The stepson of Narnia
- Therese Jamora-Garceau, Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Imagine having the two pillars of Christian and fantasy literature — C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — as your boyhood instructors.

Sounds like a fantasy novel? Well, that was Douglas Gresham’s childhood, growing up in Oxford, England, as the stepson of Clive Staples Lewis, writer of The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and of course, the Narnia Chronicles. His mother was Joy Davidman Gresham, an American whom viewers of the movie Shadowlands will remember being played by Debra Winger (Anthony Hopkins played the Oxford professor who wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, among other classics). And Mr. Tolkien was a lifelong friend of C.S. Lewis.

Gresham was in Makati recently with his wife Merrie to give a talk at Union Church of Manila and also to oversee preproduction for Trumpets’ The Horse and His Boy, another Narnia installment slated for 2014 (he first visited here when Trumpets staged The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1997).

Gresham’s mother died of cancer in 1961; his American father committed suicide in 1962; and C.S. Lewis passed away in 1963. He met Merrie — born in Tanzania — at age 18 and pursued her for three years. They’ve been married now 45 years, a life that includes 10 grandchildren, a home in Malta and an island home in Australia, and a string of careers including dairy farming, broadcasting, a ministry and overseeing the C.S. Lewis Company.

Dressed in a white turtleneck draped with a loose flak jacket, and wearing two Lüm-Tec wristwatches (“Frequently I’m dealing with two time zones at once when traveling”), we asked the 60-ish gentleman about his involvement with the Narnia movies and Shadowlands and his memories of C.S. Lewis.

PHILIPPINE STAR: What was it like growing up with C.S. Lewis?

DOUGLAS GRESHAM: That’s a question everyone asks me, and I can’t really answer it, because I have nothing to compare it with. It’s just the way I grew up. He never tried to usurp the position of my natural father, but he became more of a father in a sense than my actual father ever was.

(Gresham moved to England from the US with his divorced mother, Joy, at the age of eight; he lived on the Lewis estate until he was 18, after his mother died and the writer passed away two years later.)

Do you have any favorite memories of him?

We had a wood and a lake up behind the house in Oxford, about 15 acres. The local youths used to come tear it apart, throw rubbish everywhere. So my mother, who came from the Bronx, decided to buy a shotgun: it was only a relatively harmless nine-millimeter shotgun, but she would take it out in the woods and blast pellets into the trees, and the trespassers decided to go elsewhere.

Clive Staples Lewis, “father” of the Narnia Chronicles

On one occasion, I was walking with my mother and stepfather through the woods, and out jumped a young man with a longbow and quiver of arrows. And Jack said very politely, “Excuse me, this is private land, you shouldn’t really be there, would you mind leaving?” And the character’s response was to notch an arrow into the string of the bow and pull back on it. So Jack did something I’d never seen anyone do before: he stepped straight in front of my mother, to shield her before the chap had a chance to shoot. And he stood there for a couple seconds until he heard my mother say, in tones of chilled steel, “Goddamn it, Jack, get out of my line of fire.” And the guy found himself staring down the muzzle of a shotgun pointed straight at his face, and took off very quickly!

But the fact that both of them had such sheer physical courage was something I hadn’t realized until then. I’d seen my mother coping with her illness, but to see Jack step in front of her was lesson to me on how a man should behave.

When you first met C.S. Lewis, you were eight. Did you have a fanboy reaction?

I was disappointed. I was coming straight from America, I had read the first few Narnia books, had read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, so I kind of expected everyone in England to be riding on horses, carrying swords. And here was this middle-aged professor of English literature. And he was terribly shabbily dressed; he never cared much about his appearance. But soon his personality overcame any visual discrepancies. I lost an illusion and gained a friend.

Was the movie Shadowlands (which depicted the relationship between Lewis and Joy, and his grief over her dying of cancer) accurate?

It ought to be, I was involved as a consultant. It’s very inaccurate in the sense of detail: Jack was never that smartly dressed, never wore a wristwatch, never drove a car; Tony was only trying to play the character in the screenplay, he wasn’t trying to be C.S. Lewis. Debra, on the other hand, decided she would try to be as close to Joy as she could be and got it right. But the emotional transitions the characters go through are absolutely accurate, and that’s what’s important to me.

When your mother died, did C.S. Lewis help you cope?

Yes, enormously. When my mother died, I leaned very heavily on him for support. Jack and I grew very close after my mother died. I can’t think of anyone else who had such an impact on me. Jack is probably responsible for the man I’ve become. He was the chief influence on me from age eight to 18, the most formative years of anybody’s life, I guess. So really, it’s his fault. (Laughs)

What were his daily writing habits?

Little shadow: C.S. Lewis was played by Anthony Hopkins in the film Shadowlands while the young Doug Gresham was played by Joseph Mazzello; Debra Winger (below) played his mother Joy.

He was always writing, always working on something. He would get up well before dawn, have a small breakfast, and go and start answering his letters from the previous days. Did 30 or 40 of those; in those days, letters were handwritten. Then he would work on whatever project he was writing.

How did something like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe come about?

He always said the first book started with the image he had in his head when he was child, 16, of a faun standing in a snowy wood with an umbrella over his head carrying an armload of parcels. He had no idea what to do with this image until much later, in his 50s. He sat down then and suddenly the story came pouring out.

What about The Screwtape Letters (an ironical book for adults in which a devil writes to his nephew about how to tempt humans into Satan’s service)?

Jack was very clever. He was in church one day, he did not particularly enjoy the sermons, so he would park himself with a large stone pillar between himself and the pulpit, so he couldn’t be seen wincing at something the guy said, and the idea just came into his head — odd time to be thinking about Screwtape Letters, but anyway, he went home and started writing it. It started as a series of letters for the local paper, the Guardian, then he collected it. He wrote it for anyone who wanted to read it. I don’t think Jack ever chose his audience.

You were involved in the Narnia movies. What’s the challenge of bringing the books to the screen?

The challenges are fighting to keep the Christian elements alive. We’re fortunate that the director of the films was sympathetic to the material, so that wasn’t bad. Part of my job is to okay or not every script that’s written about Narnia. So even if a high school wants to do a play about Narnia, it has to come across my desk and be authorized. Most schools, they try to avoid things like showing Aslan die; they black out the stage. So, we don’t see Jesus die on the cross? What’s the point of that?

Sometimes people try to modernize the language. If they do things like having the White Witch asking Edmund, “What do you like best to eat?” and he answers, “Hamburgers and fries,” that’s not going to happen.

But the Trumpets version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (under writer/stage director Luna Griño-Inocian) was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I had a lot of fun with Trumpets when I was here; at my farewell party, they all came dressed as me.

How did your stepfather know J.R.R. Tolkien?

They met at Oxford and became friends almost immediately up until the end. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic; my stepfather was a lifelong Protestant. A lot of nonsense was written about a falling out, but they were good friends up to the end. The only difficulty Tolkien had was he couldn’t understand why Jack wouldn’t become a Catholic. Jack’s point was, the Roman Catholic Church not only expects you to believe what they teach you today, but also insists you are prepared to believe what they decide to teach you in the future. And to Jack, that’s nonsense. But that’s not to say that there aren’t many wonderful Christians within the Catholic Church! Tolkien was one of them. I read Lord of the Rings about once a year. People don’t understand that it’s deeply Christian; it kind of pokes fun at the Roman Catholic Church.

Did they influence one another as writers?

To some degree they had to. They were part of an Oxford group called The Inklings. They used to get together and read their current work out loud to each other. Believe me, it was a brave man who would read something before The Inklings. Because they would just tear it to shreds and throw it back — with great laughter; they all stayed friends.

What did you think of the Peter Jackson movies?

I think it’s a bit sad. He wanted to make seven movies, they compromised at three. As a result he had to give up the whole Tom Bombadil episode, which I think represents the grace of God in Middle Earth.

One of the best pieces of casting was Liv Tyler as Arwen. She played that role to the hilt; absolutely lovely. But the accents were all wrong. I grew up with Jack and Tolkien’s pronunciations of the names. They didn’t have a consultant to help with that. Peter should have paid to have one of the Tolkiens on the movie — or even me, I would’ve helped. 

Why have the Narnia books endured?

Because they’re the truth. In a very real sense. They contain the essential truths that mankind needs to know. No matter what faith you belong to, Buddhist or whatever, you’re usually capable of realizing the truth when you hear it. So people all over the books have embraced these books.

ANTHONY HOPKINS CLIVE STAPLES LEWIS JACK LEWIS MOTHER NARNIA SCREWTAPE LETTERS TOLKIEN WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
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