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CS Lewis: A literary genius observed

Ahead of a festival that celebrates his life and work, three Belfast Telegraph writers share their own insights into one of our most famous literary sons.

Fionola Meredith

I will never forget the moment when Lucy walks into a dark wardrobe, feeling her way past rows of long fur coats, then finds herself "standing in a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air".

The opening lines of CS Lewis's Narnia chronicles fired in me a lifelong hunger for stories that whisk you out of everyday life and into other luminous worlds, often hidden behind the mundane, but discoverable if you go seeking them.

I devoured each of the seven Narnia stories, only slowing my pace at the end of every book in order to make the pleasure last a little longer: a habit I still have today when reading novels I love.

Since their publication in the 1950s, the chronicles of Narnia have sold millions of copies in countless languages; they occupy a special place in our collective imagination.

Mention "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to almost any child, and they'll know what you're talking about; though the Disney films, rather than the book itself, might be the first thing that comes to mind.

Lewis himself would probably have been shocked by his elevated place in the pop culture pantheon: he imagined that his writing - which also included highly engaging volumes of philosophy, literary criticism and theology - would be quickly forgotten after his death.

You couldn't say that Lewis has been forgotten here, in his birthplace of Northern Ireland: there are walks, tours, a CS Lewis festival. His name appears on park benches and murals. You can go and peek through the gates of the Belfast house, Little Lea, that he grew up in.

But neither is Lewis remembered in the way that a man of his stature should be, which is odd, because we're normally very vocal about heroes who hail from the north.

It's even stranger when you consider that the landscape of this place - "the green hills … The soft low hills of Down" - had such a remarkable influence on Lewis's own imagination, especially when he was living in exile in England.

You can tell that the place flamed in his mind, it fed his inspiration, and became translated into the mythical kingdom of Narnia.

"I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge," he wrote.

On another occasion, he spoke of how he "yearn[ed] to see County Down in the snow, one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true."

Sometimes the comparisons were even more definite: Lewis told his brother that the "part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough" was his own particular idea of Narnia.

It was only when I was reading the Chronicles to my own children that I became fully aware that they were, in fact, "an imaginative retelling of the Christian grand narrative".

I remembered my anguish at the death of the lion, Aslan, and the sombre majesty of his resurrection; I knew, too, that Aslan had died to atone for a human sin, before he rose again, but as a child I did not make an explicit connection with the story of Christ.

That didn't matter, and it still doesn't: the stories are more than a crude allegory, and Lewis was too subtle and humane a thinker to ram his own beliefs down the throats of children, or adults.

His idea was to introduce them to the possibility of Christian faith: the rest was up to them. He said that Christianity was "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 . . . [and] from which they can try the various doors, not a place to live in."

CS Lewis never forgot his home, and the people who lived there. He wrote to a friend: "After all, there is no doubt, ami, that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults, I would not gladly live or die among another folk."

The least we could so is to return the compliment, by remembering him with pride.

Ivan Little on reawakening interest in one of Ulster's literary greats.

It wasn't a scientific survey by any means, but half of the 10 people I asked about the statue outside the Holywood Arches library in east Belfast didn't know who it was celebrating.

Of the five who realised the life-size sculpture was a tribute to writer, academic and theologian CS Lewis, only two had read any of his books and the rest struggled to name any of his works.

Inside the library, however, there were acknowledgments about the fame of the Belfast man honoured by the Ross Wilson bronze sculpture outside and acclaimed the world over as a literary giant.

On the walls were pictures of the author and a model of the lion Aslan from the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe stood in the window beside copies of a trail map guiding visitors to important Lewis locations around east Belfast.

But, while the author of the Chronicles of Narnia may be a global figure, it's fair to say that in his homeland his is still not a name which readily trips off the tongue of everyone in Northern Ireland as one of the province's greatest achievers.

Just up the road, at the National Trust's newly-acquired Belmont Tower, a CS Lewis exhibition is hardly the busiest tourist attraction in Belfast.

I was educated in the very room at Belmont Primary School where the main part of the exhibition is housed and I don't remember ever hearing the name of CS Lewis - though his books were only coming to the attention of the literary world at the time.

Later, I lived for years just a few hundred yards from his family home in Little Lea on the Circular Road, but never made the connection until long after I'd moved away.

Happily, things on the Lewis front have been changing. Slowly but surely. And as well as The Searcher statue, there are also murals of him in east Belfast and there's also a blue plaque to him in the Dundela area plus a housing development near the Oval football ground named after him.

Former civil servant Sandy Smith has been the main driving force behind the awakening of interest in Lewis.

He pioneered the exhibition at Belmont and he regularly welcomes students and lovers of Lewis' books from far and wide to Northern Ireland for seminars.

Lewis's profile soared after some of the Chronicles of Narnia stories were turned into TV dramas and movies and he was honoured with a memorial in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey 12 months ago.

Last year, too, the East Belfast Partnership and the city council collaborated on a festival to mark the 50st anniversary of Lewis' death, a passing which was overshadowed by the assassination of President John F Kennedy on the same day.

This year another festival is running, from November 20-23, and though the budget's not quite as big, Maurice Kinkead of the partnership says, "It's an exciting programme - especially as we have got actor David Payne coming from America with his one-man CS Lewis show."

Tourism officials in places like the Mournes have also been trying to exploit the potential of Lewis, who said he had the mountains in mind for the landscapes for his Narnia stories.

But Northern Ireland still has a long way to go to catch up with other parts of the world where there are CS Lewis societies and festivals aplenty.

Maurice Kinkead says, "It's true that he isn't as recognised here as he should be. In some ways, it seems he's of more interest to the Americans than he is to us."

But a major new development in east Belfast is trying to redress the balance.

As part of the £40m Connswater Greenway project, a new CS Lewis-themed civic square and centre with a 2,000-spectator event venue are in the pipeline for the Holywood Arches.

The US-based CS Lewis Institute, which is an inter-denominational Christian fellowship, is also currently in the process of setting up in Belfast.

But if any proof were needed of the scale of the worldwide interest in Lewis, it can be gauged from a Twitter account which records daily extracts from his writings.

The social media site has an astonishing 1.1 million followers.

Malachi O'Doherty picks his favourite CS Lewis book - A Grief Observed.

People avoid CS Lewis, because they expect to be lectured about God and salvation. And they will be. He is much like a standard Ulster evangelical, though different in surprising ways.

His literal approach to religion is made clear in Mere Christianity. Surrounded by secular-minded people, who had made their accommodation with Jesus Christ by deciding that they didn't believe he was God, but that he was a man worth attending to - a good moral instructor - Lewis said there was no such option: Jesus was either what he said he was, God, or he was mad, or a devil.

Actually, he might just have been misquoted.

Lewis believed that his life had been taken over by God and compared it to a house that had been rebuilt by an architect whose plans he didn't understand.

And he was brilliantly aphoristic, as in "True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."

It is the startling succinctness of his images that impresses in his writing and a directness about emotion and experience.

He came long before the age of the populist confessional memoir yet, in A Grief Observed, his account of how he suffered after the death of his wife is vivid and unselfserving.

You would expect that as the man of confident faith he would have told us all of the relief that his faith brought him when he was suffering loss.

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I will listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion, or I shall suspect that you don't understand."

And Lewis explores the question of whether religion is a substitute for intimacy in relationships and is much more frank about his own marriage than you'd expect the average thundering pastor to be.

"For those few years, H and I feasted on love; every mode of it, solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart, or body, remained unsatisfied."

You don't have to agree with his spiritual vision to agree that this is sharp and candid writing.

How many many would write a line like this? "Could a woman be a complete wife, wife unless for a moment, in one particular mood, a man felt inclined almost to call her Brother?"

With similar candour he talks about how embarrassed his children are when he wants to talk about his dead wife and remembers that he reacted the same way to his father's grief when his own mother died.

The surprising element in this reflection on grief by a person of deep religious faith is that the insights are psychological rather than spiritual.

He says that, in some ways, lovers are least suited to empathising with each other in their suffering, because their relating has evolved to be "complementary, correlative, even opposite".

CS Lewis Festival highlights

The CS Lewis Festival will run over four days later this month, with a series of plays, talks, tours, films and storytelling to celebrate the 51st anniversary of the renowned author's death.

The festival will kick off on Thursday, November 20 with a Narnia Breakfast at the Park Avenue Hotel. Guest speakers Stephen Williams and Trevor Gillian will talk about Lewis's life.

Among the highlights of the second CS Lewis Festival will be a bus tour, where local Lewis expert Sandy Smith will take travellers on a personal journey into the heart of Lewis's Belfast.

Campbell College, Lewis's alma mater and the inspiration behind the famous Narnia lamp, will play host to the CS Lewis Nearly True Tours, by Young at Art, as visitors are invited into a magical realm of exploration and adventure.

There will also be screenings of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the documentary The Man, The Myth and the Wardrobe, featuring an introduction from Moore Sinnerton.

Actor David Payne brings his acclaimed one man show An Evening with CS Lewis to the festival for the first time. This year's Lewis at Lunchtime in the Ulster Hall will have a timely focus on the author and the Great War.

St Mark's Church, Lewis' much-loved original place of worship, will be hosting a seasonal Winter Wonderland Craft Fair and the Holywood Arches library will offer up a range of storytelling and creative writing workshops and displays for children.

  • The festival will run from November 20 to 23. For further information log ontocommunitygreenway.co.uk, or call 028 90 467925. For tickets, call 028 90 655830 or go online at strandartscentre.com

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