Written by Daniel Hazard
Film, docudrama highlight author's work
When 8-year-old Douglas Gresham met C.S. Lewis, the man who would become his stepfather, he was disappointed.
The American boy had expected the British author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" fantasy books "to be wearing silver armor and carrying a sword with a jeweled pommel."
Instead, Lewis "was a stooped, balding, professorial-looking gentleman in shabby clothes, with long, nicotine-stained fingers," said Gresham, now 59, speaking on the phone from his home in Ireland.
More than 40 years after Lewis' death, people still have their own ideas about him. Depending on whom you ask, Lewis was a scholar, fantasy writer, Christian saint — or all that and more.
As Disney prepares to release its much-anticipated movie "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" on Dec. 9, more people than ever are asking: Who was C.S. Lewis? And what is his legacy?
To many, Lewis is an icon of orthodox Christianity. Despite growing up believing that there was no God, Lewis turned to Christianity as an adult. He then dedicated himself to promoting the faith and did so, his admirers say, using simple language and logical reasoning that anyone could understand.
Lewis' Christian devotees find meaning in his religious works such as "Mere Christianity," a collection of radio addresses Lewis gave in the early 1940s that explains the common beliefs among Christians of different denominations.
Christians also see symbolism in Lewis' children's books. Aslan, the great lion in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," who sacrifices himself for a human sinner and ultimately is resurrected, becomes a representation of Jesus Christ, for instance.
In some evangelical circles, Lewis is revered. On the 100th anniversary of Lewis' birth, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a piece calling Lewis "our patron saint" and citing a poll in which the magazine's readers chose Lewis as the most influential writer in their lives.
"It is a bit of a paradox that C.S. Lewis, an Anglican, has emerged as a virtual 'saint' among American evangelicals," said Mark Sargent, provost of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. "But it was Lewis, more than any other author, who rekindled the life of the imagination within the evangelical community."
Gresham, who became Lewis' stepson when his mother, Joy Davidman, married the man, cautioned against any such interpretation of his stepfather.
"If you want to remember him," Gresham said, "remember him as a man with all the foibles and difficulties and dark times in his life that men have ... , not as some kind of plaster saint.
"He wasn't like that at all," said Gresham, whose book about Lewis, "Jack's Life," was released Oct. 1. "He was a man of great humor, great warmth. He was a fun bloke to be around."
Nobody is saying Lewis was perfect, said Bruce Edwards, evangelical author of the new book "Further Up & Further In" about the spiritual messages in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"Is there hero-worship involved in how people admire Lewis?" Edwards asked. "Sure."
But Edwards warned against linking evangelicals' admiration for Lewis to a naivete about the world. Besides, Lewis remains popular in other circles as well.
"He's very popular among people who keep the old faith, and not so popular among the modernists," said Richard Purthill, Catholic author of the book "C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith." Purthill praised Lewis as a Christian "apologist," one who gave people a rational basis for believing in Christianity.
Stan Mattson, president of the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Redlands, Calif., which encourages Christians to openly participate in scholarship and the arts, said the group chose Lewis as its mentor, because Lewis was a respected scholar who "was not prepared to check his faith at the door." Describing himself as a "mere Christian," Mattson said he, like Lewis, belonged to the wider world of Christianity.
Lewis "wouldn't be comfortable, really, being co-opted by any one group," said Mark Tauber, vice president and deputy publisher of HarperSanFrancisco, the division of Harper Collins that publishes Lewis' non-fiction books.
Tauber said he was continually surprised by the broad appeal of Lewis, who wrote more than 30 books. Recently, Tauber received a call from a Mormon leader who mentioned that religious school teachers were using "Mere Christianity" in the classroom.
"We had no idea that the Mormons were into Lewis," Tauber said.
While many see Lewis as a Christian hero, others remember him as an academic who taught literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
"C.S. Lewis was primarily an excellent Renaissance and Medieval scholar of the old-fashioned breed," A.N. Wilson, Lewis' British biographer, said in an e-mail.
Wilson, who renounced his own Christian faith, described Lewis' religious works as "unworthy" of the scholar. "They peddle false arguments which, when unraveled, would lead to the collapse of faith, not its strengthening," he said.
As for Lewis' children's books, Wilson called them "crude and derivative."
Yet many readers know and love Lewis through these stories about the magical, snowy world of Narnia, ruled by the evil White Witch. The books in the seven-volume series have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide since "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" first appeared in 1950.
Kristi Simonson, who runs the fan Web site Virtual Narnia, has been captivated by Lewis' make-believe world since seeing a cartoon version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" as a child. The books "make you long for something better, something more, deeper than our present reality," Simonson wrote in an e-mail.
For Gresham, all this talk about his stepfather and his legacy is misplaced. "People should not be trying to remember C.S. Lewis at all," Gresham said. "They should be trying to remember the Jesus Christ whom he represented and whom he preached."
Biorelatable: C.S. Lewis
Born: Nov. 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland.
Good friend: J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the children's classic, "The Hobbit." Despite their friendship, Tolkien didn't care for Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
The Lewis library: His first major work, "The Pilgrim's Regress" (1933), shares his spiritual journey to Christian faith. His academic works also won acclaim, including "The Allegory of Love" (1936), still considered a classic, is a history of love literature from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare's time. "Out of the Silent Planet" (1938) was the first of a trilogy of science fiction novels. His first children's book, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was published in 1950, followed by six more Narnia books. The series finale, "The Last Battle" came out in 1956. "Mere Christianity" (1952) remains an ever-popular defense of orthodox Christianity, especially among Christian evangelicals.
Married: Joy Gresham, an American fan, in 1956. She died of cancer four years later. "Shadowlands" — a major 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger — chronicles their love affair. "Why love, if losing hurts so much?" Lewis asks.
Died: Nov. 22, 1963 — the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — at age 64.
C.S. Lewis photo courtesy of John Chillingworth/Hulton Deutsch Collection
About the film
C.S. Lewis' timeless adventure follows the exploits of the four Pevensie siblings — Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter — in World War II England who enter the world of Narnia through a magical wardrobe while playing a game of hide-and-seek at the rural estate of a mysterious professor.
Once in Narnia, the children discover a charming, once peaceful land inhabited by talking beasts, dwarfs, fauns, centaurs and giants that has become a world cursed to eternal winter by the evil White Witch, Jadis. Under the guidance of a noble and mystical ruler, the magnificent lion Aslan, the children fight to overcome Jadis' powerful hold over Narnia in a spectacular, climactic battle that will free Narnia from her icy spell forever.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 9, 2005