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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 173–182 

C. S. Lewis Proposes a Toast: Health to All Animals, Real and Imagined

Michael Gilmour

Health to Toad Hall, here’s to the Beaver doing
Sums with the Butcher!

— C. S. Lewis, “Impenitence,” 1953

Lewis attends not only to humanity’s coexistence with animals but also their responsibilities toward them.

In a letter to an eleven-year-old girl dated June 3, 1953, C. S. Lewis compliments the youngster on her drawing of gallant Reepicheep who figures prominently in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” He then adds:

I love real mice. There are lots in my rooms in College but I have never set a trap. When I sit up late working they poke their heads out from behind the curtains just as if they were saying, “Hi! Time for you to go to bed. We want to come out and play.” 1

One suspects this whimsical tale is more than a playful anecdote for the child’s benefit. It actually has the ring of truth about it because, like his college rooms, there are “lots” of mice lurking around the Lewis canon, some imagined, some real. We see this early on, in a letter he wrote when about nine years old: “I am thinking of writeing [sic] a History of Mouse-land and I have even gon [sic] so far as to make up some of it.” 2 This early instance of imagined mice anticipates later stories where they {174} appear, including those sharing Ransom’s room in the science fiction novel That Hideous Strength (1945) and the tales of Reepicheep and his friends in the Chronicles of Narnia. The point to notice for our purposes here is the seamless slippage from imagined to real animals. I love real mice, he writes. Lewis confesses this with the girl’s drawing of the imagined Reepicheep spread out on the desk in front of him, one turning his thoughts to the other. This back-and-forth from artistic creations to the real horns, fur, beaks, fins, feathers, and whiskers of all manner of creatures appears throughout the Lewis canon.

Also remarkable is the sheer extent of animals in his thinking. They are everywhere, in early and late writings, in academic and creative works, across diverse genres. He writes of them in published writings and in private correspondence. What is more, Lewis attends not only to humanity’s coexistence with them but also their responsibilities toward them. The former involves various reminders of the shared plight of all sentient beings, which means a capacity for pleasure and pain, peace and terror. Consider, to illustrate, an anecdote about his experience of trench warfare in 1918:

Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely ‘keeping us quiet’ by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. 3

With respect to the latter, musings about humanity’s capacity and willingness to inflict pain on other sentient beings, especially in the context of laboratories, make it clear this was to him of great moral significance. Vivisection disgusted him. 4 A short letter dated November 25, 1950 offers a glimpse into Lewis’s views on the matter as it concerned mice:

I too am an admirer of [George] Bernard Shaw’s work, and could love him for his attack on the vivisectionists. That in the preface to [The Doctor’s] Dilemma [1906] is just devastating. Many before and since have attacked them for their cruelty, but Shaw was, I think, the first man to attack them for their stupidity; which I’m sure gets them on the raw whilst an attack on their cruelty would most likely leave their withers unwrung. No one who has ever read Shaw is able afterwards to think of vivisectionists without remembering the imbecile who spent his time cutting the tails off generations of mice to see if presently one would be born without a tail. 5 {175}

Even nuisance mice are not beyond the pale for Lewis, as suggested by a letter to a young friend: “When I last met your father and mother, mice were weighing rather heavily on their minds. I should think the population runs into the millions by now. Love to them (I mean your parents, tho’ of course I don’t mind—at a distance—including mice too) and yourself.” 6

Animals are everywhere, and animals are respected and loved. There is also that blurry line between Lewis’s imagination and earthly realities. A nice illustration of this appears in the Chronicles of Narnia. As Reepicheep pleads with Lucy to restore his tail after losing it in battle, Aslan looks on and asks why the mouse needs one. In reply, Reepicheep speaks of the need for mice to guard their dignity because some weigh worth in size, and treat them shabbily as a result. One suspects Lewis had in mind, however obliquely, the indignities mice experience as the living subjects of laboratory experiments. 7 There is a faint echo of the scene from Shaw in Reepicheep’s remarks. It is this blurry line, this slippage between the imaginary and concrete that is the focus of this short reading of a short, easily dismissed Lewis poem.


In the July 15, 1953 issue of Punch magazine, C. S. Lewis published the short poem “Impenitence.” 8 Though regular readers of Lewis might expect the poem’s title to signal a religious theme, these delightful lines (seven non-rhyming stanzas of four lines each) are actually an apology for children’s literature. The “Impenitence” in question is a defiant response to critics—“wiseacres” and “kill-joys” he calls them—calling on the poet to grow up, to quit reading silly stories about dressed up talking animals. Why would an adult read books meant for children? But their calls for change go unheeded: “[they] Shan’t detach my heart for a single moment / From the man-like beasts of the earthy stories.”

Lewis then names a number of the dressed-up, talking animals he enjoyed when a child, as well as others discovered later in life. Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad Hall take readers back to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). He mentions the titular characters in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905). There are also nods to Homer, 9 the fifteenth-century poet Robert Henryson (“shrill mouse”), and Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem The Hunting of the Snark (“the Beaver doing / Sums with the Butcher!”), among others.

Elsewhere Lewis writes warmly of such books, recognizing in them enduring qualities that need not be left behind in later life. The influences of such early encounters with imaginative writings are everywhere {176} apparent in Lewis’s work. Remarks about E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906), for instance, anticipate his scholarly fascination with old books: “It first opened my eyes to antiquity, the ‘dark backward and abysm of time.’ I can still reread it with delight.” 10 According to his memoir, his “two chief literary pleasures” in those years were dressed animals and knights in armor. 11 He so identified with these stories, he created his own version of a world populated with clothes-wearing, human-like, talking animals when still a boy 12 Obviously Narnia owes much as well to this early discovery of Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, and the rest.

The imagined sparring we read about in “Impenitence” between the poet and those wiseacres who mock his affection for the “man-like beasts” of children’s books is witty and playful, leading one study of Lewis’s verse to categorize this “light-hearted” piece as a satiric poem in the Horatian tradition: “gentle, smiling, and urbane.” 13 That said, however, care must be taken not to read “Impenitence” too quickly and thus gloss over a subject imbedded in the poem that was to Lewis no laughing matter. He was not here, as one standard definition of Horatian satire puts it, “moved more . . . to wry amusement than to indignation at the spectacle of human folly, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy, [using] a relaxed and informal language to evoke from readers a wry smile at human failings and absurdities.” 14 When Lewis writes of animals, even those that dress and talk like humans, their treatment at the hands of people is quite the reverse of this definition, leading him more often than not toward indignation, not amusement. The humor of “Impenitence” is instead a Trojan horse that allows him to smuggle in ethical commentary. I return to this matter shortly.

So why is Lewis defensive about reading such books as an adult? He hints at one possible reason when citing an episode from Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in his philosophical and theological musings on human and animal suffering, The Problem of Pain (1940). He prefaces his rather unlikely illustration with a parenthetical caveat: “A modern example may be found (if we are not too proud to seek it there) in The Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole approach Pan on the island.” 15 He insists there is wisdom in unlikely places, but hubris—in this case synonymous with growing up—blinds some people to it. Those with eyes to see, let them see, even if what they are looking at is Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Benjamin Bunny with all its silly pictures. Children’s stories, after all, have the potential to communicate important ideas. No wonder he thought it fitting to articulate deeply felt religious beliefs through the likes of Mr. Beaver and Puddleglum in his own children’s books. {177}

Returning to “Impenitence” we find a more specific reason why the poet resists the call of critics to ignore animal stories. In the fourth, which is to say the middle stanza—a location that singles it out as carrying an emphatic point offered by the poem—Lewis moves from a summary of the critics’ charges against him to an actual explanation why the menagerie in children’s stories matter.

Look again. Look well at the beasts, the true ones.

Can’t you see? . . . cool primness of cats, or coney’s

Half indignant stare of amazement, mouse’s
Twinkling adroitness.

What the poet is anxious for readers to see—again, something made conspicuous by its location precisely at the center of the poem—is the continuity between imagined animals and real ones. This may seem an obvious point because of course the entirely imagined Nutkin resembles an actual squirrel in certain respects. This is true of any representation of nature. However, here, in this posited continuity between imagination and reality, lies the urgent ethical crux of this Lewis poem. Within the logic of the poem, to love a literary animal is to love a real animal, and to stop loving a literary animal is to stop loving what he calls the archetype. Lewis loved animals and was horrified at the thought of human-caused suffering of nonhuman sentient beings. If approached as mere comedic, light verse, the opening lines of “Impenitence” seem playfully overstated. If read in light of the continuity asserted by that middle stanza, and the implications of losing respect for “Actual archtypes [sic],” these same lines reveal, as I suggest below, a sense of urgency: “All the world’s wiseacres in arms against them / Shan’t detach my heart for a single moment / From the man-like beasts of the earthy stories.”


Lewis’s attitude toward animal suffering is not merely an intellectual one. We find a clear example of an emotional response to human-caused animal suffering in a disturbing diary entry from Saturday, November 25, 1922 when Lewis was still in his early twenties and not yet a Christian. Here he records a “disgusting story” told to him by his aunt involving two Oxford medical students. She saw them “dragging off a dog into the laboratories: and they were laughing together as they talked of the old man who had sold it making them promise to give it a good home and be kind to it.” The clearly angry Lewis reacted strongly: “After that I no longer defended Oxford again nor ever shall.” 16

This particular entry is important for appreciating Lewis’s views on animals and it anticipates the later poem “Impenitence.” The diarist {178} contextualizes the story about the medical students with reminiscences from his aunt about the young Lewis caring for an injured dog when he was six or seven years old. As he records her memories, he cautiously allows the possibility that animal pain touched him deeply as a child. In fact, he adds, “I remember a great deal more emotion than I thought I did.” This flood of remembered emotion seems to make him uncomfortable but he immediately develops a theory about its origin: “possibly this is paramnesia.” 17 Just two paragraphs later we read the story about the medical students, which means he dismisses emotions attached to concern for a dog one moment, then indulges in it the next because whether his recollections of concern for a childhood pet are accurate or not, the reaction to the other is unambiguous.

Though it is pure speculation, perhaps the adult Lewis reveals here a kind of dissonance. His diaries reveal Lewis’s complete immersion in the scholarly life in the 1920s and this would have presented a challenge for the young student. It appears to me that the pre-Christian Lewis had little basis to challenge the two heartless science students for their use of a dog in the laboratories. Theirs was a pursuit of knowledge every bit as all-consuming as that of the young poet and classicist (as he then fancied himself). Apart from their lies to the old man, what is wrong with dissecting that (presumably still living) animal? Before his conversion, Lewis did not have the ‘vocabulary’ needed for moral argument against this practice. Once he viewed ethical questions through a Christian theological lens, he was able to formulate reasons why vivisection was immoral. But only then. Prior to this, his innate revulsion to animal cruelties was plausibly an embarrassment, at odds both with academic inquiry and to a large extent, his cultural context. It was the kind of illogical response typical of children and ought not to occur among adults, and especially educated ones. The few who publically opposed animal cruelty in Lewis’s day were often on the margins. Association with such people would have been a further embarrassment for the young, serious-minded student. 18

The older Christian Lewis, however, had no trouble expressing his disdain for animal cruelty occurring in the laboratory and elsewhere. We see this, for instance, in a chapter on animal suffering in The Problem of Pain and in the science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength (1945) where the use of living animals in scientific experiments is a hallmark of villainy. We also find in his writings direct challenges to the morality of vivisection, a case that builds on various theological premises: “animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil {179} in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts.” 19


C. S. Lewis published “Impenitence” some thirty years after writing that troubling story about the old man’s dog in his diary where we witness that apparent inability to articulate a fitting rejoinder. During that time he not only became a Christian but also ‘went back’ in terms of his reading interests to the stories of his childhood.

Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. 20

These two things—a Christian worldview acknowledging the goodness of all created beings, and the stories of Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit and more—changed everything. Theological celebrations of the goodness of animal life and humanity’s obligation to treat nonhumans decently appear throughout the later works. In the poem “Impenitence,” we find a form of argument in defense of animals that shows the mature Lewis happily putting away his fear of childishness, which is perhaps something the twenty-something-year-old diarist was not quite ready to do.

And so it is we find the blurred boundary between real and imagined noted above carrying a profound though subtle ethical statement within this seemingly lightweight poem. Behind the playful subject matter and witty defiance of the wiseacres and killjoys, there is a subtle, easily-missed serious note, and it occurs in the penultimate stanza and the enjambment connecting it to the last:

And if the love so

Raised—it will, no doubt—splashes over on the
Actual archtypes,

Who’s the worse for that?

To this point in the poem, Lewis writes of his affection for the “the man-like beasts of the earthy stories” and insists that the characters of “Homer,” Potter, Nesbit and the like serve “to reveal us.” The silly stories and the resulting laughter have a pedagogical function. But this is not all they do. The love of literary animals “splashes” onto real animals and here we get to a subject frequently overlooked in Lewis studies, {180} namely, his deep respect for animal life and a concern to defend them from cruelty.


It is fitting that Lewis released “Impenitence” (1953) when he was about halfway through publishing the Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956). There we read about the dignity and goodness of animal life, both the fantastic speaking animals like Reepicheep but also those not granted the gift of speech by Aslan. We also read about the wickedness of disregard for animal wellbeing, from Uncle Andrew’s experimental use of a guinea pig in The Magician’s Nephew to the Calormenes enslavement of talking horses in The Last Battle. 21

Adults usually stop reading animal stories. Said differently, they lose appreciation for the wonders of the natural world as seen through a child’s eyes. Potentially they become indifferent to the sorrow of a naïve old man and the emotional and physical distress of a dog led away from its owner to face alone torture in a laboratory. They also become Lewis’s imagined cynics who find no value in the return to pert Nutkin or Rat the oarsman, which makes the rhetorical question “Who’s the worse for that?” all the more poignant. Love of literary animals leads to love of actual animals (“splashes”), so it follows that the loss of a love for literary animals (grown-ups as “killjoys”) results in the loss of love for actual animals. 22


  1. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 32. The same letter appears in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3, Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950–1963 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 335. Cf. a note composed in 1945, in which he recommends a display at a London zoo called “Mouse-Town.” He is sure his friend’s daughter would it enjoy it, adding, “it would have ravished me at her age” (The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2, Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931–1949 [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], 652).
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 1, Family Letters 1905–1931 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 4. He sent the letter to older brother Warnie.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 195.
  4. On this subject, see Michael J. Gilmour, “C. S. Lewis and Animal Experimentation,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (forthcoming, 2015).
  5. Lewis, Collected Letters, 3:65.
  6. Ibid., 692 (emphasis original). {181}
  7. C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951; New York: Harper Collins, 1994, 208–209.
  8. It is available now in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 16–17. It first appeared under the penname “N.W.” In all, Lewis published twenty-four poems under these initials in the pages of Punch between 1946 and 1954 (see Walter Hooper’s editorial preface to The Collected Poems, 4). The letters stand for “Nat Whilk,” Anglo-Saxon for “I know not whom” (Colin Duriez, The A-Z of C. S. Lewis: An Encyclopedia of His Life, Thought and Writing [Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2013], 219–20). The best-known example of this Lewis pseudonym is A Grief Observed, which first appeared in 1961 under the name N. W. Clerk. Clerk means scholar in Middle English.
  9. More precisely, a comic work called Batrachomyomachia that parodies Homer’s Iliad. It relates the story of a battle between frogs and mice, and so Lewis’s line: “the Mice the Frogs once / Fought with in Homer.”
  10. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 14, citing here Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Lewis encourages the study of ancient wisdoms in a variety of ways and places. For a succinct summary, see e.g., his essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 200–207.
  11. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 13.
  12. He discusses these “first stories,” that included drawings, in Surprised by Joy, 12–16. The Lewis juvenilia are now available as Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (London: William Collins, 1985).
  13. Don W. King, C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of his Poetic Impulse (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2001), 174.
  14. M. H. Abrams, with Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. (Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 286.
  15. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 554. Cf. n. 22 for another example of the anthropomorphic animals of children’s books finding their way into Lewis’s serious academic writing.
  16. C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis 1922–1927, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1991), 143.
  17. Lewis, All My Road, 143.
  18. See e.g., Chien-Hui Li, “Mobilizing Christianity in the Antivivisection Movement in Victorian Britain,” Journal of Animal Ethics 2.2 (2012): 157. Many of the activists Li considers are not among “the best of theologians or the most gifted thinkers of their time.”
  19. C. S. Lewis, “Vivisection,” in God in the Dock, 225–26.
  20. C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of This and Other World, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Collins, 1982), 60.
  21. C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (1955; New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 15–16, 34–35; The Last Battle (1956; New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 27–28. {182}
  22. When critiquing an unnamed book that debunks another piece of writing about horses, Lewis objects to the reviewer’s failure of imagination with respect to the function of art and its importance for our celebration of animal life. “Of Ruksh and Sleipnir,” he writes, “and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say.” This prizing of realism over flights of fancy, however, involves more than a failure of the imagination in Lewis’s opinion. It has potential consequences for actual human behavior. With reference to the students of literature who might read the unnamed book Lewis reviews, he suspects, “Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received” (The Abolition of Man in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics [New York: HarperOne, 2002], 697, 698).
Michael Gilmour teaches New Testament and English literature at Providence University College and Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba. His most recent book is Eden’s Other Residents: The Bible and Animals (2014).

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