Ashby D. Boyle II is Meridian’s correspondent to the US Supreme Court. He is currently spending a year at Yale writing two books.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the film, opened this Christmas season. (For Meridian’s review, of the film, click here
The background of the book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, involves J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom Lewis first read the first Chronicle of Narnia. One day in the early spring of 1949, C.S. Lewis [Jack to his friends] began to read aloud to Tolkien the beginning of a new book he was writing to later become known as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: ‘Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.’
Lewis and Tolkien regularly read their work to each other as an informal group called the Inklings that met every Tuesday in a pub they nicknamed, The Bird and the Baby, in Oxford.
So what did J.R.R. Tolkien think of the The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Tolkien hated it. From that very first time it was read to him.
In fact, Tolkien is on the record, saying, “It really won’t do,” to a student of Lewis later at the Bird and the Baby. Tolkien had his reasons.
Tolkien’s criticism derived from Jack’s failure to prepare to write regarding the book. Tolkien as an author plotted and prepared extensively before writing. Jack, in contrast, wrote the first two Narnia Chronicles without a plan, hastily. It was not until The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that Lewis began to write Chronicles of Narnia first taking extensive preparations. (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, 222-23.)
The translation to film of a Chronicle, speaking personally as always, never satisfies. In contrast, I find that reading Lewis somehow sparks the feeling that somehow I know him. His writing style conveys ‘the courtesy of clarity’ and on occasion, illuminates thinking as if by the Light of Christ. To use a phrase from Mormon culture, Lewis always seems to have ‘a good spirit about him.’
Not that Lewis wasn’t introverted in the way that the British often seem to Americans, and in person Lewis could be read wrongly as being arrogant. At other times, he was cranky. Former students of his say that Lewis kept his own religious beliefs to himself except for every Tuesday, when the Inklings met. But apparently what makes Lewis enduringly readable –a word he would surely have hated—is a mix of intellectual and spiritual brilliance, and keeping utterly to himself seeming odd. He did, on the other hand, value friendship, and felt a duty to write back to everyone who wrote to him (a practice which Elder Neal A. Maxwell seemed to also be committed to).
Lewis, writing in 1944 in Beyond Personality, The Christian Idea of God, may have had his faults in mind when he wrote that “[w]e must not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty [of temperament]. There is even, when you come to think of it, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones,” at page 54. For example, though he held very sacred –and too personal to much talk about—the birth of his Savior, Lewis viewed with contempt what he differentiated as “Christmas, the commercial racket.”
There’s an echo of Scrooge possible in listening to reasons why Lewis condemned Christmas (not to be mistaken, again, for his personal devotions commemorating Christ’s birth).
Lewis wrote in a short essay, “What Christmas Means to Me,” that “Christmas the commercial racket” should be condemned for four reasons.
“1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure.”
“2. Most of it is involuntary.”
“3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself.”
“4. The nuisance.”
As parent, while I can partially identify with Lewis the Scrooge, all of these reasons double as a call to duty in the service of the happiness of children. So to a child’s excellent moral acuity, Lewis perhaps does come across as Mr. Wilson from “Dennis the Menace.” (CS Lewis, God in the Dock, “What Christmas Means To Me,” 304-05.)