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C.S. Lewis: The Man behind the Magic of Narnia

Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life
David N. Elkins, PhD

“It is never safe to attribute a man’s imaginations too directly to his experience.” -C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

The Antique Wardrobe at the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, stands seven feet high and four feet wide. A nearby plaque reads: “Enter at your own risk. The Wade Center assumes no responsibility for persons who disappear or who are lost in this wardrobe.”

It is arguably the most famous wardrobe in literary history, for it belonged to the grandfather of Lewis; and when Lewis was a small boy, living at Little Lea near Belfast, Ireland, his brother and one of his cousins would sit in this very wardrobe as he held their rapt attention by spinning tales.

Was there some magic in that wardrobe after all? Or perhaps the magic was mostly in the storyteller--but the storyteller is gone. What’s left are the stories and the wardrobe that, along with other Lewis holdings, is part of the permanent collection at the Wade Center, which is the repository for a treasure trove of Lewis material. In any case, the visitors to the Wade Center are amazed to see the wealth of material on hand, ranging from personal letters, manuscripts, books from his library, books about him, photos, and memorabilia, including a writing desk and a fountain pen.

The magic began on November 29, 1898, when Albert J. Lewis and his wife, Flora, added a second son, Clive Staples Lewis, to the family (their first son, Warren Hamilton Lewis, had been born three years earlier).

But, at an early age, Clive Staples Lewis decided he wanted to be called “Jacksie” and told his mother so. Not surprisingly, she humored him, thinking it was a child at play, a mere fancy, but she was surprised when he would later only answer to “Jack.”

From that time on, he was known to family and friends as Jack Lewis, the name he preferred over his given name.

Growing up in Strandtown near Belfast, Ireland, at the Leeborough House, which the family called Little Lea, the Lewis brothers frequently found themselves indoors during inclement weather. The conventional wisdom back then was that children could catch tuberculosis during periods of heavy rain. And since Ireland is famous for its rain, especially in the winter, confinement indoors was a way of life.

Back then, there were no televisions, no computers, no cellular phones, no electronic games, and no DVDs. In other words, no passive forms of entertainment. Actively engaging his imagination, Lewis showed a dual talent not only for drawing--a discipline he never pursued--but also for writing, which early on he pursued with zeal. With his brother, C. S. Lewis invented Boxen, a land of talking animals.

This was a happy time for the boys, a time of innocence. But in 1908, innocence turned into experience: their idyllic world turned bleak when their mother died in her mid-forties.

The boys’ lives were understandably shattered and, increasingly, each boy put his faith in the other. As C. S. Lewis would later write in Surprised by Joy, they were “two frightened urchins huddled for warmth in a bleak world.?

The experience of watching his mother’s slow decline from health to sickness would later find expression in The Magician's Nephew, in which Digory Kirke would appeal to Aslan to help save his dying mother. With Aslan’s permission, Digory plucks an apple from the Tree in Narnia and brings it back to his world, where he cuts it up in pieces and feeds it to his dying mother, who undergoes a miraculous transformation from sickness to health.

Soon after their mother’s death, the Lewis boys left Little Lea behind and entered the public school system. Going from school to school, C. S. Lewis was never happy until, at fourteen, he was placed under the tutelage of William T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis studied under Kirkpatrick for three blissful years. Years later, Kirkpatrick would appear as Professor Digory Kirke in the first published Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Intellectually rigorous, Kirkpatrick found an eager and willing student in Lewis, who affectionately termed him “The Great Knock” because of the impact of his logical thinking. 

In 1916, Lewis studied at University College, but his studies were interrupted--as was the case for so many others, including J. R. R. Tolkien--by World War I, known as the Great War, and also the War to End All Wars.

Lewis went to the front lines in 1917, where he was wounded in battle the following year; he was sent to recuperate in a hospital. The Great War ended on November 11, 1918, and Lewis resumed his studies. He excelled in Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, ancient history, and English.

After teaching philosophy for one year at University College, Lewis began teaching in 1925 at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he would remain for nearly three decades.

The following year, he met J. R. R. Tolkien, who had come from Leeds University. For nearly four decades, they shared a symbiotic relationship, both personal and professional: Tolkien, a philologist, was a worldbuilder whose stories of Middle-earth found a ready audience in Lewis, who recognized their literary merits. Of Lewis, Tolkien observed that without his encouragement, The Lord of the Rings might never have been written.

Tolkien influenced Lewis as well. Having abandoned Christianity as a young teenager, Lewis, an atheist, embraced it once more after a long discussion with Tolkien and H. V. D. Dyson about the storytelling and mythmaking in the Bible. 

Lewis would go on to become one of the world’s most popular Christian writers, publishing major works of nonfiction empowered by his renewed faith. Similarly, the power found in his most popular fiction, the Chronicles of Narnia, is inextricably linked to elements of religious symbolism that would likely be absent if Lewis had not met Tolkien.

On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, both the British and the French declared war on Germany, marking the start of World War II. In the next week, not only would C. S. Lewis’s brother Warren be recalled to active duty, but their home, The Kilns (named after its brick kilns) would serve as a rural refuge for children from London--an estimated 1.5 million dispersed in just a few days.

It was from one of these evacuees, a young girl who wondered what was behind the wardrobe in his house, that Lewis got the idea of writing a novel centered on four children whose circumstances were similar: forced to leave London for the countryside to live with an older man.

That eventually became the basic storyline for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the enchanted wardrobe would remain closed for another decade: Narnia had not yet fully formed in Lewis’s mind.

Just as Tolkien had read his fiction to Lewis, who saw in it the work of genius, Lewis had hoped for a similar sympathy from Tolkien for his own fiction about Narnia. Unfortunately, Tolkien, who had an active distaste for allegory in fiction, felt the religious aspects were too obvious and famously remarked, “It is sad that “Narnia” and all that part of C. S. L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy.”

In a foreword to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made his opinion clear: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”

Fortunately, a mutual friend Roger Lancelyn Green, who was also a member of the informal literary group that included both writers (and others), felt just as strongly that Lewis had written a wonderful book--a classic, in fact.

In this instance, Tolkien’s assessment missed the mark, but Green’s hit it dead-on. The Narnian Chronicles would prove to be Lewis’s most popular work.

As it sometimes happens, the story itself imposed its own will on the storyteller. In Lewis’s case, the pivotal element was the unexpected arrival of Aslan bounding in, making a dramatic appearance that fundamentally changed the tone of the first book and the remaining six as well. Indeed, Aslan is the only major figure that appears in all seven of the books that comprise the Chronicles of Narnia.

A lifelong bachelor, C. S. Lewis, at age fifty-one, found his world forever changed when Helen Joy Davidman entered his life. In January 1950, she had written a letter to him. She subsequently came to Oxford to meet Lewis, bringing along her two sons, Douglas and David. Her first marriage was over, and the divorce was only a matter of time.

Unbidden and unforeseen, the friendship blossomed into love, and six years after that initial letter, the two were married on April 1956.

Lewis and Davidman both found late in life a joy in each other that had long eluded both of them--a marriage of minds. The marriage, however, was not destined to last: Davidman was diagnosed with terminal cancer--an echo of what Lewis went through with his mother.

Helen, who had finally met and married her soul mate, had scant time to come home to The Kilns and enjoy their remaining time together.

In 1960, Helen finally succumbed, leaving behind her two sons and a grieving husband who, for a few brief years, had known a kind of transcendent happiness that had previously eluded him in life. Lewis never came to terms with the loss.

Three years later, on November 22, Lewis himself died; the day was also marked by the passing of Aldous Huxley and the death of President John F. Kennedy. On that day, Camelot--fictionalized in Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles and idealized in Kennedy’s administration--became history.

Warren Lewis survived his brother by another decade, but he finally passed on in 1973. 

The two brothers were buried at a grave site in Headington Quarry, Oxford, on the grounds of Holy Trinity Church.

Under the terms of Lewis’s will, he fulfilled a promise to his wife: her sons would inherit the literary estate; they would jointly own the keys to Narnia and all that it contained.

In July 1998, the Mythopoeic Society celebrated at Wheaton College the centenary of Lewis’s birth. Honoring his considerable literary achievements--from the Christian writings for lay readers to the novels, including the Chronicles of Narnia and his other imaginative fiction--the members of the international group raised their glasses in a heartfelt salute to Clive Staples Lewis, who opened the way to Narnia so that the rest of us could eagerly follow. …

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