Once upon a time, two men named Jack and Tollers took a walk in the woods. They talked about literature and their love of speculative fiction…they both enjoyed the stories of H.G. Wells, though they were a bit too humanistic for Jack’s taste. They were both professors, and both published. Tollers had written A Middle English Vocabulary, a companion to Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Jack had published a couple small books of poetry—which had not been particularly well received—as well as an allegorical spiritual tale called The Pilgrim’s Regress.
It wasn’t, of course, that there were no speculative stories being written at all—it was the 1930s after all—but that they both wanted work that dealt with deeper issues. They wanted speculative fiction that pressed in to philosophy and theology and, most importantly, that touched deep mythical chords.
“Tollers,” Jack said, “There is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.” Tollers agreed, and they flipped a coin to see who would write about space and who would write about time.
Jack—C.S. Lewis—got space, and Tollers—J.R.R. Tolkien—got time. Lewis set to work and wrote the first of a trilogy of books, Out of the Silent Planet. Tolkien started a story set in his sprawling personal mythology, an unfinished tale called “The Lost Road” (parts of which became notes about Tolkien’s Númenor).
From that little woodland conversation, C.S. Lewis went on to become a popular author who wrote nonfiction (largely Christian apologetics) as well as fiction (thinly-disguised Christian apologetics). Tolkien publicly stated more than once that it was Lewis who spurred him on—in conversations similar to this one—to finish The Lord of the Rings.
Lewis was well loved. He was celebrated at Oxford, where he taught. He would be on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Lewis was, for a time, one of Tolkien’s closest friends (his booming voice became the inspiration for Treebeard). His work had a way of making it past the defenses of people who largely disagreed with him. He was delighted by the lack of objections to the theology shoveled into his space trilogy, and the Narnia books have been enjoyed by generations of people regardless of their faith and despite the Jesus lion. He was invited to speak often, in person and on the radio.
I grew up in conservative, even fundamentalist, Christian culture. Every presentation I encountered about “defending the faith” included Lewis’s “trilemma” (we’ll get to that when we talk about Narnia). This despite the fact that Lewis would not fall within the circles of the theological camps we were in at the time. He believed in evolution (gasp!) and was part of the Church of England. His presentation of how exactly the sacrifice of Jesus worked was not in line with what my church taught at the time. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an “evangelical” and yet was (and continues to be) touted as a great example of the faith. His books were in the library of every church I ever attended.
I love C.S. Lewis. I read the Narnia books the summer between my third and fourth year of grade school. I had just finished The Lord of the Rings, an epic event that had taken me a full school year of reading, and I asked my dad if we had “more like that one.” He handed me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was immediately drawn in to the swirling world of Greek myths, talking animals, Santa Claus, and strange desserts that I did not know existed in the real world (I thought “Turkish Delight” was a literary invention).
Time passed, and over the years I’ve grown and changed, of course; recently my 16-year-old picked up my favorite Lewis book, Till We Have Faces. It’s a beautiful novel about loss and faith and confronting the gods. My daughter told me it was good, but added, “He didn’t like women much, did he?”
Okay, yes, that’s a fair response. And there are certainly moments of deeply troubling racism in Lewis’s books, too. And for those who aren’t from a Christian background (and maybe some who are), the central Christian conceits can be off-putting (even Tolkien, who was a key player in Lewis’s conversion, often disliked Lewis’s sermonizing).
So why are we embarking on a massive re-read of Lewis’s books?
Well, love them or hate them, the Narnia books played a key role in bringing children’s literature back into the worlds of the fantastic. There was a strong emphasis on realism in Lewis’s days, and too much imagination was seen as unhealthy for kids (though Baum, Barrie, and Nesbit might still be on the nursery shelf). The popularity of Narnia opened the door to more fantasy literature for children, and The Chronicles of Narnia still get placed on “Best Of” lists for children today.
I’m looking forward to re-reading Lewis’ work as an adult. In many ways, Lewis shaped my own theological and literary development. He gave me the freedom in my own writing career to write both novels and Christian non-fiction. His views on a variety of topics sunk deeply into my life as a child. I’m interested to see how my experience differs today, as a progressive Christian adult, versus when I was a young fundamentalist.
I had originally thought to start with the space trilogy, but wiser minds suggested we start with the more familiar Narnia books. Which, it turns out, is great, because October 16th is the anniversary of the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—yes, we’re starting there, and not with The Magician’s Nephew because Mari Ness is right about everything.
For each book we’ll have a couple posts exploring its unique characteristics, as well as one laying out some of Lewis’s theological constructs that may be less clear to those who don’t come from a Christian background. Along the way we’ll delve in deep to the racist elements, the problem of Susan, Lewis’s issues with women, and his obsession with mythology and medieval cosmology. We’ll talk about his legacy, his importance in the world of speculative fiction, and how he has shaped modern Christian thought. As we get into his lesser known works, we’ll talk about his critiques of colonialism, his exploration of the afterlife and the nature of human interaction with God.
If there are topics related to Lewis’s science fiction or fantasy that you’re interested in discussing, by all means, leave a comment so we can put them on the list! But first, on Wednesday the 16th we’ll start the reread off by entering that mirrored wardrobe in the spare room, to visit the land of Narnia, which is Definitely Not an Allegory. Let’s see what magic we can recapture there…