C. S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy

“I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.”

From poet Mary Ruefle, who considered imagination to be an invisible everything such that she could not imagine living without it, to dancer Twyla Tharp who created a white space that has nurtured every dance she’d ever designed, there is a nurturing relationship between imagination and place.

Hemingway used to walk upstairs to kickstart his writing while Dani Shapiro walked down a hallway, and Rilke once admitted he couldn’t write except in a feeling of “home.”

What space do you seek to summon creativity? How does it affect your work to lose it? Does it shelter or invigorate?

For C. S. Lewis (November 29, 1898 – November 22, 1963) creator of creatures and worlds that seem so perfect and complex they must have always existed, imagination was closely entwined with childhood loneliness and the physical space of home.

Open window.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In 1905, my seventh year, the first great change in my life took place. We moved house. My father, growing, I suppose, in prosperity, decided to leave the semi-detached villa in which I had been born and built himself a much larger house, further out into what was then the country. The ‘New House’, as we continued for years to call it, was a large one even by my present standards; to a child it seemed less like a house than a city. My father, who had more capacity for being cheated than any man I have ever known, was badly cheated by his builders; the drains were wrong, the chimneys were wrong, and there was a draught in every room. None of this, however, mattered to a child. To me, the important thing about the move was that the background of my life became larger. The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Novelist Graham Greene, Lewis’ contemporary but a very different beast of novelist, nevertheless similarly nodded to his childhood as the source of emotional formation. Lewis equally respects his past without cynicism or irony. “Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse…” Greene wrote in his own memoirs. Lewis would have agreed.

Born in Belfast in 1898 to Irish parents, and raised in a church attending but not religious household, Lewis recalls that little of his past mattered prior to his family’s move to “New House” as Lewis habitually called it.

In New House Lewis’ writer self was formed.

Here my first stories were written, and illustrated, with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures – ‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights-in-armour’. As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats. But already the mood of the systematiser was strong in me. The Animal-Land which came into action in the holidays when my brother was at home was a modern Animal-Land; it had to have trains and steamships if it was to be a country shared with him. It followed, of course, that the medieval Animal-Land about which I wrote my stories must be the same country at an earlier period; and of course the two periods must be properly connected. This led me from romancing to historiography; I set about writing a full history of Animal-Land.

Tree Spirits illustration by Japanese artist Shinonome Kijin.
Kodama, a “tree-spirit” character of Japanese folklore. Illustration by Japanese artist Shinonome Kijin.

While the ample emptiness and curious features of New House bade Lewis fill the space with the materialization of imagination, let’s not forget he was equally surrounded by the absence of other children. Lewis’ real life was increasingly solitary, especially after his brother left for school and his mother died.

Like George Orwell who admitted to a “only child’s habit of reading” Lewis found solace in his father’s library.

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

“What more felicity can fall to creature than to enjoy delight with liberty?” Lewis wrote in his makeshift desk in the vast and yet unwritten attic space. Everything he needed to flex creative muscles into substantive exercise was present.

Edward Lear's illustrations for "Complete Book of Nonsense."
Edward Lear’s imaginative creations, illustration and poems, poetical nonsense that amuses and charms. Read more from Lear’s human invention from ant to zinc.

It will be clear that at this time… I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. Thus I pass over a holiday in Normandy as a thing of no account; if it could be cut out of my past I should still be almost exactly the man I am. But imagination is a vague word and I must make some distinctions. It may mean the world of reverie, day-dream, wish-fulfilling fantasy.

Imagination to Lewis, was more than the daydream of fantasy, a conjuring up of some idealized space. It was a very real and very functional world, the creation of which was a stepping stone to novel writing: “In my day-dreams I was training myself to be a fool; in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.”

Child at an empty mall.
What is the mind of a child, outsized and eager, as she registers the world?Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The space that coaxed this world-creation out of Lewis, what he called Animal-Land and which would ultimately become known to us as Narnia, was neither poetic nor romantic, not idealized or without flaw, but rather a complex, saturated world that was “astonishingly prosaic.” The histories of his characters, how they interacted and had interacted since the dawn of their creation was all sketched in this mind-space of New House.

A. A. Milne's illustration for "When We Were Very Young"
“I’m sorry for the people who sell sweet lavender ‘Cos they haven’t got a rabbit, not anywhere there!” from the poem “Market Square” by A. A. Milne creator of Winnie the Pooh. Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis admits he might have written two autobiographies, one for his inner and one for his outer life. He dovetails the two beautifully in these first few pages describing his extant writer self, anchoring both in a very real space.

In his clear, philosophical work The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard surmised that “The house we were born in is more than the embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams.” As it becomes increasingly difficult to carve out personal space as an adult, I often return the space of reverie, memory and childhood. A cottonwood copse behind the house, my grandparent’s orchard lit in warmth despite the shadow of a faded blue barn. The worlds formed therein.

As Lewis was forming his writer self in the attics and corridors of New House, did he also create a mind-space he could return to as an adult? Did he again traipse the attics of his youth when writing Chronicles of Narnia?

I think he did, I think we all do.

C. S. Lewis © The Examined Life