Similarities between Digory Kirke and CS Lewis

By Ajnos Gamgee

Like most authors, CS Lewis often drew on people and events from real life to inspire his characters and his writing. Perhaps most famously, he based everyone’s favourite opti-pessimest, Puddleglum, on Fred Paxford, the long-time gardener at the Kilns. But what about his own life? Lewis also drew inspiration for his stories from things that he had experienced. In particular, as we celebrate 60 years since the publication of The Magician’s Nephew, I would like to take a look at some of the similarities between his character Digory Kirke from The Magician’s Nephew (the Professor from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and CS Lewis.

The most obvious link between CS Lewis and Professor Kirke, of course, would be their professorship. Looking at the books in the order they were written (since that’s the order in which Lewis conceived of and developed his characters), we are first introduced to Digory as a grown man in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In Britain, the title Professor is an esteemed one only given to senior academic staff, usually those who hold a chair (often a head of department).  Lewis himself was an academic, and although never was granted a chair or professorship at Oxford (he held the lower ranks of “fellow” and “tutor”), he was finally offered a Professorship at Cambridge in 1984. [1]

When we first meet the Professor he is, like Lewis, a bachelor living in a large house in the countryside (away from London). He welcomes the four Pevensie children to stay in his house over the summer in order to escape the horrors of the Blitz during WWII. Lewis himself lived in the Kilns – not an overly large house, but set on a very large property. While not in the country as such, it was located in Headington, which in those days was considered a village outside of Oxford. Even today, though technically now a suburb, it has much of the feel of a country setting with the small woodlands on the property converted into a nature reserve; definitely something of a great contrast to the hustle and bustle of London. Like Professor Kirke, Professor Lewis too opened up his home as a safe-haven for children during the War, and one summer he had four children staying at the Kilns. Having these children in his house is thought to have both inspired Lewis to start writing children’s stories and to have given him the idea for the opening setting of his first Narnia book. [2]

As mentioned, Professor Kirke is a bachelor when we first meet him. Despite his childhood friendship with Polly Plummer, and their continued friendship, it seems he never married. Lewis too was still a bachelor at the time he wrote LWW although he later met, befriended and finally married Joy Davidman.

Professor Kirke does not play a major role in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but there is one rather powerful scene where Peter and Susan come to him with Lucy’s tales about the magic wood in the Wardrobe. He suggests to them that since Lucy isn’t prone to telling lies and has no evidence of being mad, they should consider the possibility that she might be telling the truth. This reasoning mirrors almost directly what has become one of CS Lewis’ best known doctrines regarding the deity of Christ, famously called “The Trilemma”. If Jesus Christ was not mad (a lunatic) nor deliberately misrepresenting himself (a liar) then he must have been who he claimed to be (the Lord). Lewis was almost certainly alluding to the trilemma when he wrote the professor’s argument for believing Lucy. [3]

But it is not only as an adult that Professor Digory Kirke’s life mirrors that of the author who created him. A few years after LWW was published, Lewis decided to give us more information on the mysterious Professor’s background. The Professor is introduced to us in The Magician’s Nephew as a young boy (Digory Kirke) with a terminally sick mother, brought to London to stay with his odd uncle and aunt. When CS Lewis was a young boy, his mother too, suffered and ultimately died from cancer, which was incredibly difficult for a young boy to witness. It is almost certain that his own experiences were the inspiration for those of young Digory. But in the fictional, account Lewis was able to provide a miraculous cure for Digory’s mother and give Digory the unexpected joy of seeing his mother healed against the odds, something I’m sure Lewis himself had dreamed of as a child.

Another similarity between the boy Lewis and the boy Digory is that both were taken away from an idyllic childhood home to what they saw as a far less pleasant setting. For Digory, he had had to move with his mother from his beautiful country home to a small cramped London house. Lewis’ situation was a little different. When he was about 10, he was sent to boarding school in England (where at first he felt very much an outsider), away from the family home called Little Lea in beautiful green Ireland. [4]

Interestingly, while there are these various similarities between the chief boy protagonist of The Magician’s Nephew and Lewis’ childhood, we also see Lewis using himself as a model for a few aspects of his chief female protagonist in the same book. Lewis began making up stories and writing at a young age, inventing the world of Boxen (a land with anthropomorphic animals). He and his brother Warnie would play games and make up stories about Boxen, often in the attic of their house. [5] In The Magician’s Nephew, it is Polly Plummer, who becomes Digory’s friend and co-adventurer, who has a secret hideaway in the attic where, among other things, she sits and writes secret stories.

One final similarity between Digory Kirke and CS Lewis is the time period in which they lived. In LWW, the Professor is a middle-aged man, probably about the same age as Lewis at his time of writing. The Magician’s Nephew is thought to have been set around 1900 (certainly before WWI) and Lewis was born in 1898. This means Lewis and Digory’s childhoods would have been roughly equivalent. This lends a lot of believability to his description of Digory because Lewis himself knew just what it was like to be a young boy at the turn of the century. It does raise some interesting questions about what things happened in Digory’s life between the events of MN and LWW. Was Digory a university student at the outbreak of WWI (and which university did he attend)? Was he conscripted and did he fight in the war? How did the war and subsequent depression affect Digory’s life? These are interesting questions on which we can only speculate. But thinking of the similarities between Digory and Lewis himself might help us to picture some of what could have happened in the Professor’s life during those intervening years.

Are there any other similarities between Digory Kirke and CS Lewis that you can think of? Share your ideas in the comments below.

[1] Wikipedia. CS Lewis: Biography
[2] Harper Collins Children’s. About CS Lewis.
[3] CS Lewis. 1952. Mere Christianity. London: Collins.
[4] Wikipedia. CS Lewis: “My Irish Life”.
[5] E.J. Kirk. Beyond the Wardrobe: Official Guide to Narnia. Harper Collins. p. 16, 21

3 thoughts on “Similarities between Digory Kirke and CS Lewis

    1. Ajnos GamgeeAjnos Gamgee Post author

      Thanks Jaygee. Oopsie. Also I misspelt Kirke as Kirk in the title. Both are fixed now.

  1. always narnianalways narnian

    Hey this was really interesting and well-written, Ajnos.

    I can definitely see how the Professor is much like Lewis, especially in his use of Logic.

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