C. S. Lewis: Why All the Fuss?
Christian apologist, novelist, public intellectual — Lewis spoke to his own time and ours in many voices.


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.

C.S. Lewis Remembered
C. S. Lewis — one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century — was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898, but spent most of his life in Oxford — first as a student, and then, for 29 years, as a fellow and tutor in the English faculty, until he was hired away by Cambridge.
Besides keeping up a full teaching load and speaking to a wide variety of audiences (most notably in his wartime talks on the BBC), he wrote more than 30 books and enough articles, sermons, letters, and other occasional pieces to fill another 30 books.
But life wasn’t all work for Jack Lewis. There was plenty of time for long walks in the countryside and for high-spirited gatherings with friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien (inset upper right), Charles Williams, Neville Coghill, and Lewis’s brother, Warren (shown here with CSL), at their favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, a.k.a. the Bird and Baby.
Lewis’s last two years were plagued by illness, and on November 22, 1963, he died quietly at his home, known as The Kilns, on the outskirts of Oxford, about an hour before the world was stunned by the news from Dallas.
The following quotations are a sampling of Lewis’s wide-ranging writings on faith, God, the human experience, and literature.
ON CHRISTIAN FAITH: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.”
“That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
“If we are not Christians, we shall dismiss this [the frequent vindictiveness in the Psalms] with the old gibe ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ That is impossible for us who believe that God chose that race for the vehicle of His own Incarnation, and who are indebted to Israel beyond all possible repayment.”
“Even the New Testament bids me love my neighbor ‘as myself,’ which would be a horrible command if the self were simply to be hated.”
“As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation.”
THE DIVINE: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.”
“If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.”
“Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’ Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection -- if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent.”
In reply to those who argue that intercessory prayer is ineffective and presumptuous: “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use.”
In The Great Divorce, a man newly arrived on the fringes of Heaven reports that everything is “so much solider than things in our country”: “The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen.”
KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM: “You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?”
“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’ It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall.”
“You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? . . . Use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.”
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”
THE LITERARY LIFE: “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.”
“If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”
Updated: Nov. 22, 2013