Growing Up in Narnia, With Jack
Douglas Gresham is the stepson of C.S. Lewis.
He went to England at age 8 expecting to meet a man “wearing silver armor and carrying a sword.” Instead, the New York native, now 60, met a scholarly, middle-aged man named Clive Staples Lewis. Gresham, whose mother, Joy Davidman, fell in love with and married the man better known as C.S. Lewis, lived in Oxford, raised his own family in Australia and now runs a post-abortion counseling ministry in Ireland.
He was also co-producer of the recent film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is being released on DVD April 4. He spoke with Register correspondent Patrick Kenny.
C.S. Lewis — or Jack as you knew him — is loved by millions of readers around the world. You had the privilege of knowing him personally. What was he like?
Well, in fact I’ve just published a book about him (Jack’s Life: A Memory of C.S. Lewis; 2005, Broadman & Holman) and everything I could ever say about him is in there.
The one thing that many people don’t know about him is that he had great warmth of humor and was a brilliant conversationalist. You couldn’t be with him for more than 5 or 10 minutes without roaring with laughter. He was very witty and humorous and had a very vivacious character.
What’s your first recollection of meeting him?
I was only 8 years old, straight from America, having read Narnia, as well as having read all of the legends about King Arthur and so forth. And it was a great disappointment. I was going to meet a man who was on speaking terms with High King Peter of Narnia and Aslan the Great Lion. I expected him to be wearing silver armor and carrying a sword. Instead what I met was a balding, professorial-looking, middle-aged man. But despite the initial disappointment, his warmth of personality soon took over. I lost an illusion but gained a great friend very quickly.
What was his outstanding virtue?
He was a man who, while very aware of his own sinfulness, was also very aware of his own salvation, which enabled him to live a life of Christian joy. That’s the thing that gets lost in all of the biographies that have been written about him. He really was a very fine man who was deeply virtuous and who really lived his Christian principles rather than simply talking about them. He was intensely charitable in many ways. He helped everyone who came to him who needed help. He was a very fine man. It’s very hard to write or talk about him without feeling that you are overdoing it. There are exceptional people in the world, and he was the most exceptional person I have ever met.
You yourself have lived a very varied and interesting life. You were born in America, lived in England and raised your family in Australia, and you now live in Ireland.
Yes. We went out to Australia in 1967 and began married life in the back of a Holden pick-up truck and ate what we could shoot with a rifle. I soon became a pretty good shot. We then started a farm and, having decided that we should see the rest of Australia with the children, we sold the farm in Tasmania, bought a car and a caravan (trailer) and toured across Australia, and eventually we ended up in Perth where I spent eight years as a broadcaster. But we then returned to Tasmania, as we wanted to raise the children in what we considered to be a better environment for them.
Around this time I committed my life to Christ.
Tell me about your conversion.
I always believed in God and in Jesus Christ, but I never wanted to submit to him. I wanted to run things my way, which meant that really I was worshipping myself, which meant that I had a fool for a deity. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that I wasn’t qualified to run my own life and so I handed it over to someone else who was.
After my conversion, we became very convinced that God wanted us back in Europe, so we moved and ended up in Ireland 13 years ago running Rathvinden Ministries.
What work does Rathvinden Ministries carry out?
Many American visitors ask us what our vision or mission statement is for the ministry. Basically we don’t have one, as we believe it’s up to the Holy Spirit to decide what we do, not us. We carry out two major tasks. We act as a place of rest and retreat for any priest or minister of Christ of whatever denomination who needs a break to re-arm and recuperate and can’t afford to go anywhere else. We also provide counseling for people in their mature years who are coping with abuse, as well as for those who are suffering from pregnancy loss, whether that be through miscarriage or, more often than not these days, through abortion.
Have you seen an increase in demand for post-abortion counseling as more women travel from Ireland to the UK for abortions?
I think there’s a huge demand, but almost everyone who comes here for that is from overseas. Irish women seem terribly reluctant to enter into that.
You were co-producer for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What did this involve?
Firstly, it involved a huge amount of work. I am the creative and artistic director of the C.S. Lewis Company, so anything that had to do with Narnia at all had to be Narnian, from the film to the merchandise.
Was guaranteeing the integrity of the Narnian vision difficult?
It could have been. Both the production company and the director we worked with wanted to make a faithful representation of the book on film, so with this mindset it wasn’t that difficult. We never had a stand-up drag-out fight. But it could have been different if we had gone with a different company. I think we have succeeded in remaining true to the original vision; the popularity of the film seems to have confirmed that.
What was the most interesting moment on set?
Well, there was one embarrassing moment I remember. I almost always wear knee-length leather boots. The set where we were filming Aslan’s battle camp was on the side of a hill with grass growing up. My boots had no treads and I kept slipping. So I went out to buy some sneakers, and when I turned up on set the four children were amazed as they’d never seen me wearing anything but my boots before. So they grabbed me and pulled me into the center of the camp and pointed out that I was wearing shoes. It was a very funny moment.
How did your own Christianity affect your work as co-producer?
As a committed Christian, I’m always tempted to go that little bit further with the artistic expression of my own faith. But I think it would have been a bit dishonest, so we stuck to what Jack wrote in the book.
The book itself is not allegory, it’s a suppositional fantasy. I think if the book had been published originally in India it would have been seen as a Hindu allegory. The best way is not to look for symbolism but instead to think of yourself. How would you fit into Narnia? How would you cope with the challenges in the book? Quite frankly, most of us don’t shape up very well if we’re honest about it.
How would you shape up? What role would you play in the story?
Well, I’m a mixture.
There’s a little bit of Susan in me and quite a lot of Edmund (who betrays the other children), much more than I would like. And not nearly enough of Lucy, the constant, faithful one.
There have been quite a few high-profile “Christian” movies in recent years. Is this the beginning of a new trend?
Let’s hope it is. One of the things that happened is that the great concepts that people have lived by were thrown out in the 20th century as if we thought they were outmoded or out of date, and as a result our society is crumbling all around us. Now the new younger thinkers are beginning to grope around looking for new answers. What we need are all of those virtues of personal commitment, courage, honesty and honor that we had thrown away but are there to be found in the tales of Narnia.
Patrick Kenny writes from
- March 26-April 1, 2006