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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.