IN ACCOUNTS OF 20TH-CENTURY LITERARY movements and happenings, the 1950s is often ignored. Yet this decade, viewed as a quiet time in English literature, birthed three of the greatest-ever series: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy was completed, as was JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, seven volumes, topped them all.
All three writers are still read today (Tolkien topped a BBC poll of most popular author of the century, possibly a result of the success of Peter Jackson's films) but it is undoubtedly Lewis who has attracted the most controversy, both over his personal life and his writing. This unassuming Oxford don - he liked nothing better than a pint in the evening at the pub with some sympathetic colleagues and fellow writers - has been called a fake and a phoney, a promoter of sexism and racism. The attacks have been renewed with the arrival of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in cinemas and the publication of a new biography, CS Lewis: The Boy who Chronicled Narnia, by Michael White (Abacus, 10.99).
Since the 1988 publication of academic Kathryn Lindskoog's study, The CS Lewis Hoax, which asserted that "much of what has been published by or about Lewis since his death has been fabricated", referring partly to Lewis's posthumous 1977 publication, The Dark Tower, Lewis's literary legacy has been under threat. AN Wilson's 1990 biography of Lewis pilloried Lindskoog's claims, but the damage had already been done. Then, in 2001, celebrated children's author Philip Pullman launched an unprecedented attack on the use of Christianity in Lewis's Narnia, the series of books that see four siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, step through a wardrobe from our world into a parallel one, where they are guided by the lion Aslan: "It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much, so much as the absence of Christian virtue," he told an audience at a literary festival. "The highest virtue, we have on authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of it in the [Narnia] books, a peevish blend of racism, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice."
Some have rallied to Lewis's rescue. Michel Faber, who has written an as yet unpublished short story called "Brave Again" based on Susan, one of the Narnia siblings, argues that: "Pullman and other atheist writers accuse the Narnia books of using literary brainwashing to convert innocent, unreligious children to Christianity. The symbolic link between Aslan and Jesus is regarded as an outrageous trick, like feeding kids dangerous drugs disguised as sweeties. I don't see it that way. Children are smart enough, and self-centred enough, to take from a book what they want and to reject the rest. The narrative universe of Narnia is complex and profound, and kids can engage with it on whatever level is right for them. Twenty years later they may be Christians or they may be witches or punk rockers or stockbrokers or simply people with a fondness for lions. In any case, I wholly approve of Lewis's desire to affect his readers deeply and lastingly. That's what good fiction is supposed to do, isn't it? I loathe superficial, disposable books, and that's one thing that no-one could accuse Lewis of producing."
But it was all quite different when Lewis was interviewed by Time magazine in 1947. Then, he was known for his 1942 novel, The Screwtape Letters, the tale of trainee devil Wormwood and senior devil, Uncle Screwtape. Like the Narnia stories, this was an allegorical tale of good and evil that Lewis was also developing in his Ransom trilogy (which he called "modern fairy tales for grown-ups"). Time put him in "a whole school of literary evangelists like TS Eliot, Graham Greene and Dorothy L Sayers" as his non-fiction study, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, was selling out in the US. Lewis, Time said, was "one of a growing band of heretics among modern intellectuals, [one] who believes in God".
THE COLOURFUL TERM "HERETIC" IS CRUCIAL here, as it demonstrates the colourful way Lewis would be viewed after his death. Born in Belfast in 1898, the son of a heavy-drinking solicitor, Albert Lewis, and his wife, Florence, CS Lewis - or "Jack" as he preferred to be known - was always a bright child, in spite of unhappy childhood experiences at various schools. The death of his mother when he was ten made him turn to elder brother Warren for comfort and away from his alcoholic father, and possibly also contributed to his rejection of religion. Certainly his First World War experiences confirmed that rejection, especially when in 1918 his close friend, Paddy Moore, died in battle.
Lewis promised his friend he would look after his middle-aged mother, Janie, and his sister, Maureen, if he died. In 1919 Lewis moved in with Janie and Maureen in Oxford, a situation he played down but which has divided biographers and critics since his death. In his new biography, Michael White argues that it is impossible to read this set-up as anything other than a sexually based one: "To suggest that this 20-year-old would antagonise his own family, risk the ruin of his academic career, work all the hours in the day to keep things going and offer himself up to poverty out of nothing other than a sense of duty is, at best, nave." The fact that Lewis referred to Janie as "Mother", however, perhaps complicates this reading.
In spite of his rather questionable set-up, Lewis became a star at Oxford, taking two Firsts and being elected Fellow of Magdalen College. The next year he met JRR Tolkien and four years later the pair set up the first of the famous "Inklings" meetings in the Eagle and Child pub, attended by Lewis's brother Warren, the scholar Neville Coghill, Hugo Dyson and, later, Charles Williams. Of this group, it is Tolkien and Lewis whose work is still read and whose friendship has been most examined. The rivalry between them was real, born largely of intellectual differences (Tolkien abhorred allegory, demanding that his Rings trilogy be read as history; Lewis embraced allegory as the best way to communicate his newly found Christianity), but commercial success also played a part. By the time Lord of the Rings appeared, the Narnia books had made Lewis a household name, and the friendship, says White, ended in "quiet bitterness and suppressed resentment".
But it was Lewis's private life that was to be immortalised after his death, when the 1994 film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, traced his relationship and marriage to the American divorcee, Joy Gresham. That Joy died of cancer only four years into their marriage gave Lewis's life that hint of tragic romance that biographers love, as well as adding some controversy, as the deeply Christian Lewis had jumped through hoops to justify his marrying a divorcee. And, controversially too, perhaps, it is that Christian aspect of Lewis that has lingered on, as powerfully as his books. Tap his name into any internet search engine, and a plethora of websites such as the CS Lewis Foundation, the CS Lewis Institute and the CS Lewis Society pop up, all religious sites claiming him as a standard-bearer for their beliefs.
It is perhaps the mark of the best writers that opinions will always be divided on their worth and influence. With more than 100 million copies sold worldwide, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could be said to have more worth and influence than most, no matter how controversial its creator, that post-war Oxford don who specialised in allegory, continues to be.
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is in cinemas from Thursday 8 December.
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