During the Second World War, thousands of children were evacuated from their homes due to the Nazi air raids on London. Lewis, who lived in Oxford, took in some of these children. Having none of his own, this would have been an interesting experience for a middle-aged Oxford don who was somewhat set in his ways. Naturally enough, he entertained his young guests with stories. A fragment of one such story survives in which four children (two girls and two boys) are separated from their parents and sent to live with an eccentric old professor, an opening nearly identical to the beginning passages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis was no doubt consciously drawing on the real-life experiences of the evacuees in his own home: to them, he would have been an ‘old professor’ with odd ways. Again, it was natural that Lewis would feed into these stories things with which he was familiar which were appropriate for children. Drawing on his vast knowledge of classical and mediaeval literature, he wove a tale of magic and fantastic adventure for these children.
Contributing to this too was the fact that, in his early childhood, Lewis had created his own imaginary country: Animal-land, which later became part of a larger state called Boxen. His young imagination plotted out steamship routes and railway timetables in this fantasy land, and developed its history, geography, myths, legends, and prophecies, paralleling Tolkien’s ‘sub-creation’ long before he met Tolkien himself. In a pre-Dantean world, of course, the preoccupation with railway timetables and steamship routes was understandable - there was little trace as yet of the divine cosmos for which he was to yearn after reading ‘Paradiso’. But one element stood out: many of the most distinctive Boxonians were, in fact, walking, talking animals, anthropomorphised beasts similar to the later creatures of Narnia. As his stories to the evacuees developed, the same kind of characters crept in, not through creative accident or coincidence but probably as a calculated decision on Lewis's part. Animal characters enabled Lewis to indicate subtle shades of human personality to a young audience. Imaginatively, also, he had all those beasts from the Belbury menagerie running around with nowhere to go (That Hideous Strength was written during these years and published at the end of the war in 1945).
Being an expert in ancient mythology, he added many characters from the classical tradition, including fauns, satyrs, centaurs, dryads, naiads, and many other mythical creatures. As his ideas later evolved into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequels, even Bacchus, the Roman god of wine made an appearance. Being also highly familiar with Norse mythologies, and a lover of their special atmosphere, Lewis brought in giants and dwarves, along with knights in armour from the medieval tradition of chivalry. Narnia developed into an ideal realm where courtly ideals flourished: knighthood was to be won on the field of battle. The Persian-like Calormenes with their vulture-god Tash became the equivalent of the Saracens from the time of the Crusades. The Arthurian Morgana Le Fay no doubt contributed to the character of the White Witch Jadis, and later the Green Witch.
All this came together imaginatively and as a reasoned construction, it seems. Lewis claimed that certain pictures in his mind would organise themselves into a story - his job was to ‘fill in the gaps’. One particular picture, a faun with an umbrella, had, he said been in his head ever since his teenage years and, in Narnia, became Mr. Tumnus; snow queen on a sledge became Jadis. The images were at first disconnected and not envisioned as part of a complete whole, then Lewis was haunted with dreams of lions. With Aslan’s appearance, Lewis said, all the other parts came together as a whole.
But with what fundamental purpose? Obviously, the Chronicles contain a Christian message, and have been analysed ceaselessly on that score since they were published in the 1950s. However, Lewis emphatically denied that he set out to ‘encode’ Christian truth in a form which would appeal to children - those ideas came later. Rather, following our argument, Lewis recognised the potential of what his imagination was putting together as a tool with which he could produce a Dantean transformation. Aslan had come ‘bounding’ into the story - the lion was a recurrent Biblical symbol for Christ - and prompted the question ‘What if the Son of God were to enter into a different world in the form of a lion?’ But apart from the explicit Christian overtones of the story, what if the device of a children’s story, using these disparate elements, could be used to produce the specific shift that he had tried to bring about with the Ransom Trilogy?
Lewis was a master of metaphor. There are thousands of them throughout his writings. In The Abolition of Man for example, Lewis notes that ‘the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts’. In Surprised by Joy, he writes: ‘I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass’. Talking about the various denominations of the Christian Church, he writes:
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.
And it is to the door that he turns in writing the Chronicles. Having tried space travel as a means of transporting the reader to another world in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, he had find a more homely, domestic means of arranging for children to enter another world. There had to be an accessible door of some kind, Lewis must have felt, a portal into the other world, rather than a journey like Dante’s soul into the upper reaches of the cosmos. This door itself could be a reflection of his theme of transformation.
Lewis was aware of the door as a metaphor in the New Testament, as in Luke 13:24 ‘striving to enter [heaven] by the narrow door’ or in Acts 14:27 ‘the door of faith’ or in Col. 4:3 God opening ‘up to us a door for the word". Jesus says: ‘When you see all these things, recognise that He [God] is near, right at the door’ (Matt. 24:33) and ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me.’ But the central motivation for choosing some kind of portal or link with another world would not have been Biblical - however the two worlds were to be connected, the key element dramatically speaking would have to be ‘familiarity overturned’: i.e. something with which children would have a worldly acquaintance would need to become suddenly and surprisingly a gateway to an entirely different way of perceiving reality.
The exact mechanisms for opening this gateway between worlds in the Narnia series vary from book to book: we have the famous wardrobe door in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the railway station platform in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle, the framed picture in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the magic rings and the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician's Nephew. A plain door in a wall opens into Aslan’s Country in The Silver Chair. Only in A Horse and His Boy is a bridge to our world missing, as the story takes place entirely within the world of Narnia. In each case, the objects which act as a means of getting into Narnia are seen at first as commonplace, and this is important: Lewis was striving to make the division between this world and the next as surprising as possible, with the commonplace unexpectedly transforming into the wondrous. So, an ordinary wardrobe door opens onto a snowy landscape; a painting spills out of its frame to become an ocean; a dull-looking door in the wall of a school reveals a heavenly country. The least ordinary portals in the selection are Uncle Andrew’s rings in The Magician’s Nephew which look out of place in his room and emit a sound:
The room was so quiet that you noticed the ticking of the clock at once. And yet, as she now found, it was not absolutely quiet either. There was a faint - a very, very faint - humming sound. If Hoovers had been invented in those days Polly would have thought it was the sound of a Hoover being worked a long way off - several rooms away and several floors below. But it was a nicer sound than that, a more musical tone: only so faint that you could hardly hear it.
They appear strange and have the hint of the supernatural about them, so Lewis modifies this perception with the previous line:
They were no bigger than ordinary rings, and no one could help noticing them because they were so bright. They were the most beautiful shiny little things you can imagine. If Polly had been a very little younger she would have wanted to put one in her mouth.
Digory and Polly (and a few hangers-on, literally) use these rings to make the closest to a space journey in the whole series.
Arguably, the entrances into Narnia depicted in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle are more strained and mechanical ‘joltings’ from one world to the next, but there may be creative reasons why this is so, as we shall explore elsewhere. What matters from the perspective of Lewis’s intentions is that these transitions are effective from a child’s point of view: somehow he had to engineer a convincing movement from one universe to another without becoming too complex about it and by hopefully conveying a sense of wonder. To do this, he had to choose relatively everyday objects, things which a child might casually come across in a daily routine, and have them contain an impossible surprise, something unbelievable in the ordinary course of events - something which would challenge the very basis of the ordinary course of events.
The children’s journeys into Narnia thus become precursors of the larger and deeper journey they are all to go on in the course of each story.