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C. S. Lewis’s lofty imagination

by
30 April 2021

Childhood memories and psychological archetypes inform the author’s writing, says Katherine Langrish

Alamy

AT THE beginning of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan explains how he came to write the book. While engaged upon a different work about the spiritual life, Bunyan “fell into an allegory” and saw how he could represent it as the physical journey of the Saints to Glory.

Ideas began to multiply in his head “like sparks that from the coals of fire did fly”. In an essay on Bunyan, C. S. Lewis suggests that in this coalescence of adventurous quest and spiritual journey we can see Bunyan’s earnest Christianity coming together with his boyhood delight in old wives’ tales and chivalric romances: “The one fitted the other like a glove,” he remarks. “Now, as never before, the whole man was engaged.”

Now, as never before, the whole man was engaged — Lewis might be talking about himself. The Narnia books are a fusion of his lifelong love of literature, his Christian faith, and the experiences of his own childhood: the latter most obviously in The Magician’s Nephew, where Digory’s wish to save his sick mother derives its poignancy from the death of Lewis’s own mother in his early boyhood.

There is even more to it than this. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Professor’s big house, full of book-rooms and passages and unexpected places, sounds a lot like Lewis’s childhood home Leeborough House, or “Little Lea”: a big house on the outskirts of the city of Belfast, to which his family moved in 1905 when he was only seven and before his mother fell ill.

In Surprised By Joy, he describes it with love: “The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”

The New House is a major character in Lewis’s stories. An imagery of labyrinthine houses, passages, secret rooms, and doorways into Elsewhere recurs throughout the Narnia series.

Some examples are the attics of The Magician’s Nephew, and the palacecity of Charn; the Professor’s house and the wardrobe itself in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, which “contains” the whole land of Narnia; there’s Aravis and her friend Lasaraleen losing themselves in the dangerous maze of the Old Palace of Tashbaan; and the Pevensie children exploring the ruins of Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian and discovering the treasure chamber.

There’s Lucy tiptoeing along the creepy, sunlit passages of the Magician’s House in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — the City Ruinous and the Dark Castle of Underland in The Silver Chair — and the stable in The Last Battle, arguably the last and greatest doorway of all.

 

NOT coincidentally, I think that the triumphal cry from the end of The Last Battle — “Farther up and farther in!” — is consciously or unconsciously borrowed from George MacDonald’s adult fantasy novel Lilith (1895), another book set in a vast, rambling house with portals to other dimensions.

Albert Bridge/GeographLittle Lea, in Belfast, Lewis’s childhood home

In chapter three, the character Mr Vane rushes after the figure of a mysterious Mr Raven, chasing him up many stairs into unfamiliar attic regions and a garret furnished only with a mirror. Vane stumbles through the frame into a wild, visionary landscape, and is told by Mr Raven that he has come into this strange land through a door.

“‘I never saw any door,’ I persisted. ‘Of course not!’ he returned; ‘all the doors you had yet seen — and you haven’t seen many — were doors in; here you came upon a door out. The strange thing to you’, he went on thoughtfully, ‘will be, that the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in.’”

“The more doors you go out of, the farther you go in” is almost certainly what Lewis also means us to understand: an exit from the narrowness of selfhood which paradoxically leads to an expansion and enrichment of apprehension.

This imagery of an “endless” house isn’t restricted to Narnia. It comes from somewhere deep, turning up in Lewis’s Christian apologetics as well, and even in his literary criticism. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” Jesus said (John 14.2).

In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the basic Christian faith as a hallway, out of which doors open into different rooms representing different denominations: “The hall is a place to wait, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”

In its function, this hall sounds surprisingly like the Wood Between the Worlds — another “in-between” place that opens into many dimensions: a place of potential, not a place to stay.

 

IN HIS memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung records a personal dream of exploring an ancient house. It began somewhere on an upper floor, in a richly furnished, rococo-style salon hung with fine old pictures. Going downstairs, he found the ground floor furnished in an older, medieval style with a red brick floor.

Everything seemed “rather dark”. Exploring room after room, he came across a heavy old door and behind it, a stone staircase leading further down into an even more ancient, vaulted room: “My interest was now intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs, and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a doorway of narrow stone steps. These too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into the rock [where] I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old.”

The story that follows this is worth repeating. Jung recounts how he took the dream to Freud and asked for his opinion of its meaning. Focusing almost entirely on the two skulls, Freud decided they must represent a death-wish — an interpretation which the newly and happily married Jung felt was quite wrong.

He had his own ideas about the meaning of the dream, but, fearing to offend Freud and damage their friendship he pretended to agree, and told Freud the death-wish must be directed at his new wife and sister-in-law. Freud seemed “greatly relieved” by this admission, Jung comments with a twinkle.

Jung’s own interpretation was that the house was “a kind of image of the psyche”, and that in descending through the various levels he was descending from the conscious mind into the unconscious.

“The ground floor stood for the first level of the unconscious. The deeper I went, the more alien and the darker the scene became. In the cave, I discovered remains of a primitive culture, that is, the world of the primitive man within myself — a world which can scarcely be reached or illuminated by consciousness.”

AlamyChildhood portrait of Lewis

Building upon this reading, Jung later came to form his theories of the collective unconscious and of “archetypes” or symbols common to the human mind. Writing with a touch of humour, Lewis acknowledged the emotional and poetic power of Jung’s theory of archetypes. Even if it should turn out to be poor science, he commented, it was still “excellent poetry” of a mythic character.

The concept of the archetype as something old, meaningful, hidden, deeply buried but gradually coming to light made him feel like “Schliemann digging up what he believed to be the very bones of Agamemnon, king of men” — or “my own self, hoping, as a child, for that forgotten, that undiscovered room”.

Maybe most children hope to find a hidden room: still, in expressing this desire, here is Lewis returning again to the same potent image. If Jung and Freud could disagree over the interpretation of Jung’s dream, perhaps there’s a chance for me to speculate that, for Lewis, the archetypal house symbolised the security of his childhood before his mother’s death.

After that event, Little Lea became gradually intolerable to him. While his father was dying, he described it in a letter as a place where he had never experienced freedom — yet he added: “I have never been able to resist the retrogressive influence of this house which always plunges me back into the pleasures and pains of a boy.”

The house which sheltered the happiness of Lewis’s early childhood had long vanished into that land of lost content, the far country of the past: but in imagination he was a constant visitor, exploring passages and tiptoeing into rooms, searching for the doorway through which he might pass into joy.

 

This is an edited extract from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine-year-old self by Katherine Langrish published by Darton, Long­man & Todd at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-913657-07-9.

Read an interview with author Katherine Langrish here.

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