CS Lewis is still selling six million books a year, but the Narnia creator’s greatest influence was a humble Sussex pastor. Approaching the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, Clive Price investigates…
EVENTS ARE UNDERWAY to mark 50 years since the death of Clive Staples Lewis on 22 November, 1963. The creator of Narnia may be more influential than ever – but his greatest influence was the humble pastor of a Sussex church.
George MacDonald was minister of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel, in the 19th century – and a prolific poet and author. He died before Lewis had become aware of him, yet Lewis always said he was “my master”.
Born in 1898 in Belfast, Lewis became best remembered for his own fantasy saga The Chronicles Of Narnia. Its most famous first instalment, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, was published in 1950 and has transferred to stage, TV and cinema.
But alongside these classics of children’s literature were Lewis’s more grown-up explorations into realms of faith – from the spiritual warfare of The Screwtape Letters to the message of grace in The Great Divorce.
New biographies are emerging to mark Lewis’s anniversary this autumn, on top of the writer’s existing catalogue. Publisher’s Weekly cited a claim by one publicist that Lewis’s own books still sell more than six million copies a year.
It was in his famous autobiography Surprised by Joy that Lewis told of stumbling upon MacDonald’s novel Phantastes. The Scottish preacher’s “faerie romance” marked the end of Lewis’s own quest for joy.
Lewis also described this moment in the preface to his collection of MacDonald’s spiritual sayings. He confessed to passing by the Everyman edition of Phantastes when he saw it on a bookstall.
Eventually he bought a copy “almost unwillingly” and took it away to read. “A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier,” Lewis wrote in George MacDonald: An Anthology.
“What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise my imagination,” Lewis said of Phantastes. The book tells the story of Anodos, a young man who embarks on an epic journey through a dreamlike landscape.
This fairy tale helped launch Lewis’s own spiritual journey. That took him from atheism to Christianity in 1929 – when he admitted that “God was God” and became one of the faith’s greatest champions.
How does a “baptised imagination” lead to such solid faith? Charting that odyssey is central to understanding both MacDonald’s and Lewis’s mission as writers.
“People make the common charge that fantasy is escapism,” said Lewis expert Colin Duriez. “Tolkien said there are two kinds of escape. There’s the flight of the deserter or the escape of the prisoner.
“Good fantasy literature is more to do with the escape of the prisoner,” Colin explained, “where you turn away from the limitations of a very narrow view of reality. What fantasy does is help you to see the world in a fresh way.
“So you come back to the real world, but you see things in a different way, things you’ve not noticed before. And of course, one of the big things is the supernatural world, the unseen world.”
MacDonald’s tale was such an epiphany. “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe,” said Lewis, “the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”
Clive Price is a fan of C S Lewis and has followed the trail of the writer from Sussex to Northern Ireland and back.