C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia series has entertained and educated readers for over 45 years. HarperCollins recently issued The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Lewis' birth. The Complete Chronicles of Narnia binds all seven books into a singular, gorgeous volume.
BookPage spoke with Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson, about the new edition, the world of Narnia and the Irish author himself, whom Gresham and others affectionately called "Jack."
Gresham was introduced to Lewis in late 1953. "As an 8-year-old boy from upstate New York, I was expecting a man who was on speaking terms with Peter, High King of Narnia, perhaps dressed in silver armor and carrying a sword . . . and of course, he was nothing like that at all. He was a stooped, balding, professional gentleman in very shabby clothes. But of course, the vibrancy in his personality very soon expunged any visible discrepancies in his appearance. I grew to like him very much, very quickly."
Lewis was a member of the Inklings, a group of writers who met regularly to read and critique one another's work. Gresham attended a couple of Inklings meetings as a child, listening in a quiet corner while they had these great, raucous debates, and he emphasizes that these now-legendary meetings also included a great deal of laughter. "These men were full of fun . . . one of the saddest things that has happened in the academic world over the past 30 years is the belief that if someone disagrees with you, you have to dislike them. In true academic studies, this was never the case. . . . If everyone agreed with you, that was utterly boring. People in today's academic world seem to resent being disagreed with, and that's a terrible shame. It will be the stultification of learning."
Lewis reportedly once said that since people didn't write the kinds of books he wanted, he had to do it himself. According to Gresham, "I think he was addressing children's books with that remark. One of the saddest things in children's literature today is books for children which deal with 'issues.' They write books about . . . all the usual horrors of a bad childhood. But they never seem to put a happy ending on the end of this, the result being that nothing is achieved, nothing is affirmed, there is no hope presented to the children who read these books. I think Jack looked at the children's literature from his day and found that there were quite reasonable forms of it, but none of them taught anything. The writers of today's 'issues' stories are trying to teach what children need to know, but unfortunately, they have taken too grim an outlook."
The Christian influence on The Chronicles is rather obvious, but Lewis also drew from mythology, medieval literature, and folklore. Was Lewis's specific message, then, one of hope? "I wouldn't go as far as to use the term 'specific,' but yes, certainly one of the messages was that there is always hope," Gresham replies.
He describes a recent article that posits that Lewis's Narnian chronicles presented a situation where death was better than life. "The writer totally misunderstood everything Jack said," Gresham muses, "for Jack is pointing out that death is rather irrelevant to life. It is a glorious thing to go on, no matter how bad things get there is a glorious result waiting at the end of it. There is a definite message of hope, but also a message of responsibility."
Why, then, do The Chronicles endure? Several reasons, Gresham replies. "One is simply the genre of literature has a very wide appeal. We all have to be kids at some stage of our lives, whether we like it or not. Also, it's important to realize that the Narnian chronicles are books of great hope. They leave you with a delightful sense of looking forward to what's coming. There is also the eternal truth about battles between good and evil, between God and the enemy. "
When asked about parallels between The Chronicles and life at Lewis' home, The Kilns, Gresham chuckles and says, "Many of the characters were drawn from people living in and around The Kilns. The classic example of this is Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, a direct modeling of our gardener, Fred Paxford."
Where did he find these unusual names for characters and faraway lands? You have to remember that Jack himself started out as Clive Staples Lewis, "which he didn't like," Gresham says, reciting the opening line in Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "There was once a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it." Gresham maintains that the names are "more often descriptive of the characters themselves." But what about Narnia? "There are various theories about Narnia. There is a town in northern Italy, the name of which was Narni. Whether Jack adapted this name, I have no idea. I think probably Jack operated on the 'Cellar Door Principle,' where you alter an English phrase, change its spelling, change its value, to mean something totally different."
We return to the actual book itself, particularly the original illustrations of Pauline Baynes, with whom, surprisingly enough, Lewis had very little contact. The Complete Chronicles of Narnia offers Baynes's illustrations in color for the first time, and although Lewis had little interaction with Baynes, she always felt that Jack disliked her drawings. "Actually, Jack loved her work very much."
Lewis dedicated six of the seven Chronicles to specific children. When asked if each book's contents were intended as specific messages to each respective child, Gresham agrees that there was a definite message, but not to the children to whom they were addressed. According to Gresham, Lewis simply selected various children with whom he interacted. The Last Battle, the final installment and Lewis' interpretation of the world's final days (and Narnia's) wasn't dedicated to anyone. Why?
"Good question," Gresham replies. "But if you think about it, would you want to have The Last Battle dedicated?"
The issue of reading order has been debated for decades, as the chronology of Narnia is inconsistent with the order in which the books were written. Gresham had actually posed this question to Lewis himself. "He personally preferred that they be read in the order in which he designed them . . . not necessarily the order in which he wrote them or published them. Which is why, as a consultant, I suggested that they number the books in the order in which Jack wanted them read, Narnian chronology. That has created an enormous furor, lots of arguments and discussions . . . which I think is utterly pathetic," he laughs.
As my time with Gresham draws to a close, I have to ask the question: Where is the wardrobe? Gresham pauses, almost teasingly, as if about to reveal a secret. Lowering his voice, he whispers: "There isn't one." WHAT?!
Once his laughter subsides, Gresham mentions several claimants who insist they possess the actual wardrobe, "but the fact of the matter is that [none of these] stimulated the book; it was merely a convenient ploy to transport Lucy into Narnia. The house was full of wardrobes—every bedroom in The Kilns had a wardrobe." In case I didn't get it the first time around, Gresham confirms, there isn't a wardrobe, or the wardrobe. Remember, folks, you read it here first.