C.S. Lewis Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

C. S. Lewis 1898–1963

(Also wrote under pseudonyms Clive Hamilton, N. W. Clerk, and Nat Whilk; full name Clive Staples Lewis) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, children's writer, critic, and poet.

See also, C. S. Lewis Criticism and volumes 3 and 6.

The prolific author of persuasive religious polemics, allegorical fiction, and literary criticism, C. S. Lewis is considered among the most brilliant and influential Christian writers of the twentieth century. He is revered by religious thinkers, particularly in the United States, as a Christian apologist, lecturer, and essayist whose intelligence and provocative insight into the nature of divinity and human spirituality has won both the faith and devotion of legions of admirers. While his science fiction and didactic novels, particularly The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), The Screwtape Letters (1942), and Till We Have Faces (1956), enjoyed popular and critical esteem, his classic fantasy series, "The Chronicles of Narnia," is widely regarded as a landmark in children's literature. As a professor of literature Lewis also produced respected commentaries on medieval literature. His ability to write compelling narrative fiction and witty, accessible religious commentary caused his reputation to grow even after his death in 1963.

Biographical Information

Born in Belfast, Ireland, Lewis was the younger son of Albert James Lewis, a solicitor, and Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis, an accomplished mathematical scholar. After his mother died when Lewis was nine, he spent some unhappy years at boarding schools before becoming the private pupil of W. T. Kirkpatrick, whom Lewis admired greatly and who exerted a profound influence on his intellectual development. Lewis entered Oxford University in 1917, though soon left to serve in the army in World War I. He was wounded in 1918 and returned to Oxford in 1919. That year he published Spirits in Bondage (1919), poetry written under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Around this time he began an unusual association with Mrs. J. K. Moore, twenty-seven years his senior and the mother of an army friend killed in the war. Lewis established a household with Mrs. Moore, her young daughter, and his older brother Warren at The Kilns, his house near Oxford. Mrs. Moore continued to live with him until her death in 1951. Lewis taught philosophy and English literature at Oxford from 1925 until 1954, when he left for a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. At Oxford, Lewis was the first president of the Oxford Socratic Club, which served as a forum for debates on Christianity. He also founded the Inklings, an informal literary group whose members included two friends, the writers J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The defining event of Lewis's life and work was his conversion to Christianity in 1929. Until this period, Lewis had professed strictly atheist beliefs for most of his intellectual life, but he became convinced that his studies and personal experience led him incontrovertibly towards a belief in theism. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis described his reluctant conversion: "I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England." In 1941 and 1942 Lewis broadcast four series of radio programs on Christian issues on the BBC. These programs, which were later published in Broadcast Talks (1942), The Case for Christianity (1943), Christian Behaviour (1943), and Mere Christianity (1952), made Lewis famous in Britain as a Christian justifier and speaker. His radio talks and the 1942 publication of The Screwtape Letters earned him great demand as a lecturer, writer, and debater for the rest of his life. His fame grew in the next decade when he published "The Chronicles of Narnia," a series of children's fantasy books. Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer, in 1956. Gresham was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards and despite a remission died in 1960. Lewis was shattered by the loss of his wife and chronicled his bereavement in A Grief Observed (1961), which he published under the name N. W. Clerk. Lewis died at The Kilns of heart failure following a long illness on November 22, 1963.

Major Works

Lewis's extensive body of work comprises literary criticism, poetry, religion, and fiction. After his conversion, all of Lewis's fiction and most of his nonfiction writings reflected his study of and faith in Christianity. Lewis's work addresses conflicts between rationalism and faith and Christians' never ending quest to gain knowledge and grace and to move closer to God. He owed literary debts to a wide range of writers and thinkers including Plato, Milton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Tolkien. In his capacity as a scholar of literature Lewis wrote several respected works of literary criticism, including The Allegory of Love (1936), which studies the development of the idea of romantic love and the use of allegory in literature. Lewis was one of the first to espouse the idea that romantic love is strictly a modern construct and did not exist as modern society knows it until fairly recently. Lewis's religious nonfiction was typically directed towards lay people who wish to explore issues faced by contemporary Christians. Written in a lucid, conversational style, Lewis's religious writings are known for their incisive use of language and metaphors that make complicated ideas easy to understand. For example, The Problem of Pain (1940) discusses why God allows people to suffer and evil to exist if he is good. Lewis concludes that suffering is often vital to spiritual growth and that pain is sometimes essential to human existence. Surprised by Joy is an autobiographical account of the events leading to Lewis's religious conversion in which he explains how the atheist beliefs he held as a young man slowly gave way to a belief in God; particularly influential was Chesterton's Everlasting Man (1925). In A Grief Observed, Lewis recorded his odyssey through the stages of grief and his ensuing struggles with faith. Lewis's fiction spans genres as diverse as allegory, myth, science fiction, and children's fantasy. Present throughout all is his supernatural view of a higher power: God is everywhere, present in every aspect of his characters' lives. Typically at least one of the characters denies God's existence or betrays him, but cannot find fulfillment until he embraces the higher power's presence. In the allegory The Pilgrim's Regress, influenced by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the character John wanders the land searching for The Landlord. During his travels he meets characters representing schools of thought that attempt to steer him away from his path. These characters, including Mr. Enlightenment, Mr. Broad, and Mr. Sensible, satirize modern beliefs such as rationalism and subjectivism that Lewis disagreed with and sought to discredit. As John travels and encounters these characters, he finds he must go to back to his starting point and begin again where he lost his way before he can find the Landlord—God. Lewis's science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet (1939), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945), follows the travels of a human named Dr. Elwin Ransom to Mars, Venus, and back to Earth. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped by the evil Dr. Devine and his partner Weston and brought to Mars, known by its inhabitants as Malacandra. There he encounters the various beings of Malacandra. The planet is overseen by Oyarsa, the God figure, and eldila, angel-like beings. This contrasts sharply with Earth, which Ransom learns is known as Thulcandra, the "Silent Planet," because it is controlled by an entity the Malacandrans call The Bent One rather than Oyarsa. The other Malacandrans are the hrossa, poet-farmers, the sorns, scholar-philosophers, and the pfiltriggi, the artisans. Ransom is astonished to find that they all live in harmony, in contrast with Earth. He lives among the Malacandrans and grows to like them. When Devine and Weston kill a Malacandran, he helps the Malacandrans capture and try them. In Perelandra, Ransom goes to Venus, or Perelandra, to prevent a Perelandran Fall and expulsion from Eden. The part of the tempter is played by Weston, who has followed Ransom to the planet. An intense intellectual tug-of-war between the two ends in flight, pursuit, and Weston's Death. Ransom has saved the Perelandran Eve from temptation and Perelandra retains its Paradise. In the final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, a young sociologist and his wife, Mark and Jane Studdock, become involved in Earth's struggle between good and evil. Mark is recruited by a group known as NICE, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, led by Devine in a new incarnation as Lord Feverstone, while Jane becomes involved with a group headed by Ransom which fights NICE and its malevolent intentions. Lewis uses the now familiar metaphor of the bureaucracy as hell, depicting the bureaucracy NICE as an evil entity. He carried this metaphor further in The Screwtape Letters, an epistolary novel composed of correspondence from Screwtape, a senior devil, to his nephew Wormwood, a young devil. Screwtape sends Wormwood advice on tempting his first soul, making a number of observations about modern society, culture, marriage and family. Ultimately, Wormwood's mission fails when his target dies a heroic death with his soul intact. Lewis's most famous fictional works are a seven-volume series of children's fantasies, "The Chronicles of Narnia": The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and His Boy (1954), The Magician's Nephew (1955), and The Last Battle (1956). The books revolve around Narnia, another world with doorways into our world. Aslan, a benevolent lion and Christ-like figure, watches over Narnia. They are saturated with Christian symbolism blended with Greek and Roman mythical influences and Arthurian battle scenes. The narrative is fast-paced and compelling—although the books are allegorical, Lewis wished children to be able to read them simply to enjoy the story, without being conscious of being taught a lesson in the process. The Chronicles begin with the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four children are visiting the Professor, a family friend, when Lucy finds a door into the world of Narnia inside an old wardrobe. Narnia, which is populated by talking animals and mythical creatures such as fauns, centaurs, and dryads, is frozen in winter because it is ruled by the evil White Witch. Edmund falls under the Witch's spell and betrays Narnia and his siblings. Edmund is later forgiven and the children save Narnia, although Aslan must sacrifice himself in order to save his people. The children become Kings and Queens of Narnia but must eventually return to their own world where time runs differently to live out their lives there as ordinary children. In turn they become too old to return to Narnia and two new children, the Pevensies' cousin Eustace Scrubb and his schoolmate Jill Pole, join the story. The adventures culminate with The Last Battle, a Narnian account of the Book of Revelation. All the characters except Susan—whom we learn has rejected Narnia and its teachings—are brought to Narnia on its last day. Aslan welcomes them on the last day of Narnia's existence and the reader learns that they have all been killed in a train accident in Britain and are present at Narnia's judgment day. The series ends with the end of Narnia's existence and the characters' joyous passage to Paradise. Till We Have Faces (1956), a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, was Lewis's last work of fiction. Orual, Queen of Glome, narrates her story in the first person. Her tale begins as a complaint against the gods for their ill treatment of her. Orual is Psyche's older sister, and her ugliness stands in sharp contrast to Psyche's beauty. Orual makes up for the lack of affection in her life by smothering her sister with a jealous love. As the novel progresses, Orual sees that the gods are not to blame for her unhappiness. She comes to realize that she must abandon her bitterness and possessiveness in order to be cleansed.

Critical Reception

Many scholars of English literature consider Lewis's literary criticism, particularly The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954) to be among the finest commentaries on medieval literature in existence. Lewis's religious essays earned him enormous popular recognition and a number of critics echoed this sentiment, praising his extraordinary ability to use witty language, colloquialisms, anecdotes and simple metaphors to make moral precepts and theological issues easily comprehensible to lay persons from varied backgrounds. Though some religious critics fault Lewis for failing to construct a comprehensive theological framework for his beliefs, Lewis often stressed that he did not claim to be a theologian. He wanted to explore and explain religious issues that confronted ordinary people, and most thinkers of the time felt he accomplished that goal quite well. Some critics considered Lewis's work too imitative of other writers. His essays owe a great literary debt to Chesterton, whose work was instrumental in Lewis's conversion to Christianity, while the inspiration for The Pilgrim's Regress came directly from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Lewis's fiction was generally well received by critics. Though his science fiction trilogy is more "fiction" than "science," his ability to combine myth and religious archetypes into a compelling narrative generally pleased reviewers. While some reviewers reserved the most praise for the last and most ambitious installment of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, others felt it reached too far and became mired in the moral framework Lewis constructed to tell his story. Devotees of children's literature consider "The Chronicles of Narnia" one of the finest fantasies ever created. Although some critics, including Lewis's friend and "Lord of the Rings" author Tolkien, disliked Lewis's use in Narnia of a pastiche of Western characters from Greek mythological figures to St. George to Father Christmas, most critics praise Lewis's inventive retelling of Christian stories. In "C. S. Lewis and the Tradition of Visionary Romance," John D. Haigh regards Lewis as an author of classic romances rather than a novelist proper. According to Haigh, "the limitations of story do not preclude memorable moments in which the visionary romance succeeds in illuminating our inner being and its divine context. At these moments the romance enters regions of experience which are normally closed to the mundane patterns of the realistic novel." Lewis's contributions to the world of mythical and fantasy literature and his extensive writings on Christian theology make him a respected and controversial author in contemporary literary circles.