As a World War I veteran, Oxford don C.S. Lewis was accustomed to nightmares about bloody trenches, bayonets, poison gas and the bite of shrapnel in his chest.
But the dreams that began in the late 1940s were different. Some were frightening and some were beautiful and, as he described them to family and friends, they involved lions, especially a giant lion that had a regal, yet wild personality.
Soon, Lewis began weaving these images into a story that also included a strange dream that he had at age 16. In it, he saw a faun holding an umbrella and some packages, standing in a snowy wood near a lamppost.
"He told people, 'I'd like to make a story out of that image because it has been in my head all of my life,' " said Douglas Gresham, the author's stepson. As Lewis would say, the great lion "Aslan simply leapt into the story and dragged all the rest of the Narnian Chronicles along with him. I believe that all of this was a gift from God, of course."
These dreams became "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the cornerstone of a seven-book fantasy franchise that has sold 90 million copies over 55 years, establishing itself as one of the most beloved works of Christian fiction of all time. Walden Media and Walt Disney Studios have turned the novel into a $150-million movie that, after its Dec. 9 release, will introduce "The Chronicles of Narnia" to millions of new children and their parents.
"Many people ask, 'Why are they coming back?' The answer is that these books never went away," said Gresham, who has served as co-producer and the spiritual conscience of the movie project.
Gresham enters this story because his mother, poet Joy Gresham of upstate New York, began corresponding with Lewis in 1950 about literary and religious matters and they struck up a long-distance friendship. This relationship grew, over time, into a marriage complicated by her battle with cancer, a poignant romance described in a play and two movies entitled "Shadowlands."
The lives of Lewis and his friends, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and others in the Oxford circle called "The Inklings," have been parsed and probed in countless books and memoirs. Gresham and his brother David witnessed many of these events and now, as an adult, Douglas has written his own biography of the stepfather he knew as "Jack," the nickname that Lewis adopted early in his life.
Unlike other Lewis biographies, "Jack's Life" does not try to dig inside his psyche or offer a detailed map of his career as a scholar or apologist for traditional faith. Gresham said he simply wanted to tell the story -- using images and language that would be accessible to children -- of the "finest man and best Christian I have ever known."
Thus, this biography begins: "If you are about eight years old, then you are the same age I was when I first met the man who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. If you are eighteen, then you are the age I was when he died."
Like Gresham, Lewis suffered the trauma of losing his mother when he was very young. Gresham notes that, when Lewis' father died years later, Jack and his older brother Warren returned to Belfast to clean out the family home. They put all of their toys and other childhood memorabilia into a trunk and buried it in the garden.
Nevertheless, Gresham stressed that Lewis never "lost the intimate memory" if what it was like to be a child. While the scholar claimed that he was not good with children, his stories, letters and experiences late in life suggest otherwise.
"In my experience, he was excellent with children," said Gresham. "He didn't talk down to us. He may have brought himself down to out level, but he never talked down to us from above. Jack was always conscious of the fact that children are people. They may be small and unformed, mentally and emotionally as yet, but they are people with all of the same trials, tribulations, frights and foibles as other people."
Gresham paused, remembering. "In a sense, the child in him lived with him the rest of his life. For anyone who is writing for children, that is an important thing."