The curious life and prodigious influence of C. S. Lewis, the man behind The Chronicles of Narnia
Always a convivial man, Lewis became, if anything, even more gregarious after his conversion, gathering with a group of friends dubbed the "Inklings" on a biweekly basis--both in his college rooms and in a pub called the Eagle and Child--to drink, smoke, chat, and read from works in progress. "There's no sound I like better than adult male laughter," Lewis freely admitted. But the religious word sodality may best describe the sense of purposeful fraternity that he valued in gatherings with men like Tolkien, the literary scholar Owen Barfield (to whose daughter, Lucy, Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ), and the editor and novelist Charles Williams. Cross-fertilization was rampant among the Inklings. As Williams edited Lewis's great study of medieval literature, The Allegory of Love, for Oxford University Press, Lewis read and was bowled over by Williams's novel The Place of the Lion, featuring a mythical beast that would eventually at least partly inspire Lewis's own Aslan.
Lewis's critics and detractors--and he would acquire many of both--found his faith all too insular, secure, and smug. His abhorrence of most modern literature, which he sweepingly dismissed as containing little more than what we already know about the dreary, depressing aspects of life, some took as a refusal to face life squarely. "He couldn't understand why people would read about other people's problems," says Lewis's friend Hooper. So though he came to like the Christian poet T. S. Eliot personally, Lewis could never bring himself to abide Eliot's works. Lewis's deep preference for an older literature of heroic epic or chivalric romance came from his view that art should challenge readers not only to see through the veil of appearances but also to strive for high and ennobling ideals.
And that was why, according to biographer A. N. Wilson, Lewis told Tolkien around 1937, "Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves." Wilson surmises that Lewis's desire to write such stories grew even stronger in the late 1940s, when domestic demands imposed by an aging Minto and by Lewis's alcoholic brother became onerous and dispiriting. Inspired in part by children who had stayed in his house, the "Kilns," during the blitz, Lewis began to imagine a children's romance in which the young heroes face crucial choices that shape not just their characters but their souls. Lucy, for instance, is tempted to abandon her belief in the reality of the land through the wardrobe when her siblings don't believe the story about her first visit there. "She could have made it up with the others quite easily at any moment if she could have brought herself to say that the whole thing was only a story made up for fun," Lewis writes. "But Lucy was a very truthful girl, and she knew that she was really in the right; and she could not bring herself to say this." There is a whole theology lesson in that struggle.