Where to begin with C. S. Lewis?
Courtney Guest Kim
When he was four years old, C. S. Lewis renamed himself Jack and refused to answer to Clive Staples. For the rest of his life, he was Jack to his friends. He was a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Yet he was also a man of resilient good humor, a jovial man, as his many friends attest. He is known both as a Christian apologist and as a writer of children’s stories.
He was nine years old when his mother died of cancer. Three weeks after her death, his father sent him off to a boarding school that closed when the sadistic headmaster was certified insane. A sequence of further schooling led Jack to Oxford. But two days after matriculating, he signed up with the Officer Training Corps. He arrived at the front-line trenches in France on his nineteenth birthday, 29 November 1917.
Before shipping out, he had made a deal with his OTC roommate, Paddy Moore, that if one of them were killed, the survivor would look after the other’s family. Jack was wounded in the Germans’ spring advance. Paddy and all his other OTC friends were killed. After the war, Jack resumed his studies at Oxford and adopted the destitute Mrs. Moore and her young daughter as his own mother and sister. To the dismay of his relatives, he set up a household with them and devoted himself to their care and support for the next thirty years.
Jack Lewis was romantic and chivalrous long before he considered believing in God. He was still an atheist when a shared interest in Norse mythology drew him into a friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, another Oxford Don—who was, as Lewis reminisced, both a philologist and a Papist, just the sort of person he had always been warned against. For the son of a Protestant Belfast family, Lewis found himself at Oxford with an unusual number of Catholic friends. Perhaps this was because he could articulate their devotion to the Blessed Virgin better than most of them could themselves: “The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervor that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake.” Late-night talks with Tolkien and other friends led Lewis to declare himself first a theist, and then eventually a Christian. On Christmas Day, 1931, he entered into communion with the Church of England.
His group of friends—the Inklings—met regularly throughout Lewis’ life to critique each other’s writing-in-progress. They were counter-culturally Christian in a university context that was becoming steadily more hostile to faith. Lewis was working on The Problem of Pain when World War II broke out. The Screwtape Letters followed in weekly magazine installments throughout 1941. Screwtape is perhaps the most exquisite specimen of Lewis’ distinctive mix of dry wit, spiritual insight and creative storytelling. Under the fictional premise, an experienced, senior demon writes letters of instruction to a junior tempter on how best to secure his “patient” for hell. Screwtape is still the most entertaining book about Christian virtue that you’re ever likely to come across, and it was Lewis’ first popular success. The BBC took notice and recruited him to give a series of radio talks that were later published as Mere Christianity.
Lewis was determined to sidestep interdenominational quarrels and to focus on the Creed. Few theological writers in the history of the Western Church have so scrupulously refrained from partisan cheap shots. To vet his talks before delivering them, he sent his manuscripts to representatives of several denominations. His Catholic editor was a former student who had become a Benedictine monk. St. John Paul II became a fan of C.S. Lewis and quoted from The Four Loves in his homilies. If you’ve given up on “love” as a meaningful word, read this book and watch “love” come to life again as recognizably Christ-like, “the Divine life operating under human conditions.”
Lewis’ academic specialty was Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and he drew on ancient texts for his fascinating re-imagination of Christian concepts. The Great Divorce was inspired by a pre-1570 idea, the Refrigerium: a holiday from hell, as implied in early French missals that included a Mass for one whose soul was in doubt. In The Great Divorce, souls in hell line up at a bus stop to take a day trip to heaven, to see how they might like a change. (Most decide they wouldn’t.) Lewis’ flights of fancy are compelling because his intellectual integrity is so stringent, and his moral principles so disciplined that anything he turns his mind to seems to be refracted through the purest of lenses. You can’t go wrong picking up any of his books. The greatest regret you’re likely to feel is the reluctance to set him aside and return to the company of ordinary people who just don’t care that much about the difference between right and wrong. For him, scrupulous moral scrutiny is a springboard into a wholly positive understanding of the Christian calling, a dynamic, daring creativity that is strikingly romantic: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Lewis’s chivalrous sensibility is accessible to young readers as well, with The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of stories inspired by the child evacuees from London whom he and his household welcomed during the Blitz. Start with The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the tale of the first generation of children to find their way into the world of Narnia, a boy and a girl whose snarky dynamic is spot-on realistic for a couple of pre-teens trapped in an alternate universe. They must learn to work together to evade an evil uncle as the story unfolds. As in all of Lewis’ fiction, the story itself is entertaining, but at a deeper level it functions as a meditation on Christian themes. The Magician’s Nephew imagines the creation of the world and how evil entered into it. The King of Narnia, Aslan, is a lion—not tame, but good. Aslan is the Christ figure who, at the end of the seventh story in the series, The Last Battle welcomes the final generation of adventurers into Narnia: “You are—as you used to call it…dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun…the beginning of the real story…the Great Story which…goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
The last story of Jack’s own life is the most romantic one of all. It wasn’t until Mrs. Moore had died and her daughter had grown up that at age fifty-four he met his wife, Joy Davidman. Eight years later, he lost her to cancer. A Grief Observed is the terse, intimate record of his bereavement. It is the spontaneous response of a great soul struggling through agony. After a lifetime of brilliant, inspired, clever writing, this raw text sets the capstone on the spiritual and literary achievement of a man through whom shines the light of the Word Himself.