The Birth of Narnia and Why Tolkien Hated It
A New Literary Friend
C. S. Lewis had always taken pleasure in the development of friendships with his former pupils. By 1945, the number had begun to mount. One of his new young friends was Roger Lancelyn Green, who had taken his BA in English literature in 1940 and remained in Oxford to complete the BLitt in 1944 with a thesis titled “Andrew Lang as a Writer of Fairy Stories and Romances,” which Tolkien supervised.1 In 1938, Green had attended Lewis’s lectures “Prolegomena to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.” Because Lewis did not carry a watch, he borrowed the watch of someone sitting at the front to keep track of the time, and during Michaelmas term 1938, that person was Green. At the end of the term, Green wrote a fan letter to Lewis about Out of the Silent Planet, and Lewis replied with suggestions for other science fiction Green might want to read.2
On March 10, 1949, a few months after the last Inklings evening meeting, Roger Lancelyn Green dined with Lewis at Magdalen College. They talked in Lewis’s rooms until midnight, during the course of which Lewis read two chapters from the manuscript of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He had made an effort at writing a fairy story in about 1939, but that attempt had stalled, probably owing to his many wartime duties.3 In a letter to Mary Neylan in 1940, Lewis spoke of children as “Adam’s sons, Eve’s daughters,” terminology he would incorporate into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.4 What he originally had written, however, the Inklings had not received well, so Lewis burned the manuscript.5 He told Green that he had already read this new attempt to Tolkien.6
When Chad Walsh visited Lewis during the summer of 1948, Lewis had already begun working on a children’s story.7 This was the period during which he was busy working on his autobiography and talking with his brother Warnie about their childhood. It was a time when all the imaginary world that he loved when he was young came rushing back into his memory. He also mentioned to Ruth Pitter in September 1948 that when he had the flu, he had read Wind in the Willows again.8 When, at age sixteen, he first went to live with W. T. Kirkpatrick in Great Bookham, Jack had the picture in his mind “of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.”9 Lewis’s childhood memories and interests, stoked by his efforts at writing his conversion story, probably began to spark his imagination. With his health issues, Mrs. Moore, and Warnie to contend with on top of his teaching load at Magdalen, it was a difficult time to be creative, but somehow he managed to finish the story in less than a year.
The Completion of C. S. Lewis
Harry Lee Poe
C. S. Lewis scholar Harry Lee Poe offers a comprehensive look into the final years of Lewis’s life, examining the experiences and relationships that informed some of his most well known writings.
Reception by Tolkien
Tolkien hated the story.10 His criticism went beyond evaluation and suggestion to the level of insult. The idea of mixing Father Christmas with fauns repelled him, because these two figures come from different traditions separated by time and space. Tolkien was a purist on such matters. The Norsemen would never have included Father Christmas or fauns in their stories. When he heard that Lewis had shown the story to Green, Tolkien turned on Green with vehemence and declared: “It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?”11 Lewis knew exactly what he was talking about, and Green was delighted. When Green published a short book about Lewis for the Bodley Head Monograph series of biographies of its own authors, he observed that Lewis had set aside his fairy story “owing to criticism from one of his older friends by then rather out of touch with children and their books, and wedded to different modes of thought where fairy-tale and fantasy were concerned.”12 Modestly, Green added that “by March 1949 he was working on it again, and reading the early chapters to another friend, who proved more encouraging—and perhaps saw more clearly that here was the beginning of a really new and exciting development in children’s literature.”13
Lewis deeply appreciated Green’s support, and George Sayer reported that Lewis doubted he would have finished the book without Green’s encouragement.14 Other than from Green, he received little encouragement from his old friends in writing his Narnia stories. Griffiths did not read them until after Lewis died.15 Lewis appears not to have told Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Pitter, or Sister Penelope about his children’s story at first, but he did suggest to Sister Penelope the pen name of G. H. Pevensey for a science-fiction novel she was attempting.16 Sister Penelope did not use the name, but Lewis changed the name to Pevensie and used it as the family name of the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Lewis was writing a fairy story for children who lived in Britain just after World War II. They lived with trains, airplanes, radios, and tourists. They read the tales of King Arthur and Hercules. Their culture had inherited the stories from around the world. Children are not professors of Anglo-Saxon. As much as Tolkien talked about the boundary between our world and the world of faerie, he did not write stories that involved crossing that boundary, but Lewis did. Tolkien worked hard at imitating a style of elevated language and duplicating a form of storytelling that predated the Norman invasion of 1066. As monumental an achievement as The Lord of the Rings may be, it is not a fairy story. By contrast, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fairy story for children in 1950 who inherited the global collection of stories of the fading British Empire. For them, Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, was the magical figure who remained in the modern world and helped form a bridge to the world of imagination.
Jack had the picture in his mind “of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.”
Lewis decided to dedicate his fairy story to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of Owen and Maud. He sent a copy of the manuscript to them in May 1949 for their approval. What seemed a routine matter met with two snags: (1) Maud objected to the children wearing fur coats since it seemed an endorsement of the fur trade and the murder of all the innocent animals needed to make such a coat, and (2) Maud objected to the danger of children being shut inside a wardrobe. In addition, Owen did not like the Beavers. He wondered if they had been included so that no one would take the story too seriously. Lewis responded to Owen on May 30, but apparently his assurances were not strong enough. The matter was not settled. He wrote a second letter to Maud on June 4 in which he promised to add a warning to children not to shut themselves in a wardrobe.17 Finally, the matter was settled and Lewis did a bit more rewriting before sending the manuscript to the publishers on July 29, no doubt delayed by his emergency adventure in the hospital a week after his stressful exchange with Maud Barfield.18
George Sayer has suggested that Geoffrey Bles, Lewis’s publisher for all his popular works except his science fiction, expressed initial reluctance to publish The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A children’s story coming from C. S. Lewis seemed a strange thing, and Bles doubted that it would sell. They had a good property in C. S. Lewis, whose works maintained brisk sales long after most books went out of print. Bles did not want Lewis to do anything that might damage his reputation and their sales. Sayer put forward the theory that Bles refused to publish The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe unless Lewis agreed to make it part of a series.19 In light of Lewis’s decision to publish the last two books with The Bodley Head, Sayer’s theory collapses. If Lewis had agreed to write seven stories in discussion with Geoffrey Bles, even if they did not have a contract, Lewis would have felt obligated by honor to publish all the books with Bles. In fact, Lewis did not envision a seven-book series at the beginning. Instead, he explained: “When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done the Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last.”20
A Renewed Imagination
Green visited Lewis at Magdalen College in June, probably to drop off the manuscript of his revised version of The Wood That Time Forgot, and found Lewis busy at work on a sequel. It involved two children named Digory and Polly. This story was intended to tell of the beginnings of Narnia. Digory had the ability to understand the speech of animals and trees until he cut an oak tree while helping Polly build a raft. The story stalled when Digory’s godmother, Mrs. Lefay, who practiced magic, appeared on the scene.21 Green agreed with Lewis that the story was not working, so he abandoned it for the time being, reworking it several years later into The Magician’s Nephew. In June 1949, however, Lewis told Green he was interested in the idea of being drawn by magic into Narnia across time and space.22 By the end of December, culminating a most difficult six-month period for Lewis, he sent to Green for his review the completed manuscript of a story in which the children are drawn by magic into Narnia across time and space—Prince Caspian.23
Even as he realized that his efforts to revive his career as a poet stood little chance of success, Lewis found that his creative imagination was drawing him forward the way something magical drew the children into Narnia. On September 17, 1949, he wrote to Vera Mathews, one of his American benefactors, that he had a good idea for a children’s story that morning. Since he was already working on Prince Caspian, the story idea may have been for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.24 The point is that important ideas for stories were coming to him. Though his stories often began with a picture, they sometimes began with an idea like being drawn into Narnia across time and space.25 With The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis experienced a renewal of his imaginative power.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 1039.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:236–37.
- Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 241.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:373.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:802.
- Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 241.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:883n74.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:881.
- C. S. Lewis, “It All Began with a Picture . . . ,” in Of This and Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Collins, 1982), 79.
- George Sayer, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 189.
- Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 241.
- Roger Lancelyn Green, C. S. Lewis (London: The Bodley Head, 1963), 37.
- Green, C. S. Lewis, 37.
- Sayer, Jack, 189.
- Alan Bede Griffiths, “The Adventure of Faith,” in Como, Remembering C. S. Lewis, 77.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:911.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:942–43.
- Hooper, Letters, 2:961.
- Sayer, Jack, 189.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 847–48.
- Hooper has printed the Lefay manuscript in full in Walter Hooper, Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis (New York: Collier Books, 1979), 48–65.
- Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 242–43.
- Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis, 242–43.
- Walter Hooper suggested that the idea may have been for Prince Caspian, but since Lewis had already discussed elements of that story with Roger Lancelyn Green, a later story seems more likely. See Hooper, Letters, 2:952, 980n140.
- Lewis mentioned in many places that his fiction usually began with a mental picture that then required the construction of a world and a plot within which that picture fit. See Lewis, “It All Began with a Picture . . . ,” 79; Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in Hooper, Of This and Other Worlds, 71–72; Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Hooper, Of This and Other Worlds, 68; C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss, “The Establishment Must Die and Rot . . . ,” in C. S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends and Colleagues, ed. Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 236.
This article is adapted from The Completion of C. S. Lewis: From War to Joy (1945–1963) by Harry Lee Poe.
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Learn fascinating details about the start of Lewis’s career, his personal faith, the relationships that would shape his world, and the books that would make his name world-renowned.