C. S. Lewis was born on this day in 1898, so we’ve gathered together our five favourite interesting facts about Lewis and his work. Some of the interesting facts about C. S. Lewis that follow touch upon his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien; these may be known to diehard fans of the ‘Inklings’ (of whom more below), but we hope that some facts will be news to even devoted fans of C. S. Lewis’s work.
1. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien once went to a party dressed as polar bears. It wasn’t a fancy-dress party. According to Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Tolkien, Tolkien went to a New Year’s party in the 1930s as a polar bear, wearing a sheepskin with his face painted white. Neil Heims, in a recent book on Tolkien, lists Lewis as his fellow party guest, similarly attired in ursine costume. Certainly, the eccentric sense of humour of the two writers is well known: according to Carpenter, Tolkien was also known to dress up as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior and chase his bewildered neighbour down the road.
2. Lewis destroyed the first version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when his friends criticised it; he rewrote it from scratch. Although such a mythologising of the writing process – what we might call the ‘burn-and-return’ approach – is often encountered in accounts of the composition of classic works (Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is another work that may have been composed in this way, although a question mark hangs over its veracity), it would appear to be true in the case of Lewis. Or at least, he destroyed a novel for children, although whether it was the Ur-text of the first Narnia novel remains uncertain. In a letter of 1947, he wrote of his experience of attempting a children’s novel: ‘I have tried one myself but it was, by the unanimous verdict of my friends, so bad that I destroyed it.’ In a 1946 essay titled ‘Different Tastes in Literature’, Lewis used the analogy of stepping through a wardrobe into another realm for the experience of reading poetry: ‘I did not in the least feel that I was getting in more quantity or better quality a pleasure I had already known. It was more as if a cupboard which one had hitherto valued as a place for hanging coats proved one day, when you opened the door, to lead to the garden of the Hesperides.’ Lewis took the name Narnia from a classical map depicting Narni in Italy – which, in Latin, was rendered as ‘Narnia’.
3. C. S. Lewis based the protagonist of his ‘space trilogy’ on Tolkien. The two men were friends for several decades when they both taught at the University of Oxford. Lewis drew on the friendship when penning his science fiction novels, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet in 1938, where the hero of the novels, Elwin Ransom, is a philologist (just as Tolkien was). The two men were critical of each other’s work. After their very first meeting, Lewis wrote of Tolkien in his diary: ‘No harm in him, only needs a smack or so.’ These early issues aside, Lewis would sometimes champion his friend’s work and later nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize committee rejected Tolkien for the honour, stating that his work ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.’
4. He died on the same day as Aldous Huxley – but their deaths were overshadowed by a more famous death. Lewis died exactly one week short of his 65th birthday on 22 November 1963 – the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Needless to say, the double loss to the literary world of Huxley and Lewis didn’t get much news coverage. Sheryl Crow alludes to the strange coinciding of the three men’s deaths in the opening lines to her song ‘Run Baby Run’: ‘She was born in November 1963, the day Aldous Huxley died…’
5. Lewis’s fictional world-building started at a young age. C. S. Lewis’s first name was Clive, but he was known by his friends and family as ‘Jack’. (The ‘S.’, by the way, stood for Staples.) His love of writing began at a young age: as children, he and his brother Warren (‘Warnie’) created the fictional world of Boxen, a box world which featured talking animals including King Bunny – quite fitting for an author who would, as an adult, meet to discuss his writing in a place known as the Rabbit Room in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford.
If you enjoyed this list of literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe. Entitled ‘The Searcher’ by Ross Wilson. Author: genvessel (via Flickr). Wikimedia Commons.