A Man and His Myths

In 1949, the year he finished writing "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," C. S. Lewis was leading at least four different lives. His reputation as a Christian apologist had already been launched with several books and a series of BBC radio speeches. He was a charismatic Oxford professor, an expert in Milton and Spenser. He was a generous host who presided over long, drunken nights of bawdy talk and badinage. And he was the head of a household that, even by today's standards, would be considered unconventional. His domestic partner for nearly three decades was a woman 25 years his senior, whom he called "my mother," but who was not, in fact, his mother. In 1949, Janie Moore was in declining health and crankier than ever. "I am," wrote Lewis at the time, "a man in chains."

Biographers suggest that Lewis's foray into children's literature was an attempt to escape, to recover his own boyhood and, through myth and metaphor, dive more deeply into his faith. Whatever the impulse, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien thought he'd missed the mark. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a hodgepodge of images, Tolkien said, an incomplete rendering of an imaginary world. But never mind. Each year, for seven years, Lewis released another volume, making him the J. K. Rowling of his time, and, in the minds of Narnia fans at least, erasing whatever he was before. Since 1950, the Narnia books have sold 95 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 41 languages. Now, thanks to the movie, devotees can brace themselves for a blizzard of books and biographies, including a revision of Paul F. Ford's "Companion to Narnia," a guidebook to Lewis's fantasyland. First British editions of Narnia books are selling on the Internet for $15,000 to $20,000, says Edwin W. Brown, a Lewis collector, "and they're not perfect."

In the coming weeks, as critics debate the movie's subtext, sales of Lewis's explicitly Christian books will continue to rise. "Mere Christianity," the collection of Lewis's plainspoken BBC programs, has sold about a million copies in the United States since 2001. It sells in Costco and on Amazon; pastors bestow it upon people who declare their commitment to Jesus. Even Christians who might disagree about other things can agree on Lewis. Rick Warren, pastor of the evangelical Saddleback Church and author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," praises "Mere Christianity" for its simplicity. "I don't mean it's shallow," he says. "The trick is to translate [the Gospel] so a truckdriver gets it." Jim Wallis, the left-leaning editor of Sojourners, loves Lewis because "he was not a narrow, legalistic Christian."

Even posthumously, Lewis retains his talent for pleasing different people differently. Wallis recounts how he recently took aC. S. Lewis tour of Oxford with his 80-year-old father. Their guide, a local cabby, knew Lewis when he was a boy and liked him--especially his love for beer.