Kilbroney, a C.S. Lewis Window and a Celtic Worldview…

It’s late November 2019, and I’m on my way to Kilbroney Forest Park, Rostrevor, County Down to read at a C.S. Lewis Festival event.

As a boy, Lewis often holidayed there with his family. Decades later, writing to his brother Warnie, he confided, ‘That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia.’

It is a monumental landscape that evokes comparison with Ballinskelligs Bay in Kerry or Galician Rias. And not just for their similar topographies but my suspicion that Lewis’s Narnian Myth- making was profoundly influenced by Celtic folk stories.

Growing up, the Lewis children’s imaginations were fed by Irish folk tales and legends told by their nurse Lizzie Endicott.

Though Evangelical Protestantism has co-opted Lewis, his personal perspective seems rather more inclusive, nuanced. His father and grandfather may have been ardent Unionists, the latter, Thomas Hamilton, also a fiery, fiercely anti-Catholic Anglican preacher. But there were other views in the family. His grandmother (whom he was close to) and aunt were fervent Home Rulers, belonging to a more Liberal Protestant tradition that once found expression in the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion.

In adulthood, he preferred to plot his own path as a non-aligned Anglican, for years receiving spiritual direction from Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr. Walter Frederick Adams. Politically, his stance was similarly nuanced. He identified himself as ‘an Irishman of Ulster,’ who decried both Protestant and Catholic sectarian preaching.

In one of his ‘Latin Letters’ to Don Giovanni Calabria, in 1953, he portrays his birthplace as ‘dearest refuge so far as charm of landscape goes, and temperate climate, although most dreadful because of the strife, hatred and often civil war between dissenting faiths.

‘There indeed both yours and ours “know not by what Spirit they are led.” They take a lack of charity for zeal and mutual ignorance for orthodoxy.’

His choice of the Santiago pilgrimage as the theme for the Lewis Window in St Mark’s church, presented by himself and his brother in 1933 in remembrance of their father, was surely an intentionally liberal gesture, given that it was sited in a Protestant east Belfast Anglican church.

I’m past Newry now. Not far to go. At Narrow Waters Castle canal becomes Carlingford Lough; spindled slopes rise above a north shore of mudflats and salt marshes, winter feeding for the light- bellied brent geese. A woman and child slow-walk on a cemetery- still afternoon. Behind them, a furiously flapping pheasant rises as the sun breaks through.

Landscape often inspires legend. The Tain, the Irish Odyssey originated in the Cooley peninsula, just across the lough.

These glacial sculpted landscapes provided a fitting backdrop for the feats of giants and heroes, from Finn McCool to Cu Chulainn, and from it, perhaps, a Narnian lion later leapt onto the page.

I arrive early enough to have time to climb Kilbroney’s Cloughmore (big stone) trail, all the way up to a fifty-tonne granite boulder. Its dog’s head profile stares across to Slieve Foy, from where legend says Finn McCool hurled it at Ruiscaire, mortally wounding his rival Giant of Snow and Ice.51

Then the Widescreen HD Narnian view. In the south-east, a lip of land lifts to a round-topped cairn then ascends higher still to where mountain-top crenelles become undulating ridgelines above sheer slopes; slopes that fall into a patchwork of pine forests petering out in a valance of fields that smooth mountain to lough. Where winter sunlight falls on a solitary sail unfurled to catch the wind.

And from above Rostrevor, on this cloud-chasing winter’s day, it’s easier to understand that what we learn in childhood moulds us most. For so many strands of the Narnia Chronicles seem to correspond with Celtic tropes, the Celtic Otherworld becoming replicated in his Other Worlds, his Narnian multiverse.

I count off the similarities. How the Celtic Otherworld could be reached through multiple means: by sailing away to western islands; disappearing through elusive and varied portals such as caves, mists, streams, rivers and wells; or by spiritual transport awakened by music and birdsong. All suggesting that nature is riddled with porous places that might at any moment reveal their reality … rather like Aslan’s enigmatic appearances in Narnia – impossible to predict.

The children in the Chronicles also access Narnia via myriad means: through a wardrobe, or by the summons of a Hunting Horn, or a breath of air; by a magic ring; or through a picture of a ship at sea. Or through death. Once they even return through a door in the air.

Reepicheep, the Dawn Treader’s valiant mouse, even completes his pilgrim journey on board an Irish coracle which bears him up and over a wall of water, the final barrier to Aslan’s kingdom.

The relativity of Narnian time is similarly reminiscent of Immrama tales, such as The Voyage of Bran, where a year spent on the Island of the Blest amounts to hundreds of our temporal ones.

Also, the imagery highlighted in the ‘Narnia Code,’ by Michael Ward, would suggest that the colour palette and tone of each book in the Chronicles has been influenced by the properties of different planets. Something which might resonate with studious Druidic observers of the night sky.

Finally, his choice to cast a talking beast as the creator of worlds plainly corroborates the Celtic notion of the sacredness of all life. Writ large.

But Lewis couldn’t explicitly acknowledge this source of inspiration as that could be interpreted as alignment with one Northern Ireland cultural tradition, when it was his policy to straddle and draw from both. To do otherwise would not have enhanced the career of an Oxford academic in a time of continuing tension between England and the new Irish state concerning its neutrality in the Second World War.

Lewis always preferred the implicit to the blatant. He liked to hide things, a friend said. For years he denied that the Narnia Chronicles were intended as a specifically ‘Christian’ allegory. As in Celtic myth, much in his writing initially comes across as mystery and enigma – which slowly reveal their meaning.

I retrace my steps through fading light heading to where the Cloughmore Centre glows, dressed to resemble a Winter Wood in Narnia; fir cones and Christmas trees stand against a curtained backdrop of stars and night sky. And to my surprise, I get to read ‘A Lewis Window’ before a replica of the red door in the vicarage of St Marks, replete with the face of a golden lion. It’s a piece imagining his Sunday afternoon childhood visits with his mother to his grandparents in St Mark’s Manse on the Holywood Road.


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