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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Features

Dear Mr. Lewis

The Narnia Author and His Young Readers

The mental picture is irresistible, that of C.S. Lewis, the redoubtable scholar, the Christian apologist, and one of the world’s most widely read authors, settled before the fire, chuckling over Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. As an adult, Lewis still read children’s books, and it wasn’t until he was into his 20s that he first discovered the antics of Mr. Toad and friends.

No matter how erudite his writings for adults, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia could pen one of the most popular children’s literary series of all time precisely because he refused to squelch the child inside.

Though he was a bachelor for much of his life and never fathered children of his own, Lewis did not avoid encounters with other people’s children. He took them into his confidence, treated them as equals, and relished their insights. He refused to call them “kids,” a term he considered condescending. “Once in a hotel dining-room,” wrote Lewis, “I said, rather too loudly, ‘I loathe prunes.’ ‘So do I,’ came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities.”

His appreciation of children, Lewis once said, began when “the war brought them to me.” The Reverend Tom Honey, current vicar of the church Lewis attended in Headington Quarry outside of Oxford, England, explains: “Lewis and his household welcomed evacuee children to live at his home, The Kilns, during the Second World War. The children were often from poor families, whose homes were in danger from bombs during the London Blitz. He indulged these children, even when his adopted mother, Mrs. Moore, was less inclined to generosity.”

Evacuee Patricia Heidelberger would look back on her years at The Kilns as “two of the happiest of my school life.” “My first impression of C.S. Lewis was that of a shabbily clad, rather portly gentleman, whom I took to be the gardener and told him so,” she later wrote in a letter to Clyde Kilby, founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. “He roared — boomed! — with laughter. … Unlike most evacuees, we were comfortable, we were well fed — I grew fat! — and we seemed to be loved. I enjoyed the scholarly sessions in the den; I borrowed books; I learned about Tolkien and the Inklings. I think [we] were extremely fortunate, and more than a little spoiled.”

The author’s largesse extended to local children as well. “He tried to teach a young man working as a houseboy how to read,” says Honey. “Even though this attempt eventually ended in failure, he spent many hours trying. And he allowed the boys of the neighborhood to swim in the pond on the house grounds.”

Lewis was in his late 50s when he married Joy Davidman Gresham and became stepfather to two young boys, Douglas and David Gresham. Douglas, the younger, retains a fond childhood memory of Lewis asking him for a ride across the pond in the boy’s pride and joy, a wooden kayak. Even though Lewis was not known for his sense of balance, he nonetheless stepped aboard the unstable little vessel. “Thanks, Doug,” he said, safe on the other side. “I can see why you’re so fond of her. She’s a wonderful craft.” Gresham recounts the story in Lenten Lands, where he writes, “Jack risked a ducking in a cold lake simply to please a rather too cocksure boy because he knew that in so doing he would make both me and Mother very happy.”

Lewis, who as a child renamed himself Jack, openly confided in young readers who sent him letters by the thousands. He wrote that he didn’t drive cars because “I’m no good at any sort of machine.” And while he had mastered a variety of literary styles, he confessed that he couldn’t “write a play to save my life.”

Famously self-deprecating, Lewis wrote to a class of fifth graders in Maryland that he was “tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.” Nor did he flatter his correspondents, but was hearty with commendation and gentle with criticism. “The content of the poem is good,” he wrote one budding bard, “but the verse ‘creaks’ a bit!"

So important to him were the letters he received that Lewis would awaken before dawn to read them and compose replies by noon. One American girl received 28 encouraging letters from Lewis over nearly two decades. On the day he died, Lewis spent part of the morning answering letters.

The results of his winning way with children span the generations. The seven books of Narnia have sold more than 100 million copies in 30 languages, nearly 20 million in the last 10 years alone. The books have been adapted for stage, TV, and now the movie screen. So compelling is the storyteller’s empathy and ability to connect with his readers that adolescent Narnia fans continue to write to Lewis 42 years after his death. This past summer, a young reader from an elementary school in Toronto, Canada, wrote a letter delivered to The Kilns: “Dear C.S. Lewis … Do you know what interests me of all your books? It is the mysteries. I really like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When you wrote ‘Aslan is near’ in quotation marks … it makes me think something good is going to happen.”

Lewis’ own keen mind took flight at an early age. Charmed by the myths and ancient legends told to them by their nurse, Jack and his brother, Warnie, used to pass many a sodden afternoon in Belfast, Ireland, sitting inside their grandfather’s old wardrobe. There in the dark among the coats, Jack spun fantastic stories about “Animal Land,” a magical realm filled with talking animals. The wardrobe itself later became the magical point of literary entry into the land of Narnia.

Jack was gifted with an imagination that endowed even a description of his boyhood home with overtones of make-believe: “I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.”

It was, as well, a house piled high with “endless books.” As a child, he feasted on Treasure Island, Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, and The Secret Garden. As a teenager, he fell under the spell of Scottish author George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin and a number of adult fantasies. “In a very real sense,” said Lewis, “people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.” And books, especially fiction, helped bridge times of sorrow and anxiety in the boy Jack’s life. His mother, to whom he was very close, died when he was 9, and his subsequent boarding school years were among the most miserable of his life. Good stories helped cushion the pain.

All of these life experiences not only shaped his character but also cemented in Lewis the power of story to comfort and inspire. When four youngsters came to live at The Kilns during the WWII London bombings, Lewis was surprised at how few imaginative stories they knew. He would eventually write such a tale himself: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, dedicated to one of his godchildren, Lucy Barfield. It arguably became the most popular children’s book of the 20th century.

One youthful recipient of a letter from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s author was Patricia Mackey. In 1960, at age 13, she wrote Lewis with several questions about the Narnia series. Her father, Aidan, of Bedford, England, remembers it well: “Although at the height of his fame, grossly overworked, and with the physical act of writing becoming difficult, Lewis replied in detail, point by point, with no trace of condescension. That, I believe, tells us a great deal about that man’s character and goodness.” Three years later, Patricia again wrote Lewis, whose faithful response began, “Your letter was cheering … ”

Kind to the end, Lewis paid children respect as he did adults by challenging them to examine more closely their ideas and beliefs. But perhaps he was never a more effective Christian witness than when answering their questions and putting their hearts at ease. Winner of the Carnegie Medal, England’s highest honor for children’s literature, Lewis proved it was possible to sell millions of books worldwide while setting out simply to nurture the imaginations and souls of his readers.

— BY clint kelly

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