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From Belfast to Narnia: childhood haunts of CS Lewis

A scene from Prince Caspian, based on the work of CS Lewis
A scene from Prince Caspian, based on the work of CS Lewis

Belfast-born Clive Staples Lewis — CS Lewis — wrote some of the most popular books in children's literature. As the film adaptation of Prince Caspian, the second in the Chronicles of Narnia series, reaches our cinemas, Jane Hardy takes a tour of his childhood haunts

On a distinctly damp afternoon, not all that different from the gloomy day Lucy decides to hide in the back of a wardrobe filled with fur coats, a group of us set out to track down Belfast's links with the early life of the writer, critic and academic CS (Jack) Lewis.

We began by heading up Royal Avenue, and saw the site of the old Royal Avenue Hotel where Lewis's parents held their wedding reception, as well as No 83 where his father had his law practice. The Belfast guided tour continued with a stop at the ordinary looking road in east Belfast — Dundela Avenue — which held the spot, not a house any longer but a stretch of concrete next to modern flats, where the great writer was born on November 29, 1898. It's almost opposite a school, which seems appropriate as the man who had a stellar academic career and ended up Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge remains best known for his books for children.

Our guide was a real Lewis enthusiast, Sandy Smith, who seems to know everything about the writer and is the best kind of knowledgeable amateur. He is currently taking groups of people round the Lewis Trail in an inspired initiative thought up by Belfast City Council, so you leave in your ordinary looking coach from City Hall, and undertake a journey of the imagination. It has to be that sort of journey, because some of the key places are now built over or in private ownership. One of the best moments, however, came when peering through the hedge outside Little Lea, the spacious Lewis family home after they left Dundela Avenue.

He noted it was "more like a city than a house to a small child". You could see the gables in front of the attics where the two Lewis boys, Warnie (Warren) and Jack (so named because his favourite nanny walked out with a train driver who had that Christian name, and CS chose it for himself, aged four) played, but it was tantalising not to be able to go in. Lewis wrote that he was the product of long corridors, indoor silences and attics explored in solitude.

Lewis's mother, Florence, died when he was nine, after suffering from cancer and surviving a home operation. You get a real sense of how life was at the start of the 20th century from the tour. This operation, conducted on the kitchen table at Little Lea, meant considerable disruption late one night, filtered through shut doors and adult whispers to the young Jack Lewis lying awake in his bed. He later described the opening and closing of doors that night and shafts of light and the sense of something threatening going on.

Jack and his brother were packed off to boarding school a month after his mother's death which was not a good idea, given that the school they went to was presided over by a headmaster later declared insane, at which point the school closed. So for a short while afterwards, Lewis attended Campbell College. We bussed up the drive, noting a rather fine old-fashioned lamppost half way down. This has to be the origin of the lamp-post Lucy sees when she moves beyond the wardrobe and into the eternal winter of Narnia. One newspaper claimed a lamp-post in the Italian town of Narni as the inspiration, but Lewis never visited Italy and this one looked exactly like the illustration in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Later on, when we were taken to St Mark's Church, Sydenham Avenue, where Lewis's grandfather, the Rev Thomas Hamilton, was the rector at the turn of the century and baptised his grandson, Sandy pointed out a handsome lion's head on the knocker of the rectory's front door.

This image, coupled with the fact that St Mark's evangelical symbol is the lion, must have lodged in the young boy's brain to re-emerge decades later as one of the most famous figures in children's literature, the divine and all-powerful Aslan, the massive lion who conquers evil in the form of the wicked witch.

The lion motif even recurs in the Lewis window inside the church, paid for by the author to commemorate his parents.What's particularly good about the tour is the way it illustrates just how details of Lewis's life and physical surroundings crop up in the books.

The best words are CS Lewis's own, of course, and happily we got a lot of those en route. Mr Smith quoted from well known and less well known books, including the Pilgrim's Regress, an allegorical story which echoed the author's own problems with Christianity. Lewis was brought up in the Church of Ireland, left it in his teens then returned at 30, persuaded by friends such as Tolkein that an intellectually argued Christianity was possible.

He finished by producing bestselling and in places witty Christian texts such as The Screwtape Letters, in which an old devil tells a young devil how to ensnare hapless believers.

The account given of the end of CS Lewis's life seemed to minimise the importance of Joy Davidman Gresham, Lewis's American wife, in his life and writing.

They did fall in love, after a marriage of convenience, when Lewis helped her to continue living in England after her visa had run out. And they later had a Christian marriage, tricky as she'd been married before, by her hospital bed after she developed cancer. Happily, she recovered to live for a few more years.

His book A Grief Observed, based on his reaction to Joy's death, is a classic text on bereavement and indicates how strongly he felt about her. The play — and film — Shadowlands detail their love and his overwhelming sense of loss.

Prince Caspian trailer

We ended the tour outside Holywood Road Library, where there is a superb sculpture by Ross Wilson. This shows a man opening a wardrobe, but the spectator shouldn't jump to conclusions about the figure's identity, even though CS Lewis's dates are carved in the pavement. Apparently, the man is Lewis's father's old headmaster, WT Kirkpatrick, who grappled with his belief, and therefore is shown in a sort of agnostic position, with the door to faith or rather Narnia, which acts here as a metaphor for spirituality and the world beyond, not fully open.

A letter from one of Lewis's fans is reproduced on the back of the wardrobe. The film of Prince Caspian, which takes the famous four into the final battle for Narnia, is being released this week.

Go to that, but take the tour as well for a real insight into the man behind the books and the movie.

CS Lewis tours run on Sundays until September 14, last around two hours and cost £8 (adults). Pick up outside the Linen Hall Library, Donegall Square.Tickets from Belfast Welcome Centre, tel: 9024 6609. For private tours tel: 07816 926186. Prince Caspian is in cinemas from Thursday.

Belfast Telegraph


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