C.S. Lewis' stepson shares insightful memories and explains what it's like to be the caretaker of Narnia.
Posted in , Dec 17, 2010
The story begins so simply. During World War II, four English schoolchildren—two brothers and two sisters—are sent to live in an old country house to escape the bombing of London. One day they stumble upon an ordinary-looking wardrobe in a strangely empty room.
If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’s beloved books for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, you know what happens next.
The children are swept into a magical land where they meet mythological creatures, talking animals, an evil witch and the Great Lion Aslan himself, perhaps the most compelling and enduring image of God ever to appear in a story for children.
For many years now I’ve been blessed with the job of being what you might call the caretaker of Narnia. I help run a company that oversees all of C. S. Lewis’s writings. No movie, stage play or anything else based on the Narnian chronicles gets made without my permission.
You’d be surprised at some of the strange things people want to do with the books. Once, someone came to us wanting approval to make a musical of the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the reindeer pulling the White Witch’s sleigh suddenly turn into dancing go-go girls.
A screenwriter thought American audiences would like the story better if a scene involving enchanted Turkish delight candy featured a bewitched cheeseburger instead! However, the Narnia movies currently in production, including The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, have avoided such errors.
Actually, it’s not quite accurate to call what I do a mere job. It’s more like a moral responsibility—a way of paying back one of the most profound debts of my life. You see, I’m not just a fan of C. S. Lewis. I’m also his stepson.
Lewis (I’ve always called him Jack, the nickname used by everyone who knew him) married my mother, Joy Davidman, when I was 10 years old. Four years after that my mother died. I was estranged from my father, who lived in America.
Suddenly a 62-year-old professor of medieval English literature who’d been a bachelor for almost all his life was the closest thing I had to a father. Jack was as grief-stricken as I was. And yet he did everything he could to raise me. I saw a C. S. Lewis few people knew, and I grew to love him deeply.
I didn’t feel that way on first meeting him. My own father was a successful writer, but he was an alcoholic and by the time he and my mother divorced he frightened me. My mother got to know Jack Lewis after writing to tell him how much his books on Christianity had meant to her.
The two began corresponding and then my mother moved to England and enrolled me in school there. I was excited to meet the author of the Narnia books and I pictured someone from Narnia itself, maybe a knight with a sword.
What I encountered instead was a bald, stout old man dressed in a shabby tweed coat and with tobacco stains on his teeth and hands.
I was crushed—until I began to get to know him. Almost immediately I noticed how funny he was. You always knew which room of the house he was in because someone was laughing there.
One of the first things he did was invite me out for a walk in the woods behind his house near Oxford. Jack loved trees and animals and gardens. More than that, he knew exactly how to talk to a child.
He was straightforward and took me seriously, not like some grown-ups, who get cutesy and condescending around children. He asked me what I liked to read and told me his favorite childhood books, including the Beatrix Potter stories, which he said he still loved as an adult.
Most of all we talked about Narnia. We often spoke of it as if it were a real place, as if a faun or a centaur might appear in the woods at any moment. It was a delightful game.
I was enrolled at a boarding school, so I mostly saw Jack during the holidays. Perhaps what I loved most about him was how much he loved my mother.
She was diagnosed with cancer only a few months after she and Jack married. Doctors told her she had just months to live, but after much prayer she made what at first appeared a miraculous recovery.
She and Jack had four happy years, including trips to Ireland and Greece and—what I most remember—evening after evening of sitting by the fire at home or around the dinner table talking.
They talked about everything, especially books. They suited each other exactly. I had never seen my mother so content.
Then suddenly it was over. My mother’s cancer returned in force and in 1960 she died. Her last words were, “I am at peace with God.” To the world Jack presented a brave face, continuing his scholarly duties and keeping up a vast correspondence.
At home, though, he often wept openly. I tried not to do anything that would provoke his grief and he did the same for me.
I was a teenager by this point and he wasn’t in the best health. But he welcomed me home every holiday, kept close tabs on my progress at school and even bought me a motorcycle when I was older.
Two years after my mother died I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and, rather than face the disease, had committed suicide. I was now an orphan. Jack knew just what to say to me.
He didn’t offer trite condolences—he knew too much about pain and grief for that. There had been tragedy in my family and he didn’t try to sugarcoat that. He could have washed his hands of me but he didn’t. Instead, he made me a part of the last years of his life.
Jack died in 1963, when I was 18. At his funeral I saw a candle burning in a simple candlestick on his coffin. Others say they remember no such thing. But I am certain I saw that candle. Its flame burned unwaveringly through the whole service.
It was a perfect image of Jack’s love—for me, for my mother, for anyone blessed enough to have come into his circle of friends.
Jack Lewis embodied values that sound old-fashioned these days—courtesy, duty, loyalty. He was steadfast in his devotion to me and so I now do my best to remain faithful to him. What would I have done without him, alone there in England with no one to turn to?
I had gone as a child hoping to meet a knight in armor from a fairy tale. I got something far better, a father who understood that what children need most of all is unwavering love.
Find out which C.S. Lewis books Guideposts readers love most!
Hear Douglas Gresham talk about the making of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.