Talking Animals and Dressed Beasts: The Anthropomorphic Stories of C.S. Lewis

This post is from our guest blogger, Kurt Wilcken, the only ninja cartoonist of our acquaintance (so far)!

boxen

He was born Clive Staples Lewis, a name not quite as ghastly as “Eustace Clarence Scrubb” but bad enough that he preferred to be called Jack. In his lifetime he wrote a remarkable variety of books: from children’s stories to literary criticism, and from science fiction to popular theology. He advocated Christianity in an age which regarded Christ as a fairy tale and advocated fairy tales in an age which regarded such stories as fit only for children. In doing so, his entire work became a refutation of the heresy that God is an enemy of the imagination. He also had a deep love of animals. He is perhaps best known for his Narnia books, but the theme of talking animals runs through much of his work.

Lewis started writing young. As a child in Belfast in the early 1900’s, he was not allowed to play outside on wet days. His parents were justifiably worried about their children developing tuberculosis so both Jack and his older brother Warren were dragged inside at the least sign of rain. Jack spent much of those rainy days at a small table, made specially for him, drawing pictures and writing stories about them.

The pictures came first. Later, when asked how he came to write the Narnia books, he said:

“[They] began with seeing a series of pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion [the Witch and the Wardrobe] all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day when I was about forty, I said to myself, ‘Let’s try and make a story about it.’ ”

At the time Jack was interested in “dressed animals” and knights in armor and the pictures he drew and the stories that grew out of them took the form of chivalrous rabbits and mice doing battle with villainous cats. These crusader mice may have been the inspiration behind one of the best characters in his later Narnia books, the valiant mouse Reepicheep.

Jack’s early drawings were about the usual for an eight-year-old interested in knights and mice, but as he grew older his sketches became more sophisticated. With a little formal art instruction, Lewis may have become a competent draftsman along with his other accomplishments. As it was, his illustrations of modern-day Animal-Land (to me at least) seem weirdly reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Lewis didn’t think much of his own drawing ability. Years later in a letter to his goddaughter he wrote:

“I can only draw a cat from the back view like this [he draws a cat]. I think it is rather cheating, don’t you? because it does not show the face which is the most difficult part to do. It is a funny thing that faces of people [he draws examples] are easier to do than most animal’s faces except perhaps [another sketch] elephants and owls [sketch].”

One of the earliest stories is a play about one of the early kings of Animal-Land, King Benjamin I. The medieval setting of the play and the language the characters speak make it clear Lewis was trying to imitate Shakespearean drama; an ambitious task for an eight-year-old.

Benjamin I was a bunny and like other monarchs of Animal-Land bearing that name, he was based on a toy rabbit Jack owned. Many of Jack and Warnie’s toys became characters in Animal-Land including the chess set; the Chessmen were something of a persecuted minority in Animal-land and lived in separate castles called Chesseries.

When Jack’s brother Warren came home from school, Animal-Land underwent a change. Warnie was interested in steamships and railways and especially in India. The two boys then created a joint fantasy world by removing the entire Indian subcontinent right off of Asia and placing it just off the coast of Animal-Land and by joining the two countries into a single state called Boxen.

Even as a child Lewis had a strong sense of what comics fans call “continuity.” Having decided that his earlier chivalric stories took place in the same world as Boxen but at an earlier time, he began constructing a history of Animal-Land from its primitive past through its union with India to the present day. He later wrote:

“…I never succeeded in bringing it down to modern time; centuries take a great deal of filling when all the events have to come out of the historian’s head… There was soon a map of Animal-Land — several maps, all tolerably consistent… And those parts of that world which we regarded as our own — Animal-Land and India — were increasingly peopled with consistent characters.”

Boxen was ruled jointly by King Benjamin VII of Animal-Land and Rajah Hawki V of India; a fun-loving pair who seem to have been modeled after the playboy Prince Edward who had become King of England not that long before. They were advised and to a good extent dominated by their old tutor, a frog named Lord Big. Lord Big held the position of “Little-Master” and was sort of a prime minister for life. Lord Big had many qualities in common with Lewis’ father, particularly a passion for oratory. Lewis himself later described Big as “…in many ways a prophetic portrait of Sir Winston Churchill.”

The citizens of Boxen seem to have been incredibly preoccupied by politics. Jack’s first “novel”, Boxen, or Scenes from Boxoinan Life, consists entirely of political maneuvering by a parrot named Polonius Green (wonderful name!) to gain a seat of the “clique”, a sort of ruling committee in the Boxonian Parliment. As an adult, Lewis came to hate politics, but as a ten-year-old wishing to write about adult-type stuff, politics seemed an appropriate subject. In a later essay he wrote:

“When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

At this point however his ideas about what constituted being “grown up” was influenced by his father’s friends and their unending political discussions.

Despite the Boxonians’ political rivalries, everyone seems to be on amicable terms with each other. James Orring, the lizard who leads the Opposition Party, conspires with the Prussians to unseat the ruling clique. Yet he isn’t a bad sort, and one can feel sorry for him when Green and the Prussians double-cross him. Mr. Bar, a lazy and mischievous bear, is a troublemaker, but the worst of his villainy is to buy five hundred golf balls at Lord Big’s expense and have them stuffed in Big’s mattress. Viscount Puddiphat, an owl who runs a successful string of music halls, remains close friends with people on all sides of every political quarrel. The only character who seems to be universally disliked is Polonius Green and that is not because he is wicked as much as because he is such a colossal boor.

When Warnie returned to school the adventures in Boxen continued in their correspondence and Jack’s letters often included updated current events.

“My dear Warnie. I am sorry that i did not write to you before. At present Boxen is SLIGHTLY (?) convulsed. The news has just reached us that King Bunny is a prisoner. The colonists (who are of course the war party) are in a bad way; they dare scarcely leave their houses because of the mobs. In Tarato the Prussians and Boxonians are at fearful odds against each other and the natives. Such was the state of affairs recently: but the General Quicksteppe is taking steps to rescue King Bunny. (The news somewhat pacified the rioters.) Your loving brother, Jacks.”

When he became old enough Jack joined Warnie at Wynyard School in Watford, Hertfordshire. They began a Boxonian newspaper, The Murray Chronicle (after the capital of Animal-Land), and later the Murray Evening Telegraph. Boxen was one of the few bright spots of the boys’ early years in school; Wynyard was a dismal place full of bullies and boredom. The headmaster was later found mad and was committed. What little education the boys received was limited to what Lewis later described as “…a shoreless ocean of arithmetic… and algebra!”

Jack left Wynyard and left Boxen behind too. As a teenager he had the good fortune to be tutored by W.T. Kirkpatrick, a brilliant teacher who inspired him and instilled in him a vigorous appreciation for logic.

His interests returned to fantasy when as a young man he discovered the novels of George MacDonald. MacDonald was a Victorian writer of fantastic literature with a strongly Christian perspective and although at the time Lewis was an atheist, he later said that MacDonald’s stories “baptized my imagination.” Later at Oxford he met and became friends with another corrupting Christian influence, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was starting up a small group to read Icelandic sagas to each other.

At this point Lewis underwent probably the most important turning point in his life. Lewis loved these old Norse and Teutonic myths and Tolkien suggested that the awe and the power and the magic he sensed in them was something that found actuality in the “true myth” of Jesus. Paradoxically, Lewis’ love of the old pagan myths and his rigorous application of twentieth-century rationalism and logic combined to persuade him to convert to Christianity.

Tolkien also influenced Lewis’ interest in fantasy. Like Tolkien, Lewis felt that there was nothing innately childish about fairy-tales and that the twentieth-century tendency to link them with children was due more to fashion than to substance.

“The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental. I hope everyone has read Tolkien’s essay on fairy tales, which is perhaps the most important contribution to the subject that anyone has yet made. If so, you will know already that, in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children. It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses.”

He also recognized anthropomorphic animals as a special feature occurring only in fantasy literature having special qualities which more realistic forms of fiction lacked.

[One feature of fairy tales is] …the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly; the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least (for they have many other sources of power and beauty) an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach. Consider Mr. Badger in The Wind In The Willows — that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr. Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.

In another essay, Lewis writes:

Does anyone believe that Kenneth Grahame made an arbitrary choice when he gave his principal character the form of a toad, or that a stag, a pigeon, a lion, would have done as well? …Looking at the creature we see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form…

Lewis felt that anthropomorphic animals should not overlook their animal natures. In a letter to a child who had sent him a story to critique he stresses this.

The main fault of the animal [story] is that you don’t quite mix the reality and the fantasy quite in the right way. One way is Beatrix Potter’s or Brer Rabbit’s. By fantasy the animals are allowed to talk and behave in many ways like humans. But their relations to one another and to us remain the real ones. Rabbits are always in danger from foxes and men. The other way is mine: you go right out of this world into a different creation, where there are a different sort of animals. Yours are all in the real world with a real eclipse. But they don’t have the real relations to one another — real small animals w[oul]d. not be friends with an owl, nor w[oul]d. it know more astronomy than they!

In another letter discussing a theological point he writes:

…part of the excellence of a good man is that he is not an angel, and of a good dog that it is not a man.

In his Narnia books Lewis was careful to give his talking beasts qualities consistent with what kind of creatures they were.

Lewis incorporated some of his ideas on talking animals into his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet. He had written it as a bargain with Tolkien that each would try a science fiction story and he based his main character, Dr. Elwin Ransom, on Tolkien. Ransom, a philologist, is petrified at his first meeting with an alien species until he realizes that the creature is talking.

A new world he had already seen — but a new, an extraterrestrial, a nonhuman language was a different matter… In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing instant death, his imagination had leapt over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar.

The hross, one of the three races on the planet Malacandra, is a good example of a nonhuman being which behaves to a certain degree humanly. Later on Ransom muses:

…the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. Then it became abominable — a man seven feet high, with a snaky body, covered, face and all, with thick black animal hair, and whiskered like a cat. But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal should have — glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth — and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason. Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other. It all depended on the point of view.

Malacandra has three different sentient races, giving a perspective humans seem to lack.

“Your thought must be at the mercy of your blood,” one Malacandran comments to Ransom. “For you cannot compare it with thought that floats on a different blood.” Thus the talking beasts have another charm: they jar us from our anthrocentric perspective by showing us a different way of thinking.

Lewis does this in the third book of his Ransom trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Ransom’s home has become something of a menagerie and one of the creatures that dwells there is a bear named Mr. Bultitude. At one point in the story Lewis gives us a delightful peek into the bear’s mind as he strays out of the garden. Mr. Bultitude is by no means a talking bear, nor would we say he possesses a soul in the same way a human does; but he does have a point of view and a way of thinking and Lewis gives us a lovely guess at what his thoughts might be.

How people treat animals in That Hideous Strength is one of the outward signs revealing their character. Ransom’s home is a second Eden with beasts and men comfortably cohabitating. Even the mice are welcome to eat what crumbs they can find. By contrast, the forces of Evil in the story are represented by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., whose vivisection experiments give a hint of what England will be like if their totalitarian plans succeed.

Although Lewis enjoyed some forms of science fiction and wrote about other worlds, he wasn’t really interested in the nuts and bolts of space travel. He regarded such “hard” science fiction tales as “Engineers’ Stories” and although he granted that they were a perfectly legitimate genre, he plainly stated that he personally did not care for them. “I once took a hero to Mars in a space-ship,” he once wrote, “but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus.” In a letter to a young girl during the early days of the space race, when the Russians had sent a dog into orbit, he wrote:

I shall be glad when people begin talking about other things than Sputniks, won’t you? One gets quite sick of the whole subject. The pity is that some cosmic rays don’t produce a mutation in the dog which would have made it super-rational: then it might have found its way back alive and started taking revenge on the humans!

What an idea! If only Stan Lee had thought of that, the history of comics might have been changed and anthropomorphics might have become mainstream!

Lewis worked his deep love of animals into nearly everything he wrote — including some of his purely theological works. His ultimate expression of this theme came in his creation of Narnia, a land where animals could talk and were, if not equal to humans, never the less sentient, rational beings with immortal souls just like men; where the Son of God became incarnate not as a man but as the noblest of beasts, the Lion.

Lewis occasionally alludes to the medieval belief that the human and animal races have been estranged and that before the Fall of Adam, man could speak the languages of the beasts. I think Lewis must have been charmed by this idea because so many of the animals in his writings are talking beasts and even the mute ones have something to say.

One thought on “Talking Animals and Dressed Beasts: The Anthropomorphic Stories of C.S. Lewis

  1. Pingback: TALKING ANIMALS AND DRESSED BEASTS: THE ANTHROPOMORPHIC STORIES OF C.S. LEWIS by Ken Wilcken | Yiffy Times

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