In his first speech as Republican candidate for the presidency - in the New Orleans Superdome on Aug. 18, 1988 - George H.W. Bush turned briefly inspirational when he compared America to "a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky." Coming from an orator more famous for "the vision thing," this transcendent image became instantly famous - with comedians yukking up Mr. Bush's citation of "a thousand pints of lite."
The metaphor, nevertheless, reverberated memorably - and Mr. Bush hallowed it in the name he subsequently bestowed on his philanthropic trust: the Points of Light Foundation (which now delivers 30 million hours of volunteer services a year). First, though, it was mocked: Neil Young, for example, referenced it in his protest anthem Rockin' in the Free World, first performed within weeks of Mr. Bush's inauguration in January of 1989 and eventually celebrated by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest songs ever written: "We got a thousand points of light/ For the homeless man/ We got a kinder, gentler, /Machine gun hand."
Where did the metaphor originate? Everyone assumed that presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan was responsible for its use - and The New York Times quickly identified the probable source: C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, published in 1955, one of the seven volumes that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, the captivating allegorical fantasies of a parallel universe in which animals talk and Christ assumes the form of a lion. Although written as the sixth book in the series, The Magician's Nephew is actually the prequel: Creation. "One moment there had been nothing but darkness," Lewis wrote, "next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out - single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world."
This appeared persuasive, although Ms. Noonan insisted, and still insists, that she had never read the Narnian literature. "C.S. Lewis used the phrase 'a thousand points of light' in one of his science fiction books," she said in one interview. "[But]I hadn't read it." This denial was credible. No one would confuse Lewis's Narnian fantasies with his science-fiction trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.
The alternative to Lewis was American novelist Thomas Wolfe, who used the same metaphor twice. In You Can't Go Home Again (1940), he described America as a pasture - "only 3,000 miles from east to west, only 2,000 miles from north to south … where ten thousand points of light pick out the cities, towns and villages." In The Web and the Rock (1939), he wrote: "And instantly, he would see the towns below, now coiling in a thousand fumes of homely smoke, now winking into a thousand points of friendly light." On this basis, in 1989, Chicago columnist Mike Royko accused Mr. Bush and Ms. Noonan of plagiarism - although he soon relented. No one who tried to read one Thomas Wolfe novel, he said, would ever try to read a second.
Another question arises: Did Lewis himself draw on the inspiration of an earlier writer for the metaphor? The arrival in theatres of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Narnian big-screen adaptation, provides a perfect time to reveal the original source of Lewis's "thousand points of light."
As it happens, Lewis inspired himself. He first wrote of celestial "points of light" in 1913 - 42 years before the publication of The Magician's Nephew. Preserved in his own handwriting in a school notebook (and published by Don W. King, an American academic, in his 2001 anthology C.S. Lewis, Poet), Lewis had written: "In winter when the frosty nights are long …/ Ten thousand, thousand points of light did peep/ Out of the boundless heaven's velvet deep."
Lewis was 15 when he wrote these lines - ironically, the same age at which he proclaimed himself an atheist. He would spend the next 16 years as an exponent of disbelief. He would permit himself to believe again only reluctantly, "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England," as he put it in Surprised by Joy. But he would look back on his disbelief, for the rest of his life, as the kind of curse that once gripped Narnia itself: always winter, never Christmas.