Many sorts of people are called “walking contradictions,” almost none of them deservedly. Most of the time it’s a phrase used to deride someone whose varying lifestyle elements aren’t supposed to go together – think of the eye rolls that still greet white rappers – rather than being truly contradictory. Here’s another that sounds a bit off: devout Christian theologian and best-selling sci fi/fantasy author.
You certainly wouldn’t be expected to run into one these days. Few who make serious study of “traditional” religious belief would venture into the modern realm of “genre fiction,” an insular realm that tends to revel in the irreligious, and those who do tend to come from the most extreme fringe – see the vile Left Behind series (or, rather, don’t) for an example.
Yet Clive Staples Lewis was such a man, and he was no mere footnote in genre history – as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (the most recent movie adaptation thereof is the subject of this week’s Escape to The Movies), Lewis stands as one of the all-time towering figures of modern fantasy, casting a shadow over the whole of the subject surpassed only by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien and their pulp predecessor Robert E. Howard. But before he was known as a spinner of “new mythology,” he was already renowned as an intellectual defender of Christian philosophy, and these dual roles would compliment, intertwine and even clash forevermore in both his life and legacy.
The explicit mixing of what today would be called neo-pagan mythmaking with devout Christianity has made the otherwise innocuous and whimsical Narnia books lightning rods for criticism and dissection from the very beginning. Tolkien himself disparaged his friend’s “kitchen-sink” approach to mythology and explicit spiritual references. Secular critics have decried the series’ moralism, while some Christian critics have accused the author of re-writing doctrine to suit his own ideas. Last week, actor Liam Neeson – who voices the lion messiah Aslan in the films – invited a firestorm of controversy simply by opining that, to him, Aslan need not represent only one faith to be meaningful.
What gets lost in the hurly-burly over meaning and intent in Lewis’ writings (which also include the sci fi Space Trilogy and the wickedly satirical Screwtape Letters) is the writer himself; a deeply thoughtful and deeply troubled man whose writings on philosophy and faith were written during, not following, his own personal exploration of the same. The “hidden secret” of Narnia isn’t that it’s really about Jesus – that part isn’t a secret at all. The secret is that it’s largely about C.S. Lewis considering, struggling with and (maybe) working out his own beliefs.
Part of the reason why Lewis remains such a polarizing figure is that it’s hard to pin down an honest life story of the fellow – his friends joked that a rather lengthy book could be written to contradict his autobiographical Surprised By Joy titled Suppressed By Jack. Biographies of C.S. Lewis tend to fall into the realm of either white-washed canonization or lurid projections aimed at lessening his impact as a religious icon with little room in between.
To my mind, one can’t hope to really understand Narnia or Lewis without first understanding that very few people who knew him would ever call him Clive. To his friends he was Jack, and the story of why is almost absurdly revealing as to the man’s broader psyche. When he was only four years old (in 1903), his beloved dog Jacksie was killed by a car. Overcome with grief, the boy announced to his family that he would now take (and only answer to) the name Jacksie, though eventually he agreed to simply “Jack” for the remainder of his life.
That simple, familiar manner of processing trauma by internalizing powerful nostalgia for a childhood cut-short – a familiar aspect of life today but scorned in early 20th Century British society – would seem to define his outlook from there on out, growing more potent upon the devastating death of his mother in 1908. As a young man and student, he eschewed “proper” text and “modern” literature in favor of folklore and fairy tales. At age 15 he renounced his Anglican Christian faith and declared himself an atheist, preferring to find philosophical guidance in Norse mythology and tales of the occult. He would later famously describe his mindset as having been “angry with God for not existing.”
Such eccentricities didn’t dampen his scholarship – he became an Oxford man, and subsequently an officer in the British Army during WWI. While there, a fateful pact made with a fellow soldier to care for each other’s families should one or the other perish would dramatically alter the course of his life. The friend, Paddy Moore, was killed in action, and Lewis took it upon himself to care for his mother, Jane.
The relationship with Jane King Moore is the great remaining question mark of Lewis’ life. He worked curiously hard to keep his life with her (he lived with and cared for her until her death in 1951) separate from both his scholarly work and social life. He was known to call her “mother” socially, and some accounts frame her as having a domineering personality (she suffered from dementia in her later years), but rumors and innuendo swirl to this day that they were also lovers. It was, in any case, a complicated relationship that seemed to strengthen his proclivity for escaping the punishing complexities of the adult world through nostalgiac fantasy and fairy tales.
But as an Oxford scholar in the 1920s, he found himself for the first time in the company of peers who shared his fascination for such escapes: The Inklings, an informal literary discussion club of Oxford gents notably including J.R.R. Tolkien, with whom Lewis would become great friends. It was through conversation and debate with the deeply religious Tolkien that Lewis would find himself questioning his own steadfast atheism. As Lewis would tell it, he found his friend’s logic on matters spiritual so sound that he could feel his mind changing in spite of his own efforts to the contrary – he’d dub himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” But a convert he was, and he quickly become a zealous defender of his newfound faith in speeches, debates, radio addresses and books that are still read by spiritual scholars to this day.
If you ask me, it seems wholly fitting that Lewis would inwardly re-embrace the religion of his childhood in tandem with his “coming out” as a devotee of the make-believe and fairy tales of that same childhood. His whole philosophical life can be read as an attempt to recapture and cling to that lost time much in the same way he had by taking the name of poor Jacksie. He famously called Jesus Christ “the myth made fact” – as though he saw devotion to Christianity as the highest possible manner in which he could connect his real life to the myths and legends of his imagination. In other words, it could be argued that one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th Century came to his faith in much the same way (and for much the same reason) as many present-day fans of fantasy-literature and RPGs often find themselves drawn to New Age or “neo-pagan” religions like Wicca.
But in spite of his reputation as a stoic defender of The Word, his approach to spreading it was quietly revolutionary in the world of the mid-20th Century. Conversion did not cure his skepticism – he rejected doctrinaire Creationism (today he’d be called a Theistic Evolutionist), referred to Biblical elements like The Flood as folklore and tweaked his Catholic mentor Tolkien by choosing the (even then) more liberal Anglican Church. In his speeches, books and radio addresses he pleaded for healing the still-bitter divides between differing Christian sects – a proud Irishman and son of Belfast, he’d have well known the grim results of sectarian conflict. Certainly, he was imperfect – his casual dismissals of the “competing” faiths of Islam and The East in general are sadly typical of English literature of the time. But even still, It’s hard to imagine him finding much acceptance in the rigid world of today’s Religious Right, and downright impossible to imagine any of the so-called “moral majority” uttering these words:
“A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.” – C.S. Lewis
As that quote suggests, Lewis’ need to rework and re-examine his faith – even as he was embracing it – perhaps found its ultimate expression in Narnia. Following what he allegedly saw as a defeat in a Socratic Club debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, he turned from explicitly-theological writing and back toward his first love, children’s literature, perhaps on the basis that a story that offered the same moral lessons without the burden of a specific “real” theology would be better received. After all, fairy tales of mysticism and the occult had brought him to The Light, why oughtn’t it bring others?
He would ultimately conceive a six-book chronology of a fairy tale kingdom where a familiar yet different version of Biblical history – from Creation to Apocalypse – would play itself out. And he was quite steadfast about what it meant and didn’t mean: Aslan was no allegory for Christ, he was Christ – as He might have appeared in a world of talking animals, anyway.
In a manner of speaking, one could almost call Narnia a massive work of religious fan fiction, although Aslan’s “gospel” often owes more to Jack than it does to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. In The Last Battle (Narnia’s Book of Revalations) Aslan comforts a former-follower of Tash – the demonic “false-god” of Narnia’s enemies – who now fears punishment for having worshipped the wrong idol. Aslan dismisses his fears, explaining that since he’d lived a morally-upstanding life it didn’t matter. Good deeds were good deeds, regardless of which god they were done for, so welcome to Aslan’s Country (read: Heaven.) That’s about as far away from “No one comes to the Father but through me!” as you can get.
That same inclusiveness carried over to his conception of Narnia itself. The approach by Lewis that so bothered Tolkien – the “anything goes” inclusion of Greek, Norse, Celtic and miscellaneous mythologies, plus fairy tale creatures and even Santa Claus – is by far its most enduring impact on the genre. Narnia as the archetypal Fantasy Kitchen Sink; today the “default setting” of most of the genre, especially after the advent of RPGs. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings may have given role playing its parties and quests, but it’s Lewis’ grab-bag world they trek through.
Clive Staples Lewis, “Jack” to his friends, died on November 22nd 1963. His passing was not much remarked upon, as on the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In his final years he found some of the peace that eluded him since childhood in marriage to Joy Davidman, and a new test when she was stricken with cancer. He left the world a legacy of stories that would enrapture generations of children, a mythology that would help reframe a genre, and a complex study of spirituality that still inspires – and divides – to this day.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.