One unchanging constant through the whole of C.S. Lewis’ life, was his love of nature. His affection for a creature frequently regarded as a pest, illustrates this perfectly.
In 1954, Lewis wrote playfully to the eight Kilmer siblings in the, the family to whom he dedicated The Magician’s Nephew. (Coincidentally, the thirty letters he wrote to these children recently sold for over $100,000.)
There is no snow here yet and it is so warm that the foolish snowdrops and celandines (little yellow flowers; I don’t know if you have them or not) are coming up as if it was spring. And squirrels (we have hundreds and thousands about this college) have never gone to bed for their winter sleep at all.
I keep on warning them that they really ought to and that they’ll be dreadfully sleepy (yawning their heads off) by June if they don’t, but they take no notice.
One can imagine the awe Lewis would have expressed at learning about the almost supernatural hibernations undergone by Arctic ground squirrels. Believe it or not, as they say, it is a fact that during their lengthy hibernations, curled up beneath the solidly frozen ground, the core body temperature of these small mammals actually hover around 3 degrees below freezing!
In 1941 he responded to a comment from one of his correspondents about unbridled nature.
I do know what you mean by the sudden ravishing glimpse of animal life in itself, its wildness—to meet a squirrel in a wood or even a hedgehog in the garden makes me happy. But that is because it is, being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.
That wildness would not be lost by the kind of dominion Adam had. It would be nicer, not less nice, if that squirrel would come and make friends with me at my whistle—still more if he would obey me when I told him not to kill the red squirrel in the next tree.
In the early 1930s, Lewis mentioned squirrels in several of his letters to his good friend Arthur Greeves. For example, he described a simple pleasure experienced during one of his daily walks.
I also had the experience lately of walking under an avenue of trees after a shower, and saw that tho all the rest was still, a kind of wave-motion was passing over the branches on one side, followed by a patter of drops. Coming nearer I found it was a squirrel leaping from branch to branch and sending a wake of tiny showers to earth as they bent under him.
Similar happiness echoes in a 1939 letter to another friend.
[During] my annual January walking tour with my brother . . . We had one glorious day crossing Wenlock Edge . . . with new snow on the ground and cloudless sunshine from end to end of the skies–beautiful shadows. And out in the country snow is a great betrayer. Rabbits and squirrels became as easy to see as bushes.
The tracks are rather exciting, too, aren’t they? To climb up some unearthly lane to a hill crest far from any house, still early in the morning, and find from the innumerable paw-prints how long ago the animals’ day has begun.
Squirrels in Narnia
Squirrels play prominently in at least two episodes in the enchanted land of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we witness a terrible scene when the White Witch comes upon a group of Narnians who are celebrating a visit by Father Christmas.
A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. . . . But when the whole party saw the sledge stopping and who was in it, all the gaiety went out of their faces.
The father squirrel stopped eating with his fork halfway to his mouth and one of the satyrs stopped with its fork actually in its mouth, and the baby squirrels squeaked with terror. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered. “Speak, vermin!” she said again. . . . Who gave [these things] to you?” said the Witch.
“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox. “What?” roared the Witch, springing from the sledge and taking a few strides nearer to the terrified animals. “He has not been here!” At that moment one of the young squirrels lost its head completely. “He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.
Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. “Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures . . .
On a happier note, in Prince Caspian we see how even the Talking Animals remain true to their species’ nature.
After that they went on till they came among tall beech trees, and Trufflehunter [the badger] called out, “Pattertwig! Pattertwig! Pattertwig!” and almost at once, bounding down from branch to branch till he was just above their heads, came the most magnificent red squirrel that Caspian had ever seen. He was far bigger than the ordinary dumb squirrels which he had sometimes seen in the castle gardens; indeed he was nearly the size of a terrier and the moment you looked in his face you saw that he could talk.
Indeed the difficulty was to get him to stop talking, for, like all squirrels, he was a chatterer. He welcomed Caspian at once and asked if he would like a nut and Caspian said thanks, he would. But as Pattertwig went bounding away to fetch it, Trufflehunter whispered in Caspian’s ear, “Don’t look. Look the other way. It’s very bad manners among squirrels to watch anyone going to his store or to look as if you wanted to know where it was.”
Squirrels certainly know how to chatter. In 1955, C.S. Lewis shared with a regular correspondent, his idea of a perfect world. “I’m all for a planet without aches or pains or financial worries but I doubt if I’d care for one of pure intelligence. No senses (no relish of smells & tastes?), no affection, no Nonsense! I must have a little fooling. I want to tickle a cat’s ears and sometimes have a slanging match with an impertinent squirrel.”
The Most Significant Squirrel in C.S. Lewis’ Life
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis describes an early encounter that exerted a profound influence in the shaping of his identity. It came not from a living specimen but, as I have written about in a different context, from a fictional member of the Family Sciuridae. Lewis describes the opening of his mind to the pursuit of true Joy.
Then came the Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty. It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . . in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.
Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world [Boxen] was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. Thus if we use the word imagination in a third sense, and the highest sense of all, this invented world was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were, and I will now try to record them.
The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire.
And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”
Rereading some of Lewis’ words about these entertaining creatures has taken me on an enjoyable journey, and not only because I share a similar rodent legacy or because our forest home is located on Squirrel Place. Lewis’ vision of the place of animals in this world and the next resonates with my sense of God’s relationship with this portion of his creation.
After all, it was our parents, not theirs, who brought about the fall. Thus Lewis’ sentimental thought that they are, “being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.”