Lewis, of course, was just such a teacher: a lecturer, literary critic, and historian whose achievements are the bedrock of his professional reputation. With the anomalous exception of the anti-Leavisite An Experiment in Criticism (1961), these works were greeted enthusiastically and continue to ping here and there, if only among the few professional scholars who perform their due diligence. (The Allegory of Love, 1936, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama, 1954, remain touchstones of literary history.)
On the surface, the quotidian man was the familiar beer drinker and pipe smoker; the compulsive reader, writer, and talker; the long-distance walker; the scholar, tutor, and lecturer; the Inkling among like-minded friends without whom we might not have The Lord of the Rings
; and the famously unrelenting Christian convert. He was a wounded veteran of the Great War who had taken prisoners and argued against pacifism but said that though he would willingly die for his country he would not willingly live for it; and he was a man who doubted the wisdom of space exploration, given its potential for exploiting cognizant beings out there just as we had exploited and subjugated black people down here (under the guise, yet, of evangelization), and who excoriated Hitler in 1933 as “imbecilic” for insulting the Jews. But along the way, and for a chuckle, he pulled off a (to him costly) prank on Oxford University by contriving the election of the non-poet Adam Fox as its Professor of Poetry.
He knew he was out of sync with the zeitgeist — and relished the stance (as we see in his Cambridge University inaugural lecture as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, 1954, in which he refers to himself as a dinosaur). Even in “Membership,” pronouncedly not a work of lit. crit., he could not help himself, writing, “I mean the pestilent notion (one sees it in literary criticism) that each of us starts with a treasure called ‘Personality.’” Having no “school,” he was free to toss off epochal ideas — the Renaissance never happened, Aristotle’s Poetics is a bad book, tragedy is a “phantom concept” — and not bother to elaborate upon them, let alone to defend them. Just so would he lift ideas and expressions from others (especially Richard Hooker) without acknowledgment — although, to be fair to Lewis-the-medievalist, also without any claim to originality, which he thought vastly overrated. He would say a thoroughly Christian society would probably approximate a socialist one and that it would be better to have sex without marrying than to break the marriage vow. He was a Christian apologist whose conception of church is the theological equivalent of one of Heisenberg’s uncertain quantum particles.
And the plot thickens. He could remember virtually everything he read but (as we see in the manuscript of The Screwtape Letters, 1942) could not confidently spell “rivet.” He was a man so inept at balancing his checkbook (he was at first rejected by Oxford for having failed a simple algebra test, a requirement later waived owing to his voluntary service in World War I) that he thought he would go broke. Nevertheless, he was possessed of enormous personal generosity, giving out of pocket to any vagabond who came his way (“I don’t care if he’s going to drink it up, Tollers [Tolkien]; that’s exactly what I was going to do with it”) and continuously out of his bank account to the tune of nearly 70 per cent of his income. His closest friends intuited some buried layers in Lewis: Even his devoted brother, Warren (his best friend), said of his conversion that it was not a conversion as such but rather a recovery from “a long mental illness.” Indeed, the more deeply we look at him the more personally unsettled he seems. As a boy he suffered early parental loss and, for the rest of his life, all its hallmark consequences; in particular, he eventually came to terms with his mother’s death but never got over it.