Sunday, March 2, 2008

Jack and His Box

(Picture above: 'Jack' Lewis and "one of his favorite toys.")
Prince Caspian is right around the corner, the second movie in The Chronicles of Narnia. There will be many new action figures produced, of a greater variety than those made for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Besides such human characters as the Pevensie children, Prince Caspian, and Miraz, there will be a centaur, a satyr, a faun, a werewolf, a griffin, a dwarf, and Talking Beasts such as Reepicheep and Trufflehunter. In a sense these releases will bring things full circle, since the imaginative world of C. S. Lewis, creator of Narnia, began with a box of toys.
C. S. Lewis (who at the age of four rebelled against his nickname 'Babbsy' and pointed at himself declaring, "He is Jacksie"; and Jacksie or Jack he was ever after to family and friends) and his older brother Warren ('Warnie') developed their imaginary world in the 'little end room' of Little Lea, their childhood home in Ireland. This room was furnished with books, art materials, and of course toys by their loving parents, and in the sacrosanct privacy there the boys wrote, dreamed, and played. The world they created was 'Boxen'.
Warnie was fascinated with India, steamships, and trains, but Jack's interests tended towards knights in armor and 'dressed animals'. They managed to combine the two, and 'India' (an island now, separated from the continent) and 'Animal-land' became Boxen, peopled by characters based on the lead, tin, china, and stuffed animals they kept in boxes in an old trunk.
The playings they had together developed the milieu, but it was Jack who wrote and drew the stories and pictures. Anthropomorphic animals share Boxen with human characters, but the surviving stories show that Boxen contains little of the whimsy, romance, or adventure of Narnia. Instead most of the tales involves politics and social wrangling, reflections of the ordinary 'grown-up' world that was most familiar to the boys. As the Lewis brothers were three years apart in age they boarded at different schools, but the world of Boxen was something they could dive into together whenever they were home for the holidays.
The brothers grew up; Warnie joined the army and Jack went to Oxford. World War One came and went; Jack became a professor at Magdalen College and Warnie shipped overseas to China, but still whenever they went home to Little Lea they went over the relics of Boxen. Jack even went so far as to collate the manuscripts he had written into an Encyclopedia Boxoniana, giving the history and timeline of what they had created. But when their father died and Little Lea had to be sold, changes needed to be faced and decisions made.
Both men were now in their early thirties. Warnie, though half a world away, expressed more concern about what would happen to Boxen than any other material consideration, should Jack have to sell and empty the house before he could return. He had often said, and now repeated in a letter questioning what would happen to their old playthings, how he hated the thought of other children playing with them, as it would alter the meaning he attached to them. Jack wrote him back:
"The trunk in the attic. I entirely agree with you. Our only model for the dealing with our world is the heavenly [Father's] method of dealing with this, and as he has long since announced his intention of ending the universe with a general conflagration, we will follow suit. If you and I are together for it, I should even propose...that we reduce all the characters to their original lead and bury the solid pig that will result. Rolling stock can of course only be buried as you can't melt it except in a furnace. I should not like to make an exception even in favour of Benjamin. After all these characters (like all others) will only live in 'the literature of the period': I fancy that when we look at the actual toys again (a process from which I anticipate no pleasure at all), we shall find the discrepancy between the symbol (remember the outwards and visible form of Hedges, the Beetle--or Bar--or even Hawki) and the character, rather acute. No, Brother. The toys in the trunk are quite plainly corpses. We will resolve them into their elements, as nature will do to us. As to stage sets: I can't remember whether I did come across some and put them in the chest of paper keeps in the study, or whether I merely decided that if I did come across any I would do so. The solid bits--banks, houses, etc.--I think should be burned: but a few side and back sheets should be preserved..." (By which it seems clear there were some 'sets' and scenery included.)
Some months later, the house sold and Warnie back from abroad, the brothers went to Little Lea for the last disposals. Among their chores, Warnie described the final fate of the Boxen toys in his diary:
"Next we took turn about in digging a hole in the vegetable garden in which to put our toys--also a heavy job--and then carried the old attic trunk down and buried them: what struck us most was the scantiness of the material out of which that remarkable world was constructed: by tacit mutual consent the boxes of characters were buried unopened."
But Boxen never really died. Throughout their lives Jack and Warnie returned again and again to the stories, and in reading them could touch their earliest childhood once more. After Jack wrote the Chronicles of Narnia he would sometimes lend out these stories to child friends if they showed an interest. When Jack himself died Warnie was prepared to burn them all, as being too painful to keep, when Walter Hooper, Lewis's one-time secretary, intervened and salvaged what was left of some bundles of papers set for the fire. He has since published what remains of the Boxen tales as Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C. S. Lewis.
Who knows what uses some young dreamer might make of the new Narnia toys, with its knights and mythological creatures? Perhaps he'll develop his own mythos, write his own books, and add to the harmless pleasures of the world.
Little Lea, once set in the middle of fields, is now surrounded by houses. In its garden, for seventy-eight years, has moldered the trunk that holds all that is mortal of Boxen.
Let's go dig it up. After all, it's got to be the ultimate Lewis collectible.

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