Tag: C. S. Lewis

What C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien Thought of Walt Disney

By Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland and Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis

Above image: C. S. Lewis (top row, right, highlighted) with his class of undergraduate students, University College, Oxford University, in the Trinity Term 1917.

Late 2021 through early 2022 was a busy time in my life. I had books under contract, and I had an eye surgery in October and back surgery in February (both surgeries were life-changingly successful). During that time I worked on two exciting projects. One was the revised and updated edition of Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There if You Know Where to Look (a much-expanded edition of the hugely successful 2017 original). The other was a new book called Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis.

The Walt Disney birthplace in Chicago, Illinois.

As I studied the lives of both Walt Disney and C. S. Lewis, I was struck by the parallels between these two creative, influential men. C. S. Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) and Walt Disney lived lives that were almost exactly contemporaneous with each other. Lewis was born in November 1898, Walt in December 1901. Lewis died in 1963 at age sixty-four; Walt died in 1966 at age sixty-five. Walt and Jack both had very close and loving mothers (coincidentally, both mothers were named Flora). Walt and Jack both had emotionally distant fathers who didn’t give them understanding or approval.

Illustration from The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter (1904)

Walt and Jack both grew up living in fantasy worlds of their own creation. As children, Walt and Jack both enjoyed drawing pictures of animals and making up stories about them. Both grew up reading fairy tales and fantasy stories, and were influenced by the charming “talking animal” stories of Beatrix Potter. Both enjoyed science fiction (and both were fans of Jules Verne and, later, Ray Bradbury).

Walt and Jack both had happy early childhoods, followed by miserable later childhoods. Both were nostalgic for the lost joys of their early childhood days. Walt’s happy childhood ended when his family moved from Marceline to Kansas City. Jack’s happy childhood ended at age nine when his mother died and his father bundled him off to an abusive boarding school in England.

Walt Disney and C. S. Lewis both created enduring works of children’s fantasy. And each created a famous talking mouse—Walt invented Mickey Mouse and Lewis created Reepicheep, the sword-fighting mouse of Narnia.

Walt Disney in Paris, 1935

Walt and Jack both relied on their older brothers’ help for their success. Lewis’s brother Warnie was an ace two-fingered typist and typed all of Jack’s handwritten manuscripts. And Walt’s older brother Roy became Walt’s indispensable financier and business partner.

Both Walt and Jack were deeply patriotic men. Lewis volunteered to fight for King and Country in World War I. Walt altered his ID in an attempt to join the fight in World War I. (Walt’s transport ship arrived just after the war ended, but he served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in post-war France.)

You might think that, with all that C. S. Lewis and Walt Disney had in common, they might have been mutual admirers—but that was not the case.

J. R. R. Tolkien in 1925.

Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted in the United States in 1937 and in the United Kingdom in 1938. Lewis and his brother Warren went to see it soon after its U.K. release. A few months later, Lewis went to see it again, this time with his good friend (and fellow Oxford professor) J. R. R. Tolkien.

Coincidentally, Tolkien’s first novel The Hobbit had been published in September 1937, just three months before the American debut of Snow White. Both The Hobbit and Snow White dealt extensively with creatures from Germanic folklore known as dwarves (or, in Disney parlance, dwarfs). According to Germanic mythology, dwarves are short, stout human-like creatures who live and work in mountain caves. Dwarves have a talent for mining and fabricating objects out of precious metals and jewels.

Dwarves from Germanic folklore, as depicted in the poem Völuspá by Lorenz Frølich (1895). Germanic dwarves are the only true dwarves, according to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Until Tolkien introduced dwarves in The Hobbit and Disney introduced dwarfs in Snow White, these creatures from Germanic folklore were almost unknown in popular culture. Suddenly in 1937, both the literary world and the movie-going world became intensely aware of these stout, gruff little men who spent their lives mining for gems and gold—and occasionally battling dragons and witches.

C. S. Lewis would also use dwarves in the supporting cast of his Narnia tales, and he (like Tolkien) based his dwarves on ancient Germanic sources. In the tales of Tolkien and Lewis, dwarves were fierce, grim, and stoic—though they occasionally displayed a hint of whimsy. Disney’s dwarfs, by contrast, are anything but grim. They are jolly (with the exception of Grumpy) and play a largely comic role in Snow White. When Lewis and Tolkien watched the Disney version of Snow White, it was primarily the dwarfs themselves they hated. In their view, Disney had failed to capture the mythic nobility of the dwarves from Germanic folklore.

On January 11, 1939, Lewis wrote a letter to A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, a friend from his undergrad days at Oxford. In that letter, Lewis offered his impressions of Disney’s Snow White:

What did you think of Snowwhite and the vii Dwarfs? I saw it at Malvern last week. . . . Leaving out the tiresome question of whether it is suitable for children (which I don’t know and don’t care) I thought it almost inconceivably good and bad—I mean, I didn’t know one human being could be so good and bad. The worst thing of all was the vulgarity of the winking dove at the beginning, and the next worst the faces of the dwarfs. Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated—or even brought up in a decent society?

Dopey and Sneezy in a screenshot from the public domain trailer for Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Note that one of Lewis’s prime objections was to what he called “the dwarfs’ jazz party.” He was referring to the sequence where the dwarfs sing “The Yodel Song” (also known as “The Silly Song”), written for the film by Frank Churchill. During the song, the dwarfs take turns dancing with Snow White.

Is the song really “jazz”? No. The music has more of a Bavarian “oompah” sound, occasionally interrupted by a drum-and-cymbals crash from Dopey’s drum kit or a silly riff from Grumpy’s pump organ. I’ve listened to a lot of jazz, but never any jazz with yodeling. Lewis undoubtedly based his mistaken “jazz” impression on Dopey’s drumming.

In October 1954, Jane Douglass, a woman from America, visited Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford. She asked Lewis about the possibility of adapting his Narnia novels to other media, such as radio, television, and film. Lewis found the idea objectionable, saying, “Plays should be plays, poems, poems, novels, novels, stories, stories.” He considered the possibility of his Narnia tales receiving the Disney treatment absolutely horrifying, adding, “Too bad we didn’t know Walt Disney before he was spoiled, isn’t it?”

Though C. S. Lewis didn’t have a very high opinion of Walt, he was an avid fan of Walt’s friend, Ray Bradbury. In 1953, after reading Bradbury’s first two novels, The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Lewis praised Bradbury as a writer of “real invention.”

If Lewis and Tolkien could have sat down with Walt for a long talk, I think they might have found they had a lot more in common than they realized.

A Friend I’ve Never Met

by Jim Denney, author of Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis

A few years ago, I was reading an autobiographical book by J. B. Phillips called Ring of Truth. In that book, Phillips recounted a startling conversation between himself and C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. What makes this conversation so remarkable is that Phillips claimed it took place after Lewis’s death.

Ring of Truth by J. B. Phillips

Phillips began his account of this strange conversation by stating that he was skeptical of all paranormal claims, adding that he was “as unsuperstitious as they come.”[i] Phillips went on to say:

A few days after [Lewis’s] death, while I was watching television, he “appeared” sitting in a chair within a few feet of me, and spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing. He was ruddier in complexion than ever, grinning all over his face and, as the old-fashioned saying has it, positively glowing with health. The interesting thing to me was that I had not been thinking about him at all. I was neither alarmed nor surprised. . . .

 A week later, this time when I was in bed reading before going to sleep, he appeared again, even more rosily radiant than before, and [he] repeated the same message, which was very important to me at the time.[ii]

In Ring of Truth, Phillips did not elaborate on the matter that was troubling him. But he later related this incident to London journalist Dennis Bardens. Phillips told Bardens he had been dreading the process of dying. It seems that Lewis wanted Phillips to know that, as a Christian, he had nothing to fear from death or even the passage through death.[iii] Lewis’s message to Phillips: “It’s not as hard as you think, you know.”[iv]

I can’t say whether Lewis appeared to J. B. Phillips as a spirit, a hallucination, or a dream. But I trust Phillips’s truthfulness. I’m convinced that he gave an accurate account of his perception of these encounters with Lewis.

This account by J. B. Phillips makes me wish that I, too, could have a personal encounter with C. S. Lewis. I would like to be mentored by Lewis the thinker, Lewis the man of reason and faith, and Lewis the writer. I would like to take my questions to him, spread them out before him, and hear him say, “It’s not as hard as you think, you know.”

Adapted from a photo by The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Public domain.

Out of a desire to hear C. S. Lewis speak to me and mentor me, I wrote a book called Your Writing Mentor C.S. Lewis.

Lewis never wrote a book on writing, yet he did describe his creative process in a number of speeches, essays, and letters to is fans. He has left us a treasury of writing wisdom. I have spent countless hours combing through his writings and the many books and articles written about him. Out of that research I’ve distilled his writerly insights and habits into this new book, Your Writing Mentor C.S. Lewis. In the process of researching and writing the book, I feel I’ve heard him teaching and mentoring me.

C. S. Lewis wrote at least twenty-two nonfiction books, fourteen novels, two science fiction short stories, several collections of essays, and enough letters to fill multiple volumes. He produced all of this literature and these letters while maintaining a full-time career as a professor of English literature, first at Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925-1954), then at Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954-1963). The key to Lewis’s amazing literary output is that he was a “writer in overdrive.” That is, he wrote with amazing speed in a state of unconscious creative flow. In the process, he wrote intuitively and brilliantly.

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, once called his friend C. S. Lewis a man of “great generosity and capacity for friendship,” adding:

The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not “influence” as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my “stuff” could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more, I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.[v]

It’s true. Tolkien began showing Lewis passages of his sprawling myth of Middle Earth early in their friendship. For years, Lewis was Tolkien’s sole encourager, the only person helping to motivate Tolkien to push his epic tale to completion. If not for Lewis, the world might never have heard of The Lord of the Rings.

On April 15, 1918, the world nearly lost C. S. Lewis. On that day, nineteen-year-old Second Lieutenant Clive Staples Lewis of the Somerset Light Infantry took part in an assault on German positions in the French village of Riez du Vinage. An artillery shell exploded near Lewis, killing one of his close friends and nearly killing Lewis. He carried shrapnel from that shell in his chest for the rest of his life. Had Lewis died that day, there would have been no Screwtape Letters, no Space Trilogy, no Chronicles of Narnia—and probably no Lord of the Rings.

Imagine a world without the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Now imagine a world without your ideas, your insights, your stories. The world needs your vision, insight, and imagination. That’s why I wrote Your Writing Mentor C.S. Lewis. My goal in that book is to energize you with the same principles that empowered Lewis and urged Tolkien onward. Here’s the Table of Contents from the book:

1. C. S. Lewis, Writer in Overdrive
On Lewis’s amazing ability to write quickly and brilliantly.

2. A Childlike Approach to Writing
How to shed the inhibitions and self-defeating habits that hold us back.

3. Keeping Up with Lewis
A step-by-step explanation of how to get into “flow” so we can write quickly and freely “in overdrive”—as Lewis did.

4. Why We Write
An examination of Lewis’s motivation for writing—and developing our own sense of mission as writers.

5. The Discipline of Writing
How to write consistently and productively every day, as Lewis did.

6. The Craft of Writing
How to write effectively and brilliantly, as Lewis did.

7. Escapism, Art, or Allegory?
Should we write merely to entertain—or should we strive for higher art and deeper meaning?

8. Writing for Children
Lewis’s insights into the special needs of young readers.

9. Other Worlds, Other Realities
Writing fantasy and science fiction.

10. Five Thousand Words or Less
The special rules (which Lewis exemplified) for writing short stories.

In my study of C. S. Lewis, I discovered that he wrote with amazing speed in a state of creative flow. This book will show you how you can write quickly, freely, and brilliantly as Lewis did. So let me introduce you to this wonderful friend I’ve never met—my writing mentor, and yours, C. S. Lewis.

[i] J. B. Phillips, Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967), 88.

[ii] J. B. Phillips, Ring of Truth, 89-90.

[iii] Dennis Bardens, Mysterious Worlds (New York: W. H. Allen, 1970), 126.

[iv] Marie A. Conn, C. S. Lewis and Human Suffering: Light Among the Shadows (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008), 1.

[v] Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 362.


An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis:

In the summer of 1932, C. S. Lewis astonished himself.

It had been a busy and stressful year, with a heavy schedule of lecturing, tutoring, and student examinations. Yet Lewis had a book inside him that desperately wanted out—an allegory of his 1931 conversion to the Christian faith. As he told his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves in a July 1932 letter, he hadn’t had time to read a book during the past eighteen-week term, much less write one.

In August, Lewis took a cross-channel boat to Ireland for a two-week visit with Greeves. He arrived at the Greeves family home in Belfast on August 15, and stayed until August 29. He hadn’t planned to write during his visit with Greeves, but somehow, amid the afternoon walks and late-night conversations with his closest friend, something wonderful happened:

Lewis wrote a book.

When he boarded the boat to return to England, he had in his luggage a nearly-complete handwritten draft of what would be his first published novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress. It totaled more than 60,000 words. During those two weeks, he had averaged about 4,300 words per day.

In the fall of 1932, Lewis made revisions and edits. His brother Warren, recently retired from the army, typed up the revised manuscript with a carbon copy. Lewis mailed a copy of The Pilgrim’s Regress to Arthur Greeves, who read it and sent back a list of suggestions. By late January 1933, J. M. Dent & Sons of London, publisher of the Everyman’s Library series, accepted The Pilgrim’s Regress for publication. Upon its release later that year, literary critic Bertrand L. Conway (Catholic World) called it “a caustic, devastating critique of modern philosophy, religion, politics, and art.”

Though it is not Lewis’s best-known or best-loved book, The Pilgrim’s Regress has endured and is widely considered a classic work of philosophical fiction. It’s all the more remarkable that Lewis composed the book in a mere two weeks.

[This excerpt is from Chapter 1: C. S. Lewis, Writer in Overdrive]

To discover how Lewis learned to write quickly—and how you can write quickly and brilliantly as he did—read Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis, available now in trade paperback on Amazon.

Images: Bronze sculptures of Aslan (top) and Tumnus the Faun (right) at C. S. Lewis Square in Belfast, a public space commemorating Belfast-born author C. S. Lewis and his creations from the first Narnia novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Photos by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.