
Now finally, the two halves of his 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. As he wrote shortly afterwards to his friend Arthur:
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.
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.” It was not dramatic, but then it did not have to be. The whole process took two years.
Imagination, reason and faith
From this point on, Lewis’ writing began to express his new faith. After this, he wrote at least one book per year till his death in 1963. The Narnia books began in 1950, and he published one each year till 1956.
Some talk about the Chronicles as if they are an allegory, because there are obvious similarities with stories of Jesus —particularly in the account of Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis was very clear, however, that the books should not be regarded as allegory. He wrote to a correspondent:
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.
Certainly there are parallels between Jesus and Aslan. But there are 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.
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?”
So what is he doing? In his own early life, 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 discovered was merely a signpost pointing him back to Christianity. What he discovered when he came back was the same and yet at the same time different. This newly discovered Christianity 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. How then to tell those old stories so that they would strike the reader with that same freshness that Lewis experienced? What he is doing in Narnia is trying to create a similar kind of experience for us: to send us on a journey 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.
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 odour but convey the “real potency” he had found. And hence Narnia.
Getting round the watchful dragons
Let me give you just one example. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund is a quite nasty character. It is not just that he has an uncontrollable greed for Turkish Delight. He is also nasty to Lucy. At first, he does not believe she has really been to Narnia. Then, when he goes himself and returns, he pretends he has not—to Lucy’s absolute dismay.
But this is not the beginning. Edmund’s nastiness goes back some years. Peter points out to him:
“You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.”
So Edmund is greedy and he is a bully. But that’s still not at the heart of what is wrong with Edmund. These are only the symptoms of a disease. Something is going on in Edmund which makes him a bully. What is it? There is one incident in his conversation with the White Witch which is very revealing. She says:
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.
What is going on with Edmund? At the heart of it is pride, and the Witch is shrewd enough to appeal to it. Not the innocent pride that takes pleasure in being who you are meant to be, but the pride that wants to be more important than anyone else, and tries to put everyone else down.
From this flows his desire to be more powerful than smaller kids and his desire to be more important than his siblings. And the result of his pride is that he constantly messes up his relationships with others. For example:
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.
If you think you’re the most important person, and people for some reason do not treat you that way, of course you are going to be upset.
But it gets worse: he is also out of step with Aslan. You may remember that although they have never heard of Aslan, when the Beaver tells them Aslan is coming:
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.
Why do they react these different ways? Lewis would say all people are either moving towards Aslan or they are moving away from Aslan, whether or not we know about Aslan. Every choice we make brings us closer or takes us further away.
Everything in Lewis’ fiction appears in a different form in his non-fiction. He comments on this idea of choice in Mere Christianity:
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.
And in The Great Divorce:
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.”
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, his choices have 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.
There is an old-fashioned word in Christian spirituality for what we are talking about: sin.
Sin is not eating too much Turkish Delight (whatever form that may take for you). 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 choosing to be less than God designed you to be.
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 mysterious and wonderful happens:
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. Now he turns, and what he didn’t know of course was what that Aslan was following him, so that, as soon as he turns round, Aslan is there.
But there is more: if a wrong relationship with Aslan leads to strained relationships with others, once things are straightened out with Aslan, the reverse happens:
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.”
Still there is 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.
The final piece in Edmund’s transformation comes after the battle:
[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.
The change Aslan makes does not make you weird or holier-than-thou and certainly not “religious”: 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.”
But how do you get back from Narnia to our world?
If the Narnia stories succeed in getting round the watchful dragons, and touching us with Lewis’ vision of Christians spirituality, what happens next? He does not leave us without clues.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, Lucy visits house of the magician Koriakin, reads through the book of spells, and comes across a story 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.”
I think Lewis intends us to imagine Lucy back in our world, knowing only that she had once read the most wonderful story, wondering how Aslan will keep his promise, and then discovering in the most unlikely place in our world people who treasure a story about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill. And as she learns more about the story, she realises that Aslan is keeping his promise.
And maybe she remembers too what Aslan once told her at the end of that same book: that he exists in our world too, but by another name, and we have to learn to get to know him by that name.
What Lewis hopes for is that our encounter with Aslan will drive us back to Christian spirituality, and specially to the biographies of Jesus with fresh eyes. I suspect Lewis would be glad if we found ourselves saying by the end of the Chronicles, “But I never knew Jesus was like that.” To which he might reply, “Exactly!”
- Humphrey Carpenter The Inklings (London: Allen and Unwin 1978), 38.
- 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.
- Surprised by Joy 12
- Warren Hamilton Lewis, C.S.Lewis: A Biography (unpublished typescript in the Wade Collection, Wheaton), 232, in Jack, 217-218
- Surprised by Joy, 33.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 53
- Warren Hamilton Lewis, 232.
- Ibid., 20
- Surprised by Joy, 20
- “The Weight of Glory”, in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 96
- The Problem of Pain, 134
- “The Weight of Glory,” in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 99
- The Pilgrim’s Regress, Preface to the Third Edition, 12-13
- Letters to Malcolm, 93
- Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S.Lewis: a Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace 1974), 33
- Surprised by Joy, 111
- Spirits in Bondage xxiii
- Surprised by Joy, 138
- Ibid., 222.
- Ibid., 153-154
- Ibid., 169
- Ibid., 179. The same image of snow melting is of course the sign that Aslan has returned to Narnia.
- Ibid., 182
- 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.
- An attempt to revive this argument has recently been made by Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ (2005).
- 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.
- Surprised by Joy, 189
- Letters to Children, May 29, 1954. The Pilgrim’s Progress is by John Bunyan (1628-1688). He might also have used his own book The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) as an example.
- 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.
- “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”, in Of This and Other Worlds, 72.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 45
- Ibid. 39
- Ibid. 82
- Ibid. 65
- Mere Christianity, 87
- The Great Divorce, 66-67
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 126
- Ibid., 128
- Ibid., 163
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 135, 138.