Probably most famous for his series of children's fantasy books, The Chronicles of Narnia, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was also well known as a writer of science fiction, Christian theology, literary criticism, and medieval scholarship. Because of the combination of Lewis's own childhood, his conversion to Christianity, his authorship of children's literature, and his work as a Christian apologist (someone who explains a religion to its critics), Lewis is an especially interesting figure for thinking about the role of the literary imagination in the spiritual and religious lives of children.
Some of the details of Lewis's early life echo throughout the seven-volume work of The Chronicles of Narnia. For the first 9 years of his life, Lewis had a carefree and imagination-filled childhood. Lewis and his older brother invented a fictional land called Boxen and wrote many illustrated stories about it. He also spent a significant part of his childhood in a large house with many secret passages and plenty of attic space, a biographical detail that recalls both the games of Polly and Digory at the start of The Magician's Nephew, as well as the very concept of "traveling between worlds" around which The Chronicles are based.
Lewis was also a voracious reader in his youth (two of his favorites were Treasure Island and The Secret Garden), and he and his brother spent many rainy days telling adventure stories inside an old wardrobe. In The Chronicles, an old wardrobe becomes the magical means for travel to the land of Narnia. When he was 9 years old, Lewis's mother died after a long and difficult illness. Lewis was sent to a boarding school a few weeks after her death. Even this detail has poignant resonance with the ending of The Magician's Nephew, as the character Digory is able to heal his ailing mother with magical assistance from the land of Narnia. Although Lewis had been raised a Christian by his parents, he abandoned Christianity in his teens, comfortable with declaring himself an atheist. It wasn't until his early 30s that his spiritual life began to turn again as his continuing meditations on religion led him to the point that he felt compelled to accept a basic belief in God: "In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed." Two years later, due in part to conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings), Lewis came to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. (For an allegorical account of his conversion, see The Pilgrim's Regress .) Lewis died in 1963 after suffering from a variety of illnesses.
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AND THE RELIGIOUS IMAGINATION
Lewis didn't consider writing children's literature until 1939. Because of the threat of German bombardment in London, Lewis had volunteered to take some children into his country home. His interactions with those children set his mind to work on story ideas. (Lewis did not have any children of his own, although he later gained two stepsons by marriage.) Lewis completed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1948. The entire set of The Chronicles of Narnia includes: The Magician's Nephew (1955); The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950); The Horse and His Boy (1954); Prince Caspian (1951); The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1952); The Silver Chair (1953); and The Last Battle (1956). (The books are listed in the order Lewis preferred that they be read.)
The Chronicles of Narnia is widely considered to be steeped in Christian imagination. And the writing of children's literature by a Christian like C. S. Lewis raises many interesting questions about the role of the imagination in the spiritual development of children. What does it mean to say that a set of fantasy stories spring from a Christian imagination? What is the relationship between the stories children hear and their religious beliefs? Do stories compete with religious beliefs or do they prepare children for them? Lewis considers these types of questions in some of his own essays, found especially in On Stories and Other Essays in Literature. In "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said," for example, Lewis observes that the stories he learned of Christ as a child inhibited his religious development because the stories would dictate in advance what a child should be feeling. Furthermore, he claims that he did not write his own stories with the goal of trying to say something about Christianity to children, insisting, rather, that the stories sprang from his own imagination, an imagination filled with Christian sentiment. The reader could ask, then, just what does it mean to say that the stories are Christian? Interested readers should also look particularly at "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" and "On Juvenile Taste."
Finally, Lewis took seriously the responsibility he had as an author to his many young readers, writing hundreds of letters of reply to young fans and inquirers (see C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children). He believed firmly that young people should be treated largely as equals and with intellectual respect.
EXCERPTS FROM THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
"Aren't you dead then, dear Aslan?" said Lucy. "Not now," said Aslan.