That was what Ben Johnson wrote of Shakespeare’s first collection of plays in a poem prefacing their publication. While I would never compare Lewis with Shakespeare, there is no reason why lesser writers cannot have some of the quality of work which transcends their age. I think C.S. Lewis has already transcended the matrix of his times in the last century, suggested by his pretty much global reception which continues to grow.
Screwtape, the academic devil, and Aslan, the talking lion and divine creator of Narnia, are just a few of the inventions of Clive Staples Lewis, born two years before the opening of the 20th century, and dying just 50 years ago this month. From ‘Jack’ Lewis’s teeming mind and imagination sprang stories and powerful rhetoric aimed at persuading people of spiritual truths that have dimmed in today’s materialistic climate. Not only have his books steadily taken on a global popularity, but he was reluctantly one of the first major media evangelists — with huge audiences for his wartime BBC radio broadcasts. And the media have not ignored him. There have been two film versions ofShadowlands, the story of his love and marriage to a New York poet and novelist, Joy Davidman Gresham, and movies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and two other Narnia stories, with a new one promised.
If success had been what Lewis was after, he had it all immediately after the Second World War. His BBC broadcast talks during the war, and the publication in particular ofThe Screwtape Letters, had made him perhaps the highest profile Christian communicator of his time in Britain. His fame was soon going to spread to the USA. A reporter from Time magazine had been in Oxford in 1944 researching a feature on him, interviewing, among other of his friends, Charles Williams. That story eventually appeared as a lively cover feature on September 8 1947, taking as its angle The Screwtape Letters, and entitled ‘Don v. Devil’. From that point, Lewis’s popularity in the United States, which was already growing, took off, and has been higher there than in his own country ever since.
The 1947 Time magazine feature described him as ‘the most popular lecturer’ in Oxford University, ‘best-selling author and one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world’. They said he lived ‘a mildly humdrum life’ and quoted him saying ‘I like monotony’. Comparing him to G.K. Chesterton, Time put Lewis’s success down to his ‘special gift for dramatising Christian dogma’, and his ‘talent for putting old-fashioned truths into a modern idiom’ (Time, September 8 1947).
Lewis’s potent spell
What is the secret of the great spell that Lewis has cast around the globe? As well as the spirituality of his The Chronicles of Narnia, attractive in our postmodern age, he elsewhere presents a powerful critique of what he saw as the modern form of magic — the domination of the machine. Bureaucracy can be a form of a mechanical mindset, and Lewis re-envisioned hell in this way in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s popularity might lie in four main factors.
In the first place, he is a great storyteller. The Chronicles of Narnia are powerfully accomplished stories, rooted in the central elements of folk and fairy story. Storytelling for Lewis is universal and stories of myth, legend and popular folk tale contain archetypes or universal elements, like the motifs of the quest and the journey. His relatively unknown but accomplished novel, Till We Have Faces, retells an ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche of classical times to explore deep human themes of love and affection, the twisting of good things by evil, and the ending of self-deception. It has some affinities with William Golding’s unfinished final novel, The Double Tongue, exploring dimensions beyond the material world and hints of an as yet unknown god.
Secondly, Lewis’s stories are often given many dimensions by his extensive creation of other, secondary worlds such as Narnia or the planet Perelandra (Venus). Though C.S. Lewis did not, however, produce anything as detailed and mentally inhabitable as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, he has given us Narnia. In terms of children’s literature, The Chronicles of Narnia have long established themselves as classics of popular culture likeThe Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland or, more recently, the Harry Potter stories.
Underpinning The Chronicles of Narnia is Lewis’s friend Tolkien’s carefully worked out idea of sub-creation — the creation of a secondary world — in which the human maker imagines God’s world after him. Lewis’s richly invented worlds open up possibilities, hopes and dreams.
In the third place, Lewis intended some of his stories at least to sound a warning about the consequences of abandoning what he termed ‘Old Western’ or ‘Old European’ values. Even though using the mode of fantasy, he realistically portrays the processes of evil in ordinary life. Lewis’s fiction appears to belong with several other prophetic 20th-century stories with the ring of parable (including George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). They reshape contemporary fiction to come to terms with the horror of palpable evil revealed, for example, in modern, global warfare and ideological control. In his philosophical book,The Abolition of Man, Lewis gives theoretical expression to themes and motifs running through both his and Tolkien’s fiction.
In the fourth place, as hinted at above, Lewis’s popularity may lie in the fact that he presents an attractive spirituality that appeals to a broad readership seeking new meaning and spiritual fulfillment in a greatly secularised world. He helps to formulate in his readers a sense of disenchantment with our secular culture, or rather a hunger for re-enchantment. His emphasis is positive, not life-denying. People today have an uneasy sense that there are dimensions to life untapped by our materialist culture, and that most of us are missing these dimensions.
Tolkien saw a fundamental quality of good fantasy or fairy story as consolation. This was part of the argument he used to convince Lewis of the truth of Christianity. Here sheer grace enters the story. The story of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, he argued, has all the features of the best stories, as the result of a divine shaping of real, historical, first-century events.
More reasons for his popularity
There is another important reason for Lewis’s enduring popularity: his imaginative power, linked to persuasive reasoning. From his teeming mind and imagination sprang stories and powerful rhetoric aimed at persuading people of the truth of Christian faith. For many years an atheist, Lewis didn’t become a Christian believer until more than half way through his life, which meant that he understood from the inside what a materialist universe looked, tasted and smelt like.
There are even further reasons that might explain Lewis’s wide and enduring appeal, not always known to his popular readership.
He was a major literary scholar, an outstanding apologist or defender of Christian faith, a popular lay theologian, a mainstream science-fiction author, a philosopher, and a poet, though a minor one. His poetic sensibility, however, inspired all his prose, whether discursive or fictional, and is a secret of its attractiveness.
These varied facets of C.S. Lewis constantly interrelate in an organic way, making the whole of his personality and presence in his books larger than the sum of all parts.
This article is adapted from the Edgar B. Hollis lecture given by Colin Duriez at the Carnegie Library, Newnan, Georgia, USA, October 1 2013.
Colin Duriez has newly published C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship (see review in August EN) and The AÐZ of C.S. Lewis (Lion).
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