My own journey in studying C.S. Lewis has led me to the consideration of the fictional universes he created—these are the “real worlds” that sit behind his stories, like the worlds of Narnia in his fantasy novels or the Field of Arbol in his science fiction. Unfortunately, what is true in Narnia isn’t always true in the world that most of us reading this live: the growl of the lion in a Narnian forest is a moment of great hope; in an American forest, it is a reason to rapidly evolve the necessary appendages for flight. Fantasy writers carefully construct these fictional universes, and a sophisticated world like Middle Earth or Discworld or Arbol or Cthulhu, with its own maps and languages and sentient races and tax offices, is worth studying.
Because C.S. Lewis was a literary critic as well as a fantasy writer, he thought critically and academically about writing, so it is only natural to turn to his own thoughts about creating these fictive worlds. On Other Worlds: Essays and Stories contains Lewis’ short fantasy stories and a number of essays that reflect upon the task of writing in general and fantasy-writing in particular. The result is a highly readable and remarkably early primer on developing and enjoying fictional universes.
On Other Worlds is the earliest collection of Lewis’ literary criticism outside of his full-length books. One of my absolute favourites is his “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”—many children’s authors have gone back to this essay again and again to remind us of our essential tasks. Another piece, “On Stories,” describes the process of creating an “atmosphere” in a book, a literary environment that creates a mood or feeling—what he calls Story. Besides being the theoretical roadmap for constructing speculative worlds, it is a defense of reading for Pleasure (and thus writing in order to give Pleasure), and the beginning of an apology for the value of fantasy (what he calls Fairy-tales or Scientification).
Lewis carries on this defense in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.” He argues that there are two roles of the author in writing: the author as Author or Storyteller, and the author as Man, i.e. the experience of the author in his or her own world. In Lewis’ view, an author will have the idea of a story to tell—for Lewis it was a mental image, as he describes in “It All Began With a Picture”—but this story will be in conversation with some purpose to tell it, some reason for telling the story, and some way to tell it. In Lewis’ own process for Narnia he dreamed the picture of a Faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood carrying some packages. Then the pictures begin to form the story, and then the story needs a genre, a Form. Lewis was never married to one genre, but tried science fiction, epistolary fiction, romance, time-travel narratives, short stories, epic and short-form poetry, dream sequences, allegorical travelogues, and classic novels. Ultimately he chose fairy stories for children (what we might call children’s fantasy) and his alternative universe was born. Pieces like these give us the rare and pleasurable peak into C.S. Lewis’ writing processes, which are augmented by his essays ‘On Science Fiction” and “On Juvenile Tastes.”
These are not universally easy essays, however. “On Criticism” is both a weighty piece and a strong challenge to reviewers and literary critics, challenging them to rethink the way they conceptualize the process of writing when all they have is the finished text. His unpublished and unfinished “Reply to Professor Haldane” is a layered critical response to an author who influenced Lewis’ own work, but who had completely misunderstood what he was doing in the Space Trilogy. Finally, because some of the fantasy and science fiction reflection occurs before the establishment of the genre, Lewis’ nomenclature is tentative and transitional, and some of his ideas. None of the pieces require a high technical level, but the best of them require concentrated thought.
The persistent reader is rewarded in a number of ways. Besides early reflections on fantasy and the slices of Lewis’ writing life, we get some of his classical didactic humour, such as his response to those who thought that Narnia was written with the primary purpose of theology or evangelism and expertly marketed to children (the weaker minds, the reviewer might think). Lewis’ response is unmistakable:
“This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all” (36).
We also get, in the transcribed audiotape conversation called “Unreal Estates”—in contrast to real estate, the “world” of earth in day to day life—we have an engaging conversation about science fiction between Lewis and two other writers: Brian Aldiss, a leading 20th century SciFi writer, and Sir Kingsley Amis, a celebrated author who dabbled in the genre. The result is a generous conversation between colleagues that demonstrates their concern for an evolving Form and shows us how very well read they really were—they mention dozens of authors in as many pages, and each knew them all well. Their off-the-cuff reading list is a challenge to us slower readers, and some of their expectations were quite. Of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, however, Lewis said,
“I thought it was pretty good. I only read it once; mind you, a book’s no good to me until I’ve read it two or three times…”
Laced with Lewis’ Screwtapian humour, this interview and the accompanying essays betray key moments of his literary theories.
While I had gone to On Other Worlds to look at Lewis’ literary criticism, the short stories were a treat. “Ministering Angels” is a coy story about a number of astronauts on a three year period of exclusion in a space station. The government’s social policy was that these men should be provided sexual partners to reduce stress on the ship and increase productivity. While one might expect a line up of beautiful women who would like to be whored out to space engineers for the sake of the common good and a free trip to outer space, only two women step forward: an androgynous bureaucrat for whom sex is another organizational process, and a retired bulgy Cockney prostitute with bad teeth. The result is a brilliantly cutting satire of a particular idea that was actually current in his day.
In the same science fiction genre there is a thrilling moon-landing suspense (“Forms of Things Unknown”) and a stream of consciousness piece (“The Shoddy Lands”) that, while not a terribly good piece, does illuminate some of Lewis’ own ideas. The book concludes with the unfinished manuscript of “After Ten Years,” a retelling of the Helen of Troy legend that is suggestive of an important myth retelling like Till We Have Faces, but is sadly incomplete.
Though the typeset is archaic, I love the soft cover Harvest Book series of which this book is a part. Originally edited and published in 1966 by Walter Hooper, just three years after Lewis’ death, this important volume has been eclipsed by two others: all of the essays are reprinted (with others) in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, and all of the stories are reprinted in The Dark Tower and Other Stories. For the aficionado of fantasy, science fiction, and faerie writing, however, Of Other Worlds is a great bookshelf addition.
My only complaint is that J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is not included. It is possible that the rights to this classic Tolkien lecture were unavailable or too costly, but it is “On Fairy Stories” that forms the theoretical foundation of all of Lewis’ thoughts about speculative fiction. Indeed, he references Tolkien at least six times.
Overall, my goal of reading Of Other Worlds was met in that I observed some ways that Lewis thought about constructing fictional universes. As a whole, though, the book exceeded my expectations, and gave me a unique peek into C.S. Lewis’ writings.