by Jim Denney
Clive Staples Lewis — “Jack” to his friends and family — was raised in the Church of Ireland. The death of his mother when he was nine years old shattered his happy childhood. By age fifteen, he turned away from the Christian faith, becoming an angry atheist and living (as he would later put it) “in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.” To his mind, the universe was nothing but “a meaningless dance of atoms.”
In the fall of 1916, seventeen-year-old Jack Lewis stood on a railway platform in the village of Leatherhead, on the outskirts of London. He would soon begin his studies at Oxford and was looking for a novel to read before he would have to turn his full attention to matters of Greek, Latin, philosophy, and English literature. At the station’s bookstall, he noticed a pocket-sized hardcover — an Everyman’s Library edition of Phantastes: A Faerie Romance by George MacDonald.
The book was inexpensive — Lewis paid a single shilling for it — yet it was about to change his life.
The train pulled into the station and Lewis boarded. As the train transported Lewis past one village station after another, the book transported him into another world, an entirely different way of looking at reality. Phantastes is the story of a young man named Anodos who is magically drawn into a fairyland where he experiences otherworldly temptations and adventures. In his 1955 autobiography, Lewis recalled the effect his first reading of Phantastes had on him:
It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. … All was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness.
Lewis also paid tribute to the impact Phantastes had on his life in his 1945 fantasy novel The Great Divorce, in which he pictures himself encountering George MacDonald in the afterlife:
“I don’t know you, Sir,” said I, taking my seat beside him.
“My name is George,” he answered. “George MacDonald.”
“Oh!” I cried. “Then you can tell me! You at least will not deceive me.” Then, supposing that these expressions of confidence needed some explanation, I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes . . . had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness.
Lewis found something tremendously attractive in Phantastes, a quality he couldn’t quite put a name to it first. Though he was drawn to MacDonald’s imaginative tale, he pitied MacDonald for saturating his fantasy with his Christian beliefs. Lewis thought that MacDonald was a fine writer, in spite of his religious naïveté. Only years later did Lewis realize he was attracted to the imaginary world of Phantastes not in spite of MacDonald’s Christian worldview, but because of it — because of the quality of Holiness that illuminated every detail of MacDonald’s story.
Lewis later observed that, even while he was still an angry atheist, the writings of George MacDonald converted and baptized his imagination. “I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read MacDonald,” Lewis wrote. Though Lewis would not convert to theism until 1929, and would not convert more specifically to Christianity until 1931, the gradual opening of his mind to the existence of God, Joy, Holiness, and the Christian faith began in 1916, when he opened a pocket edition of a fantasy novel by George MacDonald.
This incident in the life of C. S. Lewis reminds us of the life-altering power of literature in general, and fiction in particular. Whenever writers sit down to tell their tales, they should carefully weigh the impact of the words they wield. Those words have enormous power to affect the mind and emotions of the reader, and to alter the course of a reader’s life.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.