C.S. Lewis died more than 40 years ago in England, but his life and work resounded Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn., through stories told by his stepson at a Belmont University gathering.
Douglas Gresham, son of Joy Davidman, to whom Lewis was married from 1956-1960, was the keynote speaker at Belmont’s “Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis” conference, which took place Nov. 3-5. It drew more than 250 registrants from beyond the Belmont community, with participants coming from as far away as Japan, Poland, England and Ireland.
The event, which featured several notable Lewis scholars and dozens of presenters, was headlined by Gresham, who just completed the book Jack’s Life and co-producing the upcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from Walt Disney and Walden Media.
Gresham, sporting his trademark turtleneck, boots and cross necklace, entertained the audience with stories about Lewis (called “Jack” by his friends), Narnia and the forthcoming movie. A standing ovation greeted him at the conclusion.
Laurie and Mark Mingus from Thompson Station, Tenn., were glad to be among the 250 people in attendance.
“We came to the conference because we’re C.S. Lewis fans and Tolkein fans, and saw the opportunity to do some things we never have before,” said Laurie. “We’ve never heard Douglas Gresham before.”
Belmont lured Gresham to Middle Tennessee all the way from Dublin, Ireland.
“We were lucky to get him,” said Dr. Amy H. Sturgis, visiting lecturer in interdisciplinary studies at Belmont and one of the conference’s primary organizers. “He doesn’t speak in the U.S. that often.”
Gresham spoke initially for a few minutes, then opened the floor for questions, addressing all manner of topics: his last name, the order in which the Chronicles should be read, his favorite memories of Jack, the “Shadowlands” movies, the importance of myth.
“I was very pleased” with his remarks, said Sturgis. “I thought it was extremely generous that he opened the floor and allowed the audience to really drive the discussion, tailoring his appearance to the interests of our attendees.”
Gresham opened by talking about his belief that 19th-century values like chivalry, courtesy, duty, honor and accountability vanished in the 20th century, leaving 21st-century societies struggling with civility.
Gresham said Lewis and his friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien cared about those values and tried to write books upholding such virtues. Gresham said being raised by Lewis and others with similar values left him imbued with those 19th-century ideals.
“So I guess, in a sense, intellectually and emotionally I’m 300 years old,” joked Gresham.
Several questions centered around the movie, which releases Dec. 9.
“I am immensely proud of being ‘to blame’ for this movie,” said Gresham. “I’m one of the few people who has seen it several times. People ask me what Jack would think of it, and I think he’d be thrilled. I think he’d love it.”
“It’s a film which stays very true to the original book,” he added. “Everything you need to see in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be there.”
The movie’s marketing is already in full swing, with Web sites like www.narniaresources.com offering free promotional materials and resources, especially for the Christian community.
Gresham said the possibility of adapting the other Chronicles depended on the success of the first film. When audience members asked which book might be adapted next, Gresham said the child actors they secured for this adaptation are growing quickly, making it likely that the books featuring the children (Prince Caspian, for example) would take precedence.
Other questions about Lewis and film surfaced. Someone asked Gresham if he would support a movie about the Inklings—Lewis’ circle of friends and colleagues who regularly met to discuss and critique ideas.
Gresham said he would be very interested in such a movie were the script appropriate.
He also riffed about the previous “Shadowlands” movies, one starring Joss Ackland—whom he thought portrayed Lewis excellently—and another starring Anthony Hopkins.
“Tony Hopkins did not try to portray the real C.S. Lewis at all,” said Gresham. “He was doing what he usually does—what he used to do—which is play Tony Hopkins.” Gresham added that Hopkins was good, but he wasn’t Lewis.
Gresham spoke frankly about anything and everything, even commenting that he sometimes worried people would eventually only read books about Lewis and his work rather than the original works themselves.
In the end, however, he challenged audience members to ask themselves which character they would be in Narnia and how they, or their children, would respond when offered Turkish delight. How we respond to such temptations, he argued, depends on the values we’ve been given.
“Of all my parental influences, Jack was the one who lasted the longest,” said Gresham, whose mother died when he was 14, his father when he was 15, and Lewis when he was 18. “He didn’t last nearly long enough, I hasten to say. I wish he were still alive today. I miss him greatly, even now.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.