My next category of comparison for between C. S. Lewis’s wartime experiences and war in The Chronicles of Narnia has to do with perception. There seems to be a strong correlation between Lewis’s description of his first experience in war and those of his characters. Assuming the connection is indeed accurate, then Lewis’s wartime experience lent his writing another edge of realism that would be hard to achieve with a solely literary background.
Lewis knew first hand what it was like to stand for the first time in front of an enemy who was trying to kill you. I have mentioned Lewis’s initial experience in combat several times over the courses of these posts. In it, Lewis describes n almost dreamlike feeling, where time seems to stand still and reality is distorted. For Lewis, it seemed unreal and fantastic. His own word for it was “imaginative.” He goes on to state that it was “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). While Lewis does not mention a subsequent charge in his description, the same sense of a suspension of reality and some sort of tempered fear response are both present.
Lewis most likely had this moment or one like it in mind when he penned Shasta and Peter’s descent into war. There is a clear sense of nerves and fear, but also a feeling of the surreal. The environment around the observer seems to change somewhat from actual reality. Time had a bending effect and seemed to stretch on into eternity for a single instant. In the case of Shasta at the Battle of Anvard, everything around him slowed down and became focused to an absolute pinpoint. Terror and necessity mingled in one moment and he saw far more than the scant few second would seem to allow:
And now a gallop. The ground between the two armies grew less every moment. Faster, faster. All swords out now, all shields up to the nose, all prayers said, all teeth clenched. Shasta was dreadfully frightened, but it suddenly came into his head “if you funk this, you’ll funk every battle all your life. Now or never.” (The Horse and His Boy 179)
Then, suddenly, the world turned into chaos, and Shasta can no longer follow what is going on.
This same basic situation is also evident in Peter’s battle with Fenris Ulf in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While this is technically single combat and not “war”, in a very real way, all battles are personal; the only question is how many persons are taking part at any given moment. Peter’s reaction to his first taste combat—which Lewis himself calls his “First Battle” in the chapter title—is very similar to Shasta’s. In the moment he charges the wolf, “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. That made no difference to what he had to do” (127). There is also a hint of this same distortion of time, when a there are more things going on in a “moment” than would normally seem possible. (This all continues into the instant when Peter actually kills Fenris, but since Lewis never describes in detail his presumed killing of Germans, there is no legitimate way to continue the comparison.
Up next week: Wounds and the Wounded.
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. The Horse and His Boy. New York: Collier, 1970.
________. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Scholastic, 1987.
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?