The curious life and prodigious influence of C. S. Lewis, the man behind The Chronicles of Narnia
OXFORD, ENGLAND--What happens when four children relocated from blitz-besieged London to the English countryside discover a mysteriously inviting wardrobe in the house where they are staying? The tens of millions of readers who have wandered into C. S. Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia already know the answer. And now that the best-known book of that saga, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , has been brought to the screen, so, too, in coming weeks, will millions of moviegoers.
Stepping through the wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie--and, soon afterward, her sister and two brothers--discover an enchanted world locked in an epic struggle between good and evil. It is a world populated by every manner of fantastic creature, from fauns, centaurs, hags, and witches to a host of talking animals, none more literally awe inspiring than a lion called Aslan, Lord King of Narnia. Viewers of the film, like readers of the books, will variously find what happens to the Pevensie children a whopping good adventure story, a beguiling religious allegory, or a seamless blend of both. And that variety of response, it seems fair to say, is just what C. S. Lewis would have hoped for.
But who was the man behind Narnia (apart from being one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century)? Well, to begin with what might seem the most improbable of details, he was a man who admitted that he didn't much care for the company of children. No misanthrope, Lewis loved the fellowship of other men, particularly around lively conversation, a few pints of ale, and a good pipe. But children--and, to some degree, women--were a bit of a mystery to the Oxford don, whose specialty was medieval and early modern literature. Says Walter Hooper, an American friend who subsequently became a leading expert on Lewis: "It's not that he understood children very well; it's that he shared certain things with children." Moreover, Hooper adds, recalling a point that Lewis made about friendship in his book The Four Loves , "what draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it."
The nature of that truth can be found, at least in part, in other seemingly incongruous details about the man whom friends and intimates called Jack. After a tepid Christian upbringing in the Protestant Church of Ireland, Lewis became, in his own words, "a blaspheming atheist," confirmed in his faithlessness as much by the frontline horrors of World War I as by the memory of the loss of his mother early in his life. Later, largely through conversation, soul-searching, and intensive philosophical reading, this same man found his way to belief in a benevolent God before ultimately embracing orthodox--or what he would come to call "mere" --Christianity. But no mere mere Christian, he became arguably the leading popular Christian apologist of the 20th century, a defender and explainer of the faith who was hailed by popes, Protestant evangelists, politicians, and other world leaders for his brilliant yet accessible campaign against the rising tide of unbelief in the modern world.