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East of the Wardrobe: The unexpected worlds of C. S. Lewis by Warwick Ball

10 March 2023

Mark Vernon considers influences from beyond the Christian tradition

“ISLAM is only the greatest of the Christian heresies,” C. S. Lewis remarked in a lecture on apologetics in 1945. And yet, although the author of the Narnia stories can easily be lambasted for prejudice and orientalism, Warwick Ball considers the depth of the influence of a variety of Eastern traditions, ancient and modern, on Lewis’s imagination and ideas.

East of the Wardrobe is a complex, wide-ranging investigation; so stay with the question of Lewis and Islam, and consider the Calormen. They rule a desert empire to the south in Narnia. Lewis uses these Saracen-like people as a byword for autocracy and cruelty. But Ball, who has fifty years as an archaeologist and historian in places from the Mediterranean to China, forgives Lewis’s “blatant prejudice”. He argues that it arises not from direct knowledge, but from absorbing the 20th century’s romantic view of the East, via painting and poetry, fantasy and spiritualism.

Further, he suspects that there is more. For example, is Lewis positively indebted to the Islam that he can so readily dismiss? To this, the quick answer is, Yes. Take the best known name in the Chronicles, after Narnia. Lewis seems to have adopted Aslan, directly or indirectly, from the Turkish for “lion”. Other magpie-like borrowings include a white-winged horse, Fledge, in The Magician’s Nephew, in a clear echo of Muhammad’s night journey upon a similar creature.

More subtly, journeys to other worlds through portals that dilate time and space are widespread in oriental literature, not least The Arabian Nights, which, some say, has an influence on modern storytellers second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.

There are esoteric parallels as well, such as the significance of the number seven in accounts of voyages of self-discovery. The seven books of Narnia almost certainly mirror the seven planetary spheres of medieval cosmology, as Michael Ward has argued. But the mystical number could also have struck Lewis from reading the poet Nizami of Ganja, or Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.

Ball is wary of seeing more extra-Christian elements in Lewis than are justified. But he makes the case that Lewis is a more eclectic religious writer than a “mere Christian”.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps (Iff Books, 2022).


East of the Wardrobe: The unexpected worlds of C. S. Lewis
Warwick Ball
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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