Other literary forms
Although his novels for adults and children continue to be widely read and admired, C. S. Lewis is also well known as a religious essayist and literary scholar-critic. His religious writings of three decades include autobiography (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933; Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, 1955; A Grief Observed, 1961) and essays in varying lengths and forms. Some of his essays include The Personal Heresy (1939; with E. M. W. Tillyard), Rehabilitations (1939), The Problem of Pain (1940), The Abolition of Man (1943), Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947), Mere Christianity (1952), Reflections on the Psalms (1958), and The Four Loves (1960). His works of a religious nature that were published after Lewis’s death include Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964), Letters to an American Lady (1967), God in the Dock (1970), and The Joyful Christian: 127 Readings from C. S. Lewis (1977).
Lewis’s criticism, focused primarily on medieval and Renaissance studies, includes The Allegory of Love (1936), A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942), English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954), Studies in Words (1960), An Experiment in Criticism (1961), and The Discarded Image (1964). Several volumes of criticism appeared posthumously, including Spenser’s Images of Life (1967), Selected Literary Essays (1969), and Present Concerns (1986).
Less widely known are Lewis’s early volumes of poetry, Spirits in Bondage (1919), a collection of lyrics; and Dymer (1926), a narrative. The posthumous The Dark Tower, and Other Stories (1977) includes an unpublished fragment of a novel. This collection and one other, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (1966), contain the only extant fictional pieces not printed during Lewis’s lifetime. The Wade Collection at Wheaton College (Illinois) and the Bodleian Library, Oxford, hold many volumes of Lewis papers, including eleven volumes of Lewis family letters written from 1850 to 1930.
C. S. Lewis’s achievements as a novelist are hard to separate from his role as a Christian apologist and from his impeccable literary scholarship. Many of Lewis’s readers believe that his greatness lies in the unusually wide scope of his work: He wrote so much so well in so many forms. His Mere Christianity, for example, is a superb primer on Christian ideas, and The Four Loves and A Grief Observed are powerful explorations of the endurance of love despite doubt and deep pain. The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s most popular book in the United States, continues to enthrall new readers with its witty yet serious study of the war between good and evil in the modern world. Among his critical writings, The Allegory of Love remains a classic study of medieval literature and society, while The Discarded Image is one of the very best discussions of the contrast between the medieval worldview and the modern mind.
The popularity of Lewis’s novels for adults (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—known as the Space Trilogy—and Till We Have Faces) owes more perhaps to their treatment of themes also developed in his nonfiction than to their literary excellence, although the Space Trilogy is widely read among devotees of fantasy and science fiction who have little acquaintance with Lewis’s other works. The extraordinary appeal of Lewis’s fiction for children, the Narnia books, is undisputed. Each year, these seven novels gain thousands of new readers of all ages and are, for many, the introduction to Lewis that inspires them to delve into his other works. Indeed, had Lewis never published another word, the Narnia books would have ensured his reputation with both critics and the public.
Compare C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as children’s literature that has attracted wide adult readership.
Who were the Inklings, and how did they contribute to Lewis’s literary career?
What explanation can be offered for the popularity of Lewis’s religious works with readers who often share little of his religious enthusiasm?
In what ways do Lewis’s science-fiction novels differ most strikingly from science fiction in general?
Characterize the humor in The Screwtape Letters.
In what ways has Lewis’s command of medieval literature contributed to the success of his fiction?
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. A major study of the lives and works of the “Inklings,” a name first applied by Lewis, perhaps as early as 1933, to a group of literary friends who met regularly together at Oxford University. Capsule biographies of the Inklings, bibliographies of their major works, a section of photographs, extensive notes and an index enhance an illuminating exploration of Lewis’s literary milieu.
Downing, David C. Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. The introduction contains a concise, insightful view of Lewis’s varied career as literary critic, novelist, philosopher, and theologian. The first chapter shows how his early life influenced the writing of his trilogy. Subsequent chapters explore his Christian vision, his use of classicism and medievalism, his portraits of evil, his treatment of the spiritual pilgrimage, and the overall achievement of his trilogy.
Edwards, Bruce L., ed. The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988. Offers fourteen essays by prominent Lewis scholars whose analyses of Lewis’s fictional and critical principles explain how each informed the other.
Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Rev. and expanded ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002. A biography by two men who knew Lewis personally.
Griffin, William. C. S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. Offers a unique diary-like, strictly chronological look at Lewis’s life.
Holbrook, David. The Skeleton in the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis’s Fantasies: A Phenomenological Study. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1991. Of use mainly to advanced students, Holbrook provides a probing reading of Lewis’s fiction for children and for adults. He explores the thesis that the Narnia stories make disturbing reading for children.
Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: Companion and Guide. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. This extremely useful volume contains a 120-page biography, a chronology, summaries of major works, sample reviews, explanations of key ideas, and an exhaustive bibliography of Lewis’s works.
Howard, Thomas. The Achievement of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw, 1980. Concentrates exclusively on Lewis’s Narnia tales and the space trilogy, providing evocative readings of both.
Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
Lindskoog, Kathryn. C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian. 4th ed. Chicago: Cornerstone Press Chicago, 1997. An excellent single volume on the life and career of Lewis. Offers a broad overview and provocative evaluation of each of his works.
Manlove, C. N. C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An explication of Lewis’s major works of fiction, from The Pilgrim’s Regress to Till We Have Faces, including an analysis of each of the Narnia books. Representative of a subgenre of Lewis studies and easily accessible is its consideration of narrative, structure, and theme in Lewis’s stories. Finds Lewis’s use of imagery and analogy a potent means of giving literary vitality to traditional Christian doctrines, though his complexly patterned works raise him above a facile religious apologist.
Myers, Doris T. C. S. Lewis in Context. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. This readable study in criticism sees Lewis less as an isolated figure and more reflective of his times. Includes a useful works cited section.
Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. An intimate biography by a former pupil and lifelong friend of Lewis. Assesses Lewis’s experience of grade-school life as less abnormal than that portrayed in his own autobiography and provides a personal account of the last years of Lewis’s life. Lewis emerges a gifted and sincere nonsectarian Christian.
Smith, Robert Houston. Patches of Godlight: The Pattern of Thought of C. S. Lewis. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. A scholarly but accessible analysis of Lewis’s philosophy of religion, linking what is dubbed his Christian “Objectivism” to the profound influence of Platonism on his views of the nature of humanity and of God. A sympathetic treatment which nevertheless finds Lewis to have been flawed as a philosopher, a rational mystic torn between a romantic vision of the absolute and the boundaries of a reasoned faith.
Wilson, A. N. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Originally published in 1989. An important interpretation of Lewis and his work from a Freudian perspective. Paints Lewis as neither a saint nor a full-time Christian apologist but as a man of real passions and a contradictory nature unbefitting the cult following that developed after his death. The chronological biography traces many of his adult preoccupations to the sometimes traumatic experiences of his early childhood and comes to some controversial conclusions regarding several of Lewis’s relationships. An iconoclastic portrait of the creator of Narnia.