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From our archive: C. S. Lewis’s legacy was more than literary

by
24 November 2023

The writer died 60 years ago on Wednesday. Twenty years later, in this piece, Margaret Duggan considered his influence

TWENTY years ago last Tuesday, on 22 November 1963, President John Kennedy was assassinated and the whole world was shaken by the trauma. The charismatic Kennedy had been seen as the herald of a new era, and his apparent great promise was extinguished by a bullet. The news so stunned the world that relatively few people noticed that C. S. Lewis had died on the same day.

Now, 20 years later, the situation is reversed. Scepticism rapidly dissipated the Kennedy glamour. Public attention switched from him to the assassin of his assassin, and then the whole episode faded into history. But the impact of Lewis on the lives of some millions of people continued to grow; and his books, his previously unpublished fragments, his letters, and books about him and his writing became a publishing torrent.

Only recently has it seemed to slacken off in this country; for it would seem that every manuscript and letter that he left has now been edited by his most ardent disciple, Walter Hooper.

Biographies of varying quality have been written, the best so far being that included in Humphrey Carpenter’s composite portrait of Lewis’s group of friends, The Inklings. But in America the spate of books goes on with doctoral theses on Lewis’s work, earnest Evangelical examinations of his biblical integrity, and even — for a time — a C. S. Lewis magazine. Of the mass of Lewisiana which has come from across the Atlantic, The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis by Chad Walsh is the book which has given me most pleasure.

 

LEWIS died in 1963, and that same year Honest to God was published. The two events could have been the end of one era and the beginning of another, for Lewis embodied the religious revival of the 1950s; he might even have been the major cause of it. His religious broadcasts during the war, the publication of Screwtape, and his slim books of Christian apologetics for the plain man had attracted thousands of plain men and women to a Christianity that was, at the same time, sober, logical, and glorious.

Lewis’s theology was conservative and catholic, but he applied to it a clear common sense, heroic self-discipline in his personal life, and the most outstanding creative imagination of his generation. A conservative in more than his theology, he rejected, so far as he could, the modern world around him; and our present age, obsessed by the superficialities of television, by politics and technology, would have been unthinkably alien to him. All his adventure was within the confines of his own mind, which opened out, like the wardrobe in the Narnia books, into worlds beyond worlds and heaven beyond them all.

He lived to read Soundings and Honest to God within a few months of his death, when he was already a very sick man; and he made reference to them in his last posthumously published book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. It is perhaps the most timeless of his books on an overtly religious theme, and well worth reading again and again.

But, while his actual references to the authors of Soundings and Honest to God are characteristically generous, he is scathing about the ineffectualness of liberal Christianity. “Did you ever meet, or hear of, anyone who was converted from scepticism to a ‘liberal’ or ‘de-mythologised’ Christianity?” he asks.

He has a point. Honest to God, and the explosion of popular radical theology which followed it, kept many otherwise disillusioned Christians in the Church, but it has yet to be shown that they did anything to attract non-believers. Lewis, on the other hand, actually made (and his writings have continued to make and strengthen) new Christians ever since he first started explaining in plain and lucid language what the demands of the gospel were.

His Mere Christianity, Screwtape, and Surprised by Joy are still some of the best evangelistic paperbacks to be found on the bookshop shelves, though some of his other books now seem dated. He was always an intensely literary writer with a classical education, and a diminishing number of his present-day readers share that background.


HE ALSO had little in common, even in his own day, with modern technological man. Despite a lifetime of mixing with all disciplines at university high tables, he had something of the ignorant man’s tendency to despise and patronise what he did not understand.

It shows in the cardboard quality (all animated working parts, but lifeless nevertheless) of the villainous scientists in those flawed masterpieces of his space-fiction trilogy. His inventiveness in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra surpassed even that to be found in the more fabulously popular Lord of the Rings by his friend Tolkien. Whereas Tolkien drew on the familiar landscape of the Midlands and peopled it with characters more than half ready-made in myths and legends, Lewis invented whole new worlds.

His description in Out of the Silent Planet fitted what at that time serious observation had suggested about the formation of Mars, yet Lewis turned it into something hauntingly beautiful and totally un-earth-like; and his three orders of creatures who lived in it were both logically evolved from that setting and entirely original.

Here was innocence, the most impossible of all qualities to sustain as full of interest; yet Lewis made it fascinating, lovely, and wholly convincing. It was the human beings, the sketches of his own contemporary colleagues, that did not convince.

The same was true in Perelandra. Who, having read it, can forget the glorious picture of the floating islands under the gold sky and the gentle grace of the Green Lady? Yet, again, this world’s humans fell short of his new creation.

Then, in That Hideous Strength, when the narrative of the trilogy came back to earth, it bumped dismally along the ground, leaden-weighted with Lewis’s caricatures of his scientific colleagues and his absurd male chauvinism, making it as unreadable as the holy novels of his friend Charles Williams. Yet even this bad book has its remarkable moments of imagination, such as when Lewis tries to get inside the furry mind of Mr Bultitude, the bear.

The variety of his writing was staggering; for one must not forget the large and scholarly works of literary criticism, the other experimental novels like Till We Have Faces, and the poems. Are any of them timeless enough to become classics?

That can only be said with confidence of seven of his books, the children’s tales of Narnia, which go on and on as the best-loved stories of succeeding generations of children of all classes and many nationalities who have never known the prim, middle-class background of the child heroes and heroines.

Nor do the young readers realise how much they are being taught about Christianity, for God and Jesus are never mentioned, yet the books are suffused with Lewis’s theology; and Aslan, the Lion, is an alternative incarnation which teaches more about the incarnation than a lifetime of Sunday-school lessons.


PERHAPS Lewis’s single greatest legacy is to be found at the very end of the seventh of the Narnia books, The Last Battle. Like no one else, he was able to write about heaven in a way that fills the reader with longing and a conviction that, yes, the unimaginable splendour must be something like this:

“And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and so beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. 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 for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

This article was originally published in the Church Times Christmas Books Supplement on 25 November 1983.

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