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Inside Narnia

Devin Brown
Devin Brown, author of Inside Narnia

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BOOK EXCERPT

Introduction to Inside Narnia

By Devin Brown
Baker Publishing Group

CBN.com – Excerpt from Inside Narnia, Baker Publishing Group

In the summer of 1948, Clive Staples Lewis, like most men his age, must have paused more than once to consider his upcoming fiftieth birthday, just months away. As he looked out from his rooms in Oxford, surely he must have felt that the boy from the suburbs of Belfast, Northern Ireland, born on November 29, 1898, the son of a police court lawyer and an educated rector’s daughter, had done pretty well—all things considered.

Those fifty years began well but soon took a turn for the worse. After a somewhat idyllic childhood, Lewis faced the death of his mother when he was nine, and after that came the disastrous series of private schools where bullying often seemed to be more in fashion than learning. But when he was fifteen, his father had allowed him, after a great deal of persuading, to complete his final two years of preparing for university with a wonderful tutor. Those studies resulted in a scholarship to the most prestigious academic institution in the country, perhaps in the world—Oxford University.

Then came six years as a student at Oxford: six because a brief stint in the trenches of France during World War I intervened; six because he had gotten two degrees—one in philosophy and one in literature—with firsts on all his exams, the highest mark possible. Finally on May 20, 1925, at the age of twenty-six, Lewis had been chosen to be a fellow at Magdalen College.

There at Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis was given his own set of rooms, rooms he had been using for twenty-three years now for student tutorials, for preparing lectures, for meetings with his friends, and, whenever he could squeeze it in, for writing.
Lewis’s first two works, extensive book-length poems, had gone nowhere after they were published. No matter how he had tried, he was not a poet, at least not a critically acclaimed one. But his later works had succeeded where these had not, and his writing had taken off in directions he would never have predicted—that no one would have predicted.

Over the past ten years, he had published a science fiction trilogy, a philosophical book on the problem of pain, a satirical novel about the afterlife, a treatise on miracles, and a book of letters from a devil named Screwtape—all successes. In addition, he had broadcast a series of talks on the BBC, had received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from St. Andrews, and, to top it all off, had even been featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Of course, besides his brother, he had no family to speak of—no wife or children, at least not yet. But by way of compensation he had a family of another sort, the Inklings, his writing and conversation group which included his closest friends. Among them was his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien, who had just finished a long fictional epic about a ring and a race called hobbits and was now working on getting it published.

And so in the summer of 1948, as Professor Lewis looked back over his fifty years, he must have found much to be proud of. But with the greater part of his life behind him, his thoughts must also have turned to all he still hoped to accomplish.

One project kept forcing its way back into his reflections: a story he had started nine years ago during the war . . . a story he had written the opening paragraph for, and then put away . . . a story about four children who went to stay with an old professor . . . a story based on a picture which had been in his head since he was sixteen, the image of a faun from Greek mythology, carrying an umbrella and parcels as he walked home through a snowy wood. . . .

In the summer of 1948, as he approached his fiftieth birthday, C. S. Lewis picked up pen and paper and resumed the story he had started nine years earlier, shortly after a group of schoolgirls evacuated from London had come to stay with him.
What he could not have known was that he was beginning what many would later consider to be one of his greatest accomplishments.

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On October 16, 1950, six weeks before Lewis’s fifty-second birthday, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released in England by Geoffrey Bles Publishers. Three weeks later, Macmillan issued the U.S. version of the novel. Although he had supported Lewis’s other works, fellow writer J. R. R. Tolkien did not like the book, responding, “It really won’t do, you know!” (Green and Hooper 241). Tolkien’s biggest complaint was Lewis’s “jumble of unrelated mythologies”—the Roman fauns and nymphs, the Germanic dwarfs, Father Christmas, and the new characters of Lewis’s own invention—all in the same work (Sayer 312).
Despite Tolkien’s misgivings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was an instant success and has remained widely popular over the years, with copies of the individual volumes and the boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia selling into the tens of millions. After the initial volume, Lewis published one Chronicle each year until the seven-book set was complete. When The Last Battle came out in 1956, it won the Carnegie Medal, an award given by children’s librarians to the year’s most outstanding book for young people, though in Lewis’s case perhaps given as much in recognition for the whole series as for the final book.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia that Lewis wrote. While he was alive it was always listed as the first volume in the series. In 1980, seventeen years after Lewis’s death, Collins, part of what would later become HarperCollins, first published the stories with a somewhat different numbering; The Magician’s Nephew—originally listed sixth—was moved to first, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was numbered second. This revised order appears on all editions published today along with this statement on the copyright page: “The HarperCollins editions of The Chronicles of Narnia have been renumbered in compliance with the original wishes of the author, C. S. Lewis.”

The change was in part based upon a letter Lewis wrote in 1957 to a young boy named Laurence Krieg. In response to a question about which order the Narnia books should be read in—the way they were originally numbered, which corresponded with their order of publication, or their chronological order—Lewis came down in a qualified way slightly on the side of chronology, which was the way Laurence Krieg had proposed. Maybe Lewis really felt renumbering the Chronicles would be an improvement, but quite possibly he was simply trying to be supportive of a young fan’s suggestion, as he went on to add, “perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them” (1995, 68).

In his book Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis, Hope College professor Peter Schakel includes an essay which questions the meaning of the phrase from the copyright page “the original wishes of the author.” He writes, “Does original mean from the time at which The Magician’s Nephew was completed? If so, why did Lewis not request the Bodley Head to include this renumbering in the new book, or in The Last Battle the following year, or have Geoffrey Bles change the order in later reprints of the other books?” (Schakel 2002, 43). Schakel takes a firm stand regarding Lewis’s statement to Laurence Krieg, arguing that the reading order in fact “matters a great deal” (44) and that if readers are going to share the wonder and suspense of the children in the story, they need to read the Chronicles in the order they were published. This means reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first.

Lewis’s letter to Laurence Krieg is famous among Narnia enthusiasts for another reason. From it we learn about Lewis’s plans, or rather his lack of plans, for further Chronicles. Lewis told Krieg, “When I wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote Prince Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I felt quite sure it would be the last” (1995, 68).

Questions, controversy, and mixed opinions about the Chronicles of Narnia still abound today. An article headlined “Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist” appeared in the June 3, 2002, issue of the British newspaper The Guardian. In it John Ezard quotes Philip Pullman, the Whitbread Book Award–winning author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who calls Lewis’s work “propaganda” and accuses it of being “monumentally disparaging of girls and women” and “blatantly racist.” Laura Miller, senior editor for the online magazine Salon, has also been critical of the Narnia books in certain ways. In an article titled “Personal Best” which appeared in the September 30, 1996 issue, Miller described an experience shared by a number of readers as they grew older. She states, “Lewis’s books are very, very English and very Christian, in a particular way. The latter I didn’t realize until I was a good deal older, and this discovery filled me with anger and bitterness. I had been tricked into giving my heart to the very noxious, twisted religion I had tried so hard to elude.”

Children’s literature scholar Peter Hunt has also cast a less-than-favorable eye on Lewis’s series for young people, claiming that “not far beneath the genial surface of the books lie some very sexist, racist, and violent attitudes” (2001, 200). About the widely varying responses which the books have generated, Hunt claims, “If there is a single, central example of the divergence of popular and critical taste, then the seven books concerning the mythical land of Narnia . . . must qualify” (199).

Another anti-Narnia voice comes from a very different source—the radical right of fundamental Christianity, a somewhat strange bedfellow of other critics. A website titled Balaam’s Ass Speaks includes a section called “C. S. Lewis: The Devil’s Wisest Fool.” In it Mary Van Nattan claims, “The Chronicles of Narnia are one of the most powerful tools of Satan that Lewis ever produced. Worst of all, these books are geared toward children.” The leading criticism raised in the essay, one which given its source may not be completely unexpected, is that the series is an “indoctrinating tool of witchcraft.”

While opponents often raise strong, even vehement, objections, fans’ support for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has remained unwavering. In British bookseller Waterstone’s voting for “Best Books of the Century,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe finished twenty-first, ahead of works by such acclaimed authors as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison. In The Big Read series sponsored by the BBC in fall 2003, voters ranked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as their number nine choice.

To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, HarperCollins released a special deluxe hardcover edition with nineteen full-color plates by the original illustrator Pauline Baynes. In the United States, the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre has produced audio adaptations of all seven of the Narnia stories, with Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, serving as host. Some of the famous voices include Paul Scofield as the narrator and David Suchet as Aslan.
The first film adaptations of the stories were made by the BBC in the late 1980s. Rather low-budget projects, they still have their share of devoted fans, though many viewers see them now as somewhat dated. The major motion picture version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, directed by Andrew Adamson and scheduled for release in December 2005, builds on the positive reception given to the Harry Potter films and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Anyone looking at the fairy tale Lewis put to paper around his fiftieth birthday must wonder at its enduring popularity and wide acceptance. How is it that its appeal has not waned over the years but has remained steady and even grown?

For one answer, we can turn to a distinction used by Lewis himself. In an essay titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis described what he called a Boy’s Book or a Girl’s Book. In it, he says, we find “the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl,” the one who “discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage” (Lewis 1982e, 38). The problem with this book, he claims, is that while we find pleasure in reading it, we always return to our own world feeling as though our own life can never measure up. We will never catch the spy; we will never ride the unrideable pony; we will not be friends with magicians. We run to this book, Lewis states, to escape from “the disappointments and humiliations of the real world” but then afterwards return “undivinely discontented” to reality, to a world and to a life in that world which have been made a little less wonderful than before.

A second type of book, Lewis suggests, wipes away the film of the ordinary from our world and makes the events of our daily lives and the people we encounter more special, not less. After reading this type of book, we do not despise our friends, our robins, or our wardrobes for being unmagical. These stories cast a spell over our world and make all robins and wardrobes a little marvelous, a little more wonderful than before. We see with a new perspective that indeed our friends in a sense are magicians. As Lewis states, the reader of this second kind of book “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (1982e, 38).

While Lewis intended this distinction to refer to young people’s books in general, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe certainly fits his description of this second type of book rather than the first, and one of its chief functions is to re-enchant a disenchanted world.

Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson has observed that since the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, “a whole generation has grown up of people who read the Narnia stories in childhood” (1991, 220) and then passed them on to their own children and even to their grandchildren, making the stories a part of the cultural heritage for three generations of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Another explanation for the enduring popularity of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that the Narnia stories represent, as Green and Hooper note, “a new mythology” (1994, 251) and as such can play an integral role in the personal growth and development of those who read them. Roland Hein, author of Christian Mythmakers, has argued, “With Lewis, myth was a vehicle by which supernatural reality communicates to man” (1998, 206).

The difficulty in achieving worldwide recognition in even a single genre makes Lewis’s ability to switch from the expository writing in his early works to the mythic-style fiction seen in the Chronicles of Narnia all the more remarkable. Clearly Lewis understood the need for a creative format rather than a discursive one in order to address life’s most fundamental questions. Speaking of himself as well as of others writing in a similar vein, he said that “there may be an author who at a particular moment finds not only fantasy but fantasy-for-children the exactly right form for what he wants to say” (Lewis 1982e, 36). Lewis believed that by conveying vital insights through an imaginary mode, one could make them “for the first time appear in their real potency” (1982f, 47).

Lewis saw myth not as “misunderstood history, . . . nor diabolical illusion, . . . nor priestly lying, . . . but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” (Lewis 1996d, 134) and as a form which “enables man to express the inexpressible” (Kilby 1964, 81). In the preface to the anthology of George MacDonald that Lewis compiled, he wrote that myth “gets under our skin” and “hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts” (MacDonald 1996, xxviii).

Lewis further clarifies what he saw as the function of myth for its readers by saying, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (1996e, 66). In another context Lewis wrote that the experience of myth “is not only grave but awe inspiring. . . . It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us” (1996a, 44).

Clyde Kilby, one of the first scholars to write about Lewis, has noted Lewis’s recognition of the importance of myth-making as “one of man’s deepest needs and highest accomplishments” (Kilby 1964, 80). Kilby argues that Lewis wrote “hardly a single book in which he does not, in one way or another, discuss and illustrate this subject.” What, according to Lewis, was behind myth-making? Kilby explains that Lewis envisioned a “great sovereign, uncreated, unconditioned Reality at the core of things” (81) and viewed myth as “a kind of picture-making which helps man to understand this Reality” as well as a response to “a deep call from that Reality.”

In describing Lewis’s decision to write in a fictional rather than expository mode, Donald Glover states that Lewis did so because he believed that this “indirect” approach could “bring the reader closer to the truth” (1981, 3). In his book C. S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment, Glover suggests that Lewis was well aware of the power of myth “to present in understandable form concepts which could be approached in no other direct fashion” (51).

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“Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvelous” (Lewis 1982b, 21). C. S. Lewis penned these words to describe the feeling evoked by the novels of his friend Charles Williams. However, Lewis’s description could equally be used to describe the effect produced by his own stories. More than fifty years after it was first published, readers from all over the world, young and old, continue to share the perception that as they read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, their everyday world truly is invaded by the marvelous.

 

This excerpt is from the Introduction of Devin Brown's "Inside Narnia," and is reprinted with permission.

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