War in Narnia: Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experiences

C. S. Lewis
I can’t help but wonder what he was writing….

In the last two weeks, I’ve looked briefly at C. S. Lewis’s experience in World War I and then offered some speculations on why the war may not have had the stereotypical effect on him that people seem to automatically expect.  As a result of the latter, I argued that we have to be careful about our speculations on how Lewis’s writing must have been influenced by this war-time experience.  This week I would like to look at another few “checks and balances” that would keep his wartime experiences from directly influencing Narnia and limit our ability to understand which cause led to which effect:  his incredible exposure to war in literature and his purposes in writing the Chronicles of Narnia.

The content of Lewis’s thinking shows the effects of his exposure to various genres, particularly classical literature.  Lewis noted in “Learning in Wartime” that he found his own war experience mirrored in Tolstoy and the Iliad (The Weight of Glory 51-52).  The massive amount of mythology he imported into Narnia is so self-evident that it is unnecessary to do more than mention it in passing.  His decision to draw from the vast wealth of information he had stored in his internal library would necessarily limit his opportunity to include his wartime experiences.  There was, after all, only so much that he could cram into so few pages.  The fact that Lewis was so widely read also makes it difficult to trace particular scenes and ideas back to specific influences.  After all, in the absence of direct explanation, how can we be sure we know the difference between a fantasy battle scene based on what Lewis personally witnessed and one based on his reading?  I believe that are clear enough parallels, but drawing them can be tricky.  For example, Lewis mentions that his very first experience of combat immediately provoked literary thoughts, when he describes, “the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it ‘whined’ like a journalists or a peacetime poet’s bullet.  At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference:  a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is War.  This is what Homer wrote about’” (Surprised By Joy 196).  When he was drawing on his intellectual resources to describe Peter or Shasta’s first battle, on whom did he rely, himself, Homer, or a combination thereof?

The Head of Odysseus
A sculpture of Homer’s Odysseus

There is another practical literary aspect that would check Lewis’s reliance on personal experience:  his goals in writing children’s literature such as Narnia.  Lewis did not intend to produce a hard-bitten pseudo-documentary about the Great War, nor did he wish to drag his audience through the muck and stink of the British trenches as an anti-war object lesson.  Though he primarily intended to tell a good story about a picture in his head, Lewis knew that children’s literature also teaches.  He insisted that “the only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind” and that we “must write for children from those elements in our own imagination which we share with children” (Of Other Worlds 33).  In Narnia, Lewis depicted war as he felt he would have needed to see it as a child.  First, he knew that there must be limits on what he could show.  He himself had suffered from night terrors well into adulthood, and therefore he noted that “I would not wish to heat the fires of that private hell for any child” (Of Other Worlds 30).  More importantly, though, he wanted his audience to see real evil and real good, and he wanted them to see that by decisive, brave action, good could triumph.  In one of his more famous passages on the subject, Lewis wrote,

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. […] As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.  (Of Other Worlds 31)

Lewis’s purposes then would act much as a filter might, straining out inappropriate facts and ideas gleaned during the war from expression in a Narnian context.

Still, I believe that Lewis’s wartime experiences clearly influenced him, and I also believe that it is possible to draw some carefully examined parallels between them and Narnia.  Next week we’ll take a look at our first catagory of thought:  Dark Realism and Plain Practicality.

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.

Sources referenced:

  • Lewis, C. S.  Of Other Worlds:  Essays and Stories.  San Diego:  Harvest, 1994.
  • ________.  Surprised by Joy:  The Shape of My Early Life.  Orlando, FL:  Harvest Books, 1955.
  • ________.  The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York:  HarperOne, 2001

Posts in the War in Narnia Series:

  1. C. S. Lewis the Soldier
  2. World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
  3. Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
  4. Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
  5. The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
  6. The First Experience of Battle
  7. Wounds and the Wounded
  8. Corpses?  What Corpses?

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