The Journey into Aslan’s Country: On the Creative Process of C.S. Lewis

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The earliest draft of what would become C.S. Lewis’s classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, had no sign at all of Aslan the Great Lion in it. Lewis was not even sure where the story itself was going at first. All he had were visual snippets that kept visiting his imagination: a faun carrying packages, an ice queen, a snowy wood, a lamppost. How did this handful of images turn into one of the most beloved series in children’s literature? When and how did Aslan arrive on the scene? And what can today’s writers learn from Lewis?

In Which a Discovery is Made

I’ll never forget the moment I learned that C.S. Lewis was more than a children’s author. Stacks of books covered a table in my church’s parish hall and I, all of nine years old, saw his familiar name on the covers. I was elated with what I was sure must be more adventures like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its fellow Narnia novels. But the books contained no talking animals, royal children, or any illustrations at all. The Weight of Glory? Mere Christianity? My mother patiently explained that Lewis also wrote for adults—many more books in fact than he wrote for children—and most of them weren’t even fiction. It felt, in all honesty, like betrayal.

Sponsored

Don’t worry, I have since come to love and appreciate Lewis for the many profound contributions of his adult works, both fiction and nonfiction. But today, I celebrate him again as a children’s author. The climate of children’s literature (affectionately known as kidlit in the biz) has changed dramatically since the 1950s, when the Chronicles of Narnia first delighted children. And yet, readers can reliably find Lewis’s classics shelved right next to this year’s latest publications. That kind of cross-generational appeal does not come easily. As a writer hoping to reach young readers myself, I set out to discover what I might learn from the creative process behind Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

How All Were Very Unsupportive

Lewis received ridicule from his family at the idea of writing a children’s book, criticism from friends at his writing style, dubious support from his publisher who worried that a children’s book would damage his tenuous reputation as a serious writer, and snubs from work colleagues at Oxford who were already writing him off as an academic lightweight. Would you give up? I might.

Not only that, but Lewis’s homelife presented its own challenges and distractions. During this season, it often fell to Lewis to care for Mrs. Moore, whose health was declining, and his residence at the Kilns, which was falling into post-war disrepair. Why pursue an extra project on top of all of that? Better to wait for another time. This is what my inner editor would have persuaded me to do, anyway.

This shows both Lewis’s extraordinary dedication to his craft and the joy that the writing brought him. The next time I fall into the false belief that everything else in my life has to be in order before I can get the creative juices flowing, I will remind myself how profoundly grateful I am that Lewis did not give up.

A Parliament of Inklings

Even so, he may have given up had it not been for the encouragement and fellowship of trusted friends. A favorite seminary professor of mine liked to remind us that faith is always personal, but never merely individual. I think the same can be said of the creative process. Lewis knew this. He launched what is perhaps English literature’s most famous critique group: the Inklings. In a swirl of boisterous voices and tobacco smoke, they met regularly and offered each other thoughtful critiques of works-in-progress (including the famously cold reception of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Tolkien and the heartening encouragement of Lewis’s former student Roger Green). Even though they had mixed responses to Narnia, Lewis trusted his friends and relied on their writerly support.

I have a tendency to keep my works-in-progress tightly guarded. It takes courage to be vulnerable with an idea that’s not yet polished. I like to imagine Lewis–reading aloud over drinks at the Eagle & Child pub where the Inklings often met—and remember that, if the celebrated and prolific Lewis didn’t have to write alone, neither do I.

Mainly About Books

His writing colleagues were not the only community to affect Lewis’s creative process.  Lewis understood that all writing, including his own, is fed by a great stream of literary tradition. In fact, some of the most-repeated advice for new writers today is that one must read voluminously in order to write well. Lewis was the perfect model of this. From the time he could first reach the tumbling stacks of books in his childhood home in Belfast, Lewis read. He read and read and read, soaking up into his imagination the literary landscapes of ancient myths and contemporary authors alike.

Narnia bears the influence of Lewis’s own childhood favorites, including the works of George MacDonald and E. Nesbit. His studies in medieval literature and mythology were other rich streams that flowed into his fiction. Reading great stories in order to fill my creative well? This is advice I can get on board with.

Deeper Magic

Of course, Lewis’s fiction is also heavily steeped in his Christian faith. Lewis’s deep understanding of the gospel and his own personal love for Christ showed up in his authorial voice because they were a natural outpouring of his own character. This is not to say that the Christian themes throughout Narnia were unintended, but that Lewis weaved them in so effectively because of how firmly his own heart and imagination were set in the gospel.

This is a challenge that is both simple and profound for today’s writers, myself included. Is my own faith deep and thriving enough to suffuse into every corner of my fiction? Will my readers encounter the gospel through my work, whether it is there explicitly or not?

Aslan Makes a Door in the Plot

Equipped with his own dedication, supported by community, and informed by rich literary and faith traditions, Lewis had everything he needed to complete his masterpieces, right?

Not exactly. The creative process is never simply an equation, much to the dismay of artists and writers everywhere. There’s still a magic and unpredictability to it. Lewis viewed an author not as an omnipotent creator, but a conduit of God’s inspiration. An author’s job is to assemble elements that God provides, put old ideas into new uses, and unfold them into a new plot. For Lewis, those elements were always visual. He patiently waited for these images to draw near one another, then went to work assembling them into a cohesive plot. Sometimes this was easy, other times it was not.

Where did Aslan come in? Only after Lewis had written a large portion of his first draft did he begin having many dreams about lions. And when Aslan “came bounding into it,” the effect was that the Lion pulled the whole story together, including the six subsequent books.

Lewis was open to God’s movement in his imagination as much as in his heart. There is humility, patience, and active faith in this openness. This should supply great hope for the times a narrative feels stuck. (I personally relate painfully well to this experience.) It turns the discomfort of writer’s block into an opportunity for prayer, an invitation for God to move in unexpected ways—even through one’s dreams.

How I Discover Something Worth Knowing

Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series proves that good children’s literature can truly change the world. This matters for writers today, hoping to reach a new generation of young readers, and for those readers themselves. Children’s literature is uniquely formative in the lives of its readers. At its best, as Lewis’s work shows, it speaks to all ages and endures the test of time. Writing for children should be a wildly imaginative rumpus of a ride, but it is not to be done lightly.

With that in mind, I’m certain there is more I can learn from Lewis the exemplary children’s author. More than any other accolade, this proves the enduring value of a literary work: that it compels its readers to return. So, along with countless others, I will return to Narnia by rereading his books again and again (to the equal delight of my adult writer self and my inner nine-year-old), discovering treasures anew with each visit to the shores of Aslan’s Country.


Image: Lion by Johann Conrad Seekatz Darmstadt (c. 1760)

Published on

January 23, 2023

Author

Elizabeth Demmon

Elizabeth Demmon is a writer and musician who grew up in the Anglican tradition. She is married to Mike, an Anglican priest and U.S. Army chaplain, and together they have three children.

View more from Elizabeth Demmon

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