Probably most famous for his series of children's fantasy books, The Chronicles of Narnia, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was also well known as a writer of science fiction, Christian theology, literary criticism, and medieval scholarship. Because of the combination of Lewis's own childhood, his conversion to Christianity, his authorship of children's literature, and his work as a Christian apologist (someone who explains a religion to its critics), Lewis is an especially interesting figure for thinking about the role of the literary imagination in the spiritual and religious lives of children.
Some of the details of Lewis's early life echo throughout the seven-volume work of The Chronicles of Narnia. For the first 9 years of his life, Lewis had a carefree and imagination-filled childhood. Lewis and his older brother invented a fictional land called Boxen and wrote many illustrated stories about it. He also spent a significant part of his childhood in a large house with many secret passages and plenty of attic space, a biographical detail that recalls both the games of Polly and Digory at the start of The Magician's Nephew, as well as the very concept of “traveling between worlds” around which The Chronicles are based.
Lewis was also a voracious reader in his youth (two of his favorites were Treasure Island and The Secret Garden), and he and his brother spent many rainy days telling adventure stories inside an old wardrobe. In The Chronicles, an old wardrobe becomes the magical means for travel to the land of Narnia. When he was 9 years old, Lewis's mother died after a long and difficult illness. Lewis was sent to a boarding school a few weeks after her death. Even this detail has poignant resonance with the ending of The Magician's Nephew, as the character Digory is able to heal his ailing mother with magical assistance from the land of Narnia.
Although Lewis had been raised a Christian by his parents, he abandoned Christianity in his teens, comfortable with declaring himself an atheist. It wasn't until his early 30s that his spiritual life began to turn again as his continuing meditations on religion led him to the point that he felt compelled to accept a basic belief in God: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.” Two years later, due in part to conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings), Lewis came to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. (For an allegorical account of his conversion, see The Pilgrim's Regress .) Lewis died in 1963 after suffering from a variety of illnesses.
Lewis didn't consider writing children's literature until 1939. Because of the threat of German bombardment in London, Lewis had volunteered to take some children into his country home. His interactions with those children set his mind to work on story ideas. (Lewis did not have any children of his own, although he later gained two stepsons by marriage.) Lewis completed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1948. The entire set of The Chronicles of Narnia includes: The Magician's Nephew (1955); The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950); The Horse and His Boy (1954); Prince Caspian (1951); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952); The Silver Chair (1953); and The Last Battle (1956). (The books are listed in the order Lewis preferred that they be read.)
The Chronicles of Narnia is widely considered to be steeped in Christian imagination. And the writing of children's literature by a Christian like C. S. Lewis raises many interesting questions about the role of the imagination in the spiritual development of children. What does it mean to say that a set of fantasy stories spring from a Christian imagination? What is the relationship between the stories children hear and their religious beliefs? Do stories compete with religious beliefs or do they prepare children for them?
Lewis considers these types of questions in some of his own essays, found especially in On Stories and Other Essays in Literature. In “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said,” for example, Lewis observes that the stories he learned of Christ as a child inhibited his religious development because the stories would dictate in advance what a child should be feeling. Furthermore, he claims that he did not write his own stories with the goal of trying to say something about Christianity to children, insisting, rather, that the stories sprang from his own imagination, an imagination filled with Christian sentiment. The reader could ask, then, just what does it mean to say that the stories are Christian? Interested readers should also look particularly at “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “On Juvenile Taste.”
Finally, Lewis took seriously the responsibility he had as an author to his many young readers, writing hundreds of letters of reply to young fans and inquirers (see C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children). He believed firmly that young people should be treated largely as equals and with intellectual respect.
- “Aren't you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.
- “Not now,” said Aslan. “You're not—not a—?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn't bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stopped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.
- “Do I look it?” he said. “Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.
- “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
- “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- “Don't you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
- “There was only one lion,” said the Voice.
- “What on earth do you mean? I've just told you there were at least two the first night, and—”
- “There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”
- “How do you know?”
- “I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
- “Who are you?” asked Shasta.
- “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.
From The Horse and His Boy
In both excerpts above, we can see a certain resonance between the lion Aslan and the figure of Jesus. In the first case, Aslan offers himself as a sacrifice to the Witch in order to save someone else. He then resurrects, explaining to the children that there is a “deeper magic” that can undo Death itself, a magic that is accomplished when an innocent and willing victim is killed in the place of a traitor. In the second excerpt, it is revealed to Shasta that Aslan is always with him, protecting and guiding him. The passage concludes with the Old Testament formulation that God is God, Himself.
Lewis would always insist, however, that Aslan does not “represent” Jesus. Rather, he substitutes for “representation” the notion of “supposition,” meaning the use of the imagination, as he puts it in a letter to a child: “I did not say to myself, ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.” At the same time, Lewis clearly thinks that the feelings produced by these stories are good preparation for coming to a deep understanding of the story of Jesus later in one's life. In another interesting letter to a mother who is concerned that her son loves Aslan more than Jesus, Lewis tries to reassure her that the thing the boy loves Aslan for doing and saying are simply the things that Jesus really did and said: “So that when Laurence [the son] thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.”
But is this merging of a fictional character with the historical and religious significance of Jesus as uncomplicated as Lewis likes to think? Such questions make Lewis particularly interesting to think about regarding the emotional and imaginative lives of children who are of a particular religious faith.
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