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Stranger In A Strange Land: Joseph Loconte

C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and the Great War

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King's College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, published by Thomas Nelson in 2015.

In March 1916, while waiting for a train at Great Bookham Station in Surrey, England, a precocious student with a taste for fantasy walked over to a book stall and bought a copy of Phantastes: A Faerie Romance. The young man's name was C. S. Lewis. The work transformed him. "A few hours later," he concluded, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." Reaching deeply into his imagination, the book challenged his growing atheism and ultimately helped to make plausible the Christian account of the human predicament.

Many readers of Lewis are aware of MacDonald's influence, but the timing of the book's impact, a century ago, is perhaps not so well known. It is surely relevant that Lewis first encountered Phantastes in the middle of the Great War, with millions of soldiers already dead, with fresh reports of the slaughter at Verdun, with the prospect of the trenches haunting his 18-year-old mind. After a visit from his older brother, Warren, already serving as a second lieutenant with the British Expeditionary Force, Lewis noted in his diary: "had ghastly dreams about the front and getting wounded last night."

While studying the classics under a tutor before applying to Oxford, Lewis was reaching for authors who would nourish a growing taste for fantasy and romance: William Morris, E. R. Eddison, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. By his own description, he found himself "waste deep in Romanticism." MacDonald (1824-1905), a dissenting Scottish minister turned author, wrote fantasy novels and children's stories that became classics of the genre. Phantastes explores what at first seems to be a young man's search for feminine beauty, but turns out to be a quest for something much more profound: "I gazed after her in a kind of despair; found, freed, lost! It seemed useless to follow, yet follow I must."

When Lewis first picked up MacDonald's book, nothing was further from his mind than Christianity: the cataclysm of the war was upending his generation's settled beliefs in progress, patriotism, and religion. Yet he sensed in the work a hopeful spiritual quality that he had encountered nowhere else:

I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.

What does it mean to have one's imagination "converted" or "baptized" by a work of fantasy? It seems that Phantastes helped to rescue Lewis's imaginative mind from its darkest tendencies—made darker, perhaps, by the onset of the war—and introduced him to a "bright shadow," a voice or force that drew him out of himself. It set before him a vision of a world that must have seemed wholly unlike his own: pure and radiant, yet morally severe.

This was part of MacDonald's Christian intent. In his essay "The Fantastic Imagination," MacDonald hints at one of his objectives in using the genre of the fairytale. "The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself." Something, it seems, was awakened within Lewis, something that other authors had failed to summon.

Lewis's brother, with whom he shared a close and lifelong friendship, called his discovery of MacDonald "a turning point in his life." Biographers Roger Green and Walter Hooper regard Phantastes as "the highlight among Lewis's literary discoveries" during this time. Nearly forty years later, Lewis was still recommending MacDonald's work to friends and acquaintances. "The influence of Phantastes on Jack lasted many years, perhaps all his life," writes biographer George Sayer. "It had a transforming influence on his attitude toward the ordinary, common things around him, imbuing them with its own spiritual quality."

Such judgments seem just. In a diary entry dated January 11, 1923, Lewis hinted at the enormous importance he attached to the book during his years in the wilderness: "After this I read MacDonald's Phantastes over my tea, which I have read many times and which I really believe fills for me the place of a devotional book." Many years later, after becoming a Christian, Lewis wrote a preface to an anthology of MacDonald's writings, where he frankly acknowledged his debt to the Scottish divine. "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master," he said. "Indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him." A remarkable tribute, coming from a man regarded by many as the most significant Christian author of the 20th century.

At the same time, Lewis's experience of combat provided the crucible for the early phase of his transformation. In April 1918, while he was serving as a second lieutenant on the Western Front, Lewis's regiment engaged in a firefight at Riez du Vinage. A shell exploded close by, killing his sergeant and injuring him with shrapnel in the hand, leg, and chest. Lewis was sent by train to a hospital in London. The pleasure of the English countryside—set against the suffering and horror of war—seemed to quicken his belief in a transcendent source of natural beauty.

"Can you imagine how I enjoyed my journey to London?" Lewis wrote to a friend from his bed at Endsleigh Palace Hospital. "First of all the sight and smell of the sea, that I have missed for so many long and weary months, and then the beautiful green country seen from the train … . You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy there is Something right outside time & place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter's great enemy."

Apparently a force "outside time and place" had stirred him. If the stirring did not begin with Phantastes, it was nonetheless nurtured by MacDonald's infusion of fantasy with Christian spirituality. His story of desire—of the human longing for beauty in the midst of sorrow and death—would in some respects anticipate Lewis's own quest. "She smiled when she saw that my eyes were open," wrote MacDonald. "I asked her whether it was day yet. She answered, 'It is always day here, so long as I keep my fire burning.' I felt wonderfully refreshed; and a great desire to see more of the island awoke within me."

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