How did CS Lewis come to write the seven books telling the story of Narnia? Although he wrote them when he was in his fifties, the story begins in his own childhood. Here’s how it happened.
The story behind the story of Narnia started many years before The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was first published – 35 years, in fact. In 1915, when he was 16 years old, Jack Lewis got a picture in his mind of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels. It caught his imagination and stuck with him throughout his life.
This happened while Jack was living with his private tutor, William Kirkpatrick. He had been utterly miserable at public school. Now he was having the time of his life studying languages and literature and having his ideas constantly challenged by Kirkpatrick’s razor-sharp logic. Kirkpatrick would appear in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as Professor Kirke.
We now fast-forward to 1939. Jack was living in Oxford and at the outbreak of the Second World War took in four children who had been evacuated from the Blitz in London. Jack had written a couple of adult books and now started writing a children’s story about four children being evacuated to the house of Professor Kirke.
It was to be a fairy story involving the faun, and by now Jack had probably had his picture of a queen on a sledge, too. The hero was to be Peter, the youngest of the four children. But he never got anywhere with the story and abandoned it.
Fast-forward another 10 years. By now, Jack was the celebrated author of The Screwtape Letters and the four radio series that would become his book, Mere Christianity. That year, in 1949, he kept having dreams about lions. The dreams inspired him to make another attempt at his children’s story, but this time with a lion as a key character. As he later explained: “Once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him”.
The name “Aslan” is Turkish for “lion”, which Jack had learned from The 1001 Arabian Nights. The idea of a land of talking animals went back to Jack’s childhood, when he and his brother wrote stories about Boxen, a land where animals wear clothes and fight battles.
As he started writing what was to become The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Jack read the story to his friends. One of the friends was JRR Tolkien, who was just finishing The Lord of the Rings, after writing it for 10 years. He hated Jack’s new book, but others thought it was wonderful.
Jack finished the book within a few months and moved on to a prequel. This would eventually become The Magician’s Nephew, but in this first version, the magician was Digory’s godmother, Mrs LeFay. The story is very different, too. Digory has the ability to talk with animals and plants in England, but loses it when he cuts a branch off his friend the oak tree to impress Polly.
Jack felt the story was not working, so when the idea came to him to explore what it would be like to be pulled into another world (as genies in books are pulled into our world) he started work on another Narnia book instead. In it, the four children from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are summoned from a railway platform to fight for “Old Narnia”. Jack originally called this book Drawn into Narnia, but it ended up as Prince Caspian.
Jack finished The Voyage of the Dawntreader 11 months after completing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in February 1950. The figure of Reepicheep seems to date back to Boxen, where, he says, “I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail”.
Next he wrote The Horse and His Boy, although it went through seven other titles before he settled on that one. It was not published until after The Silver Chair, which he wrote next. Amazingly, these first five books took a little less than two years to complete, and the first of them, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was published around this time, in October 1950.
In 1952, Jack finally finished The Magician’s Nephew. Jack’s mother had died when he was just nine years old, and in the story he allows Digory to save his sick mother with the magic apple that was never available to him.
Jack completed The Last Battle in March 1953, four years after starting the series. He often received letters from children asking for more books about Narnia, but he replied to one child: “There are only two times at which you can stop a thing: one is before everyone is tired of it, the other is after!”
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Our famous follower in these pages is CS Lewis, known as ‘the apostle to the sceptics’ in 20th century Britain, but his books, including Narnia, are read around the world. He is the author of scholarly books, science fiction, popular theology and his children’s classics, the Chronicles of Narnia. All of them shot through with his imaginative and powerful retelling of the Christian story.
These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.
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