The Boy Behind the Wardrobe

Hear that sound? That loud calliope is the C.S. Lewis bandwagon, rolling across America with the new-found popularity of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Millions of people who have never cracked one of his books have climbed on board, marveling at the mind of such an inventive storyteller.

To celebrate his birthday – on November 29 – I’d like to give you a peek into his childhood. What laid the foundation for his astounding imagination?

From his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, I’ve culled a number of ingredients that prepared him to be one of the foremost thinkers and best-loved writers of the 20th century. However, space here only allows for a quick overview.

Clive Lewis, called Jacksie, then Jack as a boy, spent his boyhood in a large, old house in Ireland, with plenty of space for rambling inside and out. Often alone, Jack took refuge in drawing and making stories. And his favorite subject was talking animals.

Narnia, you say? Not yet. In his boyish imaginings, it was called Animal-Land. But it was Narnia in the making. For Jack was disciplining his creative mind to do more than simply doodle or sketch out an idea or two. He was creating a world. Looking back, he credits that focused imagination as the key to becoming a creative adult (which apparently is not an oxymoron after all). “In my daydreams I was training myself to be a fool,” he writes, “in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.”

There is a need for children to daydream, but I appreciate what Lewis is pointing out. To be creative, one must put ideas into a form that can be communicated. And it often takes hard work. I read many children’s hastily written stories that show real promise, but it’s promise unfulfilled. It’s a rare child who commits to truly develop an idea, who comes back again and again to add onto, to edit, to re-invent a story. But it takes that kind of commitment to make something as rich and deep as Narnia.

I wish I could expand on the other themes. Alas, my wardrobe here is a bit snug. But in all good wardrobes, there is a way through to someplace else, where things imagined can take shape.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter