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