Colin Duriez is a frequent writer and speaker on topic related to C.S. Lewis and his Inkling friends. Duriez is most recently the author of A Field Guide to Narnia. His other books include Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia, and The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook. Duriez lives in Leicester, England and was recently in the U.S.
Why do you think the Chronicles of Narnia are Lewis's greatest achievement and will last the longest?
In the Chronicles, you get the presence of Lewis. You get the cast of his mind in a way that's unequalled in any of his other books. Lewis once said that the imaginative man in him was more basic than any other aspect. In the Chronicles, every part of him was brought into play: the depth of his intellect, the depth of his knowledge, the richness of his imagination. They all work organically together and achieved this remarkable series of not one, but seven connected books.
It's folly to predict the future, but being a fool, I'll say that maybe in 150 years it will be the Chronicles of Narnia that are the most remembered of Lewis's work.
In order to write to a post-Christian culture, Lewis used pre-Christian, pagan ideas.
C.S. Lewis's ideas about returning to a paganism before coming to Christian faith still apply today. He recognized that we live in a post-Christian world, and for him that was the most basic category when trying to understand present society. We talk about modernism and now postmodernism, but if Lewis was around I think he'd still be saying that the fact that we're post-Christian is more fundamental.
Contemporary people have no background at all in Christian faith. They need to be brought to paganism to prepare the way to become Christians, which is rather a provocative idea. But it was also part of the way he tried to rehabilitate the old Christian West. The "Old West" is what he called it. He and J.R.R. Tolkien tried to rehabilitate the values and virtues of this vast period, which goes back to the Classical times.
I'm not an expert on that period, but it seems to be a blend of pagan insights that are completed by a Christian understanding. Lots of pagan things are Christianized like Christmas. That seemed to be a strategy in the medieval period and before. Lewis and Tolkien carried on this mentality of fulfilling the insights people have as ordinary human beings into the nature of reality. Lewis and Tolkien had a kind of natural theology where they felt you could have insights into the nature of God's reality independent of scripture.
He uses that to sneak Christian theology into the pagan setting of the Chronicles.
He self consciously sneaks in those Christian insights. One of his books, Till We Have Faces, retells the classical story of Cupid and Psyche. It was a myth which to him had great meaning and power. He retold it in the form of a modern novel. It's set in pre-Christian times, and he explores the insight that it is possible to have within the pagan imagination that prefigure Christian truth.
Lewis's conversion was very much shaped by the arguments of Tolkien that the gospel narratives fulfill the very best of human storytelling and myth. They bring into clarity and sharp focus insights that are found throughout the world, not just in the West but also in the depths of human experience of reality.
[Till We Have Faces] actually has a lot of affinities to Tolkien because The Lord of the Rings has a pre-Christian setting, a Northern European setting. There's a wonderful shift in consciousness in [Orual's] part. I'm beginning to get more and more interested in the way C.S. Lewis tries to change consciousness in the reader, and I think he was deliberately trying to do this. By presenting an alternative world imaginatively, you actually can experience a different kind of consciousness, which gives you a perspective on your own world.
That perspective can bring the reader to being undeceived, as you call it.
That's very evident in Orual in Till We Have Faces. She goes through this undeception. And there's lots of instances in the Narnia stories of this experience. It's something that's very important to Lewis because he'd gone through it himself because for many years he was an atheist. He was halfway through his life before he became a theist and then a Christian. So there was a huge undeception on his part.
How did Lewis understand the power of a story to undeceive?
Lewis was hugely influenced by Tolkien. Tolkien saw story as fundamental as language itself. He talks about language and story being coeval in the human being. Story has huge power to make what's normally abstract concrete, real. It has this ability to give you experience that you may have never had before as you imaginatively enter into the story. I don't know whether Lewis made anything of when after David's adultery, Nathan tells him a story. David gets caught into the story then suddenly realizes it's about him. That's a wonderful example. Lewis doesn't mention that but I imagine that he would say Amen to that.
You say that Lewis believed fantasy should change the reader. What sort of change did Lewis want the readers of the Chronicles to go through?
I think he wanted to create a climate in the reader, an imaginative and intellectual climate that would make the reader more able to receive the gospel when they heard it. He was preparing the ground for the gospel because he felt that the gospel itself was pointing to the deepest reality about naturethe kind of values and virtues that we were meant to have in order to be fully human. He was trying to make his readers more human. He was giving them the benefit of his deep learning to bring them on in this direction. So in a way he was humanizing his reader.
That's what all parent try to do, isn't it? They try to bring their children on and give them values to prepare them for life. He was fulfilling some of that role in his stories. You almost need to have children in order to read them the Chronicles of Narnia. It's an extra reason for having kids.
In the end, children do have to leave Narnia, but they don't have to leave the love of Aslan.
There's one place where Lucy's quite upset when she discovers she can't go back to Narnia, but Aslan points out that he's in her world, but under a different name.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on C.S. Lewis and his writings include:
A Field Guide to Narnia is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Weblog: Forty Years Later, C.S. Lewis's Influence Tops JFK (Nov. 24, 2003)
J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legendand Truthto modern readers. (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Dour Analyst and the Joyous Christian | In the realm of mental balance and personal peace, Sigmund Freud had nothing on C. S. Lewis. (April 19, 2002)
Two Cultural Giants | Both Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis were emotionally wounded as boys and struggled with depression as men. But a worldview can make a tremendous difference. (April 19, 2002)
Wisdom in a Time of War | What Oswald Chambers and C.S. Lewis teach us about living through the long battle with terrorism. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Forget 'Normal' | C.S. Lewis's warning against panic during World War II resonates in our new crisis. (Oct. 19, 2001)
Mere Marketing? | Publisher, estate under fire for handling of C.S. Lewis's identity. (August 6, 2001)
Aslan Is Still on the Move | There's too little evidence to prove that anyone is 'de-Christianizing' C.S. Lewis. (August 6, 2001)
Myth Matters | C. S. Lewis bequeathed us a method and a language for sharing the gospel with the modern and postmodern world. (April 17, 2001)
Spring in Purgatory: Dante, Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a Lost Masterpiece | For slightly over five hundred years, the most famous and popular illustration of Dante's Divine Comedy has remained effectively "lost." (Feb. 7, 2000)
Walking Where Lewis Walked | My reluctant entry into the world of pilgrimage. (Feb. 7, 2000)
C.S. Lewis on Christmas | Lewis summed up Christmas in one sentence: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God." (December 20, 1999)
Reflections | Clive Staples Lewis in his lifetime gave us many writings that explicate the Christian faith and walk. (Nov. 16, 1998)
Still Surprised by Lewis | Why this nonevangelical Oxford don has become our patron saint. (Sept. 7, 1998)
Jack Is Back | The search for the historical Lewis. (Feb. 3, 1997)
Christian History & Biography also featured Lewis in its top ten Christians issue. Apologetics: C.S. Lewis | "The atheist scholar who became an Anglican, an apologist, and a patron saint of Christians everywhere."
If it's Lewis you're interested in, Into the Wardrobe should fill your every desire.
The Discovery Institute's C.S. Lewis and Public Life site is another wonderful resource of papers about and by Lewis.
Still hungry for more? You'll probably never have the time to read everything linked at the C.S. Lewis Mega-Links page.
C.S. Lewis Foundation