William G. Johnson and Marcia K. Houtman (essay date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "Platonic Shadows in C. S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 75-87.

[In the following essay, Johnson and Houtman examine references to the philosophical investigations of Plato in Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. According to the critics, Lewis frequently incorporates Platonic concepts found in The Republic, in particular the famous Allegory of the Cave.]

As a literary critic, science fiction writer, Christian apologist, and creator of the Chronicles of Narnia, in the last several decades C. S. Lewis has attained a reputation and following enviable in size and amazing in diversity. In many ways the quiet Oxbridge professor's achievements have assumed an air of authority, an aura of credibility, difficult to explain; Lewis, after all, is not an "apologist" in the same sense as Merton, nor a critic with a comprehensive system such as McLuhan. He is not, likewise, a fiction writer whose "science" background even begins to parallel that of Asimov, whose characterizations approach those of Faulkner, whose ethical dilemmas rival Greene's, and whose epic sweep is as broad as Tolkien's.

What Lewis' fiction has, however, and what captures his readers, is a sense of "story"—not just "story" as plot, but "story" as myth, as archetype, as dreams recalled. And what Lewis succeeds in doing so well is creating in the fiction a reality that draws readers into worlds seemingly more real than those in which the readers live. Behind Lewis' process and method of the "real" fiction set in opposition to the "fictionalized" world of reality is a long tradition of Platonized Christianity with which Lewis was very familiar and from which he selected elements to incorporate into his personal beliefs.

In his scholarly works Lewis makes quite clear his knowledge of, and familiarity with, Plato's works. Indeed, it is Lewis the critic of Medieval and Renaissance literature who was prominent in affirming the "Platonic" nature of those two literary-historical periods. His Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, A Preface to "Paradise Lost," and Spenser's Images of Life make clear how extensively Plato and the Neo-Platonists influenced the Christian humanist writers of those respective literary periods. In Lewis' own fiction some elements of the Christian Platonism are easily identifiable, whereas others are so intermingled with Lewis' own theology that they are almost overlooked or, at least, hardly recognizable as being Greek in origin. At times Lewis himself not only points the way to such sources but even allows characters to point them out.

Such is the case with Lewis' character Digory Kirke, the professor who appears in five of the seven Narnia Chronicles. Variously depicted as the one "very wise grown-up" to whom the adventurous children can entrust their story of Narnia, as a young boy in The Magician's Nephew and as a rejuvenated, handsome Lord Digory in The Last Battle, Digory Kirke is also presented as being human enough to have all the foibles and failings of a middle-aged professorial bachelor. In The Magician's Nephew, for example, it is a younger Digory, with his uncontrolled curiosity, who wanders too far and loses the path back to earth; in the same book it is Digory who falls under the spell of Jadis, the White Witch, whom he finds the most beautiful woman he ever saw—refusing to recognize her terrible power and evil intent (which even the children can see). Yet it is an older Digory, motivated so often by the love of his sick mother, who is both transformed into a handsome young lord in The...

(This entire section contains 5555 words.)

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Last Battle and proffers his "explanation" for the apocalypse just witnessed in Narnia: "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!"

But the professorial Digory goes too far in such a hasty glossing as this. Certainly some of what has just occurred in The Last Battle is "in Plato" and can be explained by Platonic concepts; but just as certainly much of what the earth travelers have just seen has little or no base in the Greek philosophies. Lewis' own Platonism is highly selective and highly diffused, and although he was quite familiar with the corpus of Plato's writings, the application of Plato's ideas is through Lewis' Platonized Christianity (more so than through any Christianized Platonism).

If put to the test one might find Platonic "sources" in a variety of Lewis' writings. Most obvious would be the use of the Republic, with its famous Allegory of the Cave, its exposition of the doctrine of Forms, and its ur-Freudian doctrine of dreams as submerged wishes. The Phaedo is also evident, particularly because of its discussions of immortality and the unchanging reality behind the mutable Forms; the Timaeus also develops the nature of Forms and Ideas, but does so with a developed myth or story about a scheme of creation in which the world is described as a work of art crafted by a beneficent creator. In the Timaeus Plato treats the subject of sense perceptions, and in the Symposium one finds the famous presentation of the ascendancy of love, a topic of great significance in Lewis' work but which is more closely connected to the Neo-Platonists—particularly Ficino and Pico—than to Plato. One might also point to the theodicy, or principles of natural religion, of Plato's Laws, as well as to the refutation of dogmatic atheism contained in that work, as background for Lewis' various universes (notably in Perelandra). Finally, and especially as they prepare readers for Lewis' depictions and descriptions of Sehnsucht, both the Meno and the Phaedrus discuss more than passingly Plato's theory of recollection.

Yet one can read Lewis' fiction without the background in Plato, although, like the children, one must be wary of Digory's offhanded remark—wary because it is spoken with authority by a respected professor and therefore can too readily be assumed to be "true." What Digory blithely refers to as "Plato" might much more accurately be described as "Plato as his doctrines are filtered through St. Paul, Augustine, the Florentine Neo-Platonists, and the Christian Humanists." Furthermore, considering that the observation about Plato is Digory's attempt to explain how the "New Narnia" is the "real thing" and that what had previously been thought to be Narnia was actually only "a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here" (The Last Battle), a much more evident "source" (as well as explanation) is Paul's famous statement in I Corinthians that "when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away."

For another reason the reader must also be wary of Digory's source reference: it is too easy to forget that no one "source," even Plato, could possibly account for the artistic, theoretical, cosmological, and theological mélange Lewis presents within the seven books depicting Narnia's genesis, history, and destruction. As John D. Cox suggests, "a beginning list of sources for [even] The Last Battle would include the biblical Apocalypse, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Wagner's Ring, the Enneads of Plotinus, George MacDonald's sermons, ancient Roman religion, and probably Aesop's Fables." Although the temptation is strong to add vast compilations of other "sources" used in depicting Narnia—Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Medieval bestiaries, Spenser, Milton, Bunyan, Chesterton, Carroll, Potter, Milne, Tolkien, Williams, to name a few—the fact remains that Lewis was an enormously well-read writer who freely adapted, adopted, and altered to suit his purposes. In most cases it is only of passing interest to note a "source"—as when Glimfeather in The Silver Chair flies off to the Parliament of Owls (an amusing reference to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls). What really matters "is the use made of these hints, ideas and inspiration … now arranged in a new pattern."

Nonetheless, Plato does play a strong role in Narnia—sometimes directly, sometimes not. Lewis himself never quibbled about his admiration for this philosopher. In Miracles he refers to Aristotle and Plato being at "the peak" of Greek philosophy, and in the same work refers later to "the old, richly imaginative thought which still survives in Plato." Earlier he had written in his diary entry for 8 February 1927 about Plato's "delightful civilized imagination," and at one time Lewis declared that he loved Plato before he even knew Augustine (God in the Dock). As Robert Houston Smith indicates, there was within Lewis "a deep-rooted affinity for Platonism" that enabled him to enfold "Platonism into his Christianity, not simply as an intellectual system but as a satisfying window upon reality."

Although Lewis' fiction is liberally sprinkled with Platonic elements, it is primarily in the Chronicles, and specifically in The Last Battle, that Plato's influence is most clearly observed in the controlling images and in the philosophy with which the work is imbued. In this work Lewis pictures the differences between the New Narnia and the Narnia of the previous six Chronicles; he likewise differentiates between the "Shadowlands" and the Real World (Earth and the old Narnia for the former, the New Narnia for the latter), noting that the one is like dreaming in the night and the other like waking to the morning.

It is also in the final chapters of The Last Battle that several of the Narnian characters, along with Jill and Eustace, pass through the Stable Door from a dark and crumbling Narnia into a bright world where they are met by their old friends, the Pevensies. And it is at this point that Digory explains to young Peter and the others that the Narnia they had known was "only a shadow or a copy of the Real Thing, as different as waking life is from a dream." And all of it, he adds, is in Plato.

The most obvious place in Plato to which Digory might be referring is Book Seven of the Republic with its famous Allegory of the Cave. Or, as Walter Hooper suggests, one might look as well to the Phaedo, in which Plato discusses immortality and the unchanging reality behind the changing Forms. As it is, there are so many scattered hints, clues, and references it hardly pays to look to one Platonic work at all. It takes little literary or philosophical acumen to discern in the eschatological upheaval that destroys the Old Narnia and in the resulting movement into the unchanging Real Narnia Lewis' adaptation both of the Platonic view of the real world of Forms behind the instantial world of shadows and the Christian concept of the New Jerusalem replacing the temporary, insubstantial, mutable Old Earth.

But long before the dissolution of the Old Narnia and the Old Order, Lewis raises Platonic questions about the nature of reality; he fills the pages of The Last Battle with examples of the mistaken identification of the "shadows," or insubstantial, for the Real. In the last days of Narnia the distortions become even greater than they were earlier. For example, Puzzle, the gentle but simple donkey, succumbs to the wishes of the clever monkey, Shift, dons the lionskin, and presents himself as Aslan. Ludicrous as the imitation is, there are those who actually confuse Puzzle with Aslan; many of the dwarfs, for example, are led to fatal misconceptions because of their insisting on the reality of what is only a shadow.

And "shadow" is precisely the association Lewis creates for Tash, the bloodthirsty god of the Calormenes in The Last Battle. A cruel deity appeased by blood sacrifice, Tash is presented as the antithesis of Aslan's good qualities. His arrival in Narnia is one of the most terrifying in all the Chronicles:

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it.

Such shadows and shadowy figures are not uncommon the closer one gets to the last days of the Old Narnia; they remind one of the shadows that Plato's Cave prisoners mistake for reality. In Plato, as in Lewis, one cannot be sure about the shadows—until the time when one leaves the cave and literally sees the light. A prisoner released from the cave, Plato suggests, would be blinded by the light and would, for a time, see shadows more clearly than real things. He would distrust these unfamiliar "real" things and cling to his old belief in "reality," only gradually replacing the old view with a new. Only after this kind of adjustment would the prisoner come to understand that even the greatest honors in his old world would be nothing compared to life even as a slave in the new. Any attempts to convince those still in the Cave of their error would be met with resentment, refusal, and rejection.

This is precisely the situation in The Silver Chair where the Queen of the Underland (a projection of Spenser's Lucifera) has imprisoned and enchanted Prince Rilian. Paul Ford interprets Rilian's movements as a progress of the soul, which "in its depths knows that its present bodily existence is a fall from a sunny overworld of truth into a shadowy underworld of shifting appearances. This fall, however, is simultaneously a fall in consciousness. The soul forgets its immortal identity." The witch convinces Rilian and the others sent to his rescue that the Overworld and Aslan exist only in their minds and only as a "copy" of her Underland and its inhabitants. After asking the Prince to explain what the sun is (Plato's ultimate example of the bright light of reality), the Queen turns to her own purposes his attempt to define the sun by comparing it to the overhead lamp:

When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children's story.

Even Aslan is, she tells them, only a copy, an imaginary "bigger and better cat." The Queen "is the archetypical reductionist, trying to convince the cave-dwellers that the shadows of their immediate experience are all there is." She only fails because the very practical Puddleglum dis-spells her evil effects by stamping out the fire creating the Underland illusions (exactly as the fire in Plato's allegory casts the shadows on the Cave wall).

The famous Cave is itself cleverly presented in The Last Battle, although the falsehood of the shadow world is more pronounced because of the Ape's manipulation of light and image. One recalls that in Plato the light is behind the insubstantially bound prisoners, whereas the shadows are projected on the wall before them. The son et lumière presented to Tirian, last King of Narnia, relies on a distortion of a different sort:

Far away there appeared a red light. Then it disappeared for a moment and came back again, bigger and stronger. Then he could see dark shapes going to and fro on this side of the light and carrying bundles and throwing them down. He knew now what he was looking at. It was a bonfire, newly lit, and people were throwing bundles of brushwood on it. Presently it blazed up and Tirian could see that it was on the very top of the hill. He could see quite clearly the stable behind it, all lit up in the red glow, and a great crowd of Beasts and Men between the fire and himself.

Here, in the "false Narnia," even the light deceives; the good Tirian "could not make out very clearly" what the objects were and "couldn't be sure that what he saw was not the real Aslan…. How could one be sure?"

Sureness never comes in the shadow world although eventually the real light is shown to everyone. It then becomes a matter of accepting the "real" light or rejecting it as false. Lewis believes that even the cave dwellers have some longings, dreams, intimations of immortality for a world beyond the shadows. This longing (a form of Plato's doctrine of the soul's longing for the real Forms behind the instantial shapes of this world) Lewis calls Sehnsucht. An important, even key, element of Lewis' thought, Sehnsucht describes "the desire for God and Heaven [which Lewis] thought was part of every person…. Sehnsucht, for Lewis, can only be filled by God, and is similar to the desire described by Blaise Pascal as a cross-shaped hole in the heart of man." In his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Lewis staunchly defends Sehnsucht in the works of one of his heroes and models, Edmund Spenser, noting that Sehnsucht would "logically appear as among the sanest and most fruitful experiences we have" because the object of the longing "really exists and really draws us to itself."

Yet Lewis is only partially Platonic in his repeated references to Sehnsucht. Taken in their full expression, the longings Plato describes (particularly in the Phaedo) are part of his argument for immortality of the soul, a belief already affirmed in Greece by Pythagorean and Orphic mystics. Still, Plato was the "first great prose writer to enforce it by philosophical arguments, or impress it upon the imagination by vivid eschatological myths…. Plato's name was the symbol and rallying point of the entire religious and philosophic opposition to the dogmatic materialism of the Epicureans and of the positive wing of the Peripatetics." But these same "proofs of immortality" in the Phaedo are inextricably interconnected with, and depend on the logical consequences of, the theory of Ideal Forms.

In the first part of the Phaedo two proofs are given for immortality, the first being that all processes or changes are transitions between contraries. If life changes into death, death must therefore change into life. The soul must exist after death because it must pass into life. Yet the second argument, which Lewis develops only in part and which is significant to his view of Sehnsucht, is the theory of recollection and reminiscence (also discussed in the Meno and Phaedo). This theory not only implies a transcendent world of reality (the Forms) but the possibility of preexistence, or of a nonincarnate soul that has experiences in a prior existence and which prior experiences are then recollected at various times, causing the soul in this world to long for the perfect world it once knew.

Lewis never seems to have been concerned that what he develops in his discussions of Sehnsucht was only half a Platonic theory. The soul's longing is important for Lewis; it is this longing that ultimately gets the Narnia "pilgrims" to the Real Narnia, and it is this longing that is described by Jewel the Unicorn (in The Last Battle) when exclaiming about the real Narnia:

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.

In one sense Lewis is playing with the idea of one world "looking a little" like the real world, for in each of the reminiscences "recollected" is the germ of the whole image. As with Blake's grain of sand, in which one can see a world and thus hold eternity in one's hand, and as with Dame Julian's image of the universe seen as a hazelnut in her own hands, so Lewis depicts small things containing larger things inside. Digory explains to the assembly that in the New Narnia "its inside is bigger than its outside," and Lucy adds the metaphysical paradox that "in our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."

Such is the longing Lewis himself reveals in Mere Christianity:

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy…. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death…. I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.

In other words, what is seen in this life as some kind of ultimate fulfillment turns out, like Don Quixote's windmills, to be an insubstantial shadow, a False Florimell, a mere suggestion of that for which a person is actually longing.

What Lewis does not touch on, at least in Platonic terms, is the preexistence of the souls, which state draws those in the shadow world of this life to return to their "true country." For Lewis the explanation for the longing and for the reminiscences is a different one, one that marks a major distinction between Plato's distant, removed Demiurge and Lewis' Hebraic-Christian depiction of an involved God. In Plato the Demiurge created the Forms as well as the insubstantial worlds; the preexistent souls of people recall the bright shapes of the Forms and long for a return to the world beyond this one. The Demiurge has little or nothing to do with the real or the unreal worlds after their creation. For Lewis, however, as for all orthodox Christians, God is intimately involved with the creation, and the "intimations of immortality" are both recurring gifts and an ongoing means (as with Marvell's drop of dew) to draw the created world to a heavenly "home." As Lewis notes when writing about himself: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing."

Not everyone, as Lewis suggests in various places, wants the gifts, and not everyone is lured from the instantial world of shadows to the substantive reality of true Forms (such as those represented by the Real Narnia). The most poignant depiction of this is in The Great Divorce, where the "Bright Spirit" Reginald tries to convince his shadowy sister Pam that she must make some vital changes in her viewpoint if she hopes to remain in heaven and have the chance to see her beloved son Michael. Reginald explains gently to Pam that Michael

won't be able to see or hear you as you are at present [an insubstantial dweller in the shadowlands]. You'd be totally invisible to Michael. But we'll soon build you up…. As soon as it's possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit…. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.

This "thickening treatment" is the result of moving out of the cavelike world of shadows into the wider, deeper world of reality, Narnia, Heaven; it is, as it were, the putting on of reality—a process that hurts "at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadow," as the omnibus travelers' in The Great Divorce discover when "two of the ghosts screamed and ran for the bus. The rest … huddled closer to one another."

The reaction of the ghosts to the solid people is echoed in the reaction of the disloyal renegade dwarfs in The Last Battle. Like the prisoners in Plato's Cave who refuse to respond to the knowledge of another world outside the Cave, the shadow-blinded dwarfs huddle together "in a little circle facing one another" immediately before the same Stable Door that has just allowed Tirian, the children, and the loyal Narnians to move into a beautiful, dazzlingly bright land. The dwarfs, however, are blind to their surroundings despite the futile campaign of Tirian and the others to convince them that a brave and bright new world can open for them also. As the group approaches the dwarfs, the harsh voice of a dwarf reprimands them:

"Look out!" said one of [the dwarfs] in a surly voice. "Mind where you're going. Don't walk into our face!"

"All right!" said Eustace indignantly. "We're not blind. We've got eyes in our heads."

"They must be darn good ones if you can see in here," said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

"In where?" asked Edmund.

"Why you bone-head, in here of course," said Diggle. "In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable."

"Are you blind?" said Tirian.

"Ain't we all blind in the dark!" said Diggle.

"But it isn't dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs," said Lucy. "Can't you see? Look up! Look round! Can't you see me?"

"How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain't there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?"

No matter what the children and the true Narnians do, the dwarfs will not be convinced. To the "blind" dwarfs, the violets Lucy offers are only "filthy stable litter," and the feast Aslan lays before them consists only of things one would normally expect to find in a "smelly little hole of a stable." Tirian, in frustration, cries, "There is no black hole, save in your own fancy, fool!" and picking Diggle up "swung him right out of the circle of Dwarfs." But Diggle only rubs his nose, howls, and runs back to his place in the tight little circle.

Even the appearance of Aslan, depicted as "huge and real," has no effect on the dwarfs. Lucy pleads with him to help them, but he explains that there is only so much he can do:

They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.

Harsh as it might seem to contemporary readers, Aslan leaves the dwarfs and moves on. All efforts have been made to bring them into the new, Real Narnia—but the dwarfs themselves have chosen the world of shadow. They have, as with Milton's Satan, "made a hell of heaven" in which the mind is its own place. Aslan's response to move on is precisely that of Plutarch's Ulysses to the unrepentant Gryllus, of Spenser's Guyon when he commands, "Let Grill be Grill, and have his hoggish mind," and of Dante's Virgil when he describes the "cieca vita" (blind lives) of the Neutrals damned to a shadowy limbo outside the gates of heaven as well as outside the gates of hell—"non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa" (let us not talk further of them; look and pass on).

Whereas the blindness of the dwarfs is metaphoric, Plato treats "sight" as literal and figurative; and in the Republic he indicates an area in which sight is distinguished from the other senses. In order that sight may occur not only must there be an object to see and an eye capable of seeing, but there must also exist light playing on the object. In the best cases this light will be that of the sun. For Plato, the light and the sun become major images. Just as the eye sees most clearly when its object is bathed in sunlight, so "the mind apprehends most clearly when it views its object in the light of the Idea of good. It is this that 'gives to objects of knowledge their truth, and to him who knows them his power of knowing.'"

Translated into traditional literary imagery, light brings enlightenment; transformed into traditional Christian imagery, the light of the "Son" enlightens with eternal life. Life in the shadowy Cave gives way to a world so big it cannot be comprehended, and so wonderful it cannot be described. In Till We Have Faces Lewis has Psyche explain to Orual that in some of the Greek masters "death opens a door out of a little dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines…." King Tirian's password—"The light is dawning, the lie broken"—succinctly describes both cause and effect and in one word, "lie," represents the shadow world for what it is. The ascent "farther up and farther in," a phrase repeated numerous times (particularly in The Last Battle, where this is precisely the direction the travelers take), reminds us again of the mystical ascent into the great Rose of the Paradiso, where all is suffused with an ever-increasing brightness of light. It is, as Lucy notes, a "world within world, Narnia within Narnia," literally ad infinitum, and it is the same movement into the real light and the real world of Forms Plato's prisoners must make if they ever leave the dark Cave.

It is with light that Lewis culminates both The Great Divorce and The Last Battle in both of which the process of moving from the instantial and insubstantial world to the solid and real world of Heaven/Narnia is completed with the drawing of a new day. In the former the light comes "like solid blocks," bringing with it a chorus of woods, men, and angels all singing together "It comes! It comes!… Sleepers awake!" The narrator, realizing that he has not yet completed his lessons in preparation for a new life in the new world, is compelled by the first rays of the sun shooting over the horizon to bury his head into the folds of his Teacher's robes and scream, "The morning! The morning! I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost."

But in The Last Battle, the reader observes characters who have completed their lessons and are ready to understand fully that they have reached heaven, the place of ultimate reality. As the light before them grows stronger, Aslan himself comes to greet the group. Though they are overwhelmed with the joy of their new discoveries and their reunion with Aslan, their knowledge is not quite complete. However, Aslan's words give them all the reassurance they will ever need:

"You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."

Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often."

"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?" Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

Recollections of other worlds, movements from shadowy worlds to brightly illuminated ones, the dangers of sense perceptions in a world of changing shapes and forms, the reality of an immutable world beyond this one and of an immortal life that replaces this instantial and insubstantial present one (which actually exists only as a dream): these are themes to which Lewis repeatedly returns. His fictionalized worlds and his nonfiction works reveal his treating these topoi as serious, fundamental ones. And all of these are treated as well in the various dialogues of Plato. Although the analogies to the Cave story are fairly explicit, it is impossible to ascertain how much else Lewis takes directly from Plato, how much is "second hand" through the Church Fathers, Neo-Platonists, and Renaissance Christian Humanists, and how much is merely an amalgam developed by Lewis as part of his own creative processes. As much an overstatement as Digory's words are, the fact remains that much of what one finds in Lewis' fiction is in Plato—though certainly not "all." It is sufficient to note that the Platonic elements are there throughout Lewis' works, and for those readers who recognize them, there is added a dimension to the readings that both broadens and deepens the literary experience.

Sally A. Bartlett (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: "Humanistic Psychology in C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces: A Feminist Critique," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Fall, 1989, pp. 185-98.

[In the following essay, Bartlett provides a feminist reading of Till We Have Faces from the theoretical perspective of humanistic psychology. According to Bartlett, feminists and humanistic psychologists would object to Lewis's presentation of "self-effacing women" who submit to male control.]

C. S. Lewis writes in his concluding note in Till We Have Faces, "The central alteration in my own version [of the Psyche myth] consists in making Psyche's palace [the palace given her by the god Amor] invisible to normal eyes…. This change, of course, brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine [one of Psyche's sisters] and finally modifies the whole quality of the tale." I believe Lewis is correct in his analysis of this change, for, as I shall demonstrate, the protagonist's inability to see the palace mirrors her inability to see and understand her own inner conflicts.

Yet, while I feel Lewis has masterfully illustrated Orual's psychological dilemma, the vision of reality I see presented in this text appears confused, for Lewis asserts an Archetypal Christian ontology and then proceeds to impose that ontology on his mimetically constructed characters in an attempt to fuse the moral requirements of his religious belief system with what he intuitively perceives and accurately presents as the psychological motivations of human behavior. While Lewis's moral recommendations seem to work for the characters in his text, these ideals may or may not work so well for the book's readers, whose reality does not necessarily validate such recommendations. Bernard Paris, in Character and Conflict in Jane Austen's Novels, speaks of a clash between the structural requirements of a novel and the demand for accuracy in mimetic representation. Till We Have Faces presents just such a difficulty. If Lewis's characters lived in our world rather than in their own world, the resolutions they find for their emotional and moral dilemmas would not work.

Paris proposes the application of the concepts of humanistic psychology for describing the nature of mimetic characterization and for explaining this conflict between verisimilitude and the formal structure of a book. This article will use the terminology of psychologists Abraham Maslow and Karen Horney in discussing the emotional development of Lewis's extremely complex protagonist Orual as well as in describing and accounting for the conflict between her accurate portrayal and Lewis's avowed Christianized vision of reality as manifested in the archetypal structure of the novel. While Lewis may not have been aware of these psychologists' writings, he was sufficiently acute in his perception of human nature to demonstrate accurately (though perhaps unwittingly) much of their theory in his mimetic characterizations.

Maslow has said that what is commonly called Humanistic Psychology is more accurately named "Third Force Psychology," for it is a "viable third alternative to objective, behavioristic … psychology and to orthodox Freudianism." According to Maslow, a hierarchy of five basic types of needs exists for human beings. These (in order from lowest to highest) are the physiological needs, the safety needs, the love and belonging needs, the esteem needs, and the need for self-actualization. The physiological needs are met through food, shelter, and clothing; the safety needs require security, stability, and freedom from fear; the love and belonging needs require affectionate interpersonal relationships; the esteem needs require self-respect and the respect of others; and self-actualization is the ongoing development of one's unique personhood, so as to become all that one can be.

While Maslow's concept of self-actualization does not point ultimately to a transcendent God, Maslow does speak of transcendence when describing moments of truest self-actualization or "peak-experiences." Thus his secular psychology is compatible with what William J. Bouwsma has called "Christian adulthood." In contrast to the Greek view of a gender-specific ideal of rational "manhood," Bouwsma identifies the "normative Christian" concept of a non-gender-specific "adulthood," using a term suggestive of process from its Latin root adolescere, "to grow up." He sees the Christian life "as indefinite growth, itself the product of a full engagement with temporal experience involving the whole personality." We can see Lewis drawing on this normative Christian concept of adulthood in The Great Divorce, where the bright and solid people of heaven spend eternity moving closer to God, continually growing in their awareness of "him" and of their true natures. In this story, Lewis demonstrates an understanding of the need for continuous growth in the human personality. One is never fully grown in Lewis's or in Maslow's vision of the human condition.

In Lewis's retelling of the Psyche myth, Orual, Psyche's older half-sister, feels the effect of deprivation at the level of love and belonging on Maslow's hierarchy. Though she is a princess in the barbaric state of Glome, it seems that almost everyone rejects her because she is ugly. She remembers her father's words to her at the coming of her tutor, the Fox, in this way:

"Now, Greekling," said my father to this man, "I trust to beget a prince one of these days and I have a mind to see him brought up in all the wisdom of your people. Meanwhile practice on them." (He pointed at us children.) "If a man can teach a girl, he can teach anything." Then, just before he sent us away, he said, "Especially the elder. See if you can make her wise; it's about all she'll ever be good for." I didn't understand that, but I knew it was like things I had heard people say to me ever since I could remember.

Orual's account of her father's words indicates two reasons for his rejection of her: (1) she is a woman and (2) she is ugly. Bernard Paris, in A Psychological Approach to Fiction, describes the results of such rejection by attributing to the individual who is not adequately fulfilled in his lower needs a consequential fixation at an earlier stage of development. In Orual's case, because she does not feel loved and accepted by others, she spends her life searching for the affection and approval she seldom receives.

Karen Horney, in Neurosis and Human Growth, provides the terminology for describing Orual's method of coping with her loneliness when she speaks of "neurotic solutions." Paris explains the use of such solutions by telling us that a person abandons the real self as a means of self-preservation. His statement implies that individuals try to actualize not what they really are but what they think they should be. Horney calls this new and fictitious image of the self an idealized image, and accounts for it as the individual's attempt to counteract self-hate. But because inner conflicts produce contradictory values in the idealized self, this self is impossible to actualize; so self-hate remains to torment its victim. The "despised self" is Paris's term for what Horney describes as this equally imaginary hated self. Orual's despised self is an ugly woman not worth loving. As this essay will illustrate, in an effort to banish her self-hate, Orual claims the beautiful Psyche as her own, and thus unconsciously unites Psyche's beauty with herself, consequently becoming, in her mind, lovable. Also we shall see that because Orual is ashamed of her womanhood, her idealized image demands that she be motherly toward Psyche and yet masculine at the same time.

The sacred story told by Psyche's priest at the end of the book reveals to Orual the true nature of her demands on Psyche:

But now all the dreamlike feeling in me suddenly vanished. I was wide awake and I felt the blood rush into my face. He was telling it wrong—hideously and stupidly wrong. First of all, he made it that both Psyche's sisters had visited her in the secret palace of the god (to think of Redival going there!).

The priest continues to tell Orual that the sisters could see Psyche's palace and were jealous because "Her husband and her house were so much finer than theirs." Consequently, according to the priest, the sisters attempted to ruin Psyche by convincing her to light a lamp and view her husband, an act which he had forbidden her.

The retelling of her life's story from this perspective drives Orual to write her case against the gods, which constitutes Book One of Till We Have Faces. Horney would call this attack on the gods an "expansive solution," for the expansive personality, says Horney, identifies with an idealized self and is therefore very sensitive to criticism and failure. The Priest's story has threatened her self-deception, and she must prove his tale false in order to continue believing that she embodies her idealized self.

Horney also describes a solution which relies on self-effacing behaviors rather than on expansive ones. According to Horney, self-effacing individuals feel no conscious superiority and unwittingly exaggerate whatever helplessness and suffering they experience. They long for "help, protection, and surrendering love." Their method of externalizing self-hate is to believe that others are accusing and despising them. Thus, they deny their expansive feelings, which actually remain repressed by the dominant solution. They become what Horney calls their "subdued" selves, hoping to appease others and therefore attract love. Yet, because no amount of love from others will convince self-effacing people that they are lovable, they make unjust claims on these others as the proof of affection. Self-effacing individuals feel their suffering is so exceptional that they are entitled to the excessive devotion they demand. Instead of expressing rage (as the expansive-types would do) when denied these demands, they absorb their rage and make others feel guilty as a means of revenge. Often, self-effacers become morbidly dependent on others, trying, through loving, to "develop to the full the loving attributes" of their idealized selves.

Orual begins her self-alienation with all of these self-effacing characteristics, when, at Psyche's birth, she takes over the child's care, relieving the nurse of her duties:

Batta was only too pleased to have her work done for her and the king knew and cared nothing about it. The Fox said to me, "Don't wear yourself out, daughter, with too much toil, even if the child is as beautiful as a goddess." But I laughed in his face. I think I laughed more in those days than in all my life before. Toil? I lost more sleep looking on Psyche for joy of it than in any other way. And I laughed because she was always laughing. She laughed before the third month. She knew me for certain (though the Fox said not) before the second.

Orual's exceptional care of Psyche is a means of merging with Psyche's person, thus taking the child's beauty into herself. Her peculiar devotion to Psyche is also an attempt to make the girl totally dependent on Orual and thus eternally grateful as well. This particular devotion, Orual unconsciously feels, will satiate her insatiable need for love. In fact, when trying to persuade Psyche to leave her divine mate, Orual says, "if anyone is to care for you or counsel you or shield you … it can only be I."

Despite this self-effacing care for Psyche, Orual, like all individuals who rely on this particular neurotic solution, has latent aggressive tendencies which reveal themselves when Orual batters her sister Redival for hitting Psyche:

Then I hardly knew myself again till I found that I was astride of Redival, she on the ground with her face a lather of blood, and my hands about her throat. It was the Fox who pulled me off and, in the end, some kind of peace was made between us.

Since childhood, Orual has been forced to compete with Redival, whose beauty, though not equal to Psyche's, is far greater than her own, and therefore Orual uses the excuse of retaliation on Psyche's behalf to vent her vindictive anger at Redival.

Expansive trends are evident in her feelings for Psyche, as when Orual threatens to kill Psyche if she will not light a lamp and view her husband. Orual's threat to kill Psyche is a desperate expansive attempt to force the girl to obey her wishes. In inflicting Psyche with guilt rather than physical wounds, Orual still attempts to dominate her. But, with these words, Psyche calls her sister's bluff:

You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual—to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots, and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here.

While Psyche loves Orual, she does not appreciate this "loving" blackmail, and thus she loses trust in Orual's intentions. Because neither the expansive solution nor the self-effacing solution brings Psyche's complete surrender in action and emotional assent to her sister's unrealistic demands, Orual suffers great disappointment and terror. She says of Psyche, "I found I was becoming afraid of her." Psyche has removed herself emotionally at this point, and when the whole valley is destroyed by the wrath of the god, Psyche becomes an outcast in some unknown realm, farther from Orual than she was while she remained in the god's valley.

Horney describes a third neurotic solution which suppresses both the expansive and the self-effacing trends we have been examining in Orual's behavior. Horney calls one who uses such a solution the resigned personality. Such individuals give up struggling to achieve their goals and settle for less than they could achieve. They convince themselves that they do not want love, companionship, or success, believing that what they do not want, they cannot lack. Emotional detachment distances resigned types from others and thus protects them from the emotional pain often present in interpersonal relationships. In fact, they usually resent any type of influence, pressure, or coercion.

"It's a strange, yet somehow a quiet and steady thing," writes Orual, "to look round on earth and grass and the sky and say in one's heart to each, 'You are all my enemies now. None of you will ever do me good again. I see now only executioners.'" Because the other two neurotic solutions have failed her, Orual takes on the characteristics of the resigned personality as she distances herself emotionally from the universe. Because she expects only the worst from the world about her, she guards herself against its influence and asks nothing at all from her environment. As we shall see, because Psyche is further from her than ever, Orual grits her teeth and waits on the gods' supposedly vindictive judgment. She writes, "I looked on things about me with a new eye. Now that I'd proven for certain that the gods are and that they hated me, it seemed that I had nothing to do but wait for my punishment." Yet, as day after day passes with no punishment forthcoming, Orual must resign herself, not to punishment, but to life. She writes, "I began to see, at first unwillingly, that I might be doomed to live, and even to live an unchanged life, some while longer."

Realizing that she must go on living, Orual protects her emotions by locking away her memories of Psyche. Upon returning to Psyche's room, she restores everything as it had been in Psyche's childhood:

I found some verses in Greek which seemed to be a hymn to the god of the Mountain. These I burned. I did not choose that any of that part of her should remain…. I wished all to be so ordered that if she could come back she would find all as it had been when she was still happy, and still mine. Then I locked the door and put a seal on it. And, as well as I could, I locked a door in my mind. Unless I were to go mad I must put away all thoughts of her save those that went back to her first, happy years.

Orual admits in this passage that her defense against madness is to lock in some secret recess of her mind the pain she feels because of Psyche's rejection of her. Later readers discover that because the Fox grieves openly for his loss of the adult Psyche, Orual finds little comfort in his company.

However, she still finds him useful to her in her efforts to bury her emotions, for by questioning him often upon matters of "the physical parts of philosophy, about the seminal fire, and how soul arises from blood," she hopes to learn "hard things … and to pile up knowledge." In this way, she can stifle her softer moods with hard facts. Her softer moods are identified with the mothering, womanly part of her idealized self-image and the discredited neurotic solution, self-effacement. Although she has wounded her arm in her attempt to coerce Psyche into lighting the lamp, she returns to the fencing lessons she had been taking from Bardia, the captain of the king's guards, even before her arm has healed. She tells her readers, "My aim was to build up more and more of that strength, hard and joyless, which had come to me when I heard the god's sentence; by learning, fighting, and labouring, to drive all the woman out of me." Womanhood has always been a burden to her because she has always been ugly. This is a chance to do away with her womanhood and thus the source of her pain. Her first defense emphasized a part of womanhood which requires no beauty. A child of necessity loves its mother, whether she is beautiful or not, for she is the source of nourishment. When this kind of behavior no longer brings her the devotion she craves, Orual must deny her craving in order to hide from herself her own self-hate and her sense that she does not deserve this love she now must believe she does not need.

Because masculinity and a lack of emotion are frequently equated, stifling her emotions allows Orual to satisfy the masculine side of her idealized image. Her womanhood embarrasses her, for it is the reason her father rejects her. Being masterful in the knowledge the Fox imparts and skillful (if not strong) in the fencing Bardia teaches provides a way for Orual to be like a man, even though she cannot become one. This satisfaction is only temporary, however, for as her comment on Bardia's well-meaning words indicates, after she becomes queen and assumes her father's manly role, Orual finds that she cannot "drive all the woman out of" her:

"We've had scores of matches together. The gods never made anyone—a man or woman—with a better natural gift for it. Oh, Lady, Lady, it's a thousand pities they didn't make you a man." (He spoke it as kindly and heartily as could be; as if a man dashed a gallon of cold water in your broth and never doubted you'd like it better.)

Orual has masculine talent but also the need to develop her feminine potential. When she tries to actualize her idealized image of masculinity without her real self's womanhood entering in, she frustrates this very acute need. It is interesting to note that, because of her unseemly countenance, her earlier tendencies toward motherliness ignore the sexual component of motherhood. She is a sexless mother, and therefore one who, because she has symbolically dried up her own breasts, cannot nourish Psyche in any way. The conflict in her idealized image, then, is between these two poles. She must be a mother without a mate and be a man, but not a woman. In order to be self-actualizing, she must integrate these contradictory needs. She must allow herself to develop her manly talents and her womanly tendencies as well. She must also become a mother who is able to create an atmosphere of growth for the beloved which will foster the beloved's self-actualizing tendencies. But she cannot foster growth if she continues to perpetuate her own barren idealized self.

In the following passage, Orual sums up the purpose of her resigned solution:

Ever since Arnom had said hours ago that the King was dying, there seemed to have been another woman acting and speaking in my place…. I was taking to queenship as a stricken man takes to the wine-pot or as a stricken woman, if she has beauty, might take to lovers. It was an art that left you no time to mope. If Orual could vanish altogether into the queen, the gods would almost be cheated.

Here Orual attempts to rid herself of the pain she feels because of Psyche's rejection, as she takes on duties associated with her father, thus becoming manly, and in the process ridding herself of womanhood. Thus, she can isolate herself from rejection by rejecting feeling before she can feel rejected.

Her desire to be rid of this "despised" self is clearly demonstrated when she permanently dons a veil to cover her face. Here again, she has resigned herself to her "fate":

Hitherto, like all my countrywomen, I had gone bareface; on those two journeys up the Mountain I had worn a veil because I wished to be secret. I now determined that I would go always veiled. I have kept this rule, within doors and without, ever since. It is a sort of treaty made with my ugliness…. The Fox, that night, was the last man who ever saw my face; and not many women have seen it either.

Orual's resignation, far from allowing her to cope with her environment, only makes it possible for her to hide from herself. The veil she wears over her face to mask her ugliness before the world, she has already had intact internally for years, acting as a protective barrier between her and her despised self. She perpetuates a self-deception, believing that, in fact, "Orual" is dying; but she soon finds "Orual" will not die. Here the image of pregnancy in reverse aptly describes how she perceives what is happening to her despised self:

I must now pass quickly over many years (though they made up the longest part of my life) during which the Queen of Glome had more and more a part in me and Orual had less and less. I locked Orual up or laid her asleep as best I could somewhere deep down inside me; she lay curled there. It was like being with child, but reversed; the thing I carried in me grew slowly smaller and less alive.

It is in the midst of this self-deception that she is confronted with the sacred story in the temple of Istra. Because it is a true story, it pierces her psychological defenses, causing her to see the uselessness of her resigned solution. Her counterattack is a return to expansive behavior as she writes her "case against the gods," and we, the readers, are to affirm her idealized self-image by agreeing that the gods have dealt unfairly with her. As she puts it in her final expansive assertions at the end of the volume:

Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me … Why must holy places be dark places?

I say, therefore, that there is no creature (toad, scorpion, or serpent) so noxious to man as the gods. Let them answer my charge if they can. It may be that, instead of answering, they'll strike me mad or leprous or turn me into beast, bird, or tree. But will not all the world then know (and the gods will know it knows) that this is because they have no answer?

While at this point Orual feels the gods cannot answer her accusations, as the following passage from her second book points out, her own words provide a response:

Since I cannot mend the book, I must add to it. To leave it as it was would be to die perjured; I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering.

Writing down her own motives forces Orual to think about them. Because her idealized image demands that she have the justice she requires of the gods, Orual is driven to an honesty of which she is not capable under different circumstances. Thus, her unrealistic demands upon herself prove to be the catalyst for her self-discovery. As she relates her self-deceptions, she becomes aware that she has been deceived and therefore meets herself face to face. In this way, her book, which was originally meant as an attack on that which threatens her neurotic solutions, is the very thing which begins the breakdown of those solutions.

Now that Orual's wall of defense has a crack in it, a harsher stroke comes from the individuals around her. Orual learns that Redival had felt hurt and lonely when the Fox and Psyche began to dominate Orual's attention. "I had never thought at all how it might be with her when I turned first to the Fox and then to Psyche," says Orual, "For it was somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn't she?" This is Orual's first glimpse of what Redival was really thinking and the reasons for her antagonism toward both the Fox and Psyche: they had stolen Orual's love.

While the Fox and Psyche may have unwittingly stolen Orual's love from Redival, shortly after Bardia's death, Ansit, his wife, accuses Orual of stealing Bardia's energies and devotion:

"Oh, I know well enough that you were not lovers…. You left me my share. When you had used him, you would let him steal home to me; until you needed him again. After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers' bread, the very jokes—he could come back to me, each time a little thinner and greyer and with a few more scars, and fall asleep before his supper was down, and cry out in his dream, 'Quick, on the right there. The Queen's in danger.' And next morning—the Queen's a wonderful early riser in Glome—the Pillar Room again. I'll not deny it; I had what you left of him."

The queen, who has secretly loved Bardia for years and had begrudged his sickness because it had kept him from the palace, knows Ansit's words are true. She has devoured all those for whom she cares by taking all and giving back nothing. She has drained Bardia of his life's blood, consuming him in order to satisfy her own voracious needs.

Orual comes to understand her motivations even more clearly through a series of visions which she attributes to the gods. In her first vision her dead father returns and forces her to dig down through the floor of the Pillar (or throne) Room into another Pillar Room just like the original, only smaller, where the air is warmer and harder to breathe. This room, "floor, walls, and pillars," is made all of "raw earth." Then she must dig again through this earthen floor until she comes to still another Pillar Room, even smaller than the last, and made of "living rock." This room is darker, signifying the darkness of Orual's soul. It is dark because (despite her cries for understanding and her dislike for the darkness of the goddess Ungit's house) she has refused to see what is in her own soul. Just as her soul shrinks within her, so the roof of this small room closes in on them, and as it does, her father asks, "Who is Ungit?" Her answer, "I am Ungit," signifies her recognition of her despised self, for, like this all-devouring faceless stone goddess, Orual returns nothing to her devotees and reveals none of herself. The darkness of the temple is the same darkness with which Orual cloaks her own motives.

Lewis's belief in original sin is evident here for he presents Orual as actually embodying her Ungit-like despised self; yet if we as readers look objectively at Orual's life, we see that the only reason she acts as she does is that bitterness has been provoked by her environment from childhood. Horney would urge her to recall these circumstances and ask her to realize that while she is not her idealized self, neither is she her despised self. Lewis seems to interpret the information he presents in a way that conflicts with what Horney would call therapeutic.

Orual's next encounter with her inner self occurs in a dream when she meets holy sheep in the pasture of the gods and is overrun by them as they come to greet her. They demonstrate the beauty of being true to one's self, for, in Lewis's created world, the gods and the things of the gods cannot act contrary to their own natures. This vision, as Horney would see it, is therapeutic, for it provides Orual with a model for self-actualization and a hope for the discovery of her real self.

In Orual's final visionary encounter, she at last reads her case against the gods. Through its reading she relates, not the book she has written, but the very substance of her thoughts. As she says, "I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn't be; it was far too small." As she begins to read, she sees that her real motivations have been all the jealousies, hatreds, and fears that we have discussed earlier:

There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long, for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever … if the judge had not stopped me.

Thus, Orual reads her own mind and knows her own motives; yet Horney would argue that she remains too harsh with herself, for this psychologist would say that we cannot accept another's forgiveness until we are willing to forgive ourselves. Lewis does, however, demonstrate an awareness of the redundancy of neurotic claims, for Orual repeats in her vision the neurotic claims she has repeated time and time again in the extra-visionary world.

Now that Orual is aware of her Ungit-like despised self (though she still does not see that it is a false self), she comes to understand that all the effort in the world will not produce the perfection of her idealized image. Therefore, she is ready to reach out to her possible self in an effort to actualize her true potential.

Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche's feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But who were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.

"You also are Psyche," came a great voice. I looked up then, and it's strange that I dared. But I saw no god, no pillared court. I was in the palace gardens, my foolish book in my hand. The vision to the eye had, I think, faded one moment before the oracle to the ear. For the words were still sounding.

Because Orual becomes a second Psyche at the end of the novel, we can safely say that, for Lewis, Psyche is a role model for both Orual and his readers. Because Orual is equally as beautiful, yet not the same as the original Psyche, we can say that Lewis appears to see the need for some kind of individuality in emotionally healthy individuals.

Yet Horney and many Feminists as well would reject Psyche as a model for the healthy human being. Peter Schakel, in Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis: A Study of Till We Have Faces, makes the following statement which will help to explain their objections:

We are not to assume, therefore, that Psyche's loving attitude, self-giving concern for others, responsiveness to spiritual urgings, and understanding of divine matters reflect something unique and unattainable; rather, they exemplify what all of us could be and indeed should be.

This aspect of Lewis's message is what Horney, who has been described as the originator of much Feminist thought, would not accept. Psyche, when sacrificed to the god of the Mountain, becomes a Pagan symbol for the Incarnate Christ. As we shall see, in her marriage to the anthropomorphic deity, she becomes the model for the Christian wife. When Orual cites the opinions of those in Glome in an attempt to persuade Psyche to light a lamp and gaze on her husband, Psyche's response emphasizes the human nature of her marriage to the god of the mountain. Later she refers to her sister's virginity and thus emphasizes the sexual physicality of her own relationship with her mate. Psyche also mentions that she would be ashamed to disobey him. Because the god is anthropomorphic, he, not Psyche, becomes the role model for males, and Psyche's behavior toward him is the model for female relationships with men. Psyche's submissive example recommends a self-effacing solution as the goal for feminine behavior, and the authoritarian position of the god glorifies the expansive solution in men. Feminists as well as the psychologists we have been discussing would agree that such a model for human interaction can work only within the confines of fiction, for the world of the readers, as Paris points out, does not confirm the effectiveness of such exclusive reliance on one model for human relations.

While Lewis's Psyche shows great inner strength in resisting Orual's neurotic claim that Psyche be totally surrendered to Orual's insatiable desire for undivided allegiance, Lewis nevertheless presents as the only appropriate alternative allegiance, devotion to a masculine mate who demands an identical amount of control over Psyche's behavior. Psyche is not even permitted to view her husband's countenance. Readers see that although Lewis appears to admire Orual's intellect, he ultimately condemns her search for knowledge and its inherent power, through his presentation of Psyche's willingness to remain ignorant as a virtue. A recent analysis of the Psyche myth presents a psychologically healthier interpretation in which the goddess discovers her true identity when she leaves the oppression of Amor's cave.

Feminists would argue that women must resist Lewis's solution to the problem of communication between the sexes, for they would see Lewis's idealized image of heterosexual relationships, not as one of communication, but as one of domination of the male over the female, a model which Horney, Maslow, and Paris also would find unacceptable. It seems that the remedy Lewis provides for Orual's inner conflict is what Horney would call another neurotic solution. Though this self-effacement works within the confines of the novel, humanistic psychologists and Feminists alike would say that in the world outside Lewis's text, self-effacing women who allow men to set limits to their personal knowledge or efforts toward other achievements severely hinder their own self-actualization. Also, they would agree that though Lewis demonstrates in Orual's portrayal a deep understanding of much of the female experience, he fails in his attempt to provide a pragmatic solution to the emotional crises many women face. Feminists and humanistic psychologists would explain that only in insisting upon her right to define her self-worth as something which does not depend upon someone else's opinion can any woman discover her full feminine potential. They would add that in this way, and this way alone, will she be able to come "face to face" with her real self.

Peter J. Schakel (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Satiric Imagination of C. S. Lewis," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Fall, 1989, pp. 129-48.

[In the following essay, Schakel examines elements of satire in Lewis's fiction. Schakel asserts that "Lewis's success as a satirist, which has not been sufficiently taken into account in previous studies of Lewis, must be given attention if Lewis's works, and his literary imagination, are to be fully understood."]

Although satire appears prominently in many of C. S. Lewis's works and is an important part of his thought and style, it has been largely neglected, at the cost of a full understanding of his works. Lewis is usually thought of as having the imagination of a romantic and a writer of fantasy, not that of a satirist. Yet, until late in his life, he wrote more and better satire than fantasy, and showed as much of the neoclassical spirit as of the romantic. To examine his attention to and use of satire in his criticism and fiction reveals a good deal about his imagination and the movement of his thought through his career.

Although better known for his work on medieval and Renaissance literature, Lewis read, enjoyed, and wrote perceptively on satire. His section on satire in the 1590s in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is well informed and judicious. Better still are his essays on the great age of English satire, 1660–1800: that on Addison, with its comparisons to Jonathan Swift, is among the finest of his literary essays. Lewis understood satire in Webster's terms, "the literary art of holding vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc. up to ridicule and contempt," or, "a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity," and found it well suited to his taste and temperament.

Lewis points out that "satire as a literary kind must be distinguished from the satiric, an element which can occur (like the pathetic, or the heroic) in almost any composition." Thus Gulliver's Travels could be considered a satire, since its main focus and purpose is the humorous exposure and undercutting of folly and evil; Pride and Prejudice contains a satiric element, but it is not a satire because exposure and undercutting of evil are not predominant in it. Lewis himself wrote no satires, but many of his works include the satiric as an important element, and they will be the focus of this essay. The satiric adds a light, often witty, usually trenchant edge to his stories through its use of a mocking tone or spirit, established by such devices as mockery, reversal of normal expectations, exaggeration, and belittlement—and through irony.

Satiric Model: The Pilgrim's Progress

Satire forms an important part of Lewis's earliest two published works of fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress (1933) and Out of the Silent Planet (1938)—in each case influenced by the work which Lewis used as his main source and model. Lewis's title and form point to the work which shaped The Pilgrim's Regress, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Part I, 1678; Part II, 1684). Like Bunyan's story, Lewis's uses allegorical form to warn against the evils of the world which will lead to damnation, and to illustrate the journey the sinner must follow to reach salvation.

Overt satire in The Pilgrim's Progress is rare, with a passage describing the Pope being a notable exception: "I espied a little before me a Cave, where two Giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time … But I have learnt since that Pagan has been dead many a day; and as for the other, though he be yet alive, he is by reason of age, and also of the many shrewd brushes that he met with in his younger dayes, grown so crazy and stiff in his joynts, that he can now do little more then sit in his Caves mouth, grinning at Pilgrims as they go by." Such humorous undercutting of positions appears likewise in wry choices of names, such as Talkative, the son of Saywell from Prating-row, Mrs. Bat's-eyes, and Mr. Linger-after-Lust. There is a great deal of irony—especially of the "he who shall save his life will lost it" variety—but it is mostly serious irony, not humorous; and, although Bunyan frequently levels attacks at social and theological evils, they lack the wit and humor typical of satire: "Mr. Gripe-man, a Schoolmaster in Love-gain,… taught them [Mr. Hold-the-World, Mr. Money-love, and Mr. Save-all] the art of getting, either by violence, cousenage, flattery, lying or by putting on a guise of Religion."

The greater part of The Pilgrim's Regress, like The Pilgrim's Progress, is serious, even expository and philosophical for extended stretches. Of greatest significance in understanding Lewis's message, and Lewis's own pilgrimage in the faith, are the long discourses delivered to John by Reason (who shows him how to dissect the fallacies on which modern thinking is based), by Mr. Wisdom (explaining how philosophy can take a seeker partway to faith), and by History (who puts John's experiences into perspective). These discourses, however, are heavy going. They carry many evidences of having been written by a student with a recent first-class degree in philosophy, recounting the intellectual and spiritual struggles he experienced on the road to Christianity.

The more enjoyable parts of The Pilgrim's Regress, the parts one looks forward to as one rereads it, are the ironic and satiric portions. Many of these follow Bunyan, though in a lighter, more humorous vein. Lewis, more witty than Bunyan by nature, infuses Bunyan's serious traits with humor and satire. Lewis's names, like Bunyan's, are comic even as they thrust at specific notions, features, and fashions of his day. Nineteenth-century rationalism, under "Mr. Enlightenment," has built the city of "Claptrap" from a village of forty inhabitants to a metropolis of "twelve million, four hundred thousand, three hundred and sixty-one souls, who include, I may add, the majority of our most influential publicists and scientific popularizers." Lewis jibes at the flappers of the '20s by calling them the "Clevers," and describing them in disparaging terms: "The girls had short hair and flat breasts and flat buttocks so that they looked like boys: but the boys had pale, egg-shaped faces and slender waists and big hips so that they looked like girls—except for a few of them who had long hair and beards." And he gives liberal theology the name "Mr. Broad," and satirizes him through word-play contrasting what he does believe and what he does not: "'Listen!' said Mr. Broad, 'it is a thrush. I really believe it is a thrush,'" though he has trouble really believing any dogmas of Christianity ("as I grow older I am inclined to set less and less store by mere orthodoxy…. It is those things which draw us together that I now value most—our common affections, our common delight in this slow pageant of the countryside, our common struggle towards the light").

Irony is much more pervasive and central in Lewis's story than in Bunyan's. There is a grim humor in John and Vertue's rejection of Mother Kirk, the only person who can gain for them what they desire. More laughably ironic are Mr. Sensible's conviction that he is self-sufficient and independent and Wisdom's children's belief that they are living on the spare diet of Philosophy. In fact both he and they feast on food and drink from other sources. Underlying the entire story is a more powerful irony—that when John reaches his destination, he must regress, go back, return to where he started, for the island he sought is the other side of the mountains a few miles from his home in Puritania. And irony permeates the return journey, as John sees the things he encountered before, but sees them as they really are, sees the pride, ignorance, and indulgence which had been covered over when he passed by them the first time.

As there is more irony in Lewis than in Bunyan, so too there is more satire. The Pilgrim's Regress opens with some delightful satire on puritanism, as the Steward (or clergyman) hands young John a big card with small print all over it and says, "'Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do. You'd better look at it.' So John took the card: but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all." According to his first biographers, Lewis was "furious" when the blurb on the Sheed and Ward edition implied that Lewis was satirizing Ulster Protestantism: "The hero, brought up in Puritania (Mr. Lewis himself was born in Ulster), cannot abide the religion he finds there." This biographical interpretation is too limited, considering such passages as the Steward's "pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext."

The handling of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century rationalism is similarly satiric, undercut by reductive simplifications aimed to render them absurd. Thus, when John asks Mr. Enlightenment how he knows there is no Landlord (God), the rationalist answer is "'Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!'", expressed "in such a loud voice that the pony shied." John doesn't understand.

"Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff," said the other. "Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training. For example, now, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round—round as an orange, my lad!"

"Well, I don't know that it would," said John, feeling a little disappointed. "My father always said it was round."

"No, no, my dear boy," said Mr. Enlightenment, "you must have misunderstood him. It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth flat."

Freudian thought is satirized in part by labelling it the offspring of nineteenth-century rationalism—Sigismund Enlightenment is the son of Old Mr. Enlightenment—and in part by Sigismund's casual dismissal of everything desirable as wish-fulfillment, all "things people wish to believe." Both father and son endeavor to "see through" things, to take nothing at face value. Lewis uses exaggeration and literalization to ridicule them, as John, having fallen under their way of thinking, looks at a woman: "But he did not know it was a woman, because, through the fact, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes."

The satire on twentieth-century thought continues in John's encounter with the "Three Pale Men" in Book 6, chapters 2-4.

"You will fare badly here," said one of the three men. "But I am a Steward and it is my duty according to my office to share my supper with you. You may come in." His name was Mr. Neo-Angular.

"I am sorry that my convictions do not allow me to repeat my friend's offer," said one of the others. "But I have had to abandon the humanitarian and egalitarian fallacies." His name was Mr. Neo-Classical.

"I hope," said the third, "that your wanderings in lonely places do not mean that you have any of the romantic virus still in your blood." His name was Mr. Humanist.

In this case Lewis was satirizing individuals as well as intellectual trends; he wrote later, "What I am attacking in Neo-Angular is a set of people who seem to me … to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad" and "T. S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against." Similarly, any knowledgeable reader in the '30s would have recognized Mr. Neo-Classical as Irving Babbitt and Mr. Humanist as George Santayana. Lewis attacks them together because their thought is marked by denial of the romantic and a negativism typical, Lewis believed, of modern analytical thought. As he put it in the headings he added to the third edition, "These men are interested in everything not for what it is but for what it is not and talk as if they had 'seen through' things they have not even seen and boast of rejecting what was never in fact within their reach." In such passages, George Sayer suggests, we come closer than in his other works to hearing Lewis's voice: "No other book of his is written-with such a light touch, and few are so often witty and profound…. The polemic has a sharpness often present in Jack's conversation but rarely in his later writings." Wit and satire, then, deserve attention, not just as aspects of Lewis's writing style, but because they were deeply embedded in the way he thought and talked.

Satire Model: Gulliver's Travels

As The Pilgrim's Progress formed a model for The Pilgrim's Regress, so Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) provided a model for Out of the Silent Planet. It is not the only model (H. G. Wells and David Lindsay are others), but it is a more pervasive and influential one than has generally been recognized—in overall concept as well as satiric details. Like Gulliver, Ransom is taken to a world that is not perfect (the upper regions have been devastated and the warmth and oxygen needed for life are available only in the valleys), but the lives of the residents have significant advantages over life as he had known it. Most notable is the harmony and cooperation. Although inhabitants of Malacandra are unlike each other in appearance, language, and interests, they are able to live together supportively. The farmers (hrossa), academics (sorns), and artisans (pfifltriggi) respect and value each other's work and accept each other as equals: Ransom tries to discover which species "was the real master" over the others, but in vain, for only "Oyarsa rules." No one profits from another's need: "If the other hnau wanted food, why should we not give it to them? We often do." Work is an enriching, fulfilling activity; no one is forced into mindless, repetitive drudgery so others can work creatively: "All keep the mines open; it is a work to be shared. But each digs for himself the thing he wants for his work. What else would he do?" No one must work to satisfy the "needs" of others: the pfifltriggi like making things but they are not forced, for survival, to manufacture useful things: the other Malacandrians accept the fact that "they have not patience to make easy things however useful they would be." All Malacandrians accept and follow the laws that all rational beings know, "of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like."

As we view Malacandra and hear Ransom express surprise and confusion over its differences from our world, we grasp an implicit critique of our world—as one does in reading Gulliver's Travels. As Gulliver talks to the Brobdingnagian King about the English political and social system, the King asks probing questions about legislators, judges, the national debt, and political and religious wars; Swift has him reply with an outsider's assessment of what he heard: the King protests that recent English history "was only an Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce." Gulliver tries to soften the evidence: "I artfully eluded many of his Questions; and gave to every Point a more favourable turn by many Degrees than the strictness of Truth would allow." In spite of that, the King concludes, in one of the harshest lines in the Travels: "I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth."

Lewis uses the same technique as Ransom talks to the hrossa and the sorns. As the hrossa informs him about the spiritual beings on Malacandra, he "found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilised religion"; and the descriptions of the compatibility of the different species on Malacandra make him feel similarly uncivilized socially. "He [then] had to repay them with information about Earth"—and his reply sounds very Gulliverian: "He was hampered in this both by the humiliating discoveries which he was constantly making of his own ignorance about his native planet, and partly by his determination to conceal some of the truth. He did not want to tell them too much of our human wars and industrialisms." The hrossa, true to their natures, devise poetry rather than analytical conclusions from what Ransom says; conclusions are left for the sorns after a similar question and answer session with Augray and his pupils:

They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history—of war, slavery and prostitution.

"It is because they have no Oyarsa [planetary archangel]," said one of the pupils.

"It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself," said Augray.

"They cannot help it," said the old sorn. "There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau [rational beings] and hnau by eldila [angelic beings] and eldila by Maleldil [Christ]. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair."

And the Oyarsa's later conclusion that Weston had broken all the laws of nature and reason except one, which he had bent to his own purposes, is closely similar to the conclusion of the Houyhnhnm master after lengthy question and answer sessions with Gulliver: "He looked upon us as a Sort of Animals to whose Share, by what Accident he could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our nature Corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us."

The fiercest satire in Out of the Silent Planet also draws on Swift and involves direct imitation of specific passages in the Travels. When Gulliver arrives in Houyhnhnmland, he finds the most disagreeable animal he has encountered on his travels. Later, in a satire of sudden exposure, Gulliver realizes he is seeing creatures very like himself: Swift satirizes the human form, or rather human pride in physical form, by the shock of seeing that form in its sheer physicalness. Lewis uses much the same technique when a procession of hrossa approaches Ransom, some of them guarding two creatures he did not recognize.

They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, and he gathered that they were bipeds, though the lower limits were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were neither round like those of hrossa nor long like those of sorns, but almost square. They stumped along on narrow, heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of lumped and puckered flesh of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance … Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realised he was looking at men. The two prisoners were Weston and Devine and he, for one privileged moment, had seen the human form with almost Malacandrian eyes, (ellipsis in the original text)

Lewis gently pokes fun at the human body (he followed St. Francis in calling his own "Brother Ass"), making us see what is so familiar in a fresh way. Gulliver, repelled by the human form, finds grace and beauty instead in horses and even tries to become a horse himself. Swift thus turns the satire on Gulliver, poking fun at his inability to distinguish between human folly and human worth, illustrated in the Portuguese sea captain, Don Pedro de Mendez. Lewis similarly has Ransom find grace and beauty in the bodies of the Malacandrians, who initially seemed repulsive or fearsome, but in his case it is an evidence of Ransom's growth in openness and understanding.

That openness and understanding are illustrated further in another episode borrowed from Swift. When Gulliver attempts to describe human attitudes and activities to his Houyhnhnm Master, he has difficulty finding terms in Houyhnhnm language. The simplifications and reductions effected by explaining English affairs in Houyhnhnm terms are a key part of the satire against human abuses of reason, as when Gulliver explains the causes of wars:

Differences in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives: For Instance, whether Flesh be Bread, or Bread be Flesh: Whether the Juice of a certain Berry be Blood or Wine: Whether Whistling be a Vice or a Virtue: Whether it be better to kiss a Post, or throw it into the Fire: What is the best Colour for a Coat, whether Black, White, Red, or Grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty, or clean; with many more.

Lewis achieves a similar effect when Weston, Devine, and Ransom appear before the Oyarsa on the sacred island Meldilorn. As Gulliver struggled to express human evil and folly in Houyhnhnm terms, so Lewis has Ransom struggle to translate Weston's unreasonable philosophy into Old Solar:

"Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copybook maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation."

"He says," began Ransom, "that living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good—no, that cannot be right—he says it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead—no—he says, he says—I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language. But he goes on to say that the only good thing is that there should be very many creatures alive."

It is brilliant satire, mocking an unreasonable and foolish philosophy by reducing it to absurdity.

Out of the Silent Planet, thus, is not "a satire"—criticism of our world is not its main shaping purpose; but such criticism is a very important aspect of it. A satiric spirit is evident in much of the work, as Lewis criticizes the competitiveness, greed, pride, and selfishness he found all around him. Out of the Silent Planet is enjoyable reading as a fantasy, as an imaginary voyage to a new and fascinating place and people. But much of its strength and durability arise from the satiric strain which runs through the voyage.

Ironic Inversion: The Screwtape Letters

The strength and durability of Lewis's next narrative work, The Screwtape Letters, are similarly derived. Published serially in The Guardian from 2 May through 28 November 1941, the letters were subsequently collected into a book, which first made Lewis well known, in America as well as Britain, as a popular writer. The work is based on ironic inversion. To have a senior devil writing letters of advice to his junior-level nephew reverses our normal expectations and values. The first letter, originally presented in The Guardian without announcing its approach, signals the irony subtly, but skillfully. The greeting—"My Dear Wormwood"—supplies the first clue, though for most readers it can be appreciated only in retrospect: "Wormwood" combines the visual element of "serpent" with the overtone of madness from the second-meeting the word carried for the Elizabethans (Lewis would have remembered the famous line "wode within this wood" from A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.192, for example).

The word "materialist" in the first sentence indicates something of the values underlying the work, but as yet their application is not evident: "I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend." Similarly the word "patient" turns deeply ironic once one realizes that it refers to the victim being subjected to Wormwood's temptations—and satiric if "patient" establishes an implicit parallel between the devil and physicians or psychiatrists. Even in sentence three, for new readers—like those reading it originally in The Guardian—the irony still is only latent: "It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches." One's reading remains necessarily ambivalent through the next several sentences: one wants to believe in the connection of "thinking with doing," and not having dozens of abstract and incompatible philosophies in one's head, but customarily or initially at least, one tends to accept a speaker's words as authoritative.

Finally, in the tenth sentence, the speaker's unreliability comes through explicitly: "Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church." And, a few sentences later, the juxtaposition of "the Enemy" with "Our Father Below" makes the ironic reversal fully evident. By the time the speaker recounts his earlier experience of preventing the mind of a scholar in the British Museum from going "the wrong way," one knows that such statements invert the serious values of the work, and that argument, reason, and reality—because they are deprecated by the speaker—are to be held onto as sound and desirable.

What makes The Screwtape Letters successful, however, is that it does not involve just, or wholly, a simple ironic inversion. Much of the time what Screwtape writes is accurate description, straightforward statement of fact: the irony comes not through reversal, but in seeing the truth for what it is—as for example impediments to true worship and spiritual growth (whether they arise from a personal tempter or the disquiet of our own minds):

When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided…. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

In such passages Lewis evinces the keen psychological insights that characterize so many of his works; here the context turns the insights into satire—light, humorous ridicule of the folly of our tendency to allow trivialities and externals to dominate over crucial internal issues.

Screwtape's straightforward statements are accurate summaries of Christian truths, expressions of what Lewis believed and regarded as important teaching. Screwtape's description of Christian humility and self-acceptance illustrates:

The Enemy … wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—as charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created.

Older satiric traditions—the Roman satires of Juvenal, Horace, and Persius, and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British satires of Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Fielding—almost always included positive alternatives to the values attacked; twentieth-century satire typically does not, but is just negative, comprised wholly of attack and exposure. Lewis does include positives (since Lewis intends the book for spiritual instruction, it is essential that he get beyond ironic reversals) and he even improves on Swift as he does so. In Swift's satire, it seems inconsistent when a speaker utters straightforward truths, it breaks the spell for a moment; but in The Screwtape Letters it seems entirely necessary and believable that Screwtape should utter truths as part of the process of educating Wormwood in essentials he missed at Training College.

Ironic Inversion: That Hideous Strength

Lewis's next strongly satiric work seems closely related to, even owes some debt to, The Screwtape Letters. The Hideous Strength in the third volume of the Ransom trilogy is the power of evil incarnate in ambitious humans. What seems initially to be an attempt by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments to seize control of a nation turns out to be a cover for an attempt by Screwtape's secret service to infiltrate and take over the world. The ultimate horror in the book occurs when the reader, with the central character Mark, discovers that the Head of the evil empire is not just a human head severed from its body and sustained by machines, but devils referred to as Macrobes.

That Hideous Strength is indebted to The Screwtape Letters first for its treatment of bureaucratic structures. Basic to Screwtape is its social satire of the bureaucratic system which is today even more pervasive than when Lewis was writing. To depict hell as a bureaucracy places a powerful judgment against a system we have come to take for granted, but which is, in the words of the Preface Lewis added to a later edition, "held together entirely by fear and greed." Initially the bureaucracy in The Screwtape Letters sounds like part of the industrial or business world, but it later emerges as a dictatorial governmental structure, with striking anticipations of the N.I.C.E.: Screwtape refers to the Secret Police and the Infernal Police, which resemble Miss Hardcastle's security police force; the Screwtapian bureaucracy, like the N.I.C.E., has a "Philological Arm"; and the N.I.C.E., like the Screwtapian bureaucracy, regards its victims as "patients"—Feverstone says, in describing N.I.C.E.'s goals, "a real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly."

Even more telling than the debt That Hideous Strength owes to Screwtapian bureaucracy is the purpose shared by the individuals within the bureaucracies. Screwtape early on reminds Wormwood that "to us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense." The point is closely similar to Wither's, though his expression is typically less direct, when he and Frost discuss initiating Mark into the secrets of their organization: "Of course … nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity…. Any fresh individual brought into the unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction—to—ah—all concerned. I desire the closest possible bond. I would welcome an interpenetration of personalities so close, so irrevocable, that it almost transcends individuality. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man."

In view of these similarities, it is not surprising to find That Hideous Strength as heavily dependent on satire and irony as The Screwtape Letters. The satire seems to stand out more in That Hideous Strength than in Out of the Silent Planet, perhaps because the action occurs not in space, but in a small English university town that reminds one of Oxford. Much of the pleasure offered by the story—beyond the simple "what will happen, how will it turn out" level—derives from Lewis's satiric attacks on various aspects of the modern world. Because much of the satire is political-sociological and advocates conservative social values, however, it has given rise to objections from some readers who endorse his satire on broad personal traits.

Most obvious of this sort is the satire on Jane's intellectual pretensions as she struggles with her doctoral dissertation; the placement of two lines from Donne, "Hope not for minde in women; at their best / Sweetness and wit, they are but Mummy possest" juxtaposed with her subject, "Donne's 'triumphant vindication of the body'," sharply undercuts not only her efforts, but the capability of women generally for such efforts. The irony that this modern woman can write about the body but is not at ease with her own sexuality (hates "being kissed," to use Mrs. Dimble's euphemism) undercuts her further. And though Lewis presumably offers Mrs. Dimble as a more desirable alternative to such modernism, to have her say "husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them to concentrate their minds on what they're reading" is not helpful in rebuilding the case for women.

Similarly offensive, potentially, to twentieth-century readers brought up to reverence the social sciences, is Lewis's satire on sociology, first through the words of the good scientist Hingest: "There are no sciences like sociology … I happen to believe that you can't study men, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living, and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors." Hingest's opinion is confirmed when Cosser, a sociologist helping Mark expose the abuses and anachronisms of a small village, comments on a local pub: "I should have thought it was just the sort of thing we wanted to get rid of. No sunlight, no ventilation…. If people have got to have their stimulants, I'd like to see them administered in a more hygienic way." And the general attack on sociology as a discipline continues, less humorously, in the description of Mark's training: "It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely 'Modern.' The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by…. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge."

More important and less controversial is the larger, sustained satire on autocratic regimes and especially the socio-scientific "expertise" which has come to be used to support them. The acronym N.I.C.E. for an institution dedicated to "sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races,… [and] selective breeding" is one of the best satiric touches: humorous, reductive, and ironic simultaneously. The N.I.C.E. is the imaginative version of what Lewis described straightforwardly in his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," "the first-fruit of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world." It marks the beginning of a new era, "the really scientific era," and will "put science itself on a scientific basis." It initiates a committee system which can be recognized by anyone involved in a major strategic planning study for any large organization, and its methods of inter-committee communication are easily recognizable today, though rendered much faster and easier through the advent of the computer: "There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day and they've got a wonderful gadget … by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half-hour. Then that report slides itself into the right position where it's connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports." It creates the ultimate in bureaucratic isolation: "The secretary's office was next door. When one went in one found not the secretary himself but a number of subordinates who were cut off from their visitors behind a sort of counter."

To make the N.I.C.E. not only repulsive but also ridiculous, Lewis directs a good deal of its attention toward "our rivals on this planet." As Feverstone puts it, "There's far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven't really cleared the place yet." The practical implications of what he says become clear only later, as Filostrato explains at dinner why he has ordered a grove of fine beech trees cut down: "The forest tree is a weed. But I tell you I have seen the civilised tree in Persia…. It was made of metal…. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess … no feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt…. It is simple hygiene." That principle of hygiene must be applied as well to human beings: "The real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittles, excretions…. We must get rid of [the body]…. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation." In the story line, all this sets up the revelation to Mark of the "real Man," the guillotined head of Alcasan seemingly kept alive by machines. For the reader well-versed in Lewis, it also makes literal the castration metaphor he uses as warning in The Abolition of Man: the horror of a totalitarian state becomes explicit through the satire as Filostrato concludes, "You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable."

Inseparable from the satire on the N.I.C.E. is the humorous depiction of its Deputy Director, Mr. John Wither, especially his use of language. His first words to Mark, clarifying Mark's position if he joined the organization, illustrate nicely his constant manner of expression: "I assure you, Mr. Studdock,… that you needn't anticipate the slightest … er … the slightest difficulty on that point. There was never any idea of circumscribing your activities and your general influence on policy, much less your relations with your colleagues and what I might call in general the terms of reference under which you would be collaborating with us, without the fullest possible consideration of your own views and, indeed, your own advice" (ellipses in the original text). Wither has brought the technique of bureaucratese to ultimate indeterminacy; as Miss Hardcastle puts it, "Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. can't stand," and as Wither himself says to Frost, "It is one of the disadvantages of that extreme simplicity and accuracy with which you habitually speak (much as we all admire it) that it leaves no room for fine shades." It is ironic, then, that, in contrast to the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., the Director of the company at St. Anne's is a philologist, author of Dialect and Semantics, one who himself speaks with great clarity and precision. And even more ironic, the destruction of the N.I.C.E. is the result of Merlin's use of Old Solar, the original language which expresses things precisely as they are, to reduce Wither's talk, along with that of his entire organization, to gibberish, the inevitable culmination of the bureaucratese he cultivated with such care.

Focus on the Satirist

Neglect of Lewis's irony and satire has led, in some cases, to misreading his works. For example, some readers have regarded The Great Divorce as a book about heaven and hell as places, despite Lewis's warning that it is not, but is about the way choices lead to salvation or damnation. The Great Divorce is based on ironies of the lack of self-recognition. As the Ghosts from hell who have come for a day's outing in heaven talk, each reveals the self it has developed through its choices: most of them have put themselves in a hellish condition by not getting beyond self in thoughts and concerns. What a Spirit asks of one ghost applies to all of them, "Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?" The running irony is that readers see through the empty claims and self-congratulation as each ghost talks, though the ghosts themselves cannot—they do not see their antagonisms, arrogance, hatred, and possessiveness for the consuming evils they are. Thus they cannot open themselves to the Love which would free them from evil and put someone else ahead of self. As one Ghost puts it in a line loaded with double meanings and ironies, "I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity"; but that of course is exactly what he must ask for to find freedom from self and salvation.

Individual ironies abound in the book. There is verbal irony as the Big Ghost refuses to stay in heaven: "Tell them I'm not coming, see? I'd rather be damned than go along with you" and as the fashion-conscious Ghost claims "I'd rather die" than go around heaven looking the way she does. This is situational irony as the Episcopal Ghost, on holiday from hell and standing in heaven, laughs at the way his friend, before they both died, had been "coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!" and as tub-thumping Ghosts, in thin, batlike voices, urge the blessed spirits "to shake off their fetters, to escape from their imprisonment in happiness, to tear down the mountains with their hands, to seize Heaven 'for their own.'" There is a sort of theological irony that a repentant murderer is in heaven while one who "done his best all his life" is in hell, and a cosmic irony as the Episcopal Ghost laments the crucifixion as a disaster: "What a tragic waste … so much promise cut short" (ellipsis in the original text). And there is the ultimate irony that hell, which initially seemed so huge as inhabitants live millions of miles from each other and frequently decide to move further still, actually is smaller than an atom at the bottom of an almost invisible crack in the soil: that is room enough, "for a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself."

Through the book also runs a line of satire, not the political-societal satire of That Hideous Strength but an intellectual-social satire on personal follies that disturbed Lewis throughout his life. There is satire on the tendency to blame our problems on economic systems and on others, as the Ill-Used Ghost does at length; and satire on materialism, as Ikey tries to bring solid "things" back from heaven (which, ironically, could not fit into hell anyway) in order to create "Needs" as the proper basis for economic life; there is satire on domineering wives, in the wonderfully ironic five-page dramatic monologue delivered by Hilda's friend, and the satire on stifling, possessive parenthood, which Michael's mother can recognize in Winifred Guthrie but not in herself. Most powerful, however, is the lengthy satire on liberal theologians, especially unbelieving church officials, in the depiction of the Episcopal Ghost, which recalls the satire on Mr. Broad in The Pilgrim's Regress. In framing his exposure of unbelieving clergy and their failure to leave the church when they no longer accept what is fundamental to the church's existence, Lewis may well have had in mind the last Bishop of Birmingham, E. W. Barnes, author of Rise of Christianity, in which he tried to explain away the miraculous. Later, however, Lewis would say similar things of John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, author of Honest to God, as he presumably would now of the Bishop of Durham; what he complains of elsewhere in straightforward terms, here he ridicules and renders laughable through exaggeration and comic inconsistency.

To the Episcopal Ghost, God is "purely spiritual," heaven and hell are superstitious or mythological, and stagnation is the most soul-destroying of intellectual errors. All this he came to, his friend asserts, not through honest intellectual searching, but by plunging into a modern and successful current of ideas; his rejection of orthodox doctrines was not honest and risky, but a sure road to success: "What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?" He eventually decides not to remain in heaven because it lacks "an atmosphere of free inquiry" and requires belief in God as "Fact," and because he has to be back in hell that Friday to read a paper to a theological society on what Jesus's mature views would have been if his life had not been cut short tragically by the crucifixion. He strolls away, "humming softly to [him]self 'City of God, how broad and far.'"

Satire, therefore, forms a major part of tone and theme in Lewis's stories through the mid '40s, and a full understanding of Lewis's work and his literary imagination requires giving attention to it. Assessing its importance, however, requires looking not just at works in which satire is present, but also at those from which it is absent. There is no satire in Perelandra, very little in the Chronicles of Narnia, and none in Till We Have Faces. Thus the works which are the most mythical are the least satiric. The imagination which gives rise to myth or fantasy and that which creates satire commonly seem to run in opposite directions. The former, the "romantic" imagination, identifies with its subject, appreciates it, and infuses it with personal emotion; the latter, the "antiromantic" imagination, stands back from, analyzes, and critiques. When Lewis is fully engaged in the type of imagination necessary in depicting a different world, there seems to be no room for the analytical, dissecting imaginative activity involved in satire.

I have argued elsewhere that a change in Lewis's thought and writing occurs in the late 1940s, partly at least as a result of Elizabeth Anscombe's attack on Lewis's argument in the third chapter of Miracles. As he recorded in Surprised by Joy Lewis lived much of his life in a tension between his reason and his imagination—drawn to the imagination by his romantic longings, but held back by his reason from yielding himself unreservedly to the imagination. In the late '40s a shift seems to have occurred, a lessening of the strong reliance on reason which marked his writing in the '30s and '40s and a greater use of and trust in the imagination. The pattern of satire in his works tends to confirm that movement. Although the creation of satire requires imaginative activity of the highest order, satire retains a significant involvement of the intellect in literature; that Lewis wove satire into most of his creative works in the '30s and '40s substantiates his unwillingness or inability—whether consciously or unconsciously—to give himself wholly to the imagination. The disappearance of satire from his stories in the '50s reflects trust in imagination, a readiness to allow his stories to work on readers wholly through the imagination and emotions.

It should be noticed, however, that, though satire largely disappears from Lewis's prose after 1947, it finds expression elsewhere, in his poetry. Satire was too deeply engrained in him to be given up completely even though full commitment to the mythical imagination forced it from the stories. Lewis's early poetry—that in the volume Spirits in Bondage (1919), that included in The Pilgrim's Regress, and much of that printed in Part I of the volume of poetry edited by Walter Hooper—was mostly serious in tone, but many of the poems published in the mid-'50s are satiric. He has great fun in "Evolutionary Hymn" (1957), for example, twitting intellectual follies he had satirized earlier, in works discussed above:

    Lead us, Evolution, lead us          Up the future's endless stair:     Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.          For stagnation is despair:     Groping, guessing, yet progressing,          Lead us nobody knows where.

Similarly amusing, and biting, is the satire on literary critics in "Odora Canum Vis" ("Come now, don't be too eager to condemn / Our little smut-hounds if they wag their tails") and on the space program in "Science-Fiction Cradlesong" ("From prison, in a prison, we fly; / There's no way into the sky"). Lewis had an affinity for the epigram and epigrammatic expression, which have always been closely associated with satire. If these poems gave an outlet for Lewis's satiric wit, they also result in some of the most entertaining verse he wrote.

Lewis may have been a romantic at heart, but he had a neoclassical head. He has been appreciated for his achievements in the genres of myth and fantasy; he deserves recognition also for his achievements in the mode of satire. Lewis's success as a satirist, which has not been sufficiently taken into account in previous studies of Lewis, must be given attention if Lewis's works, and his literary imagination, are to be fully understood.

Gilbert Meilaender (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Theology in Stories: C. S. Lewis and the Narrative Quality of Experience," in Word and Story in C. S. Lewis, edited by Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, University of Missouri Press, 1991, pp. 147-56.

[In the following essay, Meilaender discusses the significance of Christian storytelling and the human longing for divine communion in Lewis's fiction. According to Meilaender, "Lewis offers not abstract propositions for belief but the quality, the feel, of living in the world narrated by the biblical story."]

At the outset of The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader," Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace have been whisked magically off into Narnia and are now sailing with King Caspian and his crew on a quest. Caspian is seeking some lost lords of Narnia as well as the end of the world ("the utter East"). They have many adventures—some merely strange, others dangerous. The adventure which concerns us comes when they arrive at the island of the Dufflepuds. These strange creatures (who have one large foot on which they hop about and who are not particularly intelligent) have, for reasons we need not concern our-selves with, been made invisible. In order to become visible again they need a young girl to go into the Magician's house, up to the second floor, and find the proper spell in the Magician's book. And they are determined not to permit Caspian's party to leave their island until Lucy consents to undertake this task.

Since it seems they have little choice—battling invisible antagonists is rather hard to do—Lucy agrees to brave the frightening house. She finds the book and begins turning pages looking for the spell. As she does so, however, she becomes engrossed in the various spells she finds there and reads large portions of the book. At one point she finds a spell "for the refreshment of the spirit."

It turns out to be "more like a story than a spell." She begins to read, and "before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real." When she finishes it, she feels that it is the loveliest story she has ever heard and wishes she could have gone on reading it for ten years.

She decides that she will, at least, read the story again but discovers that the pages will not turn backwards. "'Oh, what a shame!' said Lucy. 'I did so want to read it again. Well, at least, I must remember it.'" But she finds, unfortunately, that she cannot really remember the plot of the story. It all begins to fade in her memory. "And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book."


We will not, I think, fully understand the wide appeal of Lewis's writings until we think carefully about the importance of stories for communicating Christian belief. Lewis often depicts the whole of life in terms of the Christian story of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and resurrection. Beyond that, however, Lewis has, I believe, a strong sense of what Stephen Crites has called "the narrative quality of experience." The very nature of human existence—conceived in Christian terms—is best understood within narrative.

Anyone who has read very far in Lewis will have encountered his characteristic theme of "romantic longing," or Sehnsucht. It is, in many ways, Lewis's restatement of the Augustinian theme of the restless heart. We are, as Lewis says, always trying to capture something, trying to "get in." We want to ride time, not be ridden by it, "to cure that always aching wound … which mere succession and mutability inflict on us." The human being is, we may say, both finite and free: a bodily creature living in space and time, yet desiring to transcend such finite limitations and rest in God.

The crucial question, of course, is whether such a creature is an absurdity or whether this desired fulfillment is attainable. If fulfillment of the longing integral to our being is impossible, then we really are absurd creatures, and we would be better simply to acknowledge the search as futile and endless, to vow with Faust never to say to any moment, "Stay a while, you are so lovely." Lewis is concerned with this question, concerned to know whether finite creatures such as we are can find any spell which offers genuine "refreshment of the spirit"—lasting refreshment of which we cannot be deprived by the corrosive powers of time.

The spell, if there is one, is not available in abstract, theoretical reasoning. Built into our thinking is a kind of frustration: a gap always exists between experiencing a thing and thinking about that thing. In thinking "about" anything we abstract ourselves from it, begin to separate it into its parts, and lose it as an object of contemplation. That is, while thinking about it we are cut off from experiencing it. A man cannot, as Lewis points out, experience loving a woman if he is busy thinking about his technique.

Lewis searches, therefore, for some other way, some means other than abstract thought to find the "refreshment of the spirit" for which human beings seem to be made. One way to such refreshment, a way which always attracted Lewis, lies in myth. In his somewhat stipulative definition, myth is extraliterary. The fact that it must be communicated in words is almost accidental, for it is not so much a narration as it is a permanent object of contemplation—more like a thing than a story. That is to say, in myth we experience something timeless. Experiencing a myth is more like tasting than thinking, concrete rather than abstract. Yet it is also very different from other tastings, for it seems to bring experience not of some isolated tidbit of life which passes away but of what has timeless, universal significance.

We can, of course, also think "about" the universal and in that way move beyond isolated particulars of life. But this gives no experience of what is timeless, no experience of anything which may satisfy the longing of the human spirit to transcend the constraints of our finite condition. Instead, thinking about what is universal and timeless—which simultaneously cuts us off from experiencing it—is merely one more testimony to thought's built-in frustration. Myth provides, if only for a moment, what we desire: to break through to some great truth in which the heart can rest and which can give coherence to the isolated particulars of life. It offers what no other experience can, an actual tasting of a reality which transcends our finite existence. It brings us briefly into a world more real than our own, so real that any talk "about" it would have to be metaphorical.

However, myth offers no permanent peace for the quarrel between the two sides of our nature—our freedom and finitude. For a brief moment finitude is transcended, we are free of temporal constraints, and the transcendent is comfortingly passive. But the truth we are given in myth is not really a truth to live by in our here and now, for we live as creatures both free and finite. Because this is the case, Lewis looks elsewhere, away from myth to story, to find that "refreshment of the spirit" we desire. Although story cannot in any single moment of experience overcome the tension between finitude and freedom in the human being as completely as can myth, it points toward a more lasting peace, a peace we can live.

Lewis discusses the genre in his essay "On Stories." We can begin at the literary level of his ideas about story and move toward the theological. The story is, Lewis thinks, different from the novel, which concerns itself with delineation of character, criticism of social conditions, and so forth. The story is not merely, as some think, a vehicle of excitement and danger—anxious tension and then relief when the moment of danger passes. Lewis suggests that, at least for some readers, something more is going on when they read a story: a sense of atmosphere is conveyed; we feel that we have come close to experiencing a certain state or quality.

At the same time, there is frustration or tension in the structure of story, a frustration which story never fully overcomes. For a story is a net with which we try to catch something else, something timeless, something more like a state or quality—a grand idea like homecoming, or reunion with a loved one, or the simple idea of otherness. The tension arises because the story is also narrative, involving temporal succession and plot. A story must involve a series of events; it must move on. But the thing we are seeking is timeless. What we really seek to take hold of can never last in a story, and the storyteller is, therefore, doomed to frustration. The medium, the story, is inherently temporal; yet the storyteller is trying to catch something which is not really a process at all—what Lewis calls "theme." The art of the storyteller is to break through the mere succession of particular experiences and to catch theme by means of plot.

What Lewis describes in his essay "On Stories" is essentially Lucy's experience on the island of the Dufflepuds. The story is a spell which brings "refreshment of the spirit." It brings one close to, if not directly into contact with, something entirely beyond time. But this all fades and is soon gone; for story is narrative. The spirit is both refreshed and frustrated because it has temporarily been drawn out of the constraints which time places upon us and yet has been so drawn by a literary form which is itself inherently temporal. Thus story—more than myth—unites the temporal and eternal as intimately as plot and theme.


This is Lewis's literary theory. Near the end of his essay "On Stories," however, Lewis makes a comment which carries us beyond literary considerations alone. "Shall I be thought whimsical," he writes, "if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life?" Life, Lewis suggests, is frustrating in the same way a story is: "We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied." The author of a story uses the net of temporal plot to try to catch a timeless theme. Life is the same sort of net, amenable to being understood within the narrative genre: a net of successive experiences seeking to catch something which is not temporal at all. Lewis's literary theory and his belief that the human heart is restless until it rests in God meet here.

What I have described might almost be said to be Lewis's metaphysic. Certain human experiences take us beyond—or almost beyond—the finite boundaries of life. But they never last; they pass us by and are gone. Still, they are clues, if we will follow them. How do we do so? Not by constructing a completely explanatory theory which will itself attempt to be a timeless product, for our theories do not participate in the timelessness which we momentarily experience. The theorist is also a pilgrim; the theorist's own life has a narrative quality. As Stephen Crites has put it, every moment of experience is itself in tension, for memory and anticipation are the tension of every moment of experience. Past and future, memory and anticipation, are themselves present. Hence, the present moment is "tensed." Tensed and therefore filled with tension. As long as we remain within history we cannot escape that. We are limited to the present, yet in that very present both memory and anticipation serve as signals of transcendence.

Crites suggests that only narrative can contain the full temporality of our experience within a unity of form. And Lewis, I believe, is suggesting something similar. The human creature, made for fellowship with God, can touch the Eternal but cannot (within history) rest in it. Our experience is inherently narrative, relentlessly temporal. We are given no rest; the story moves on. Hence, the creature who is made to rest in God is in this life best understood as a pilgrim whose world is depicted in terms of the Christian story. This may explain why stories are sometimes the most adequate form for conveying the "feel" of human existence.

Most particularly, it is in stories that the quality—the feel—of creatureliness may be most adequately conveyed. Lewis himself suggests on one occasion that "if God does exist, He is related to the universe more as an author is related to a play than as one object in the universe is related to another." By way of illustration, Lewis suggests that we think of looking for Shakespeare in his plays. In one sense, Shakespeare is present at every moment in every play, but not in the same way that Hamlet or King Lear is present. Yet we would not fully understand the plays if we did not understand them in relation to Shakespeare, as the product of his creative genius.

Even more important, narrative is the form which does justice to the experience of creatures who are embodied spirits. Crites has stressed the point that story does not isolate body and mind. Lewis, likewise, seems to suggest that the narrative genre is most appropriate for creatures who are finite yet free. By trying to catch in its net what is not temporal at all, story recognizes that we are made to transcend our present condition. At the same time, story is not just this grasping after a transcendent theme. Its bodily structure, plot, always moves on. It is relentlessly temporal, just as historical life is. Because story gives no lasting rest, we may try to escape its limitations. Lewis thinks we ought not. He suggests that being a pilgrim involves a willingness to accept the temporality of human experience, a willingness to understand ourselves in terms of narrative structure and to accept the tension of the "tensed present."

In his essay on the narrative quality of experience, Crites describes two ways in which we may try to escape the temporality of our existence and find a rest in some false infinite of our own making. A reader of Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress will recognize a striking similarity to the Northern and Southern ways which the pilgrim John must avoid as he travels the road. On the one hand, Crites believes, we may try to escape from narrative by abstraction. We may seek refuge in some theory which pretends to be timeless. Abstraction has an intellectual character, isolating mind from body. This is Lewis's North, where all is arid, austere, bodiless, and finally sterile. The other attempted escape which Crites depicts is that of constriction: narrowing our attention to dissociated immediacies and disconnected particulars. In this case one assumes that feeling and sensation are irreducible in our experience. We accept our finite condition as the whole meaning of life and purchase timelessness by giving up the quest for the universal. We focus on the present, ignoring memory and anticipation, and do not see that particular experience calls us out beyond itself. This way is all body. It is Lewis's "South"—where the pilgrim can find himself present at an orgy.

The first way is content to talk "about" the universal but gives up the quest to experience it. The second refuses to notice how particular experience calls us away from itself toward something which transcends all particularity. Lewis's pilgrim, an embodied spirit, is to eschew both ways of escape. His is to be a "feeling intellect." Lewis says in his preface to The Pilgrim's Regress that we were "made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men"—things both rational and animal, creatures who are embodied and ensouled. We can neither abstract from the temporal flow of our experience nor reduce it to immediate experience without ignoring something important in our nature.


If up to this point I have managed to convey my message at all successfully, its irony must certainly be clear; for in rather abstract fashion I have been suggesting that such abstract argument cannot convey a quality like creatureliness successfully. This raises, quite naturally, a problem for the theorist, in particular the theologian. If the quality of our experience through time is narrative, no theory—itself an abstraction from experience—can fully capture the truth of reality. There may be occasions when abstraction is important and necessary; nevertheless, it is no accident that Lewis writes stories instead of a Summa. The story is, on his account, the form most true to our experience. Its form makes clear that we grasp after what is not fully given.

There are certain features of our experience, essential to serious discussion of the Christian life, which cannot be adequately conveyed by theological treatment, however careful and precise. Thus, for example, Christians have commonly wanted to say that our commitment to God must be freely and willingly given. Yet at the same time, they have wanted to say that we are of ourselves incapable of making this commitment, that it must be "worked in us" by God's grace. By abstracting, isolating, and emphasizing the divine activity, one ends up with irresistible grace, election of some to condemnation, and the suspicion that it is something of a sham to speak about our free and willing commitment. By abstracting, isolating, and emphasizing our own free commitment, one ends up with Pelagianism, having made grace superfluous. If one constructs instead, however, a narrative of one's own commitment (as Lewis does, for example, in Surprised by Joy), it may make good sense to say both "I might not have made this commitment which I now freely and willingly make" and "I could not have so committed myself had I not been drawn by God, and it is really his doing." That is what believers are likely to say in telling the story of how grace has abounded in their own commitment.

Within the narrative it seems to make sense to speak this way. Lewis writes in similar terms of the Oedipus story, in which, despite his efforts to avoid it, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother: "We have just had set before our imagination something that has always baffled the intellect: we have seen how destiny and free will can be combined, even how free will is the modus operandi of destiny. The story does what no theorem can quite do…. It sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region." To take an example from the history of Christian thought, there are, I think, few who would deny that St. Augustine's Confessions offers a more compelling picture of the relation of creature and Creator and conveys better the paradox of a freely given commitment, elicited solely by God's grace, than even the best of his more abstract treatises on the grace of Christ and on the predestination of the saints. However important and necessary those treatises are in certain contexts, they cannot convey the quality, the feel, of creatureliness in the way the Confessions do.

But the treatises are still necessary in certain contexts. The theologian's task is not superfluous. In one of his brief essays, Lewis distinguishes nicely between ordinary language, scientific language, and poetic language. He gives these illustrations of each: "(1) It was very cold (2) There were 13 degrees of frost (3) 'Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold; The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb'd were the Beadsman's fingers.'" Theological language tries to bring to religion the technical precision of scientific language. It is an attempt to provide what scientific language offers in different contexts—a precise test which can end dispute. It is language, as Lewis says, on which we can take action. We can, for example, use it to guard against mistaken understandings of our beliefs. But this is not the language the believer naturally speaks, for such language cannot convey the quality of religious belief and experience. Believers, when questioned, are usually more likely to tell their story.

My theme is by now becoming familiar: abstraction, however important, means a loss of immediacy—a loss, for example, of the sense of what it feels like to be a creature. To see this theme in Lewis's writings is to begin to understand the wide appeal those writings continue to demonstrate. He appeals far less to theoretical argument than many of his readers (and critics) have imagined. Rather, he tells stories which expand the imagination and give one a world within which to live for a time. Like Lucy, the reader can almost forget he is reading a story at all and can be "living in the story as if it were real." Lewis offers not abstract propositions for belief but the quality, the feel, of living in the world narrated by the biblical story. In stories we do not have to divide our treatment into separate loci—to talk first about the creature, then God (or the reverse, on which distinction a good many theological arguments can be constructed). Instead, we are permitted to see God and the creature as they really are—in a narrative in which it makes little sense to think of human beings abstracted from either time and history or from the God-relation.

We may grant that there will still be something dissatisfying about this. The relentlessly temporal character of human life will tempt us to try to make our peace by separating theme and plot, dividing the feeling intellect into its parts. We may seek to view ourselves as all body, finding significance only in isolated present experiences and perhaps regarding the longing for something more as an absurdity. Or we may seek to view ourselves as all intellect, all free, self-transcending person—as, in effect, one like God. But when we take either of these ways, we are not talking about human beings, creatures known properly only when known in relation to God, made for a destiny they cannot at present fully experience. The point is not, in the first instance, a religious one for Lewis. It is simply a claim about what rings true to our experience of what it means to be human. Of course, it leads on to a religious claim. If we understand ourselves as creatures, we will recognize the narrative quality of our experience and may perhaps find a way to make peace with it.


How make that peace between the two sides of our nature? Like Lewis, who was always something of a Platonist, one might be drawn to myth, that permanent object of contemplation which, he believed, brings us into contact with a "more real" world. In myth one might transcend the limits of thought and "taste" the universal. However, this is a solution which temporarily eclipses but does not bridge the gap between time and eternity. We fall back from the mythic universal into our finitude and have no truth to live by there. We want and need more, or so Lewis thinks.

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay.

Elsewhere, however, Lewis takes up the question and suggests that incarnation—for him the central turning point in the Christian story—surpasses even myth. The Christian story affirms that in one human being that other and more real world has entered our history and we need not transcend our finitude in order to find that more real world. The universal is particularized, located in time and space. The author has written himself into the play. As Augustine found the Word made flesh in the gospel but not in the Platonists, so Lewis has turned here from myth to story and found the story which promises to satisfy the longing of the restless heart while acknowledging, even affirming, the relentless temporality of a pilgrim existence.

Paul Piehler (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Myth or Allegory? Archetype and Transcendence in the Fiction of C. S. Lewis," in Word and Story in C. S. Lewis, edited by Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, University of Missouri Press, 1991, pp. 199-212.

[In the following essay, Piehler examines Lewis's critical study of allegory, historical varieties of allegory, and the use of allegory in Lewis's fiction.]

I sometimes find myself bothered by the recollection that in Lewis's Oxford it was fashionable to say things like "Of course his academic work is quite brilliant, but why on earth does he waste everyone's time with all this religious stuff?" Since I was at that time enough of a hireling of Giant Zeitgeist to make that kind of remark myself without even having taken the trouble to read any of his religious writings, apologetic or fictional, I welcome the opportunity to recant for such shallow timeserving.

Nor can I be accused of attempting to revive a dead issue. The horse is alive and could stand some more flogging. A few years ago, a famous student of Lewis's who was a successful candidate for that Oxford Professorship of Poetry denied to Lewis, in the course of a handsome tribute to Lewis's greatness as a scholar, inserted the comment, "Setting aside his novels, which I take it are simply bad—he developed in later years a telltale interest in science fiction, which is usually a reliable sign of imaginative bankruptcy."

John Wain's casual phrasing here would seem to imply that his views are so widely accepted among intelligent people that any actual argument to justify his contumely would be quite superfluous. Nonetheless, my own reading of Lewis's work leads me to quite opposite conclusions: in respect of Lewis's quite central interests in allegory and myth, his fictional works have been undervalued, and his scholarship has been in some respects overvalued. And since all discussions of allegory tend to involve reference to at least two levels of reality, and thus to become somewhat complex, I shall, for the sake of clarity, summarize my conclusions in the form of four propositions:

First, Lewis's most famous scholarly work suffers from a strange critical flaw. The writer of The Allegory of Love never quite produced a sustainable definition of allegory.

Second, the problem of definition arises from a failure to make a necessary distinction between two diametrically opposed forms of the genre, the allegory of vision and the allegory of demystification.

Third, the outcome of this failure to resolve what is in fact a quite ancient critical dilemma is reflected not only in inconsistency in his theoretical position, but also in a constriction of scope in his own attempt at an allegory of demystification, The Pilgrim's Regress.

Fourth and most important, Lewis's readings in medieval visionary allegory inspired not only his academic scholarship but his literary imagination and are powerfully reflected in the structures and imagery of his own fiction.

As a scholar C. S. Lewis is deservedly most famous for The Allegory of Love. Although it appeared relatively early in his career, it was never equalled, in scope or authority, by any of his later works, brilliantly successful as they have been. Yet, paradoxically enough, Lewis himself had a surprisingly low opinion of allegory, as opposed to what he saw as the alternate or rival mode of symbolism. He writes, for example, "There is nothing 'mystical' or mysterious about medieval allegory; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions. Symbolism is a mode of thought, but allegory is a mode of expression." Thus, for Lewis "the allegorist leaves the given—his own passions—to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction." He does not see himself as "reaching after some transcendental reality which the forms of discursive thought cannot contain." The symbolist, on the contrary, "leaves the given to find that which is more real." Allegory then would seem to be no more than a way of dressing up prettily what the poet and presumably his audience already know, so that if he wishes to explore and communicate new or transcendent truths he must have recourse to symbolism.

If this is all there is to allegory, it would hardly be worth discussing as anything more than a deservedly obsolete literary device, in no way relevant to the understanding of Lewis's fiction. But when we turn from his theories of allegory to actual interpretations, we discover hints that it may well be more important than his theoretical discussions imply. Considering The Romance of the Rose, for instance, he warns us not be misled by modern allegory into thinking that "in turning to Guillaume de Lorris we are retreating from the real world into a shadowy world of abstractions." Nor do allegory and symbolism, or at least myth, seem so far apart in his elucidation of Lord Mirth's park in the same work:

But, of course, its classical and erotic models only partially account for it. Deeper than these lies the world-wide dream of the happy garden—the island of the Hesperides, the earthly paradise, Tirnanogue. The machinery of allegory may always, if we please, be regarded as a system of conduit pipes which thus tap the deep, unfailing sources of poetry in the mind of the folk and convey their refreshment to lips which could not otherwise have found it.

Lewis's sharp theoretical distinction between allegory and symbolism is by no means original with him but goes back as far as the critical writings of Coleridge, who doubtless based his views on the relatively trivial allegories of eighteenth-century classicism, as opposed to the new symbolism characteristic of Romantic poetry.

But we shall not need to explore any further the well-known but all too misleading distinction Lewis made between allegory and symbolism, for it goes nowhere unless it is applied to actual allegorical texts. And then it will turn out that the relationship between the two is almost the exact opposite of what the theory would lead us to expect. At all events Lewis makes no use of this distinction in his actual analysis of medieval allegories.

Nonetheless a useful theoretical division of this type can be made—even given practical application to actual allegories—but in rather different terms. While the majority of medieval allegories, as we shall see, do consistently reach after myth, archetype, and transcendence, there is another type equal in antiquity (if not in dignity) to the main tradition, a type which specifically and deliberately turns away from the evocation of spiritual realities. In fact this feature is its chief raison d'être. Let us take a look at this poor cousin, for she has an important role to play, and let us name her the allegory of demystification.

The great example of this secondary type is Prudentius's fourth-century Christian poem of the wars of the Virtues and Vices, the Psychomachia. These battles within the soul were depicted in terms of gory but repetitious clashes between ponderous, all too vociferous, allegorized warriors, modeled on the battle descriptions of Vergilian or Statian epic. Today, for most readers, these epic combats seem quite repugnant when they are not simply boring. And most notably the persons and locales are totally deficient in the numinous or archetypal aura characteristic of true visionary allegory. Nonetheless, the Psychomachia was an immensely popular work for over a thousand years and the subject of innumerable imitations, as well as sculptural and mural illustrations.

What, then, accounts for the intense and long-lived popularity of the work? The reason is not hard to find if we look at the kind of "psychoanalysis" that preceded Prudentius's work. Prior to the knock-'em-down style battles between Anger and Patience, Lust and Modesty, hacking each other about in their greaves and corslets, we find earlier heroes assaulted by infinitely more sinister powers. One sees them at work in Aeschylus's Oresteia, in the form of the Furies—they whom the Greeks, in their anxiety to speak inoffensively of such dread avengers of crimes and sin, named the Eumenides, the "Kindly Ones."

Thus, when the early Christian reader of Prudentius work up in the small hours quivering in the cold sweat of some nightmare encounter with the Eumenides or Hecate, the sinister queen of darkness, he could take comfort from this new psychology. Prudentius had replaced such mysterious and terrifying beings with figures like Cultura Veterum Deorum, "Cult of the Ancient Gods," a scarcely intimidating daytime warrior who is ruthlessly smashed down by a single barehanded blow from the redoubtable Lady Fides.

This allegorical procedure, tedious as it sounds today, was extremely significant in an age when mankind desperately needed a method of coping with the negative forces that assault and over-whelm the reason. Thus Prudentius's allegorical procedures effected a separation between the sin itself, the punishment of the sin, and the supernatural terror which bonded these fears together, constituting an act of psychological analysis and demystification fundamental to the control of these dark irruptions from the underworld.

The spirit and style of Prudentius's Psychomachia survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation, which put an end to the old style of numinous visionary allegory. It prevailed in the tepid rationalistic allegorizations of the eighteenth century and was thus indirectly influential in forming Coleridge's and Lewis's low opinion of allegory as a genre.

Moreover, when we turn to Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress, the only work he explicitly acknowledged as allegory, we find it to be largely composed in the limited psychomachia style, but written for an age when the urgency of such apotropaic demystification had long passed. It fits very well the definition of allegory Lewis made in a letter of 1958, where it is described as "a composition … in who immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects." In terms of this definition, The Pilgrim's Regress is a highly successful, indeed brilliant, work. Every character or scene encountered by the hero constitutes an ingenious representation of such assorted "immaterial realities" as Virtue, the Spirit of the Age, the Heroic Ideal, Philosophical Idealism, Mother Church, the Sin of Lust, and, finally, Death itself—all designed to constitute a convincing semi-autobiographical account, in allegorical terms, of Lewis's own intellectual and psychological journey from childhood credulity, through many phases of skepticism or apostasy, to genuine religious conversion.

Of course, there is something not quite satisfactory about The Pilgrim's Regress, and doubtless it merits no more than its relatively minor place in the Lewis canon. Why? Lewis himself gave us some indication of the problem in his preface to the second edition of 1943, where he clarifies, among other things, his system of psychological geography. North, for example, stands for excessive rigidity of thought, emotion, and belief, and South for excessive laxity. However, he goes on to confess, "But it remains true that wherever the symbols are best, the key is least adequate. For when allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect." But in fact the intellectual significance of the allegory is at once so precise and so obscure that Lewis was prompted to emulate the editors of the original Pilgrim's Progress by putting explanatory "running heads" at the top of each page.

The point is a crucial one. Compared to his later fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress is remarkable for its high proportion of "feigned physical objects" intellectually translatable into "immaterial realities" and equivalently for its low degree of that elusive but infinitely attractive "mythic" quality, which appeals primarily to the imagination and constantly challenges while constantly eluding cogent translation into intellectual terms.

The Pilgrim's Regress, therefore, works very well as an allegory of demystification, indeed as an allegory satirical of contemporary intellectual life, as its hero, John, visits the various schools of heresy or worldliness north or south of the true road. But it lacks a transcendent dimension. Unlike the true visionary allegory that inspired his later fiction, but faithful to the limited, reductionistic tendency of the psychomachia tradition, The Pilgrim's Regress does not, for instance, grant us more than the briefest glimpse of the landlord's castle on the other side of the stream of death. The work seems best defended as a legitimate but preliminary intellectual reconnaissance to discover and mark out the best routes to the place of transcendence.

Lewis does not seem to have changed his theoretical position on allegory, though in his later writings we find the role he previously attributed to symbolism being taken over by myth. In a letter to Peter Milward written in 1956, he says: "My view wd. be that a good myth (i.e. a story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put). Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows; in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and cd. not come by in any other way." The weakness of this rather shaky polarity between allegory on the one hand and symbolism or myth on the other becomes clearer when we take a closer look at the way in which allegory actually functions in the Middle Ages. At the same time we shall see how Lewis's own fiction is itself largely based on the themes and structures of medieval allegory.

Confusion often arises concerning the term "allegory" because the word can refer either to a certain method of writing or to a complete work written in this allegorical style—in other words, to a mode of writing or to a genre. In The Pilgrim's Regress it is easy to miss the distinction, for it both functions as an allegory in the sense of genre and is written in the mode of allegory throughout. Indeed, the very thoroughness with which Lewis infused allegory of mode into his allegory of genre turns out to be its major limitation.

This odd situation in which allegory fails, it seems, by remaining too faithful to its own definition makes a good case for changing either the genre or the definition. Fortunately, the second, less drastic solution is available to us. If we turn our attention to great medieval visionary allegories which Lewis revived for the modern imagination, we find they contain a much higher proportion of myth than is perceptible in The Pilgrim's Regress. Moreover, the distinction between mythic and allegorical creation turns out to be not at all so hard and fast as it was to become in later centuries.

At the outset of The Divine Comedy, the type and pattern of all visionary allegories, the reader finds himself in the most famous of allegorical landscapes, Dante's selva oscura. With respect to this dark and fearsome forest, it would be much more difficult than in The Pilgrim's Regress to distinguish the specific roles of the literary forms, the myth, allegory, and symbolism that underline and shape its imagery. In Dante's experience of mortal terror when he comes to realize he has lost his way in the wilderness, the surface allegorical significance of wandering from the true path merges seamlessly into the traditional mythic adventure of the dreadful encounter with the dark forest and its monsters experienced by almost every mythic hero from Gilgamesh to Frodo. Long before Dante, classical philosophers had made an allegorical identification of the forest with chaos—that is, matter in that unthinkable, fearful condition before it receives the imprint of form. But such different levels of meaning are distinguishable only through the prisms of analysis. It would surely be inappropriate to Dante's intention (and to a proper experience of the poem) if we were to become overly conscious of these distinct elements as we read the text, whereas in reading The Pilgrim's Regress we should on the contrary be missing an essential part of the experience if we failed to remain alert to the separate but parallel lines along which story and interpretation are progressing. Indeed, the "running heads" are there to prompt the forgetful.

There is nothing precisely equivalent to Dante's dark wood in Lewis's fiction. But if we think about the way in which the experience of the wood prepares us for the reading of Dante's adventures in the afterworlds, the structural function of the wood if you like, then we can find many equivalences. As Dante and Lewis would be sufficiently aware, their readers will almost inevitably come to these works in a "normal" state of mind—that is, they will be clenched firmly in the grip of the prevailing, rarely questioned assumption that everyday experience gives us all we know or need to know of the true reality of things.

How then to break the spell of this existential inertia? What happens in the dark wood is what one might term a "disorientation experience," a disturbance of the normal postulates of everyday life sufficiently severe and sustained to cause the hero and, through him, ourselves (insofar as we participate imaginatively in the experience) to doubt the coherence of our familiar world as a sole or sufficient reality.

Such experiences of disorientation seem an essential preliminary to acceptance of the very different postulates of visionary realities shortly to be revealed to the hero. They occur, moreover, in just about every serious medieval vision. Not surprisingly, there is nothing similar at the opening of The Pilgrim's Regress. On the other hand, Lewis's later fiction abounds in such allegorical motifs, despite the fact that, in his view, these works are in no way to be thought of as allegories. Writing of the Narnian stories in a letter dated as late as 1958, he describes them rather as "suppositions," distinguishing them from allegory as follows:

Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan's picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal; but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.

Important as this distinction is, it is nonetheless these fictional, "suppositional" works that resemble and indeed appear to be inspired by the visionary allegories Lewis became familiar with during his writing of The Allegory of Love. It is in these that we find, for example, the preliminary disorientation experiences we have already identified. Thus, the first of the Narnian histories opens with young Lucy exploring the mysterious wardrobe, which she discovers would on occasion transform its dark recesses into the enticing, if somewhat menacing entrance, to a Narnian forest. In The Magician's Nephew, the "wood between the worlds" functions as a similar though rather more complex "locale of disorientation." In later stories, where the children are more accustomed to the Narnian reality (as, presumably, are most of Lewis's readers), we find fewer of these disorientation experiences, though in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" the shock of being plunged into the great ocean swells of the Narnian seas in the opening scene acts as a requisite and effective preliminary disorientation for benefit of the obnoxiously skeptical Eustace.

In the case of the planetary trilogy, Ransom's experiences upon arriving on Malacandra constitute a powerful and unusual disorientation experience, as he strives to make conceptual sense of the dizzyingly elongated vegetation, the near perpendicular mountains, and the grotesquely distorted appearance of the terrifying sorns—all baffling to his system of perceptions, nurtured on earthy Thulcandran landscapes. At the opening of Perelandra, on the other hand, we encounter a quite brilliant use of a contrary technique, the familiar made strange, when Lewis takes what should have been a tranquil evening stroll from the railway station to Ransom's cottage and transforms the gentle south-country scenery, in some uncanny fashion, into a landscape of nightmare.

Nonetheless, no instance of this disorientation experience compares with the intensity of confusion and terror experienced in the shifting, chaotic landscape of Dante's dark wood. Dante was of course reporting a more massive account of an otherworld experience than anything attempted by Lewis—or anyone else for that matter. None of Lewis's heroes is ever depicted as being in the intensity of spiritual peril Dante experiences at the start of his visionary journey, and the disorientations in the novels are appropriately milder experiences.

The most important of the allegorical motifs Lewis has in common with Dante is the earthly paradise. Almost every major work treated in The Allegory of Love embodies a striking instance of this motif, usually in a position of great importance in the story. Its occurrence in myth is equally pervasive, and, as in the case of all such major archetypes, when medieval allegory took over the motif, it acquired not only a Christian dimension but a greatly enhanced rational or explanatory element that nonetheless leaves the original power of the myth intact.

So far as Lewis's own fiction is concerned, the focal image of the earthly paradise similarly constitutes a focal point of almost all his work. But there is a striking difference in the nature of the paradise archetype as opposed to that of the dark wood. The disorientation and subsequent panic consequent upon getting lost in a forest are quite comprehensible experiences. But to the rational mind, it must seem hardly credible that anyone has ever encountered in normal waking experience an earthly paradise of the type that appears so frequently in the myths and allegories of every culture. These paradises, moreover, appear not as the setting for incidental adventure but as the ultimate goal of a sustained heroic quest, frequently comprising an underworld journey, the ascent of a sacred mountain, and the penetration of some formidable protective wall or similar barrier. Dante himself has to descend to the very lowest circles of hell and then make the painful ascent of Mount Purgatory before reaching the portals of the earthly paradise. And these, he tells us, have to be entered through a wall of flame so fierce that he would have leaped into molten glass to cool himself (Purgatorio, 27.7-51).

Thus The Divine Comedy and other medieval allegories had a primary role in supplying motif and inspiration for such Lewisian paradises as Meldilorn in Malacandra, the holy mountain of Perelandra, the country of heaven in The Great Divorce, the Narnian garden of Aslan, and the palace of Psyche in Till We Have Faces. Significantly, however, in The Pilgrim's Regress the hero never attains more than a brief and obscure vision of paradise, though his whole journey is inspired by his longing to find the source of the "sweet desire" that has haunted his life from his earliest childhood. This omission is characteristic of a work whose images tend to represent one-dimensional, intellectualized versions of the ancient archetypal patterns we have been describing. But only That Hideous Strength, with its grim, back to "the silent planet" theme, lacks a paradise. Its sacred grove, Bragdon Wood, at once eerie selva oscura and protoparadise, is desecrated by man's malice, greed, or indifference, and is finally destroyed in an apocalyptic cataclysm. This act of destruction echoes, perhaps, Milton's rationale for God's iconoclastic obliteration of the earthly paradise in Paradise Lost: "To teach thee," as Michael puts it to Adam, "that God attributes to place / No sanctity, if none be thither brought / By Men who there frequent, or therein dwell."

Curiously enough, the sources Lewis specifically acknowledged were all relatively modern. One might instance William Morris's heart-stirring but ultimately inconclusive paradise quests, the eerily unpredictable wanderings of George MacDonald's heroes (who do, however, finally attain the land of heart's desire rather than merely go in quest for it), and the brilliantly imagined wanderings of Maskull on Tormance in David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus (perhaps the most profound, surely the most provocative antiparadise romance ever written). One could also trace lesser debts to the early Yeats, to H. G. Wells, even to E. M. Forster perhaps. But apparently Lewis never alluded directly to his major debts to the medieval paradise visions as sources of inspiration.

What is the psychological significance of this paradise archetype, which, by definition, can never be encountered in normal experience? In terms of the psychology of landscape, man has dwelt, since the dawn of what we think of as human consciousness, in tense polarity between the settlement or city he has constructed and the other landscape, against and in defiance of which the city has been built—the wilderness, the unknown outerness. Since that dawn, man's energies have been persistently and in the main successfully directed to extending the area of the city at the expense of the wilderness, both in geographical and in concomitant psychological terms.

But consider the paradox underlying this expansion of the city: the more successful it is, the more diminished the power of the wilderness and the less, therefore, the energizing stimulus of this tension on the peoples who have pushed the wilderness back too far. Finally, today, the wilderness survives at all only as the result of the extraordinary efforts of such groups as the Sierra Club. Or in specifically psychological terms, the city is the very manifestation and representation of man's capacity for reason and order, while the wilderness manifests deep and awesome potentiality—in modern terms, the subconscious. Again, normal consciousness is totally dependent on a healthy balance between these mighty opposites, city and wilderness, reason and the subconscious.

But for the romantic, the lover of myth and allegory, the admirer of Lewis's fiction, this is hardly the whole story. From the intuition, that faculty of man which preeminently mediates between reason and subconscious, comes the message, the "Sweet Desire," from that land beyond the dark forest where the tension between the mighty opposites of city and wilderness is finally resolved and transcended. For this garden is the place where one may find the aching awesome beauty of the wilderness ordered and harmonized, walled and protected by the rationality we associate with the city. Psychologically, therefore, in this place reason and the subconscious are finally reconciled, the psyche reintegrated, and perfected.

Thus, as we might expect, if we look at the medieval allegories that embody this motif, we find that in such works as Bernardus's Cosomographia, John of Hanville's Architrenius, Dante's Purgatorio, Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, Spenser's "Mutability Cantos," the garden is the place where the intellectual and emotional problems raised by the work find their solution, as intellect, emotion, and intuition achieve a harmony transcending all other expectations of happiness.

But in an age where commercial and political spokesmen tend to encourage expectation of instant gratification of desires, we can hardly avoid the question of why the hero has to endure such long, arduous, and quite frequently terrifying experiences on his wilderness journey before reaching his goal. Psychologically, however, these preliminary ordeals seem essential. In the first place, the ordeal of disorientation, the dark wood experience, purges the hero of what one might call the epistemological parochialism of his city, his tendency to think of the reality conventions of his civilization as prevailing in the universe as a whole.

In this way he becomes attuned to function in a region where external forms and inner realities have a startlingly close relationship, as compared to the city where the divisive analytical consciousness keeps the connections between mental and physical events to a minimum. Once this is achieved, the qualities of rationality and mental stability he has acquired in the city will be tested against the horrors and seductions manifesting out of the untamed forces of the subconscious. Thus, the final experience of paradise will synthesize and transcend both civic and wilderness elements of his existence. For each of these powerfully opposed forces must be fully manifested and reconciled within him before the external goal of paradise can become an inner reality.

The rationality of the city will not be sufficient in itself, however, for there will come to him on his journey spiritual beings who will bestow upon him the advice without which his journey could not be made nor his experiences comprehended. These spiritual beings may take such forms as gods, angels, or revered ancestors. In medieval allegory they frequently appear as personifications but by no means resemble the rather pallid figures of modern allegory. With all the dignity of their poetic ancestors, the gods of classical Rome, or the Platonic ideas from which they derive philosophically, they are usually so numinously awesome that the hero is liable to lose consciousness at the mere sight of their manifestation, suffering the kind of perturbation that Lewis reports of his own—one presumes fictional—account of his meeting with the Malacandrian Oyarsa in the opening chapter of Perelandra. He will also frequently have to discriminate against the advice or seductions of spiritual powers that would lure him from the true way. Finally, even after attaining paradise itself, there will be illuminating dialogue with the benevolent powers of that place, so that the experience may be comprehended intellectually as well as emotionally and the fullest possible integration of the faculties of the soul be attained.

But how is it that the rational wisdom of our great civilizations is so strangely inadequate that the hero has to undertake such an appalling journey to remedy its defects? For an answer we can turn to the greatest paradise myth, which describes the precise opposite of the psychic integration we have been discussing—the history of psychic disintegration and loss of paradise we find related in the book of Genesis. The consequence of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree is that one gains knowledge of good and evil only as separate entities that wage war against each other in endless patterns of polarity. No longer in that paradisal serenity where thought, will, and action remain in their original perfection, we form the habit of judging all events as internal or external, better or worse, active or passive, progressive or conservative, or whatever criteria one chooses.

The resulting mental fluctuations produce the transient fragmented hopes and anxieties, the cycle of malaise and satisfaction which the turns of Fortune's Wheel constantly inflict upon us. In terms of Lewis's Perelandra, this is the fate of those who allow themselves to fall into the state of separation from Maleldil that the Unman urges upon Tinidril, in the Perelandran version of the temptation of Eve. In this way, the story of the Fall provides an explanation in mythic terms of how the hero gets into the world of turbulent relativities which in the end must make it impossible to find interests or purposes in human existence other than the long journey back to absolute life.

What about the biographical implications in all of this? We are all familiar with the astonishing scope of Lewis's mental activity, ranging from ruthless rationalistic polemics to the most intense of searches for supranational transcendence. Owen Barfield, speaking of The Great Divorce as "itself a kind of myth," commented, "In that book, as perhaps not quite in any other, this ever diverse pair—atomically rational Lewis and mythopoeic Lewis—I will not say unite, but they do at least join hands."

Lewis has himself evidently trodden the way of the archetypal hero, enduring, as he has, a life in constant tension between these mighty opposites, as the romantic artist always participates in the aesthetic worlds he creates. Out of respect for Lewis's views on the "personal heresy," however, I shall say no more than that, when it comes to his own book, the author is really no more than a special type of reader.

After his experiment with "pure" allegory of demystification in The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis achieved a remarkable degree of success in reviving the medieval visionary form and, like the medieval allegorist, in inviting his readers not merely to play the role of noncommitted observers but to be themselves participants in a healing of the soul. In this respect Lewis's work might be described in terms of the intentions that Dante attributed to his own Comedy to remove those living this life from the state of misery and to bring them to the state of felicity (Epistolae, 10.15). It is for this reason as much as any other, I believe, that Lewis's books not only enjoy extraordinary and still increasing worldwide popularity but also engender in their readers a curious kind of loyalty, a sense of commitment to they know not quite what—even if at the same time provoking the profoundest misgivings among those who do not share such hopes of transcendent routes to human perfection.

The view I am putting forward here is that Lewis's contributions to the theory and practice of allegorical writing cannot be regarded as limited to The Allegory of Love and a few passing remarks in letters and prefaces. Although his study of allegory clearly ranks among the major scholarly works of the century in its field, its most significant achievement is its description and interpretation of actual medieval allegories, interpretation which, ironically enough, is far more advanced in its implied theoretical basis than the explicit theory the book puts forward. But Lewis's most important contribution to the history of allegory goes beyond either his theorizing or his specific interpretations. It is to be seen in his fictional work, where one may experience and enjoy an extraordinary revival of what is arguably the greatest collective achievement in literary history, the visionary allegory of the Middle Ages as a mode of psychic integration and healing of soul.

James E. Person, Jr. (essay date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: "The Legacy of C. S. Lewis," in Modern Age, Vol. 33, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 409-11.

[In the following essay, Person discusses the enduring popularity, major themes, and critical reception of Lewis's writings.]

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: that

                   … the communication       Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond          thelanguage 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.

Ann Bonsor (essay date March 1992)

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SOURCE: "'One Huge and Complex Episode': The Diary of C. S. Lewis," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 260, No. 1514, March, 1992, pp. 145-9.

[In the following essay, Bonsor discusses Lewis's personal life and relationships as revealed in All My Road Before Me.]

'If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary' wrote C. S. Lewis in 1955. This is an interesting and not altogether unexpected statement when one considers Lewis's complicated and secretive personality, and although it is true that the 'huge and complex episode' he refers to in his autobiography Surprised by Joy almost certainly concerns his relationship with Mrs. Moore, one might say the phrase describes as well as any other the extraordinary contradictions and complexities of C. S. Lewis's whole life—itself a huge and complex episode indeed.

C. S. Lewis's Diary for the years 1922–1927 has now been ably and compendiously edited by Walter Hooper and entitled All My Road Before Me. In it we are given information we would certainly not otherwise have had of Lewis's attitudes, prejudices and opinions on a variety of subjects and about a considerable number of people. Above all we discover what at the time almost no one, not even his closest friends were aware of, how those years were, one might say obsessively, concerned with Mrs. Janie Moore, a woman 27 years older than 'Jack' Lewis, who was himself a mere nine years older than Maureen, Mrs. Moore's only daughter. Mrs. Moore was the mother of a close friend and fellow officer of Lewis's who was killed in the First World War. Lewis remained faithful to his promise to look after Mrs. Moore, who had separated from her husband in Ireland. It was Maureen who completed that curious little household which has so puzzled and fascinated Lewis's many biographers, admirers and critics. Some years ago Maureen, now Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs, said to me whilst discussing the impact made upon the young Jack Lewis by the death of his mother when he was only nine years old: 'And that was where my mother came in'.

Referred to as she is in Lewis's Diary as 'D', Mrs. Moore most probably should be regarded primarily as a mother-figure, but what a mother-figure the young intellectually aggressive, yet emotionally naive C. S. Lewis met when he was only 18 years old!

It was Lewis's nature to be critical in the view he took of people, of men, and especially of women. He was intolerant and dismissive of anybody and almost everybody with whom he came in contact. His attitude to and relationship with his own father is ambivalent to say the least; love/hate is the psychological cliché that has been used to describe it; and this even though Albert Lewis seems from Jack's own descriptions of his dealings with his father, to have been generous and conciliatory in his efforts to remain on terms with a son who can only have appeared to him as wayward, secretive and difficult, even if academically brilliant.

How then can we account for the infinite patience, understanding and sympathy that Lewis so consistently demonstrated in almost everything that he wrote between the age of 23 and 28 about Mrs. Janie Moore?

She appears at the best to have been not very intelligent. She seems to have had distinctly hypochondriacal tendencies. She was also a convinced workaholic and a bossy and difficult woman. Mrs. Moore must have been exceedingly awkward to live with—and yet Lewis not only lived with her, but from the age of 23 he supported her, cherished her, and hardly ever did more than evince the mildest exasperation or displeasure at her autocratic treatment of him. (It must be remembered, of course, that the diary was written, partly at least, at her instigation, and that she had access to it. Often the two of them read the latest entries together.)

For us to read C. S. Lewis's Diary from a domestic point of view is to be regaled with a catalogue of his chores. These ranged from scraping turnips to putting up curtains, laying linoleum, going to the shops, mowing the grass, doing endless washing-up, and very, very often indeed, ministering to 'D', suffering from one of her headaches, migraines, fits of indigestion or colds in the head. Through these years and in spite of distractions which included acting as father rather than brother to Maureen, interviewing her music teachers, watching school plays and taking her to concerts, Lewis was also occupied in getting a First in Greats in 1923 and a First in English in 1924. He was as well exceedingly active in various university debating clubs and societies, and immersed in the writing of Dymer—an epic poem of which one reader to whom it was sent remarked: 'The metrical level is good, the vocabulary is large, but Poetry—not a line'. Dymer was, in fact published in 1926, and maybe the best that can be said for it is that very little has ever been said. Lewis is not a poet, hard though he worked to become one; although it is fair to remark that he did write a handful of pleasant and sometimes moving verses—"The Apologist's Evening Prayer" being one that must rank high by any rating:

     From all my lame defeats and oh! much more      From all the victories that I seemed to score;      From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf      At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;      From all my proofs of Thy divinity,      Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.      Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead      Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.      From all my thoughts, even my thoughts of Thee,      O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.      Lord of the narrow gate and needle's eye,      Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

'Trumpery' is not a word that springs to mind when considering C. S. Lewis: scholar, man-of-letters, Christian-apologist and creator of Narnia and it is interesting to read in his Diary not only of his strong personal antipathies and prejudices but also of his intellectual and literary judgements as these developed during those five to six incredibly formative years between 1922 and 1927.

C. S. Lewis read prodigiously throughout his whole life and in his Diary he records what he is reading and how it strikes him. 'Gusto' is a word that has been used about his attitude to almost everything and it was with gusto that Lewis read omnivorously, dealt with his pupils at Magdalen, and at University College before that, and argued with his colleagues and his friends; 'argued to win' as it has also been remarked; and in groups such as the Martlets, the Coalbitars, and above all in his own creation, the Inklings, argument, discussion and critical evaluation continued as a driving force throughout his life.

C. S. Lewis was combative in his twenties and remained combative in his fifties and sixties. By temperament and by training he relished what, referring to his treatment of pupils in tutorials, Professor John Wain has called 'The Socratic approach in Spades'—and no undergraduate who was taught by Lewis or attended his lectures could possibly have regarded him as other than brusque, scholarly, direct and straight-forward. Of him one might have supposed 'le style, c'est l'homme même', and in many aspects it was; but not in all. For Lewis was secretive to the point of being, in his private life, downright deceitful; and whilst 'economy with the truth' has become in these days a phrase somewhat overworked, Jack Lewis in his Diary and in his life was frequently more (or is it less?) than economic. He often abandoned truth entirely for falsehood.

This is especially the case in his dealings with his father, and it is not surprising that Albert Lewis, and Jack's elder brother, Warnie, worried about the relationship with Mrs. Moore, Albert finding the situation in Oxford, or what he knew of it 'uncomfortable', and Warnie calling it 'freakish'.

I am not sure how much is to be gained by attempting to add to the discussion about Mrs. Moore's and Jack's sexual relationship, if indeed there was one. Probability must be that for some years, at least, it was not for nothing that Maureen was packed off to church on Sunday mornings and was not accompanied by her mother. What is perhaps more interesting than this however, is the sheer dependence revealed by Jack in his need for and total acceptance of a situation which would have been intolerable for most people; a dependence upon Janie Moore that presumably gave him a stability he might not otherwise have known, but for which he paid a heavy price. For some years at least Jack Lewis seems to have needed the emotional support of a woman 27 years older than he. For many more years a more mature C. S. Lewis had the still greater responsibility of a domineering and demanding woman who depended in her physical and mental decrepitude upon him. He did indeed look after her stoically and constantly until she died at the age of 78, and it may or may not be relevant that for approximately 25 of their 31-year relationship Lewis was a Christian. No one who reads his Diary or has read Surprised by Joy need be surprised if his conversion in 1929 brought about certain changes of attitude and behaviour to many aspects of C. S. Lewis's life, changes which Janie Moore herself may not have appreciated.

The diarist in Lewis has long been supplanted and the poet and perhaps mystic has found his place. In the latest of his many services to Lewis scholarship, Walter Hooper has shown us the daily life and frustrations of the young Lewis who would develop into one of the great Christian writers of our time.

If C. S. Lewis did change in certain fundamentals as his life progressed many of his earlier interests and pleasures never altered. As we discover in the Diary he always loved walking, and walked considerable distances most days, whether during term or vacation, and whether in and around Oxford or further afield. He had a deep feeling for nature and a sense of natural beauty, though this, one gathers, did not result in later years in his acquiring much of an aesthetic appreciation indoors or at home. He had, when young, to be careful with money. As he grew older he continued to be just as careful. It was reported many years later that when paper began to peel from the walls at 'The Kilns', his house in Headington, the offending strips were torn off but not replaced! Parsimony ruled, according to, amongst others, the late Fred Paxford, the gardener and handyman who worked for Lewis from the early 1930s until the latters death in 1963. To offset this miserliness it must be added that Lewis was immensely generous with the royalties from his books, and contributed lavishly to charities of many sorts.

'The things I assert most vigourously are those that I resisted long and accepted late.' C. S. Lewis made this revealing comment about himself in Surprised by Joy, and it is interesting, as we study the older Lewis in relation to the younger man who wrote the Diary, to see just how true that statement is. It is certain that Lewis did nothing by halves. He lived with intensity; he worked with a single-minded concentration, he admired whole-heartedly and disliked with ferocity. Of those aspects of life for which he had no time he was ruthlessly dismissive. In his later years he read no newspapers, listened to no radio, had probably not heard of television. If there was to be a war someone he was sure would tell him about it! How can we admire, and perhaps we do not, such insulated self-sufficiency?

Joy Gresham, nee Davidman, certainly did, and her entry into Lewis's life and to The Kilns during the early 1950s was catalystic, if not, from some points of view, catastrophic. The story of her relationship with Jack has in it something of legend and perhaps something of farce and has been much speculated about and sometimes over-romanticized (e.g. Bill Nicholson's play Shadowlands). Not many of those who were allowed to meet Joy seem to have liked her; some of Lewis's closest friends scarcely knew of her existence until the two of them had married. Once again Lewis had more or less secretly acquired dependants, a wife and two stepsons—and once again Warnie, the loyal and devoted but alcoholic brother was forced into third place in a house which he had hitherto shared with Jack.

History throughout C. S. Lewis's life, if not repeating itself, does seem to achieve a certain regularity of pattern, and this pattern starts to emerge during his earliest years at Oxford. That his relationship with Mrs. Moore gave him stability we cannot doubt, and that his marriage to Joy Davidman was a source of enrichment and fulfilment is also not in question. The courage with which Joy herself, and Jack, faced and endured her long and dreadful illness, and the fortitude Lewis managed to acquire after Joy's death and also during his own painful and protracted physical decline,—all this impresses and indeed moves us.

How then are we to sum up this remarkable man's remarkable life and his no less remarkable literary achievement? C. S. Lewis it must be emphasized has been a force to be reckoned with since The Allegory of Love was published in 1936, the Preface to Paradise Lost in 1941 and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century in 1954, as well as the countless other essays, articles and reviews on an immensely wide range of subjects.

Outside academic circles I suppose Lewis is better known for his popular and religious writings such as The Screwtape Letters, and for his Christian-orientated science-fiction novels, Perelandra and the others. For more people still it will be the Narnia books beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that have helped to make him not only famous but also a cult-figure in the USA. One could add to this list and mention later and specifically religious works such as Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, The Four Loves, and A Grief Observed amongst many others, but there is no need. The point that has to be stressed is that C. S. Lewis, against a background of more or less complicated domestic circumstances, remained constant throughout his life to his quest for Joy—a spiritual Joy that he mentions frequently in his early Diary, that he defines in Surprised by Joy and many of his other writings, and that was for him 'the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing'. Joy in the sense of mystery, of splendour and of glory,—a Christian Joy, after C. S. Lewis's conversion, which he described as 'brightness, splendour, luminosity', when he told his listeners, in an address given in The University Church in Oxford as early as 1941: 'We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star.'

John G. West, Jr. (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Politics from the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Earthly Government," in Policy Review, No. 68, Spring, 1994, pp. 68-70.

[In the following essay, West discusses Lewis's views on government, political action, and public morality. According to West, "Lewis championed the time-honored idea of natural law—the belief that the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason."]

Even before the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis was probably the most widely recognized Christian thinker of the 20th century. By the end of the 1980s, his works—including Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia—had sold more than 70 million copies, an achievement that surely places Lewis among the best-selling authors of all time.

Lewis is most appreciated today for his superlative imagination and his lucid defense of Christian orthodoxy. But he also was a keen observer of social and political affairs. As Americans struggle to define the proper relationship between religious faith, moral principle, and political action, there is much that they might learn from this inimitable British academic.


Turning to C. S. Lewis for advice about politics is undeniably a bit paradoxical. According to stepson David Gresham, Lewis was skeptical of politicians and not really interested in current events. He even observed that he had no use for the "great issues" of his day. "Lord! How I loathe great issues," he wrote in 1940. "Could one start a Stagnation Party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place?"

Lewis likewise avoided making partisan commitments. During the 1930s, he told a student that he refrained from donating money "to anything that had a directly political implication"; in 1951, he declined a title offered him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired), because he feared that critics would seize upon the honor as evidence that his "religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda."

Despite this seeming indifference to political life, Lewis wrote about a variety of political topics, including crime, war, censorship, capital punishment, conscription, socialism, vivisection, the welfare state, and the atomic bomb. When he discussed these matters, however, his primary concern was not public policy. Political problems of the day interested him only insofar as they involved matters that endured. Seen in this light, Lewis's habit of writing about politics and his simultaneous detachment from the political arena are perfectly understandable. Uninterested in the partisan passions of the moment, he always tried to find the permanent in the political. As a result, much of what he has to say about public life remains acutely relevant. Indeed, it is the very timelessness of his writings that makes them so timely.


Of all the political lessons we can learn from Lewis, perhaps the most important is that public morality should be founded squarely upon public principles. Unlike some Christian conservatives, he did not believe that civic morality ultimately had to be grounded in the Bible to be legitimate. Nor did he believe that arguments about social morality were fundamentally arguments about religion.

Instead, Lewis championed the time-honored idea of natural law—the belief that the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped, he said; it is the source from which all moral judgments spring. Its cardinal virtues—justice, honesty, good faith, magnanimity, beneficence, mercy—are known to be true independently of experience. According to Lewis, these basic precepts form a moral common ground that undergirds all civilized societies. He illustrated this point in his book The Abolition of Man by cataloguing similar ethical injunctions from some of the world's major civilizations.

Lewis was aware that some Christians objected to natural law because they thought it detracted from the dignity of revealed religion. But he could not accept their view. Far from contradicting Christianity, he argued, natural law is actually presupposed by it. Pointing out that a convert to Christianity "accept[s] the forgiveness of sins," he asked:

But of sins against what Law? Some new law promulgated by the Christians? But that is nonsensical. It would be the mockery of a tyrant to forgive a man for doing what had never been forbidden until the very moment at which the forgiveness was announced. The idea that Christianity brought an entirely new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken.

Lewis agreed that Christianity, with its claim to revealed truth about the human condition, deepened one's ethical understanding. But he was insistent that "Christian ethics" not be regarded as "a radically new thing." The practical political consequences of Lewis's understanding of morality are considerable. The present controversy over religion in politics largely hinges on the assumption that the morality espoused by conservative Christians cannot be justified apart from the Bible, and hence it is illegitimate as a guide to secular policy. But according to Lewis, this is a red herring. One does not need to accept the authority of the Bible to know that theft and slander are wrong, or that honoring one's commitment to a spouse or child is a good thing. Civic morality is not the peculiar domain of religion, and Christians who wish to be politically effective (as well as theologically sound) should drive this point home. It is one of the best ways for them to disarm their critics.


Natural law provides a common moral ground for all citizens to enter politics as equals, but it does not provide simple-minded solutions to specific political problems. Nor did Lewis claim that it would. He understood that being morally right is not the same thing as being politically bright. Translating moral principles into public policy requires something more than merely the right moral principles. It requires the virtue of prudence, which Lewis aptly defined as "practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it." The importance of prudence is his second lesson about politics.

Lewis lamented that "nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the 'virtues,'" and he chided fellow Christians for being especially guilty of this offence. "Because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are 'good,' it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding." In Lewis's view, consequences matter, and one of the problems with idealists in politics is that they often don't comprehend this fact. They crusade for perfect health, universal employment, or everlasting peace, but they don't bother to pay any attention to the disastrous effects their policies, if enacted, would likely bring about.

Fundamental to C. S. Lewis's conception of prudence was an unflinching realism about the human condition. He believed human beings are both limited and sinful. They are limited in their knowledge about the world around them. They are limited in their ability to do anything about the knowledge they have. And in those cases where they should know what to do—and are able to do it—their judgment is often derailed by their selfishness. As a result, earthly perfection is unobtainable. Political utopians who think otherwise deceive themselves. Their kind of thinking, said Lewis,

… assum[es] that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure … But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.

Lewis thought that Christians in politics needed to heed the hard lessons of human imperfection just as much as the secularists. This is particularly so in a society where many people were no longer Christians. In such a situation, Christians ought to recognize the futility of using the government to promote distinctively Christian standards of behavior—as opposed to the shared dictates of the natural law.

Writing about efforts to teach Christianity in state schools, Lewis pointed out that if non-Christian teachers were charged with inculcating Christianity in their pupils, unbelief would be the most likely result. "As the teachers are," he observed, "so they will teach. Your 'reform' may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching … if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils' hearts."

Another facet of Lewis's prudent realism was his emphasis on political humility. Echoing Aristotle in the Ethics, he more than once explained that specific applications of moral principles "do not admit of mathematical certainty." The more specific the application of a moral principle, the greater the possibility of error—especially when fallible humans are involved. Hence, political partisans should be wary of being too dogmatic. Those who proclaim their political program with absolute certainty are flirting with despotism. If ever they begin to take their exalted rhetoric seriously, they will be tempted to stop at nothing—even tyranny—to push their agenda forward.

This was one reason Lewis opposed the creation of an explicitly Christian political party. Such a group, he feared, would raise the political stakes too high. "The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great," he said, but a Christian party would make the temptation irresistible. "The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find."

Lewis added that attaching divine certitude to a party platform is a theological blunder as well as a political one. It takes the Lord's name in vain by "pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers' inheritance: 'Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?' [Luke 12:14]. By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us."


A final political lesson to be learned from Lewis is the moral necessity of limited government. An unrepentant critic of what he termed the "omnicompetent" state, Lewis believed that civil society's chief task was the defense of individual liberties so that citizens could live their lives in their own way. No doubt part of Lewis's support for limited government sprang from his prudent assessment of human nature. "I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man," he remarked in the Spectator. "Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows."

However, Lewis also had a positive reason for defending limited government. Good societies depend upon virtuous individuals, and he knew that individual virtue could never be produced by government decree. Government can make people behave, but ultimately it cannot make them good. That is because virtue presupposes free choice. The society where all acts are compelled is a society where no act can be virtuous. Lewis acknowledged that the freedom required for virtue to flourish also "makes evil possible." But this is the price that must be paid for "any love or goodness or joy worth having."

The problem with the modern welfare state is that it operates on premises antithetical to human freedom and the private institutions that help secure it. Lewis summarized why in an essay in The Observer in 1958: "The modern State exists not to protect our rights, but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name 'leaders' for those who were once 'rulers.' We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, 'Mind your own business.' Our whole lives are their business."

Lewis, who lived through Europe's flirtation with both Communism and Nazism, understood the lure of the omnicompetent state. Confronted by the sheer volume and extent of human misery, people naturally look for an earthly savior; many do not care what they will have to give up to get one. Whatever this desire for earthly salvation is, it is not new.

"In the ancient world," he observed, "individuals … sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers, a warlord who can save us from the barbarians, a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should."

As Americans again hear the siren song of a federal government that offers to fulfill all their hopes and solve all their problems, these words are worth pondering. So are Lewis's many other writings on public life.

C. S. Lewis has much to offer the thoughtful citizen seeking to understand the nature of politics. He convincingly explains how people of faith can become involved in politics without sacrificing either their faith or their reason. He powerfully critiques political idealism that is untempered by prudent realism. And he reinforces with bedrock the moral underpinnings of limited government.

For an academic who once described himself as a cultural "dinosaur," C. S. Lewis's political voice still resonates strongly with relevance and prophetic power for our own day.

Michael Nelson (essay date Autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: "'One Mythology Among Many': The Spiritual Odyssey of C. S. Lewis," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, pp. 619-33.

[In the following essay, Nelson provides an overview of Lewis's literary career and intellectual development.]

The student's name was Ben. He was a first-year student in his first week of college, and as I ate my lunch in the refectory I could see that he was waiting for me to finish so that he could approach my table. "I hear that you are a Christian," he said when, my tray pushed aside, he at last came up. I nodded. "Well," he said, in a rush, "I'm a Christian, too, and last night I got into a long discussion in the dorm with some other students and they were saying things that I didn't know how to answer and I was wondering if you could help." Instantly the scene of the night before unfolded in my mind. Ben, it was obvious, had gotten into his first college bull session and, as often is the case, the subject had been religion, science, evolution, and all the apparent conflicts and contradictions among them. He was a small town Alabamian from a small Baptist church and had found what the other students were saying very disturbing.

Ben and I agreed to meet and, when we did, there was no small talk. His first and only question was, "Do you think Genesis is true or is it just a myth?"

I smiled—having been down this road before, I knew exactly what to say. "Ben," I said, "I think Genesis is true and it's a myth. Myths aren't lies, even though the word is sometimes misused that way. Myths are stories that are told and retold because people find them helpful in making sense of the world and their place in it. I happen to think Genesis is a story that God gave us and that the truths in it are capital-T truths, not mere facts.

"Think what we learn from Genesis," I continued, warming up to my own eloquence. "We learn that God created everything and that it's good. We learn that God created us in his own image. We learn that God cares about how we behave and that there is a price to pay when we disobey. But we also learn that even then, even as he is banishing us from the garden, he's still with us to give us clothing and a pat on the back. Those are truths, Ben. How long it took to create things and whether or not there was really a garden of Eden—those are just details."

I sat back, pleased with myself, and waited. After a couple minutes, Ben looked up from his thoughts. "So what do you think?" he said, "Is Genesis true or is it just a myth?"


If I had been smart, I would have spared Ben my myth-is-truth rap and told him about C. S. Lewis.

Not everything about Lewis, of course—there is simply too much to tell. Does any other writer turn up on so many shelves of a good bookstore or library? In the literary criticism section one is likely to find, at a minimum, The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, two books that, according to Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages (1993), were "bold, original, seminal works that rocked the transatlantic world of medieval studies" and had an "incalculable effect" on modern understandings of the Middle Ages. In literature we find Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth that is arguably one of the finest English language novels of the 20th century. The religion shelves will be chock full, of course—books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles continue to sell millions of copies each year. But then so will the science fiction shelves with Lewis's trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), and the children's section, with his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, the most famous of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And don't stop there—look in poetry for one of several collections of his verse, in biography for his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, and in the section on death and dying for A Grief Observed, the nakedly powerful memoir of Lewis's tormented reaction to the death of his wife that provided the basis for the movie and play Shadowlands. If there is a book about great teachers to be found, it probably will contain a chapter on Lewis, a famously successful lecturer and tutor at Oxford and Cambridge Universities from the 1920's to the 1950's.

The Lewis I wish I had told Ben about, though, is one whose story has often been recorded but never fully understood. It is Lewis the spiritual pilgrim, the lifelong seeker of truth who rejected Christianity as a youth because it seemed "one mythology among many," embraced Christianity as a young man in part because it was mythic, then proclaimed Christianity to others for the rest of his life, most effectively through writings that are laden with mythology.


The young C. S. Lewis, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898 to a middle-class family and schooled in England from his tenth birthday on, scorned Christianity because it seemed unreasonable. In Surprised by Joy Lewis records that although he had been raised (at least nominally) as a Christian, at the age of 13 he noticed that when his class studied, say, the Aeneid, the teachers' "accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true." This, on the face of it, struck him as absurd. His atheism gained intellectual grounding when, at age 16, he came under the influence of a private tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick, who was much enamored of a new work by Sir James Frazer called The Golden Bough.

The Golden Bough was the product of Frazer's monumental survey of all the world religions and mythologies he could lay his hands on. In general, Frazer regarded religion as a human effort to make sense of the frightening and incomprehensible: thunder, pestilence, famine, death, and so on. In particular, Frazer found in human cultures a recurring story of a dying and resurrected god. This god usually was associated with agriculture and fertility—just as in the cycle of nature the plant is broken, the seed enters the ground, and life springs up, so is the god broken, buried, and restored. The Greek myth of Adonis is one such story. Adonis is a mortal beloved of both Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, and each wants to possess him when he dies. Zeus arbitrates. For half the year, Adonis will inhabit the underworld with Persephone—on Earth, these will be the cold and barren months. Come Spring, Adonis will return aboveground to be with Aphrodite, and warm weather and fertile fields will ensue. The comparable story from Egyptian mythology is of Osiris, who was slain and cut into fourteen pieces by his evil, desert-dwelling brother Set, then reassembled and brought back to life by Isis, his sister and wife. To the Egyptians, this story of death and resurrection was tied closely to the annual cycle of flood and fertility in the Nile delta.

Although Kirkpatrick was an atheist, he so instilled in Lewis the habit of taking nothing for granted that Lewis later credited him with making his eventual conversion to Christianity possible. Had he not been trained to keep his mind open to new ideas and evidence, Lewis wrote, he never would have considered Christianity seriously. But in the short term, Kirkpatrick's admiration of Frazer simply confirmed Lewis in the conviction that Christianity was as ridiculous as any other religion. In a letter to a Christian friend, written at age 18, Lewis disposed of Christianity as follows: "after the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus) he became regarded as a god, a cult sprang up, which was afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew Jahweh-worship, and so Christianity came into being—one mythology among many, but the one that we happened to have been brought up in."

Lewis's boyhood experiences of church did little to soften this assessment. To be sure, he was taken to the local Anglican church by his parents, but worship there was as much a political act as a religious one—by attending the Church of England, Protestants in Northern Ireland let it be known that they were loyal subjects of the crown, not Roman papists. (Consider the criticism leveled by Lewis's brother Warner when Lewis later published some atheistic poetry: "it is obvious that a profession of a Christian belief is as necessary a part of a man's mental make up as a belief in the King, the Regular Army, and the Public Schools.") What Lewis found in church was arid, sterile, cold—"the dry husks of Christianity."

Reason uncontested by experience, then, led the young Lewis to reject Christianity. But other things were going on during Lewis's youth that, although devoid of explicit religious content, eventually would turn out to be of greater spiritual importance. These all may be grouped under the heading of the life of the imagination.

For one thing, Lewis loved stories. He was especially captivated by mythology. Even as an adult Christian, he said that in comparison to the stories of the Bible, "I like Greek mythology much better: Irish better still: Norse best of all."

In keeping with this love, Lewis wrote stories, many of them between the ages of six and eight. He and Warner, who was three years older, were kept inside most of the time to prevent their getting sick in the wet Irish climate. Warner recalled that their days were spent in the nursery where, from the window, they could see on the far horizon "the dim high line of the Castlereagh Hills—our world's limit, a distant land, strange and unattainable." Their imaginations fired by this landscape, the boys created an imaginary country called Boxen. The stories that Jack (for so, inexplicably, he insisted on being called) wrote "were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

An equally important part of Lewis's imaginative life as a child was the occasional experience of what he called "joy." Unpredictably, and for only moments at a time, Lewis would be overcome by an intense and exquisite yearning—"an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." Joy might wash over him, as it once did, while he was reading a story like Squirrel Nutkin, or it might come with the memory of a toy garden fashioned of twigs and moss that his brother had made for him in the lid of a biscuit tin.

Lewis's most memorable experience of joy came while reading "Tegner's Drapa," a poem by Longfellow about the Norse god Balder. The story of Balder, a beloved figure among the Norse gods, was part of the death-and-resurrection genre that Frazer had found so pervasive in human cultures. In it Balder has dreams of death. When he shares those dreams with his fellow gods, they express their concern by swearing every being and object not to harm him. But Loki, a mischievous god who dislikes Balder, finds a mistletoe bush that the gods have overlooked and fashions one of its branches into a spear. Then, when the gods are enjoying the sport of throwing things at Balder and seeing them bounce off harmlessly, Loki arranges for Balder's brother to throw the mistletoe spear. It pierces Balder and kills him. Balder's death, the myth continues, triggers Ragnorak, the climactic twilight of the gods in which Balder returns to life to preside over a new world inaugurated by the first man and woman.

In reading Longfellow's poem, Lewis came upon these lines:

      I heard a voice, that cried,       "Balder the beautiful       Is dead, is dead!"       And through the misty air       Passed like the mournful cry       Of sunward sailing cranes.

At that moment, Lewis records, "instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described … and then, as in other examples [of joy], found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."


Lewis's passage to adulthood was more intellectual than imaginative. A precocious and successful student, he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, earned first class degrees in Honour Mods (Greek and Latin texts), Greats (classical philosophy), and English language and literature. At age 27, after serving in the army during World War I, he was elected a fellow in English at Oxford's Magdalen College.

Through these years of academic progress, Lewis remained steadfast, even aggressive in his atheism. In 1917 he published a book of atheistic poems (the ones his brother objected to) called Spirits in Bondage. The title, which is drawn from I Peter, was meant to suggest the theme—namely, that religion keeps people in a state of spiritual enslavement. Lewis wrote that the book is "mainly strung around the idea … that nature is wholly diabolical and malevolent and that God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangements."

But even as a man, Lewis had occasional experiences of joy. At age 24, the old feeling of exquisite yearning was sparked during a visit home by a walk in the Castlereagh Hills, the very hills that had so enflamed his imagination as a boy. Four years later, just turning the pages of a dictionary of Norse mythology and seeing the old names was enough. Indeed, Lewis later wrote of this period in his life, "The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow 'rationalism.' Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless."

Not long afterward, while still a fellow at Magdalen, Lewis changed his mind about two things. First, he reluctantly concluded that there is a god. Emotions must have an object, he decided after reading Samuel Alexander's Space, Time and Deity (1920) and reflecting on his earlier study of Plato. The yearning that animates joy must be for a real thing. Letting go grudgingly of his atheism, Lewis tried out for a time the concept of the "Absolute Mind," which then was popular among the English Hegelians and which was quite different, he insisted, from "the God of popular religion." But he found in trying to teach the concept to students that the distinction between God and the Absolute Mind was so vague as to be meaningless. If there is a "superhuman mind," it must be a "Person." And what were his own efforts to understand the eternal truths of the Absolute Mind and bring his life into accord with them if not "what ordinary people call 'prayer to God'?"

Eventually, with all the enthusiasm of the mouse seeking the cat, Lewis gave way to theism. "You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen," he later recalled, "night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." To Lewis, belief in God was the only intellectually honest position he could take: "I am an empirical Theist. I have arrived at God by induction."

The second matter about which Lewis changed his mind was the resurrection of Jesus. He actually had begun entertaining the idea that the resurrection was a historical event before his conversion to theism. The catalyst was an offhand remark by T. D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis, an avowed atheist. "Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God," Weldon said in casual conversation. "It almost looks as if it really happened once." Jarred by the remark and even more by its source, Lewis read the gospels closely and found them, "in their artless, historical, fashion," to be persuasive on the evidence. The gospels' avowedly historical character was telling, he concluded: unlike the other dying god stories, this one was painstakingly set in a particular time and place. Even more convincing to Lewis was what he did not find in the gospel accounts—namely, anything at all having to do with agriculture of fertility. What could it mean—a "corn god" story without the promise of corn?

Strange as it may seem, Lewis's newfound belief in God and the resurrection did not convert him to Christianity; indeed, he briefly flirted with Hinduism. Lewis did not like all the Christian talk about "'propitiation'—'sacrifice'—'the blood of the Lamb'—expressions which I could only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking." Nor did he care much for Jesus. "Everyone told me that [in the gospels] I should find a figure I couldn't help loving," Lewis wrote in a letter. "Well, I could…. Indeed, some of His behaviour seemed to me open to criticism, e.g., accepting an invitation to dine with a Pharisee and then loading him with torrents of abuse." Above all, "What I couldn't see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now—except insofar as his example helped us."

On Sept. 19, 1931, Lewis vented his frustration to J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two Christians and fellow scholars whom he was entertaining in his rooms at Magdalen. Whenever I encounter a dying god story in mythology, Lewis told them, I am "mysteriously moved, even though no one knows where he is supposed to have lived and died; he's not historical." The thrill was akin to that of watching "a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get." Why, Lewis wondered, am I not similarly moved by the gospels' historical accounts of Jesus's death and resurrection?

The answer, Lewis's colleagues told him, was to recognize that the gospel story was mythic and should be appreciated as such, "but with this tremendous difference that it really happened…. The dying god really appears—as a historical person, living in a definite time and place." As Lewis later wrote, "By becoming fact [the dying god story] does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle." But "it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things.'" The Christian story of the dying god, in other words, lay at the exact intersection of myth and history.

Lewis was persuaded by his friends' view, in part because it helped to resolve three other matters previously disturbing to him. One was the mundane literary style of the gospels, which he, like Saint Augustine, had previously found distasteful. Now Lewis realized that "if ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this," combining "the matter of the great myths" with an "artless, historical style."

Another was the seemingly inconsistent portrayal of Jesus in the gospels—"as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato's Socrates or Boswell's Johnson,… yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god." It now made sense to Lewis that Jesus was fully human—reflecting on Jesus's crucifixion eve despair and doubt in the garden of Gethsemane, he wrote, "How thankful I am that when God became man he did not choose to become a man of iron nerves: that would not have helped weaklings like and me nearly so much." (Lewis's letters show that he leaned heavily on the Jesus of Gethsemante when, years later, his wife was dying.) But he was equally appreciative of Jesus's divinity. To a correspondent who complained that divinity gave Jesus an unfair advantage, Lewis replied that, by that standard, "a man shd refuse a rope thrown to him by another who had one foot on the bank, saying 'Oh but you have an unfair advantage.' It is because of that advantage that He can help."

Lewis was perhaps most grateful for a third insight that accompanied his conversion, namely, that Christians should hold other mythologies and religions in high regard. (This was, of course, the opposite of his early teachers' views, which had turned him away from Christianity as a boy.) "Myth," Lewis wrote, "is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to"—indeed, "it was through almost believing in the gods that I came to believe in God." As for other religions, on the great issue of whether deity was real or not, "the whole mass of those who had worshipped—all who had danced and sung and sacrificed and trembled and adored—were clearly right." To declare Christianity true was not to declare all other religions false. Rather, Christianity was true because it was the answer to two vital questions: "Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?"


Lewis was, by temperament and (thanks to his tutor Kirkpatrick) by training the sort of person who, when he became convinced of something, could not resist sharing it with others. His vocational life at Oxford was the life of the mind, and most of the writing he had done since boyhood was of a scholarly kind. Not surprisingly, then, when Lewis turned his talents to spreading the gospel, he wrote numerous books and essays grounded in reason. "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it," he wrote in Mere Christianity.

Many people have found Lewis's apologetic works to be of great value. Most of them, I suspect, are people like me—people who were raised in the church, went off to college, then faced the challenge of reconciling faith with science and reason. To read a book by Lewis, whose intelligence sparkles on nearly every page of nearly everything he wrote, was enormously helpful in that effort. As Donald Williams once observed in Christianity Today, "the experience of discovering Lewis has formed an almost archetypal pattern in the lives of countless evangelical students…. First in this traditional pattern … came a period of gnawing doubt about the whole Christian faith…. Into this dark night of the soul swept whatever happened to be the student's first Lewis book…. And what he or she found there was not so much answers, though they were wonderful beyond all hope—but more, an irrefutable demonstration that at least one Christian mind actually existed."

Lewis's greatest gifts as a literary evangelist, however, are on display in his works of the imagination. Story and myth, after all, had marked his own journey of faith, especially his realization that myths not only could convey truth, but be truth. Lewis also realized that although a reasoned argument for Christianity might hold people's attention for as long as they were reading or hearing it, "the moment they have gone away from the lecture hall or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and textbook undermines our work…. [Thus w]hat we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent." Practicing what he preached led Lewis to write his science fiction novels—Perelandra, for example, in which the story of Eve's temptation is reenacted on a different planet, with a different Eve, and with a different result—as well as fantasies like The Great Divorce, an imaginative portrayal of the afterlife.

Lewis's crowning achievement was the Chronicles of Narnia, seven children's novels that, like The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte's Web, provide as much pleasure and satisfaction for the adults who read them aloud as for the children to whom they are read. Although Lewis was himself childless and had little experience of children, the enormous pleasure that successive generations of children have taken in the Chronicles is perhaps not altogether surprising. Given, as Lewis once wrote, that "the imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic,… the fairy-tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say." (Boxen revisited.) The circumstances of the five-year burst from 1948 to 1953 when he wrote all seven of the Chronicles also were helpful, albeit perversely. Having overworked himself into the hospital and, when his doctor prescribed a long rest, been forced instead to double up at home because his brother succumbed to alcoholism, Lewis seems desperately to have needed an escape into fantasy.

The Chronicles, taken as a whole, are an imaginative retelling of the entire Christian story. In them, Lewis wrote, "I say, "Supposing there was a world like Narnia, and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there." He frankly hoped that children would not notice the books' Christianity, for fear for turning them off. (This is good for you, dear.) His own childhood experience of religion, after all, had been so shadowed by a lifeless, stained glass version of the faith that he had not been able to feel anything of the love for Jesus that he was repeatedly told he ought to fell. In the Chronicles, Lewis wrote, "I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child's imagination," so that when the child encountered the Christian story later, it would be more engaging.

Aslan, a lion, is the Christ of Narnia, and he is Lewis's greatest' literary creation. As Bede Griffiths has written, Aslan has all of the "hidden power and majesty and awesomeness which Lewis associated' with God, but also all his glory and the tenderness and even the humor which he believed belonged to him, so that children could run up to him and throw their arms around him and kiss him." In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the Chronicles, four English schoolchildren enter a world of talking animals and mythological logical creatures ranging from fauns to Father Christmas. Tolkien hated the pastiche of fantastic characters but, according to the Lewis biographer George Sayer, Narnia was not unlike Lewis's view of heaven, "where all sorts of people could come together to celebrate, dance, and sing with fauns, giants, centaurs, dwarfs, and innumerable and very different animals." In Narnia, Aslan dies in order to spare one of the children from the full consequences of his sin, but is raised from death to triumph over the diabolical White Witch.

The six succeeding volumes of the Chronicles evoke other elements of the Christian story. "In Prince Caspian," Lewis wrote, "the old stories about [Aslan] are starting to be disbelieved. At the end of the [Voyage of the] Dawn Treader He appears as the Lamb. His three replies to Shasta [in The Horse and His Boy] suggest the Trinity. In The Silver Chair the old king is raised from the dead by a drop of Aslan's blood. Finally in the Last Battle we have the reign of anti-Christ (the ape), the end of the world, and the Last Judgement." That quick summary makes the Chronicles sound far more formulaic than they are. Indeed, the chief pleasure of reading them lies not in the Christian elements themselves but rather in the stories and characters that make these elements seem—in the course of things, and without bold allegorical labels attached—appealing and exciting.

Near the end of The Magician's Nephew, for example, Aslan sings Narnia into creation. (The books are not chronological.) A voice—Aslan's voice—is heard, soon joined by a host of "cold, tingling, silvery voices" and a sky filled with stars. "If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing." Then a sun appears ("younger than ours—you could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up"), revealing a landscape "of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid." Grass soon "spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave." Soon the land is "bubbling like water in a pot,… swelling into humps. They were of very different sizes, some no bigger than mole-hills, some as big as wheel-barrows, two the size of cottages. And the humps moved and swelled till they burst, and the crumbled earth poured out of them, and from each hump there came out an animal."

In The Silver Chair, the Queen of the Underworld traps and nearly convinces Puddleglum (a "marshwiggle") and some children, all of whom she has entranced with an incense-laden fire, that there is no Narnia, no sky, no Lion. To read this account is to experience what W. Fred Graham has called the "deadly asphyxiating stuffiness of life without the transcendent"; one cannot help but cheer when, in a final act of will, Puddleglum breaks the enchantment by bravely stamping out the fire with his bare feet. "The children's story pricks our imagination; it works," Graham observes, in a way that some of Lewis's more didactic writings—say, the proof he offers for God's existence in Mere Christianity—do not.

One last example from the Chronicles: judgment day in Narnia, which is depicted in The Last Battle as a version of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Emeth, a devout follower of the false god Tash who has never known Aslan, encounters him:

[T]here came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant's; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes, like gold that is liquid in the furnace…. Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…. [I]f any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knows it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.


Inevitably, perhaps, Lewis has become something of a mythic figure himself. Lewis died, at age 65, on Nov. 22, 1963—a date that some now mark more for his passing than for that of President John F. Kennedy (or, for that matter, of Aldous Huxley). The mythmaking began almost immediately. In a 1967 book called The Ring of Truth, the distinguished New Testament translator J. B. Phillips blandly reported that a "rosily radiant" Lewis had visited him twice in his home shortly after he died and "spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing." Christian bookstores soon were filled with Lewis iconography, from the usual assortment of coffee mugs, T-shirts, and calendars to daily devotional books that consist entirely of excerpts from Lewis's writings and a coffee-table volume, titled C. S. Lewis: Images of His [sic!] World, that takes the reader on a photographic tour of the English byways that Lewis trod. The London and Broadway play Shadowlands and, especially, the popular 1993 movie (now on home video) have spread numinous images of Lewis to still wider audiences. Meanwhile, according to A. N. Wilson, rival Lewis cults have sprung up: at Wheaton College, the Marion E. Wade Center which "keeps alive the image of an evangelical Lewis … non-smoking and teetotaler" (in truth, Lewis smoked and drank to excess), while at the Anglo-verging-on-Roman Catholic C. S. Lewis Society in Oxford, "a High Church, celibate C. S. Lewis is reverenced," his inconvenient marriage notwithstanding.

Lewis, it is safe to say, would have been appalled by all of this. "Ever since I became a Christian," he wrote, "I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." Having been led to Christianity along an avenue of myth and story, Lewis's sole purpose was to use his considerable gifts, notably of myth creation and story telling, to guide his readers in the same way. With a success matched or exceeded by few others—only Paul, Augustine, and Pascal come instantly to mind—he accomplished this purpose admirably.

Gilbert Meilaender (essay date August-September 1998)

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SOURCE: "The Everyday C. S. Lewis," in First Things, No. 85, August-September, 1998, pp. 27-33.

[In the following essay, Meilaender examines Lewis's ability to illustrate the spiritual significance of commonplace experience. For Lewis, Meilaender notes, "the whole of life … every ordinary and everyday moment of it, every choice that we make, is charged with the significance of an eternal either/or."]

"One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian. One might so easily confuse it with being a good Christian." Thus C. S. Lewis wrote in Reflections on the Psalms. Similarly, Lewis' religious writings are full of asides to the effect that he is not a theologian and that what he says is subject to correction by real theologians. In part, of course, let us recognize this for what it is: a smart rhetorical strategy that gets the reader on his side over against the presumably elitist theologians. But there is a worrisome sense in which Lewis' readers might be all too ready to hear such a message, all too ready to suppose that the faith is simple and clear, that theologians are largely in the business of making complicated what ought not be.

That is a temptation whose seductions we should resist. And indeed, in writing of "the everyday C. S. Lewis," I am not suggesting that Lewis' reflection is done at an everyday or unsophisticated level, but, rather, that he reflects religiously upon what is ordinary and everyday. Indeed, to the degree that Lewis is often characterized as a "popular" religious thinker, I am inclined to think the characterization misleading, and in part, I fear, a result of a peculiar academic prejudice against anyone who writes clearly and is widely read. Lewis' readers actually get a rather heavy dose of serious religious reflection, though generally in quite alluring literary style.

Nevertheless, theology is and must remain an elite activity. It is not, in fact, aimed at the masses. And there is a sense in which we might better say that Lewis' writing is "religious" rather than "theological." This sense is one that he would himself, I believe, affirm. He makes such a distinction, for example, in the incomplete, posthumously published essay "The Language of Religion." There he develops a distinction between ordinary language ("It was very cold") and two other kinds of language, each of which transforms ordinary language in the interest of certain purposes. Scientific language ("The temperature was −5 degrees Fahrenheit") seeks language that has a certain kind of precision lacking in our ordinary speech—a precision that we can quantify and test, that can be used to settle disputes about how cold it actually is. But this scientific language does not itself give us any sense of how a very cold day "feels," a sense of its "quality." If I have spent my entire life in a tropical climate, and you tell me that it is −5 degrees Fahrenheit where you live, such language will not help me feel what it's like to be there.

Ordinary language might do a little better in communicating this "feel." "Your ears will tingle." "It will hurt just to breathe." But poetic language exists in large part to try to improve ordinary language on just this point: to convey the quality, the feel, of experience. Lewis uses Keats' poem as illustration: "Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in wooly fold: Numb'd were the Beadsman's fingers." This language cannot be quantified or tested; but it may, Lewis suggests, convey information that can be given in no other way. Perhaps it may even convey the quality of experiences we ourselves have never had.

Religious talk, like all talk, begins with ordinary language, but, depending on our purposes, it may quickly turn in directions more like the scientific or the poetic. Theological language, as Lewis describes it, is, strictly speaking, an alteration rather like the scientific It seeks a precision that is needed and useful for clarifying uncertain or disputed points and for settling disagreements. As such, it is absolutely necessary. Elitist in a certain sense, it is, nonetheless, not to be belittled. Indeed, its precision can be a thing of beauty. But one thing it cannot do: it cannot by itself convey understanding of what in its very nature transcends our ordinary experience. For that we need language that is religious but not, in this sense, theological—language more like the poetic. To say "God is the Father of lights" is such language—religious, though not exactly theological.

A good bit of Lewis' success can, I think, be attributed to the fact that he actually writes relatively little "theology" in this technical sense. Clearly, he's read a good bit of it and been instructed by it—he does not in any sense belittle it—but he tends to seek language that captures and communicates the quality, the feel, of living and thinking as a Christian. As Austin Farrer put it: "[Lewis'] real power was not proof; it was depiction. There lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader feel at home." That is the universe I want to explore. It illumines the everyday, so that we may find in it shafts of the divine glory that point to God, so that we may sense the eternal significance of ordinary life.


In his famous and powerful work Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard describes the "knight of faith" who has made the double movement of infinite resignation and of faith. Having given up the sense that anything is his possession to claim, having surrendered all for the sake of an immediate relation to God, the knight of faith nevertheless trusts that God will give it back—not in some future life, but in the here and now, in the finite realm. And, as a result, although he has made the first movement of infinite resignation, he is also able to savor the everyday. Kierkegaard describes him this way:

Here he is. The acquaintance is struck, I am introduced. The moment I first set eyes on him I thrust him away, jump back, clasp my hands together and say half aloud: "Good God! Is this the person, is it really him? He looks just like a tax-gatherer."… I examine him from top to toe, in case there should be some crack through which the infinite peeped out. No! He is solid through and through…. One detects nothing of the strangeness and superiority that mark the knight of the infinite. This man takes pleasure, takes part, in everything, and whenever one catches him occupied with something his engagement has the persistence of the worldly person whose soul is wrapped up in such things…. He delights in everything he sees….

The knight of faith is therefore, as Kierkegaard puts it, able "to express the sublime in the pedestrian absolutely."

That characterization—to express the sublime in the pedestrian—is an apt description of something that makes Lewis' religious writing so effective. "[O]nly supernaturalists really see Nature," Lewis says.

You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible…. Come out, look back, and then you will see … this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and toads. How could you have ever thought this was the ultimate reality?… She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt.

The ordinary pleasures of life—both those simply given to us in nature and those derived from culture—play a large role in Lewis' thinking and account for much of the power of his writing.

He can make domesticity seem enticing—as when Peter, Susan, and Lucy share a meal with the Beavers. And, indeed, the best times in Narnia are not the times we read of in the stories, the times when momentous events are occurring. The good times are those when nothing "important" happens, when life goes on in its ordinary, everyday way. Similarly, Lewis finds—surely not by accident—that "cheerful moderation" is an important characteristic in the novels of Jane Austen. "She has, or at least all her favorite characters have, a hearty relish for what would now be regarded as very modest pleasures. A ball, a dinner party, books, conversation, a drive to see a great house ten miles away…." He celebrates the appreciation of "middle things" that he finds in the writings of Joseph Addison. Granting that Addison does not stir one's soul as some writers do, Lewis nonetheless finds a kind of strength and goodness in Addison's affirmation of "the common ground of daily life." "If I were to live in a man's house for a whole twelve-month, I think I should be more curious about the quality of his small beer than about that of his wine; more curious about his bread and butter and beef than about either."

And few readers of Surprised by Joy are likely to forget Lewis' description of what was for him a "normal day" during the time he was living with and being tutored by Kirkpatrick.

[I]f I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a good cup of tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned…. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude,… [f]or eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere…. At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies … there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

Such a life Lewis himself describes as "almost entirely selfish" but certainly not "self-centered." "[F]or in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself." Lewis, of course, understands that an "almost entirely selfish" approach to life cannot really be recommended. He simply understands its attraction, and he sees that it may, in fact, be better in some respects than a life which seems less selfish.

One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration.

In an epitaph he once composed, Lewis made the same point a little more playfully:

       Erected by her sorrowing brothers        In memory of Martha Clay.        Here lies one who lived for others;        Now she has peace. And so have they.

Thus, Lewis has a keen delight in the ordinary and the everyday. But I think this appreciation for the everyday goes yet a little further than simple delight—which, taken by itself after all, might be chiefly a matter of temperament. The deeper point is that the ordinary is the stuff of most of our lives most of the time. It is, therefore, where we most often find our callings, our opportunities for faithfulness, and our temptations.

Something like that is the point of Lewis' sermon "Learning in War-Time," a sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on the evening of Sunday, October 22, 1939—when people in England had a genuine crisis, very much out of the ordinary, on their hands. Even such a moment of crisis does not, Lewis suggests, alter the fundamental situation in which we always find ourselves. For every moment of life is lived in the presence of the Eternal, in every moment of life we are "advancing either to Heaven or to Hell," and those high stakes are played out in the most mundane of decisions.

Lewis' ability to see that, and help us to see it, is part of the enduring power of The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape knows how much the ordinary and the everyday count for in our spiritual life. He knows, for example, of a human being who was once "defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." He knows that Wormwood has blundered badly when he permits his "patient" to read a book simply because he enjoys it, or to take a walk through country he enjoys. He knows that, when it comes to separating a human being from God, the ordinary can also be Wormwood's greatest ally. The important choices in life seldom present themselves in extraordinary appearance. "It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

This sense that eternal issues are at stake in the mundane choices of our everyday life helps, I think, to account for the fact that, in this country, Lewis has been so popular among evangelical Protestants. An analysis of the theological structure of his religious writings would, I am convinced, show clearly that this structure is more adequately described (to paint in broad strokes) as "Catholic" than as "Protestant." Faith as trust does not play a large role in his depiction of the Christian life. That life is not conceived primarily as a turn from consciousness of sin to the proclamation of grace. Instead, it is conceived as a journey, a process of perfection, and Jesus is the way toward that goal. From start to finish this journey is, to be sure, the work of grace, but that grace is primarily the power to finish the journey, not simply a pardoning word of forgiveness. The end of this journey is the beatific vision—to see God and to rest in God—and that vision is granted only to those who are perfected, to the pure in heart.

In good Aristotelian fashion, therefore, Lewis thinks of all the ordinary decisions of life as forming our character, as turning us into people who either do or do not wish to gaze forever upon the face of God. When "night falls on Narnia" and we get the great scene of final judgment, all the inhabitants of that world have no choice about one thing. All must march past Aslan and look upon him. Some see there the face they have always longed to see, which they have learned to love, and they enter Aslan's world. Others see there a face they can only hate, for that is the sort of person they have become. They go off into nothingness. Every choice counts. Every choice contributes to determining what we ultimately love.

Protestant readers may, I believe, be especially drawn to this picture because, though they might not articulate the matter this way, it supplies something that is often missing from standard Protestant talk of forgiveness and faith, pardon and trust. Lewis' picture suggests that our actions are important not only because they hurt or harm the neighbor, but also because—under grace—they form and shape the persons we are. There are, to be sure, some theological dangers embedded in such a vision of the Christian life, but in Lewis' hands we can also see its power and its allure.

If we ask ourselves, therefore, what accounts for the success Lewis' writings have clearly had in reaching a wide range of readers and in shaping a religiously informed vision of life, his appreciation of the everyday cannot be overlooked. His notion of the everyday comes, of course, with a distinctively British flavor, but that does not seem to have created insurmountable obstacles for his readers. It is not just that he appreciates the everyday, however; it is also that he understands and evokes its significance for our moral and spiritual life. In ordinary pleasures, shafts of the divine glory, God touches our lives to draw us to himself. In Surprised by Joy Lewis tells his own life story as one whose underlying theme is Sehnsucht—the longing for joy. As Augustine said that our restless hearts could find the rest they desire only in God, so Lewis suggests that the ordinary goods and pleasures of life draw us beyond themselves and beyond ourselves to the only One who is Goodness itself.

But, as Augustine also said in a passage that Lewis places as an epigraph at the start of the last chapter of Surprised by Joy, "It is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge … and another to tread the road that leads to it. "The ordinary and the everyday count immensely in our moral and spiritual life. In them God touches us to call us to himself. That means also, however, that the stakes there are very high, that seemingly minor decisions may help to shape a person who one day will say—with a tone of utter finality—either "my will be done," or "thy will be done." God calls to us in the pleasures of everyday life, but we can miss the message. We can refuse to let ourselves be called out beyond the ordinary, we can try to hang on to the everyday—ignoring what is terrible and mysterious about it. Then the manna that we have tried to save rots, the pleasures fade, and we are left with something less than the everyday: with only ourselves. Something like that, surely, is the picture Lewis paints in The Great Divorce. The choice is, finally and simply, between heaven and hell. But the choice is made, and eternal issues determined, in our everyday decisions and actions. Every moment of life is momentous—touched by and equidistant from the Eternal.


This is, I have suggested, part of the religious power of Lewis' vision of human life. But there is still more. If we take it only this far, in fact, we probably miss the most penetrating and compelling aspects of his thought. For the God who meets us in the ordinary and the everyday in order to call us to himself is not simply a God who makes us happy. To be sure, he will do that—will make us happier than we can even imagine. But Lewis offers no "feel good" religion, no books about how to live the abundant life. If there is a biblical theme that pervades all his writing it surely is: only the one who loses his life for Jesus' sake will find it. The ordinary pleasures of life give us just an inkling of what true pleasure must be, and Lewis is a master at using them to depict the happiness God will one day bestow on those who love him. But "it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge … and another to tread the road that leads to it." And the road that leads to it may be painful indeed.

The Christian life hurts. God hurts. That's what Lewis really has to say, and it is, I think, the deepest reason for the power of his writing. "[T]he Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is," Orual reflects in Till We Have Faces. This theme—that God hurts—is perhaps most pronounced in some of Lewis' last works—especially in Till We Have Faces, A Grief Observed, and The Four Loves. And it is perhaps not insignificant that each of these three works, in different ways, was influenced by Lewis' acquaintance with and, finally, marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham. But, in fact, this theme was present in Lewis' writing almost from the very beginning. Near the end of The Pilgrim's Regress, John, the pilgrim who has finally made his way back to Mother Church, sings a song about "the tether and pang of the particular." It may not be great poetry. Despite Lewis' aspirations to be known as an epic poet, it turned out that his talent was for prose. Nevertheless, this very early poem makes clear how the turn (or return) to God wounds our nature.

     Passing today by a cottage, I shed tears      When I remembered how once I had dwelled there      With my mortal friends who are dead. Years      Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.      Out, little spear that stabs, I, fool, believed      I had outgrown the local, unique sting,      I had transmuted away (I was deceived)      Into love universal the lov'd thing.      But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan      When the angelic indifferences with no bar      Universally loved but Thou gav'st man      The tether and pang of the particular.      Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,      Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,      Embodies and embitters and turns all      Spirit's sweet water to astringent soul.      That we, though small, may quiver with fire's same      Substantial form as Thou—not reflect merely,      As lunar angel, back to thee, cold flame.      Gods we are, Thou hast said: and we pay dearly.

Rather abstractly put, perhaps, but to the point. Lewis put flesh and bones on this abstraction in The Magician's Nephew, where Digory is forced to choose between obedience to Aslan's command and an action that may save the life of his dying mother. And, although the poem from Pilgrim's Regress surely betrays the influence of philosophical idealism on Lewis' thought, it also shows certain Christian assumptions about what it means to be human. We are created as both finite and free—made from the dust of the ground, tied to particular times and places, but also made for something more, a something more that is finally God.

Thus, the poem recognizes our finitude: We are not angels who love only universally, simply reflecting back the divine love. We also love particularly, with the tether and pang of the particular. We never outgrow "the local, unique sting," nor transmute it into universal love alone. Yet, we are also free, made for God. We must therefore learn how to love more universally—and, ultimately, how to love God, who is by no means ours alone. We live with this duality of our being, with our hearts both tied to what is local and unique and drawn toward the universal. Living within that tension, as the poem puts it, "we pay dearly."

The movie Shadowlands got it right, therefore, in a conversation it imagines between Lewis and Joy. During the period when her illness is in remission, Joy and Jack are on a trip and, taking shelter from the rain, suddenly find themselves talking about what lies ahead. Jack expresses his fear, fear of the pain he will feel when he loses her. To which Joy responds: "The pain then is a part of the pleasure now. That's the deal." The pleasure now is grounded in a particular commitment of the heart, and such a commitment makes us vulnerable. It sets us up to be hurt. But we can avoid that pain only by refusing right now to give our heart to anyone whom we might one day lose. We can, that is, avoid future pain only by retreating entirely into the self, by caring about nothing outside the self. But that, of course, would be hell—a retreat into the "ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self" that Lewis calls "the mark of Hell."

Even in his stories for children, Lewis does not hesitate to emphasize the appropriateness and necessity of suffering. When, in The Last Battle, "night falls on Narnia" and Aslan pulls down the curtain on Narnian history, the children who are friends of Narnia find themselves in Aslan's world—an even more wonderful place to be. But Lucy begins to cry at the thought of what they have left behind. "What Lucy!" Peter says. "You're not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?" To which Tirian, last of the kings of Narnia, who has come into Aslan's world with the children, replies. "Sirs, the ladies do well to weep. See I do so myself. I have seen my mother's death. What world but Narnia have I ever known? It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn." Likewise, expressing and reflecting upon his own very deep personal anguish in A Grief Observed, Lewis writes that what he wants in his bereavement is to continue to live his marriage "well and faithfully" in and through his loss. "We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don't want to pretend that it is whole and complete."

We could try to avoid this pain by holding on to the beloved—if only in memory—as if she were ours, our possession. That would, of course, be futile, but, still more important, it would be to miss the call of God that comes to us in and through the loved one. It would be to mistake the gift for the Giver. Or we could try to avoid this pain by telling ourselves that there has been no real loss. God's will has been done, and the loved one is now better off. But true though this is from one angle, it does less than justice to that "local, unique sting" that should and does characterize our loves. Lewis puts the point very directly and insightfully, again in A Grief Observed:

If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created…. A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.

This theme—of the tension or rivalry between our natural loves and love for God—is given its most systematic treatment by Lewis in The Four Loves, a book that deserves, I believe, to be considered a minor classic in Christian ethics. The book is powerful because Lewis does not content "himself only with noting the possible rivalry between particular loves and love for God. With each of the loves that he takes up—affection, friendship, and erotic love—he begins where I began above: by depicting for us the sublime within the everyday.

Thus, he finds in each of the natural loves an image of what divine love itself is in part. We see one facet of God's love, for example, in the undiscriminating character of affection. Given familiarity over time, almost anyone can become an object of affection. Hence, this love manifests an implicit openness to the worth of every human being. Friendship, by contrast, is clearly a discriminating love, for we are friends only with certain people whom we have chosen for particular reasons. But, at the same time, friendship is, unlike affection, the least jealous of loves. Our circle of friends will be open to anyone who shares the interest that binds us together, and in that sense friendship is implicitly universal. If affection is jealous but undiscriminating, and friendship is discriminating but not jealous, eros is both discriminating and jealous. How, then, might it image for us divine love? In selfless devotion eros plants "the interests of another in the center of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival."

Lewis' first move is to evoke the beauty and the splendor of the natural loves, the way in which they give pleasure. And surely, part of the hold of this book upon several generations of readers has been its ability to evoke delight—to help us appreciate the beauty of the natural loves and find in them shafts of the divine glory. But Lewis' discussion never stops there. He never forgets that "the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is. "And so, with each of the loves he notes also its insufficiency—the way in which, even and especially at its very best, it may go wrong. Affection is prone to jealousy and wants to possess the loved one. Still more, it needs to be needed. In affection we desire only the good we can give, which is not always the good the loved one needs. The love of friendship is always tempted to exclusivity. Rightly excluding those who do not share our special interests, we may easily take pride in our circle of friends and come to value exclusivity for its own sake. And so powerful, almost godlike, is the claim of eros upon us, that we may do great injustice in its name. Left to itself eros is likely to be fickle and unfaithful, to work harm and havoc in human life.

Therefore, each of the natural loves, beautiful and splendid as they are in themselves, must be transformed by charity, by love of God. They must be taken up into a life directed toward God and be reborn—transformed and perfected as "modes of charity." Lewis' concluding chapter on charity in The Four Loves, among the most powerful pieces of his generally powerful prose, is a haunting depiction of the way in which this needed transformation is likely to be painful. We say that the natural loves are transformed and perfected, but that language does not quite capture the truth of our experience. It may sometimes feel more like death—that the natural loves must be put to death so that a new life marked by charity can arise. With just such an idea in mind—namely, that the needed transformation of our natural loves may seem akin to dying—Josef Pieper once recalled that charity has been pictured by Christians as a consuming fire, and that it is therefore "much more than an innocuous piety when Christendom prays, 'Kindle in us the fire of Thy love.'"

At their very best, therefore, the natural loves fall short. In themselves they are good, but they were never meant to be simply "in themselves"—to be isolated from the God-relation, to be anything other than modes of charity. But in our sin we do isolate and idolize them, refusing to recognize that they are and must remain creaturely loves. Because we do so, we can only experience the transformation of our loves as painful. When God redirects them to himself, it hurts. We can, of course, say, with perfect justification, that this redirection is a restoration of them to what they are meant to be. It is a liberation of their true beauty and is in the service of their genuine flourishing. In the Augustinian language that underlies Lewis' treatment in The Four Loves, it is the restoring of inordinate love to right order. It is the restoration of harmony between nature and grace.

All true—and truly said. But we cannot always—perhaps not even often—experience this restoration as liberation and fulfillment. For all that is "far away in 'the land of the Trinity," and we remain pilgrims on the way. Along the way, nature may often seem wounded by grace. When, in the theological struggles to which the Reformation gave rise, Protestants depicted a nature so thoroughly corrupted by sin that death and rebirth were necessary, Catholics sometimes thought that this demonstrated an insufficient appreciation of the continuing goodness of creation, of its ability to point us to God. And so, Catholics responded by saying that "grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it." That is, over against an image of death and resurrection they set an incarnational image—not a destruction of the natural life and a new birth, but the natural life taken up into and perfected within a graced life.

Lewis, mere Christian that he seeks to be, sees the worth of both pictures of the Christian life—and sees it quite profoundly. As always in his view, the real truth of things is captured in the Catholic formulation: The natural life is God's good gift; he will not destroy but perfect it. The natural loves are transformed when they become incarnate as modes of charity. But the Protestant formulation captures something very important about the truth of our experience, about what this transformation may feel like. It hurts.

Lewis' most haunting depiction of nature wounded by grace must certainly be one of his least read books, Till We Have Faces. Before the story is over, Orual comes to see the harsh truth about her love for Psyche and others. It had been a "gnawing greed." She comes to see that the kingdom of Glome "was a web—I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men's stolen lives." Yet, her natural loves of affection, friendship, and eros were not mere selfishness. They were, in some ways, the natural loves at their best. As Lewis once put it in a letter to Clyde Kilby, Orual is an example of "human affection in its natural condition, true, tender, suffering, but in the long run tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession."

Sin builds its throne at the heart of what is best in our nature, and, then, when God draws us toward himself, it may feel the way it felt to Orual when the Divine surgeons went to work on her. What she experienced was loss and suffering—so great, indeed, that she finally cries out: "That there should be gods at all, there's our misery and bitter wrong. There's no room for you and us in the same world." Striving for independence, striving to isolate her natural loves from the only context in which they could ultimately flourish, Orual had been making war on the reality principle of the universe. How can the gods meet us face to face, she finally asks, till we have faces? She had to be broken to be transformed.

I do not believe there is any theme more central to Lewis' vision of human life in relation to God, and I think there are very few indeed who have managed as well as he to invoke simultaneously in readers both an appreciation for and delight in our created life, and a sense of the pain and anguish that come when that life is fully redirected to the One from whom it comes. "To love at all," Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, "is to be vulnerable…. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." The whole of life, therefore, every ordinary and everyday moment of it, every choice that we make, is charged with the significance of an eternal either/or. Which means, I guess, that no moment is simply ordinary.

Here, I think, we find the truth behind the remarkable staying power of Lewis' writings. He is not really returning theology to the masses. In fact, in the strict sense, he can hardly be said to be writing theology. He gives us something better—the feel, the quality, of a life truly lived before God. He gives us the everyday—in all its splendor, terror, pain, and possibility. And through what is ordinary and everyday he invites us to enter into that "mystical death which is the secret of life."

J. I. Packer (essay date 7 September 1998)

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SOURCE: "Still Surprised by Lewis," in Christianity Today, September 7, 1998, pp. 54, 56-60.

[In the following essay, Packer discusses Lewis's literary career, religious beliefs, and popularity among Christians.]

Yes, I was at Oxford in Lewis's day (I went up in 1944); but no I never met him. He was regularly on show as the anchorman of the Socratic Club, which met weekly to discuss how science, philosophy, and current culture related to Christianity; but as a young believer, I was sure I needed Bible teaching rather than apologetics, so I passed the Socratic by. The nearest I ever got to Lewis was hearing him address the Oxford theologians society on Richard Hooker about whom he was writing at that time for his assigned volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, the "Oh-Hell" as for obvious reasons he liked to call it. He spoke with a resonant Anglicized accent (you would never have guessed he was Irish), and when he said something funny, which he did quite often, he paused like a stage comedian for the laugh. They said he was the best lecturer in Oxford, and I daresay they were right. But he was not really part of my world.

Yet I owe him much, and I gratefully acknowledge my debt.

First of all, in 1942–43, when I thought I was a Christian but did not yet know what a Christian was—and had spent a year verifying the old adage that if you open your mind wide enough much rubbish will be tipped into it—The Screwtape Letters and the three small books that became Mere Christianity brought me, not indeed to faith in the full sense, but to mainstream Christian beliefs about God, man, and Jesus Christ, so that now I was halfway there.

Second, in 1945, when I was newly converted, the student who was discipling me lent me The Pilgrim's Regress. This gave me both a full-color map of the Western intellectual world as it had been in 1932 and still pretty much was 13 years later, and also a very deep delight in knowing that I knew God, beyond anything I had felt before. The vivid glow of Lewis's scenic and dramatic imagination, as deployed in the story, had started to grab me. Regress, Lewis's first literary effort as a Christian, is still for me the freshest and liveliest of all his books, and I reread it more often than any of the others.

Third, Lewis sang the praises of an author named Charles Williams, of whom I had not heard, and in consequence I picked up Many Dimensions in paperback in 1953 and had one of the most overwhelming reading experiences of my life—though that is another story.

Fourth, there are stellar passages in Lewis that for me, at least, bring the reality of heaven very close. Few Christian writers today try to write about heaven, and the theme defeats almost all who take it up. But as one who learned long ago from Richard Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress the need for clearly focused thought about heaven, I am grateful for the way Lewis helps me along here.

The number of Christians whom Lewis's writings have helped, one way and another, is enormous. Since his death in 1963, sales of his books have risen to 2 million a year, and a recently polled cross section of CT readers rated him the most influential writer in their lives—which is odd, for they and I identify ourselves as evangelicals, and Lewis did no such thing. He did not attend an evangelical place of worship nor fraternize with evangelical organizations. "I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England," he wrote: "not especially 'high,' nor especially 'low,' nor especially anything else." By ordinary evangelical standards, his idea about the Atonement (archetypal penitence, rather than penal substitution), and his failure ever to mention justification by faith when speaking of the forgiveness of sins, and his apparent hospitality to baptismal regeneration, and his noninerrantist view of biblical inspiration, plus his quiet affirmation of purgatory and of the possible final salvation of some who have left this world as nonbelievers, were weaknesses; they led the late, great Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for whom evangelical orthodoxy was mandatory, to doubt whether Lewis was a Christian at all. His closest friends were Anglo-Catholics or Roman Catholics; his parish church, where he worshiped regularly, was "high"; he went to confession; he was, in fact, anchored in the (small-c) "catholic" stream of Anglican thought, which some (not all) regard as central. Yet evangelicals love his books and profit from them hugely. Why?

As one involved in this situation, I offer the following answer.

In the first place, Lewis was a lay evangelist, conservative in his beliefs and powerful in his defense of the old paths. "Ever since I became a Christian," he wrote in 1952, "I have thought that the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." To make ordinary people think about historic Christianity, and to see and feel the strength and attraction of the case for it, was Lewis's goal throughout. All through his writings runs the sense that moderns have ceased to think about life and reality in a serious way and have settled instead for mindless drift with the crowd, or blind trust in technology, or the Athenian frivolity of always chasing new ideas, or the nihilism of knee-jerk negativism toward everything in the past. The Christian spokesman's first task, as Lewis saw it, is to put all this into reverse and get folk thinking again.

So his immediate goal in a sustained flow of didactic books, opinion pieces, children's stories, adult fiction and fantasy, autobiography, and poems, along with works of literary history and criticism, spread out over more than 30 years, was to stir up serious thought. About what? About the Christian values and perspectives that the people he once labeled the Clevers had left behind, and about the morasses one gets bogged down in once the Christian heritage is abandoned; and on from there. He would have agreed with the often-stated dictum of fellow evangelist Martyn Lloyd-Jones that the Christian is and must be the greatest thinker in the universe, and that God's first step in adult conversion is to make the person think.

Lewis was clear that, as he has Screwtape tell us in many different ways, thoughtlessness ruins souls; so he labored mightily by all kinds of stimulating persuasives—witty, argumentative, pictorial, fanciful, logical, prophetic, and dramatic by turns—to ensure, so far as he could, that death-dealing thoughtlessness would not flourish while he was around. His constant pummelling of his reader's mind was neither Ulster temperament nor Oxford didacticism, but the urgent compassionate expression of one who knew that the only alternative to grasping God's truth and seeing everything by its light is idiocy in one form or another.

And he believed, surely with reason, that his credibility as a Christian spokesman in an anticlerical age was enhanced by the fact that he had no professional religious identity but was just an Anglican layman earning his salt by teaching English at Oxford. As G. K. Chesterton was to himself simply a journalist with a significant Christian outlook, so Lewis was to himself simply an academic with a significant spare-time vocation of Christian utterance. Evangelicals appreciate lay evangelists of Lewis's kind.

Second, Lewis was a brilliant teacher. His strength lay not in the forming of new ideas but in the arresting simplicity, both logical and imaginative, with which he projected old ones. Not wasting words, he plunged straight into things and boiled matters down to essentials, positioning himself as a common-sense, down-to-earth, no-nonsense observer, analyst, and conversation partner. On paper he had a flair, comparable to that of the great evangelists in the pulpit (Whitefield, Spurgeon, Graham, for example), for making you feel he is in personal conversation with you, searching your heart and requiring of you total honesty in response. Never pontifical, never browbeating, and never wrapping things up, Lewis achieved an intimacy of instruction that is very unusual. Those who read today what he wrote half a century ago find him engaging and holding their attention, and when the reading is over, haunting them, in the sense that they do not forget what he said. At his best, Lewis is a teacher of great piercing power. What is his secret?

The secret lies in the blend of logic and imagination in Lewis's make-up, each power as strong as the other, and each enormously strong in its own right. In one sense, imagination took the lead. As Lewis wrote in 1954:

The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet…. It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolic or mythopoeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologized science-fiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnia stories for children … because the fairy tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say.

The best teachers are always those in whom imagination and logical control combine, so that you receive wisdom from their flights of fancy as well as a human heartbeat from their logical analyses and arguments. This in fact is human communication at its profoundest, for in the sending-receiving process of both lobes of the brain (left for logic, right for imagination) are fully involved, and that gives great depth and strength to what is heard. The teaching of Jesus presents itself as the supreme example here. Because Lewis's mind was so highly developed in both directions, it can truly be said of him that all of his arguments (including his literary criticism) are illustrations, in the sense that they throw light directly on realities of life and action, while all his illustrations (including the fiction and fantasies) are arguments, in the sense that they throw light directly on realities of truth and fact.

G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, and to some extent Dorothy L. Sayers exhibit the same sort of bipolar mental development, and what I have said of Lewis's writings can be said of theirs, too. Such minds will always command attention, and when possessed, as the minds of these four were possessed, by the values and visions of Christian faith and Christian humanism, they will always make an appeal that is hard to resist; and that appeal will not diminish as the culture changes. Visionary didacticism, as in Plato, Jesus, and Paul (to look no further) is transcultural, and unfading in its power. Bible-loving evangelicals, who build their whole faith on the logical-visionary teaching of God himself via his servants from Genesis to Revelation, naturally seek and appreciate this mode of communication in their latter-day instructors, and the consensus among them is that no twentieth-century writer has managed it so brilliantly as did C. S. Lewis.

Third, Lewis projects a vision of wholeness—sanity, maturity, present peace and joy, and finally fulfillment in heaven—that cannot but attract, willy-nilly, the adult children of our confused, disillusioned, alienated, and embittered culture: the now established culture of the West, which we shall certainly take with us (or maybe, I should say, which will certainly take us with it) into the new millennium. Both Lewis's didactic expositions (think of The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Four Loves, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and Reflections on the Psalms) and his fiction (think of the three Ransom stories, the seven Narnia tales, The Great Divorce, and Till We Have Faces) yield a vision of human life under God (or Maleldil, or Aslan, or the unnamed divinity who confronts Orual) that is redemptive, transformational, virtue-valuing, and shot through with hints and flashes of breathtaking glory and eternal delight in a world to come. To be sure, the vision is humbling, for the shattering of all egoistic pride, all Promethean heroics, and all the possessive perversions of love is part of it. In the text of all his Christian writings, and in the subtext, at least, of all his wider literary work, Lewis rings endless changes on the same story: a story of moral and intellectual corruption, embryonic or developed, being overcome in some way, whereby more or less disordered human beings, victims of bad thinking and bad influences from outside, find peace, poise, discernment, realism, fulfillment, and a meaningful future. Evangelicals love such writing: who can wonder at that?

Here we are at the deepest level of Lewis's creative identity. At bottom he was a mythmaker. As Austin Farrer, Lewis's closest clerical friend and Oxford's most brilliant theologian at that time, observed, in Lewis's apologetics "we think we are listening to an argument; in fact, we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction." Myth is perhaps best defined as a story that projects a vision of life of actual or potential communal significance by reason of the identity and attitudes that it invites us to adopt. Lewis had loved the pre-Christian god-stories of Norse and Greek mythology, and the thought that did most to shape his return to Christianity and his literary output thereafter was this: In the Incarnation, a myth that recurs worldwide, the myth of a dying and rising deity through whose ordeal salvation comes to others, has become a space-time fact. Both before Christ, in pagan mythology, and since Christ, in imaginative fiction from Christian and para-Christian Westerners, versions of this story in various aspects have functioned as "good dreams," preparing minds and hearts for the reality of Christ according to the gospel. With increasing clarity, Lewis saw his own fiction as adding to this stock of material.

Lewis knew that by becoming fact in Christ, the worldwide myth had not ceased to be a story that, by its appeal to our imagination, can give us "a taste for the other"—a sense of reality, that is, which takes us beyond left-brain conceptual knowledge. He found that what he now knew as the fact of Christ was generating and fertilizing within him stories of the same shape—stories, that is, that picture redemptive action in worlds other than ours, whether in the past, present, or future. In the fantasy novels (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, Till We Have Faces, and the seven Narnias) he became what Tolkien called a "sub-creator," producing good dreams of his own that, by reflecting Christian fact in a fantasy world, might prepare hearts to embrace the truth of Christ. The vision of wholeness that these myths project, and of the God-figures through whom that wholeness comes (think here particularly of Aslan, the Christly lion), can stir in honest hearts the wish that something of this sort might be true, and so beget, under God, readiness to accept the revelation that something of this sort is true, as a matter of fact.

Lewis once described The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as giving an answer to the question, "What might Christ be like if there really were a world like Narnia and he chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours?" All the Narnia books elaborate that answer: Aslan's doings are a reimagining in another world of what Jesus Christ did, does, and will do in this one. George Sayer, Lewis's finest biographer, ends his chapter on Narnia by telling how "my little stepdaughter, after she had read all the Narnia stories, cried bitterly, saying, 'I don't want to go on living in this world. I want to live in Narnia with Aslan'"—and then adding the five-word paragraph: "Darling, one day you will." The power of Lewisian myth as Christian communication could not be better shown, and countless believers who have nourished their children on Narnia will resonate with Sayer here.

Nor is that all. Over and above its evangelistic, or pre-evangelistic, role, Lewisian myth has an educating and maturing purpose. Lewis's 1943 Durham University lectures, published as The Abolition of Man (whew!) with the cooler academic subtitle, "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools," is a prophetic depth charge (it has been called a harangue) embodying his acute concern about our educational and cultural future. Lewis's educational philosophy called for imaginative identification on the part of young people, with paths of truth and value foreshadowed in the Platonic tradition, focused in the biblical revelation, and modeled in such writings as Spenser's Faerie Queene and his own stories; and The Abolition of Man was the waving of a red flag at an oncoming juggernaut that would reduce education to the learning of techniques and so dehumanize and destroy it, tearing out of it that which is its true heart. (Could he inspect public education today, a half-century later, he would tell us that what he feared has happened.) His fiction, however, was meant to help in real education, moral aesthetic and spiritual—value-laden education, in other words—and it is from that standpoint that we look at it now.

A close-up on Lewis's philosophy of education is needed here. Its negative side is hostility to any reductionist subjectivizing of values, as if the words that express them signify not realities to discern and goals to pursue, but just feelings of like and dislike that come and go. As a long-term Platonist and now a Christian into the bargain, Lewis had for some time been troubled by the lurching of twentieth-century philosophy into this subjectivism, and The Abolition of Man begins as his assault on a school textbook that assumed it. Such subjectivizing, he says, produces "men without chests"; that is, adults who lack what he calls "emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments"—what we would call moral formation and moral character.

Positively, Lewis calls for adherence to the Tao (his term: Tao means way). The Tao is the basic moral code (beneficence, obligations and respect within the family, justice, truthfulness, mercy, magnanimity) that all significant religions and all stable cultures maintain, and that Christians recognize from the first two chapters of Romans as matters of God's general revelation to our race. Lewis sees this code as a unity, and as time-honored and experientially verified wisdom, and as the only safeguard of society in this or any age, so it is no wonder that he states its claim emphatically. Commenting on the fact that would-be leaders of thought dismiss some or all of the Tao in order to construct alternative moralities (think of Nietzsche, for instance), he declares:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments…. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory…. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity…. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength, which tells of a devilish research organization called the N.I.C.E. taking over a British university in order to take over Britain in the name of science, seems to me as to others an artistic failure, but it is a striking success in the way that it pictures this process of moral rebellion and the self-destruction to which it leads—and that, I suspect, was the only success that Lewis cared about when he wrote it.

Now, Tao-orientation is an internalized mindset that has to be learned. Lewis invokes Plato on this: "The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful." Yes, but how? Partly, at least, through stories that model the right responses: poems like Spenser's Faerie Queene, one of Lewis's lifelong favorites (best read, he once affirmed, between the ages of 12 and 16), novels like those of George MacDonald, and myths like the Chronicles of Narnia. Doris Myers urges that the chronicles are a more or less conscious counterpart to the Faerie Queene, modeling particular forms of virtue in a Tao frame with Christian overtones across the spectrum of a human life. Affirming that "the didacticism of the Chronicles consists in the education of moral and aesthetic feelings … to prevent children growing up without Chests," Myers reviews them to show how in each one "a particular virtue or configuration of virtues is presented, and the reader is brought to love it through participating in the artistry of the tale." The child will thus absorb the Tao by osmosis through enjoying the story.

Specifically: in the first chronicle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis works to "strengthen the Chest" by inducing an emotional affirmation of courage, honor, and limitless kindness, with an emotional rejection of cowardice and treachery. In Prince Caspian, the second, he highlights joy within responsible self-control, in courtesy, justice, appropriate obedience, and the quest for order. In the third, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the endragoning and dedragoning of Eustace, "the Boy without a Chest," is flanked by vivid images of personal nobility (Reepicheep the Mouse) and public responsibility (Caspian the captain), while a tailpiece tells us how Eustace after his dedragoning was seen to be improved—"you'd never know him for the same boy." (The image, of course, is of Christian conversion.) Numbers four and five (The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy) teach lessons on managing one's thoughts and feelings as one nears adulthood; number six (The Magician's Nephew) invites hatred for the life- defying development of knowledge and use of power apart from the Tao; and number seven (The Last Battle) inculcates bravery in face of loss and death.

Thus Lewis's Narnia links up with his attempt, in The Abolition of Man, to recall education to its Tao-grounded roots. The attempt was ignored, and today we reap the bitter fruits of that fact. The inner desolation and desperation that young people experience as subjectivist relativism and nihilism are wished upon them in schools and universities is a tragedy. (If you do not know what I am referring to, listen to the pop singers; they will tell you.) Yet Lewis's imaginative presentation in his tales of a life of wholeness, maturity, sanity, honesty, humility, and humaneness, fictionally envisaged in order that it might be factually realized, still has great potency for both conversion and character building, as Narnia lovers most of all will testify. And evangelical believers greatly appreciate potency of this kind.

This brings us to the fourth factor in evangelical enthusiasm for C. S. Lewis: namely, the power with which he communicates not only the goodness of godliness, but also the reality of God, and with that the reality of the heaven that exists in the fullness of God's gracious presence.

Lewis's power here stemmed from his own vivid experience. From childhood he knew stabbing moments of what he called joy, that is, intense delightful longing, Sweet Desire (his phrase), that nothing in this world satisfies, and that is in fact a God-sent summons to seek the enjoyment of God and heaven. The way he describes it is calculated (Lewis, like other writers, could calculate his effects) to focus in our minds an awareness that this experience is ours too, so that Augustine was right to say that God made us for himself and our hearts lack contentment till they find it in him, in foretaste here and in fullness hereafter. Having found Sweet Desire to be an Ariadne's thread leading him finally to Christ (the autobiographical Surprised by Joy tells us how), Lewis holds our feet to the fire to ensure, if he can, that the same will happen to us. "If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us … We are far too easily pleased." Nothing must be allowed to distract us from staying the course with Sweet Desire.

Lewis's power to communicate God and heaven's reality was exerted through his marvelously vivid rhetoric. Rhetoric—that is, the art of using words persuasively—ran in the Lewis family, and C.S. Lewis himself was a prose poet whose skill with simple words, like Bunyan's, enabled him to suggest ineffable things to our imaginations with overwhelming poignancy.

Thus, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a momentary breeze brought the three children "a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, 'It would break your heart.' 'Why,' said I, 'was it so sad?' 'Sad!! No,' said Lucy.

"No one in that boat doubted that they were seeing beyond the End of the World into Aslan's country."

And this is how The Last Battle ends:

"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen to them after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them … we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after…. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

The knockout quality of such writing is more than words can express.

The combination within him of insight with vitality, wisdom with wit, and imaginative power with analytical precision made Lewis a sparkling communicator of the everlasting gospel. Matching Aslan in the Narnia stories with (of course!) the living Christ of the Bible and of Lewis's instructional books, and his presentation of Christ could hardly be more forthright. "We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying he disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed." Then, on the basis of this belief and the future belief that he is risen and alive and so is personally there (that is, everywhere, which means here), we must "put on," or as Lewis strikingly renders it, "dress up as" Christ—that is, give ourselves totally to Christ, so that he may be "formed in us," and we may henceforth enjoy in him the status and character of adopted children in God's family, or as again Lewis strikingly puts it, "little Christs." "God looks at you as if you were a little Christ: Christ stands beside you to turn you into one." Precisely.

Not just evangelicals, but all Christians, should celebrate Lewis, "the brilliant, quietly saintly, slightly rumpled Oxford don" as James Patrick describes him. He was a Christ-centered, great-tradition mainstream Christian whose stature a generation after his death seems greater than anyone ever thought while he was alive, and whose Christian writings are now seen as having classic status.

Long may we learn from the contents of his marvelous, indeed magical, mind! I doubt whether the full measure of him has been taken by anyone as yet.


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