CS Lewis – a celebration

Most people in Britain today who are even half-literate will have heard of CS Lewis, and a large proportion will have read one or more of his books, or had it read to them. When you think about it, this is quite impressive for someone who died in November 1963, nearly 56 years ago.

His life story is also pretty well-known, and indeed was partially dramatized in the play/film “Shadowlands”, of which more later. Alister McGrath (https://www.penelopewallace.com/book-review-10-the-landscape-of-faith/ ) has written a recent biography of Lewis, which I haven’t read, but I’ve read the earlier one by AN Wilson (1990), as well as Lewis’ own “Surprised by Joy.” You may feel there’s a lot of Wilson in what follows – but, like Lewis, he’s a lively stylist.

Lewis’ influence is and has been great on many Christians, including me. For one thing he’s so very quotable. For another, and this is what today is astonishing me, his output is so varied. He is famous, and beloved, for writing in all of the following genres:

Children’s stories (Narnia)

Science fiction (the Ransom trilogy)

Autobiography (“Surprised by Joy” and also “A Grief Observed”)

Serious but non-academic apologetics (“Mere Christianity”, “The Problem of Pain” etc)

A varied host of other Christian works, some overtly non-fictional such as “The Four Loves”, “Reflections on Psalms”, and some in the form of story, such as “The Great Divorce”, which owes much to Dante – and of course that unique series-of-sermons-in-the-form-of-a-comic-epistolary-novel which is “The Screwtape Letters.”

And he was a poet.

On top of all this, Lewis has a place in literary history for ever as a member of the group known as the Inklings, and in particular as the friend of JRR Tolkien. Wilson may be exaggerating when he says “it could be said with almost complete certainty that we should never have had “The Lord of the Rings” had not CSL been so anxious to read to the end.” But suppose he’s not? Modern literature, film and TV and society, perhaps, would be very different.

All this, and also the work of his day job – ie many learned lectures, tutorials and writings on medieval literature, the medieval worldview and the way it differs from ours, such as “The Allegory of Love” and “Studies in Words.” I haven’t read many of these books, though I’d like to, some day…

These are probably the least read by Lewis fans, leading I think to a curious point about the Wilson biography. I would guess that most of us are interested in Lewis, assuming we are interested, as a) the author of Narnia; and b) the author of many books of popular theology. But imagine a biography of Winston Churchill written by someone who was most inspired, not by Churchill’s wartime leadership, but by his four-volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” Or a biography of Tolkien by a person fascinated by his studies in philology and his translation of “Beowulf”.

With Wilson on Lewis, something like this is actually the case.

It seems plain to me reading the biography that although Wilson covers Narnia, Screwtape and the rest thoroughly and (on the whole) sympathetically, what really draws him to his subject is a) Lewis’ writing on medieval literature; and b) what one might call (and he does) the Lewis cult. For example, his introduction describes vitriolic “schisms” between fans who are Anglo-Catholic and fans who are American Evangelical. You may think that this isn’t what is important about Lewis. Indeed a review on Amazon preposterously describes Wilson’s book as being partly intended to discredit the Christian faith.

But on the other hand, Lewis is a phenomenon, even if the actual disputes Wilson mentions are unknown to you. Consider the TV play and film “Shadowlands”. It tells the love story of Lewis and Joy Davidman, including of course her illness and death from cancer.

My memory of the play, interestingly confirmed by Wikipedia, is that the plot goes like this: Davidman is an American divorcee with two boys living in Britain. She becomes friendly with famous Christian writer Lewis, and asks him to marry her (in civil law, not in church), as a friend, so that she can stay in the UK. He does, and their relationship ripens into romantic love, but then she gets ill.

I found the play powerful and moving (tribute to actors and screenwriter) and it was only afterwards that I thought: What nonsense. How could I respect people who behaved like this?

Such a marriage would be a fraudulent evasion of immigration law (no good reason is ever given why Joy so desperately needs to stay in Britain). A “request” of this kind to a man who might well want to marry someone else would be completely unreasonable. If she was already in love with him, and was hoping he would come to love her, it would be emotionally manipulative to the last degree.

Happily, according to Wilson, it didn’t happen at all like that, although certainly the fact that Joy was in the eyes of the Anglican church still married to her first husband did cause complications and two separate ceremonies, April 56 and March 57. But the very fact and silliness of the film I think confirms Wilson’s view that Lewis’ life, as well as his writings, is a cultural phenomenon, and even a modern myth.

Almost all his books are greatly loved, and it’s the variety that is so awesome. If you had to choose one Lewis book to survive, which would it be? What an impossible choice! “The Screwtape Letters” or “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”? (We’re now too accustomed to this brilliant title to get the joke.) “The Great Divorce” or “Out of the Silent Planet”?

Wilson asks himself this question, and perhaps surprisingly, plumps for “A Grief Observed”, written after Joy’s death: “outside the Psalms and the Book of Job, there is not a book quite like “A Grief Observed”, a book by a man who still believes in God but cannot find evidence for His goodness.”

Yes, it’s annoying that evangelists still quote him so breezily, but on the other hand, who else have we got? Who is the modern CS Lewis? Rob Bell and Alister McGrath don’t write fiction; Francine Rivers and Susan Howatch don’t write apologetics; Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) sort of does both, but her non-fiction is rather academic. Or maybe I’m missing a Christian podcaster or rapper?

Of course there’s the downside. It’s perhaps unfair to read modern values back to the 1950s, but:

  • the stereotypes of foreigners and their religions in “The Horse and his Boy”, otherwise so enjoyable, and another terrific title;
  • the attempts to prove an argument by setting up an idiotic straw counter-argument to knock down;
  • the “Jesus was mad, or a liar, or the Son of God” simplification, ignoring all issues of textual criticism, especially of the gospel of John;
  • the way in which humanity in Lewis always defaults to female. (“You will find,” says Screwtape, “if you look carefully into any human’s heart, that he is haunted by at least two imaginary women – a terrestrial and an infernal Venus…”)
  • the surprising lack of much about life in the church;
  • the endless analogies that are only relevant to the world of the public-school;
  • the other prejudices;
  • the breezy classification of religions into “thick and clear, like soup…”
  • most notoriously, the fate of Susan in “The Last Battle.” Surely what Lewis was trying to say was, “Young people, don’t be too hasty to discard your childhood faith as a rite of passage to growing up” – but the mess he got into saying it!

But on the other hand, the spiritual honesty! The enthusiasm for life (and books!) The wisdom about humanity. The wit and fun.

Such as:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

From “The Problem of Pain” – “Just as, to this day, everyone talks as if St Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to Hell.” (You don’t have to know much about St Augustine to see modern equivalents of this, especially on the subjects of abortion and sexuality.)

Heaven in “The Great Divorce” being at first physically uncomfortable, because it’s all so real.

The character of Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in “The Silver Chair”.

The analysis of the different types of fear invoked by a tiger, a ghost and a mighty spirit, leading up to the concept of Awe at the beginning of “The Problem of Pain.”

Aslan singing Narnia into being.

“I suppose you’ve tried persuading him that chastity is unhealthy?” – it’s the apparent afterthought that gives this its sting.

Trumpkin in “Prince Caspian”: “I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice: now’s the time for orders.”

“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact?”

Etc. You will probably have your own favourite bits.

I personally have a great fondness for “Reflections on the Psalms,” which covers a lot of ground, including the vexed question of why God is so obsessed with being worshipped all the time, but if I absolutely had to choose… Professor Kirke tells the Pevensie children that “it’s all in Plato” – many a time I have looked at my own attitudes, and thought ruefully, “it’s all in Screwtape.”

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Stephen Sheridan

    30th June 2019 at 5:22 pm Reply

    Before my daughter became hooked on Youtube (thank you school for insisting the iPad is used as a teaching tool), it was fun chatting with her about the Narnia books -Puddleglum was definitely my favourite character with his amusingly gloomy comments in life – a bit like Marvin the Paranoid Android, but without the intellectually arrogant sarcasm.
    The Great Divorce and That Hideous Strength are my equal favourites. The former gives the best description of what a difference between Heaven and Hell might be, but is useful to the non-religious as an illustration of how people’s characters can be so distorted by petty or great evil in life generally. The description of Napoleon’s hell being wandering around an empty palace complaining that his failures were all some one else’s fault was a particular gem.
    As for That Hideous Strength, it was by the best of the Ransom trilogy in my view despite being written in a way that shouldn’t work for a novel – e.g. describing huge amounts of detail rather than letting the reader guess at it and in the end an inevitability that the bad guys cannot win. It manages to maintain pace, because you are keen to see how damage will be caused and the manner in which the totalitarian bureaucracy will be overcome. Ironic that the acronym of the evil organisation NICE (the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) has since been used for a health-related body in the UK. Apparently the character of the Director of NICE was modelled on HG Wells – so there must have been some antipathy from Lewis there – perhaps due to Wells’ views on eugenics and that the persecution of religion would be a desirable outcome.

  • Penelope Wallace

    1st July 2019 at 4:53 pm Reply

    Thank you, Stephen. I see that my post contains an unintentional but comical error: for “defaults to female”, of course read “defaults to male!”

  • Stephen Sheridan

    1st July 2019 at 11:07 pm Reply

    Aha but is it an error or serendipity? I assumed what you were saying was that he was defaulting to female in his description of important things that haunt the human psyche (not just the male psyche) and he was using a non-gender-specific “he”. Thus in Lewis it is often a battle between strong female powers (e.g. the Witch v the two girls) and that is an example of his expression of the two Venus images.

    In TLTWATW I always felt it was the two girls that were the ones that did the clever stuff and were the strongest protagonists. The boys were on the extremes of being easily tempted and being upstanding, but it was the girls that had real understanding and creativity.

    Similarly in THS, it is the character Jane who is key to the plot by having visions which lead the goodies to victory and she endures torture and struggle to get there. Her husband Mark in contrast, on whom the novel spends more time (from memory), bumbles about in his desire for advancement and makes no contribution to the final victory over the forces of darkness except by escaping (and that was due to a vision from his wife). In fact when I read it the second time I began to ask why she had married this idiot in the first place as he was filled with such sterile ambition without much humour. Then perhaps she took pity on him unconsciously to save him so that his rather ham-fisted intelligence could be put to better use; because if you did a post plot appraisal, she did loads for him and he had did nothing for her except put her grave danger.

    Or maybe I am just talking nonsense after reading a poem my daughter has just written, inspired by Venus from Holst’s Planet Suite. 🙂

    • Penelope Wallace

      4th July 2019 at 5:06 pm Reply

      You make excellent points about Lewis’ fiction, and he does often present female protagonists and antagonists (Lucy and Jadis), which is interesting. But in his non-fiction he always seems to be addressing himself to men, or so it feels to this woman!

  • Stephen Hall

    5th July 2019 at 10:32 am Reply

    Excuse my stupidity, but what is the joke in the title of TLTWATW?

    • Penelope Wallace

      5th July 2019 at 4:41 pm Reply

      Perhaps not a joke as such, but a humorous touch surely, because wardrobes are mundane boring items of furniture, and the other two… aren’t. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” “The Princess, the Dragon and the Pressure-Cooker”; “The Warrior, the Maiden and the Zebra-Crossing”…

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