While speaking several times about C. S. Lewis recently, I’ve been asked the question of why he’s so popular. One answer seems to keep coming to mind: that Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And he often does that through an act of imagination.
How? His genius imagination invites us as readers to engage our questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder our own answers.
Lewis certainly learned the power of imagination as a seventeen year old. In February 1916—fifteen years before he became a Christian—Lewis first read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes, which “baptized his imagination” and impressed him with a deep sense of the “holy.” Ten years later, in 1926 Lewis read G. K. Chesterton, who led the still-atheistic Lewis to grasp “the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” Indeed, that is what Lewis wanted to do with his readers years later in his The Space Trilogy from the 1930s and The Chronicles of Narnia from the 1950s—to give his readers’ imagination the view of another world, even past the prejudices, the “stained glass and Sunday school associations” that bar readers from engaging Christ’s reality. Through the acts of imagination, “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” Lewis asks. “I thought one could.”
And Lewis’s imagination was so amazingly fertile and nimble. I’ve been reading The Magician’s Nephew from Narnia, and what strikes the reader—at least this reader—is how easily the ideas and narratives flowed for Lewis. Famously, this ease of writing frustrated his good friend (at the time) J. R. R. Tolkien, who fretted over every sentence and who left the narrative of Lord of the Rings for over a year dangling with Gandalf having plunged down the Mines of Moria, but not knowing what would come next.
The argument in my book C. S. Lewis and theCrisis of a Christian is that Lewis’s life was really hard (for example, his mother’s death, two world wars, caring for an alcoholic brother, the death of his wife). But for him imagination was easy. He even spoke of the main character “Aslan bounding into” some fragmentary story ideas. And he let his imagination run with the Great Lion and see where it led. “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 after Hi.”
And it’s not simply Aslan. Who of Lewis’s readers could forget Puddleglum or Lucy or Jadis or Ransom or the talking Beavers? We, I believe, are the better for that Lion and all those characters running through Lewis’s imagination and thus through ours.