Then there was his second “mother,” Mrs. Janie King Moore (the mother of a comrade-in-arms who was killed in the Great War), about whose presence in his life he was false enough in his 20s (while a “blaspheming atheist” — Lewis’s own words) to lie continuously to his father. We learn from letters he exchanged 25 years later — in Latin — with an Italian priest who is now St. Giovanni Calabria that he remained sufficiently riven by guilt over this early mendacity to wonder if his sins had been forgiven: this, after writing, but not himself publishing, an essay (“On Forgiveness”) in which he affirmed that with the proper satisfaction of certain requirements a person would be grievously sinning if still uncertain of forgiveness. (He would recover his good sense shortly before Mrs. Moore’s death in January of 1951 but after her departure to a nursing home.) Finally, and in the opinion of some who would know, he was a wonderful friend but given to new, unbounded enthusiasms — we will never fully understand his involvement with the American writer Joy Davidman or his secrecy about his marriage to her. Moreover, these enthusiasms might even compromise old friendships, as his enthusiasm for Davidman did his friendship with Tolkien.
Now, if none of that
invites studied consideration, there is more still: the Ulsterman who had a strain of anti-Catholic bigotry but who once was suspected of having “poped,” in part because of certain Catholic practices and beliefs — e.g., frequent auricular confession and taking of the Eucharist, prayers for the dead, belief in purgatory (ironically, the possibility of his brother’s converting to Rome horrified him); the very busy man who more than anything else wanted to be left alone but who answered every letter — and there were thousands — that he received; the spiritual seeker who, in his late 40s (before the effusion that is Narnia
), so accused himself of accidia
that he truly believed he would never write another word and seriously welcomed the prospect, so tempting to pride was the praise he was receiving. “Lord of the narrow gate and needle’s eye / Take from me all my trumpery lest I die,” he wrote in a poem published only after his death. He would remain thoroughly conflicted over rhetoric — its power and his mastery of it — his whole life.
Nevertheless, it is owing to that rhetorical mastery that his personal impact upon millions of readers has famously reached even to the point of religious conversion. He could summarize an argument with an epigram as crisp as a Communion host: “I believe in Christianity,” he writes in the sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “the way I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” His imagery — “one day we will ride bareback, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses” — is often irresistible, conveying his pre-eminent concept of Sehnsucht (what he called Joy), the desire for Heaven and the occasion for hope, the hallmark of his apologetics. In Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) he describes the afterglow of his hero’s transcendent experience of Joy: “It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island. . . . Presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, ‘I know now what I want.’” Thirty years later he would tell us, in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (the last book he would see through to publication), that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”
Yet I wonder if that last Lewis — the romantic proselytizer and avuncular oracle — takes up so much reputational oxygen that it obscures the whole man’s broad cultural influence. For each of his personae has its voice: the religious thinker and fantasist as well as the public philosopher, the literary artist, the penetrating critic, and the unrelenting letter writer. For it is all of those voices together that sing us to intellectual clarity and coherence, to visionary joy, and to spiritual hope, and that lift us finally to the brink of Heaven.
At the end of the day, that is why all the fuss.
— James Como is professor emeritus of rhetoric and public communication, York College (CUNY). His most recent book is Why I Believe in Narnia: 33 Reviews and Essays on the Life & Work of C. S. Lewis. He can be reached at [email protected].