James Helfers was born in Illinois and has lived in the Chicago area and in the Little Rock, AR area. After graduating from Wheaton College, he worked as a technical writer in California before returning to graduate school in English language and literature at the University of Michigan. He has worked at Arizona State University and Phoenix College, and directed and participated in the Cambridge Summer Study Program run by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies for five years. Dr.
When “The Last Battle,” the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia series, was published in 1956, Clive Staples (C. S., or, as he liked to be called, Jack) Lewis had already had a long and diverse career as a literary scholar and critic, as an adult convert to Christianity, as a Christian apologist (one who defends and explains a faith) and, now, as the author of a children’s series.
His colleagues at the University of Oxford pointed to his publication of children’s books as the final nail in the coffin of his academic respectability; he had been nominated for and denied promotion to two professorships over his 30-year career at the university. Critics pointed, not only to his children’s books, but also to his apologetic work, as reasons why he should not be promoted, so Lewis had paid a price for his faith. He had recently accepted a professorial position at Cambridge University, but continued to commute between the two universities until his death.
Since their publication, the Narnia books have remained extremely popular, and have affected many other novelists and popular culture as well. Though they are well-loved by many children and adults, some critics, most notably Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials series), have criticized aspects of the story – everything from its emphasis on the spiritual to its possible racism and sexism.
Lewis used his scholarly background as well as his Christian faith to create a rich world of memorable characters. Though the books seem as though they are an allegory of the Christian faith, Lewis described them instead as “supposals,” imaginative answers to the question “What would Jesus be like if he appeared in an alternative universe like Narnia?”
From his scholarly background, Lewis made use of Greek mythology and English folklore to create some of the characteristics of Narnia, as well as medieval elements like chivalry, knighthood and religious symbolism. He took his experience of the English children of his time and their lives to create the Pevensie characters, as well as Jill Poole and Eustace Scrubb. Narnia is not our reality (which is the ground of an allegory), but instead, an alternate universe. Lewis probably got some of his ideas for creating a richly imagined alternate world from his friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of an alternate history of the world in Middle Earth.
Scholars continue to debate the meanings and significance of The Chronicles of Narnia; in fact, trying to work out the way Lewis uses imagery, symbols and other literary devices to communicate his ideas about the meaning of life and its significance make The Chronicles of Narnia a rewarding read for adults as well.
Lewis’s short volume, “The Abolition of Man,” shows another side of this author – the scholar and cultural critic who used his knowledge of literature and philosophy to critique contemporary culture. The full title of the volume is “The Abolition of Man: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools.”
“The National Review” ranked it as number seven in a list of “The Non-Fiction 100,” the 100 most influential books of the twentieth century. Lewis responds to the educational and moral theories that he thinks are implicit in two textbooks he had received for review, and in the process, argues for a particular way of looking at culture and morality. It is a very different book from The Chronicles of Narnia, and asks readers to use different techniques and skills to interpret it.
The Chronicles of Narnia and “The Abolition of Man” will be the topics of the first installment of Grand Canyon University’s new reading club, Novel Ideas. If you are a current GCU student, contact Professor Raftery or Professor Helfers for more information about the first meeting in September. If you are interested in becoming a student at GCU, contact us by using the Request More Information button at the top of the page.