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Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis

By George Sayer
Good News Publishing

Into Narnia – 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 the Wardrobe.

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 to Narnia.

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 of things.”

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 imagination.”

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, Download for personal use only.

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