Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis's Narnia | The Nation


Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis's Narnia

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THE MARION E. WADE CENTER, WHEATON COLLEGEC.S. Lewis at home at The Kilns, Oxford, in 1960

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Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis is Poetry Editor of The Nation. His most recent publication is POD | Poems on Demand (2011). Photo...

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Born in 1898 to a Belfast solicitor and his mathematics-trained wife, C.S. Lewis, or Jack, as he preferred to be called, was deemed by his tutor for the Oxford entrance exams to have been "born with the literary temperament," and "while admirably adapted for excellence and probably for distinction in literary matters, he is adapted for nothing else." It was true. An admirer of Beatrix Potter, young Jack wrote talking-animal novels and came to have hopes of success as a poet. One thing got in the way: he was not a poet. And not, by the way, in the manner in which Ford Madox Ford wasn't a poet--Ford in his poems lived up to his standard that poetry should be at least as well written as prose. Lewis talked down to himself in his poems; this is the fatal flaw in much of what we know as bad poetry.

Lewis was, however, an uncanny reader of poetry, able to find sense and sensuousness in the bleakest thickets of verse. Fancy and fresh expression attracted Lewis; ponderousness and absurd muddle drew his scorn. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, he brings forth worthy phrases and lines from dozens of authors lost to time, from Jasper Heywood to Thomas Nuce to John Studley, who among the dross also wrote, "Who lysteth to the flaterying Maremaides note/Must needes commit his tyred eyes to sleepe," and such pleasant memorable inventions as "frostyface," "topsy-turvy" and "Stygian puddle glum."

Lewis's life, too, was topsy-turvy. Within two weeks of the death of his mother, 9-year-old Jack was sent by his father to a boarding school in England run by a sadist who would be forced out of his job in disgrace. The next school Jack attended was not much better. He read and endured. In 1917 he won a scholarship and was elected to University College at Oxford, but before he was settled into his rooms he went to the war. Lewis and his roommate Paddy Moore entered into a pact, in the event that either one made the ultimate sacrifice, to look after the other's family.

Janie "Minto" Moore survived her son, and she and her young daughter came to live with Lewis at Oxford. She stayed for more than thirty years. (The truly odd thing about this arrangement is that Mr. Moore was alive.) Lewis referred to her, when he did at all, as his foster mother, but there is little doubt among his biographers that their relationship was, early on at least, more romantic than filial. A confirmed atheist since the death of his mother, Lewis insisted that Moore's daughter spend Sunday mornings in church, leaving them at home alone. After the death of Lewis's father ten years later, Lewis's alcoholic older brother, Warnie, moved in as well. Warnie observed that Moore, who once referred to C.S. Lewis as an extra maid, never let him work more than half an hour without interrupting his reading and writing with errands.

Despite the interruptions, Lewis published twenty books during his thirty years with Moore--lectures, essays, radio talks, science fiction and fantasy novels, apologetics and works of literary history, ranging in quality from pedantic to inspired, mere opinion to glorious pastiche. (It was during these years that Lewis rediscovered his faith, eventually coming to prominence in the United States as a popular theologian, gracing the cover of Time for his success with Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.) The last book of Lewis's to go to press in Moore's lifetime was the first in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950.

In the first few pages of the book, four children are sent out of London to spend the summer in the country. Almost immediately, the youngest, Lucy, takes hide-and-seek shelter in a spare-room armoire and discovers that it leads out to a snowy forest. Lewis presents it as a matter of fact:

Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

In his criticism and the Narnia books, Lewis puts a premium on lush physical description, going beyond sight and sound to emphasize smell, taste and touch whenever possible. And he has the knack for what Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie, or "enstrangement"--presenting familiar objects, scenes, feelings or even religious beliefs in an unfamiliar light so that the reader can experience them as if for the first time. These are indispensable qualities of Lewis's best work, but they do not in themselves explain the fervor with which young readers form lifelong attachments to his stories.

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