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C.S. Lewis: More than Narnia and Mere Christianity

November 30, 2009

C.S. Lewis at work

Yesterday was the 111th birthday of C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and I cannot allow the occasion to pass without attempting to explain why everyone should read his books and essays, even those who have no interest in children’s fantasy or popular Christian polemics, the two things he’s best remembered for today.

The greater portion of Lewis’ fame rightly rests on The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book series of children’s novels second only to The Lord of the Rings, by his close friend and fellow Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien, in the pantheon of modern fantasy. And for Mere Christianity and other books of popular Christian theology that have been tightly embraced by contemporary American Evangelicals — even though Lewis himself was a drinker, a smoker and an Anglican.

But there’s much more to Clive Staples Lewis –known as “Jack” to family and friends. For one thing, he was very funny. His novel The Screwtape Letters — a series of memos from a mid-level bureaucrat in Hell to a young demon working in the field — is a comic masterpiece. An audio version read by John Cleese was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1999. Amazing how well Lewis and Monty Python fit.

What’s more, Lewis had a towering intellect that enabled him to become one of the most prolific and important modern scholars of medieval and renaissance literature. His 1936 book The Allegory of Love established him as a literary critic. His scholarly masterpiece, English Literature in the 16th Century (1954) would ensure his enduring fame if only among other scholars.

Lewis as a young man

Although he lived most of his life in England, Lewis was born in Ireland and considered himself a foreigner at Oxford and Cambridge. He served on the front in World War I (as did Tolkien), was wounded and saw many close friends killed. Lewis was deeply conservative, though not in the political sense we think of today. He distrusted scientific and technological progress, the theme underlying his trilogy of adult science fiction novels, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. A word of caution: Lewis had little gift for adult fiction, and though these novels are well worth reading, they are dense and cumbersome and never come to life the way his children’s books and nonfiction do.

Lewis was a man of his time — if by “time” you mean the 19th century. He believed women to be intellectually inferior. He viewed Islam as a corruption of Christianity and Muslims savage and uncivilized. He may have practiced the mild and then-common British perversion of masochism, at least as a young man, if A.N. Wilson’s excellent critical but sympathetic 1990 book, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, is to be believed. His attitude toward Jews was paternalistic.

Yet Lewis was a cheerful, impish personality, much loved by friends. He lived modestly, even shabbily, and he practiced the Christian principles he advocated, giving two-thirds of his income to charity, quietly visiting the sick and poor. He favored rehabilitation for criminals over punishment, and some of his writing suggests something like what we now call “animal rights.” He answered letters from fans of his religious and fantasy books, including children. When one of his stepsons, David Gresham, developed a keen interest in his Jewish heritage, Lewis sought out a kosher butcher and otherwise assisted the boy’s path to Jewish Orthodoxy.

In short, he was a complex, fascinating man. For me, though, the main reason to read Lewis is for his muscular and elegant prose style. He is one of the best essayists I’ve found, and even though I no longer share his religious views, I still take great pleasure in reading those essays in which he hopes to persuade me of my error. His wit, intellect, and clarity are unsurpassed, and reading almost anything from Lewis’ busy pen is, for me, a source of joy.

Apart from Narnia and Mere Christianity, anyone coming fresh to Lewis’ work might consider the following books: The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed. But really, any of his writings, even the most minor, convey the pleasure of Lewis’ particular gifts as a thinker and stylist.

Here’s a single quotation to whet your appetite: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

Oh, all right, if you insist, another: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

According to A.N. Wilson, Lewis smoked 60 cigarettes a day, plus cigars and pipes. He died on Nov. 22, 1963, seven days shy of his 65th birthday. His passing was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but interest in his life and work seems likely to persist, more or less forever.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    November 30, 2009 4:44 pm

    I always kind of meant to, but I haven’t ever read any C.S. Lewis besides “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Which I of course loved. So thank you for bringing him to the front of my mind. Maybe someone I know has some of his works that I can borrow…

    I love that picture of him as a young man. I don’t like that people called him Jack. Weird. And why? And Clive Staples? That’s funny and somehow I never knew. Just that he is C.S. and my brain didn’t ever get curious as to what it stood for which is odd for my brain, it just accepted it as C.S. as if it didn’t stand for anything. Like TJ. I think maybe he couldn’t have been such a good writer if he published as Jack Lewis.

    Also: I love the egg quote.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 30, 2009 5:18 pm

    He hated the name Clive, and had a beloved dog as a boy named Jacksie. I think he stopped responding to anything but Jack, and that’s what he was to everyone who knew him. I was unaware of this until I read the A.N. Wilson bio in 1990. Took some getting used to. Many fine writers have been named Jack, though. Jack London, for example. Kerouac. Uh…and….

  3. rachel permalink
    November 30, 2009 5:26 pm

    Yeah but I think that our names partially shape who we are and um Jack Lewis just doesn’t have the same ring to it. C.S. Lewis is more impressive. And grand in a way. And a little mysterious. And very formal. And the fact that he hated the name Clive probably shaped him and if he chose to publish as Jack it would have changed him and there is a reason he didn’t.

    I don’t mind Clive. But what about Staples?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 30, 2009 9:43 pm

      I guess he’d be an office supply tycoon if he were still alive…

  4. November 30, 2009 10:21 pm

    Glad you wrote about one of my favorite writers, at least he was when I was a kid and read the Narnias and passed them onto my son who devoured them. Let me add one more book for those in college studying Milton. Read A PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST. A Xian based reading that is nevertheless full of insights into the poety Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brough death into the world and all our woe. MERE CHRISTIANITY almost made me a Xian. The man was wonderful. I still adore him.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 1, 2009 2:23 am

    That’s pretty much my take on Lewis, too, Duff, except that I was a practicing Christian until I was 35. I guess I couldn’t get it quite right, despite the practice, and I drifted away into humanism despite Jack’s best efforts. But Lewis remains an amazingly complicated figure. His orthodox Christianity notwithstanding, he put great store in nature religions — one of the heroes of That Hideous Strength is Merlin (yes, that Merlin), and he had a deep reverence for the Tao, which he saw as not in the least contrary to Christianity. I still adore him, too — obviously. Actually, if I may say so without being stoned (with rocks, I mean), the Narnia books are my least favorite of his works. Don’t tell my kids I said so.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 1, 2009 2:25 am

    And one more thing, I can only think that the way Evangelicals claim him is by simply ignoring the many things he wrote that do not conform to their ideal of Christianity. Come to think of it, that’s what they do with the Bible, too. Ignore great swaths of, dare I say, inconvenient truth.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:26 pm

    I love Narnia and I love the Perelandra trilogy (wasn’t it?). A lot of great minds like Lewis consolidate various theological/philosophical theories, and that makes them all the better, I think. Different theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    I knew he was great friends with Tolkien, but not much else. Kudos for her love of animals. Jeers for this idea of women’s inferiority. Still, I’m willing to forgive him for that.

    Oh, and Rachel–I know another “Jack Lewis” believe it or not. He is actually Dr. Jack Lewis and is a very successful president of New River Community College located is Pulaski, no less. Great guy, but no Clive Staples.

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      December 1, 2009 1:27 pm

      Please excuse the typos in my reply. I’m at work and on a quick, very quick lunch break.

  8. Adam Jarvis permalink
    February 8, 2010 2:13 pm

    Just wanted to say that your comment “He favored rehabilitation for criminals over punishment” is completely untrue.

    In his essay ‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ he says”To be ‘cured’ against one’s will… is to be classed with infants, imbeciles and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it… is to be treated as a person made in God’s image.”

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