C. S. Lewis — His early Years

C. S. Lewis recounts in the first chapter of Surprised by Joy that “in addition to good parents, good food, and a garden to play in,” there were two other influences with which he was blessed.

The first was their nurse, Lizzie Endicott. He could find no fault in her, but only “kindness, happiness and good sense.”It was through Lizzie that he and his brother had a direct connection to the “peasantry” of the community.As a result, he says,he and his brother discovered at an early age that “good” people were not necessarily those who had the best house or the finest clothes.One of the traits for which he was thankful. In Lewis’s heart, “Lizzie was simply good.”

The second influence he counts as a blessing was his brother. Warren and he were allies from the very beginning, though they differed in many ways. Warren was interested in the physical aspects of the world: ships and trains and battles — India. Clive on the other hand, was taken by fantasy: dressed animals, anthropomorphized beasts — Animal-land, his imaginary world.

Some writers believe Animal-land to be the basis of his Narnia series, but later in the book, Lewis tells us that the Animal-land of his childhood was quite different than Narnia and he tries to dispel that notion. We can take him at his word on this or not. For us, Animal-land is a view into the interests that Lewis had and cultivated as a child and how fascinated he was at an early age with fantasy writing. It is through this genre that he was able to communicate his ideas to a very large community over a period of decades.His novels and writings are still relevant for today. Animal-land may not be the basis of Narnia, but his exercises with Animal-land led him to the ideas which finally formed Narnia.

One aspect of his childhood that bothered him was that he had an “ignorance of natural form.” He had never looked at the shape of a leaf or a plant – trees were merely cotton balls on toothpicks in his drawings. But I think he is a bit too hard on himself on this. What normal child of seven draws a landscape that shows the correct shape of leaves or trees or a correct representation of the house he or she lives in? Picasso did, but these children are few and far between. Then one day, his view of the natural world changed.

On that day, his brother presented him with a garden he had assembled on a tin container lid. Lewis says it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen and it made him more aware of nature, but in a spiritual way, not in the physical way.I think this is perhaps his first excursion into what he calls “Joy” — the subject of the book and we’ll get his definition of it later.He doesn’t consider it to be Joy, but I think this is what Lewis felt when he first saw the toy garden his brother had made for him. He doesn’t claim that this was his first experience with Joy, but what he describes later is very much the same.

When he was seven, the family moved to a new house — upscale, larger, with lots of rooms to roam through and seemingly innumerable books everywhere. All of these books were available for him to read and none of them were denied.What wasn’t available, however, were books of myth or fantasy– his father would never read them, much less allow them in the house. As Lewis put it, his parents never “heard the horns of Elfland.”

The move to the new house also marked the time when his brother was “packed off” to school and Lewis was left alone. His life was becoming more and more solitary,but this was not at all disagreeable to him.Instead of needing to interact with people, he started writing and illustrating his own stories. From what I can tell, these stories were of Animal-land.

His imagination was running full-bore with Animal-land. He started with stories and soon he was drawing maps and finally he was writing histories of Animal-land. What Lewis says about this is that at this point in his life he was living almost entirely in his imagination, but he quickly adds that it was not fantasy because he was not a character in it. He was not a candidate for admission into that world.He was, instead, the creator of it.Lewis defines and clarifies the terms invention and reverie (fantasy):

Invention involves the creation of the people, the animals, and their environment. All these are viewed in a “cool” way – without involvement in their lives. Reverie is subjective. In reverie, (fantasy), you interact with and become one of the objects in the world you have created.

Now he makes an interesting observation about himself and these activities: In chronicling Animal-land with all its maps and stories and histories, he was training himself to become a novelist.

In Summary …

I am interested in discovering what makes a novelist or a storyteller. My purpose is to look at the influences in his life that shaped his writing and here we start with his early life. As a child, he was drawn to fantasy, but his parents, even though they were voracious readers, never had books of myth or fantasy in their house. He does speak of a book about insects that he had as a child — one that featured a beetle with long pincers reaching for Tom Thumb on the top of a mushroom. Pulling a tab at the side of the page made the pincers move as if trying to grab poor old Tom. Lewis couldn’t understand why such a normal and wonderful mother as he had would allow such an abomination into the house. He was horribly disgusted by insects.

On the other hand, he was enthralled by Beatrix Potter’s books — especially Squirrel Nutkin.

So he cultivated these Animal-land characters on his own. He wasn’t particularly cognizant of his surroundings, yet he created a land in his imagination and on paper of these fantastic types of animals. This went on for years and he just kept developing the theme until he had to write a history of his creation. For Lewis, writing a history of his imaginary land was an occurrence of great importance.

When a person sits down to write, he or she needs to create all aspects of a world. They have to do this consciously. Lewis was doing it out of amusement and fun. For him it was a natural path to follow — write about something with which he was infinitely familiar. I think we can take from this that we need to get lost in our task in order to make it real or at least seem real.

Have you ever read a story that seemed contrived or lacking in heart? This is a key to our seeing behind the scenes of the work that a writer has put into a work. The less you see the writer in the words, the more work you know he put into the novel — the more he actually lived it while writing it.

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