What does a children’s book have to do with war? Most people who have read the installments of “The Chronicles of Narnia” read them as a child or read them to their children. Like “The Hobbit” or a boatload of modern Disney movies, they are highly entertaining to most adults too, but are generally geared toward kids. The language is easy to digest; the content is relatively lighthearted.
Let me address this by saying that, out of all the books and authors I have addressed in this series and will address, if there is one author who you ought to pay attention to when it comes to the subject of war, it is most likely C.S. Lewis (I will hear arguments for J. R. R. Tolkien as well). Though they did not really meet each other until 1926, both men were soldiers in WWI and fought in the Battle of the Somme—nasty trench warfare that claimed 57,000 British casualties on the first day. Lewis turned 19 on the day he arrived to the battle with the Somerset Light Infantry. He was later wounded by the same shell that killed two of his fellow soldiers, which was apparently friendly fire. This would spur off his exit from the military as he was sent home.
He was 40 years old when WWII started, and after all of his terrifying experiences as an infantryman in WWI in the trenches, what did he do? He tried to volunteer again, but was denied—still, he helped where he could by providing inspirational broadcasts to the troops and evacuating children out of London in 1939. He was even eventually offered the Order of the British Empire, but declined as he didn’t want anything to do with politics.
This is the same author that wrote Narnia, and so when he describes anything combat, I pay attention.
Anyone who has spent some time in the military knows that it’s not battle after battle, firefight after firefight. If nothing else, it requires a whole lot of walking. “The Chronicles of Narnia” doesn’t skip all that just to get to the “good stuff,” as Lewis could not bring himself to skip that essential experience of walking until you feel like you can’t walk another step, and then walking some more, all just to get into a five-minute fight somewhere.
But as they went on walking and walking – and walking and as the sack she was carrying felt heavier and heavier, she began to wonder how she was going to keep up at all. And she stopped looking at the dazzling brightness of the frozen river with all its waterfalls of ice and at the white masses of the tree-tops and the great glaring moon and the countless stars and could only watch the little short legs of Mr Beaver going pad-pad-pad-pad through the snow in front of her as if they were never going to stop. Then the moon disappeared and the snow began to fall once more. And at last Lucy was so tired that she was almost asleep and walking at the same time when suddenly she found that Mr Beaver had turned away from the river-bank to the right and was leading them steeply uphill into the very thickest bushes.”
If there wasn’t a magical, talking beaver, I would think this could be a winter class in Ranger School.
He even once says that the children, after much walking through enemy territory, are “pretty tired by now of course; but not what I’d call bitterly tired – only slow and feeling very dreamy and quiet as one does when one is coming to the end of a long day in the open.” It makes you wonder what a man like C. S. Lewis would consider “bitterly tired.”
Lewis also has a practical reverence for weapons. You might expect that in a children’s story involving Santa Claus (“Father Christmas”), the children would receive gifts with smiles and laughter as exciting toys would surely help them with their fun adventure ahead, and you would be right—with the exception of the eldest, Peter.
‘These are your presents,’ was the answer, ‘and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.’ With these words he handed to Peter a shield and a sword… Peter was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.”
They are tools of war, and Peter would find himself using them very soon. But as the masculine protagonist in a children’s story, you might expect him to be scared, but heroically overcome his fear and swoop in to save the day. He does this, but it is not graceful and it is not pretty. Lewis does an excellent job at illustrating a young man’s first exposure to combat in language that a child can understand.
Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side. That stroke never reached the Wolf.”
After some awkward, non-graceful moves, Peter eventually slays the wolf. He forgets to wipe his sword and sees the blood and hair matted on its blade—not so clean and pretty as some fairy tales (but of course, not some gritty novel aimed at scaring the living hell out of children either).
Now re-read that passage and replace Peter with a 19 year-old C. S. Lewis, fighting for his life in the trenches of WWI. Words like “sick” and “rushed” have far more serious implications.
There are countless nuggets in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that could be viewed as glimpses into Lewis’s intimate knowledge of combat and the nature of war, and they are certainly too numerous to list here. It’s a kid’s book, for sure, but for those warriors who are reading their children to sleep late at night, pay attention to what Lewis has to say about war—he’s more qualified to speak on the subject than the mass majority of popular fiction authors in the last 100 years.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (compilation created by the author).