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.
Complicating the story of this remarkable career is Lewis's highly unusual domestic life. As a 20-year-old demobilized war veteran, returned to Oxford's University College to finish his degree, Jack Lewis began living with a woman 25 years his senior, the mother--married but separated--of a deceased war chum, Paddy Moore. Starting at least partly as a sexual liaison, Lewis's 30-year menage with the witty, domineering, and thoroughly antireligious Janie King Moore (called "Minto") evolved into something more closely resembling a curious mother-son relationship. In this case, as Lewis's friends all saw, the striking oddity was Minto's manner of treating Jack like a slightly addled household servant, subjecting him to a barrage of menial tasks that made his prodigious achievements--from an Oxford triple first degree in philosophy, classics, and English to some 50 books of criticism, apologetics, and fiction to tireless lecturing and broadcasting--seem all the more remarkable.
Connections. Now, though, with the film version of his favorite work opening at the multiplexes, perhaps the most pertinent question about Lewis is why and how a man of such complex parts came to write one of the great classics of children's literature. That question has prompted a number of new book-length popular and scholarly treatments, including Colin Duriez's The C. S. Lewis Chronicles, David Downing's Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles , and Alan Jacobs's The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis . The best of these works go a long way toward explaining the improbable but compelling connections among his life, his literary and theological influences, and his art.
It wasn't just Lewis's self-acknowledged lack of rapport with children that made him an unlikely author of the Narnia tales. Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, points out that Lewis was "never an aficionado of children's books." He was, however, a strikingly independent judge of literature who, against the critical standards of his time, thought that the ethical shape of a work transcended its merely formal qualities in determining whether it was worthy or not. The few works of children's literature that Lewis read and cherished all conveyed a strong ethical vision.
That was why, for instance, he found nothing odd in talking about Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit in his magisterial study of John Milton, A Preface to "Paradise Lost. " In his view, Milton and Potter both offered serious treatments of the consequences of disobedience. As Jacobs observes, "Few writers other than Lewis could open to us that sphere of experience in which John Milton and Beatrix Potter can be seen as laborers in the same vineyard--that sphere in which a moral unity suddenly seems far more important than those otherwise dramatic differences in time, genre, and purpose." Lewis's own openness to that higher sphere of experience was what prompted him to give his friend and fellow Oxford don J. R. R. Tolkien such decisive words of encouragement to continue work on what became The Hobbit (encouragement Tolkien never reciprocated when he read early snippets of Narnia , which he judged an unruly literary grab bag). It also illuminates one of Lewis's motives for writing the Narnia stories, perhaps even the most crucial one: a deeply moral desire to steer children away from the same mistakes that the younger C. S. Lewis had made.
It would have been easy for Lewis to explain those mistakes in terms of his personal trials and setbacks. Lewis, though, would have had none of that. To be sure, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he talked about his Belfast childhood with an alert awareness of its potential as justification for his descent into atheism. The brilliant, doting mother who died when he was only 10 (and the child's unanswered prayers that she not be taken from him). An alternately affectionate, demanding, and aloof father, a Belfast solicitor, who sent Jack and his brother, Warren, to a series of English "public" (i.e., private) schools, where Jack learned to live under the tyranny of the "Bloods," as the athletic student oligarchs were called. Three and a half months as a green lieutenant in the trenches near Arras, France, at exactly the time the Germans launched their five great 1918 offensives, an experience that robbed him of close friends and left him with shrapnel in his lung from a round of artillery fire. It was all enough to make an atheist of anyone.
But not Lewis. Even if he tacitly acknowledged that such factors might have confirmed his disbelief, he insisted that the real cause was something far more subtle and insidious, something as alluring as the famous apple in the garden. It came upon him in public school, when Lewis, always a precocious reader, discovered that he was one of the rare students possessed of real aesthetic sense--"good taste," as he more simply put it. Arrival at that knowledge, he wrote, "involves a kind of Fall. The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the 'philistines,' who do not share it. Unfortunately I took it." To separate oneself from run-of-the-mill humanity was, for Lewis, the beginning of self-idolatry, the real sin of pride. And such self-worship, he believed, was also the prevailing vice of the modern world.
Against relativism. What drove Lewis from such complacent selfishness is hard to say. He would later trouble his American evangelical admirers when he told them that he'd had no sudden road-to-Damascus or born-again experience. In fact, between 1919 and 1929, first as an Oxford undergraduate and then as a fellow of the university's Magdalen College teaching literature and philosophy, Lewis, by his own account, did everything in his power to resist belief in divine providence. From the literary and anthropological study of myths, for example, he fortified his conviction that Christianity was only one of the more compelling sacrificial hero myths.
But it was out of supreme freedom from faith that Lewis felt himself being drawn toward it. Give some credit to the arguments of his devoutly Roman Catholic friend Tolkien as well as to the writings of G. K. Chesterton. But there was also his own intensive reading of medieval literature, which immersed him in a worldview in which the foundation of knowledge and truth is faith in a transcendent spiritual reality. Add to this his attraction to the Platonic idea that all true knowledge is remembering and that the object of this remembering is the realm of the ideal forms behind the world of appearances. Even after he became a Christian, Lewis would insist that all religions share with Platonism an appreciation of higher, absolute truth--the Tao, he called it, using the Chinese word for the "way" --and that all equally reject the relativism embedded in so much modern ethical thought.
Above all, though, it was probably Lewis's commitment to finding "joy" --a state he had fleetingly experienced at various times in his life, sometimes when coming upon powerful lines of poetry--that brought him the final distance to faith. To Lewis, joy was different from pleasure or happiness, being, in his words, "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." Pursuit of joy was the deep constant of his life up until 1929, when he realized that all his strivings were vain efforts to find its real source, which he had until then resisted with all of his intellectual and emotional resources. But then the man who wanted "to call my soul my own" could no longer: "You must picture me alone in that room in 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." And the night he finally submitted, Lewis felt himself to be "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
Full conversion to orthodox Christianity came two years later, in 1931, when Lewis formally re-entered the Anglican Communion. This act of self-submission would, perhaps paradoxically, free Lewis to become more fully himself, unleashing an even more prolific author than he had been to date. It was as though everything he did now came together, his works of literary history and criticism informing his Christian apologetics (and vice versa), and his faith and scholarship informing his ventures into fiction.
Edification. Seeing his mission as bringing the Christian message to the post-Christian world, he worked hard to popularize that teaching in accessible literary forms, including a space fantasy trilogy and the enormously influential Screwtape Letters , a work purporting to be the correspondence between the head devil, Uncle Screwtape, and his nephew, Wormwood, about the latter's progress with his human "patient." Subtlety had its perils, Lewis learned, as when an irate cleric canceled his subscription to the religious periodical in which the Screwtape Letters was first serialized. But for the most part, those imaginative forays--like the later Narnia books--were hugely successful as works of popular edification.
And renown led to greater demands for his popularizing skills. During World War II, for instance, the BBC invited Lewis to deliver a series of broadcasts that, in later book form, became one of his most popular works of apologetics, Mere Christianity. In it, he made the case for a set of orthodox beliefs that he argued transcended the different doctrinal emphases of the various Christian sects. This Christianity was intended to be anything but easy. It required full acceptance of the most scandalous claim of the Gospels: "You must make your choice," Lewis wrote. "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman. . . . But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher." Lewis was uncompromising in rejecting what he called "Christianity-and-water."
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.
Uneasy faith. But if anyone thinks Lewis's own faith never faced great challenges, the last chapter of his life offers a powerful counterargument. Around the time of the death of Minto in 1951, he met and then later married a Jewish divorcee, Joy Davidman, who had converted to Christianity partly in response to Lewis's writing. Bringing her two children into the Kilns household--the elder brother, David Gresham (who eventually became an orthodox Jew), never warmed to Lewis, but Douglas, who later became executor of his estate (and one of the film's producers), adored him--Joy also brought Lewis the happiest years of his life. And, finally, the hardest. Stricken by a virulent form of cancer, Joy miraculously seemed to make a full recovery. Then, after a period of robust health, she fell back into the grip of the disease, dying an excruciatingly painful death in 1960. In A Grief Observed, Lewis gave vent to his darkest suspicions of a supreme being who "when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture." If Lewis ultimately retained his faith in that God--and held to it until his death on Nov. 22, 1963 (the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated)--he arrived at a more complicated view of religion. He continued to believe that the doctrines of faith were important signposts, but he now insisted, Jacobs writes, that they not be mistaken for "the goal of the Christian life," which was "Something, or rather Someone, that religion can never capture."
Faith was not easy, Lewis taught his fellow Christians. That was why he differed somewhat with the evangelicals' emphasis on justification by faith and the born-again experience. As Jacobs says, Lewis kept asking and answering the same question: "What have you been saved for? For service, ministry, and your own transformation. You have to become something other and greater." That challenge to become something other and greater is the one faced by the four Pevensie children who wander into the wardrobe. And as Lewis knew, it is a challenge faced by children of all faiths, not just by mere Christians.
This story appears in the December 12, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.