Through the wardrobe

By the time CS Lewis stepped through the wardrobe and into Narnia, he’d had a few adventures of his own.

The youngest son of a colourful, needy and ultimately disengaged Belfast solicitor had survived the madness of both English private education and the WW1 trenches to find fame beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Though it was a recent encounter in the university which left him shattered and caused his leap into children’s fiction.

He did need to get away to another land.

The great debater Lewis, the intellectual bruiser who loved knocking others down, had recently been knocked down himself in debate with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe.

She dismantled his cerebral attempts to defend Christianity – witnessed in such books as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles.

There was no going back for Lewis and the imaginative world seemed a better option – just as his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkein had always said.

Though by the time the Narnia books arrived, their friendship was strained to breaking, they’d lost whatever they’d had…and Tolkein hated the Narnia chronicles.

But Clive Staples Lewis had been looking for another land for a long time, some misplaced Eden.

He was the Ulster boy who lost his mum when he was eleven and two weeks later – yes, two weeks – he was sent away across the water to appalling boarding schools in England.

He never really went home again, childhood was prematurely done… and all feelings needed to be sealed in.

And how effectively they were!

Later in life, when a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, he had a close circle of friends – but Lewis ensured no emotional issue was ever discussed. He was happy to discuss Chaucer’s narrative structure, but not Tolkein’s marriage struggles.

This was a men’s club that discussed men’s things – like literature. Private lives, private feelings, were off limits.

The boy who had been a literary prodigy, with a remarkable breadth of reading, had become a highly respected academic, diligent tutor, popular lecturer.

He had also become a man with a big secret: namely, his thirty-year relationship with Mrs Moore, an older woman who was both his mother and his lover.

She also made sure the academic did not forget the household duties like cleaning, cooking and shopping. It would be normal to be called away from his desk, (she didn’t hold back) to go and buy a light bulb or mend the towel rail.

‘He was as good as an extra maid,’ she said.

Also depending on him at home in ‘The Kilns’ was his alcoholic older brother Warnie, for whom a whisky bender was the only solution to difficult issues.
Warnie’s reliance on Jack (Lewis’ home name) was almost total.

Lewis did not write from an ivory tower, but from messy reality.

On Mrs Moore’s death, when things might have become simpler, Jack got involved with Joy Gresham, an American pen-friend – a story recorded movingly (if not always accurately) in the play Shadowlands.

Joy was rude and aggressive towards Lewis’ friends, alienating them; but as with Mrs Moore, Jack found something in her no one else could see. They married in secret. (Yes, more secrets.)

On the surface, here was a successful life. Lewis, a generous man, was never short of devotees either in life or in death…particularly Americans.

(Everyone finds in Lewis what they want to find and disregards the rest. Evangelicals studiously ignore his heavy drinking…and his final book.)

He had a magnificent literary mind, of course, and wrote with effortless clarity, such clear and lucid prose. To read him is to experience a great mind taking time to explain something to you.

His academic work too was well-regarded. He should have been given a Professorship by Oxford – and his Preface to Paradise Lost is still considered a classic.

And of course he’d been a popular radio broadcaster, his short talks on Christianity making him a household name.

But away from a never-easy home life, was his never-easy work place. He didn’t get on with his colleagues at Magdalen.

Some of this was professional jealousy at his broadcasting and book success; no one likes their colleague to achieve in this way.

But Lewis was a bruiser himself, certainly in college politics – and also against all things new. He didn’t recognise any good in 20th century literature, including TS Eliot.

Lewis always wanted the old.

He took up strong positions, put up the barricades – and would lie if it helped him win the argument.

He was still a boy at war with the world, feelings sealed in, and his conversion – which famously occurred on a bus journey up Headington Hill – didn’t release them.

His new found faith was first expressed cerebrally in books already mentioned, with perhaps The Problem of Pain – and attempt to explain suffering – his low-point.

Though it sold very well, and still does, it is an uncomfortable and unconvincing read.

So in a way, his dismantlement by Elizabeth Anscombe was a relief. He would never return to didactic, intellectual argument. Rather, he would leap into the imaginative work of Narnia, the ever-popular children’s stories.

And they start, of course, with the wardrobe, the fur coats, the crunching snow and the lamp post…it is one of the great literary doorways.

There was, however, one further leap to make.

After the death of Joy Gresham, (she died of cancer) Lewis buckled. Like a lanced boil, the long-sealed feelings were finally unsealed – a story frighteningly told in A Grief Observed.

It was originally printed under a pseudonym, NW Clark; and no previous writing by Lewis prepares the reader for this raw scream of rage and despair.

It is shocking, but then grief is and here was a death that both broke him and made him. Lewis’ faith had reached its third stage: from cerebral to imaginative; from imaginative to affective.

He had, at last, touched his feelings, those of the little boy, kept in cold storage down the years, kept out of view – but now greeted again through the tears.

And a rather different man emerged, less the bruiser, humbler in his assumptions for the final three years of his life.

It is one of my favourite Lewis books. I enjoy its searing emotional honesty, of which there is little in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy – written in his cerebral phase, when he was still asking his head to solve his problems.

Here, at last, was an engagement with his inscape, which this clever and clubbable man had been put off for so long.

It’s like a coming home; the screams of the small boy heard.

My other favourite Lewis book is The Great Divorce.

It gives free rein to Lewis the satirist, able to create and destroy a character in just a few lines. I think of the woman who loved to help people, and you could tell the people she helped ‘by the haunted look in their eyes.’

But even more, I like its presentness. While its notionally about heaven and hell, it’s really about the decisions we take every day, in the here and now, which make us either more or less substantial people.

Lewis had long been obsessed by what he called ‘Northerness’ – ‘huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic’. 

It was something about another land, something about Eden, something about a lost childhood.

On his journey back there, through struggle and joy, brilliance and defeat, Lewis had many wardrobes to pass through…

(The biography of Lewis by AN Wilson is the best, by several country miles.)


Leave a Reply