Once there was a child whose name was Clive Staples Lewis. He was born in 1898 in the city of Belfast, Ireland. When Clive was about four or five he announced to his mother that he would rather be known as ‘Jacksie’ for he had felt, even at that tender age, that ‘Clive’ was not a name he deserved to be saddled with. Some sources claim that ‘Jacksie’ had been the name of a dog he was fond of, however this story is considered to be apocryphal (imagine if you’d been called ‘Horace’ or ‘Ermintrude,’ you’d change your name pretty quick too wouldn’t you, even if your pet dog’s name happened to be Spot or Fido.)
When Jack was seven years old his family (being his mother Flora, his father Albert and his brother Warren or Warnie) moved to ‘Little Lea,’ an imposing Edwardian house, built by Albert (for Albert was a well-to-do solicitor) on the outskirts of Belfast. It was a house of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles (If you read the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you will see that it was a house very like the one that belonged to Professor Kirke.) Also, there were endless books (Flora and Albert were readers.) The house seemed to be built of books. There were walls lined with books, and books piled up so high you could use them as a chair or a table, and books crammed into every available empty space. Jack read every book in that house.
And in that house there was also a wardrobe.
This was no ordinary wardrobe for it was very big, you might say eye catchingly enormous; you’ll certainly see nothing like it these days, for it was covered in intricate hand carvings made by Jack’s grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Hamilton. Jack and Warnie used to climb inside this wardrobe to read (if you ever decide to climb inside a wardrobe then never shut the door, for that would be very silly; always leave it slightly ajar, or you might end up trapped inside the wardrobe where you would suffocate very slowly, for your average wardrobe is almost never a magic portal into another world.)
The Reverend Hamilton lived in the rectory of St Mark’s church near Belfast (which had also been Flora’s childhood home) and on his front door there was an imposing brass doorknob, just above the letterbox, in the shape of a lion’s head. This bronze lion (almost golden you might think in a certain light) was probably at just the right height for a child to look up at in wonder and awe, if you were the right sort of child that is; one who was prone to night terrors and who invented an imaginary land called Boxen (here Jack and Warnie were following in the footsteps of the Brontes) where all the inhabitants were talking animals who walked about in Edwardian clothes.
This story is about a life-defining something that happened to Jack when he was about ten years old.
In 1908, when Jack was nearly ten his mother died of cancer. Flora had been clever (she had a first in mathematics and had had a short story published in a London magazine) but she had also been her son’s ‘great continent,’ a landmass of security (in spite of the fact that Flora had servants and employed a Nanny) and her death left him adrift in an unsettled sea filled with the occasional island of joy (rather like the ocean voyage in the book The Voyage of The Dawn Treader.) Jack’s father was, by his son’s account, an ineffective communicator who did all the talking; who behaved at home as though he were still addressing a court of law; who pried into Jack’s life, wanting to know everything, and who was a world class pessimist, regularly given to shouting out such gems as: ‘there’ll soon be nothing for it but the workhouse!’ – but who also had a quick mind, a love of poetry and had written stories and poems at school. Albert Lewis also lost his own father and brother that same year and withdrew (it seemed to Jack) in hardened grief and increasing eccentricity (which is hardly surprising, imagine if you lost almost your entire immediate family in one go) sending Jack (and his brother Warnie) away to a boarding school in England, run by a head teacher who was later declared insane. And this bedlam of an institution was also rife with homosexual abuse and the beating of boys, to such an extent that it could possibly have killed them (your school doesn’t seem so bad now does it?)
A further boarding school followed near Belfast. Jack hated school, as did all his fictional children (for all I know you hated school too, but do remember that, however much you disliked Mr So and So in Maths, it’s very unlikely that he was certifiably insane.) Albert then set Jack up with a private tutor in Surrey, England, where he lived for three years. This tutor’s name was William T Kirkpatrick (who unwittingly gave part of his name to Digory Kirke, who you can read about in three of The Chronicles of Narnia.) Kirkpatrick taught Jack all about fierce logic and how to question everything (he was a lapsed Christian) and Jack later felt that he owed his tutor a great intellectual debt.
So, just two weeks after his mother’s death, Jack’s father essentially banished his two sons from the house, via the route of hellish boarding schools and private tutoring across the channel. The effect of this was to make the brothers best friends for life.
During his teenage years Jack fell in love with Norse mythology and Greek mythology and Irish fairy tales and all things pagan (and a little bit of the occult) and these preoccupations so filled his head that when he was seventeen years old a faun, carrying an umbrella, walked into his dreams through a wood filled with snow and you might say that, to Jack, the dream world was preferable to the real one. Further visions followed down the years – a white queen on a sledge (Jack had loved The Snow Queen) and a great and powerful lion, who came bounding into Jack’s dreamscape unbidden.
Aslan was on the move.
But the teenage Jack would not have heeded the lion. Aged fifteen he became an atheist and who can blame him? The God his entire family believed in had not saved his mother (only the fictional Digory Kirke would do that and you can read how in the book The Magician’s Nephew.) His mother’s death led Jack to cruelly spurn his father’s attempts to befriend his two sons during the holidays. For the father’s ‘faults,’ mentioned earlier, are not to be taken at face value but rather through the lens of the unhappy and angry Jack. Who knows if Jack and Warnie may have felt anger at their father for not having died in their mother’s place? But the fact is that Jack remained wilfully estranged from his father until Albert’s death in 1929, which then brought on a bout of catastrophic guilt followed by a full conversion to Christianity, begun whilst sitting, uncharacteristically, on an Oxford bus (contrary to popular belief God does not work in mysterious ways but, to those who are prepared to listen, he tends to use the tried and tested methods of guilt, fear and loss.)
When Jack was eighteen he went up to Oxford (for which his tutor had prepared him thoroughly) but almost immediately enlisted in the First World War (which was a very brave and patriotic thing to do but not something you should necessarily rush into.) However, when a boy’s mother dies and his father is a poor substitute (in the boy’s eyes) then there is no one to hold the boy back, and there’s perhaps a feeling that there’s nothing much left to hold onto. So Jack directly experienced the horrors of war and this further strengthened his atheism.
During his time in the War Jack made a pact, which no two nineteen year olds should ever have to make, with his childhood friend Paddy Moore, who also joined up. Should either one die then the survivor would take care of his friend’s family. Paddy Moore was tragically killed and Jack went on to live with Paddy’s mother Mrs Janie Moore (a divorcee) and her daughter, until Mrs Moore’s death in 1951. Jack provided for them all as well as he could; kept the living arrangement secret from his father and later told interested parties around Oxford (where he became a tutor) that Mrs Moore was either his landlady or, more alarmingly, his mother (if possible try not to go through life pretending that somebody is your dead mother, as this will open the gateway to all kinds of Freudian hang ups.)
Mrs Moore had descended on Jack when he was invalided out of the war and in hospital. She visited constantly, sharing the grief of her son’s death. Jack was lonely and his father was distant (remember, however, that Albert would have been crushingly lonely and psychologically damaged too) so the scene was set for an ‘attraction’ borne out of extreme circumstances. Mrs Moore was twenty seven years older than Jack. They went on to live in ‘The Kilns,’ Lewis’s final adult home, along with Jack’s brother Warnie (a raging alcoholic) and Mrs Moore’s daughter. These all round, unholy alliances naturally led Jack to experience depression and Warnie later described Jack’s relationship with Mrs Moore (whom Warnie hated) as that of a slave towards its master, seemingly oblivious that his alcoholism would have also posed a significant problem.
Perhaps Jack wrote this unnatural and psychologically damaging ‘marriage’ with Mrs Moore into Narnia (if you read The Silver Chair you will find Prince Rilian subjected to enslavement, with heavily sadomasochistic overtones, by the beautiful but evil Witch of Underland.)
So, you see, the time was ripe for Jack to retreat from the real world of family estrangement, the self-inflicted slavery of his odd relationship with Mrs Janie Moore and the trials of living with a persistent drunk, in favour of a fantasy world filled with every possible creature from all his favourite mythologies. And so, during the 1940’s, Jack drafted his first children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when evacuees began turning up at The Kilns, which further aided his writing (these evacuees were all very upper class and one of these evacuees grew up to be the wife of Sir Clement Freud (Oh dear) and was the supposed inspiration for the ‘saintly’ character Lucy.)
Jack, then, almost immediately burned his first draft, after showing it to J R R Tolkien and other members of The Inklings set, a group of Oxford academics who met to discuss literature and to ‘try out’ their own literary offerings (if you ever try to write a book then I suggest not showing it to anyone.) Tolkien thought it a disaster and that the world of Narnia was too hastily written (which it was, one book being written in a matter of weeks) and too filled with a confusing cast of thousands (which it was, culminating in an infamous cameo by Father Christmas.) But Jack had something Tolkien lacked – a direct simplicity and an absolute genius for unforgettable images (nothing finer than that incongruous lamp post in a snowy wood, and you’ve tried walking through the back of a wardrobe haven’t you, at least once – always remembering to never shut the door behind you, for that would be very silly.)
Jack had finally given in to Christianity upon his father’s death, after years of dithering, becoming ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’ Jack may have found conversion an agonising choice but he was determined to win over an entire generation of children to God’s side, by writing a series of books in which events explicitly paralleled his brand of Christian faith. The God fearing Americans, in particular, lapped up Narnia. They barely give countenance to claims that Jack, as a young man, rather liked ‘the pleasure of the whip,’ or that it is highly likely that Jack and Mrs Moore had been lovers early on in their live-in relationship, when she had been an attractive forty-something as opposed to the seventy-something, senile old bat towards the end (which may account for some of Jack’s unfashionable misogyny) or that he held a fascination for myth and the pagan religions, or that Jack chain smoked upwards of 60 cigarettes a day (finishing off with a comforting pipe) and could be found down the pub sloshing back a beloved pint or two, or three – in fact Jack was absolutely riddled with vices (NB. never take up smoking or drinking if you can help it but definitely give it up, when your doctor asks you to, or you’re likely to die of nephritis and a heart attack) or that he cared nothing for his appearance, wearing clothes that were falling apart and often appeared in public wearing an old dressing gown (but then it’s always nicer to choose comfort over style isn’t it?)
But, as ever, the Christians love a good sinner. The only thing they love more is explaining WHY you can sin and yet still get into heaven.
After the death of Mrs Moore, Jack rapidly took up with Joy Davidman, an American (who doesn’t come over as at all agreeable, so we must suppose he was keeping up his track record where women were concerned) and, in an interesting turn around, Jack was much older than the woman he eventually married.
Jack died in November 1963 (his death overshadowed by Kennedy’s) and so this story is over. But for Jack (who truly believed that death was not the end) we must assume that the real story had only just begun.
Phew. So much for internet research (written in the style of the subject, just so you know) on an author I’ve suddenly become obsessed with. I’ve just spent roughly two weeks reading the chronicles of Narnia. My head is spinning; filled with fauns, dryads, centaurs, witches, trees, waterfalls, valleys, mountains, snow, stiff upper-lipped, not very appealing, boarding school educated kids and a gigantic talking lion. I went into Waterstone’s looking for a book that I can’t now remember and instead came out with seven collector edition Narnian books, after spotting a whole row of them in the kids section. Why not give them a go I’d thought, being that I’d never read all seven and have no memory of reading the most famous one as a child – although I do remember trying to push through clothes hanging in a very ordinary, bog standard 1970’s wardrobe.
I flashed through each book (two evenings per book.) They’re quite short and written in simple, accessible prose and then wished I hadn’t rushed the whole thing because I’m sort of missing them, so I’ve started the whole cycle again, this time going much more slowly and savouring every word.
And this is strange because, as an atheist, I find parts of the books intensely annoying and almost an affront to anyone with half a brain, which is peculiar given they were written by an Oxford Don who was supposedly one of the ‘intellectual giants’ of the twentieth century. But it just goes to show that even clever-clever people, who go to Oxford, can suffer from wrong-headedness.
Before Lewis really got going with his wrong-headedness, which is very evident in the final book The Last Battle, he gave us six books which are all charming descriptions of Narnia (where all the best bits are carbon copies of a green and pleasant British landscape and all the worst bits are carbon copies of desert lands where all the turban wearing ‘darkies’ live.) The bits I like are when Lucy goes for afternoon tea with a faun; when the kids meet the beavers and stuff themselves with food; when the white witch starts dishing out Turkish delight; when Edmund walks around a castle filled with stone statues; mostly all the religion-free, pagan bits. And then there are the Narnian kings and queens who traipse up rocky hillsides, or drink from Nordic mountain streams, or walk through English woods full of elms, cedars and oaks. And the Narnian royalty all run around looking like they escaped into Narnia from Camelot. Perhaps this was how Lewis ensnared his child readers, lulling them into a false sense of security by filling his books with fairy tale bits and Beatrix Potter bits and Lewis Carroll bits and E Nesbit bits and medieval Arthurian bits, to keep us all happy, before throwing Aslan’s gruesome death and resurrection right at us (hang on a minute, things just got a bit pear shaped.) For it seems that C S Lewis decided to knick just about everything from every kid’s book (and every other book) he’d ever read, including all the juicy bits from the bible.
In fact it’s all quite Lord of the Rings’ish. Lewis and Tolkien, or ‘Tollers’, were friends; imagine that pair sat round the pub nursing a pint, Lewis bellowing: ‘Tollers old man, what do you think of my kiddies fairy tale?’ in his fake, toff, British accent – he’d quickly lost his ‘embarrassing’ Irish accent by then – and Tollers replying, ‘utter rot old chap, now be a brick and get another round in’ – this is actually how the kids in Narnia speak. Narnia is a bit like Middle Earth except for the very happy fact that it’s not as long-winded, doesn’t take itself half so seriously and you don’t have to bother learning Elvish.
There are also far fewer characters, so you don’t need mind boggling indexes and appendices. And what characters there are appear to serve as mouthpieces, rather than actual, fully drawn people (and dwarves, talking animals, wood nymphs etc) with the possible exception of a marsh-wiggle called Puddleglum, who is by far the most interesting and funny character in the whole Narnian saga. His conversations focus solely on the negative and he’s forever going off on a pessimistic tangent – perhaps, thought I, Lewis immortalised his poor old dad’s pessimism in this strange, frog-like man, finally turning him into a sort of very British, very put upon hero. But no, Puddleglum was based on Lewis’s gardener.
Nowhere is the use of character as mouthpiece more obvious than where the children are concerned. Not a single child in the Narnian universe exhibits any memorable character traits or is even described in any detail, perhaps with the exception of Eustace Clarence Scrubbs, who is unfortunate enough to be in possession of parents who are vegetarians, teetotallers and believers in progressive education i.e. co-ed and run by women (three great sins in Lewis’s masculine, middle-class world.) It’s strange that Lewis is so anti change in the educational system considering his appalling experiences at middle-class boarding schools. It’s also worth noting that parents in general play absolutely no part in the Narnian saga, preferring to abandon their kids to just get on with it.
There’s a lot C S Lewis isn’t in favour of throughout the Narnian chronicles but his ‘prejudices’ probably go right over your average kid’s head. The evil people in Narnia are all women, or dark skinned, garlic loving Calormen. It’s easy to see Mrs Moore in both the Narnian witches, or perhaps Lewis was thinking of the Snow Queen and Persephone Queen of the Underworld (again mixing his mythologies.) It can be too tempting for critics to ‘read’ anything and everything into Lewis’s creation of his alternate universe. Maybe it just is what it is – except for Aslan of course.
Lewis claimed that he never set out to present Christ as a lion but that Irish church doorknob, and the fact that the lion is the king of beasts, and the biblical reference to the Lion of Judah meant that it was pretty much a dead cert that lions would begin to fill Lewis’s dreams during the creation of Narnia. As soon as Aslan (Turkish for lion) appeared on the scene then the first Narnian tale, which had been percolating away for ten years, suddenly took off. Lewis now had his lion, he was living with his witch (Janie sounds awfully like ‘Jadis’) and he had the memory of his grandad’s wardrobe.
I stomached all the not so veiled Christian ‘allegory’ quite easily, and even the weird way in which Aslan is presented; rolling around with Susan and Lucy in the grass; licking everyone with his great big tongue; stripping layers and layers of dragon skin from Eustace until he gets to the skin beneath; letting the girls stroke him and plunge their heads into his mane. As Rowan Williams (a previous Archbishop of Canterbury) said, Aslan is definitely ‘on the knife edge of the erotic.’
But here Lewis is no different from any other Christian, particularly all those nuns who metaphorically sort of ‘marry’ Jesus, not to mention all those people who think nothing of drinking Christ’s blood and swallowing down lumps of his flesh during your regular church service – can’t get more weirdly physical than that, even though the Christian religion is supposedly all about the Soul.
But the Christian stuff I simply couldn’t stomach comes at the end of the final book in the series, The Last Battle. Here Lewis really lets rip and it does him no favours. The previous books had at least been funny in places, and charmingly English, and filled with medieval royalty and enchanting mythical beasts but in The Last Battle we’ve reached Armageddon. And this really does come as a shocking surprise, even though it shouldn’t, considering Lewis was tracking the Bible from creation to the apocalypse.
Lewis goes into his last book determined to kill off everyone. After all, his mother died so why shouldn’t everyone else too? After much talk about false gods and a final battle between Narnia (although some Narnians defect) and the evil Calormenes (although one Calorman also defects) Aslan appears, when our heroes go through a stable (yes that stable) door (you’ll have to read it as I can’t be bothered to explain the madness) where they meet all the old Narnian children, except for Susan, and Aslan starts sorting out who goes to heaven (through a magical doorway) or who goes to hell (Aslan’s giant black shadow.)
In the same way that I can’t be bothered to explain what happens, Aslan also gives no real explanation for what happens at the end of the world. Narnia has to end simply because it’s Aslan’s will. Sure, there’s the fact that the Narnians believe in a fake Aslan for a while, so they’re duly punished (but you can’t really blame them, being that the real Aslan (like the real God) hardly ever makes an appearance or does anything about their problems, or answers their prayers.) In fact, the only time Aslan acts is through his human agents, which is also God’s modus operandi, the exceptions being when Aslan creates Narnia and then destroys it, rather like a spoilt child who’s grown tired of his favourite toy.
Aslan tells the Narnian kids that they were all in a train crash (like the fact they were all in a train crash doesn’t really matter) and that it killed their parents, and they’re all dead too and isn’t everything just wonderful. And what’s more they’re now in heaven and heaven is actually the real world and the one back home in England is just the rubbishy ‘shadowlands’ so, really, they’re much better off.
Lewis falls down in his description of heaven, which is not surprising, given that the Bible is sketchy on the details. There’s also the fact that no-one who has ever got into heaven has ever come back to tell us what it’s like therefore Lewis continually states that he can’t explain how great heaven is, that you’ll just have to get there and see for yourself, but it’s definitely full of the best tasting fruit, and the grass is really green and you get to run up waterfalls. You’ve really got to hope that Lewis’s insistence on ‘getting there’ didn’t inspire a death wish (preferably by train) in a whole generation of kids.
But the Narnian kids all swallow the heaven idea hook, line and sinker and are unreservedly ecstatic to have died so that they can live with Aslan forever. The fact that their lives have all been cruelly cut short and their innocent parents have also been killed is by the by. One person, however, escapes Armageddon and, surprisingly, she’s not the lucky one (I beg to differ.)
And that’s Susan, previously a Queen of Narnia (once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia, remember?) Well, not in Susan’s case. Susan does not die on the train, or was even in regular contact with her siblings, due to the unfortunate fact that she outgrew Narnia (believing it was make believe), started taking an interest in ‘nylon, lipstick and invitations’ and, moreover, was a bit thick (all grievous sins to be sure.) For this Susan is not allowed entry into Narnian heaven (or had a lucky escape as I prefer to think of it.)
The Narnian kids dismiss Susan as a not very pleasant character from their former earthly lives, and seem to instantly forget about her, forgetting that, back in England, she’d just lost her entire family. But no, Susan gets no sympathy. This is all very weird and unintentionally negates the whole Christian message Lewis was trying to fill the books with, since we assume being a Christian requires love of your fellow man and forgiveness. Further damage is caused when Aslan lets a dwarf into heaven, who had killed a fellow Narnian during battle, and lets one of the Calormen into heaven because, even though he worshiped a devil God, in his heart he’d really been worshiping Aslan. And thus Lewis condones murder and does away with every other religion on earth. And Edmund (the little Judas) gets a free pass, even though he’d previously betrayed his family to the White Witch.
The real reason Susan doesn’t get into heaven is that she no longer believes. This is the worst aspect of Christianity in all its guises. It’s possible for you to be utterly evil, but so long as you believe in God, or make a rapid conversion, then you’ll get to heaven. But, if you’re like poor Susan, and simply grow up and question your childish beliefs, then Aslan has no use for you.
As children’s books go, The Chronicles of Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, really work. It’s just a pity that, towards the end, Lewis appears to have lost both his mind and the plot – or maybe he was just tired of writing about Narnia and mass genocide was his get out clause.