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Always Winter And Never Christmas: A Holiday Story Inspired C.S. Lewis’ Darkest Days

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The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe can be considered a Christmas story because it is set in Narnia, a cursed kingdom where it’s “always winter but never Christmas.” Fortunately, for Narnia, the spell is conquered by the “deep magic from before the dawn of time” and the inhabitants can finally brighten their dark days with a solstice celebration.

Author Clive Staples Lewis spent his life searching for the magic that would break the curse of his darkest days. The despair he sought to overcome may be just what endears fans to this book and earned them such a prominent place in pop culture.

Altogether, Lewis wrote more than 30 books and positively influenced the work of writers such as Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of The Chronicles of Narnia series, sold 100 million book copies and inspired three Disney films, with a fourth in the works. The work shows up in pop culture references from Gilmore Girls to South Park. Yet few fans know about the unhappy childhood that enabled Lewis to write so convincingly about a cursed world.

During his early years, author C.S. Lewis faced many dark days that tested his faith in humanity and the religion in which he was christened. He would spend his life and focus much of his writing on trying to understand what happened during his childhood, deciding what was fair and moral in a world that seemed immorally cruel.

Lewis lost his mother to cancer at the age of nine. He prayed that she would not die and felt betrayed by both his mother and God when she did. After his mother’s death, he was sent to a boarding school where he was terrorized by a sadistic headmaster, a man so viciously unhinged that he was later committed to a psychiatric hospital. The boy’s unanswered prayers led to a loss of faith.

Although he would later be called one of the great Christian writers of the 20th century, Lewis became an atheist early in his adolescence and would remain outspokenly so for decades. To make sense of a world that seemed intent on denying him any stability, he studied philosophies such as theosophy and spiritualism. Early on, he became fascinated with the mythology of his own and other cultures; Irish and British folklore, Icelandic sagas, Norse, Roman and Greek mythology. These legends and myths would later contribute characters and a sense of universality to his Narnia series.

While serving in France during World War I, Lewis was wounded and lost his best friend, propelling him into another extensive period of depression. The experience confirmed the rationale behind his atheism. He said he could not believe in a deity that would allow the horror of war.

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust,” said Lewis in his book Mere Christianity.

When Lewis taught at Oxford University, another friendship changed his mind about religion and influenced the direction of his writing career.

At Oxford he joined a group of writers known as The Inklings. Another member of the group was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. The writers became friends due to a shared a love of mythology, literature and language, but Tolkien was also passionate about his Catholic faith.

Although the friends would later disagree and grow apart, it was Tolkien who helped Lewis come to terms with his doubts about religion. The friendship altered his life and writing career. Despite recurring bouts of doubt, Lewis would go on to defend Christianity as enthusiastically in his writings and in person as he previously defended his atheism.

Before Lewis wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, he wrote other books with overtly Christian themes. But he said that he never meant to write a Christian morality play. He had no plans to indoctrinate when writing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe but “Aslan came bounding in.”

The story was originally supposed to focus on displaced schoolchildren. During World War II, schoolchildren were evacuated en masse from Britain’s cities to the countryside, and Lewis, like many others, boarded young evacuees. However, the story didn’t only take the characters to the country. It wound up taking them to another world, a world where animals could talk.

Lewis was inspired to create the kingdom of Narnia after imagining images of a faun and a witch. Once the the magical lion Aslan appeared in the story, the character took on a Christ-like role, which led some readers to question his intent. Even if he never intended to incorporate Christian themes, he did. In a 1961 letter to an older child, he wrote, “The whole Narnian story is about Christ.”

Irrespective of their religious upbringing, some readers completely missed the Christian imagery. Others didn’t notice while reading the books at a young age but discovered it later on and were not always pleased. For yet more others, the books’ themes seemed more universal and generally moral than that which can be specifically attributed to the values of Christianity.

“When I read the series for the first time, it resonated with me very strongly, but only as a wonderful adventure, in line with other adventures and escaping-this-reality stuff I was reading then,” said Donna Du Carme, a farmer, writer and activist. “Later, as an adult, I read that it was supposed to be a Christian allegorical tale, and initially felt a bit conned, but on reflection found it to be more reminiscent of many faiths and mythologies I’d studied – even the sacrificial king is a universal theme.”

Through his Narnia books Lewis provided a moral and ethical framework for young readers, but he privately continued to struggle with his faith. He was temporarily overcome by doubt when his wife of a few years died of cancer. He questioned the unfairness of his loss but ultimately decided to remain faithful to his religion.

Over the years, critics have taken issue with the religious and other aspects of Lewis’ work. Philip Pullman called him a racist because of the way he portrayed a inhabitants of the country of Calormen, first mentioned in Prince Caspian. Young Muslim readers have expressed discomfort on the perceived similarities between the seemingly barbaric Calormen and Islamic nations.

In a story titled The Problem Of Susan, Neil Gaiman proposed that Lewis was a misogynist because Susan Pevensie’s interest in lipstick and boys causes her to miss out on permanently joining Aslan. Fans have countered that critics don’t understand Lewis’ message, which was tolerant and progressive for the 1950s when he wrote.

Despite criticism, Lewis’ work continues to resonate with young readers and their parents, attracting thousands of new fans every year. One explanation for their cherished status among children’s books might be that Lewis’ own experience with despair made the personal struggles of his characters so real and relatable.

For Lewis, writing the Narnia books may have been a form of therapy. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie is given a powerful medicinal formula. With a drop she brings her brother Edmund back from the brink of death. Lewis’ childhood would have been happier if he had a magical formula that could rescue his mother from the brink of death. In the kingdom of Narnia, a curse can be broken but it’s not always easy.

That powerful message has affected many people.

“My fifth grade teacher read the first one to us as a class and I finished them myself from there,” said Andrea Rushing, a mom, whose 4-year-old son has yet to read the books. “I was raised in the church, studying the Bible and held them as completely separate in my mind. I dropped the Bible study early on but have cherished these books to this day.”

Believing that good would ultimately defeat evil transformed Lewis’ life. His Narnia books helped transform the lives of others.

(image via Flickr/spatialpan)

Joan Vos MacDonald has written for magazines, a daily newspaper and websites. She’s also the author of five young adult books and “High Fit Home,” a book about architecture that facilitates fitness. She currently writes about Korean pop culture for Kultscene. For more information, visit her site at joanvosmacdonald.com or follow her on Twitter.

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