Christmas in July with J.R.R. Tolkien (1976)

Tolkien - Father Christmas Letters - 1976What a find! At a recent yard sale a good friend (@RhonDawg) found a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters and she was good enough to give it to me. Published by his daughter-in-law in 1976 on the 3rd anniversary of Tolkien’s death, this is a stunning collection of art and humorous writing. I decided that this was such a neat find that I couldn’t wait until real Christmas came around to share it. Besides, there are multiple editions around now that would make wonderful Christmas gifts for older children or Tolkien fans, and waiting until Christmas would make it too late.

The premise is simple: from his first child’s toddlerhood to the end of his last child’s innocence, Tolkien wrote letters from Father Christmas each year. These letters were carefully delivered to the Tolkien family mantel each year. They include beautiful art, hand-drawn stamps, the hilarious antics of a polar bear, and personal notes in Father Christmas’ shaky handwriting. The children received these letters each year with delight and wonder, finding themselves lost in the myth as long as they could.

Rather than doing a real review–I am thrilled to own this book and wish I had: a) thought of it myself; and b) the skill to do it–I will let the work speak for itself, posting a few examples of the artwork.

On this page, Father Christmas writes to 3 year old John in 1920:

tolkiens-father-christmas-letters-pageDear John,

I heard you ask today what I was like & where I lived. I have drawn ME & My House for you. Take care of the picture. I am just off now for Oxford with my bundle of toys–some for you. Hope I shall arrive in time: the snow is very thick at the North Pole tonight:

Yr loving Fr. Chr.

The polar bear is a fan favourite. Here he has tumbled down the stairs. The note from Father Christmas began: “What do you think the poor dear bear has been and done this time? Nothing as bad as letting off all the lights.”


The reference to “letting off all the lights” was 1926, where the Polar Bear set off “the biggest bang in the world, and the most monstrous firework there has ever been.” Chaos ensued in the North Pole. The beautiful cover image is of the Aurora Borealis fireworks that only Santa Claus could keep in his basement.

Tolkien Northern Lights

While most of the book is typescript, there are a couple of examples of copies of the original letters. Here is one in the introduction, a letter of 1933. It tells of peril, where Christmas was almost lost to Goblin attack. The Tolkien Christmas has more elements of violence than the average!

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters forematter

There is another letter in a later edition (2001) that is a neat read. The transcript is in this 1976 edition:

Cliff House
Top of the World
Near the North Pole

Xmas 1925

My dear boys,

I am dreadfully busy this year — it makes my hand more shaky than ever when I think of it — and not very rich. In fact, awful things have been happening, and some of the presents have got spoilt and I haven’t got the North Polar Bear to help me and I have had to move house just before Christmas, so you can imagine what a state everything is in, and you will see why I have a new address, and why I can only write one letter between you both. It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the N.P.Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down — and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the N.P.Bear fell through the hole it made into the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the N.P.Bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas. I send you a picture of the accident, and of my new house on the cliffs above the N.P. (with beautiful cellars in the cliffs). If John can’t read my old shaky writing (1925 years old) he must get his father to. When is Michael going to learn to read, and write his own letters to me? Lots of love to you both and Christopher, whose name is rather like mine.

That’s all. Goodbye.

Father Christmas

Thanks to Letters of Note for the transcription. Here is a picture of the original letter:

tolkien-original christmas letter

Also included in this letter are these pictures:

tolkien-christmasmas-letters 1925

I hope you will find a copy of this book for yourselves. They really are a delightful read and a wonderful Christmas project idea. Thanks @RhonDawg for this gift! I’ll leave you all with just a few more pictures:

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters 1933 tolkien-christmas illustrations Tolkien-FatherChristmas-polar-bear 1931

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“So Multifarious and So True”: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring

colbert is a tolkien nerdC.S. Lewis was the first Tolkien nerd. He was certainly not the last. Middle Earth geeks roam the land, tucking into coffee shop corners with beat up Ballantine editions of The Silmarillion or greeting one another in Quenya at insurance seminars. I’ve had conversations about obscure Tolkien interviews while waiting to use a 20% off coupon at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’ve watched academics leave their long bows and magic swords at the door for paper presentations on Tolkien speculative geography. Once one Ringer spots another, the wheels of fate are set in motion.

In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for C.S. Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Every true LoTRian would have envied Lewis and his friends as, over several years, Tolkien read early drafts of his books out loud in college rooms and crowded pubs. While not all the Inklings were converted Tolkienites, Lewis immediately saw its potential. From his first read of The Hobbit, he committed himself to boosting Tolkien’s work for the world.

Lord of the Rings and HobbitUpon its release, Lewis provided a glowing review of The Hobbit for The Times, and also published one in The Times Literary Supplement, the UK’s “it spot” for discussing literature. His closing paragraph resounds still:

For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. “Alice” is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; “The Hobbit,” on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but “The Hobbit” may well prove a classic.

No one was more anxious to see the “new Hobbit”–what would become the Lord of the Rings–come to print than C.S. Lewis. In his 1945 That Hideous Strength, he links his fictional world to Tolkien’s, promising in the preface that the Lord of the Rings was nigh:

Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.

Diana Pavlac Glyer-The_Company_They_KeepTolkienists will immediately see Lewis’ mistake in the spelling of Númenor. Tolkien later addressed this in a letter: “The spelling Numinor is due to his hearing it and not seeing it” (Letters of Tolkien 224). But the gaff–both in the spelling, but also in over-estimating Tolkien’s ability to let his work go to print with even the slightest detail out of place–does not mean that Lewis was disengaged. He wrapped his Ransom Cycle up into the story of Númenor, and he worked with Tolkien on various drafts of LOTR. He critiqued the work, and Tolkien often worked to integrate Lewis’ suggestions (see Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep).

When Tolkien finally let his manuscripts go to the publisher, Lewis began working to promote the books. He wrote “The Gods Return to Earth,” a review of The Fellowship of the Ring for Time and Tide. A year later he followed up with a review of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, also in Time and Tide, called “The Dethronement of Power.” Lewis reveled in the fact that “now that all six [books] are before us the very high architectural quality of the romance is revealed” (Image and Imagination 105). At this point, Lewis is not only an Oxford Don, but a Cambridge Professor and the author of the complete Chronicles of Narnia. His voice had some resonance even then.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienLewis also wrote a “blurb” for the cover of The Fellowship of the Ring. The publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, had taken a great risk in publishing LOTR. Though a new generation of Tolkienesque fantasy abounds, it is at the time an unprecedented work of art, a project in world-building never before attempted at this scope. Unwin may have passed it over if not for the encouragement of his son, who as a child had predicted The Hobbit would be a hit. We all know how quickly LOTR became a bestseller, but the publisher could not have imagined even a hundredth of the readership it has received. So he turned to the Narnian, C.S. Lewis, for support.

Lewis was enthusiastic:

I would willingly do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves. Wd. the enclosed be any use? If not, tell me, and I will try again. I can’t tell you how much we think of your House for publishing it (Dec 4th 1953 letter).

Though he cautioned Tolkien against using the blurb–“I am certainly a much, and perhaps an increasingly, hated man whose name might do you more harm than good” (Dec 7th 1953 letter)–Lewis took the time to write it. Here is what Lewis sent to Unwin:

It would be almost safe to say that no book like this has ever been written. If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters–comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!

the one ringThe part I have bolded is a profound statement by a fantasy writer who clearly is thinking about how we build fictional universes. It is intriguing that Lewis who wrote (or chose to write) such a leaky world like Narnia, saw the value and potential of an integrated world like Eä. There are gaps. As was pointed out in a recent blog, “potatoes” would have been hard to find in Tolkien’s timeline of Middle Earth history. But, overall, Tolkien’s strength is his ability to integrate conceptual depth with narrative breadth and a refined literary art.

The Ariosto reference will connect with very few today, but overall it is an impressive statement. As it turns out, Tolkien and Unwin did use the blurb on the dust jacket flap. It is difficult to know if it was helpful to some readers. Soon, readership took on a life of its own. I do not know if this blurb is on the cover of any of the other early LOTR editions. It was soon unnecessary, as positive reviews from leading papers throughout the world were there to recommend this comic, homely, epic, monstrous, diabolic masterpiece. But it demonstrates C.S. Lewis’ consistent support of Tolkien, and his keen eye in being able to spot the things that Tolkien nerds have loved ever since.

Fellowship of the Ring 1st edition dust jacket

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“I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran from “The Desolation of Smaug”

ed-sheeran-hobbit-i see fireA little fun and fire for today’s Feature Friday post.

One thing I’ve loved about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films is how the soundtracks draw all the visual and narrative elements together. I have also liked some of the popular elements, like Pippin’s Song (“Edge of Night“) and the Dwarfs singing “Far over the Misty Mountain.”

Tucked into the end of The Desolation of Smaug is a little song that has caught fire. I have heard that Ed Sheeran screened the film, wrote “I See Fire,” and recorded most of it on the same day. That’s the story that the music video tells, in any case. We see in this video Sheeran as an honourary hobbit, recording this haunting song in a fellowships of techies and artists.

And now I share it with you! Have an awesome weekend!

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Can You See Beauty in Things You Disagree With? The Ihsan of Evangelicalism

New Glasgow Christian ChurchI remember when I first stumbled across the word “Ihsan” in my studies. It is from a mystical path in Islam, and is best translated “Doing What is Beautiful.” As soon as I read the word, I knew what it meant: a synchronicity between faith and hope that expresses itself in action in the world. I will always be grateful for the gift of this word, Ihsan, even though I disagree with some of the key parts of Islam.

Right now “evangelical” is an ugly word. In the wake of court battles in the U.S., a divisive election in the UK—and one forthcoming in Canada and the U.S.—a budding culture war in Australia, and controversial statements by Christian leaders, there is not much love for the evangelical around many kitchen tables and twitter cliques. Whether the neighbour is next door or across a digital expanse, evangelicals have become a symbol for sexism and homophobia. It is difficult to see a week go by when a major media outlet doesn’t connect evangelicalism to the resistance of response to climate change, or to the barriers to help the poor through universal education, training, or health care.

franklin graham preachingI have already warned readers that the media is clueless about evangelicals, but I want to take this blog another direction. The media shows no signs of engaging in new ways, and a baby blogger like me won’t help.

Instead, I want to talk about the Ihsan of Evangelicalism. Here, I am speaking to those who struggle with the conservativism or tenor of evangelical cultures and political engagement. Despite disagreement, and despite the negativity of much of the conversation, I believe that evangelicals do beautiful things.

Although I grew in a post-Christian culture with no family church connection, I have spent much of the last 25 years connecting with evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics here in North America, but also in the UK and East Asia. Here are seven things that evangelicals have taught me about Ihsan.

1. My Life Has Meaning

I grew up in a strong family that taught me, despite our intense poverty, that I could do anything. The moment I first encountered the Jesus story as a young adult, I saw what the global and eternal value of my work really was. The moment of my conversion was the moment of my calling into a life that would matter. All of my work since, from writing and teaching to flipping pizzas and waxing cars, has been in a desire for Ihsan, to do beautiful things that set in motion the renewal of the universe.

2. Sex is Beautiful

As culture became hyper-sexualized around me growing up, our secular sex education also amped up. But in doing so, it reduced the idea of sex to a muscle spasm. This is better, I suppose, than cultures that manipulate sex (and thus, the sex partner) by making sex a kind of protest, an assertion of independence, a quest to be included, or a perverse relational trap. Still, I was left with only biological function.

It is true that American fundamentalism has had a strange obsession with sex. There have been a lot of excesses, perhaps going as far as needed to counteract popular culture. But in the midst of that, I was taught the beauty of sex, the God-givenness of it. Its inherent value is not merely a biological release, but a psychological knitting-together of one soul with another. Sex can be an expression of Ihsan. I am forever grateful to this correction to the garbage that was floating around me as a young adult.

3. Mass Culture is Not Always Right

This one may not seem beautiful to many, but there is a value to having a voice speak from the outside. Look at the atheist response to prisoner’s rights in the 1700s, absolutely transforming the way we treat those who transgress the law. Similarly, evangelicals and fundamentalists spoke against slavery, winning abolition in the British Empire two generations before America. Later, evangelicals called for industrial reform, asking for safety for those working in factories—many of whom were children.

While we may bemoan the excess we see of politically engaged atheists and evangelicals today, there is value to the voice outside. Mass Culture Morality can go very bad, very quick. 1930s Germany will always remain a poignant example. As much as I engage in culture, I always look at it sideways, skeptically, thanks to my fundamentalist friends

4. We Need to be Self-Critical

If your only vision of a conservative Christian is the self-assured thoughtful guy or super gorgeous assertive girl on CNN or Fox, this one will sound weird. Or perhaps you know evangelicalism best by those that have fallen. Hypocrites abound.

Truly, though, evangelicalism taught me that a critique of culture begins with me. In this, evangelicals connect with the great Hebrew tradition of self-critique. I know of no other ancient court where prophets criticized their kings and priests, demanding authenticity from the crown to the cradle. This tradition was passed on to me; when I speak in protest or criticism, I know the danger of my own heart’s hypocrisy may betray me.

5. Education is Transformative

Education debates are very cultural, so this beautiful thing may feel different in different places. We know that our view of education in the West is shaped out of a marriage of the Jewish idea that what we believe and think matters, and Greek ways of shaping human culture. As a result, America, for example, has some of the greatest scientists, inventors, innovators, medical researchers, and artists in the world.

Education is central to evangelicals, from Sunday School classes to the sponsorship of universities and colleges. Huge amounts of money are spent to shape the mind of the young, knowing that education transforms the world. All of my education—BA, MAR, and PhD (in progress)—have been at schools begun by communities that believed that ideas change the world.

6. Mental Health Matters

There has been a great transformation of ideas about mental illness in the last generation, which is great. But before after-school advocates and school nurses and Dr. Phil, psychological help was often inaccessible to the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, for generation after generation, pastors, elders, Bible Study leaders, women’s group leaders, and teachers at little conservative churches have been providing support for the mentally ill. Evangelicals have carried this health burden when our social systems could not—or did not care to—do so.

True, there has been lots of abuse. But ask what a gay man going to a mainstream psychologist in 1953 would experience. There is often abuse and error as people walk on difficult paths together. Much of it was beautiful. Much of it is good.

7. Women Do Powerful Things

If you are a woman called to leadership in a conservative environment, you will be frustrated by this. I know the limitations on gender roles in churches. Some days they frustrate me. Some days they terrify me.

Despite these external gender roles, even when I was new to the church scene, I knew that women did powerful things. I may have been looking for it since I had powerful women in my life, but over and over again the evangelical and charismatic churches I encountered told me this truth: Women do powerful things.

The first Bible character I learned about was Deborah. My teachers were women. My early mentors included women. I heard of women missionaries and theologians and preachers. The charismatic movement is diverse, but women were essential to the rediscovery of the Spirit in Christian worship and life. Even in fundamentalist churches, where women are limited in the most specific ways, some of the most powerful workers and witnesses are women. We all know it.

There is definitely much to cringe at in conservative Christian movements. Something like 100,000,000 Americans have a tangible connection to the kinds of faith groups I’ve been talking about. It wouldn’t be hard to find lots of terrible stories there. And there are systemic problems.

But I especially want to challenge progressives and liberals to consider the beauty of these things—even if you don’t agree with other principles. Are we inclusive enough to recognize the things that evangelicals do that are beautiful? Part of the Ihsan of more liberal expressions is to look around and find, despite disagreements, ways to draw others into a bigger conversation. For my part, these are some of the ways that I’ve discovered the Ihsan of evangelicalism.

So, I would encourage people this week and this year, as you engage in online conversations and chats around the dinner table, to consider some of the beautiful things in the evangelical or fundamentalist you are critiquing–whether the character next door or the caricature on TV.

Art by Diego Rivera.

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C.S. Lewis’ Philosophical Letters About Mice (for Susan Call Hutchison)

Letters to Children by CS LewisI posted on Monday about a cheeky poem that Lewis wrote about Talking Beasts. You can read about it here. One of our long-term readers here at A Pilgrim in Narnia, Susan Call Hutchison, responded by saying how she loved the mice references, especially the “mouse’s Twinkling adroitness.” Susan is a children’s writer, and has a series on church mice (Mrs. Middlejoy, I do believe).

In response, I asked if she had read C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children where he talks about mice. She hadn’t so I promised to dig it up. There are a few, actually–little cute references to mice and his confession that he was a mouse-fancier. Here is a fun reference to mice and guinea pigs:

I never knew a guinea-pig that took any notice of humans (they take plenty of one another). Of those small animals I think Hamsters are the most amusing–and, to tell you the truth, I’m still fond of mice. But the guinea pigs go well with your learning German. If they talked, I’m sure that is the language they’d speak (letter to Joan, Oct 16, 1955).

The Lion Witch Wardrobe (1stEd) LewisMy favourite, though, is a letter to he wrote to a little girl who sent him pictures that she drew of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Her name was Hila (not Hida) and she was from New York. She was struck by a reference in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that Aslan goes by other names in other worlds (including ours). Rather than answering her directly, he invites her to put the clues together. Then he promises that four more Narnia books will follow.

In that sense it is an intriguing letter about how Lewis connects Narnia with our world. But it is also a lovely letter, including a bit about mice that is particularly fun. So, for Susan, the authority on church mice, it looks like Lewis was an authority on college mice. I would encourage readers to pick of C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, and be sure to check out the Mrs. Middlejoy stories.


June 3rd 1953

Dear Hida (is that right) Newman

Thank you so much for your lovely letter and pictures. I realised at once that the coloured one was not a particular scene but a sort of line-up like what you would have at the very end if it was a play instead of stories. The Dawn Treader is not to be the last: There are to be 4 more, 7 in all. Didn’t you notice that Aslan said nothing about Eustace not going back? I thought the best of your pictures was the one of Mr. Tumnus at the bottom of the letter.

voyage-of-the-dawn-treader-roger-haneAs to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer!

Reepicheep in your coloured picture has just the right perky, cheeky expression. I love real mice. There are lots in my rooms in College but I have never set a trap. When I sit up late working they poke their heads out from behind the curtains just as if they were saying, ‘Hi! Time for you to go to bed. We want to come out and play.’

All good wishes,
Yours ever
C. S. Lewis

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Note: Chance to Win JOY by Abigail Santamaria Before It Ships!

I wanted to let all readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia know about this contest at Essential C.S. Lewis. Santamaria has written the most extensive biography of the woman who captured C.S. Lewis’ heart and tugged out his imagination into new areas. Head on over and try to win!

JOY bio - Win ThisGet a chance to win a copy of Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. This biography on Joy Davidman is the debut release by Abigail Santamaria.

ALL YOU HAVE TO DO TO ENTER is simply leave a comment HERE AT ESSENTIALCSLEWIS.COM. You only have to leave ANY fact OR question about Joy Davidman in the comment section. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 6 p.m. EST.

FIVE random individuals from those who enter will be the winners! You will be notified by email, so leave an email address you check frequently (winners will receive a message from allaboutjackpodcast (at)

If you are one of the random winners you must reply within 48 hours of notification or another person will be selected.

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On a Picture by Chirico: A Proposal about the Creation of Narnia

_aslan in the snowWhat 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 WilliamsArthuriad, 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.

The Lion Witch Wardrobe (1stEd) LewisYet, 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.

TTwo Horses by a Lake - Giorgio de Chiricohere 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?

The divine horses - Giorgio de ChiricoIt 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.

Horses and temple - Giorgio de ChiricoBut 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.

giorgio_de_chirico_cavalli_in_riva_al_mareThis 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.

Lion Witch Wardrobe by CS LewisIt 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.

Giorgio de Chirico-horses of AgamémnonI 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.

Giorgio de Chirico, Horses, c.1928I 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.

Giorgio de Chirico Horses on the sea shore 1950I 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.

Georgio de Chirico, The Horses of ApolloIn either case, I think we have this scenario:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. All of the Narnia books come one after the other, first in 1949, and then in the sabbatical he takes in 1951-52.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Di Chirico Horses beside the Sea 1928De ChiricoPerhaps 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:


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.

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