The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: H~C~ (2005)
The White Witch, Aslan, fauns and talking beasts, centaurs and epic battles between good and evil—all these have become a part of our collective imagination through the classic volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. Over the past half century, children everywhere have escaped into this world and delighted in its wonders and enchantments. Yet what we do know of the man who created Narnia? This biography sheds new light on the making of the original Narnian, C. S. Lewis himself.
Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably the most influential religious writer of his day. An Oxford don and scholar of medieval literature, he loved to debate philosophy at his local pub, and his wartime broadcasts on the basics of Christian belief made him a celebrity in his native Britain. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of Clive Staples Lewis remains a mystery. How did this middle-aged Irish bachelor turn to the writing of stories for children—stories that would become among the most popular and beloved ever written?
Alan Jacobs masterfully tells the story of the original Narnian. From Lewis’s childhood days in Ireland playing with his brother, Warnie, to his horrific experiences in the trenches during World War I, to his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien (and other members of the “Inklings”), and his remarkable late-life marriage to Joy Davidman, Jacobs traces the events and people that shaped Lewis’s philosophy, theology, and fiction. The result is much more than a conventional biography of Lewis: Jacobs tells the story of a profound and extraordinary imagination. For those who grew up with Narnia, or for those just discovering it, The Narnian tells a remarkable tale of a man who knew great loss and great delight, but who knew above all that the world holds far more richness and meaning than the average eye can see.
The story that follows is almost a biography in the usual sense of the word. It is not quite so strictly chronological as biographies usually are, and it omits certain details that a responsible biographer would be obliged to include. For instance, C. S. Lewis spent many summers earning extra money by serving as an “outside examiner” for British schools and universities. Though this activity took up many months of his life, it is mentioned only once, briefly, in these pages. Likewise, though Lewis took many driving or walking tours in England, Wales, and Ireland during his vacations, these too I leave unchronicled. From other biographers one can learn when he visited Cambridge to meet with other examiners and discover what sites he and his brother visited when they took a holiday in Wales.
I have neglected these matters because my chief task here is to write the life of a mind, the story of an imagination. The seed of this book is a question: what sort of person wrote the Chronicles of Narnia? Who was this man who made—and, in a sense, himself dwelled in—Narnia? What knowledge, what experience, what history made a boy from Ulster who grew up to profess English literature at Oxford turn, when he was nearly fifty, to the writing of stories for children—and stories for children that would become among the most popular and beloved ever written? The tale turns out to be a curious and (I think) fascinating one: in some ways revelatory of the main currents of intellectual life in twentieth century Europe, in other ways unique to one man’s strange experience. But in any case this story traces the routes of Lewis’s imagination far more closely than it traces the routes of his holiday itineraries.
Those byways of imagination are worth tracing because in his lifetime Lewis was a famous and influential man, as a scholar, as a writer of fiction, and above all as a controversialist on behalf of the Christian faith. Since his death his fame as a writer of children’s books has probably put his other achievements in the shade—at least if one goes by sales figures—but he remains for many Christians a figure of unique authority.
Long ago the writers of books and articles concerning “What C. S. Lewis Thought About X” ran out of subjects and began to write books and articles concerning “What C. S. Lewis Would Have Thought About X if He Had Lived Long Enough to See It.” For someone who cares about the quality of Christian reflection on contemporary culture, this tendency is rather discouraging, but it indicates that Lewis has— because (as we shall see) he earned—a reputation for thinking clearly and writing forcefully about a wide range of subjects of concern to Christians, and indeed to many other people as well. And as discouraged as I can become by overreliance on Lewis, that doesn’t prevent me from returning to his books again and again for pleasure and instruction alike; I rarely come away from such a reencounter disappointed.
Of course, many people despise Lewis, a fact not unrelated to his great stature among Christians. I even know a man who says that he lost his faith largely because of Lewis’s Mere Christianity: he figured that, since all his devout friends told him that it was the last word on what Christian belief is all about, then if he loathed the book he was honor-bound to loathe Christianity as well. And public attacks on Lewis continue to this day; indeed, they have intensified in recent years, as first a play and now a film based on the first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, have appeared, thus bringing Lewis back to the attention of anyone who might happen to have forgotten him. But of course no one bothers to attack a trivial figure; the violence of the protests (some of which we consider later in this book) testifies to the power—and therefore, from a certain perspective, the danger—of Lewis’s writings. The English satirical novelist Kingsley Amis had something like this in mind when he said that Lewis was “big enough to be worth laughing at.” That phrase is often quoted, but rarely does one hear that Amis also said that Lewis was someone “whom I respect highly”—indeed, when Amis began his career as a teacher at University College of Swansea in Wales, his lectures on Renaissance literature were given straight from the notes he had taken while listening to Lewis’s Oxford lectures.
But if Christians, and some opponents of Christianity, think first of Lewis’s religious writings, millions of readers know him only as the maker of Narnia and many of those have no idea that he was a Christian or that the stories enact Christian themes. One such reader is J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, who once said in an interview, “I adored [the Narnia books] when I was a child. I got so caught up I didn’t think C. S. Lewis was especially preachy.” She then added, “Reading them now I find that his subliminal message isn’t very subliminal at all”—but nevertheless many people, children and adults, don’t get that message, or don’t even imagine that the books have a message: they are simply, as the young Joanne Rowling was, “caught up” in the narratives. Likewise, Neil Gaiman, a gifted writer of highly acclaimed (but also rather disturbing) fantasies for adolescents and young adults, remembers reading the Narnia books as a child and feeling “personally offended” when he discovered, while in the middle of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” that its author had a “hidden agenda.” Yet, he added, “I would read other books, of course, but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books to read.” Moreover, “C. S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. . . . I think, perhaps, the genius of Lewis was that he made a world that was more real to me than the one I lived in; and if authors got to write the tales of Narnia, then I wanted to be an author.”
By contrast, for many Christians the books are almost manuals of faithful religious practice: I once told a Christian friend that I thought the Harry Potter books better than the Narnia books, only to have him reply, “Maybe—but does Harry Potter form children in the character of Christ?” Books that can appeal so strongly to such different kinds of readers are extraordinary books indeed, and fascination with them shows no signs of slowing. Anyone who can write books like that is a person whose life is worth knowing about.