Mere Christianity

Somehow, I’ve never been able to read this book before. I’ve tried a few times but never gotten beyond the first few pages.

Recently I tried again with the help of an audiobook version from the library. It worked, helping me to gain some momentum and push through the spot where I’ve run aground in the past.

I found Mere Christianity to be a timely, clarifying, and inspiring read. It was timely, because I need reminding of the big picture of the Christian faith and what this life is supposed to be working toward. I enjoyed listening with my daughters, too, so we could discuss some of the concepts and the strategies Lewis uses to explain them. The book is a treasure chest for anyone with questions about the Christian faith.

The illustrations Lewis uses to demonstrate theological ideas are unfailingly clear, narrated in accessible language. And no wonder. The original audience (from 1942-44) was the British public, to whom Lewis had been invited to address a series of radio talks on the Christian faith. (Think of it: an era when Christianity would be recognized as a topic worth hearing about by mainstream westerners. Can you imagine it? Neither can I.) Without dumbing it down, Lewis manages to tackle such subjects as the Trinity, moral law, the Incarnation, Redemption, time and eternity, free will, prayer, and the transformative process by which God takes fallen humanity and offers holiness.

With his characteristic wit to keep his listeners engaged, Lewis takes the stance of a friend walking alongside rather than one speaking from on high, systematically and thoroughly peeling away misunderstandings and revealing the shining heart. Here, for instance, is a passage I have heard snippets from but enjoyed hearing in context. It uses banking and war imagery and establishes Lewis’s solidarity with the audience with its reference to “you and I”:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Lewis is not perfect, of course. Gifted thinker though he is, he is also a product of his time. I noticed this in his attitude toward women. For instance,

There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it… The relations of a family to the outer world — what might be called its foreign policy — must depend, in the last resort, on the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders.

This is basically Alexander Pope’s line of reasoning when he says, “Whatever is, is right.” Did the fact that many Christian slaveholders did not feel shame mean that slavery was right? Is a man “ruling over” his wife any better than the reverse, given Jesus’s model of servant leadership? Is either party a subject to be ruled over by the other in Christian marriage? Lewis looks at his neighbors and assumes that at that time, in that place, in that social configuration, what he sees reflects the universal ideal for the sexes.  He paints men and women with an embarrassingly broad brush, stereotyping women as irrational protectors and men as the judicious and reasonable sex. I see no such generalities; men can be irrational protectors, women can be judicious and reasonable. These are individual personality traits, not gender traits. No wonder Dorothy Sayers, a friend of Lewis and fellow author, commented that where women were concerned he had “a complete blank in his mind.”

But this is a tiny morsel of an otherwise highly nourishing book. I would add that more than once I was struck not by Lewis’s insensitivity, but his compassion, for readers of all kinds. Here is an example from a discussion on the difference between “niceness” and God’s ultimate goals for Christian personality:

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much has been given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in a house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself; for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

I think it’s the steady undercurrent of confidence in God’s meaningful and loving work in the Christian, however difficult life may be, that did me the most good. The logic and clarity are wonderful, and the pictures of eternal realities are worth remembering. But sometimes it’s simply the experience of being steeped in an author’s faith that can buoy us up by the time we reach the last page.

God is making us into something — something other, something grander, than we would be in our flesh. This is the point made over and over in Mere Christianity. God’s purpose is not to clear away difficulty, but to forge new creations. I’m left wondering: what is he making me into? Am I cooperating?

Devilishly Clever

The Screwtape Letters. Most of us have read it at one time or another. I reread it this week with my daughters and was struck again by its often disturbing relevance and genius. On the surface, it seems like a good joke: a senior devil’s tutorials as addressed to his younger nephew, an inexperienced tempter. But I can see why Lewis himself spoke of both the ease of its inspiration , and the unpleasantness of its writing. “It almost smothered me before I was done,” he writes in the preface. “It would have smothered my readers had I prolonged it.”

Yes. But he kept it at the right length. And though not all the chapters were relatable for my daughters (some are aimed exclusively at men), Screwtape’s articulateness in describing the many layers of human folly can’t help but raise our awareness of our own inner lives. We read some of the book aloud, and listened to some via audiobook. (If you are interested in a good reader, the reading we listened to was absolutely perfect. Follow the link to hear a sample.)

One way the darkness of the letters made an impression on us was in the diabolical relationship between Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood. “Your affectionate uncle Screwtape,” the writer’s sign-off in every chapter, has a very different meaning for the inhabitants of hell than for those still under the influence of God’s goodness in the world, and the contrast is at times quite chilling. Even the scene in which Screwtape involuntarily turns into a giant centipede in his rage over Wormwood’s failure to prevent his subject’s relationship with a vibrant Christian woman, though comical in its way, is also quite sinister.

In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the concluding section, Lewis offers a discussion of democracy from a demon’s perspective. Screwtape remarks that the fight for Liberty has at the heart “a deep hatred of personal freedom,” pointing to tendencies even in democratic institutions that have been highlighted by authors such as Orwell, Huxley and Vonnegut. The “Toast” was written in 1960 and is eerily on target as a criticism of present-day American society. It focuses on the outcomes of the “I’m as good as you” line of thinking, mainly the forced leveling of human gifts and abilities through political power. Much of this, Screwtape suggests, happens through the educational system. “We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men,” Screwtape assures the audience at the Tempers’ Training College of young devils. “The little vermin will do it for us.” Interestingly, this is done through making all education public, and making it unthinkable for anyone to send their children to private schools. I couldn’t help but think of the great opposition recently to Ms. DeVos, who favors school choice.

From how to exploit household annoyances, to ways to corrupt sexual impulses and romantic ideas, to uses of church in killing one’s genuine faith, to gluttony in its various forms, Screwtape shines a bright light on the strategems of hell in wooing a human soul away from the good. The best road, he points out, is the gradual one — “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” By publishing these missives, he has done his cause some serious harm.

A Life Observed

In A Life Observed, author Devin Brown offers a biography of C.S. Lewis for a new audience: “a generation who may know him only through the Narnia films.” Though I don’t fit into this category, I’ve enjoyed this retracing of Lewis’s spiritual development for several reasons.

First, Lewis is one of my spiritual mentors. His books have influenced my thinking and my faith in far reaching ways — quite possibly more than any other writer. His ways of imagining spiritual truths are often the first to come to mind, perhaps because they have moved me as much at the emotional and spiritual levels as at the intellectual level. I’ve read several biographies of him, and it’s always like returning for a visit with an old friend.

In the case of this one, it was like visiting two old friends. Its author was a colleague of mine during my first year as a full-time English teacher, and during that busy and eventful year when I taught new courses, revised a dissertation, and got married, Dr. Brown was always a source of encouragement and friendship. It was good to hear his voice in these pages.

One distinctive of this particular biography is its limited focus on Lewis’s spiritual development. Drawing primarily from Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy, and supplementing with letters, remembrances, and passages in Lewis’s other books that mirror or further develop some of its ideas, A Life Observed traces Lewis’s journey from unbelief to an astonishingly fruitful Christian life. Brown works to break down and make relatable some of the more abstruse allusions and experiences in Lewis’s book: what Lewis meant by the elusive “Joy” that drew him, ultimately, toward God; some of the esthetic “triggers” of this longing in Lewis; and even the sources for chapter epigraphs. There are still aspects of Lewis’s experience that escape me. But though I don’t react to the “idea of autumn” in Squirrel Nutkin, the “holiness” of Phantastes, or the “idea of Northernness” the way Lewis did, I still liked revisiting these touchstones of his journey. One of the marks of legitimacy in anyone’s spiritual testimony is its personalness — the experiences that move us the most may not be ones that touch others at all. Yet God knows these secret springs within us, and knows how to ripple those waters — a further evidence of his reality, and of the kind of intimate relationship he wants to have with each of us.

I really liked the ways Brown brought scenes from the Narnia stories into his discussion of these movements in Lewis’s deeper life. It gives us a picture of a writer working out his ideas through different forms and over long periods of time. I found myself pleased many times to be reminded of a favorite scene in Narnia as it was set beside one of the themes Lewis was developing in other ways in his own life.

At several points, this biography consciously defers to Lewis’s authority in his interpretation of his own life. It may seem odd that this would be mentioned as noteworthy, but it’s true that biographers often allow their own assumptions and skepticism to override their subject. If this bothers you, you will probably appreciate passages like this one. It appears after noting the contrast between Lewis’s comments that he learned the doctrines of Christianity in his time at Wynyard, and Michael White’s assertion that the sermons there were “largely meaningless”:

There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer’s own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis’s life in ways that Lewis himself could not.

This is not that kind of biography.

If you’re looking for exhaustive detail about Lewis’s life, or speculation about some of the more mysterious areas and relationships, this book doesn’t go into those things (though you’ll glean some other titles Brown recommends). But if you seek an introduction to the man behind Narnia, or a return to some familiar facts from a refreshing perspective,  A Life Observed offers a satisfying discussion of the process of personal transformation that gave Lewis such a compassionate and meaningful understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is a link to other posts about Lewis on this blog, including reviews of several other biographies.

That Hideous Strength: Once more into the breach

thathideousstrengthThis was at least my third reading of C.S. Lewis’s culminating space trilogy novel. I reviewed one reread a few years ago here. What makes this reading unique is that it occurs on the heels of rereading the two preceding novels. I was hoping this would enable me to see more in the book than in previous readings.

And, I suppose, I did see more, as one always does in rereading. Lewis himself was a rereader, as he explains in “On Stories“:

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and that settles the matter?… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties.

So what are the “real beauties” of That Hideous Strength? The tale depicts a showdown between Good (in the form of interplanetary intelligences/eldils/angels, who enforce the will of Maleldil/God through their cooperative relationship with Elwin Ransom — a parallel to Christ), and Evil (in the form of dark eldils, or “macrobes,” who gain access to the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments [N.I.C.E.], a society of English pseudo-scientists and social engineers with megalomaniac aims). It’s not really a book I think of in terms of “beauty.” It remains a puzzling book in some ways, one that doesn’t seem to hang together very well — especially as a concluding book in a series.

Here are just a few of the questions it raises. If you’ve read the book, feel free to weigh in on any of these:

  • What is the purpose of Ransom’s little band? They never really do anything but grow vegetables and manage their menagerie.
  • Who is Miss Ironwood, and what is her history with Ransom? Where does MacPhee come from, and what purpose does he serve other than to annoy? All the characters in Ransom’s band are new in this story. Conversely, where is the narrator of Perelandra, Ransom’s dear friend who supervised his interplanetary departure and return in the last book?
  • For all the noise and sprawl of the N.I.C.E., it does not manage to accomplish much, and it seems implausible as an international entity. How does it manage to deceive so many people?
  • Why are the women in the novel so poorly imagined? (This review is an interesting take on the novel, one which takes up this subject more fully. “All of the women who appear in the book are portrayed as petulant children, dutiful wives, matronly mothers, or awful harridans,” explains the writer. “Apparently, there are no other choices for women.”)
  • Is it really science, or scientism, that Lewis is targeting in the N.I.C.E., as some have suggested? Or is it simply original sin, using science as a vehicle and idol?
  • Why Arthurian legend?
  • Why is Heaven located on Venus?
  • The ending seems anticlimactic on a number of levels. We never see Jane and Mark together. We never say goodbye to Ransom. The damage is stopped, but Edgestow is in shambles. We never see what happens to Merlin. It’s as if Lewis simply got tired of writing and stopped.

On the other hand, I did notice some things that reflect craftsmanship and care. One is that there is a perfect contrast between some elements. For instance, we have two resurrections. On the dark side, we have a scientific resurrection in the form of the criminal Alcasan’s head, kept artificially “alive” to direct the activities of the Institute; on the good side, we have Merlin’s  resurrection. Both are hailed as supernatural, but only Merlin’s really is; “the Head” of the N.I.C.E. is sort of a mixture of institutional politics stunt, satire on scientism, and conduit for demonic forces who mean ill to humanity. Merlin, however, revives a folklore from the medieval era of a more animate natural world, taken in the world of the story to be historical fact. Like the Narnia of Dawn Treader in which trees no longer talk and mythic creatures have withdrawn into deep hiding from the Telmarines, the England of That Hideous Strength is silent, but it has not always been so. Merlin embodies the Arthurian age, when, as Ransom explains, the little versions of the planetary intelligences roamed the earth, and bushes and grasses and beasts had commerce with men. His is an unsettlingly real resurrection, directed by powers beyond the earth, unlike the N.I.C.E.’s humanly directed, grotesque notion of “eternal life.” Alcasan’s head is a dark parody of self-worship and progressive scientific thought carried to an extreme. On its altar-like pedestal, the Head is also an idol, made in man’s image, but co-opted by dark forces.

Another juxtaposition I noticed is the attitude toward organic matter in general, and the body in particular. The N.I.C.E. wants, ostensibly, to eliminate body, diversity, sex, matter in general. In one memorable scene, the scientist Filostrato throws open the curtain and waxes poetic about the beauty of the lifeless, cold moon. Body has produced mind, his reasoning goes, and thus body has done its work. On to a master race of pure mind. But Ransom, on the other hand, affirms all that the N.I.C.E. denies. He encourages Jane Studdock, the tale’s visionary female protagonist, to give herself without reserve to her estranged husband; he keeps a bear and a crow in his house; his farmette is a veritable Eden.

The aspect of the book that I always appreciate, no matter my frustrations with it, is Lewis’s prescience about the modern mind. Said to be the fictionalized model of Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength explores the reaches of human pride and ambition, and the convenience of materialism as a vehicle. That science remains a frontline in our ethical dilemmas is obvious: for example, in this story about making changes in human DNA; in the debate over climate change; in the teaching of evolution and its inherent assumptions about humanity; in the increasing development of technology. Anyone who reads That Hideous Strength will find a disquieting forerunner to our present-day debates. If the perspective set forth in the N.I.C.E. represents a caricature of the scientific mind and its joining of forces with political power, what is the alternative? Lewis’s attempt to make Ransom the spokesperson for a Christian perspective on Nature is not nearly as well developed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I keep returning to this book: it raises questions and issues that are as relevant now as they were in 1945. Though it has its frustrations, the experience in these pages includes rewards enough that it will probably invite me back.

 

 

Perelandra

Perelandra
The cover of my copy — though the illustration bewilders me.

It has been a good many years since I read C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra. Recently I reread the first book of this author’s space trilogy, so it seemed natural to attempt a reread of both remaining works as well. Perelandra is Book 2 of the trilogy, and it is the book responsible for reminding me, as a college student, that I loved reading — a reality I had forgotten, somehow.

My rereading got off to a slow start, but once the central action kicked in, I couldn’t put the book down. In this novel the hero of Out of the Silent Planet, Professor Elwin Ransom of Cambridge, is summoned to Perelandra (Venus). The reason becomes clear after he has been there only a short time: the devil, inhabiting the body of the physicist Weston (another figure from the first story), is about to attempt the ruination of Perelandra through a reprisal of his strategy in our world — the temptation of the queen.

Ransom’s journey, and his initial days there, proceed through lots of narrative and description as we get his observations and thoughts about the Perelandrian Paradise, its lush vegetation, its watery surface, its exotic animals and birds, and its glorious (and entirely innocent) green Lady, the only human he meets. She is, when he meets her by swimming from one floating island to another, searching for “the King,” and thus like her biblical counterpart she is alone — a prime target for temptation. But unlike Eve, this Lady is given an advocate and helper in Ransom, who is already in place when evil arrives. In this sense it seems like Lewis approaches the temptation as a wisdom story, in which innocence is essentially naive and, in itself, cannot be expected to withstand an assault by the most cunning of deceivers.

The most captivating part of the story is the section of dialogues between the Lady, Weston (called the Un-man, because he is really not Weston anymore but simply a housing for the evil one), and Ransom. On Perelandra, the one command is not to live on (or spend a night on) the “fixed island,” a territory of stationary ground in a world otherwise filled with floating islands on a warm, delicious sea. The Un-man works for a series of days or weeks with great patience to persuade the Lady to desire the fixed island, to cultivate personal ambition, and to imagine a grand role for herself. On the fixed island, he points out, people do not suddenly become separated, as she has become separated from the King. You can plan on things. You can think about a future for yourself. You can imagine stories and poetry, rather than simply and unthinkingly taking life as it comes in the abundance of Paradise, knowing that all needs are already supplied. He works hard to convince her that “Maleldil” (God) wants her to break the command, and that it will amount to growing up and becoming more beautiful and noble.

Interestingly, Ransom’s attempts to counter the Un-man’s arguments do not succeed. This is one of many important points I thought about as I read. Some battles, it seems, cannot be won through argument. Sooner or later, faced with a superior foe (in this case, superior in the power to deceive and the patience to keep on endlessly arguing), even the truth does not prevail.

The solution, Ransom finally realizes, is not to win the argument, but to destroy the tempter. From there to the end the story undergoes several twists and turns, ending in a philosophical reverie on time and eternity and redemption and the vast, interwoven nature of God’s purposes. Suffice it to say that things turn out better on Perelandra than they did on Thulcandra (Earth — the Silent Planet), though not without the same principles of sacrifice and substitution, enacted in a different way.

I found much to muse on. Several nights while reading this story, I fell asleep trying to imagine an unfallen world in which all needs are met, and the voice of God can be heard over the distracting noise of the self. Maleldil speaks regularly into the Lady and the King (whom we meet, eventually), though we never see him. He speaks to Ransom too, though it takes this earthly man some time and effort to quiet his thought and resistance so that he can hear. “Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement,” Lewis writes. “There is a chattering part of the mind that continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest places.”

Sin in the story is equated with an unsubmitted imagination — speculative thought — the turning away from what is to what might be. This seems like a startling avenue of evil for a novelist, and it was another thing I found myself — find myself — mulling. It is true that often sin enters through the window of imagination, even of the most idle kind. Something as tame as “This rug needs to be replaced” can become a turning away from the provided and satisfying good to the thing not possessed. Surely this can happen on many levels.

Finally, I was struck by how complete Lewis’s vision is in this story, for the clarity and richness of his Paradise are thrown into sharper focus by the sad picture we get of Weston’s tragic disintegration. The Un-man begins as Weston welcoming the Tempter for his own purposes, but it ends as a hostile spirit that has hijacked his body, the last physical artifact of what was once Weston the great (if misguided) physicist. “There was, no doubt, a confusion of persons in damnation,” Ransom reflects, “What Pantheists falsely hoped of Heaven bad men really received in Hell. They were melted down into their Master, as a lead soldier slips down and loses its shape in the ladle held over the gas ring.” Perelandra is at once a story about a victorious Paradise and a compassionate vision of the fallen.

As I was finishing to book, my family watched the original Star Wars movie — Episode IV, with the original Luke, Leia, and Han. Much though I enjoyed it with its futuristic gadgets, swashbuckling heroes, and vision of a space filled with peopled galaxies, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more I liked Lewis’s vision of “Deep Heaven” — the dazzling, eternal territory of angels. I found Perelandra to be a rich, sobering, strangely inspiring tale that I hope will continue steeping in my thought life for a long time.

The Fellowship

511ximwLEgLWhat then, were the Inklings? Was John Wain right to call them (as we reported on the first page of this study) ‘a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life’? Were they, rather, just a circle of friends, sharing talk, drink, jokes, and writings? Something in between or something other? The question vexed the Inklings themselves, their supporters, and their detractors during the group’s existence and after its demise.

Philip and Carol Zaleski ask this question at the start of the final chapter of their thoroughgoing study of four of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. While much of the material about Lewis and Tolkien was already familiar to me, I gained an introduction to Charles Williams (of whom I’ve read a little) and Owen Barfield (of whom I knew nothing at all), and in these pages we also meet several others who belonged to the Inklings’ circle.

My answer to the Zaleskis’ question would be that the Inklings were a circle of literary friends, firing on all cylinders and modeling Christian friendship at its best — thus inspiring one another and spurring one another on in their creative purposes and talents. What I value most about this balanced and well-researched book (“a tome,” the librarian commented when I checked it out of the library) is its depiction of friendships that rise and fall, grow and recede, and mature among the rhythms of life for this group of scholars. The mental picture that might spring to mind when one hears “the Inklings” is of a group of well-educated, brilliant artists having intense literary discussions in a British pub. But there was much more to their lives: families, illnesses, misunderstandings and conflicts and reconciliations, wars, long walks, and many changing seasons in their relations one to another. Ultimately in this book we get a developed portrait of mature friendship — not without its difficulties, but immensely rewarding and life-changing.

Lewis emerges as the central figure of the group, not only for his vast literary output but for his gift of friendship. He was an extremely social person, quick to value people of all kinds and draw them into a constellation organized around his gravitational force. Tolkien, a less genial and more exacting personality, would surely never have finished his “legendarium” (which he worked on steadily for many decades) without Lewis’s encouragement. (When asked near the end of his life about their relationship, Lewis explained, “I don’t think Tolkien influenced me, and I am certain I didn’t influence him. That is, didn’t influence what he wrote. My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him v. much to write at all with that gravity and at that length. In other words I acted as a midwife not as a father.”) Owen Barfield, noted for his writings on Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophism, seems to have found his debates with Lewis in the days before Lewis converted to Christianity as the spring from which the major currents of his intellectual life flowed. Charles Williams joined the Inklings at Lewis’s invitation, and though he died young and left a legacy of anything but unanimous acclaim, Lewis never ceased to honor him and look for ways to bring his work before a wider audience. The Inklings met regularly on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub, and on Thursday nights in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen, and Lewis and his brother Warren were its most faithful members — the only two attendants at the last Thursday night meeting. The impression of Lewis as someone whose enormous influence grows as much from his deeply social orientation and love for people as from his intellectual energy is one of my strongest impressions from The Fellowship.

I found new details of Tolkien’s life and writing here, and though it was absorbing reading it didn’t change my impression of him as a brilliant, somewhat prickly perfectionist. A devoted Roman Catholic, his role in C.S. Lewis’s conversion is central, but after that it seems the two were more at odds than not in their Christianity; Tolkien strongly disapproved of Lewis’s theological writings, which arguably brought him before his widest audience, and Lewis was critical of Roman Catholicism. Tolkien also disliked Lewis’s use of figures from classical mythology in the Narnia books. His feelings toward Lewis seem a complex mixture of deep loyalty and love (he described Lewis’s death as an “axe-blow near the roots”), and irritation (in a letter to his son he referred to Lewis’s “ponderous silliness”). Their friendship ebbed and flowed over the years, but it lasted; one of the central accomplishments of The Fellowship is its depiction of relationships growing, accommodating and maturing. I could relate to many of Tolkien’s attitudes and his strong responses — for instance, to the onslaught of the machine and to some aspects of modernity. His core world seems to have been made up of Catholicism, family, and his legendarium.

I’ve read a few novels by Charles Williams, and they were “stretching experiences”: The Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell. They stretched my imagination and introduced totally new ways of seeing my faith. This seems to have been his effect on others and his main gift. The literary value of his contributions is debatable, but as a personality he was an unforgettable force to those who knew him. I found him hard to get my mind around as I read The Fellowship; he seemed to me fundamentally odd with his simultaneous passions for Christianity, the occult, magic, and idealized romantic love. But his influence on others in the literary world of his day is undisputed.

About Barfield, I knew nothing at all until The Fellowship. In some ways I find him the most inspiring figure, for after an early start as an academic, he took a job in a law office and plugged away at it for 30 years supporting his family and feeling its stifling effects. Late in life, he dove back into writing and produced among other things an important book about Coleridge. In the last few decades of his life he became a well-known literary figure in America for his views on language, anthroposophism, and the evolution of consciousness. His conversations as a young man with the pre-Christian C.S. Lewis were important in his refinement of his own ideas, and he was deeply hurt by Lewis’s refusal to continue their debates (dubbed “The Great War”) after he became a Christian. He comes across as strangely preoccupied with Lewis all his life, almost what a later generation would call codependent. But he certainly came into his own.

Having written so much already, I have to concede that there is no way to fully represent all the ground covered in The Fellowship. There are themes here I haven’t even mentioned: the literary influence of the Inklings in contrast to the Bloomsbury Circle, the hostility toward Lewis for his Christian views, the effects of war on the Inklings. We may  think of these men as protected gentlemen in flannel and tweed, yet several of them served in battle and then returned to academic life. This typifies what I enjoyed most about The Fellowship: the Zaleskis give us a sense of these literary figures as minds and as men in the fuller contexts of their world over a lifetime. Part biography and part critical study, this would be an ambitious project to undertake for a single figure, but Philip and Carol Zaleski have undertaken it for four whose lives and influences are interwoven. This is why The Fellowship leaves me thinking about friendship, history, the nature of genius and influence, creativity, and love. This is a book well worth reading and savoring.

 

C.S. Lewis and Bottoming Out

It seems to us that he went from being a formidable atheist to a formidable Christian right away, but he didn’t. There really are about ten years that we really don’t know very much about. When Lewis was in one way God, I think, was preparing him. These are the thirties when he was just venturing gradually into Christianity. He wrote a few poems, but during that time Lewis realized that he would never be a great poet; all the plans that he’d made for himself were coming to nothing. He might not ever do anything really worthwhile. And I think he reached the Valley of Humiliation that Bunyan wrote about where you have to just give up everything and realize you don’t really have anything to present before God. You know, you may be a tutor in an Oxford college — but so what? You’re just a teacher, still. You haven’t really done anything. And I think he was brought down to the absolute bottom, so you could say, “God is my all,” and mean it — and not think, “God is my all, but I’ll also have my books to my credit and when I leave the college everybody will know who I am.” No, it wasn’t that way. He had nothing except God. (Walter Hooper, Day of Discovery, “The Life of C.S. Lewis” Part 2)

It’s encouraging, isn’t it, that a Christian who has had such an incredible impact on so many of us may have felt this familiar sense of personal crisis. This was roughly halfway through his life. He was converting to faith in God and had written only a couple of books of poetry. All of his future books were yet to be written: books providing us with imaginative terms for comprehending God’s character and work; books providing deep encouragement and honest struggle in pain and grief; books wrestling with the intellectual difficulties of faith; books that simply bring joy, the window into Heaven that illuminated his own path.

But before all that came this — something very close to despair. It’s a state of mind I can relate to, this feeling that time is passing, and you’re not amounting to anything. He couldn’t have imagined what God would do with his life once it was entirely surrendered. Neither can any of us.

Rereading Narnia

the-magicians-nephewWe’ve been listening once again to Kenneth Branagh’s impeccable reading of Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew. I have always loved this book; it was the first of the Narnia series that I read as a child, and I know it well. Still, hearing this reading brings out elements of the story that I never registered reading it myself — the humor in particular. Some of these scenes are hilarious! You can tell that Branagh is having a ball when he reads Uncle Andrew’s parts, or the scenes featuring Jadis loose in London. I remember being deeply touched when I read the story as a child, but I don’t remember laughing out loud, as I do now, at the comedy.

In any case, it’s a favorite around here, and conversations have been springing up between my daughters. How did old Mrs. LeFay get hold of Atlantean dust, anyway? Why doesn’t Digory get in trouble late in life when he digs up the rings (in The Last Battle), even though Aslan told him never to use them? Is the Wood Between the Worlds related to the mountains of Aslan, and would the witch have died if they’d left her there? Why doesn’t Aslan warn them that she may try to tempt them? (A question I pick up now and then about the Garden of Eden, too.)

It strikes me that I’m witnessing a literary expertise forming, at least of sorts. Lewis himself favored rereadings, and I think he’d be pleased to know how many of us return again and again to his own works — even though he very well might have no answers on the finer points of plotting. But is there any value in getting to know an imaginative world this well? I wonder what others would say about this.

I’d say yes. (Surprised?) The willingness to revisit a book, the ability to stay alert and keep noticing things even after we’ve “been there before,” the effort to connect and harmonize the parts into a whole — all of these seem like useful life skills that can be generalized from reading into other aspects of life. To be able to enjoy and appreciate what’s already familiar is to maintain a level of independence from the need for novelty.

A Love Observed

991883Now 14 years old, this book doesn’t represent cutting edge scholarship on the marriage between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. I saw it on the shelf at the library, and as a perpetual student of Lewis I was immediately interested.

A Love Observed: Joy Davidman’s Life & Marriage to C.S. Lewis was apparently written to fill in gaps, and correct misimpressions, in the movie Shadowlands. As a former director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, author Lyle Dorsett brings considerable knowledge to bear on his topic.

It makes for interesting reading. I finished the book quickly, gaining a much fuller perspective on Joy Davidman’s life. She appears in other biographies I’ve read of Lewis, yet now that I’ve read this book I realize that she has always been presented as a peripheral figure, and a somewhat stereotyped one at that. Yes, her New York style and assertive manner were part of who she was. But she was many other things as well over the course of her life, and there is much here about the forces and experiences that shaped her from her childhood health issues and parental relationships, through her brilliant scholarly achievements, to her literary development and troubled marriage, her period of committed communism, her conversion, and her eventual relationship with C.S. Lewis.

If I take anything away from a consideration of Joy Davidman’s life, it’s her unapologetic individualism. She was who she was, difficult for some people to deal with, sometimes explosive, but always faithful to her sense of what was true and good. She did not lapse into habit, or into prescribed roles, and she certainly endured her share of hardship and pain.

While there is a sense of great fulfillment for both her and Lewis in their marriage, there is also a curious mutedness to her life’s impact beyond her significance to him. She was an author in her own right, a fiercely intelligent thinker, a force to be reckoned with. Yet if not for her marriage to Lewis, few would know of her. I puzzle over this, and remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers with its argument that more than mere talent is required for success; one must have certain other personal qualities and interpersonal connections before raw giftedness can achieve its full outcome.

Like any Christian life story, this leaves me with a vivid impression of God’s endless creativity in loving his children and revealing himself to those who truly seek him.

Narnia Cover Art

Along with the many reflections on JFK today are a number of tributes to C.S. Lewis to commemorate the anniversary of his death. I liked this photo essay presenting the different book covers The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has had over the years.

Which is your favorite? Mine is this one, illustrated by Christian Birmingham for a picture book version in 2000:

cb

Such beautiful, glowing faces! I have a sentimental attachment to Pauline Baynes’ illustrations, but for me they have never seemed to come to life or represent my way of picturing the stories. It was fun to scroll through the different covers and see some alternatives.

I have sort of an ongoing tribute to Lewis, mainly demonstrated by my continued reading and rereading of his books. Taking the measure of this author’s influence in my life and thought would be a tall order; I doubt that I could do it.

Edited to add: Sherry at Semicolon is looking for C.S. Lewis posts at the Saturday Review of Books today. My blog has only existed since late 2007, but C.S. Lewis posts are many — here are links to some of them by title:

Reviews of Lewis Books:

Books about Lewis:

Posts with reflections on Lewis’s thoughts on something: