Busted: Douglas Gresham

C.S. Lewis' stepson discusses Prince Caspian, life with Lewis and America's "trivial" Christianity

The Chronicles of Narnia has been a classic of children’s literature for over a half century, beloved by millions of readers the world over who are intimately familiar with—and highly protective of—the fantasy world created by C.S. Lewis over the course of the seven novels he wrote between 1949-1954. None of the devout, however, have the sort of perspective on Narnia that Douglas Gresham does.

Young Douglas was just eight years old—and already an enormous Narnia fan —when his mother, Joy Davidman, Christian convert who moved to England from the United States, married C.S. Lewis and moved into “The Kilns,” the home Lewis shared with his brother, Warnie, in Oxford, England. Gresham and Lewis often explored The Kiln’s lake and extensive grounds—which served as one of Lewis’ inspirations for the land of Narnia. On those walks, Douglas would listen to his stepfather’s imagination come to life describing how a particular mythological creature might live in those woods. Their adventures together amounted to a guided tour of Narnia by the author himself. (Much of this period in Lewis’ life is chronicled in the 1993 motion picture, Shadowlands.)

Following his mother’s death in 1960 and Lewis’ death in 1963, Douglas and his brother David inherited Lewis’ estate. Since the late 1960s Douglas has had an adventure-filled life of his own living in Tasmania, Australia, Ireland and now Malta while trying his hand as a farmer, radio and tv broadcaster and restauranteur. His work with the C.S. Lewis Company (formerly as director and, now, creative consultant) has also occupied much of his adult life. His stewardship of his stepfather’s estate reached its zenith with the theatrical release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005—on which he served as co-producer. This first installment in The Chronicles of Narnia went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

On the eve of the May 16 release of Prince Caspian—the second big-screen adaptation of Narnia—Douglas Gresham, 62, reflected on his stepfather’s life and his 30-year quest to bring Lewis’ fantasy world to the silver screen.

BH: There is an enormous responsibility from all the Narnia fans throughout the world to the material—how strongly do you feel that? Is it something that weighs on you heavily?

It weighs on me heavily, I think; it does in a sense. It’s not that I feel it to be a crushing burden. It’s something I enjoy. I think it’s a vital part of my life because it’s something that I personally care very deeply about. I sort of regard myself as having inherited kind of a sacred responsibility from Jack [as C.S. Lewis was referred to by his friends and family] to look after The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian itself, and of course, The Chronicles of Narnia everything else as well—all those Chronicles. And not just those, of course, but also the science fiction trilogy, Till We Have Faces, and all of Jack’s works. So it’s not something that bears down on me; it’s something I embrace enthusiastically.

BustedHalo: Are there plans to bring the science fiction trilogy or Till We Have Faces-bring any of those to the screen?

Douglas Gresham:
They’re more in the form of dreams at the back of my mind than anything else, and they’re not concrete plans at the moment. They’re something I have always wanted to do as much as I wanted to make The Chronicles of Narnia into films. The making of these movies has been the realization of a life-long dream for me, and it started with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and, of course, now we’re on Prince Caspian. So that part of it has come true. The rest of it is to do: the science fiction trilogy, and the book Till We Have Faces especially, as well, which I think is probably one of Jack’s finest-ever works in any genre.

BH: You’ve mentioned that your children have said you’ve been working on realizing this dream for 30 years.

[laughs] My children, when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sort of started to get going, they didn’t really believe it because they said that all their lives that they could remember—I mean, these kids are now forty and in their thirties, almost forty—they’ve almost heard me talking about it and dreaming about it and scheming about it. And finally it was actually happening and they actually found it rather hard to believe it was actually happening until they saw the film. But yeah, it’s been most of my life.

BH: You were a huge fan as a child, before even meeting Jack, your stepfather. Did living with your stepfather give you more insight into those books as a child, and did it change your reaction to the books at all?

Absolutely. I think the first thing, of course, was it gave me a deeper insight into what Narnia was all about. I mean, Jack and I at the the Kilns, we used to talk about Narnia and characters and creatures as if they were real. We had this lake and wood up behind the Kilns, and we would go for walks up there almost expecting to see a faun leap out from behind an oak tree or something, at any moment. It was a great game we used to play. But also, of course, I learned a great deal about how such individual creatures might, in fact, live in the forests and so on. They’re all based in the great mythologies of man, and sufficient has been written over the centuries in the millennia of Man’s recorded history, for us to know how the dwarfs would behave and how the fauns would behave and how—the invaders actually, of course, are from our land. This is one of Jack’s wonderful turnarounds. Most stories about human beings going out into other worlds, human beings go out into other worlds and they find evil monsters that take them to the enemy and have to defeat them. In most of Jack’s works this is turned on its head. In Prince Caspian it’s sort of very evident: we human beings go out into another world and we are the evil monsters who need to be defeated.

BH: It sounds like even when you were walking around with him there was a vivid sense of his imagination.

Oh yeah, he was a great conversationalist and a great humorist. We were always laughing together, if we were going for a walk up in the woods behind the lake there in the summer or something. We’d always be laughing about what we might expect to see and what we would never hope of seeing, and so on. I didn’t think that giants would fit into that little parkland at all. Jack would basically look at me and say, ‘well, you’d only see the bottom of his foot or something’ [laughs]—crazy conversations just in fun; it was fun being with Jack.

BH: So while he was an academica brilliant and well-read man-he had the imagination of a child?

Well he was able to turn that on when he wanted to, of course. He is misunderstood, I think, in most of the works of biography about him and the movies about him, because he really was a lot of fun. I mean, you couldn’t be the man who wrote Prince Caspian, for example, without having a great sense of imagination and fun and daring and adventure. Prince Caspian is all about adventure. All the Narnia Chronicles are about adventure and fun, and that’s really what Jack was.

“In my mind, most of the Christian churches I encounter in the streets of your cities and in the country too, for that matter, concentrate on the trivial at the expense of the essential, and I think that’s very sad.”

BH: What is your most vivid memory that you hold closest about him as a child?

DG: Well, there are so many it’s very difficult to pick one out. But one of my dear memories is in one winter, my stepfather bought me a little kayak—a wooden frame with a PVC cover—and I was paddling around the lake in the Kilns. He hailed me from the shore and asked me to ferry him across the lake. Now Jack didn’t have a very good sense of balance, and the water was just off freezing point. So was the air around us. I brought the boat to the shore and Jack stepped into it and immediately sat down, which is the only safe way to get into a kayak of course, and I ferried him all around the lake and eventually to the far shore while he complemented me on my handling of the boat and what a delightful little craft it was, and so forth. Now, I mean, Jack risked dunking in freezing cold water, quite literally, just to please a little boy, and it just sticks in my mind as being what the sort of typically wonderfully charitable things he would do.

BH: Religion continues to have enormous influence in our world and sometimes in very positive ways and sometimes in very negative ways. What do you think your stepfather would have thought about the way religion is a part of the political and social world in 2008?

You know, I’m always very very wary of trying to give an opinion of what Jack would think about today’s world without him having had the, sort of, forty years of life which he missed out on to bring him to a conclusion. I do sometimes think that were Jack living in the world today he would be convinced that he had died and was actually in hell.

BH: Really?

I mean, for Jack to even imagine a world in which millions upon millions of babies are slaughtered before they’re even born, simply because they’re too young to defend themselves, that sort of horror Jack would have attributed to hell, not to earth at all. So I think he’d find it difficult to live in today’s world as many of us who care about people and care about the world do. But it’s difficult for me to put words into his mouth, of course, I wouldn’t try to do so.

BH: Are you still involved with the charity in Ireland, I believe, for single mothers?

That was Rathvinden Ministries. And actually it was dedicated to the dealing with people whose problems—emotional and psychological problems—in their mature age were the results of having had abusive children or having lost children to abortion earlier in their lives, and so forth. No, we’ve retired from that now. We’re both in our sixties, and looking after people in seventeen bedrooms on twenty acres was becoming just too much work for us. So we’re retired and we now live in the island of Malta. And I make movies and Merrie is an evangelist.

BH: In your early 20s, it sounded like there was a sense of wanderlust in your life.

I don’t think I’ve ever lost that, to be honest. [laughs] I still traipse around the world.

BH: Was there a sense that you were reacting-your mother was an intellectual and a writer, and your stepfather and biological father as well were all writers–

Well, so am I. I’ve sort of been stuck with it; it’s in the genes however.

BH: Right, but you didn’t choose to stay in England and go to University for years and years.

Well, the world didn’t choose for me to stay in England. I think the Lord didn’t choose for me to stay; the Lord kept me moving around the world quite a lot. I’m still moving around the world. When I go out on location I go to far-flung parts of the world and have a lot of fun—making Prince Caspian was terrific, because Prince Caspian took me back to New Zealand, which I love, and had filmed there in Lion, Witch. It took me back to Prague, to the Czech Republic, which I also love—we’d filmed a little bit there in Lion, Witch. It took me to Slovenia, Poland, and all sorts of places. So filming Prince Caspian has been a joy to me. I do enjoy to travel; I like to go to new places and meet new people.

BH: You’ve mentioned in earlier interviews that the Christian aspect can be overdone in the Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read in some of the statements you’ve made that you have a sense here in America that our sense of Christianity can often be perhaps a bit brittle? Can you talk a little bit about that?

DG: [laughs] I think one of the worst possible facets of American Christianity today—let me say before I go on to that that some of the greatest Christian scholarship and greatest Christian development is happening right here in the States-but the counter balance to that, in my mind, is that most of the Christian churches I encounter in the streets of your cities and in the country too, for that matter, concentrate on the trivial at the expense of the essential, and I think that’s very sad.

BH: In what sense do you mean “trivial”?

Well, they worry too much about the size of the church and the number of pews they’ve got in it and the décor of the church and the color and fabric that the costumes are made of and the robes they have and the gold bits and pieces they have. Jesus Christ does not want to even know about those things; he couldn’t care a hoot about them. Too many people spend too much time polishing the pew with their backsides in a neat business suit every Sunday and then living like the devil all week. And that’s the sadness of it for me.