Journeys to the Underworld in the Aeneid and The Silver Chair

One of the characters in Virgil’s Aeneid is named Polydorus, which means “many-gifted.” That epithet might apply just as well to C. S. Lewis. Visitors to this site already know Lewis as the creator of Narnia, as well as a distinguished literary critic, an influential Christian writer, and a gifted science fiction novelist. But a brand new book, C. S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid (Yale University Press, 2011) introduces a side of Lewis that many readers don’t know—the sophisticated classicist and talented translator.

Editor A. T. Reyes offers a thorough and masterly introduction, explaining Lewis’s lifelong fascination with the Aeneid, his identification with its epic hero, and his eccentric, but mostly successful, attempts to capture the rhythms, imagery, and allusiveness of the original. Reyes convincingly shows that the Aeneid was never very far from Lewis’s mind: his own translations of key passages show up in half a dozen of his books—even in his letters to children! Equally fascinating for many readers will be the parallels between famous scenes in the Aeneid and memorable passages in the Chronicles of Narnia.

The Aeneid, written by the poet Virgil in the generation just before the birth of Christ, tells the story of a noble warrior, Aeneas, who escapes the destruction of Troy carrying his father on his back, eventually settling in Italy and founding the city of Rome. The first half of the epic focuses on Aeneas’s many adventures at sea and in Mediterranean ports, while the second half tells about all the battles, hardships, and intrigues he must endure in order to establish a “new Troy” in Italy. Thus Virgil gave the Romans their own Odyssey and their own Iliad in an epic poem of about 10,000 lines.

Lewis first read the Aeneid in his schooldays, and he seems to have had in mind his own translation for most of his adult life. In his twenties, he amused himself by translating some of Virgil’s unusual rhythms into French. In his thirties, he translated a passage from Virgil for use in The Pilgrim’s Regress (an epigraph to Book 7). In his forties he read longer sections of his Aeneid translation to his fellow Inklings. Towards the end of his life, Lewis seems to have had in mind a complete new translation, but he left behind only fragments–long passages from books 1, 2, and 6, as well as numerous individual lines and brief quotations.

Lewis strongly identified with Aeneas, who he said was not just “an individual hero” but rather “the Rome-bearer,” a man with a destiny to fulfill. Shortly after his conversion to Christianity in his early 30s, Lewis even wrote a poetic fragment comparing himself to Aeneas, feeling that he too had put in at many harbors and endured much before finally reaching a place he could call home. Combining the classical ideal of pietas, doing one’s duty, with the Christian concept of vocation, Lewis spent the rest of his life seeing himself as a “Christ-bearer,” a destiny he believed all Christians should share.

Particularly intriguing is Lewis’s translation of Book Six, in which Aeneas visits the Underworld to consult with his father, Anchises, who had died during their sea voyage. Before undertaking this dangerous journey, Aeneas consults the Sibyl (oracle) at Cumae, who tells him the hard part is not going to the Underworld, but rather getting back out. Lewis’s fragment does not include the lines, but John Dryden’s famous translation makes this point abundantly clear:

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth is the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

Who can read these lines without thinking of the oft-repeated warning in The Silver Chair?: “Many fall down, and few return to the sunlit lands.” (The lines from Virgil may also call to mind Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood that “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, with milestones, without signposts.”)

As the story continues, the Sibyl agrees to act as a guide to Aeneas on his visit to the underworld. As they approach the river Styx, Aeneas sees every sort of mythical monster—the many-headed Scylla, a snake-haired Gorgon, and a Chimera, who Lewis describes as “a fire-breathing drake [dragon]’” (141).  Aeneas draws his sword to defend himself, but the Sibyl explains that these are only phantoms and nightmares—“chimeras” in the modern sense of the word. This encounter with frightening but ultimately harmless monsters seems to explain an odd detail in The Silver Chair. As Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum travel through the sunless lands of Underworld, they see “strange animals . . . of the dragonish or batlike sort.” Though unnerving, these seem to be asleep and pose no real danger, only adding to the macabre atmosphere of the scene. The same drowsy ambience infuses the Underworld of The Silver Chair and the underworld of the Aeneid, what Lewis translates as “the land of shadow and of slumber and oblivious night” (147).

In both stories, the travelers meet throngs of underworlders, a “ghostly multitude” (143) of disembodied spirits in the Aeneid, enslaved gnomes in The Silver Chair. In both tales they pass through a silent, underground wood and cross a dark body of water in a leaky boat. They both encounter rivers of molten fire and learn the secrets that will help them escape again to the world above. When Aeneas tells his trembling companions, “Solve metes,” other translators render the phrase, “Banish your fears” or “Forget your fears.” In Lewis’ translation, Aeneas simply says, “Courage!” As they are escaping a collapsing Underworld in The Silver Chair, Prince Rilian offers the exact same bracing word: “Courage!”

Lewis once said that the Aeneid was one of the two long poems he turned to most often (the other was The Prelude). This newly-released translation certainly seems to show its influence on his own imagination. One could even argue that Lewis’s attempts to render that difficult Latin rhythm (dactylic hexameter) into English helped him forge the melodic prose that is such a hallmark of all the Chronicles.

Lewis completed only about one sixth of his translation of the Aeneid, mainly passages about Aeneas’s ocean voyage (where editor Reyes shows striking parallels to a passage in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”), his having to turn away from Queen Dido in order to fulfill his destiny, and his journey to the Underworld. One suspects that Lewis may have begun his translation with the passages that had the most personal meaning for him.

From the very beginning, Lewis seems to have conceived of Aeneas’s adventures as a kind of spiritual journey. John Dryden’s famous translation of the Aeneid (1697) begins “Arms and the man I sing.” Nearly all later translators use phrasing similar to Dryden’s. But Lewis makes a major departure from the very start: “Of arms and of the exile I must sing.” For Lewis, who called himself “an orphan” in his memoir Surprised by Joy, the defining fact for Aeneas was that he was a man who had lost his home and who was seeking a new one.

When Aeneas complains to Jupiter that his sufferings seem endless, another modern translator (Allan Mandelbaum) renders the Latin phrase, “Great King, is there no end to this ordeal?” Lewis gives the question a much more familiar biblical ring: “How long, Oh Lord, must they endure? How long?” (53). Similarly, Virgil shows Aeneas praying to Apollo to help him establish an “eternal city” at Rome (mansuram urbem).  Lewis translates the term “abiding city” (174), borrowing a phrase from the book of Hebrews to suggest that, whether he fully knows it or not, Aeneas is on a spiritual quest.

Since Virgil painted such a vivid picture of the Underworld, Dante famously chose him to be his guide in The Inferno. Lewis also selected Virgil as one of his guides, not to found an earthly empire, but to seek out the true Eternal City—not ancient Rome but the New Jerusalem.


David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis: Planets in Peril, The Most Reluctant Convert, Into the Wardrobe, and Into the Region of Awe. He serves as a consulting editor on Lewis for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Downing’s most recent book is Looking for the King, a historical quest novel in which Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams figure prominently as characters. Visit Downing’s college website.

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