Updated: May 14, 2020
The fictional worlds of C.S. Lewis play host to strong characters, who are for many readers, often reflective of themselves. However, as the author of these works, Lewis frequently wrote individuals who were analogous to himself at different stages of his life, precisely his journey toward the Christian God. Whether or not he did this intentionally is unknown. However, there is enough evidence in favor of it within his literary texts.
Some significant examples of C.S. Lewis’ characters, which replicate aspects of his faith journey within the narratives, come in the form of Ransom. Ransom is the protagonist of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, who is, in the beginning, the reluctant companion of two power-hungry men on a voyage to colonize the universe. Queen Orual, the ruler without a face, who has a grievance against the gods in Till We Have Faces. The Christian Convert, John tormented by his demon in-training in The Screwtape Letters. As well as Edmund Pevensie; Eustace Scrubb; and Jill Pole to name a few in The Chronicles of Narnia. However, the most important reflections of C.S. Lewis are found in the opposing characters Uncle Andrew and his nephew, Digory Kirke of Narnia’s The Magician’s Nephew.
A narrative in which Digory, the central character is actively struggling with the impending death of his ill mother, but is in the end, able to move beyond it; due to the journey he takes into Narnia. Where he finds faith in a God that is greater than the grave. While Uncle Andrew is unable to move past the tragic physical condition of his sister, he is choosing to hide behind the conventions of the occult with variables he can “control.” The looming threat of the loss of the sympathetic maternal character within the text serves in many ways as the catalyst for the plot of the novel and the character’s journey of discovery.
But this plot point is not merely a central plot point for Lewis as he lost his mother to cancer in 1908 when he was nine causing profound grief that led him away from the faith. In the end, however, this memory so full of pain would also unknowingly send him on his journey back to a God he thought had abandoned him long ago on the night of his mother’s death. In this way, Lewis is both the magician playing with his toys in the attic and the boy desperately seeking answers and help. The only difference is that where Uncle Andrew chooses to look away; Lewis decides to stand alongside Digory and accept the divine truth of his discovery. At this moment, Lewis moves from being the magician to the repentant nephew. Therefore, no longer receiving God as the Magician, but rather the relational but still widely untamed Aslan; rejecting the Magician in favor of the Lion.
At the genesis of Jack’s journey back to faith, his attitude towards the supernatural and God, in particular, is similar to that of Uncle Andrew. In C.S Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, he writes that on the night of his mother’s passing he pleaded with God to heal her. Healing that in the end, did not come in the form he so desired; looking back on the pivotal event Lewis writes the following on how he viewed God that night stating,
I approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was in my mental picture of this miracle, to appear neither as savior, not judge, but merely as a magician; and when he had done what was required of him I suppose-well go away. It never crossed my mind that the tremendous contract which I contracted when I solicited should have any consequences beyond restoring the status quo (23)
Here, Lewis admits that he, as a young boy at this moment, was fooling around with an abstract and realistic concept that he did not wholly understand. Much like Uncle Andrew, he believed that God was someone that he could bend to his own will and vanish once the given request is carried out to his liking allowing him to have complete control in a situation that he had no business having dominion over. It is, therefore, the moments following the devastating loss of his mother coupled with the belief that the “Magician God” did not hear him cry out in the darkness of his bedroom which helps plunge Lewis down the path toward atheism. Uncle Andrew and Lewis both desperately try to fill the void left as a result of the absence of a maternal figure in real life as well as the fictional. In fact, before his conversion, Lewis deviled like Andrew into the world of the occult. This experience is significantly detailed in The Narnian, by Alan Jacobs.
Lewis’ interest in the occult first took root due to the editors of Latin and Greek poets he read in school and was further cultivated by a Miss Cowie, a teacher he had at Cherbroug School, “ Who today would be called a proponent of New Age spirituality” (38). The lectures and teachings he was exposed to in her classroom eventually transformed the interest quickly into a passion that remained unquenched well into his time at university. While at university, Lewis was constantly trying to gain approval by proving himself to both his peers and professors by becoming a Blood, a member of the school’s aristocracy. Even after graduating, he strove for a time to become a part of the “inner-ring” as a university professor. Furthermore, Jack’s questionable life choices were presumably encouraged more than discouraged as a result of his involvement in the First World War, as well as the exact nature of a relationship with Mrs. Moore following the events of the war that remain unclear. Lewis never formally addressed the relationship in public or private among friends and family which has only added to the mystery of Mrs. Moore. The death of his mother for Lewis sent his whole world into a state of uncertainty; his soul became unsettled empty of any happiness or joy. “It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis, (SBJ 23). Thus he sought to patch up the continual feeling of emptiness and grief with the ideals of a fallen world reliant on human-made standards; a flawed belief system and a closeted relationship, which when stripped away are cemented in fear of the unknown and the unwillingness to give up control.
This combination of emotions and responses that are characteristic of C.S. Lewis are reflected through the fictionalized character of Uncle Andrew in ways that are strikingly familiar to Lewis and, yet, still different. As Jacobs writes in The Narnian, “Uncle Andrew is the descendant of magicians but he appropriates the language of science because, in his dim way, he recognizes the affinity that Francis Bacon recognized: he sees that his scientific contemporaries have the same goals as his magical forebears” (186). In the world of fiction, Uncle Andrew’s version of the occult manifests through his obsession to find another realm of existence because he is convinced there is something more out there. Science is Andrew’s version of Lewis’ “Magician, God” which can be uncovered and controlled in ways that poor uncle Andrew thinks he understands. But in reality, Andrew is a child in an adult body playing with toys in the attic. In the opening pages of The Magician’s Nephew, Digory establishes that his Uncle Andrew is “mad” or at least this has come to be the general belief among the community, although he does not know if it is the viable truth. Andrew believes himself to be a powerful magician; however, in the grand scheme of the narrative, his abilities fail to stand up against the higher power found in Narnia. Similar to a pre-converted Lewis, Andrew desires to be a part of the inner-ring of scholarly discovery. The community that surrounds Uncle Andrew both inside and outside of the house in London consider Andrew to be in many respects crazy for believing that he can discover a new world. Therefore, the man-child, of Andrew is in fact nearly driven mad in his effort to prove to those around him that he is both credible in seemly obscured claims and worthy of worldly praise. Furthermore, even though it is not explicitly stated, it can be inferred that the health of Digory’s mother worried Andrew in a considerable capacity. In fact, Digory’s Aunt Letty makes it a point to tell Uncle Andrew not to worry his nephew every morning at breakfast. It would be plausible that at least a portion of this worry is due to the condition of the sick women residing in his household.
In trying to fill the void hope, Andrew has stripped away any ounce of kindness that may have previously existed in his being and all that is left an empty shell of a man full of bitter anger. This feeling, alongside his need for recognition, drives him to send his innocent nephew and his friend, Polly, into an unknown world as guinea pigs by wielding magic he does not correctly comprehend. And once he makes the trip to Narnia himself, the realization comes that his magic is nothing compared to that of Queen Jadis of Charn. Who in turn wields Uncle Andrew as her plaything and servant; which could be read as similar to the relationship Lewis held with Mrs. Moore among certain scholars. By the end of The Magician’s Nephew, the character of Uncle Andrew is unable to move beyond the world of the occult and into space where he can believe in a God who is present both in pain and hope. For Andrew, any confidence in the existence of a good God is completely gone because he is not able to see past the sickbed and the dying woman located in his home in England making it impossible for him to hear the music of Narnia and its inhabitants.
However, where the narrative of Uncle Andrew comes to a tragic end, the story of C.S. Lewis takes a significant shift from the unbelieving, Uncle Andrew to reflecting Digory Kirke. The nephew, with open hands, longing to heal his mother by any means possible. Alan Jacob, writes in The Narnian, “It is tempting to say, that Lewis gives to his character Digory what God would not give to young Jack. But then in this world we always see what is taken away; what restoration awaits us, and the ones we love, we cannot yet see” (9). And, there is undoubtedly some truth in this statement; as Lewis does, in fact, give Digory and his mother the happy ending he, himself, so longed for at nine years old. But it is through the fictional journey of Digory in Narnia that Lewis externalizes the conclusion to his own conversion to the Christian faith in a relational God. At the beginning of the novel Digory Kirke, sees his strange uncle, Andrew as a mysterious entity that never comes out of the attic because he is always working on his “project.”But when Uncle Andrew does come down, he seems quite scary, judgmental, and also a little bit intimidating. However, despite the initial fear, Digory is nevertheless intrigued by him. Even though Digory personally, does not know what to do with uncle Andrew because he is considered to be yet another unknown factor in the chaos of a life consisting of a sick mother and an absent father figure; which, when all tied together scares the young boy to tears.
The view of Uncle Andrew, through the eyes of the magician’s nephew, himself, is not far from C.S. Lewis’ initial understanding of God following the passing of his own mother. It is interesting to note though that Lewis named the mysterious magician of his story “Uncle Andrew” considering that Lewis’ estranged father bared the same exact name. Perhaps, Jack’s misconception of God’s true nature was wrapped up both in the loss of his mother and the lack of a meaningful connection with his earthly father. However, unlike Andrew, Digory can move past the suffocating possibility of his mother’s passing instilled with the eternal hope and gift that Aslan can give him in the form of an apple. This is not to say, that Digory, like Lewis, was not tested during his journey, but ending in full surrender at the paws of Aslan. Digory also has his own encounter with evil, itself, manifested through Jadis, whom he is personally responsible for waking, brings sin into Narnia’s perfect world. In the end, however, the relational God that invades the heart of this hurting child can use both the fictional Digory and the real Lewis to set certain aspects of his created world right once more. While providing them each with the healing, they each genuinely required through belief; even if at first the possibility of feeling true happiness ever again, seemed as small as a mustard seed.
Keeping the conversions of Digory and Lewis in mind, it is interesting that William Nicholson, the playwright of Shadowlands, alludes multiple times to The Magician’s Nephew to tell the love story of Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, who eventually, like Lewis’ mother, dies of cancer. In Shadowlands, Lewis faced a near mirror image of the event of his mother’s death. However, this time he is not the child crying out from the dark. Instead, Lewis is now in the place his father sat so many years before: a loving husband unable to do anymore in his own power for his dying wife; and a son Douglas, who now sits where Lewis once sat in 1908. Throughout the play, the now Christian, Lewis acts as a guide-post for Douglas as he tries to navigate the sickness of Joy and the overall confusion of what is happening. Lewis, therefore, can do for his step-son precisely what Andrew Lewis refused to do; which was to answer his cry in the dark and eventually to agree to allow Douglas to grieve alongside him. Aspects of The Magician’s Nephew are referenced throughout the dialogue of the play itself, as well in the stage directions as a wardrobe is one of the set pieces. It is through these connections that Nicholson reinforces the common thread that ties the nonfiction world of Lewis together with fiction in which he has created. In one such scene before Joy’s death, Douglas rings the bell at a hotel knowing full well what transpired after Digory Kirke rang a similar one; as Lewis looks on knowingly. This depiction of Lewis is fascinating because, for Douglas, Lewis becomes like a well of information that he has yet to learn. However, following the death of Joy, the reader, is exposed to a new Lewis. In the aftermath of the passing of his beloved wife Lewis attempts to cope and reason with what is going on around him by using what he knows already from previous experience. However, in the end, this is untraveled land because he had never experienced love or loss the way he felt it with Joy Gresham. He is a man who is no stranger to pain or grief, but he is still a stranger to it because of how much more profound it feels in comparison to when he lost his mother. Jack can attempt to help Douglas as much as he can but in reality, Lewis is just as confused as Douglas because he has entered into almost a new and much more profound level of his shadowland. However, during this time, Lewis is contagious of the hope of Aslanrunning through his veins, pumping into his heart making the pain ever more real and bearable. At the same time, allowing him to be present while it hurts and to look forward to a future when it feels more like an ebbing rather than a throbbing pain. Therefore, it is through works like The Magician’s Nephew that it becomes apparent that fiction can provide healing to a broken world. Perhaps the same fiction can heal its creator.
Fleischer, Leonore, and William Nicholson. Shadowlands. Headline, 1994.
Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Harper Trophy, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. HarperOne, 2017.
Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Magician’s Nephew. Collins, 2001.