When C S Lewis died, in November 1963 at the age of 64, the literary world lost a man of many parts. He was mourned by a wide circle of friends, and by thousands more who knew him only through his books. Some remembered him as a popular religious writer, author of The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Others had enjoyed his fiction, space novels, allegorical ‘romances’ and seven children’s fairy tales. He was also a critic, specialising in mediaeval literature, and The Allegory of Love is a rare phenomenon, a work of great scholarship that scored a popular success. Like everything he wrote it is pungent, persuasive, and highly readable. ‘His essay on “Troilus and Cryseide” is so dazzling’ another critic remarked, ‘do not forget to read the original.’
In the last twenty years Lewis has become a cult figure. There are ‘C S Lewis societies’ on both sides of the Atlantic, and learned theses are being written about his work in ever-increasing numbers. Quite recently, an Oxford book shop did a ‘Lewis window’. There were his spectacles, his pipe, and his tobacco jar, reverently displayed for all the world to see. Lewis would have hated it, and he would have hated even more the American devotee who breathlessly approached a former pupil and said ‘So you were once in a room with C S Lewis? Let me touch you’
What was he like? The idea that ‘inside every fat man there’s a thin man struggling to get out’ sums him up very well. He was stocky and short, with a round red face and a great booming voice; people said he looked more like a butcher, or a farmer, than a university don. He enjoyed evenings of ‘beer and bawdy’ with his friends, and ‘The Inklings’, a group which met regularly in the 1940s, included Nevill Coghill, Tolkien, and Charles Williams, a writer of ‘spiritual shockers’. The Lord of the Rings was read and discussed at these gatherings, as was Lewis’ own Perelandra.
In argument he was a formidable opponent. He terrified some of his undergraduates, and often made mincemeat of his contemporaries. But his friends knew him as a shy, very private man, a kindly, courteous figure who was humble about his own gifts. He never wrote a ‘straight’ work of fiction, but always hid behind the vehicles of fantasy and fairy tale. Even Till We Have Faces, the novel in which he occasionally drops the barriers, and lets the reader come close to him as a man, is a Greek myth ‘retold’.
He was born in Ulster in 1898, the second son of a solicitor. His mother died of cancer when he was nine, and his father withdrew into brooding isolation, abandoning him to a rambling house full of books ‘where nothing was forbidden me’. This experience kindled his passion for literature of all kinds, and he writes about it at length in Surprised by Joy. He was sent to England, to a prep school he later labelled ‘Belsen’; soon after he left the headmaster was certified insane. Public school did not suit Lewis, and eventually his father withdrew him (from Malvern) and found him a private tutor. In 1917 he won an open scholarship to University College, Oxford where he took firsts both in Greats and English. He became a fellow of Magdalen in 1925 and remained there until 1954 when he took the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies at Cambridge.
It is interesting that such an honour did not come from his own university, but Lewis was a Christian, and not universally liked for his ‘hot-gospelling’; the fact that he was a best-selling popular author provoked envious ill-feeling. ‘Where’s Lewis?’ someone asked once. ‘Oh he’s in hospital having an operation,’ came the acid reply, ‘to see if he can solve The Problem of Pain.’
He was an unashamed crank, never reading newspapers because they were ‘all lies’, and readily agreeing to join a university ‘anti-progress society’. But the picture of him as a ‘man’s man’, who refused to admit females to his tutorials, is not true. When he was nearly sixty he married Joy Davidman, an American with whom he had corresponded for several years. She was dying of cancer, and the ceremony was performed at her hospital bedside. Miraculously, there was a sudden ‘remission’, and they enjoyed three years of intense happiness together. When she died, in July 1960, Lewis was devastated. He opened a notebook and, in the weeks that followed, poured out his anger, grief, and loss. The document was eventually published as A Grief Observed. It is a harrowing, totally honest book, and one of the finest he ever wrote.
Several of his books became bestsellers, but the works that have worn best are the stories he wrote for children. The seven Chronicles of Narnia appeared between 1950 and 1956, and The Last Battle won him The Carnegie Medal. The books still sell, in their tens of thousands. Dated, ‘prepschooly’, undeniably ‘middle class’, they have achieved the status of classics.
At a time when fantasy is enjoying a new vogue, through D.I.Y. ‘fighting fantasies’, and computerised games, it seems appropriate to look at the books again – not because they are enjoying a revival (they have never died), but because they stand alone. In their colour and spaciousness, in the depth of their imaginative power, these seven stories are unique, and dwarf so much that is flat, and sloppily-written, and about as memorable as last week’s news.
‘A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad story,’ Lewis wrote. ‘The good ones last.’ Young readers return to the books they love more often than adults. So what is it, exactly, that lures a child back, time and again, to the fairy tales of this donnish, right-wing, unfashionably religious writer? Why do the good books ‘last’?
First, and above all, Lewis is a marvellous storyteller. He valued the fairy tale because (like Tolkien) he believed it often ‘says best what’s to be said’. When you write for children, he pointed out, you have certain limitations – shortish chapters, a reasonably simple vocabulary, and characters that are free from psychological complexity. The children he sends into Narnia are undeniably ordinary. There is nobody around with the panache of Richmal Crompton’s William, no Blyton character who ‘has a way with hedgehogs’. But this is quite deliberate, because ‘to show how odd things affected odd people is to have an oddity too much’. Lewis is not concerned with psychology, but with ‘high adventure’.
And what adventures they are! The children are got into Narnia as quickly as possible, by various time-honoured devices, magic rings that whisk the wearer away, wardrobes with no backs, and pictures you can walk through. Everything is described in that admirable, clear, ‘matter of fact’ way which takes the reader into the author’s confidence on the very first page and keeps him there.
Narnia is ‘Other World’, a land of loveliness and innocence, of talking beasts, and brave kings and princes, and of the great lion Aslan. It is a land where miracles can happen, and frequently do. The Magician’s Nephew comes first chronologically, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book to be written, and it remains the most popular. It is the most obviously ‘Christian’ in flavour, though Lewis was annoyed to hear it called allegory. ‘A work of art should not mean but be,’ he said, and the tales are to be enjoyed as stories. Secondary meanings are a bonus, but action and event matter far more.
Aslan, the mysterious Christ/Lord figure, is the most important, unifying character, but he actually came ‘bounding in’ as an afterthought. The story began with a picture in Lewis’ head, a faun (Mr Tumnus) carrying an umbrella through a wood, on a snowy night. Other pictures followed, a lamp post, a queen on a sledge, and so the first Narnia chronicle was born.
Here, one can only hint at the riches in store for a child reading the books for the first time. The seven adventures are separate and distinct, and Lewis never repeats himself. His great theme is as old as Creation. Good struggles against Evil, but, as the Narnian ages unfold, that Evil takes many forms. First there is Jadis, the Queen of Charn, then a terrible White Witch. Eustace Scrubb, a priggish schoolboy, turns into a dragon, and we meet a scheming magician (Digory’s Uncle Andrew) who mistakes the getting of Power for the getting of Wisdom.
Good triumphs in the end, but at great cost to itself, and at the centre of every bloody affray the frail human children stand battling it out, upheld by the brave Narnians – Reepicheep the chivalrous mouse, the mighty centaur Glenstorm, Prince Caspian and the gloomy old Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, one of the most endearing characters of all.
The stories are ‘unputdownable’, the pace is breathless. Lewis had read voraciously all his life, and forgotten nothing. In ‘Narnia’ all his literary passions come together and give the books their peculiar exuberance. Icelandic sagas rub shoulders with Arthurian legend, the Greeks and Beatrix Potter join hands with Edith Nesbit and George Macdonald. One disgruntled (adult) reader said this mixture turned The Voyage of the Dawn Treader into ‘the Odyssey wrapped up in the Beano’. But if it is a hotch-potch it is a glorious one and, in the first adventure, it leads to that vintage moment when Father Christmas appears with his teapot, ‘all sizzling and piping hot’, to cheer everyone up as The White Witch’s army marches steadily on.
Lewis understood instinctively ‘the proper meeting between man and child’ and, in spite of his confiding, often chatty style, he never talks down. Nor does he dodge the difficult issues. His children witness life and death, and they endure the loss of friends. They ask why Aslan can’t cure Digory’s dying mother, and how the Witch got into Narnia, and they weep with Prince Rilian for his dead father, at the end of their perilous journey:
‘Then Aslan stopped, and the children looked into the stream. And there, on the golden gravel of the bed of the stream, lay King Caspian dead, with the water flowing over him like liquid glass. His long white beard swayed in it like water-weed. And all three stood and wept. Even the Lion wept; great lion tears, each more precious than the Earth would be if it was a single solid diamond.’
At such high points the quality of the writing takes off, and in the final pages of The Last Battle Lewis surpasses himself. Who can forget how ‘Night falls on Narnia’? Or how Peter, the High King, takes a golden key and shuts the Door because ‘its edges were already covered with icicles’? Or the friendly giant who ‘took the sun and squeezed it in his hand as you would squeeze an orange’?
‘In reading great literature’ he wrote, ‘I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.’ If he likes fantasy, a child reading The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time will surely have this experience. In that Other World he will find good cheer, beauty, terror, consolation and hope. When he gets to the end he may well turn back, and start again, for ‘the good ones last’, and to read once is only the beginning.
The Chronicles of Narnia
Published in hardback by Collins, £4.95 each, and in paperback by Fontana Lions, £1.25 each.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) 0 00 183140 2 (hardback); 0 00 671663 6 (paperback)
Prince Caspian (1951) 0 00 183143 7 (hardback); 0 00 671664 4 (paperback)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) 0 00 183144 5 (hardback); 0 00 671665 2 (paperback)
The Silver Chair (1953) 0 00 183141 0 (hardback); 0 00 671668 7 (paperback)
The Horse and His Boy (1954) 0 00 183142 9 (hardback); 0 00 671666 0 (paperback)
The Magician’s Nephew (1955) o.p. in hardback; 0 00 671667 9 (paperback)
The Last Battle (1956) o.p. in hardback; 0 00 671669 5 (paperback)