A tale of two iconic stories

Published: Mon, 05/24/21

George Orwell’s work of dystopian science fiction, Ninteen Eighty Four, was published in 1949. Less than a year later C S Lewis’ fantasy novel set in Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also arrived in the bookshops. Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair and he died in January 1950 aged just 46. Lewis was in his early fifties when his first Narnia story was published. Both men were already highly regarded writers when their best known works of fiction appeared.

Both writers had been to war. Lewis served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the First world war and in April 1918 he was wounded and two of his colleagues killed by a British shell falling short of its target. Blair served in the Indian Imperial Police, stationed in what was then Burma. He returned to the UK, resigned from the police after five and a half years service in order to become a writer. In December 1936 Blair traveled to Spain to fight with the Republicans against Franco’s forces. Blair too was wounded when a sniper’s bullet passed through his throat.

Both writers were busy during the second world war. Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a critique of Communism as he had witnessed first hand in Spain. Lewis found himself speaking on religious programmes broadcast by the BBC, broadcasts which were eventually anthologised in ‘Mere Christianity’. In 1942 Lewis also published the ‘Screwtape Letters’ which are advice from the titular Screwtape, an older devil, to Wormwood, a younger demon who is trying to tempt a human away from God and virtue.

By the late 1940s the war against Nazi Germany is won, but the threat of authoritarianism and the tedium of living under stifling bureaucracy continued. Half of Europe was behind the ‘iron curtain’ and under the control of the Soviet Union. Britain and other countries West of the Iron curtain were struggling to recuperate from the grief, disruption, and effort of war.

Orwell imagined a Britain where the most austere and totalitarian measures which were tolerated when at war have become the normal state of affairs. There is no freedom of any kind, just fear, intimate surveillance, and perpetual warfare. Everyone must submit to ‘Big Brother’ as the supreme leader is known, even though this figurehead may not even exist. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, a department which is dedicated to the falsification of history. Orwell’s wife, Eileen, had worked for the Ministry of Information at the beginning of WW2, Orwell had also worked for the BBC, experiences which provided the basis for the institution described in the novel.

When the fictional Smith begins to question the way truth and facts are manipulated by the state he attracts the attention of the Thought Police. Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with a colleague, Julia, which is seen as an act of rebellion, and eventually Smith’s spirit is broken when he is faced with his worst nightmare in ‘Room 101’. Big Brother even knows each person’s greatest fear and tortures can be designed accordingly. The book Nineteen eighty four has provided us with the term ‘Orwellian’ which is frequently used, with varying degrees of justification, to describe our world today.

Lewis created Narnia as a fairy tale world inhabited by talking animals and mythical creatures such as Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads, and Centaurs. Narnia is reached by four siblings through the back of a magical wardrobe. Lucy, the youngest is the first to discover Narnia where she befriends Tumnus, a gentle Faun, who invites the girl back to his cave for tea. Lucy discovers that Narnia is ruled by the White Witch who has cursed that land so that it is always winter, but never Christmas. The witch has also ordered that any human discovered in Narnia must be reported so that they can be turned into stone. Tumnus chooses to let Lucy return through the wardrobe and is betrayed to the witch by her brother Edmund. All four children eventually find themselves in Narnia and, with the help of Aslan, the magical lion, the witch and her forces of evil are defeated and the spell is broken.

I have read 1984 many years ago and seen two of the film versions. I bought a copy of Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe for my daughter. She is too young to enjoy this tale just yet, so I re read it for my own amusement anyway. I have heard many suggestions that we are currently living in an ‘Orwellian Nightmare’ and indeed there has been massive propaganda and censorship devoted to building and maintaining the Covid 19 narrative. Lock downs, regulations, and some enforced wearing of face coverings have a big brother feel to them too. Different countries have had varied experiences of enforcement justified by Covid, some of which have been very authoritarian and unpleasant. However, here in the UK the attitude to Covid feels more like an enchantment by some kind of magician than the enforcement of a tyranny.

In the long term actions taken to deal with the ‘menace’ of Covid may well metastasize into Orwellian political authoritarianism. However, for the moment at least, we are confronted with more of a spiritual crisis as depicted in Lewis’ whimsical fairy story. The story of tests, cases, 28 days, and variants from far away places, leaves minds frozen in fear a tale that could be melted as quickly as the witch’s winter spell in Narnia is once Aslan is ‘on the move again’.

If Orwell could see our current ‘crisis’ it would probably give him an idea for an even more pessimistic sequel to 1984. Lewis wrote about the power of love truth, courage, and faith to break enchantments that are really little more than illusions. It is our choice which story we draw our inspiration from.



PS In my latest Web of Wyrd Newsletter I consider the fork in the road where we find ourselves with IT. One road will take the human race into a new era of freedom, communication, and prosperity. The alternative path will lead to a world Orwell would have found difficulty imagining. If anyone would like to download the pdf you can find it here https://www.screencast.com/t/Umn8f4cxP