Ten minute guide to CS Lewis (2008)
This piece, detailing the life and works of CS Lewis, appeared in Death Ray 14 in the “Ten Minute Guide” slot.
CS Lewis: Kind-hearted Christian suppositionalist
What’s he all about?
Lewis was born in 1989, in Belfast in Ireland. He was educated in England, however, and was to spend the great majority of his life there, despite conceiving an immediate dislike for the place which took him some time to shake. He initially hated the English landscape and compared English accents to the voices of demons. He won a scholarship to Oxford in 1916, but did not immediately take it up, instead enlisting to fight in the First World War. He was wounded at the Battle of Arras and assigned to duties in the UK. Upon being discharged in 1918 he took up his studies again, becoming a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught for thirty years. While at Oxford, he was a prominent member of the Inklings, that academic hotbed of fantastical creativity that gave us some of our best-loved fantasy tales. Lewis later became a professor at Magdalene College, Cambridge, a position he was to hold until shortly before his death in 1963.
Lewis wrote widely, on many subjects. His academic speciality was Medieval literature. He was also one of the century’s leading Christian apologists. Besides The Chronicles of Narnia, his fiction also includes the demonically amusing Screwtape Letters and the planetary SF of the Perelandra series. His deep, Christian faith unites them all.
Lewis is not without his detractors. But was he really an evil Imperial misogynist, or just a lovely bloke that wrote great stories for children, who just happened to have been around when they did things differently? How bothered by God the Middle-Englander you ask will largely dictate your answer. What is indisputable is that to his fans he is a master storyteller, and to his family and friends “Jack” was a charming, generous spirit.
He was one of the foremost fantasists of 20th century Britain. His Narnia books have sold nearly 100 million copies. The second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, is out soon, so it’s high time we poked about in the past of CS Lewis…
CS Lewis: the man behind the Christian fantasy of Narnia, where Jesus is a lion, and four kids get to save the world. That’s how you might know him, though he did a lot more than write about God and talking beavers. Like the memories society holds of all great men, the actuality of the chap has been worn away by the tides of time to one, driftwood-white idea. Narnia is what he is remembered for in the collective mind of the masses, but he was also a renowned scholar, a soldier, a broadcaster, a celebrity convert, a Christian essayist, a quick wit, a deep thinker, a keen walker, and a jolly kind fellow who deeply loved those close to him.
Still, it’s the seven Narnia books that secured his place in the halls of literary immortality. If you haven’t read and enjoyed these fantasy classics there is probably something askew in your braincase.
Ten essential questions:
1) What’s the CS stand for?
Clive Staples, but everyone called him Jack. Like Indiana Jones, he took his name from his beloved pet dog. Jacksie was run over when Lewis was four. After the dog’s death Lewis refused to answer to anything else. Fortunately for all concerned, he settled on Jack a little later.
2) How Christian was he?
Very. However, though Lewis was always of sterling character, his religious conviction was not always so strong. Lewis was born into the Church of Ireland but drifted away from it, declaring himself an atheist when he was 15. He said later that he had become, “very angry with God for not existing”. He later reconverted, and became a passionate believer. Many of his non-fiction works are Christian in theme, and he gained fame during the war as a religious broadcaster. But he was no tedious aesthete, and was by all accounts remarkably good company.
3) He was always a nice chap, then?
He certainly was. He and his wartime buddy, Paddy Moore, promised each other that if anything should happen to either of them then each would take care of the other’s family. When Paddy was killed, Lewis kept his side of the bargain, and became very close to Paddy’s mother Jane. She became a substitute mother to Lewis, and he lived with her until she became ill with dementia. When she was put into a home, he visited her every day. He was also close to his brother Warren. At one point both Lewises, Jane Moore and her daughter Maureen lived in a house that they bought together.
Lewis married once, in 1956, to Joy Gresham, the ex-wife of an American pulp writer. When she died of bone cancer four years later, he looked after her two sons as if they were his own.
4) Crikey, what made him so lovely?
Character, one should think. He had a reasonably happy childhood, though his mother died when he was young and his father was distant and work-obsessed. He was sent, like so many middle-class boys, to private school, where it seems he had a terrible time of it. The first one, Wynard School in Watford, was shut down and its insane headmaster committed! It was not a healthy place. Nor was Malvern College, where the only solace from scrabbling for social rank was in homosexual relationships. Luckily, his chipper nature survived all this intact.
5) But he became a grade ‘A’ believer in Christ, right?
Right. He was greatly influenced by his fellow professor and friend J.R.R. Tolkien. He fought the moment of conversion, and had a brief brush with theism before converting to the Anglican faith in 1931 after a long, all-night walk with Tolkien, though Tolkien was disappointed that Lewis chose the Church of England over that of Rome.
6) How much Christianity is in The Chronicles of Narnia?
A lot. But it is worth noting that Lewis called the books suppositionally Christian, as opposed to allegorical. He said they suppose what might have happened if Jesus had decided to rise up in Narnia and die for our sins there. Although The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe has a recreation of the crucifixion and resurrection, as the series progressed the Christian subtext became even more obvious. Examples include; Aslan appearing as the biblical lamb in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and The Last Battle being a version of the Book of Revelations, complete with a last trump and an Anti-Aslan. With added talking monkeys, naturally.
7) He’s been criticised this for this, hasn’t he?
Yep. Narnia is a big old target for the wrath of the secular middle-classes, whose children, ironically, are those which most readily devour the books. Journalist Polly Toynbee called Narnia, “everything that is most hateful about religion” in her 2005 review of the first film in The Guardian. Alan Garner gave it a drubbing in BBC4’s The Worlds of Fantasy. Most critical was the 2002 attack by ultimate God-basher Philip Pullman. He raged against Lewis’ Christian agenda at The Guardian (I’m noticing a pattern here) Hay festival, decrying it as religious propaganda, calling Lewis racist and misogynist.
8) Are these accusations well-founded?
These are contentious points. The racism comes from the Calormen, who can be seen as Arab stereotypes. But Lewis has several very positive Calormen characters (one of whom is a woman), a mixed-race marriage, and the Narnians themselves make no judgment on colour.
The misogyny is easier to refute: Lucy is the prime mover in the Narnia books, there are numerous positive female role models, and powerful female villains (note: the baddies are not all ladies). Both objectionable human characters are boys. Edmund sells his siblings down the river for some sweets, for Aslan’s sake.
Pullman also pointed out that Lewis sends Susan, the older girl, to Hell for liking lipstick and boys. A more accurate reading is that she doesn’t go to Heaven because, unlike her siblings, she isn’t dead. Like Lewis himself, she might have found her way back to God, (erm, we mean Narnia. Ah, actually, no, we really do mean God), later in life.
9) You mean they all die?!? I haven’t read the last one!
Oops, sorry. But yes, they die in a train crash.
10) What were Lewis’ other influences?
Lewis was keen on anthropomorphic animal stories, and created the worlds of Animal Land and Boxen with his brother Warren as a boy. He developed a big love for both Greek and Norse mythology. All this features in Narnia. Tolkien did not approve: when Father Christmas showed up in a reading of Wardrobe at an Inklings meeting, Tolkien had a pop at him for mixing his mythologies. As Lewis was a scholar of Medieval literature, the Arthurian tradition also played a formative part. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, bears similar themes to the Grail Quest. As well as the mythical stuff, HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon informed his space series.
Narnia by numbers
There are seven Narnia books, here they are in handy bite-sized chunks.
Lewis wrote the books in this order: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and his Boy (1954), The Magician’s Nephew (1955) and The Last Battle (1956). We present them here in Narnian chronological order…
The Magician’s Nephew
Transdimensional shenanigans take us to the beginning of the world of Narnia, and explain just where that wardrobe and lamppost came from.
Inter-dimensional device: Magic rings.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
The four Pevensie kids find their way to Narnia, where they defeat the ruling White Witch, end endless winter and live as kings and queens before being sent home.
Inter-dimensional device: Wardrobe.
The Horse and His Boy
A boy and a Narnian talking horse escape slavery in Calormene during the reign of High King Peter.
Inter-dimensional device: None, it starts and ends in Narnia.
The Pevensie children return to Narnia to discover a thousand years have passed. Their castle is in ruins, and the country is ruled by magic-hating Telmarines.
Inter-dimensional device: Magic horn and London Tube.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Edmund, Lucy and their obnoxious cousin Eustace join King Caspian on a fantastical sea journey to find the lost Seven Lords of Narnia.
Inter-dimensional device: A painting of a ship.
The Silver Chair
The reformed Eustace and his friend Jill are pulled to Narnia and sent on a quest to find Caspian’s missing son, Prince Rillian
Inter-dimensional device: Aslan
The Last Battle
All those who had been to Narnia, bar Susan, aid Caspian’s descendant in his struggle against the false Aslan. Narnia is destroyed, and its inhabitants judged.
Inter-dimensional device: Death by train wreck.
More than beasts
It wasn’t all talking animals, but it was all Christian.
The Space Trilogy (1938–1946)
Most famous of Lewis’s other fiction is his Space trilogy, comprising Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. These concern philologist Elwin Ransom and his visits to Mars and Venus, where he foils Satanic plots, before doing the same on Earth. The Space trilogy is a masterwork of theological dialectic. In the first book, the sceptical Ransom meets many alien beings (analogous to angels), who gradually reveal the truth of the universe to him by challenging many of his assumptions. He then becomes an agent of Maleldil, Mars’ version of Jesus, the role he maintains throughout the remainder of the trilogy.
The Screwtape Letters (1942)
A humorous affair, The Screwtape Letters takes the form of correspondence from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, giving advice on how to tempt a human, referred to throughout as “the Patient”. Through the demons’ perverse inversion of the moral law Lewis believed governed the actions of all people, Lewis instructs us on Christian living. He never wrote a sequel, saying the book was “distasteful” to write, though he did write a follow up in 1959, as a newpaper article for The Evening Standard. Lewis believed in the literal truth of demons.
The Great Divorce (1945)
One of Lewis’ musings on the nature of Heaven and Hell, it is in part a refutation of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was partly inspired by Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy and the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. In it, a man is taken through the afterlife after boarding a bus in a town that turns out to be Hell, whereupon he realises he is a ghost. Luckily for him, after his revelation, he wakes up to discover, as in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that it was all a dream.
Till We have Faces (1956)
Lewis’ last novel is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of Psyche’s sister, Orual.