|SFX magazine feature by David Langford: issue #137,
December 2005. I'm not too keen on the lightning Narnia synopses, but that's
what the all-powerful Editor (who is not a tame lion) demanded....|
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Clive Staples Lewis ("Jack" to friends) probably didn't expect to be remembered for children's fiction. Born in Belfast in 1898, he spent his working life as an academic. From 1925 to 1954 he was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford; then Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English until his death in 1963. Even curmudgeons like Sir Kingsley Amis praised his excellence as a lecturer on medieval literature. Sounds like a dry subject? Lewis's classic study The Allegory of Love (1936) may surprise you.
At Oxford he was central to the "Inklings" literary circle, where his friend J.R.R. Tolkien read drafts of The Lord of the Rings. The Inklings also included Charles Williams, cult author of eccentric supernatural thrillers.
Outside academia, Lewis became well known for writing and later broadcasting about Christianity. His first fantasy The Pilgrim's Regress (1933) is a sometimes obscurely symbolic allegory of his own route from atheism to religion. Much more successful was The Screwtape Letters (1942), sardonically presenting morality upside-down through the correspondence of a bureaucratic demon issuing advice on the best way to tempt mortals and lure them to hell.
Hell is the starting-place in The Great Divorce (1946), a fantasy in which a bus-load of the damned are allowed a day trip to the outskirts of heaven – though they mostly dislike the experience. Even non-believers can appreciate Lewis's knack of dramatising poisonous mental habits and deceptions. Often there's an uncomfortable shock of self-recognition.
Our man ventured into outright science fiction with Out of the Silent Planet (1938), featuring a space journey to Mars in the manner of H.G. Wells. But Lewis disliked the presentation of the War of the Worlds Martians as nightmarish, man-eating monsters. His own hero Ransom flees in terror from strange-looking natives of Mars, only to realise that they are friendly and – once he's used to them – attractive.
Later, Lewis the philologist has a comic scene in which amoral scientist Weston, proprietor of the spaceship, delivers a ringing speech about humanity's manifest destiny of space colonisation. Unfortunately, when Ransom translates this into pidgin for a Martian audience, it sounds grotesquely silly ... a sly put-down of SF aspirations.
Ransom's adventures move from slightly mystical SF to outright theological fantasy in the 1943 Perelandra, also known as Voyage to Venus. Now his conveyance isn't a spaceship but a wax coffin carried by an angel. Following the old SF tradition, Venus is a water world whose floating islands are splendidly imagined. But what happens there is a alternate myth of Eden, with Adam detained offstage while the green Eve of this unspoilt world is tempted by a smooth-talking "serpent": Weston again, now diabolically possessed. Since no mere woman could possibly resist temptation, it's up to Ransom to save the day.
The Ransom Trilogy, or Cosmic Trilogy, ends back on Earth with That Hideous Strength (1945), occasionally reminiscent of those supernatural thrillers by fellow-Inkling Charles Williams. In part it's the nightmare of an old-fashioned don who saw far too much being spent on glittering toys for scientists. A horrible new institute called the NICE is "co-ordinating" British science, in a miasma of Kafka-like bureaucracy, animal experiments, brutal private police, brainwashing, and general contempt for humanity. Behind all this nastiness lies the demonic intelligence that possessed Weston.
Ransom, permanently wounded from his struggle on Venus and now calling himself Mr Fisher-King, leads the secret guardians of Britain in a last defence against the NICE. His trump card is the wizard Merlin, who has been sleeping underground since Arthur's time but is conveniently about to wake. There are spectacular closing scenes as the angelic powers governing Mars, Venus and other planets are channeled through Merlin to destroy those awful scientists and bureaucrats.
After the Ransom trilogy came Narnia, an enduring classic of children's fantasy which famously has a vein of Christian allegory. Some find this glaringly obtrusive. Others barely notice it, despite such hints as the lion Aslan's unexpected manifestation as a lamb at the close of the third book.
Lewis's final fantasy novel Till We Have Faces (1956) is often forgotten. It's a knotty, adult retelling of the Greek myth of Eros, god of love, and Psyche, who can remain his lover so long as she never sees his face. Naturally, egged on by curiosity and relatives, she breaks the prohibition and suffers for it. This version centres on Psyche's jealously possessive sister – another study in twisted morality.
Will C.S. Lewis turn in his grave at the horror of a Disney recreation of Narnia? He had good words for the animated Snow White, but that was long ago ...
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