How a Monthlong Festival Honoring C.S. Lewis Took Over Petoskey
Narnia in Northern Michigan
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 7, 2019
Petoskey might seem an unlikely location to fete an author who probably had never heard of the city — one who, in fact, had never even set foot in the United States. But that’s not stopped enthusiasts from nearly two decades of explications and celebrations of the life and works of C.S. Lewis.
This year is no different. The 17th C.S. Lewis Festival, which runs until November, will begin with an informal and lively "Narnian Discussion" at 7pm, Thursday, Sept. 19 at the Bay View Library (on Encampment Avenue). Fans can chat with other readers and check out the brand new collection of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien books, generously donated by Gayle Harlow.
The official festival kicks off with a noon luncheon Sept. 20 at the Perry Hotel. Crystal and David Downing, the co-directors of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois. (The Marion E. Wade Center is a robust research collection dedicated to seven British Christian authors “who provide a distinctive blend of intellect, imagination, and faith”: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.)
So why C.S. Lewis — and why Petoskey? The festival began innocently enough, when filmmaker David Crouse moved his family from Chicago to Walloon Lake in the early aughts. He had produced a documentary, The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis, and had connections to Bay View, where he wanted to show the film prior to its debut on PBS.
Others jumped on board, including Tom and Sarah Arthur, the latter of whom wrote devotional books based on the works of Tolkien (“Walking with Frodo”) and Lewis (“Walking Through the Wardrobe: A Devotional Quest into the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”).
MISE EN SCÉNE
Also lending itself to Petoskey is the setting for much of Lewis’s writing. There is a lot of phraseology in his work about “northerness,” which McDevitt said area enthusiasts take to heart. Add to that the topography of the surrounding area, from the coastlines to the rolling hills (not to mention snowy winters), which also mimic some of that found in Lewis’s writing, and the fact some of the buildings date from his time, and it seemed like Lewis and Petoskey were indeed made for each other.
Since its inception, the festival has won state-wide recognition and hasdrawn not only expert international figures — like Douglas Gresham, stepson of C. S. Lewis and co-producer of the Narnia movies; Rev. Dr. Michael Ward, chaplain of Peterhouse, Cambridge UK, and former warden of The Kilns; and Dr. Andrew Cuneo, former president of the Oxford CSL Society — it has spawned major local connections, such as a Modern Mythology class at North Central Michigan College and an annual children’s performance of “Narnia: The Musical.”
The festival’s impact on younger enthusiasts also has led to a writing workshop program at the local schools. Fifth grade students have been provided books and materials to work on their own interpretations of C.S. Lewis works. McDevitt said, for her, that’s been the best part of the festival — seeing its impact on the students.
“It’s a unique opportunity for reading, writing and public speaking,” she said. It’s been so successful it has now been moved into the fourth grade classrooms.
McDevitt said each year offers something a little different, from poetry contests to theatrical performances. “This year we're opening with a lecture with David and Crystal Downing,” she said. Called "A Feisty Friendship," the 7:30pm Sept. 20 lecture at Crooked Tree Arts Center, will include the reading of letters between Lewis and fellow author Dorothy Sayers, displaying the various facets of their friendship.
It concludes Oct. 29 with a book discussion on Lewis’s book "The Weight of Glory" at St. Andrews Anglican Church. In between are book signings, discussions, and Saturday Seminars on everything Lewis.
While the Narnia books get the most attention, McDevitt noted all Lewis’s writings are fodder for examination and discussion.
The festival is also noteworthy for being self-sustaining. “The first year it was profitable,” said McDevitt. “Scholars and professors are not too costly. It’s fun for them to talk about Lewis. That’s why it has lasted.
“It’s a small group that has become larger and larger. People discover Lewis. The films helped, as has the resurgence of interest in Tolkien. Maybe it’s the shape of the world.”
Maybe. Perhaps it’s also the way it’s been embraced by the schools. The Narnia passports and costumes can’t hurt.
Or maybe it’s the sheer breadth and depth of the works of C.S. Lewis and his contemporaries and comrades. Whatever the reasons, it continues this year and hopefully into the future as well. For more information and a complete schedule, go to www.cslewisfestival.org.
Four sessions, starting at 9am and ending at 3:15, will be held Saturday, Sept. 21 at Evelyn Hall on the Bay View campus. Register for full ($60, with lunch; $20 student, with lunch) or half-day ($30, no lunch) at www.cslewisfestival.com.
David Downing presents The Lion, the Wizard, and the Ticketmaster
Downing will compare and contrast clips from film and television adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles, to explore how visual media has both enhanced and distorted the creativity of Tolkien and Lewis.
Crystal Downing presents The Sins of Cinema: Sayers’s Own Me Too Movement
Using relevant photos and still from films Dorothy L. Sayers relished, Downing will show how aspects of cinema influenced Sayers’s life and art and turned her into the author of a controversial text that C. S. Lewis considered to be one of the four most important influences on his spiritual life.
Chip Duncan’s premiere screening of his new film, The Roundtable
Documentary filmmaker Chip Duncan will feature a video roundtable discussion featuring interviews with renowned Lewis & Tolkien scholars.
Author Sarah Arthur moderates a roundtable discussion featuring the day’s speakers.