The Narnian

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144

In his public career, C. S. Lewis was known as a gifted professor, scholar, Christian apologist, radio voice, and celebrity who was featured on the front page of Time magazine in 1947. However, his own preference was for solitude and a private imaginative world. He was, according to Alan Jacobs, a Narnian before Narnia was created.

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With The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Jacobs has written what he terms “almost a biography.” A chronicle of the development of Lewis’s mind, the book dispenses with conventional details of a life story in favor of insights that might shed light on the imaginative writer. Essentially, Jacobs finds that the young Lewis’s mind was divided between analytical and imaginative sides. Trained in the skepticism and atheism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought, Lewis found it difficult to reconcile faith with modernity. With the help of Christian friends such as J. R. R. Tolkien, he eventually found a means to include Christian faith as an essential part of a new synthesis. Consequently, Lewis’s thought became unleashed, and he produced the outstanding writings for which he is known.

Born in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis grew up a Protestant in Belfast, Ireland. At age four, he determined that he wanted to be called Jack or Jacksie, and was. His brother Warren (Warnie), with whom he would live most of his life, was three years older than he. His mother died when he was nine, and his father became remote. Having lost the security that his mother represented, Lewis describes himself as withdrawing into solitude. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), he explains that his ideal was the solitude such as one experiences when recovering from an illness, for it allowed him precious time for reading, imagining, and reflection.

He was certainly not happy without his solitude. In the various preparatory and public schools he attended he erected a defense against social snobbery by becoming an intellectual snob. Fortunately, his father found a tutor, named William T. Kirkpatrick, with whom Lewis could board. According to Lewis, Kirkpatrick was a purely logical entity from whom he learned argumentative skills and skepticism, but eventually he would discover the inadequacy of pure logic for a life of faith.

Nicknamed the Great Knock, Kirkpatrick taught Lewis many of the influential texts of the late nineteenth century, and those works tended toward atheism rather than Christianity. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, recounted the suffering of life to prove that there could be no loving and benevolent God. And The Golden Bough (1890) by Sir James Frazer made the case that Christianity shared so many of the attributes of other myths about dying gods that it could not be regarded as anything more than a variation of that theme. At this early point in his life, Lewis had few alternatives to counteract his educational training. Certainly any Christian beliefs he had were ineffectual.

World War I did nothing to make Lewis a believer. He was wounded by three pieces of shrapnel at the northern French town of Arras in the spring of 1918, after only three and a half months at the front. In his free time at the front and later during convalescence, he worked on writing a sequence of lyric poems which would eventually be published as Spirits in Bondage (1919). Although the poems are professedly atheistic, Jacobs notes that Lewis spends a great deal of time cursing the God in whom he claims not to believe.

As Lewis settled into his postwar life, several different factors combined to launch a very productive career as a Christian writer. Paradoxically, central to his life during this period was his mysterious relationship with Mrs. Janie Moore, a staunch atheist. At Oxford before the war, Lewis had roomed with Paddy Moore, a fellow cadet and Irishman. They made a pact that if either failed to return from the war while the other did, the survivor would take care of the other’s parent. When Paddy was killed, Lewis fulfilled his part of the bargain, spending the following thirty-three years with Mrs. Moore, or Minto, as she was nicknamed. The nature of the relationship was kept secret by Lewis, although Jacobs provides sufficient evidence to prove that it was a romantic one. At any rate, Minto, Lewis, and Warnie would share a home at the Kilns, near Oxford, until her death. Although several of Lewis’s friends appreciated Minto, to Warnie she was tyrannical in her demands on his brother. Jacobs believes that some of the passages in Lewis’s writing about the resentment Christians face in their homes from nonbelievers were a direct consequence of his relationship with her.

Lewis’s life focused, besides on Minto, on Oxford University, to which he had received a scholarship before the war. Returning afterward, he received the equivalent of a degree in philosophy and then sought a second degree in English. To Jacobs, to pursue this course of study was a critical decision because it would eventually nurture Lewis’s imaginative side, which he had been neglecting. Additionally, his choice of medieval and Renaissance studies exposed him to the charms of narrative poetry. In 1924, he became a don, or tutor, and teaching would become his lifelong career.

Jacobs argues that Lewis had the gift of faith, although his conversion did not come easily or quickly. With his return to Oxford, Lewis was still faced with his inability to reconcile the imaginative and analytical sides of his mind. As he writes in Surprised by Joy, “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” A difficulty for Lewis was reconciling the dying god myth with the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. In his early years as a tutor at Oxford, his friendship with Tolkien helped him to conclude that myth did provide a truthful connection to God’s universe. Nevertheless, Lewis describes himself after his 1929 conversion as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Still, after the conversion, Jacobs notes a new style of writing, an exuberance, and a fluency not present in the younger Lewis. He developed the remarkable ability to articulate his maturing Christian thinking in a variety of genres: literary scholarship, Christian polemic, science fiction, and the fantasy of the Narnia books.

One immediate change in his output was that he shifted from poetry to prose. His first work of prose was The Pilgrims Regress (1933), an updated version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678, 1684), critical of modern trends. Lewis’s first great scholarly book, The Allegory of Love (1936), appeared during this period as well as his first science-fiction work, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). His first apologia was The Problem of Pain (1940) followed by the popular The Screwtape Letters (1941).

In both his teaching and his writing, he relentlessly challenged his audiences to dispense with what he called chronological snobbery: assuming that the ideas of one’s own time are superior to an entirely discredited past. In fact, he argued, although some ideas of the past might justifiably have been discredited, others were notalthough they might have gone out of styleand might be a superior alternative to modern notions. In The Problem of Pain, he noted that people in every culture have unbalanced ethical developments. They might be acutely aware of some virtues but insensitive to others. Modernity, for example, had discredited heroism and even the notion of truth and encouraged a faithless skepticism. Progress had become more important than humanity, so much so that Lewis feared that humankind might become irrelevant. His book The Abolition of Man (1943) takes issue with a modern textbook that urged teachers to teach children skepticism, or what Jacobs terms disenchantment. Under the guise of objectivity the textbook’s authors, in fact, simply presented their own values without skepticism as a replacement for traditional ones.

During World War II, Lewis became a well-known radio personality through broadcasts he did for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In them, he advocated a transdenominational orthodoxy, something he would phrase “mere Christianity” and use as the title of the book in which he collected those broadcast lectures in 1943. The gist of these lectures was that most orthodox Christians have common core beliefs, whatever their particular sect. He found that those who objected to his ideas were too liberal to be included in any denomination. He received abundant letters in response to these lectures, and he conscientiously tried to answer every one of them. (Jacobs notes that he wrote 138 letters to one correspondent alone.)

However, it was never sufficient for Lewis to be a scholar or a Christian defender of the faith. Paradoxically, he began to believe that nothing could be more dangerous to his beliefs than argumentation. A belief in Christianity depended on faith, not argument. That is why, just at the peak of his reputation as a Christian apologist, he would decide to resort to story and myth. Jacobs believes that, although argument had opened the way for his becoming a Christian by disposing of philosophical objections, Lewis soon realized that logic alone could not make him a believer. Thus, having fulfilled his responsibility to the British people during the war, and facing overwhelming pressures in his lifeMinto’s illness, Warnie’s alcoholism, the burdens of teaching and his correspondenceas well as confronting new doubts raised by his intellect, he turned to writing the fantasies of Narnia for children. To Jacobs, Lewis always needed a story to capture his imagination.

When he began writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis felt freed from what he called the expository demon. He promised himself that he would not analyze or argue. He trusted that the images he would create would reflect a believing soul. In fact, the Narnia books were a truer depiction of his spiritual state than his apologetics were. As Jacobs points out to further his contention that Lewis’s diverse activities were remarkably unified, Lewis’s fantasies simply followed the storytelling conventions of two of his favorite Renaissance authorsSir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenserbut instead of writing to illuminate their ideas, as he did in literary criticism, he wrote to discover what lay at the center of his own soul.

Many changes occurred in the midst of the composition of the Narnia books. Minto died in 1951, Surprised by Joy was written, and Lewis’s history of sixteenth century literature was finally completed. Unable to secure an endowed chair from Oxford, which would have increased his pay and reduced his workload, he eventually accepted a chair from Cambridge University, at the urging of Tolkien.

The greatest influence in Lewis’s later years was the American Joy Davidman Gresham. She and Lewis began corresponding in 1950 when she wrote to thank him for influencing her conversion to Christianity. She came to England in 1952, he married her in a civil ceremony so that she could remain in England, then he married her before a priest at her sickbed in 1957. She died of cancer in 1960. Lewis took responsibility for her two children’s educations. The last Narnia book was published in 1956, he had a heart attack in 1962, and he died in 1963.

Before his death, Lewis wrote a final polemic responding to what he believed was a wrongheaded approach to literary criticism by his colleague at Cambridge, F. R. Leavis. Leavis’s great tradition of novelists was too exclusive for Lewis. In addition, he was opposed to Leavis’s belief that literature was able to do what the church had failed to do (build character and spirituality). In An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis fiercely defends reading independence, particularly for children. He pictures a boy secretly poring over Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883)a book decidedly outside Leavis’s great traditionfor the love of reading, and argues that imaginative literature, fantasy, myth, and adventure are as much a means to character formation as books recognized by an intellectual elite. To Jacobs, Lewis’s position in this final book is indicative of the unity of his thought over the years. The independent imagination was a critical component of his faith and creative inspiration.

The Narnian is a thought-provoking study and also offers an excellent background to C. S. Lewis’s life. Throughout the biography, Jacobs does an excellent job of explaining concepts ranging from Schopenhauer’s pessimism to the causes and effects of World War I, from the structure of English schools and Oxford’s colleges to the public debates of G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. One would have to do a great deal of research to derive such comprehensive and usefully concise accounts. Most important, the thesis advanced in this book about the nexus of belief and the imaginative power of literature is ably defended and interestingly presented.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Christianity Today 49, no. 12 (December, 2005): 34.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 15 (August 1, 2005): 829.

The New Republic 233, nos. 26-28 (December, 26, 2005): 29-34.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 32 (August 15, 2005): 48-49.

The Spectator 299 (November 5, 2005): 77.

The Wall Street Journal 246, no. 79 (October 15, 2005): P13.

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