Last Updated on June 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4986
Lewis, C(live) S(taples) 1898–1963
British novelist, essayist, literary critic, and children's writer, Lewis is best-known for his allegorical science fiction. A Christian apologist, he was a member of the Oxford Christian group which included J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.
Lewis is not a "major" English writer but remains a capable writer of the "second rank" with a limited—though authentic and unique—contribution to literature…. In any case, most critics seem to agree with Mark Longaker and Edwin C. Bolles that Lewis "has assured himself a place in the history of English letters." Whether that place in literature is primary or secondary is not my present concern. It is sufficient simply to consider Lewis an important writer of our time, whose doctrinal explanation and imaginative expression of the idea of human nature are worthy of attention. (p. 19)
It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of Plato and Augustine upon Lewis' thought. He once wrote, "to lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb. Hardly any lawful price seems to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek." The influence of Thomas Aquinas and William Law are found at many points. Lewis confessed that the personal debt he owed to George Macdonald's Unspoken Sermons was "almost as great as one man can owe to another." If he learned to appreciate "holiness" from Macdonald, Lewis learned to appreciate "the numinous" from Rudolf Otto's Das Heilige. A non-Christian author who had an important influence on Lewis at one stage was William Butler Yeats. Lewis was especially struck by the fact that Yeats rejected philosophical materialism, though for other than Christian reasons. Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, and Edwyn Bevan's Symbolism and Belief were very important to Lewis. He often acknowledged Charles Williams as an important contemporary influence upon his thought and life. (p. 32)
After writing Screwtape, Lewis was often asked whether he "really" believed in the devil. In his preface to the new edition he pointed out that the purpose of this literary work "was not to speculate about diabolical life but to throw light from a new angle on the life of men." The "devils" of Screwtape, he said, may be taken either as symbols of concrete reality or as personifications of abstractions. The author's personal opinion about devils is not of major importance to the reader for an appreciation of this imaginative work.
Lewis went on to admit, however, that he did happen to believe in devils in the sense that certain angels have abused their free will to become God's enemies. There is no independent power opposite to God from all eternity, he said. And perfect badness could not even have the positive quality of existence, much less the good qualities of intelligence, will, memory, and energy. The leader of the fallen angels is known as Satan. Lewis pointed out that his belief in devils is only an opinion. It is not a central doctrine in his faith, and his religion would not be shattered by the loss of that idea. (p. 52)
Lewis elaborated in [Experiment in] Criticism upon the special sense in which he used myth. He did not include under that term all the stories which anthropologists might lump there. A great myth, he maintained, is essentially an "extra-literary" story, even though it has been embodied in several particular literary expressions. The pleasure which myth gives depends little upon suspense or surprise. It is felt to be inevitable from the beginning. Sympathy for individual mythical characters is minimal; we sense, rather, the relevance of the story for ourselves and for all men. Myth is "fantastic" in that it deals with impossibles and preternaturals. It is always grave and awe-inspiring—an experience of the numinous. (p. 64)
[When] Lewis wrote about religious faith, he was interested in presenting classical Christianity, not his own intellectual difficulties and personal anxieties. The reader will generally be aware that the author was for eighteen years an atheist and that he wrote as a twentieth-century man who was not unacquainted with the intellectual struggles and anxieties of our time. What Lewis wanted to offer his readers, however, was not spiritual autobiography but a cogent case for the Christian faith. Individual believers may be disturbed over all sorts of intellectual and emotional problems. Nevertheless, traditional Christianity has made some rather definite, affirmative statements about God and man. It was Lewis' intention to set forth these central beliefs as clearly and as forcefully as he could. (pp. 86-7)
Lewis' concern over what it means to be human is reflected often in his works of fiction. For example, on the planet Malacandra, Ransom finds most of the creatures rational and friendly, but he concludes that human refers to something more than bodily form and rational mind. It includes also that community of blood and experience which unites the people of the earth. The creatures of Malacandra are not the stock science-fiction figures of bug-eyed monsters, but neither are they specifically human. In the children's stories, both talking animals and wild animals live in Narnia, and human children sometimes find it difficult to tell them apart….
For Lewis, as for contemporary theology in general, the creation myths of Genesis imply these two ideas: (1) that nothing in this world is ultimate, since the universe is finally dependent upon God; and (2) that since the world had its origin in God, the whole of creation is basically good. (pp. 91-2)
A brief line from Longfellow filled him for a fleeting moment with an indescribable desire of almost sickening intensity. This unsatisfied desire seemed itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. Lewis used the technical term Joy to apply to all such experience…. Joy differs both from pleasure in general and from aesthetic pleasure. "It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing," wrote Lewis.
For many years Joy was absent and forgotten in Lewis' life. Then one day he happened across these words (without knowing their meaning): Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. Immediately he found himself engulfed in "pure Northernness." Plunged back into his own past, he recalled with heartbreak the Joy he had once known and had lacked now for years. But this "unendurable sense of desire and loss," coming to him as to one recovering from unconsciousness, vanished in the very moment of recognition. In succeeding days he experienced something like a religious adoration—a disinterested self-abandonment—for Wagner and Northernness. It was, in fact, a quality of feeling which as a believer he had never known toward God. Yet it was no new religion; for it contained no belief, and it imposed no duties.
Joy always reminds, said Lewis. It does not become a possession. It remains the desire for something long ago or far away or soon to be. Lewis discovered that both nature and books were repeated sources for these peculiar stabs of Joy. Books about Norse mythology were found especially fruitful. Eventually the inner life of quest for these experiences became so important that it was quite distinct from his ordinary outer life. Lewis began to feel that he was living two lives which had nothing to do with each other.
When he cultivated a scholar's interest in Valhalla and the Valkyries, it became evident to Lewis that this was different from the original thrill. The glory was gone. Even the memories of these sharp experiences were themselves a kind of Joy. All things in their own way reflect heavenly truth, claimed Lewis—especially the imagination. But pangs of Joy do not necessarily lead to any higher spiritual life. Lewis discovered the frustration of deliberately seeking thrills of Joy, in poetry, music, or nature. As long as he sought a particular state of mind, Joy was absent; the thrill would come only as a by-product when his attention was fixed upon something else. "Startled into self-forgetfulness," he wrote, "I again tasted Joy. But far more often I frightened it away by my greedy impatience to snare it, and, even when it came, instantly destroyed it by introspection, and at all times vulgarized it by my false assumption about its nature." (pp. 110-11)
Romanticism, or romantic desire, is for Lewis an intense urge which begins in uncertainty about its object. The human mind devises for it many mistaken identifications—nostalgic, erotic, aesthetic, occult, or intellectual. Surprised by Joy, claimed its author, was written by one who had proved each of these possibilities wrong through his own ontological search for God. Experience leads us to overcome the initial mystery as it compels us to reject false objects and finally to rest in God….
The concept of Joy is treated often in both Lewis' fiction and his nonfiction. Joy always emphasizes the pilgrim status of man. It reminds, it beckons, it awakens desire. But it remains unsatisfied with everything in this world. Lewis claimed in Pain that there is no Christian solution to the problem of evil which does not take heaven into account. It is not very stylish to discuss heaven, Lewis admitted, and sometimes he thought people do not even desire heaven. "But more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we ever desired anything else." Surely this is the goal of man's incommunicable and unappeasable want, he concluded. Man is born with desire, tantalized by immortal longings, and dies recognizing that his promises are not yet fulfilled. In heaven individuals shall come to know, to love, and to praise God. (pp. 113-14)
Lewis' thought was not as dogmatic and rigid as it has sometimes been represented. But neither was he in his later years any profound skeptic so far as the Christian faith was concerned. The skepticism which Lewis expressed near the conclusion of Discarded Image refers to the possibility of discovering any accurate "models" of the universe. World-pictures have changed through the centuries, and they continue to change as they reflect current scientific thinking…. The worldview of Christianity may fit any of several pictures of the universe, and the Christian need not believe that any permanent world-picture is available to the limited understanding of man. (p. 151)
Lewis opened Four Loves by distinguishing between gift-love, need-love, and appreciative love. Divine love is always gift-love, since God lacks nothing, and human gift-loves are God-like. Man's ordinary need-love, however, is more than mere selfishness; not to feel the need of others would be sheer egotism. Even human love for God is dominated by need-love. Appreciative love neither seeks nor gives but rejoices in the pleasure of beauty. It is neither based upon a specific desire, nor is it easily satisfied—as, for example, is the need-pleasure for food. Pleasure of appreciation is concerned with objects in their own right. While these three basic categories of love can be separated for analysis, it is doubtful that they exist for long in a pure and independent state in actual life, except perhaps need-love. A person's spiritual health is in direct proportion to his love for God; to give to human loves the sort of unconditional allegiance which belongs to God turns them into demonic idols which eventually become destructive. (p. 158)
Lewis has sometimes been represented as so exclusively concerned with immortality that some readers may be surprised to hear him speak occasionally of the danger of being overly concerned about eternal destiny. Happiness and misery beyond death—in themselves alone—are not even religious subjects, he wrote in Psalms. When hopes and anxieties center on oneself, God is not central. God should not be thought to exist only for the sake of something else, even immortality. Lewis said in Miracles that conceptions of Heaven are important to Christians, but they are not among those things which are the most important. "If you find that they so distract you," he advised, "think of them no more…. It is of more importance for you or me to-day to refrain from one sneer or to extend one charitable thought to an enemy than to know all that angels and archangels know about the mysteries of the New Creation."
Lewis stated in Surprised [by Joy], further, that immortality should not be made the central doctrine of religion; a preoccupation with it is corrupting, he noted. Genuine goodness is not self-seeking, and much concern about reward or punishment contaminates the will. Union with God is bliss. Separation from him is horror. This is the meaning of heaven and hell. But these concepts should not be hypostatised as though they had a substantial meaning apart from God. To do this corrupts the doctrine and the persons who hold it. Lewis said that the question of immortality did not occur to him for nearly a year following his conversion to Christianity. Although belief in the next world is not the central or most important concern of the Christian faith, Lewis concluded in Malcolm that interest in this dimension of reality can hardly be slight, if it is believed in at all. (p. 198)
According to critic Chad Walsh, in the two decades following the 1942 publication of Screwtape Letters the books of C. S. Lewis had an impact upon American religious thinking and imagination "which has been very rarely, if ever, equalled by any other modern writer." At least half a dozen of Lewis' more imaginative books, Walsh predicts, will assume a position among the classics of religious literature. Roger Lancelyn Green, a British author of nearly a dozen volumes in the field of juvenile fiction, thinks that the Narnia stories will have a permanent place among the great works of children's literature. Green considers Lewis to be among the half dozen best writers for children in the present century. (p. 111)
Lewis was no theological extremist of any variety. He deliberately avoided identifying himself with current schools of theological debate. It is possible, therefore, that the partisans of various camps will find his though suspect. But it is also probable that his theological contribution will prove more lasting than those of most theological faddists in the current decade.
Lewis presented a comprehensive view of human nature, shaped by classical Christian doctrines of Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and [Eschatology]. He demonstrated that he was capable of penetrating to the core of these traditional concepts, of separating the essential from the inessential, and of creating new images to convey theological truth to modern men. The prolific imagination of C. S. Lewis has generated a multitude of powerful scenes and symbols which interpret Christianity in a way that is remarkably unforgettable.
Far from being a theological literalist, Lewis developed a sophisticated theory of religious language and presented an extensive discussion on literary theory in his own works. For more than forty years Lewis produced imaginative literature reflecting his keen understanding of myth and metaphor as the essential language of religion. C. S. Lewis was a Christian remythologizer par excellence. (pp. 212-13)
William Luther White, in his The Image of Man in C. S. Lewis (copyright © 1969 by Abingdon Press), Abingdon, 1969.
Lewis's society on Mars is peopled by creatures which suggest a good deal about the author's conception of man. The three groups [sorns, or the scientists and intellectuals; hrossa, or the poets, musicians, and fishermen; and pfifltriggi, the craftsmen, miners, and sculptors] suggest elements or parts within man; out of these parts come certain characteristics which are Good. Such a conception of man is a bit arbitrary; it ignores the possibility that man is an indivisible unity, not to mention the insight of psychoanalysis that man's strengths and weaknesses may be one and the same, that the strongest positive characteristics carry with them the strongest negative possibilities. While Lewis makes no moral distinction between the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the physically active, he makes precise distinctions concerning these faculties, with a premium on docility and resignation and an attitude of condescension toward aggression and rebellion.
In Perelandra, Lewis casts further light on his view of man. The hero, Ransom, is treated by the author (unconsciously perhaps) as a lovable but rather dumb child. He does the same with the good folk in That Hideous Strength—Ransom having attained a certain stature. The evil antagonist, Weston, is often compared to a nasty little boy. His "naughtiness" is epitomized by his cruel teasing and senseless torture of animals. It seems that Lewis regards men from the viewpoint of a nineteenth-century British nursery. Abstract allegory tends here to remove traces of depth or complexity; what is left tends to be devoid of constructive meaning….
There can be no doubt, however, that Lewis, for all his primness and tendency to abstraction, introduces a valuable dimension into the discussion by insisting that there is a reason for man's ill nature. But this sad state is hardly cured by the assumption that a perfect world is based upon hierarchical principles. It almost amounts to a medieval concept of "know your place"; or perhaps it's an English gentleman's view of good and bad….
The universe which C. S. Lewis gives us is, with minor adjustments, the formal world of Anglican orthodoxy. Fallen man is in thrall to the forces of evil which keep him from realizing himself. However, Lewis is weak at the point of redemption precisely because his understanding of evil and of man is lacking in dynamism and complexity. He fails to see that redemption can never be the same thing as unfallen innocence.
Lois and Stephen Rose, in their The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (© 1970 by M.E. Bratcher; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox Press, 1970, pp. 63-7.
Quite how a novel such as That Hideous Strength, or the trilogy of which it forms a part, may be considered "theological," much less an apology for church orthodoxy, is difficult to understand. One may grant that Lewis's stress upon human frailty and his recasting of the Biblical Genesis in Perelandra derive from his deeply felt Christianity. Yet Lewis's concern in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra is neither religious nor theological, but moral. Lewis is interested in the human response to choices of good and evil. The novels are set in a theocentric cosmos because Lewis was a believer, just as Olaf Stapledon's novels are set in a godless universe because he was not. Yet the focus of Lewis is upon the moral challenge posed to Ransom, upon the moral deterioration of Weston, and upon the monumental temptation offered to the Green Lady. The conflict in Perelandra would be little less forceful if divinity or demon had never been specifically mentioned….
The third novel of Lewis's trilogy differs markedly from the first two. Lewis himself writes in the preface to That Hideous Strength that "it concludes the trilogy … but can be read on its own." The great difference between the first two novels and the last is in the shift of scene from the "moral laboratory" of the planets back to the world of everyday experience. Ransom tells Merlin, "the Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes."… This earth. One leaves Mars and Venus for a small, sleepy English university town. Thus the trilogy follows an archetypal pattern well established in literature. Just as Shakespeare's characters in As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, or The Tempest, having become wiser through a visit to a fantasy world, must eventually return to the mundane world from which they have come, Ransom has journeyed to the unfallen worlds of Mars and Venus to achieve a kind of enlightenment, but it is to Earth that he must return, and it is on Earth that his greatest battle must be fought. That Hideous Strength puts the moral insights of the first two novels to the test. They must be applicable to a recognizable world. That Hideous Strength becomes at once the "proof of the pudding" for Lewis's insights into good and evil, and a coda that unites and expands all the themes developed before.
The shift of setting with the third novel is accompanied by a shift of mode from the romantic, with its allegorical strain, to the ironic, with its satiric one. While in the first two novels, Lewis sought to involve the reader, now he tries to disengage him. As does Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, Lewis inserts a series of grim jokes to prevent our becoming too sympathetically engaged, to keep us at a certain critical distance. For example, the diabolic institute is "N.I.C.E.," the truncated head of a criminal is literally the "head" of that institute, and some of the symbolic names have a comic ring: "Fairy Hardcastle" for a lesbian, or "Mr. Fisher-King" for Elwin Ransom. Lewis wishes his reader to treat the surface of the story with a certain detachment, so that he may perceive overtones which make the fictional plot a means of attacking real social perils.
Although Lewis has as acute a Christian consciousness as had Swift, he, like Swift, refrains from preaching. He renders his morality into the image, symbol, and dramatic situation of art. Satire has often been rendered by its masters as a conflict between two societies, one real and one fictional….
In sum, Lewis accedes to no moral relativism. The garden of St. Anne's, the garden paralleled to a woman's body, suggests a harmonious order of nature, an order in terms of which man must live if he is to be human. Lewis believes, in contradiction to Feverstone and Filostrato, that man does not "make himself," but that his reason is capable of apprehending a rational universe, and thus, that there is a natural moral order. Such a stance places him in opposition to all principles of infinite human progress, to all philosophies of the superman. Lewis would accept Blake's maxim that "in trying to be more than man, we become less."
In such views, Lewis is traditional rather than "modern." Yet more often than not great satirists have been conservative traditionalists, lashing out at excesses of "modern" thought. Lewis shares this role with both Jonathan Swift, who attacks the Enlightenment in Gulliver's Travels, and with Samuel Johnson, who attacks it in Rasselas.
Patrick J. Callahan, "The Two Gardens in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength," in SF: The Other Side of Realism—Essays on Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971, pp. 147-56.
[Lewis's] purpose [in his trilogy] was to combine an old love with a newer, to combine the romance of the far off and faerie with the religion of his maturity, to unite what the imagination loved with what the intellect was convinced to be true. In short, his purpose was … to romanticize religion….
In [Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength], Christianity—the very story of Christianity as well as many of its dogmas—is translated into mythology in order that Christianity may seem more wonderful (not more wonderful than it is, perhaps, but more wonderful than we ordinarily conceive it). Romance, beginning as a means to Christianity, is now used as a servant to Christianity. The whole trilogy is full of the old Chestertonian device of making something marvelous by describing it in terms that we never use for it, of making us see something as if for the first time. The drama of the Incarnation takes on a strange new light in being told by a naked green woman on a floating island on Venus, as the Fall assumes new grandeur by being almost repeated. Maleldil, so truly in motion that He is still (a psycho-physical parallel of God's infinite act?); Maleldil the Young locked in battle with the Dark Eldil of Thulcandra, setting an impassable frontier against him across the face of the moon; Maleldil reviving Merlin after fifteen hundred years so that he may join the Pendragon and the planetary Oyeresu in the fight against the Bent One—what could be more wonderful, what could be less like not only what Newman called "the dreary, hopeless irreligion" of the time but less like the very religion itself of the time? Lewis's religion seems hardly to belong to the same century, or the same world, as Eliot's Thoughts after Lambeth, or Jaspers's and Bultmann's discussion of myth and religion, or the work of Camus….
I do not suggest that Lewis's romantic Christianity is identical with Anglicanism as such, any more than the romantic religion of Macdonald or Chesterton was identical with their formal religions. I do suggest that Lewis has come to terms with dogma in a typically romantic way learned from Coleridge, that he has done this in order to go beyond dogma to experience, the romantic experience of longing which he can now see as of religious significance. Lewis's transcendental Christianity preserves the value of both dogma and experience by explaining both as attempts to reach the same end, by showing that Sehnsucht approximates the Practical Reason or the will. Romantic longing is for what never was on sea or land, for the beyond "partly in the west, partly in the past"; Lewis's transcendental Christianity provides an ultimate reality that is opaque, unapproachable and unknowable except through the will…. Christianity itself, in Lewis's transcendental terms, may be thought of as a myth or accommodation, so far as it is understood rather than perceived spiritually by moral means. Just so far as Christianity is formal and dogmatic, it is a limitation of the transcendent God, a form of perception like quantity or substance by which we mutilate and distort the I AM WHO AM. In order to know God we must love Him; there is no discursive way. Lewis's transcendental Christianity, like romantic longing, puts its good in "the High Countries," where the heart is.
R. J. Reilly, "C. S. Lewis and the Baptism of the Imagination," in his Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 98-147.
The fantasy of C. S. Lewis, taken as a whole, begins in autobiography, moves into apologetics, and then returns—but with a difference—to autobiography. The fiction for which he is best known was published between 1938 and 1945, almost precisely in the middle of his career as a writer. These books—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength (the so-called space trilogy), along with The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce—function in part as implicit apologetic, as a defense of the Christian faith, which takes particular account of the skepticism or hostility of the nonbeliever….
In The Pilgrim's Regress C. S. Lewis (like Bunyan before him and like Saint Augustine before both of them) writes as an adult convert to Christianity, examining his past in order to understand for himself and make known to others how he has become what he now is. Just as John Bunyan in his earlier years had fed his imagination on popular tales of knights and giants and dragons, so Lewis' memory is filled with the fantasies of George Macdonald, William Morris, and H. G. Wells….
Lewis says of his way [to conversion]: "It is a road very rarely trodden"; Bunyan's was, in his day at least, a more typical conversion. The times make a difference too. C. S. Lewis is very conscious of writing for an audience which does not share the presuppositions that have become his as a convert. Thus he must bring to life allegorically not only the hindrances and helps in the way, but also the intimations or "inklings" that have drawn him toward belief. For both endeavors he enlists the aid of fantasy.
Because so many of the stumbling blocks are associated, for Lewis, with intellectual concepts or ideologies and because he feels many of these to be merely unfortunate fads, much of his fantasy carries out a satirical function, occasionally degenerating into invective. At other times it serves to intimate the beauty and desirability of what is ideal or ultimate, often in passages of "heightened" prose which are singularly unsuccessful….
Out of the Silent Planet departs in several respects from Lewis' practice in the more strictly allegorical works. One notices first of all the "popular" form, that of the space voyage, which makes possible once again the twofold reference, through satire and myth, to this world and the other. It is to emphasize the otherworldly reference that Lewis eliminates the dream framework and turns to science fiction. Here we have myth handled as "fact" and the natural metaphors within the myths as cosmic "facts."…
C. S. Lewis speaks often of his adherence to "plain, central Christianity" or "mere Christianity." Within this traditional structure of doctrine, however, he concerns himself chiefly not so much with questions concerning Redemption (Atonement, Salvation, Sanctification) as with the relationship of God as Creator to his creation. This is consistent, of course, with his often stated special interest in the praeparatio evangelica as distinct from evangelium itself. But when we ask what Lewis conceives to be the actual qualities of the relation between Creator and creature, we discover an imbalance. In every confrontation between man and the Eternal Word who mediates the love and power of God's being, between man and the supernatural instruments of God's will, or between man and the natural reflectors of God's self-disclosure, there is an excessive sense of "otherness." Lewis tends, in short, very greatly to emphasize transcendence over immanence, eternity over time, objectivity over subjectivity, and the supernatural over the natural. Even if, as some would maintain, this is a tendency inherent in traditional Christian theism itself, we would have to see in Lewis something of a "skewed" orthodoxy.
Gunnar Urang, "C. S. Lewis: Fantasy and the Metaphysics of Faith," in his Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the Writing of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, United Church Press, 1971, pp. 5-50.
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