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Exploring Narnia

11/30/2010

Alton Pelowski

The helm of the Dawn Treader is emblazoned with the image of Aslan, the “Great Lion” of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox)

Oxford University professor Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis (1898-1963) was the author of numerous scholarly works, spiritual classics such as Mere Christianity (1952), and acclaimed works of fiction such as The Screwtape Letters (1942). Yet, he is best known for his children's literature. His seven-part Chronicles of Narnia, written between 1950 and 1956, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide in 47 languages.

 

In 2005, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was made into a major motion picture. In anticipation of the third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which will be released in theaters Dec. 10, Columbia interviewed Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis, to shed light on the story behind Narnia.

 

Columbia: The Chronicles of Narnia were written more than 50 years ago as books for children, but they continue to be enormously popular with adults and children alike.

Gresham: One of the things that Jack (that was C.S. Lewis's nickname) always said was that if a fairy story or a children's story is any good to read when you're five, it should be equally good to read when you're 50. Jack himself was an immensely widely read man. He had read all the great mythologies and literature of mankind. This gave him an amazing ability and facility with words.

Columbia: Do you have a favorite book in the series?

Gresham: Certainly. It's whichever one I'm reading at the time that someone asks me.

 

Columbia: The Chronicles of Narnia did not escape criticism, even by Lewis's friends, such as J.R.R. Tolkien.

Gresham: I think Tolkien was the chief critic. His reasons for that were quite simple: He liked all of his mythologies kept in their own boxes and in their own genres. So, when Jack produced this sort of mythological soup and chucked them all into one book with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tolkien was a bit dismayed to say the least.

But it's only fair to say that the whole attitude of the Inklings, which was sort of a loosely affiliated group of scholars who would get together and read aloud to each other the works they were writing at the time — which, by the way, was a very brave thing to do — was to tear the works to pieces and pull out every mistake they could find, with great humor at the same time, mind you. The result of this is that we have some of the finest literature ever written in the English language, such as The Lord of the Rings.

The whole of that situation was indicative of something that has all but vanished in the academic world today. Back in the 1940s and '50s and '60s, men believed that the best friends that you could have were the ones who would openly criticize your work and lay bare to you the mistakes and errors that you made, so that you might learn from them and correct them. In today's world, if someone criticizes your work openly, it has become fashionable to hate them for it. That is extremely foolish. You cannot learn from someone who always agrees with you; you can only learn in the fire of disputation and dialectic.

 

Columbia: The last of the Narnia books was published in 1956, the same year C.S. Lewis married your mother and adopted you at about age 10. How did these stories, or Lewis's imagination in general, color your life as a child?

Gresham: Jack was really a man who loved the great myths of mankind and understood what myth really is: man's blind gropings for God before God revealed himself to us. And therefore, the great mythologies are valuable to us. As a result, I was always reading mythology: The Legend of King Arthur and so forth. Jack and I would talk as if all these things were real, as if when walking through the woods behind the Kilns one might expect to see a faun pop out from behind a stone. Narnia, of course, we treated as if it was our own personal playground in a sense. We used Narnian figures and characters in conversation frequently. I grew up in Narnia, and I've never left it.

 

Columbia: When discussing the values of Eustace's parents and their sending him to a school called the "Experiment House," The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is pretty critical of mistaken ideas of progress, particularly in education. How was Lewis's philosophy in this regard reflected in his studies or in your own education?

Gresham: Jack certainly was critical of educational trends and would be even more so today, I think. Jack firmly believed that children were not to be the subjects of experimentation, and I have to agree with him. I think that much of what is done in modern education is sheer folly. In fact, I believe quite strongly that homeschooling is the finest form of education children can get. I think I have used more of what I learned at the dinner table of the Kilns than I have used from any of the schools that I went to.

 

Columbia: Is there anything you'd like to share about Lewis' personality?

Gresham: One of the things that always seems to get lost in the works about him is the man's immense sense of fun and humor. He wasn't this dour, closed-in scholar who locked himself away and kept a severe expression on his face. In fact, his great sense of humor was probably the hallmark of his personality. You couldn't be in a conversation with him for five or 10 minutes without roaring with laughter. He was one of the least snobbish people I think I've ever met. And he entertained people in conversation no matter where they came from or who they were.

 

Columbia: Why do you think Lewis chose to communicate the spiritual truths of Christianity not only through essays of theological reflection, but also through the medium of fiction?

Gresham: If you are a writer and you are a committed Christian, everything you believe and everything you value is part of Christianity. So, when you start to write fiction, it's completely inescapable that your Christianity would creep through onto the pages you write. I think that is true of men like George MacDonald, for example, and C.S. Lewis and many other writers. I think that's the way to look at it. Christianity was there first. So, when you start writing fiction as a Christian, your Christian beliefs are bound to creep onto the page through your pen.

 

Columbia: As a child, did the Chronicles play a role in introducing you to the Gospel?

Gresham: That is a difficult question to answer. It's like the chicken and the egg — which came first? I think probably I understood the Narnian Chronicles far better because I understood the Gospels of Jesus Christ. And I understand the Gospels of Jesus Christ far better because I understand the Narnian Chronicles.

 

Columbia: What's the most underappreciated work of Lewis?

Gresham: Till We Have Faces, which is Jack's careful and very delightful retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is the book that Jack himself thought was his very best work of fiction — and scholars of his work today are beginning to agree with him. It is a wonderful, multi-layered book. I think it is probably overlooked by a lot of people. Standing alone, it's unlike anything else he ever wrote, but then most of his work is a bit like that.

 

ALTON PELOWSKI is the managing editor of Columbia magazine.