What sorts of things was C.S. Lewis thinking about as he made the sudden turn to Narnia? When you look at the projects on Lewis’ desk, you would hardly guess that he would turn to a children’s fairy tale. Here is what he had been working on:
- A dark, apocalyptic closure to the Ransom Cycle (That Hideous Strength 1945)
- A philosophical novel in the form of a dream sequence (The Great Divorce 1946)
- The most technical of Lewis’ apologetic books (Miracles 1947)
- He edited Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947)
- He edited what was available of the conclusion of Charles Williams’ Arthuriad, and provided a commentary to the obscure work (Arthurian Torso 1948)
- He collected his sermons from the 1940s (Transpositions 1949)
- Lewis was working on The Oxford History of the English Language: 16th Century Literature, Excluding Drama—a dense, highly literate 700-page history of ideas that he did not complete until 1952 or 1953
He had also edited an anthology of George MacDonald quotations (1946), but most of them didn’t come from MacDonald’s fairy tales. Moreover, he was absolutely exhausted by overwork, tuckered out by post-war austerity measures, and beset by two major domestic problems. In the summer of 1949, Lewis collapsed and was taken to hospital.
It was pretty hard to see Narnia coming—not least for his friends, who knew that Lewis didn’t care much for children.
Yet, in the midst of all this darkness and pressure Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—reading a first draft to friends in March 1949. Within a year he would complete two more Chronicles of Narnia, and make notes on a fourth—a false start on The Magician’s Nephew. Once Aslan bounded into his imagination, as lions are wont to do, it was like Lewis had been his whole life a children’s author.
If we peek past his writing books, we can see some hints in his poetry of 1948-49 that some of the early morning breezes of Narnia were drifting through his study.
Written in Spring 1949, the lyric poem “The Adam at Night” is evocative of The Magician’s Nephew, as we get to peer into a potential imagination of Adam in the garden. There is also a poem from that same season that echoes The Magician’s Nephew. “The Magician and the Dryad,” tells the story of a Magician who plays with power he does not understand—to tragic consequences. From the same month and the same book, the short Epigraph #17 sounds, in the 1st half, like the death of Charn:
Here lies the whole world after one
Peculiar mode; a buried sun,
Stars and immensities of sky
And cities here discarded lie.
It is a brief description, in poetic form, of the dead-world Charn after the children ring the bell that awakes the Fall of the unborn Narnia. I don’t know when Lewis’ poem “Finchley Avenue” is written—about 1950, perhaps—but there are aspects of it that hint at the Eden scene in The Magician’s Nephew, where you a humble London cabbie’s wife becomes the Eve of the great land of the Lion:
That garden lawn
Is the primordial fountain out of which was drawn
All you have imagined of the lawn where stood
Eve’s apple tree, or of the lands before the flood.
There is one other poem that I would like to quote at full. See if you can catch the Narnian shores on this breeze:
Two sovereign horses standing on the sand. There are no men,
The men have died, the houses fallen. A thousand year’s war
Conclude in grass and graves, and bones and waves on a bare shore
Are rolled in a cold evening when there is rain in the air.
Now they have come to the end of land. They meet for the first time
In early, bitter March the falling arches of the sea, vast
And vacant in the sunlight, where once the ships passed.
They halt, sniffing the salt in the air, and whinny with their lips.
These are not like the horses we have ridden; that old look
of half-indignant melancholy and delicate alarm’s gone.
Thus perhaps looked the breeding-pair in Eden when a day shone
First upon tossing manes and glossy flanks at play.
They are called. Change overhangs them. Their neighing is half speech.
Death-sharp across great seas, a seminal breeze from the far side
calls to their new-crowned race to leave the places where Man died—
The offer, is it? the prophecy, of a Houyhnhnm’s Land?
It is pretty evocative of Narnia, hinting toward the beasts’ speech that will define Narnia so. They are not yet the Talking Beasts, but these Chirico horses have the majesty and dignity of the horses in The Horse and His Boy or The Last Battle.
Like The Last Battle this poem sets an apocalyptic scene: Armageddon is done, the thousand-year war has wiped out the humans that prosecuted it, and all that is left are the horses by the shore. Or perhaps the thousand-year war was the one that usurped all magic for nobility in Charn, or the thousand years of silence after the Deplorable Word Jadis used to win in Charn:
“the force of those spells was that I should sleep among them, like an image myself, and need neither food nor fire, though it were a thousand years, till one came and struck the bell and awoke me.”
It is intriguing that in the poem all hints of the end of the world still hint at Eden. And in this way also it reminds me of The Magician’s Nephew. Houyhnhnms are a race of talking, intelligent horses in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels—a book that Lewis read many times. Can you see the onomatopoeias in the name of the race of horses (sounds like a whinny)? In this reflection on Chirico’s horses, Lewis wonders if these two horses are the parents of a breed like Houyhnhnm’s Land—much like the Talking Horses of Narnia. Some have thought that “Bree” of A Horse and His Boy is a Hobbitish hint, but Bree is short for Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah—the kind of name a horse should have in Swift or Lewis. The other hero horse is “Hwin”—again, that whinnying hint of a name. The Chirico horses could be the imaginative ancestors of Bree and Hwin.
But it is hard not to think of Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew—slagging away on the streets of London, flogged by the Jadis, but brought to dignity in Narnia by being made a Talking Horse. And then Strawberry became Fledge, the father of all Winged Horses.
I wish I knew which picture by Chirico Lewis was thinking of when he wrote the poem. Giorgio de Chirico was a 20th century artist who tried dozens of different approaches to this seaside pair of horses with Greek ruins in the background. I’ve included as many of the pictures as I could, so perhaps you may be able to discern for yourself which is the genius of this poem.
But as we contemplate this period in early 1949, I am beginning to have a suspicion about the earliest days of Narnia’s creation. In Past Watchful Dragons, Walter Hooper publishes two of the too few fragments of Narnia that we have—two places where Lewis played with Narnian sequences before they became Narnian. It includes a few pages of Eustace’s diary on board the Dawn Treader. Before this, in the same journal, there is 7000 words of a story with Polly and Digory, what we call the “LeFay Fragment.” It is a story unlike Narnia in many ways, but it contains a number of features that work their way into the Chronicles. We usually assume that Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and was struggling with a second book—what would five years later become the The Magician’s Nephew prequel starring Polly and Digory.
This may be true, but I am doubtful. The entire mechanism of the LeFay Fragment is different than Narnia. The trees and the animals speak to Digory in the LeFay Fragment, but it is a magic that is bound up with Digory himself—a magic that he can lose with his betrayal. You feel in the LeFay Fragment that magic in our world is nearly dead. In Narnia, though, the magic of flora and fauna comes from the very soil of Narnia—it is sung into the fabric of that world on its first day, despite the betrayal of evil in that world too.
It could be, though, that the Narnian himself didn’t have Narnia in mind when he sketched out the LeFay Fragment. Perhaps Lewis wasn’t writing a sequel (or prequel) to The Lion, but was simply sketching out a different story.
I suspect something different, though.
There are hints from Lewis’ friends that he had been working on a children’s story since 1948, and had been struggling with it. On the back page of the Dark Tower manuscript—another false start, perhaps the early 1940s—Lewis wrote:
This book is about four children whose names were Ann, Martin, Rose, and Peter. But it is most about Peter who was the youngest. They all had to go away from London suddenly because of Air Raids, and because Father, who was in the Army, had gone off to the war and Mother was doing some kind of war work. They were sent to stay with a kind of relation of Mother’s who was a very old Professor who lived all by himself in the country.
It is a pretty mundane but important early seed in Narnian soil. By spring of 1949 he had a draft, and it was complete not long after.
The way Lewis describes the process of writing Narnia in “It All Began with a Picture,” I get the sense that once Aslan appeared, the bits of fabric in Lewis’ imagination were quickly drawn together in a patchwork quilt that is The Lion. And once he had the Narnian world—the physics and metaphysics of a fictional universe—to rely upon, the books poured out one after the other. The only one that gave him consistent trouble was The Magician’s Nephew, begun early but completed last or next to last.
I want to make a proposal. I think that the story that Lewis was struggling with in 1948-49 was, initially, the Digory and Polly story we see in the LeFay Fragment. I think that after Lewis had put away Ransom, and finished his Charles Williams work, and finished the last of the theological books on his brain, he had before him the book on 16th century literature—look at the first few words of “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”: “In the sixteenth century….” He had Dante on his desk, as well as a new edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur. He was reading classical and medieval literature—some being printed in English for the first time—to see how they moved into English literature of the period. He was reading John Lydgate, Ben Johnson, and Edmund Spenser, Cervantes and Paracelsus, Shakespeare and Milton and the knights: Philip Sidney, Thomas More, and David Lindsay. Every day Lewis was reading all of the best of adventures and the deepest of myths written by some of the greatest of poets.
I think that the stories were begging to come out of him, but he hadn’t quite found his voice. Attempting a children’s fairy tale gave him freedom to bring in all those elements: faërie, mythology, and the Arthurian world. His poetry gives voice to the mythological elements, and has strong medieval features. But it is surprisingly light on Arthur and the fey and much stronger on classical mythology.
It would take children’s stories to bring all these elements together.
I want to tentatively suggest that when Lewis worked out what we have in the LeFay Fragment, he wasn’t simply trying a different sort of world than Narnia. I think that he had not yet had Narnia in his mind. I think that the LeFay Fragment is Lewis’ struggle to give voice to these nascent stories in 1948, and maybe even early winter of 1949. I suspect that Lewis was working out of some interesting characters, and a good supposal: what if a boy could talk to trees and animals? A fairy creature—Mrs. LeFay, quite literally a fairy godmother—elbows her way in at the end, but we don’t know where that story will go. I suspect that Lewis had some promising elements, but had large gaps between the pictures in his mind. I suspect the gaps were too large to keep the story together.
All this time there were some images that had nestled deep into Lewis’ imagination: a snowy wood, a faun with an umbrella and some packages, a queen on a sledge—maybe even a great stone table with ancient writing, or an old wardrobe in an old house. “But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it.” As Lewis says in “It All Began With a Picture,” Aslan pulled the whole story together—and then the whole series.
I want to argue that if Aslan was already in Lewis’ head, he wouldn’t have every attempted to use the magical structure of the LeFay Fragment (magic focussed around the boy). Narnia turns that entire structure upside down: it isn’t Digory that’s magical; it’s the whole wood—no, the whole world! The reason that faërie and Arthur and classical mythology find their home so easily in Narnia is because Lewis has already turned our expectations on their heads. Narnia is a place where all magic things are drawn.
That is why I think the LeFay Fragment is a few months earlier than many suspect. When it wasn’t coming together, Lewis set it aside. Then he began to dream of lions, and Narnia was born. Lewis never tried to rewrite the LeFay Fragment using the special boy as the mechanism. But Lewis took what he liked—especially the characters and some of the ideas—and reshaped them into Narnian chronicles, and eventually The Magician’s Nephew.
I may be wrong. Handwriting analysis of the text might show me I’m wrong, and I have not seen it. And it could be that after the negative reaction of Tolkien to The Lion, Lewis set it aside and tried a different world with a magic boy until another friend encouraged Narnia once more.
I would offer as my evidence, though, the poems above that hint more at the Narnian themes we see in The Magician’s Nephew than the ones in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Jonathan Swift’s prophecy, the sentient horses, the majesty of Chirico’s beasts with a fallen civilization behind, the end of one world and the beginning of another, Eden…. I think that the roots of The Magician’s Nephew are in the days just before Aslan came bounding in, during Lewis’ struggles with the LeFay Fragment.
Yet, when Aslan does appear, the ease with which Lewis wrote Narnia is astounding. The only exception is The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis keeps reaching back to the ideas he had at the beginning of the process. I don’t know what mechanism helped Lewis bring all those images together in The Magician’s Nephew. Perhaps it was the magic rings, or perhaps it was setting Mrs. LeFay out into the background. It might have been the idea of Fledge, the father of winged horses. Or it might even have been a second try, after Perelandra, of re-capturing Eden in the way that Milton did. Perhaps it was Digory’s dying mother, who could get access to magic fruit in a way that Lewis’ own mother could not have.
In either case, I think we have this scenario:
- Based upon his reading of Medieval and Renaissance adventure stories in the late 1940s, Lewis attempts a fairy tale. In the 20th century, fairy tales are for children, so he uses a voice and subject matter suited to children, with children friendships at the centre. He writes the LeFay fragment.
- He struggles with either the story or the mechanism—Digory able to hear trees and animals, but losing the ability with his betrayal. He breaks off with Mrs. LeFay (the fairy godmother), who is supposed to somehow bring it all together—either as heroine or villain. Remember, faëries are ambivalent creatures.
- Lewis is writing poetry in 1948 and early 1949 of talking horses, and the beginning and ends of worlds—many of the images that become part of The Magician’s Nephew.
- In the end, the story never comes. With the appearance of Aslan in late 1948 or early 1949, something about his character draws together the images in Lewis’ head and the early narrative of four children sent to the country during WWII. With the alternative world of Narnia in mind, Lewis quickly writes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, finishing it by Spring 1949.
- All of the Narnia books come one after the other, first in 1949, and then in the sabbatical he takes in 1951-52.
- I think the poem “On a Picture by Chirico” shows us the germ of the central Narnian reality: talking, sentient beasts. It remains un-evolved until Aslan comes bounding in. Then the possibilities are endless.
- Lewis struggles with only one book, the Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. In the end, he integrates the false start of the LeFay Fragment with the images of eschatology and creation he had in his 1948-49 poetry. I suspect, then, that a lot of the foundational material Magician’s Nephew was complete in 1949.
Perhaps I am misreading the context—let me know in the comments what you think succeeds or fails here. The only controversy is my suggestion that Walter Hooper judges to quickly when he suggests that the LeFay Fragment was an early version of Narnia. Hooper suggests that the LeFay Fragment was writing after Narnia was invented. Although it is possible, I disagree. The magical invention in the Fragment is very pale once Narnia is in mind. When Aslan came in, there was never another magic that worked for Lewis. So I think the LeFay Fragment is an early, pre-Narnian attempt at a fairy tale, not a second attempt at Narnia.
You can see the original poem “On A Picture by Chirico” at the original archive: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/6th-may-1949/15/on-a-picture-by-chirico.
Here is what Lewis wrote about his own writing in “It All Began With A Picture”:
One thing I am sure of. All my seven Narnian books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’
At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.