by James E. Person, Jr.
|C. S. Lewis|
On Friday, November 22, 1963, at about the same time as President John F. Kennedy prepared to enter the black limousine that would take him through downtown Dallas to his violent death, another life was coming to a far less dramatic close across the Atlantic in England. It was late afternoon in the village of Headington Quarry, a few miles outside Oxford, as a retired and infirm university professor, having just taken his afternoon tea, collapsed on the floor of his bedroom with a crash.
“C. S. Lewis is dead,” announced F. R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy. American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.”
It is perhaps uncharitable to repeat this brief anecdote, revealing as it does the words of an honorable man-and Lewis’ longtime foe in theories of literary criticism-in what surely was not his finest hour. Yet it bears repeating if only because it illustrates something of the strong reaction, favorable or unfavorable, C. S. Lewis could evoke-and continues to evoke-from his readers.
Despite the denial of some critics, Lewis is recognized worldwide as an outstanding Christian lay apologist, a writer of children’s books already deemed classics in their field, an adept novelist and fantasist, and a formidable literary scholar and logician. In the years since his death his books have attracted an ever-growing number of readers and are the subjects of increasing critical study. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952), for example, is considered one of the cornerstones of Christian literature written in this century and has helped numerous people to an understanding of the Christian faith. Meanwhile, the soundness of his theories of story-writing has been affirmed by authors of such various interests and outlooks as J. R. R. Tolkien and the rising American writer of horror fiction, Thomas Ligotti. Lewis has had his opponents and detractors as well, with Leavis being, if not the first or latest, among the foremost of his critics who have wished that the reputation and influence of “Screwtape Lewis” (as Wyndham Lewis called him) would simply disappear.
Today it is readily clear that Lewis’ popularity refuses to wane. Indeed, approximately two million copies of Lewis’ books are sold each year in the United States and the United Kingdom-six times the number sold in the author’s lifetime. This is not to suggest that statistics alone are the surest measure of an author’s greatness, else some of the nation’s foremost pulp-writers would, by such a standard, be considered our premier literary artists. No, in the case of Lewis the numbers reflect to a great extent the widespread appeal of his skill at delighting readers while instructing them in those essential truths and values which we ignore or challenge at our peril-“the permanent things” as T. S. Eliot called them. For in both his fiction and nonfiction Lewis, like Eliot, affirmed such norms as the rightness of order, not anarchy; the desirability of cultural change coming about slowly and organically; and the high value of custom, convention, and continuity. He also stressed the importance of individual responsibility for one’s decisions and actions; the necessity of recognizing man as a flawed creature, and of mistrusting the naked human ego and all utopian talk of men being like gods; and the overarching imperative of recognizing a transcendent order in the Person of God, the Author of Joy as revealed in the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.
At the foundation of Lewis’ major writings are godly Joy and the verities which the reader recognizes as squaring with his or her perceptions and conceptions of what is true. Lewis’ works bring into agreement one’s understanding gained of reasoning, personal experience, custom, and-if one has been so fortunate as to have acquired it in any measure- Scriptural knowledge. As one writer has well remarked somewhere, in Lewis’ books the materialist, the militant atheist, and the garden-variety sneerer suffer having their own long-trusted weapons of logic, ridicule, and irony turned back upon them, with devastating effect to their own orthodoxies and a heartening effect upon the pursuer of Joy. As Eugene McGovern has written, Lewis’ readers feel that their author
. . . has encountered their difficulties and dealt with them, that he has anticipated their objections and has articulated them better than they could. It is not too much to say that (as has been said of Dr. Johnson) he convinces his readers that however far back they go he has been there before them and they are meeting him on his way back, back from having addressed these subjects that matter most and having thought them through to the end, to “the absolute ruddy end.”
Out of all of Lewis’ works, the permanent things are discussed and defended perhaps most directly in the essay “The Poison of Subjectivity” and in one of the slimmest of the author’s many books, The Abolition of Man (1943). In the latter, Lewis warns of the creeping destruction of all values through progressive education designed to eliminate traditional concepts of objectivity, dictating instead the belief that there is no truth other than the fact that there is no truth. Lewis begins by taking to task a single English grammar textbook‘s coauthors, whom he identifies only as “Gaius” and “Titius.” Using examples drawn from their book, he attacks what he perceives as a growing trend in educational material: that of presenting all feelings, thoughts, and moral concepts as simply matters of opinion- all equally true or untrue depending upon one’s point of view. Lewis proceeds to flatten this argument, invoking what he terms the Tao: the natural moral law common to all cultures, which (he claims) came to full fruition in Christianity and which he illustrates with supporting quotations in the appendix to his book.
All of which is a cheap, grandstanding performance, hostile critics have claimed. The Abolition of Man, they say, is merely the simplistic work of a traditionalist crank, and it is based on a dubious premise, to boot. For “Gaius” and “Titius” are only two textbook authors, and to present their prejudices as typical and then destroy their alleged position is straw-man brawling at its shabbiest. But many other critics-among them a substantial number of public school teachers and university professors-believe otherwise. They assure us that if “Gaius” and “Titius” are straw men, they are straw men whose veins flow with warm, red blood, and that they are nowhere near as isolated as Lewis’ attackers maintain. With the followers of these alleged straw men striding by the thousands beneath the banners of values clarification and political correctness, “Gaius” and “Titius” might be cloaked more suitably in the joint pseudonym of “Legion,” for they are many. All of which suggests that the arguments of Lewis’ hostile critics sometimes reflect more unwise prejudice and condescending bluster than thoughtful substance.
The Abolition of Man, in fact, has been praised as Lewis’ best book by such a distinguished scholar as the author’s longtime friend and influence, Owen Barfield, and deemed an important work by the noted Christian thinker Francis A. Schaeffer. Likewise, Russell Kirk has affirmed the work’s value, writing, “I believe The Abolition of Man is Lewis’ book most pertinent to our present discontents.” The book can be read as a most appropriate and worthwhile introduction to Kirk’s own Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969) and to the more recent The Closing of the American Mind (1987) by Allan Bloom, and A World without Heroes (1988) by George Roche.
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes,’’ wrote Lewis in 1944. “We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Little did Lewis know, when he wrote those words, that the day would come when his own books would be valued as such-and much more. To many readers Lewis is the soldering-point between a belief in God and the sense of joy and wonder they experience reading Tolkien. Since Lewis’ death, the world has not seen an orthodox Christian apologist of his persuasiveness and influence. Meanwhile such classics as The Screwtape Letters (1942), Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), and the science-fantasy “Ransom trilogy”-Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945)- have found new generations of readers and influenced many writers; read, for example, Frank E. Piretti’s novel This Present Darkness (1986), a work which combines some of the spiritual insights of The Screwtape Letters with an apocalyptic story line reminiscent of That Hideous Strength. These and Lewis’ other books continue to provide hours of entertainment, instruction, and joy to millions.
In his book Letters to Malcolm (1964), finished shortly before his death, Lewis concluded his final letter to the fictional Malcolm with the promise of an impending weekend visit, signing off with the confident words, “Till Saturday.” Or, in other words, till we meet on the old Sabbath. Till we reach and know the rest of God. Until that time, appearances seem to indicate of Lewis’ work what Eliot wrote in his own final poem:
. . . the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
“Think of me,” Lewis once wrote in a letter, “as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice.” Those in search of spiritual guidance, thoughtful essays on far-ranging subject matter, and entertaining fiction, could do little better than turn to the books of C. S. Lewis. To borrow and alter the ending of Evelyn Waugh’s famous essay on P. G. Wodehouse: Lewis’ joyful world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from a captivity that may be grayer and altogether worse than our own. For the benefit of us all, he has made vivid The Word and a world for us to live in and delight in.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
James E. Person, Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 2000) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (Cumberland House Publishing, 2006). This review originally appeared in the Modern Age (Summer 1991) and is published here with their permission.