Ulster sells itself as the new Narnia

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The Independent Online

He has sold 60 million books around the world, yet his home city has, until now, shown little interest in his literary fame. But now that CS Lewis's cult tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been released as a blockbuster film, Northern Ireland has belatedly woken up to the power of association.

At first glance, the magical, fantasy world of Narnia, may not instantly be identified in the public mind with troubled Northern Ireland, but Belfast is trying to make it so.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Belfast City Council hopes the film will invigorate its tourist industry as the place where Lewis grew up and found much of his inspiration. As the film - which was actually shot in New Zealand - goes on release in Britain, many showings will be accompanied by an advertisement inviting viewers to visit Belfast, where the author spent much of his childhood.

But the irony is that the city itself has until now paid only limited attention to its famous son. A Lewis statue was erected years ago, but it is off the normal tourist trail. A mural commemorating him has been painted in east Belfast, but part of its purpose was to replace a garish paramilitary mural that preceded it. The city has its Lewis devotees but much of the population has little knowledge of the author. East Belfast's far more famous son is, of course, George Best.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Wallace Browne, in his foreword to a brochure on the new Lewis festival confesses that "few people realise" he was born and brought up in the city. Lewis experts claim Northern Ireland's hills and mountains provided the basis for the magical land of Narnia. And Lewis did spend much time as a boy in the gently picturesque Holywood Hills and the more rugged scenery of the Mourne Mountains.

Lewis aficionados point, with some credibility, to descriptions of Narnia which correspond to local beauty spots. The swathes of dreary and overcrowded Victorian back-to-back housing, some of it close to his large and rambling east Belfast home, held little attraction for him. But he was clearly an observant boy: part of the inspiration for the lion in his story may have come from a lion's head doorknob which still adorns what was his grandfather's rectory.

His idea of Narnia, he said, derived from a view of Co Down's "Carlingford Lough" and he wrote that among the county's drumlins "one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past".

Although Lewis's Christianity permeates the book, he was not interested in the hardline religious fundamentalism associated with Belfast.In private he made it clear he loved the landscape but not the people. In one letter he wrote: "The country is very beautiful and if only I could deport the Ulstermen and fill their land with a populace of my own choosing, I should ask for no better place to live in."