The Conversion of His Imagination (1898 – 1916)
On November 29, 1898, C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland. His father, Albert James Lewis, was a lawyer. His mother, Florence Augusta Lewis nee Hamilton, was the daughter of a minister.. Lewis had one older brother, Warren Hamilton Lewis, who was often referred to by the family as Warnie. While still in childhood, C.S. Lewis renamed himself Jacksie. The name stuck, and as an adult he was affectionately called Jack by family and close friends.
Imagination and Myth
Gifted from childhood with a vivid imagination, Lewis turned a common environment into an adventurous opportunity for journeys of the mind. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy, Lewis recounted:
” I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.”
As a boy, Lewis was fond of Beatrix Potter’s children’s books. Reflecting her influence, he wrote his own stories of talking animals in adventures filled with chivalry and discovery.
As Lewis matured, his love of story deepened. The grand characters, epic plots, and colorful settings of ancient tales stirred him emotionally. Myth gave the young Lewis an indefinable bliss that seemed to come from another world. He called this emotion “joy,” which he felt was the “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
Such joy filled his heart when he first read the story Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. This Nordic tale of love, treachery, and triumph made a powerful impression young Lewis. Of this, he later wrote:
“Northernness engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, there arose at once the memory of joy itself.”
These epic tales captured the imagination of Lewis in ways that would later enrich his ability to express the wonder and joy of his own spiritual journey.
A Baptized Imagination
Lewis was not the first to see a bridge between mythic story and Christian truth. For years, skilled Christian authors had used storytelling to convey spiritual meanings. One such author was George MacDonald, a Christian clergyman and author of fantasy. In his book Phantastes: A Faerie Romance, the main character enters a dreamlike world. There he seeks his ideal of feminine beauty that he finds embodied in the “Marble Lady.” MacDonald’s spiritual insight was so powerful that when Lewis read this fantasy he was deeply moved. Of this, Lewis later wrote:
“That evening I began to read my new book. 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. But in another sense all was changed. I did not yet know the name of the new quality, the bright shadow…I do now. It was Holiness.”
Lewis was impressed by the author’s ability to use his imagination to capture the spiritual attribute of God’s moral purity. The story was pagan, but the meaning was Christian.
Later reflecting on what he had read, Lewis wrote:
“That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”
Here Lewis uses baptism as a word picture to describe the beginning of a spiritual awakening prior to his conversion. He did not elaborate on the term “baptized imagination.” But looking back, Lewis apparently could see how his own imagination and interest in storytelling were coming under the powerful influence of Christ.
Eventually, he saw the connection between great myth and Christian truth.
Myths That Bridge to Christ
Although a childhood appreciation for fantasy would someday help him as a literary scholar, Lewis eventually saw in it something else. He later realized this love of myth had been preparing him for an encounter with the Christian God.
“Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.”
Some may view a fascination with mythology as a stumbling block to finding Christ. But for Lewis, it became a stepping stone. In his case, it was the Nordic tales that prepared him for the Christ story. What started in his imagination ended up in a carefully reasoned approach to faith and truth.