C. S. Lewis on the Writing Process, Narnia Stories

With notable exceptions, reflection on culture and the arts hasn’t been a strong suit of evangelical Christians over the last several decades. There are certainly signs that this inertia is changing in a positive direction: many contemporary figures now address these topics to one degree or another.

But for writers in particular, one could hardly do better than to learn at the feet of C. S. Lewis, who was not only a celebrated author, but also an excellent literary scholar by trade. Lewis wrote a number of characteristically thought provoking pieces that dealt in some way with the nature of literature, literary criticism, and the writing process. One excellent example is his short essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,”* in which he touches on the writing enterprise through the lens of his own Narnia stories. 

These days, it’s not uncommon for artists to bristle at any kind of limitation to their art. Lewis, however, offers a necessary and helpful distinction for Christian creators:

…I want to use…the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called the Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t. 

Lewis goes on to say that Author is responsible for both the idea of a story and the particular form it takes. Once that happens, “It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out.…This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and sleep and meals. It’s like being in love.”

As to the Man’s role, Lewis writes:

While the Author is in this state, the Man will of course have to criticize the proposed book for quite a different point of view. He will ask how the gratification of this impulse will fit in with all the other things he wants, and ought to do or be. Perhaps the whole thing is too frivolous and trivial (from the Man’s point of view, not the Author’s) to justify the time and pains it would involve. Perhaps it would be unedifying when it was done. Or else perhaps (at this point the Author cheers up) it looks like being ‘good,’ not in a merely literary sense, but ‘good’ all around.

Lewis then goes on to describe how this worked out in his own situation:

Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.

Then came the Form….I fell in love with the Form [of the Fairy Tale]; its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’. I was now enamoured of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as the hardness of the stone pleases the sculptor or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer.

On that side (as Author) I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal form for the stuff I had to say.

Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. And obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

That was the Man’s motive. But of course he could have done nothing if the Author had not been on the boil first. 

Lewis’ judgment, from the point of view of both the Author and the Man, turned out to be quite sound. Not only have millions of readers taken great joy in the books as stories wonderfully told, but not a few of that number have seen their “paralysed” religion rise and walk, thanks to children transported through a magical wardrobe and, of course, a great (and very untamed) lion.  

*Found in C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1982), 45-48.

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