It is no secret that I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy stories. For this Advanced Composition class, we were tasked with reading C.S. Lewis’ collection of essays called Of Other Worlds. I had not read any of these before picking up the book for this class. So you can imagine my surprise when I began to read them and realized that they were exactly what my heart desired. I enjoy studies in craft, whether that is lectures by filmmakers about their process for creating blockbuster films, or books written by authors for authors. I have always been a process-obsessed person, so when I picked up Of Other Worlds, I was happy to note that Lewis delved heavily into the ‘why’ of writing, as well as some ‘hows.’ Furthermore, Lewis examined the state of SciFi/Fantasy in his day and commented heavily on its growth and influence upon readers throughout the world.
The first essay of Lewis’ that impacted me personally was his commentary about where stories come from for him. He titled it, “It All Began with a Picture…” I appreciated this essay because it gave an answer to the question authors receive perhaps more than any other; the question that asks where authors receive their ideas. Having written a rough draft for a novel myself, I was curious to read about Lewis’ own inspirations and found that his process for conjuring a story is quite similar to my own. Furthermore, in reading Lewis’ biography about his childhood, I found that Lewis read stories that my younger self also enjoyed. Lewis writes about his process of creating stories by saying,
“All my seven Narnian books, and my three science-fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first, they were not a story, just pictures.”
And, “At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the lion came from or why he came.” Similarly, my own stories began with a picture, or rather, a simple what-if. What if, a boy without a father is suddenly claimed by a lord, fulfilling his lifelong dream, only to find this lord is one of the worst humans alive. Lewis finishes his essay in a manner fitting for his process which I have found to be largely common amongst many authors. “So, you see that, in a sense, I know very little about how this story was born. That is, I don’t know where the pictures came from. And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up.’ Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it?” This, I think answers the question, ‘where do ideas come from’ quite succinctly. No one knows, perhaps they are found in the idea shop, perhaps they are delivered by ravens in the night. Regardless, they come all the same, and it is the author’s job to make the most of them.
The second essay of Lewis’ that I thoroughly enjoyed was Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said. In it, Lewis analyzes the balance between offering story and commentary on any number of themes or ideals. To be sure, Lewis affirms the need for more than just a story, he acknowledges that there are two goals for published fiction: to ‘please’ and ‘instruct.’ He rephrases them to fit his own purposes but the essence of it is this, an author should write a book because he wants to, and because it will edify in some way. Lewis breaks down his premise further by applying these ideals to his own personal writing. He does so by defining where, for him, fairy stories come from. He says that they begin with a mental picture, purely free of form. They are not a story; they are not an ideal. He takes this image, and then lets it stew until it is accompanied by a form, whether that be a short story or novel. I think using this understanding of Lewis’ process of writing, I can safely assume that Lewis was a ‘pantser.’ meaning someone who does not plan his stories beforehand, rather he lets his characters take him on a journey. I think this piece of information is key because without an outline, Lewis’ premise holds up. He argues that, “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group id write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them.” What Lewis is really saying is that these ideals that fill his stories are not pre-conceived. He even says that all the Christian elements, “pushed itself in of its own accord.”
The balance of offering ideas that are edifying and telling a story—the true measure of a book’s quality—Is tenuous. An author’s personal convictions can often find their way into a story, and at times these convictions inhibit the quality of the story that they pervade. Yet, in Lewis’ own words a book should be written for two reasons, the author’s and the man’s. he says, “If only one of these is present the book should not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.” If Lewis believes that these Christian ideals that fill his stories are natural occurrences specific to himself, then I think they would push themselves into whatever kind of story he decided to write. What Lewis achieved in the act of writing fairy stories is that it offered him a vessel in which to allow these natural occurrences to play out in a way that they would appear abstract to the untrained eye. By that he means that fairy stories sometimes say best what’s meant to be said. In other words, fairy stories cover themes applicable to everyday life with a veil of whimsy and fantasy.
The third essay that impacted me personally from Of Other Worlds was On Science Fiction, where Lewis attempts to clarify the genre’s place amongst other literary works, as well as the proper set of mental boxes a literary critic must check before he can properly critique a work. These two clarifications work hand in hand in my mind because at times it feels like fantasy stories are compared to literary works and are expected at times to function with similar purpose. In truth, there is a fundamental difference between fantasy stories and those that are venerated by literary critics the world over. Fantasies are meant to take your imagination to a place it otherwise would have never discovered. Sure, it can achieve some of the same themes and character studies as any Pulitzer winning novel, but that’s not really the point of a fantasy. The point of a fantasy is for it to be enjoyed. The quality of such stories has grown throughout the years, and their fans have remained every bit as rabid. And while sometimes a fantasy story better communicates ideas which otherwise could not be communicated, it has its own place, separate from the Steinbecks and Joyces of the world.