C. S. Lewis, the Great War, and the Road to Narnia
Did you know the road to Narnia began in the trenches of France during World War I? Let me tell you about it. One hundred years ago this spring, a ferocious battle raged in in the French village Riez du Vinage. Amidst the savage German bombardment, a shell exploded near a young British lieutenant, plunging shrapnel into his body. The soldier—an atheist named Clive Staples Lewis—survived, and went on to write many books on Christian apologetics—books that would likely not have been written had he not known the horrors of warfare. As my friend Joe Loconte writes in National Review, “The experience of war would transform [Lewis], launching him on a spiritual journey that culminated . . . in his conversion to Christianity.” That transformation began with mechanized butchery on an unprecedented scale. Lewis, a lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry, spent five miserable months in the trenches. He later described “the frights, the cold, the smell of [high explosives], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses.” By war’s end, most of Lewis’s friends lay dead, and in the years that followed, the West became disillusioned with war. But for Lewis, as Loconte writes, “the war and its aftermath seemed to have stirred [his] spiritual longings.” Traveling by train to a London hospital, the wounded lieutenant “was seized by a sense of the transcendent as he beheld the natural beauty of the English countryside.” Lewis later described this experience to a friend, writing, “You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy that there is Something right outside time and place….” This transformation continued through new friendships at Oxford, where Lewis taught English literature. J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic who had also fought on the Western Front, shared Lewis’s love for ancient myths and the “truth” hidden within them. Lewis read philosophy, and books explaining the nature of atonement and of God Himself. Lewis told a friend, “Now that I have found, and am still finding more and more of the element of truth in the old beliefs I feel I cannot dismiss, there must be something in it, only what?” Loconte writes that in Christianity, Lewis found “an explanation for his deepest longings, the desire for joy.” In the Gospel, he found “a vision of God’s grace as well as his holiness. Here, in the life and teachings of Jesus, was ‘the only comfort’ as well as ‘the supreme terror.’” As horrific as the Great War was, for Lewis, the experience “helped [him] to imagine the mythical Narnia, a kingdom that bears the wounds—and the consolations—of a world at war,” Loconte explains. “The noble king, Aslan the Great Lion, is both a warrior and a peacemaker.” In the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, “The Last Battle,” a character joyfully announces: “This is my real country! This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” The story of Lewis and his wartime experiences reminds us that God can bring good even out of terrible tragedy, as the First World War was: It killed nearly ten million soldiers. But it ignited a spiritual quest for a man whose books about good and evil, war and peace, have been read by more than 100 million people. And that in turn reminds us that great literature about the battle between good and evil can and does point people to Christ, because they can stir up a longing for transcendence. By creating imaginary worlds, as Lewis did in The Chronicles of Narnia, or Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings, authors can give us imaginary glimpses of heaven—which helps prepare us for the real heaven.