Nearly 50 years ago, not long after C. S. Lewis’s death on that horrific November 22, 1963, I first beheld his name. It was in Jeffrey Hart’s “The Rebirth of Christ,” published in National Review. Four years thereafter I helped found the New York C. S. Lewis Society (the oldest and still the largest of such societies), the midwife for which, as it happens, was National Review itself. Linda Bridges, then a summer intern at the magazine, received a letter to the editor asking if there was any interest in forming such a group and passed it on to Mr. Buckley, who, being a Lewis reader, included it in his Notes & Asides column. I mention this now not merely for the sheer pleasure of closing the circle, but also to lend some perspective to the tiresome question that I’m still sometimes asked, “Why all the fuss?” Even now there remains puzzlement over Lewis’s popularity, and many who are not puzzled persist in misconstruing the man.
For example, 20 years ago Christopher Hewetson, the vicar of what for three decades had been C. S. Lewis’s parish church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, seemed to sum up the English attitude toward the great man perfectly. He told his congregation that, yes, perhaps the time had come to improve their “connection with C. S. Lewis.” He said, “When I came here three and a half years ago . . . there was a certain ‘yes but.’ I found it difficult to get a well-known preacher to . . . the dedication of the Narnia window. Since then his rating has increased
. [My emphasis.] . . . He was a very committed Christian, a man of great prayer. . . . We must be proud of our connection with him and learn from it.” Yet by the time Father Hewetson made his concession, Lewis for most of the century had been the most famous Christian apologist writing in English: His voice was among the most recognizable on the BBC during World War II, his picture had been on the cover of Time
magazine, and his books were widely translated and selling in the millions.
Now we have this, from the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has published The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia. In it this good man (but not good literary critic, I think) allows that Lewis “help[s] us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity.” Fine. But then Archbishop Williams frets about Lewis’s presumed “orientalism” and lingers over the simplistic notion that Susan Pevensie never returns to Narnia because she began to wear lipstick, whereas the actual reason is her denial of the very existence of Narnia and her claim that the adventures there were mere children’s stories invented by her and her siblings.
Any writer’s reputation has its vicissitudes. At his death Lewis’s fell so sharply that many of his books went out of print, until (owing in part to the founding of the New York Society) it pivoted. In the event, however, there is now a memorial to Lewis in Westminster Abbey, and I say it’s about time the Brits played some catchup. For it is we Americans who (for several decades) have made the most fuss. And here is why.
First, there is the man himself — an amply published (if minor) poet of considerable metrical and narrative skill; a philosopher (that is, academically trained as such), whose first university appointment was in philosophy and whose admonitory Abolition of Man (1943) is proving frighteningly prescient); a public intellectual whose book reviews and topical essays, such as “On Living in an Atomic Age” (“Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs”) and “The Dangers of National Repentance” (“you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition”), settled much hash; a first-person novelist (Till We Have Faces, 1956) the equal of Nabokov in technical proficiency and psychological depth; a writer, with some peers but no betters, of speculative fiction (the “Ransom Trilogy,” 1938–1945) and of fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, 1950–1956), works dense with ideas; a religious thinker whose sermons and essays, such as “Transposition,” “Membership,” and “Meditation in a Toolshed,” have knocked down many a straw man and clarified opaque doctrine; a fearsome debater (e.g., at the Oxford Socratic Club, of which he was president from 1941 to 1954); a Christian apologist who still invites attack as well as aspirants to be the “next C. S. Lewis”; and a prose stylist whose gifts of wit, analogy, imagery, economy, rhythmical dexterity, and rhetorical adroitness should place him in any canon worthy of study by anyone who claims to know — let alone to teach — the literature of English-speaking peoples.