Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1863) is a celebrated literary critic, novelist, essayist, and Christian apologist: the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, the Ransom Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, and numerous essays of apologetics, such as Mere Christianity. An Anglican from Belfast, he spent most of his life in England, teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and later Cambridge. Like many of his generation, he served on the front during the First World War, and the experience reinforced his atheism and pessimism. However, as he relates in Surprised by Joy, between 1929 and 1931, he gradually regained his faith, partly thanks to conversations with J.R.R. Tolkien. From then on, his Christian faith increasingly informs his writings.
In this interview, Father Michael Ward explains his pick of five books by Lewis and will take us through the author’s works.
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What would you add to the opening survey of Lewis’s life? Well, you touched on the main features, omitting only his late marriage. Some people know him because of Shadowlands, the feature film that was made about this episode in his life.
He married an American called Joy Davidman. Indeed, he married her twice, first in a civil ceremony and then a Christian one. They had a short, happy but tragic three-year marriage before cancer killed her in 1960, at the age of just forty-five. It is a beautiful, poignant period in Lewis's life and has been treated beautifully by William Nicholson, the writer of Shadowlands.
"There is so much to be derived from Lewis: sheer literary pleasure, intellectual insight, spiritual depth and formation."
You are a professor of theology and apologetics. What led you to study Lewis and write on him? I have had a lifelong interest in C.S. Lewis. My parents read the Narnia books to me when I was a little boy and, as soon as I could, I got into Lewis's other fiction: The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and so on. I also devoured his Christian apologetics: Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and the rest. When I came here, to Oxford, to do my undergraduate degree in English, I began to study some of Lewis's academic writings. I did a short undergraduate thesis on the depictions of evil in his fiction.
As a result of writing that undergraduate thesis, I was asked to do some lecturing and tutoring on Lewis after I had graduated, and gradually more and more. I began to write on Lewis and lived for three years in his former house, The Kilns, here in Oxford, as a warden on behalf of its owner, the C.S. Lewis Foundation. So, without really planning it, I was developing a career in Lewis scholarship.
When it came time for me to do my PhD, Lewis was the obvious topic since I was well acquainted with not only the primary literature, but a good deal of the secondary literature too. My book Planet Narnia came out of my doctoral research. That has led to a deepening and corroborating of all that has gone before so that I now have a very definite career in Lewis and Inklings-related scholarship. I never planned it, but I am very grateful to have it.
Why should we read Lewis? He is a great and astonishingly varied writer. He mastered any number of different genres, both in fiction and non-fiction. He fictional output is represented most notably by children's literature (the Chronicles of Narnia, which are his best-known works), but also by science fiction (the Ransom Trilogy), moral satire and apologue (Screwtape, The Great Divorce), and one psychological novel (Till We Have Faces).
That is just his fiction. Then we have all his Christian apologetics. This ranges from very popular stuff like Mere Christianity, which originated as broadcasts on BBC Radio, to fairly heavy theologising, in Miracles, and philosophical works, like The Abolition of Man. That is before we get to his academic works—titles such as The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and numerous others—books he wrote as part of his professional career in English literary criticism and history. He was a brilliant essayist and critic.
He was no mean poet either. His poetry is the least known aspect of his output, but he always wanted to be a great poet and published a couple of volumes of poetry early in his career.
But he wasn’t just a man of letters: he was a devout man of faith and understood the moral life and the spiritual life from the perspective of a practising Christian. He was an Anglican, but a very Catholic-friendly Anglican. As you mentioned, his friendship with Tolkien was highly significant for him.
There is so much to be derived from Lewis: sheer literary pleasure, intellectual insight, spiritual depth and formation.
Do Lewis’s writings help you in your ministry? Oh yes. I was baptised as an infant and raised by Anglican parents. Lewis’s intellectual defence of the faith in his apologetic works and his imaginative presentation of the faith in his fiction were hugely important for me, especially in my teens, when, like many teenagers, I was beginning to ask questions about the Christian faith. To my mind, Lewis had very satisfactory and interesting answers. He helped me stay a Christian and grow as a Christian.
And in my ministry, first as an Anglican priest and lately as a Catholic priest, I have drawn upon him hugely. How could I not, having spent so much time immersed in his thought-world? I often find myself, as it were, unwittingly quoting Lewis or channelling his ideas. It becomes a challenge sometimes not to quote him: in sermons for instance, or in small group discussions! Often, I end up just paraphrasing him and passing it off as my own work, which is a bit naughty, but I hope understandable! People can get a bit sick of it if their pastor, their preacher, their priest is always quoting from the same person or source. That can become irritating. So, I try to avoid that.
The first book that you have selected is also Lewis’s best known one, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. With this novel, Lewis kicked off his seven-volume series called The Chronicles of Narnia, where the central figure is Aslan, Christ incarnated as a Lion in a world of humans and anthropomorphic animals. Why does this book top your list? I have put it first, largely because it is the best-known of Lewis's books. Possibly, it is the book he was born to write above all others. Of its conception and its composition, he said that there came a certain age in his life when he felt he must write a fairy tale or burst. If you stopped any person in the street and did a word association game and said, “C.S. Lewis?”, and waited for an answer, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” would come back more than any of his other titles. It must be doing something right to have achieved such fame and popularity. It has become a canonical work within English children's fiction from the second half of the twentieth century, and not just among Christians. It has entered the mainstream. That’s because Lewis tells a very compelling story, a classic fairy-tale, set in this imagined kingdom of Narnia, which is accessed through the back of a wardrobe.
Assessing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe purely from a literary critical point of view, it is very well-told tale. It is beautifully balanced and economical. It has a sort of inevitability about it. I can understand why Lewis said that it burst out of him. It seems to have been gestating in him most of his life. But that is just the literary point of view. From a theological point of view, it’s a brilliant retelling of the Gospel story. Aslan is a Christ-like character. He dies and rises as a sacrificial victim and atonement for a boy called Edmund, who has betrayed his brother and his sisters. You might say that this is an obvious allegorization of the Gospel story, but it works imaginatively. That’s the crucial thing.
Lewis was, above all things, a poet. He didn’t have much success with his verse, but he had poetic gifts of understanding how language and symbol worked. He knew how to put metaphors together and structure a story. Much of this comes from his deep immersion in mythology. He was classically trained. He knew all the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, but also Norse mythology. He was fascinated with different mythologies from around the world and had a special fascination for stories of dying and rising gods. In these pagan myths, he saw a prefiguration of the Gospel story, of the true dying and rising God, Jesus Christ. Because of this mythological background, Lewis was able to shape his story in a very engaging way. A child of six can appreciate The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobebut there is so much going on that adults too can find it refreshing every time they go back to it. One of the particularly successful poetical strategies that he adopts is his use of the imagery of kingship, understood by means of the symbolism of Jupiter. That is what my book Planet Narnia is about.
I suppose you are recommending The Lion as a gateway into The Chronicles of Narnia as a whole. Yes, it is a gateway, and it is certainly the book that people should start with, not The Magician’s Nephew, even though publishers, annoyingly, sometimes list that as number one in the series. But it is not number one. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is number one. So yes, that is another reason for putting it at the top of the list. It is a gateway to the other Chronicles.
To come back to this point about it bursting out of Lewis. Why did it burst out? There are lots of reasons why it was so significant to him. He had a love of the seven heavens, the seven planets of the mediaeval cosmos. He described them as spiritual symbols of permanent value. It’s my belief that each of the Narnia Chronicles is structured so as to embody and express the attributes and qualities of one of the seven heavens. The seven heavens “have permanent value as spiritual symbols,” Lewis said, and are “specially worthwhile in our own generation. Of Saturn we know more than enough, but who does not need to be reminded of Jove?”
He jokingly said in his university lectures that those born under Jupiter are apt to be loud-voiced, red-faced, and jolly. Then he would pause and add, “It is obvious under which planet I was born.” A lot of his friends referred to him as jovial, not always understanding the significance that the term had for him. So, there is a jovial quality to a particular kind of kingship: one that is tranquil, magnanimous, festive, prosperous, but also sacrificial. Lewis valued that poetic symbol and had done so for decades before writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That kingly symbol dominates the structuring of the story. Aslan is the true king. The children become kings and queens themselves as the tale progresses. All sorts of other jovial influences are present in the structuring and the adorning of the adventure. That is the imaginative blueprint behind this great work. Each of the other six Narnia Chronicles follows in its train, taking as its imaginative blueprint the qualities of another of the seven heavens.
This is what you have explained in your book, Planet Narnia. Could you explain how each of the other six novels, maps on to the seven heavens. Prince Caspian, the second book in the septet, is Lewis’s Mars book. It is full of military events and battles, but also woods and forests, another important part of the martial symbolism as it was understood by the Romans.
The Silver Chairis the Moon book. The Silver in the title is a giveaway. It is a story about wetness, wanderings, and even lunacy, some of the qualities of the moon.
The Horse and His Boyis the Mercury story. It is dominated by questions of language, speed, theft, boxing, and twins: all the various attributes assembled under the mercurial heading.
The Magician’s Nephewis the Venus book. Venus is associated with creativity. This is the story in which Narnia is brought to birth.
The Last Battleis the Saturn story. Saturn was associated with the last things: death and judgement. This is the story in which Narnia comes to an end and the new Narnia—a kind of new heavens and new earth is brought into being.
That is a very quick thumbnail sketch of each of the Chronicles and how it connects to its respective planet. Theologically, the important thing is that Aslan, the Christ character, embodies in his own person—you might even say, incarnates—the qualities of the presiding planet. Lewis is using this planetary imagery in a Christian sense. He is exploiting it and turning it to Christian ends. After all, “The heavens are telling the glory of God!” according to Psalm 19, Lewis's favourite psalm. So, Aslan becomes ‘the King of Kings’, under Jupiter. Under Mars, he is the ‘Lord of hosts’, ‘mighty in battle.’ Under the symbolism of the Sun, he is ‘the light of the world.’ Under the symbolism of Mercury, he is ‘the Word of God,’ and so on, seven times over. This planetary imagery is entirely consistent with biblical theology. It is not as if the Chronicles are suddenly smuggling in pagan astrology. It is baptised astrology, as Lewis called it. It is using the heavens, that ‘are telling the glory of God,’ to tell the glory of God in this ingenious literary fashion. That is what I discovered when I was halfway through my PhD. It is a beautiful discovery. It really helps explain the otherwise puzzling oddities that you find, both within each of the Chronicles and across the series as a whole. When you come at the books from this planetary point of view, you can see Lewis's great imaginative skill and subtlety. And yes: that is what Planet Narnia is all about.
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