My younger son, Oliver, is ten, and loves the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago today. I read most of them to him in English years ago, though we only finished The Last Battle earlier this year, as I thought it was ‘too grown up’ for him until then. Oliver is now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again in Hungarian. Lewis is reported to have said that when he was ten, he read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed had he been found doing so. ‘Now that I am fifty’ he said in 1952, ‘I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’ Yet grown-up matters, which were preoccupying Lewis when he continued to write about Animal-Land (The Last Battle was written in 1956), find no mention in the Narnian books. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, published in 1955, he writes of two lives, the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, the life of the intellect and the life of the imagination, being lived over each other, at the same time. The ‘outer’ is chiefly concerned with those things that he spoke about openly, whereas the ‘inner’ is essentially the story of Joy, or intense longing, working on his imagination. The Welsh word for ‘Joy’ is ‘hwyl’, which is not the same as happiness, and is close to ‘hiraeth’, which is a heart-felt longing, especially for one’s homeland. Narnia would never have come into being had Lewis not come to understand the deep meaning and purpose of Joy, what he defined in the books as ‘the deep magic from the dawn of time’.
As Walter Hooper has pointed out in his useful little book, Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis, as a child, was all too aware that religion seemed to be associated with lowered voices and stained glass windows. Wanting to make belief shine out in all its strength and splendour, he created the make-believe world of Narnia as one of the ways to ‘steal past those watchful dragons’.
Oliver was born without fingers on his right hand. C.S. Lewis was also born with a deficiency in his right hand; he had only one joint in his thumb, which kept him from taking up the hobbies and sports that interest most young boys. His manual clumbsiness was what drove him to write. When his family moved into Little Lea on the outskirts of Belfast in 1905, he took over one of the attics and there wrote his first stories, stories that combined his chief literary pleasures – knights in armour and dressed animals. When his brother came home from school in England, the attic became a shared land. Warren brought India into it and it became related to Jack’s Animal-Land (‘JacK’ was the name he preferred to ‘Clive’). They eventually merged into the single state of Boxen and, with great invention and patient endeavour the boys created a Boxonian saga spanning several hundred years. Ambitions run high and are almost solely concerned with money and political power. These were the chief topics of conversation among the group of friends who conversed with Lewis’s father. Although as an adult he came to hate these topics himself, as a juvenile Jack wanted his stories to reflect as nearly as possible the things that seemed important to adults.
In his autobiography Lewis defines Joy by relating three experiences from his early childhood. He remembered a morning on which his brother had brought a toy garden into the nursery. The memory of this evoked in him a ‘longing’ for the joy he had felt at that time. His second glimpse of Joy came through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, a book whose ‘Idea of Autumn’ also plunged him into an experience of intense desire. The third glimpse came when he was reading Longfellow’s poem, Tegner’s Drapa and his mind was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky. At the very moment he felt stabbed by desire, he felt himself falling out of that desire and wishing he were back in it. He tells us that Joy, the common quality to these three experiences, is an unsatisfied longing which is itself more desirable than any sense of satisfaction. This authentic Joy disappeared from his life when he was sent to school in Watford, Hertfordshire. A few years later he was a pupil at Cherbourg House in Malvern, Worcestershire. It was there, while looking at Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods that his feelings of Joy returned. However, as this thrill became less and less frequent, he became desperate to ‘have it again’ and turned from one medium of Joy to another, hoping always to find permanent contentment. He experimented with erotic pleasure, but found that while ‘Joy is not a substitute for sex, sex is very often a substitute for Joy’.
Jack lost his virginity in Malvern, but it was the ‘potent, ubiquitous, and unabashed’ eroticism of William Morris’s romances which chiefly persuaded himself that sex might be the substance of Joy. Writing Loki Bound, a pessimistic Norse tragedy, he became a convinced atheist, and later wrote from Little Bookham in Surrey, where he had become a pupil of William T. Kirkpatrick, to his Belfast friend, Arthur Greeves:
You know, I think, that i have no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand…Thus religion…grew up…Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist.
When he went up to Oxford after serving in the trenches during World War I, Lewis was determined that there were to be no flirtations with the idea of the supernatural. All the images he associated with Joy were, he had concluded, sheer fantasies. He had at last ‘seen through’ them. However, all his reservations about the Christian faith were swept away one by one and, after long searching, he was brought to his knees in the summer of 1929 and forced to admit that God was God. It was in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle on the way to Whipsnade Zoo, in 1931, that he became a Christian. After that, the old bittersweet jabs of Joy continued as before.
In his personal epilogue to his book on his ‘Guide Book’ to Narnia, Walter Hooper argues that there should never be any attempt to read the Chronicles as Lewis’s ‘autobiography’. Writing about the desire for heaven as part of the desire for God, Lewis said that ‘the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.’ The ‘old Narnia’ flowed into the ‘real Narnia’. In the penultimate chapter of The Last Battle, Jewel the Unicorn, arriving on the other side of the Stable door, expressed the feeling of all the others. He stamped his hoof, neighed and cried, ‘I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.’
After years of illness, Jack Lewis was taken to the Acland Nursing Home in Oxford. He went into a coma immediately, and a priest gave him extreme unction. Walter Hooper and other friends waited close by, and, to their amazement, he awoke and asked for tea. When he came home, he dictated many letters describing his feelings about his experience in the nursing home. He wrote, ‘the door was open, but as I started through it was closed in my face. I would rather have died, but apparently it is my duty to live. I am happy to do either, but – oh, I would like to have gone through that door.’
A few months later – the same day, the same hour, that John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas – the door opened again. This time he went through.
RIP, Clive S. Lewis
Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons. London (Copyright, 1971 by Walter Hooper and the Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis): Fount Paperbacks.
C. S. Lewis (1956), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.
- 50 Years of C.S Lewis and Growing up in Narnia (nerdalicious.com.au)
- On the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, a consideration of his poetry (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Remembering C.S. Lewis (str.typepad.com)
- Rowan Williams on C.S. Lewis and the point of Narnia (oup.com)
- Thankful 30: Day 22 – Jack (constanceannmorrison.com)
- The Cosmic Trilogy – an appreciation (wcs53.wordpress.com)
- Narnia and Camelot: A Tribute to C.S. Lewis (christianitytoday.com)
- C.S. Lewis: Scholar to the Common Man (theamericanconservative.com)
- CS Lewis: The Belfast boy whose death was overshadowed by JFK (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- CS Lewis: In the shadow of JFK’s death… (independent.co.uk)