Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis
By George Sayer
Good News Publishing
Excerpt from Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, Good News Publishing
The thought that he might write a children’s story occurred to
Jack in September 1939, but he did not complete his first one, The Lion,
the Witch, and the Wardrobe, until almost ten years later. The evacuated
children staying at the Kilns provided his original inspiration. One
of them showed an interest in an old wardrobe, asking if she could go
inside and if there was anything behind it. Her request triggered his
imagination. Perhaps he was reminded, too, of a story he had read as
a child, The Aunt and Amabel, by E. Nesbit, in which a magic world is
entered through a wardrobe in a spare room. He had read and loved the
books of Edith Nesbit, but had given them up when he went away to prep
school for fear of seeming childish. Now he thought of writing a story
for and about the evacuated children, because he was concerned about
how poorly developed their imaginations were and how little they read.
His method of writing stories was to assemble the pictures that appeared
in his mind. As he explained in a lecture to the Library Association,
“With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like
either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of the pictures have
a common flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together.
Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you
were very lucky (I have never been so lucky as all that) a whole group
might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete
story; without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience
always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate
inventing. . . .”1
Since he was sixteen he had had a picture in his mind of a faun carrying
parcels and an umbrella in a snowy forest. Other pictures came to him
during the war years, and in 1948 he set about filling in the gaps and
turning them into a continuous story. He was also helped by his pupil
and friend, Roger Green, who had written a story called The Wood That
Time Forgot, which Jack read excitedly and criticized in detail and
from which he took elements to incorporate in The Lion, the Witch, and
After he had written a good deal of the book, he got the idea of the
lion Aslan, who “came bounding into it.” Jack had been “having
a good many dreams of lions about that time . . . [and] once he [Aslan]
was there he pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the
other six stories in after him.”
The story was largely finished by the end of the Christmas vacation
in 1948. Two months later, Jack read it to Tolkien. Jack had always
been constructively helpful and sympathetic with Tolkien’s writing,
and he probably expected similar treatment. He was hurt, astonished,
and discouraged when Tolkien said that he thought the book was almost
worthless, that it seemed like a jumble of unrelated mythologies. Because
Aslan, the fauns, the White Witch, Father Christmas, the nymphs, and
Mr. and Mrs. Beaver had quite distinct mythological or imaginative origins,
Tolkien thought that it was a terrible mistake to put them together
in Narnia, a single imaginative country. The effect was incongruous
and, for him, painful. But Jack argued that they existed happily together
in our minds in real life. Tolkien replied, “Not in mine, or at
least not at the same time.”
Tolkien never changed his view. He so strongly detested Jack’s
assembling figures from various mythologies in his children’s
books that he soon gave up trying to read them. He also thought they
were carelessly and superficially written. His condemnation was so severe
that one suspects he envied the speed with which Jack wrote and compared
it with his own laborious method of composition.
Jack had a high opinion of Tolkien’s judgment and was distressed
and disconcerted by his harsh response, especially since he himself
had little confidence in the merits of his story. Were it not for friends
who praised it highly, he might never have published it. There was his
doctor, Humphrey Havard, and Havard’s daughter, Mary Clare, to
whom the book was eventually dedicated. More important, there was Roger
Green, an old pupil and a man of infectious enthusiasm in whose judgment
Jack had faith. Although Green shared Tolkien’s dislike of the
introduction of Father Christmas, on the whole he liked the story. Jack
once said that, without Green’s encouragement, he probably would
not have completed the book.
Most people who knew Jack were astonished that he had written a children’s
story. His publisher, Geoffrey Bles, doubted that it would sell and
feared that it might even damage Jack’s reputation and the sales
of his other books. Bles advised that, if it had to be published, it
should be the first of a series of children’s stories.
Almost at once, Jack began a second story about the beginnings of Narnia
and how the lamppost came to be standing at its edge. There is a delightful
account of a boy named Digory, who understands the speech of animals
and trees until he cuts off a branch from an oak tree to help Polly,
the little girl next door, build a raft. But Jack got stuck in the writing
soon after the arrival of Digory’s godmother, Mrs. Lefay, a woman
skilled in magic. He felt she didn’t come off, and Green verified
this feeling. So he put the story aside, thinking that he might later
rework it, and instead began to write a story about children drawn across
space and time by magic and told from their point of view, rather than
from that of the magician. The theme is described by the original title,
Drawn into Narnia. The writing went quickly and well, so that it was
finished by the end of 1949 and eventually published as Prince Caspian.
Jack considered illustrating the stories himself, but decided that
even if he had the skill, he would not have the time. Tolkien enthusiastically
recommended Pauline Baynes, the young illustrator who had done the drawings,
paintings, and other embellishments for his story Farmer Giles of Ham,
which had just been published. Although Jack liked her art for its wit
and fantasy, he wondered if she could manage a more realistic style.
When sample drawings suggested that she could, he invited her to have
lunch with him at Magdalen College on December 31.
He was delighted by her and by her enthusiasm for the magic world of
his imagination. But because he had distinct tastes, he was a difficult
author for an artist to please. He loved the drawings of Arthur Rackham
in Undine and The Ring, those of Charles Robinson in The Secret Garden,
those of Kemble in Huckleberry Finn, and, although he found them cramped,
those of Arthur Hughes in George MacDonald’s books. He loathed
illustrations in which the children had vapid, empty faces and hated
even more the grotesque style that derived from Walt Disney’s
cartoons. Some of Pauline Baynes’s illustrations of his books
pleased him, such as the frontispiece and most of the full-page drawings
in Prince Caspian. But he often found the faces of her children empty,
expressionless, and too alike. Although he thought she improved in this
respect, he was never entirely satisfied. Her most serious weakness
was her drawing of animals. More than once he said to me, “She
can’t draw lions, but she is so good and beautiful and sensitive
that I can’t tell her this.”
The title adopted, Prince Caspian, was suggested by his publisher.
Jack was reluctant to accept it, as it did not in any way suggest the
theme of the book. But he had to be content with a subtitle, The Return
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published in the autumn of
1950, in time for the all-important Christmas gift market. Thereafter,
one Narnia book was published each year until 1956. Some were very quickly
written: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in two months by the end of
February 1950; The Horse and His Boy, which was originally called Narnia
and the North, by the end of July; and The Silver Chair, which he originally
thought of calling The Wild Waste Lands, begun during the Christmas
vacation and finished by the beginning of March 1951. The Magician’s
Nephew and The Last Battle were written more slowly. Jack showed manuscripts
of all these books to Green, who made many suggestions for small improvements,
although he helped his former tutor more with enthusiasm and encouragement
than in any other way. “I did not always agree with him,”
Jack once said to me. “Perhaps I more often disagreed. But sympathetic
criticism of his sort is for a writer one of the rarest and most precious
With few exceptions, the reviews of the Narnia books were cautious.
Occasionally, they were hostile. At the time the books appeared, the
real-life children’s story was in fashion. It was commonly believed
then that stories should help children to understand and relate to real
life, that they should not encourage them to indulge in fantasies, and
that fairy stories, if for any children at all, should only be for the
very young. Some reviewers disliked the Narnia books for their Christian
content, perhaps finding the parallels with the gospel story embarrassing,
and further objected to the “indoctrination” of children.
Of course, for many there was too much moralizing. Others attacked them
because they contained “unnaturally unpleasant children”
and too many violent and frightening incidents.
Hostile reviews may have curbed initial sales of the books, but only
temporarily. From the very beginning, despite all the reviewers’
apprehensions, children loved the Narnia stories. Left to themselves,
almost all children who read the books enjoyed them just as stories,
without being aware of their Christianity. They usually enjoy the supposedly
frightening incidents and are not embarrassed or put off by the moralizing.
More than any other stories that I can think of, they appeal to all
sorts of children. It is easy to find children who are left cold by
Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows; it is rare to find
those who enjoy reading and yet are not delighted by the Narnia stories.
Jack’s main object was, of course, to write good stories. He
was also concerned with the atmosphere of separate adventures and incidents
and with fidelity to the complex world of his imagination. As the series
developed, he gained confidence in his imaginative vision and delighted
in the rich medley of human, animal, and mythological beings that he
was creating. His idea of Heaven was of a place where all sorts of people
could come together to celebrate, dance, and sing with fauns, giants,
centaurs, dwarfs, and innumerable and very different animals. Some of
this joyous, festive vision is perceived by many children who read the
books. It extends and develops not merely their delight in the real
world but in a vision of the created world permeated with the world
of myth and imagination.
The natural beauties of Narnia are set against the background of the
supernatural and eternal. The apple tree at the beginning of Prince
Caspian is no ordinary apple tree. The ruined castle in chapter two
gives Lucy and Peter a queer feeling; this interpenetration of the natural
by the supernatural runs throughout the whole series and has much to
do with the characteristic atmosphere. We are in Aslan’s country
usually without knowing it.
The most precious moments to Jack in his ordinary life were those when
he did know it, when he was aware of the spiritual quality of material
things, of the infusion of the supernatural into the workaday world.
His success in translating these moments into his fairy stories gives
the series a haunting appeal; simultaneously it gives its readers “a
taste for the other.”
Modern children are often thought of as rebellious and anarchistic,
yet those who read the Narnia stories accept without opposition a hierarchical
society. Aslan is not a believer in equality and is of course supreme
over all. Below him there may be kings and queens and princes to whom
respect and obedience should normally be given.
After telling Prince Caspian of his true identity, Doctor Cornelius
drops down onto one knee and kisses his hand. People are not equal;
among them, some are meant to serve, others to command. Animals are
below people and perhaps have their own hierarchy.
The Narnia stories show a complete acceptance of the Tao, of the conventional
and traditional moral code. Humanity, courage, loyalty, honesty, kindness,
and unselfishness are virtues. Children who might perhaps object to
the code if they were taught it in churches and schools accept it easily
and naturally when they see it practiced by the characters they love.
They are learning morality in the best and perhaps only effective way.
It is possible to extract from the Narnia stories a system of theology
very like the Christian. Thus the theological content of The Magician’s
Nephew is the story of the creation. Aslan sings it into being. The
temptation in the Garden of Eden and the Fall are there. In the story
he wrote next we have death, judgment, Hell, and Heaven. But the author
almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance
of the Narnian theology to the Christian story. His idea, as he once
explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity
when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely
reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed
years before. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s
Nevertheless, he did not, as is sometimes supposed, begin with a worked-out
theological scheme in his head and write the stories to exemplify and
inculcate it. The actual process was less calculating; he wrote the
stories because he enjoyed writing stories and always had. The characters
and their actions were of course influenced by his conception of morality
and theology. It was in the course of writing, as a result of brooding
over the events in the stories, that his ideas developed. They grew
less intellectual, more integrated with feeling. Like many of his other
books, the Narnia stories were important to his own spiritual growth.
Children and grown-ups often differ about the stories that they like
best. Adults usually prefer the last two, The Magician’s Nephew
and The Last Battle, the latter of which was awarded the Carnegie Medal
for the best children’s book published in 1956. But the children
often like the earlier stories best, and for a long time The Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe was the one that sold the most copies. But all
are bestsellers and, along with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,
represent a remarkable phenomenon of postwar publishing. The Narnia
stories have liberated the children’s story from its bondage to
realism. Since their publication, magic, myth, fairy tale, and fantasy
stories have been written, but none with such inherent theological depth
and mythic quality.
The whole series has classic status. The rather ordinary style and
simple characterization to which some of the early reviewers objected
are virtues in the children’s point of view. These qualities make
it all the easier to be swept along by the story. Complex characterization
often puzzles, and a literary style distracts inexperienced readers.
All the evidence suggests that the Narnia stories will be read at least
as long as anything else that Jack wrote.
The Narnia stories reveal more about Jack’s personal religion
than any of his theological books, because he wrote them more from the
heart than from the head. The character of Aslan is his supreme achievement,
the apex, as Paul Ford puts it, “of his literary, mythopoeic,
and apologetic gifts.”2 Bede Griffiths has eloquently
expressed this point: “The figure of Aslan tells us more of how
Lewis understood the nature of God than anything else he wrote. It has
all the hidden power and majesty and awesomeness which Lewis associated
with God, but also all the glory and the tenderness and even the humor
which he believed belonged to him, so that children could run up to
him and throw their arms around him and kiss him. There is nothing of
‘dark imagination’ or fear of devils and hell in this. It
is ‘mere Christianity.’”3
No wonder that my little stepdaughter, after she had read all the Narnia
stories, cried bitterly, saying, “I don’t want to go on
living in this world. I want to live in Narnia with Aslan.”
Darling, one day you will.
*Chapter Seventeen: Into Narnia
1. C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for
Children” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper
(London: Bles, 1966).
2. Paul F. Ford, Companion to Narnia (San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1980), 12.
3. Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter of 26 November 1983 to
The Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, published in summer 1984 issue.
From Jack by George Sayer, © 1988, 1994, pages 311-319. Used
by permission of Crossway Books, a ministry of Good News Publishers,
Wheaton, Illinois 60187, www.crossway.com. Download for personal use
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