Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton

Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton March 22, 2005

Thanks to Betty Ragan for tipping me off to this speech by Neil Gaiman on growing up with the stories of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Two bits about Lewis’s Narnia books jump out at me in particular:

For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels. . . . I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction . . . My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place.

Apart from isolated passages that I’ve looked up here or there, I have not read the Narnia books myself in years (must correct that soon), so I cannot say whether I agree with Gaiman’s assessment — but as I hinted in my earlier post on the paganism of Narnia, I certainly think many of Lewis’s acolytes run the risk of prizing and promoting the “hidden agenda” aspect of his books more than their other, arguably better qualities. How often do we hear Christians praising Lewis for his superb writing ability and his knowledge of classic myth and literature, compared to how often we hear Christians praising his books for having a message?

Second, there is this:

C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses — the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.

I cannot say that I remember Lewis’s use of parentheses, per se, but I certainly fell in love with his writing style when I was young — not just in the Narnia books but also in his science fiction, his Christian apologetics, and his literary criticism — and I remember very vividly my father telling me that all writers, even Lewis, had to send their work to editors before it got published. I was disappointed, of course, to think that not every single word that appeared under Lewis’s name was necessarily put there by him — and, being only six years old or so, I was also a little discouraged to think that my words, such as they were, had to gain someone’s approval before they could see print.

But that was in the days before blogs, of course!

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  • Hey, Peter. I came over to your blog from the Christian Fandom list. This Gaiman speech is great particularly interesting since I’ve been thinking recently about the benefits of fantasy literature.

    It doesn’t strike me as odd that Gaiman found the Christian message of Narnia offensive in his teenage years. He obviously still loves the books even if he sees some flaws in them. What I find odd is that Gaiman would think that the Christian message makes the book less interesting. I would think that Lewis’s blatant mixing of Christianity and Paganism would make the books more interesting. But, like you, I haven’t read them in years so I can’t say for sure.

  • BethR

    I’ve heard/seen comments similar to Gaiman’s regarding the Narnia books. It says more about the reader than about the texts, I think. In mixing pagan or classical elements with Christian allegory, Lewis, a specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature, probably saw himself as following in the footsteps of Spenser and Milton, among others.

  • I find the mixture of pagan and Christian imagery fascinating and certainly agree with BethR that Lewis is following in the footsteps of Milton, Spenser, etc. But I think that is just the jumping-off point for him. If you want to understand better what Lewis is doing here, you should read his book “Miracles,” in which he calls Christ “the corn god.” I think teasing out the links between paganism and Christianity is at the heart of an understanding of Lewis. Read his spiritual autobiography, “Surprised By Joy,” if you want to understand how essential a recognition–and perhaps even an affirmation–of pagan spirituality is to the evolution of his own Christian faith.