Everyone knows that C. S. Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and an excellent Christian apologist, but what many people may not know is that Lewis was also a veteran of the “Great” War, better known as World War I. The war affected Lewis greatly, and therefore we need to get an idea of how before we look at war in Narnia. Lewis saw the worst of the war first hand, and he developed successful emotional defenses against its horrors. Both of these aspects would alter affect Narnia.
An atheistic, priggish (by his own account) Lewis spent the early years of WWI studying with William Kirkpatrick, better known as the “Great Knock,” in Kirkpatrick’s home in Great Bookham, Surrey. While living there Lewis felt isolated from the war, though he noted to Douglas Gresham that even in this insulated haven of study he could, if the wind was right, “hear the mutter and grumble of the far distant guns in France.” Though he could have avoided service entirely, after a period of indecision Lewis decided to join up. Having crossed that important threshold, he then proceeded to segregate his mind from thinking about the war to such an extent that he later remarked that some people would likely think it “shameful.” In his words, war and country “may have my body, but not my mind. I will take part in battles, but not read about them.” (Surprised By Joy 58)
Lewis later traveled to Oxford to begin study to become a scholar. He had been there less than a term when his enlistment papers came through and he officially entered the army. He did not leave Oxford, but joined a cadet battalion stationed at Keble College. There he made the acquaintance of a number of aspiring scholar-warriors, including Paddy Moore, whose mother later played such a long and important role in Lewis’s life. It is also notable that of the five friends who left Keble for war, he alone survived. After a brief period of training, Lewis was promoted to second lieutenant and attached to the Somerset Light Infantry.
Lewis arrived on the front lines in France on his nineteenth birthday in November 1917. While he would remember portions of the next five months fondly at times, over all they proved to be one of the worst periods of his life. He later remarked that though he understood that war was sometimes a necessity, he would rather die than live through another. Here too, he continued to demonstrate the remarkable ability to split off his intellect and imagination from the horrors surrounding him. While facing carnage and death on an almost daily basis, Lewis seemed to dwell more on what he was reading and on the various poems that would later be published as Spirits in Bondage.
In stark contrast to his still blossoming literary pursuits, Lewis experienced the awful reality that was World War I. He described “the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high explosive], the horribly smashed men still moving like half crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet.” He seems, though, to have dealt with this by withdrawing further into the shell provided by his active imagination and the literature he still managed to feed it. He observed that the reality of the war “shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment [that of hearing his first bullet] seems now to matter more than the realities that followed.” (SBJ196)
During his time at the front, he acquitted himself well; the company he commanded won awards for guard mounting and company drill and he even aided in the capture of around sixty German prisoners of war. During the winter Lewis spent a month in hospital recovering from a bout with “Trench Fever,” but he had returned to his unit in time to face the massive German offensive in France in the spring of 1918. Near Mt. Bernenchon in April, as Lewis led his men forward, British shells fell amongst his troops, obliterating a respected sergeant named Harry Ayres and seriously wounding Lewis. Lewis managed to drag himself back towards friendly lines where a stretcher crew picked him up. He was eventually transported to a series of hospitals in the rear. The war ended before he had recovered sufficiently to take the field again, and he returned to Oxford to continue his studies.
Even in the horrific instant of Lewis’s wounding, he reported the same disconnect from his physical circumstances and retreat into his mind that he carried with him to war. He seemed to be observing his own impending death as nothing more than an abstract exercise. It is obvious that for quite some time he had the practical ability to withdraw into himself and distinguish between the creative reality of his mind on the one hand and his physical circumstances on the other. For him, this amounted to a willful decision to enjoy the interior world he had created instead of what confronted him outside. Perhaps Puddleglum described it best in his argument with the Green Witch in The Silver Chair when the he states,
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. […]That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. (The Silver Chair 159)
Whether or not the marshwiggle is vicariously speaking for Lewis, it is a tendency he seems to share with his creator.
This segregation of mind was well developed prior to Lewis’s actual entry into the war. He had already integrated it into his larger worldview with ease, perhaps even eagerly. Thinking back on it later, he himself remarked that “even if the attitude was right, the quality in me which made it so easy to adopt is somewhat repellent” (Surprised by Joy 159). Precisely where his ability came from is a question that will probably never be answered authoritatively. He may have been born with it, developed it as a child after his mother’s death, it may stem from years of day dreaming and vicarious living through the literature he loved so much, or perhaps it grew up as a survival mechanism as a result of the torture he and Warren Lewis had endured at the hand of Robert Capron, the insane headmaster of his first boarding school. Whatever the case, it enabled him to endure the horrors of war but keep what he considered to be essentially himself separate and, to a certain extent, unaffected.
These experiences–especially Lewis’s tendency to separate himself–will have some significant implications for Lewis approach to depicting war in Narnia. In the next article, linked below, I’ll go into further depth explaining just how.
The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010. A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Orlando, FL: Harvest Books, 1955.
________. The Silver Chair. New York: Collier, 1970.
Posts in the War in Narnia Series:
- C. S. Lewis the Soldier
- World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
- Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
- Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
- The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
- The First Experience of Battle
- Wounds and the Wounded
- Corpses? What Corpses?