by Douglas Gilbert
My first experience with the fiction works of C.S. Lewis was with reading The Chronicles of Narnia. My wife and I were on vacation in England in 1966 when I bought my first of many sets of the Narnia stories.
I remember finding the stories fascinating as both good story and as allegory. But it wasn’t until reading Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s autobiography, that my appreciation for and intrigue with Lewis’s ability to bring an almost tactile reality to his work brought me to another level of appreciation.
As the poet says, “The sky had turned round.” What I had read were the words of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume.
…Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss….Understanding what Lewis meant by “joy” is very important to understanding Lewis himself. In Surprised by Joy he describes what it was for him by describing the experience: “…it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. …I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”
I knew something of this, growing up in the Midwest. I remember, when I was a boy, the times my family went to Northern Michigan how magical that was, and is, in my memory: the pines, the rugged land, sparse population, wild lakes, and the vastness of Lake Michigan. I referred to it in my own memory as “the North” and found it full of mystery.
So you can imagine what happened in my own memory upon reading the words “pure northernness engulfed me.”
A few years later I began teaching at Wheaton College and made a point of seeking out fellow faculty member Dr. Clyde Kilby, a renowned expert and acquaintance of C. S. Lewis, to present him with my idea for a book on Lewis that we might do together. We did the book in 1972 and early 1973 and called it C.S. Lewis: Images of His World. It was published in late 1973 by Eerdmans Publishing and has just released in a new format (with greatly improved reproductions).
The landscape was the organizing idea of the book and my wife Barbara and I began reading materials in the Wade Collection at Wheaton, a major repository of Lewis’ writings. We spent hours with the many letters he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in which he talked much of his experience of the landscape that he walked, with friends, for 30 years.
The raw material on which Lewis’s imagination often worked was the land, mostly the British Isles, where he spent his entire life except for a tour of duty in France during World War I and a visit to Greece with his wife Joy late in his life. The way to acquaint oneself with the land is on foot: “I number it among my blessings,” he said, “that my father had no car…. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me…. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance.”
My wife read more of the Greeves letters than I and was finding numerous descriptions of landscape, details noticed on cross country walks, and his experiences of light and weather. As we went back into the fiction work, we found many parallels of his observations with passages in those books.
The photographs in the land section of our book are of places that Lewis visited, and most of the accompanying text is Lewis’s own. The relationship between text and photograph is one of suggestion and interpretation, not of correlation or representation.
One photograph made in Scotland brings to mind the passage in The Magician’s Nephew where Digory finds himself standing in the Wood Between the Worlds. “He was standing by the edge of a small pool—not more than ten feet from side to side—in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves; but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind… You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots.”
Walking the land, without hurrying, and being keenly aware of his surroundings, allowed Lewis is experience with all his senses the land, the light, and the weather. He describes a turning point in this experience in one of his letters to Arthur Greeves:
One of the walks he made in 1930 with three friends was a 50-mile walk in Exmoor in southwest England. He wrote a detailed account to his friend Arthur Greeves:
I was always involuntarily looking for scenes that might belong to the Wagnerian world, here a steep hillside covered with firs where Mime might meet Sieglinde, there a sunny glade where Siegfried might listen to the bird, or presently a dry valley of rocks where the little scaly body of Fafner might emerge from its cave. But soon…nature ceased to be a mere reminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy…. It was the mood of a scene that mattered to me; and in tasting that mood my skin and nose were as busy as my eyes.
Next morning there was a thick fog. Some of the others were inclined to swear at it, but I (and I soon converted Barfield) rejoiced to meet the moor at its grimmest. Imagine a wonderful morning following a narrow path alongside of a steep hill with gaunt fir trees looming up suddenly out of the grayness, and sometimes a thinning of the mist that revealed perhaps a corner of a field with drystone wall unexpectedly far beneath us, or a rushing brook, or a horse grazing.
Lewis’s eye for detail and emotive description is indicated in another description from that walk:
We drank tea at the tiny hamlet of Stoke Pero, where there is a little gray church without a tower that holds only about 20 people. Here, according to an excellent custom of our walks, one of the party read us a chapter of Scripture from the lectern while the rest of us sat heavily in the pews and spread out our mackintoshes to let the linings steam off.No doubt those who are acquainted with Lewis’s fiction works are recalling many scenes from those works as we listen to his observations and experiences. “Of landscapes,” he wrote to Arthur in another letter,
as of people, one becomes more tolerant after one’s twentieth year…. We learn to look at them not in the flat but in depth, as things to be burrowed into. It is not merely a question of lines and colours, but of smells, sounds, and tastes as well; I often wonder if professional artists don’t lose something of the real love of earth by seeing it in eye-sensations only? Recall the account of the founding of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Digory and Polly and Uncle Andrew find themselves suddenly in another world and hear an almost unbearably beautiful singing. The singer is the great lion Aslan and as they listen and watch, the world of Narnia is brought into being. The description of birds and animals emerging to life out of the earth is an example of Lewis bringing his experience and honed powers of observation and imagination to us in print. Children, and many of us adults, are there. We see it, feel it, experience it. We don’t want to return to our own world. Such is the power of his vision.
In Prince Caspian we read Lewis telling us “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Walking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts.”
And I would add it is the land created by a rich imagination, profoundly perceptive, clearly understanding the idea of story. It is the work of C. S. Lewis.
Douglas Gibert is photographer and co-author of C.S. Lewis: Images of His World.