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Distinctions of a don

by
25 November 2010

But we should not be blind to Lewis's flaws, saysA. O. J. Cockshut

The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis
Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, editors

CUP £18.99
(978-0-521-71114-2)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

 

DOES C. S. Lewis deserve this accolade? Yes, because, although perhaps not a genius, he combined qualities usually found separately - wide learning, masterly exposition, and imaginative power - that throw new light on the familiar and the obscure.

 

There seems to be no shared view; each contributor is allowed his or her own territory. There are no weak efforts, but special praise might be accorded to Joseph P. Cassidy, T. A. Shippey, and Jerry L. Walls.

 

That some aspects are ignored testifies to the variety of Lewis's talents and attainments. We would welcome an essay on the letter-writer, the Socratic Club, the influence of Chesterton, and a fuller account of the influence of Charles Williams and the Inklings. A fuller and more probing study of A Grief Observed would be welcome: it is a crux in his work that is unparalleled in any comparable Christian writer.

 

A casual reader might not realise that Lewis was a natural rebel, a ruthless critic of his father, bitter about his schooldays, and crediting public schools with the power to ruin the country unless they were at once abolished.

 

His hostility to nearly all modern literature is amusingly shown in his comments on T. S. Eliot, whom he treats as a reckless young experimenter. No one unfamiliar with Eliot's work would guess that he was a decade older than Lewis, steeped in Latin and Greek, and especially in Dante, a believer in literary tradition, and a Christian believer when Lewis was still agnostic. I would welcome, too, an analysis of Lewis's enduring popularity in America.

 

This is a distinction he shares with his friend Tolkien. In their fictional writings, however, they were at opposite poles. Tolkien's is a coherent world without religion; Lewis, perhaps injudiciously, mixes magic classical mythology and Christianity in an amalgam that lacks internal logic.

 

It is natural that a volume such as this should be positive; yet it is right that we should remember his weaknesses. He could be wildly over-confident, and he could be unscrupulous in argument. I once heard him give a talk on Parisian existentialism, of which he knew nothing, as Fr Frederick Copleston demonstrated.

 

In 1953, a meeting of the English faculty at Oxford was poised to undertake a long overdue reform: to include the Victorians in the undergraduate syllabus. Lewis, whose real motive may have been to preserve the undergraduate study of Old English, roused incredulous gasps when he said: "The Victorian age is the classic age of English Literature, greater even than the 17th century. That is why we should not allow undergraduates to study it." This counter-attack delayed the inevitable for several years. Lewis already knew that his work in Oxford was ending with his ap­pointment to a Cambridge chair.

 

But he was the best lecturer I ever heard; he helped - and still helps - thousands to a deeper imagina­tive grasp of their religion, and he was admirably contemptuous of the Zeitgeist. What he said in the 1940s retains validity, while rivals, notably Stalinism and logical positivism, have been assigned to the dustheap of history.

 

A. O. J. Cockshut is a Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford.

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