PETOSKEY, Mich. (AP) – C.S. Lewis, who wrote of epic struggles between good and evil in the imaginary land of Narnia, once was thrust into the real-life role of hero protecting damsel in distress.
Or so he thought.
As stepson Douglas Gresham tells it, Lewis was strolling around his English country homestead with his wife, the American writer Joy Davidman Gresham, when an apparent Robin Hood imitator sprang from the bushes brandishing a bow and arrow.
The chivalrous Lewis stepped between the intruder and his wife, who was carrying a shotgun because of a long-running problem with vandals. But Joy Gresham snapped an expletive at her would-be defender, adding: “Get out of my line of fire!”
“I have to tell you that (Lewis) stepped sideways again, much more quickly than he had the first time,” Douglas Gresham says, eyes twinkling as his audience roars with laughter. The trespasser, he adds, beat a hasty retreat.
He relates the anecdote during the third annual C.S. Lewis Festival in this northern Michigan town, where schools, churches and community groups pay tribute to the beloved British author, scholar of medieval literature and Christian apologist.
Gresham, 60, is co-producer of the film adaptation of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” scheduled for U.S. release Dec. 9. His biography of Lewis, “Jack’s Life,” was published last month. (Friends knew Clive Staples Lewis by his nickname, Jack.)
He also helps oversee the Lewis estate and is unofficial guardian of his legacy, believing the man and his works are often misunderstood.
Lewis has an image as a dour, cloistered Oxford don with little knowledge of ordinary people’s struggles, Gresham says. The confrontation with the modern-day Robin Hood illustrates an overlooked side of the Lewis story: humor.
“He was a very funny man, very joyous,” says Gresham, who spent “the most formative decade of my life” – ages 8 to 18 – in Lewis’ company.
Lewis also experienced war, career ups and downs, family troubles, love and heartbreak.
A bachelor most of his life, he married Joy Gresham in his late 50s but lost her to cancer four years later. Grief-stricken, he cared for her two sons, Douglas and David, until his death in 1963. Their brief romance is portrayed – touchingly but somewhat inaccurately, Gresham says – in the film “Shadowlands,” which starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
As “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” movie was developed, Gresham watched closely to make certain it faithfully represented the book and its underlying values. He’s satisfied that director Andrew Adamson, who also directed the “Shrek” films, met the challenge.
“My job, I suppose, was as resident Narnia guru, to make sure everything Narnian was Narnian in the film, to make sure there weren’t anachronisms and incongruities,” Gresham says. “But to be honest with you, the team that we have had on this film has been so good that there’s been very little that I’ve had to complain about.”
For the uninitiated, Narnia is a magical world populated by talking animals and mythical creatures such as centaurs, dwarves and fauns.
The story, published in 1950, tells of four English siblings – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – sent to live in an old country house to escape the London bombings during World War II. They stumble into Narnia through a walk-in wardrobe and help overthrow a tyrannical white witch, whose spells have turned innocent victims to stone and frozen the landscape in perpetual winter.
The seven-part Narnia series has enthralled generations of young readers; nearly 100 million books have been sold.
As adventure stories, their appeal is universal. But many regard them as Christian allegories and the heroic lion, Aslan, as a symbol of Jesus. Some commentators have speculated that Hollywood would water down the religious themes. Others fear the film will veer the other way, becoming a proselytizing tool offensive to non-Christians.
Gresham, wanting no part of America’s culture wars, says some characters and events could be interpreted as Christians symbols. But Lewis didn’t regard “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as a Christian book, though his beliefs influenced the story – as they did everything he wrote.
Viewers can draw their own conclusions, Gresham says, but he promises the PG-rated film – financed by Disney and Walden Media – will provide wholesome entertainment.
“If you really want to approach this thing properly, don’t go into the theater looking for symbolism. Let the magic of Narnia work itself on you. Look at yourself in relation to what’s happening on the screen. If you were one of the characters, which one would you be? When we do that honestly, we usually find that we don’t measure up very well.”
Aside from the Narnia chronicles, Lewis is best known for spiritual works such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters,” the latter depicting an imaginary dialogue between a wily senior devil and his demon apprentice.
An atheist in his youth, Lewis became an Anglican after his conversion. But he cared little for denominational creeds, focusing on beliefs he considered common to all Christians.
“The real message of ‘Mere Christianity’ is let’s put all these divisions, dissentions and factions aside and get back to what Jesus taught,” Gresham says in an interview, his deep voice tinged with the accent of Australia, where he lived for 25 years after Lewis’ death.
After his own spiritual epiphany, Gresham moved to Ireland, where he and wife Merrie have an ecumenical ministry.
He lobbied Hollywood studios for decades to make movies from the Narnia books, getting nowhere until the blockbuster success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fantasy series unleashed a flood of offers.
The film may inspire new interest in Lewis and rekindle debates over his theology and literary stature, says Chris Mitchell, director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, which houses a collection of Lewis papers and memorabilia.
“You’re going to have two extremes: those who will lift up Lewis as almost a salvific figure and the debunkers,” Mitchell says.
Gresham also anticipates more discussion of Lewis’ personal life, the primary subject of his book. It portrays Lewis in a heroic light, working to exhaustion as an academic and writer while running an eccentric household that included his alcoholic brother, Warren, and Janie Moore, the mother of a World War I comrade killed in action.
Some biographers speculate that Lewis and Moore were lovers. Gresham says he doesn’t know. What matters, he says, is that Lewis kept a battlefield promise to care for his friend’s family, despite Moore’s constant nagging and domineering personality that made Lewis’ life “a living hell.”
“He believed in the concepts of duty, honor, chivalry, commitment, personal responsibility, honesty, courage. In the 20th century, we dispensed with those things as a civilization; they were old-fashioned. Now we’re groping blindly for the values we threw away. We need to get them back, and I think you’ll find them in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ “