CS Lewis’s 115th Birthday

“The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.”

Last week I wrote a post about CS Lewis, on the 50th anniversary of his death. Today sees the 115th year since his birth, and since writing last week’s post and seeing lots of coverage about the man and his life over the past few days, I have been thinking more about his inspiration, particularly for his most famous novels, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Much has been written about the symbolism of his novels, particularly the references to religion and Christianity. I had speculated that I should I read some of his other work, it might diminish my enjoyment of The Chronicles, as I might start to focus too much on the religious aspects. There are several aspects of the novels that weigh them heavily towards religion; for example, the inclusion of what became known as the Lewis Trilemma – he popularised the Nineteenth Century theory that no one could make claims of divinity such as the ones Jesus made without being either mad, a liar, or God. This can be seen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Professor Kirke convinces Peter and Susan that their younger sister Lucy, logically, must be telling the truth when she speaks of finding an imaginary land in the wardrobe – either that, or she has gone mad, or is a liar, neither of which seem plausible to them.

Map of Narnia

However, Lewis had many more sources of inspiration that he spoke of frequently with regards The Chronicles. His childhood, though unhappy due to the death of his mother, led to his love of reading, and he and his brother would make up their own magical stories inspired by the classics such as Alice in Wonderland and the Tales of Peter Rabbit. The dramatic landscapes of Northern Ireland, where he grew up, brought to mind worlds in which strange creatures lived – “I have seen landscapes,” he said, “which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.” This always makes me think of The Silver Chair, when Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum comment on the peculiar shaped rocks, only to find the rocks move and lift their heads to throw boulders at them as they try to pass through the valley.

Annalong Wood and the Mourne Mountains from geograph.org.uk

Lewis was greatly interested in mythology, and everything from Roman, Greek, Nordic and Celtic fairy tales can be seen woven into his stories. As an Oxford scholar he mixed with many other authors and was part of the Inklings, a literary discussion group particularly interested in fantasy writing, which included JRR Tolkien, another source of inspiration for Lewis. And then there were his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War, which no doubt stayed with him for the rest of his life.

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However, despite all of these other influences, it is religion that most often is spoken of when examining The Chronicles. It is clear, though, that although Lewis did have religious ideology in mind when writing, and his beliefs were an influence on his work, he did not consider the series allegory:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

From a letter to a reader – Mrs Hook – in 1958

Fast forward almost 50 years since the publication of the last Narnia novel, during which time many critics and literary scholars have discussed the source of Lewis’s inspiration – in 2008, British scholar Michael Ward published Planet Narnia. Through this, Ward claims that Lewis had an altogether different theme in mind when he wrote The Chronicles; something that had, until that point, remained a secret. He writes that Lewis constructed the seven Chronicles based on medieval cosmology, namely, the seven heavens – a concept from before the Sixteenth Century in which astronomers believed the seven heavens contained seven planets which revolved around Earth, exerting influences over people and events. Each of the novels, Ward claims, takes on the attributes of each of these planets:

“In The Lion the child protagonists become monarchs under sovereign Jove (Jupiter); in Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The Dawn Treader they drink light under searching Sol; in The Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician’s Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn.”

My copies of the Chronicles and Planet Narnia

I have a copy of this book, and though I have read bits of it, it is quite difficult and complex. But it is a compelling case – Ward has studied Lewis’s life and all of his works extensively, and used evidence from it all, including unpublished drafts of The Chronicles, to put together the cosmology theory. There is some difficulty in accepting the thought that Lewis, a man who embraced Christianity after declaring himself atheist, would be so interested in a topic that is seemingly un-Christian (though really, as Ward states, astrology is simply a study of the stars, not a worship of supposed planetary influences). So, why not? In his long poem The Planets, Lewis describes them as “spiritual symbols of permanent value” – there is no denying he had an interest in the topic. And although it is known that he did not have whole series of seven books mapped out from the beginning; that the decision for the seven part series didn’t come until after he had written The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ward argues that this doesn’t really matter – it is the adventures of the characters that make the narrative thread, not the influence of the planetary attributes (something that is everywhere present in the tale but nowhere explicit – a quality that Lewis valued in any story).

“The blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out – single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” 

The creation of Narnia, from The Magician’s Nephew

Diagram of the universe from Peter Apian's Cosmographia 1585 taken from Planet Narnia

I have always been interested in authors sources of inspiration, and The Chronicles of Narnia is full of so many hidden influences, discussions (and arguments) about it will no doubt continue for the next 50 years. Everyone has their opinions. For example, it has been claimed that there are racist and sexist aspects of The Chronicles; that the exclusion from Narnia of the character of Susan in the final novel was due to her growing up (presumably discovering sex), and only being interested in “nylons, lipstick and invitations.” To me, though, it seems clear that her exclusion has nothing to do with her growing up or her being a girl or her sexual maturity – she doesn’t get to return with the others simply because she no longer believes, because she claims that she and her siblings just made it all up like some silly game. What Lewis is saying is that you must continue to believe in the magic of Narnia even if you grow up, even if you have other interests in your life. And that is exactly what I intend to do.

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