C.S. Lewis was a most unlikely children's book author.
For one thing, he had little experience with children until he married at the age of 58 and became a stepfather to his new wife's two young sons. Prior to that, his main knowledge of children came from the young evacuees who spent part of World War II in the house he shared with the mother and sister of a wartime buddy.
In addition, Lewis - whose given name was Clive Staples, but who was known as Jack - was a highly respected scholar. By 1950, he had become internationally famous for both his essays on medieval literature and his books on Christianity, making him an improbable candidate to write children's tales.
Yet his most enduring work may be a seven-volume children's fantasy series, set in the imaginary land of Narnia. The series, called The Chronicles of Narnia, focuses on the battle between evil-doers like the White Witch and the forces of good, led Aslan, a lion.
Since the first volume, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was published in 1950, the Narnia series has sold more than 95 million copies in 30 different languages. Beloved by generations of children, the books have inspired many other writers, including J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter series also comprises seven volumes.
The books also have sparked controversy over what some see as their overt Christian themes. Lewis, who died in 1963 at the age of 64, freely acknowledged what he called the "hidden story" in his Narnia books, but he also said he worked hard to write the kinds of fantasy tales he so loved in his boyhood in Belfast, Ireland.
As a result, many children read the books purely for the pleasure of the stories, without picking up on the Christian elements, said Cynthia Richey, who recently served as president of the Association of Library Service to Children, the national organization of children's librarians.
"These are fairy tales in the grand tradition. There is wonder and magic, there is the classic battle between good and evil, and there is a satisfying resolution where good triumphs," said Richey, who is director of the Mount Lebanon, Pa. library. "The books are empowering to children, who believe that they, too, can thwart the Witch. And they like the idea that, somewhere out there is a world where they can escape through something as simple as a wardrobe."
Anita Silvey, a children's book expert, said she recently met someone who was fascinated with how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" use the wardrobe to go "in and out of the cold.
"Hence, he believed the book had been written because Lewis was a secret British intelligence agent," Silvey added. "With Lewis there are as many different interpretations as there are readers."
Over the years, the Narnia books have steadily grown in popularity, selling about one million copies annually. Now, with the first full-length feature film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set to premiere nationwide Friday, the perennial interest in Lewis' books has hit new highs. A paperback boxed set of the Narnia books, published by HarperTrophy in 1994 and retailing for $45, currently is no. 2 on the Amazon.com bestseller list.
Marketers are working hard to further ratchet up what's being called "Narnia mania" by touting a variety of products tied to the release of the movie.
But, many still wonder why an eminent scholar like Lewis decided to write a children's book series. A.N. Wilson, author of C.S. Lewis: A Biography, contends that Lewis wrote the Narnia chronicles for "the child who was within himself."
David Downing, in his new book Into the Wardrobe: C.S Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles, adds that writing for children allowed Lewis "to pour more of his whole self into his writing, including his love of wonder and enchantment, his affection for animals and homespun things, his shrewd observations about human nature, his vast reading, and his robust humor "
Lewis himself said he first got the idea for writing the books when the young evacuees were staying at his house. But it wasn't until some years later that Lewis actually got around to writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which he said began with a "picture in my head of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood." The picture, Lewis added, had been in his mind since he was 16; he was nearly 50 when he transformed it into the beginning of the book.
Lewis dedicated the first book to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. In a note at the book's beginning, Lewis states: "I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales... But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."
Christians have long praised the series as an enticing introduction to the basic ideas of Christian faith. Lewis, who was an atheist until his conversion at age 32 (with a nudge from his devout Catholic friend, J.R.R. Tolkien), wanted to find a better way to teach religion to children.
As he put it: "The whole subject (of God) was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it was something medical."
Brian Sibley, author of The Land of Narnia, notes that with the books, Lewis took Christian ideas of suffering, death and resurrection, cleansed them of what he called "their stained glass and Sunday school associations," and used them as the basis for an imaginary world.
"Sometimes fairy stories may say best what's to be said," Lewis once said.
One of the harshest and most widely-read critics of the Christian themes in the Narnia books is author Philip Pullman, whose critically-praised His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy is meant as an atheist answer to Lewis' series. Pullman has called the Narnia series "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read."
Like Lewis, Pullman strongly believes in the power of stories to "teach the morality we live by." As Pullman said in a 2001 Washington Post interview: "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the devil's work."
Tolkien also wasn't fond of Lewis' children's books, but for a vastly different reason. Tolkien felt that Lewis' Narnia books weren't particularly well-thought-out, and were too derivative of other literature, unlike his own "Middle Earth" books where he created his own fantasy world.
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