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A Whole Dimension of Fiction

I think it’s peculiar that we read books usually long before we get to know anything about their authors. Sometimes we never find out anything significant about the person behind the story. In most cases, who the author is probably has little significance in the long run to the impact of the tale itself, and the biography of the author shouldn’t be the focus of a study of the story, but it still strikes me as odd that we are quite prepared to take on board entire manuscripts in the form of works of fiction before we have the faintest idea of ‘where they have been’, as it were.

Take the Narnia books, for example. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe long before anything else by its author. I think the next thing I came across was the second volume of Lewis’s Space Trilogy featuring the philologist Elwin Ransom as the protagonist. I had no idea what a philologist was, nor suspected that Lewis had vaguely modelled him on his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. I hadn’t a clue, in fact, that Clive Staples Lewis, the author of these books, was a British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist, nor what any of these things were. I didn’t know that Lewis held academic positions at Oxford and Cambridge universities. It wasn’t until about three years after I’d read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I even knew that there was a sequel; I wasn’t able to get hold of the first volume of the Space Trilogy for many years. Gradually, I accumulated more knowledge and managed to find the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia, and the trilogy, and discovered his close friendship with Tolkien, by which time I had read the latter’s The Lord of the Rings and was astonished by the connection. A closer study of both authors led me into contact with Lewis’s non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, as well as more about the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. In reading Lewis's memoir Surprised by Joy, I pieced together that he was baptised in the Church of Ireland, but fell away from his faith during adolescence before returning to Anglicanism at the age of 32, influenced by Tolkien and other friends.

So my understanding of Lewis's faith was obtained in reverse, in a way. Christianity profoundly affected his work - his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim, and many are happy to call him the source of their own fascination with, and eventual conversion to, the Christian faith. Critics deride his fiction works as clear apologetics, attempts to indoctrinate children, proselytising. In experiencing the fiction first, and only incrementally building up a picture of the man or the philosophy behind it, I think of the process differently. Lewis’s fiction, for me, like all great fiction, stands apart from the man. Of course, a biographical study shows a huge overlap between what is in the stories thematically and what happened to Lewis himself, but it is possible to view the fiction as an edifice in its own right without relation to its author, as it is in the case of all great stories.

Lewis wrote more than 30 books, which have sold millions of copies, and which have been translated into more than 30 languages, with many of his stories appearing on stage, TV, radio, and cinema. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honoured with a memorial in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. So we tend to honour all authors whose works are considered great, holding up the person for praise because it is not easy to hold up the work itself. Books are associated inevitably with those who write them in society - it’s a human way of marking importance. But the connection is not absolute in the experience of individual readers.

Ideas can stand alone. Characters and plots can possess a life of their own. Indeed, we miss a whole dimension to fiction if we consider otherwise.

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