An Anniversary for Narnia

October 16 saw the sixty-eighth anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis published the Narnia books once a year, until The Last Battle appeared in September of 1956. Lewis was also writing his spiritual biography at the time, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life—not to mention whatever else he was writing, as well as performing all the duties and responsibilities of an Oxford tutor.
But why a children’s story? Lewis was a scholar. He wrote about books, he wrote Christian apologetics, and he wrote fiction, but all this was for adults. Lewis had nothing to do with children. So again, why a children’s story?
There are enough books about Lewis around to keep you busily reading for years. Writers of every kind have opinions about Lewis and his life—about Lewis as a child, about his time in the war, about his more than thirty-year relationship with Mrs. Moore, which, interestingly, some writers are unwilling to explore.
Lewis is something of a puzzle. He was gregarious and fond of argument, a man who valued openness and friendship; he also flatly refused to talk about his relationship with Janie Moore with anyone, including his brother, Warnie Lewis.
Why Lewis wrote the Narnia books is perhaps less of a puzzle. He valued myth and story, and he wrote about both. Lewis claimed that he was writing a fairy tale because that was the best expression for what he had to say about Narnia and about Aslan. I’m sure it’s true—for the most part.
Lewis carried with him the memories of living at Little Lee, the house his father had built on the outskirts of Belfast. Lewis’ mother, Flora Hamilton, died in that house when he was nine-years-old. Two weeks after her death, a young Jack was shipped off to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, England.
Such events as the death of a parent have a profound effect on the mind of a child. Lewis had the company of his brother for the first year at boarding school, which he calls Belsen in Surprised by Joy. But his school-life was shadowed by the death of his mother, and the relationship with his father deteriorated until Albert Lewis’ death in 1929.
Something was speaking across the years to Lewis as he created Narnia. It’s no surprise Lewis was writing about his own boyhood as he wrote the Narnia books. There is more of the child-like in Narnia than there is childishness. And in Lewis’ own words: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty” (Lewis, “On Stories”).

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Curious Friendship

In the fall of 1931, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson took a nighttime stroll along Addison’s Walk on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford. Many Lewis scholars identify this walk as the point at which Lewis fully embraced the Christian faith. Lewis spent the next three decades writing essays, short stories, and books centring on Christianity.
I visited Oxford in 2015 with my daughter, and I desperately wanted to walk where these men walked and to understand more of who they were and how they lived. We arrived in Oxford on a rainy night in August. We were tired and hungry, and I was feeling worse and worse as we got down from the bus and began searching for Magdalen College. We walked through the rain, pulling our suitcases along High Street, trying to find the porter’s door where we were to pick up our keys for our rooms. I was an unhappy traveller that night.
Four days later, we made our way into the grounds at the college and headed for Addison’s Walk. We followed the graveled path circling the deer park, and I told my daughter what I remembered reading about that night in 1931.
If you know something about these men, you will know Lewis and Tolkien were friends and colleagues at Oxford, and together they founded a group called the Inklings, a sometimes loosely connected group of men working and living in that unforgettable university town. Much has been written about the Inklings, particularly in the last decade, and more than its fair share focuses specifically on the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien. Two of the best books I’ve encountered are The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, and The company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, by Diana Pavlac Glyer. Each of these books has its own take on the place of Lewis and Tolkien in the larger group, and both highlight the integral and reciprocal nature of the friendship between the two men.
There’s no question Lewis and Tolkien were friends. They met regularly for years, while the Inklings gathered on Thursday evenings in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College. Lewis, most notably, provided Tolkien with endless amounts of badgering encouragement as the latter revised and edited Lord of the Rings—or, as the Inklings knew it, The New Hobbit. However, when I recently heard a new Lewis and Tolkien documentary was in production for 2018, I began to wonder whether the story of this friendship isn’t beginning to acquire almost mythic proportions.
Eastgate Creative is behind the documentary, which is based on Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. It describes the profound influence these men had on one another and their work. You can see the trailer here.
Before you jump on board the Lewis and Tolkien friendship train, bear in mind some noteworthy details about Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings. The late-night walk and conversation instrumental in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity occurs in 1931. Lewis never mentions this conversation in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, published in 1955. If this isn’t odd enough, Lewis mentions Tolkien only twice in this account of his early life at Oxford; he identifies Tolkien as a colleague and friend, but doesn’t credit Tolkien specifically with helping him make the shift to a Christian faith.
Lewis certainly offered Tolkien years’ worth of advice on the writing of LotR, but Tolkien, in his turn, detested the Narnia Chronicles. Moreover, the regular meetings of the Inklings ended in the fall of 1949, before LotR or any of the Narnia books were even published.
What does any of this say about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien? The men were undoubtedly friends for decades. They had an influence on one another’s lives as writers and scholars. But the friendship had limits, not to mention its highs and lows—seeming to fizzle long before Lewis’ marriage to Joy Davidman in 1956.
My point—I’m looking forward to the documentary, but I’m going to watch with guarded interest. Friendships can be a messy business, and I doubt it was any different for Lewis and Tolkien—and there’s much to suggest the friendship had some rough patches. I would encourage you to read something about the Inklings and find out for yourself. And by all means, enjoy the new documentary when it comes out. Just remember, there’s going to be more to the story—more to suggest how human, after all, these men actually were.

Here Be Dragons

I love dragons. They are one of my favourite mythical creatures; they are powerful, cunning, destructive, disturbing, uncanny, magical, and downright terrifying. English literature is full of dragons, beginning with Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. More than this, western mythology is full of dragon slayers, including heroes from ancient Greece, such as Cadmus, Perseus, and Heracles. Dragons have literally fired the imaginations of writers for hundreds of years.
Some of my favourite characters are dragons:
• Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,
• Norbert, the Norwegian Ridged-back, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although he isn’t much of a character),
• Ewstace, as a temporarily enchanted dragon, from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
• and, Yevaud, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
You can find an extensive list of young adult books about dragons on Goodreads. Just follow the link.
As so many writers have depicted these amazing creatures, it’s difficult to find much that is new or different in the world of dragons. Recently, I discovered a new book by Brandon Mull. Dragon Watch is Mull’s latest book that continues the story of Fablehaven, a series centring on Kendra and Seth Sorenson—sister and brother—who discover their grandparents are keepers of a magical preserve, a place that houses and maintains mythical creatures. This five-book series is well worth the read.
In Dragon Watch, the first book of the new series, Kendra and Seth find themselves caretakers of Wyrmroost, one of the world’s dragon preserves. Kendra is fairykind, and Seth is a shadow charmer; together, they have the power to resist the enchantment of dragons. While written less well than the books in the original series, Dragon Watch is full of, well, dragons, so if you love these creatures, then add these books to your list.
Where I live is pretty short on mythical creatures—but perhaps not as short as you might think. I recently took a trip with a friend to visit the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. The museum is an amazing walk through the geological and palaeontological history of Alberta. Even if you aren’t’ a dinosaur person, you will find this museum fascinating. All the fossils are creatures that walked the swampy forests or swam the Bearpaw Sea that was once Alberta.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Edmontosaurus on display might not be dragons of myth, but looking at these fossils will help you understand why dragons, or even the thought of dragons, has so fully entered the imaginations of countless writers. They are those creatures that lie on the edges of our imaginations. They slumber in caves or under mountains; they are hoarders of wealth and of secrets. Wake them, if you dare.

Thoughts on C. S. Lewis

:This year’s Verge conference at Trinity Western University is all about C. S. Lewis. Trinity Western is in Langley, BC, and it’s home to the Inklings Institute of Canada, co-directed by Monika Hilder and Stephen dunning. The keynote speaker for this year’s conference is Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: the Seven heavens in the Imagination of c. s. Lewis.
Michael Ward is something of a rock star when it comes to Lewis scholarship. His book, Planet Narnia, has helped change the way many people read the Narnia books. Ward lines up the seven books of the series with the seven planets of medieval cosmology. It sounds a little daunting, especially if you don’t know much about the medieval understanding of the universe; however, Ward is amazingly lucid when it comes to his approach. The BBC has even made a film about Ward and his ideas, the Narnia code.
Michael Ward and The Narnia Code

I came to the Verge conference specifically to hear Michael Ward speak. His public lecture on Wednesday evening was packed with scholars and Lewis fans. Ward is a fine speaker: he brings you along for the ride, and he makes sure you never get lost. And he’s funny, too.
Commenting on his approach to the Narnia books, and the fact that no one has made such a connection before now, Ward said to the audience on Wednesday, “If you’re sceptical, you should be.”
Inviting the audience’s scepticism in this way was disarming, but Ward didn’t have to worry someone wasn’t on his side—the audience’s enthusiastic response made that clear. His approach just simply works. He further claims Lewis actually planned the Narnia books to line up with the planets in this way. Here, I have more trouble, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The medieval world view placed the Earth at the centre of the universe, with seven planets in the sky. The Moon and the sun were two of these seven planets, or bodies visible to medieval observers. Ward aligns each of the books in the Narnia series with one of these heavenly bodies. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, is the sun book. This is easier to understand at the outset, as King Caspian’s voyage is to the east, journeying into the sun and the end of the world.
If you take time to explore Ward’s book, you won’t be disappointed. It adds a level of complexity and richness to the Narnia chronicles that will keep people exploring them in new ways for years to come.

C. S. Lewis, A Good Friday Post

“Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These are the words, according to C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, that introduced him to the myths of the north. His love for what he called “that northern thing” persisted throughout his life, and formed the foundation for two of his life-long friendships—Arthur Greeves and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Many people know and love Lewis’ Narnia books; fewer know his Space trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Fewer, again, know his Christian apologetics or his essays, and you might get a blank look if you start talking about Lewis’ scholarship. Perhaps this is the difference between Narnia fans and Lewis fans. Look here for a full list of Lewis’ works.
If you are going to grapple with Lewis as a writer, then you have to deal with him as a Christian. For some, this can be an uncomfortable exercise. A place to begin is Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955).  This is Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, which he wrote as he was writing the Narnia books. I always find this an interesting coincidence—his interest in writing a series for children may have been the catalyst that took him back to his own childhood. It’s here, in Lewis’ account of being a boy, where you can read about his discovery of the myths of the north, beginning with the words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These words resonated with Lewis, and they became the words he associated with joy, that fleeting sense he had growing up of the presence of the divine.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography details his journey towards joy, and eventually his conversion to Christianity in 1931. However, if you want to read about the talk with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in September of that year, you have to find a copy of his letters. It’s a letter to Arthur Greeves dated October 18, 1931, in which Lewis details the evening with Tolkien and Dyson, and the experience on Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College. I’m including part of that letter below, but all of this to say that Lewis’ conversion to Christianity harkens back to his boyhood and the fascination with the figure of the dying god—a discussion that seems appropriate on a Good Friday morning.
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths… “
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. Print.

A Return to Narnia

Yes, that is a real photo; and yes, you expect to see a faun carrying an umbrella next to the lamp-post.
After reading Lev Grossman’s Magician series earlier this year, I dove back into Narnia. It’s easy to slip back into Lewis’ world—just start reading, and there I am, following the adventures of Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and the rest.
I always feel I can jump in anywhere with the Narnia books. It’s not like reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I can’t just jump in; I have to read the books in order—most of the time. But with Lewis, it’s simply a matter of picking my point of entry. This time I started with Prince Caspian, then I read The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and now I’m reading The Silver Chair.
If you ever wonder about the correct order in which to read the Narnia books, there isn’t one—not really, at least according to Lewis himself. However, people have varying opinions on the matter. Publishers would have you believe The Magicians Nephew is first in the series. It’s not. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first book in the series. You can read the books in the order you like, but Lion is first. It was first published; it’s the first introduction to the world of Narnia, and the first introduction to the children and Aslan. The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel—not the first book in the series.
Alister McGrath offers a compelling argument for the ordering of the Narnia books in his biography of Lewis, C. S. Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This is one of the best biographies on Lewis—if you want to find out more about the life of this Oxford don. You can watch a lecture by McGrath here:
While the Pevensie children are the central group of characters in the series, one of my favourites is Ewstace Scrubb. Here’s the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“There was a boy called Ewstace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Poor Ewstace. He has much to learn in this book—mostly about not being an ass, but also about being with other people and forming relationships. I sometimes wonder if Lewis took his inspiration for Ewstace from Ebenezer Scrooge.
While much of the criticism written about the Narnia books examines Lewis as a Christian writer, this isn’t the only way to read these books. Take one small example—Lewis is often funny as a writer. He’s at his best with Ewstace Scrubb. Ewstace is mouthy, argumentative, irreverent, and self-serving—at least until he meets Aslan on Dragon Island. After Ewstace is undragoned by Aslan, he’s less funny. And speaking of Aslan—the Great Lion is dangerous, awe inspiring, terrible, full of joy, gentle, and kind. But he isn’t funny.
Make of that what you will. I love the books, and I’ll keep reading them. I still laugh out loud as I read certain passages, and I maintain that Lewis knew how to be funny, in spite of the weighty seriousness that often pervades the series, especially The Last Battle.
I think Lev Grossman must understand this about Lewis, too. While the Magician books are dark, disturbing, and painful, there are passages and scenes that are exquisitely funny. But that’s the thing about humour. It’s often the leavening agent that turns the crushingly tragic into the recognizably human.