Nov 29 2013 10:00am

C.S. Lewis: Moral Fantasist

CS Lewis Artwork by David A. Johnson

Today would have been C.S. Lewis’ 115th birthday. Last week was the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death, and he was honored with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

C.S. Lewis had three different lives professionally. He was an academic, a medievalist who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge and published extensively in his field. (His book Allegory of Love still considered a classic). He was also a Christian Apologist and lay-theologian, with works like Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Screwtape Letters exploring faith and doubt. Finally, the career that made him famous and became his lasting legacy was that of a fantasy and science fiction author. His Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s literature, and have sparked devotion and serious exploration from authors like Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and Lev Grossman.

Lewis was a member of one of the most famous literary societies of the 20th century, The Inklings, whose members would gather to read their works aloud for critique. His close friend, and one of the people who convinced him to convert to Christianity, was JRR Tolkien. He and Tolkien didn’t always like each others’ work, but he did give The Hobbit a favorable review.

His life was full of weird moments and incongruous facts. When he served in the First World War, he and his friend, Edward Courtnay Francis “Paddy” Moore, promised to care for each others’ mothers if one of them died in battle. When Moore was killed, Lewis kept his promise; he and his brother Warnie, Jane Moore, and Moore’s daughter Maureen all lived together in Lewis’ home, called The Kilns, for decades after the war. Mrs. Moore nursed Lewis through his war wounds, and in the late 1940s, when Mrs. Moore had to go into a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until her death.

Years later he married a younger woman, the writer Joy Davidman, and after her death was so consumed by sorrow that he kept a journal to help him order his thoughts. He edited the journal into a book, A Grief Observed, and published it under a pseudonym—he expressed such doubt that he chose not to publish it under his real name. The book was hailed for its honesty, and Lewis then had to endure what must have been a terribly ironic experience: his friends recommended his own book to him as they watched him struggle with Davidman’s death.

Obviously Lewis’ greatest legacy is the Chronicles of Narnia, in which Lewis synthesized his love of Irish lore, Greek mythology, and Christian allegory into a 7-book epic published between 1950 and 1956. Narnia’s kingdoms function similarly to old Celtic society, creatures like fauns and nymphs mix with talking horses and the occasional witch, and spiritual guidance comes from a rampant Lion. In the midst of that are smaller stories about a family’s response to World War II, sibling rivalries, and the moral choices of children. It has been hugely influential since, as has his other large work, the Space Trilogy, which combined mythology and science fiction to examine morality. But his greatest impact can be felt each time a child looks into a wardrobe with a little more wonder than necessary.

We’re still not sold on Turkish Delight, but thank you for Puddleglum and Mr. Tumnus, Mr. Lewis!

1. a1ay
Lewis was a member of one of the most famous literary societies of the 20th century, The Inklings, whose members would gather to read their works aloud for critique. the very excellent pub "The Eagle & Child" on St Giles in Oxford, opposite St John's College. Take a look if you're in town. It's well worth it. Try to get one of the snugs each side of the main door.
2. spacechampion
I always thought the TV show LOST would end up being some sort of melding of the ideas in The Magician's Nephew and That Hideous Strength. The Island I was guessing it would end up being like the Wood Between the Worlds, used by the Lost characters to travel between alternate realities. And DHARMA Initiative = the NICE institute of THS.
3. A.V Willis
The Chronicles may be what he's best remembered for, but some of his other fiction merits looking at. Regardless of its stance on matters of faith, The Screwtape letters is a fun read with valuable insights into human nature. And 'Till We Have Faces is both beautiful and gut wrenching, taking an old myth and breathing new life into it.
4. Shan
@2 That would have been brilliant!
5. Oleo
@3 Can't agree more regarding Till We Have Faces. It is a great work and probably the one that LOTR fans would find the easiest to get into.

Regarding the statement above that Tolkien and Lewis didn't always like each other's work: I think that was more of a one way thing. Tolkien never liked much of anything by anyone, including his friends, but Lewis was extremely enthusiastic about the things that Tolkien wrote. He is also credited (among others) with convincing Tolkien to reduce the amount of "hobbit talk" that was in the rough draft of LOTR and I think we can all thank him for that.
Sky Thibedeau
6. SkylarkThibedeau
Merlin in THS seemed to be a Wizard from 'the True West' much like Gandalf, Saruman, and Radeagast. I always thought him to be a nod to Tolkien.
7. s'rEDIT
More than a nod to Tolkien was the original creation of the Ransom character in OotSP.
8. vjj
"Apologist"? Really, Leah? Don't you think that kind of underhanded use of language is inflammatory?

Using the term "Apologist" carries negative connotations. It implies there's objectively something to apologize for, that, in this case, you're saying Christianity did something wrong.
9. Freelancer
vjj @8

I wish to carefully correct your understanding of Leah's accurate usage of the term "apologist". While the modern and common context of the term brings the suggestion you state, it isn't the classical meaning being given here. An apologist is simply someone who advocates in favor of an idea, belief, or cause through rational argument and logical rhetoric, without the negative implication. Were you to do a search on "Christian apology", you would find this to be true.


Lewis consistently and adamantly rejected any reference tying him and his work to theology. He considered the logical examination of doctrine and human behavior to be quite distinct from declarations of religious tradition and sectarian dogma. And when separating his work into distinct categories, you managed to avoid any recognition that his fantasy fictions were as much about Christianity as his more doctrinal works. Both Aslan and Ransom are quite blatant Christ figures, both stories provide conclusions that eternal pleasure vs pain is based on an individual's acceptance of the substitutionary sacrifice of another, and both are laced with questions of much more than morality.
10. Perene
@8 Apparently she is not suggesting anything. Christian Apologist is a thing.
11. Eugene R.
Are there any fantasists who are not concerned with morality? Do we single out Prof. Lewis because he is just more explicit (and/or obvious) in his moralizing? (I should note that I find all fiction to be essentially moral exercises, as the author assumes a position of judge awarding good or bad fates to her characters for 'their' actions.)
Theresa Wymer
12. Tekalynn
"Apologist" is the correct term. No apology needed.
13. between4walls
For example the Apology of Socrates certainly does not imply Socrates has anything to apologize for.

Till We Have Faces is amazing and anyone who was bugged by the problem of Susan should read it- the story of the jealous, grieving, painfully human sister left behind.
14. between4walls
For example the Apology of Socrates certainly does not imply Socrates has anything to apologize for.

Till We Have Faces is amazing and anyone who was bugged by the problem of Susan should read it- the story of the jealous, grieving, painfully human sister left behind.
15. between4walls
Sorry about the double post!

both stories provide conclusions that eternal pleasure vs pain is based on an individual's acceptance of the substitutionary sacrifice of another I think this is called into question in a memorable part of The Last Battle (and some fundamentalists are still annoyed about that!).
16. JohnnyMac
C. S. Lewis is one the rare authors who may be read with pleasure and profit both as a child and as an adult.

One amusing sign of his stature fifty years after his death is that, as I read in The Weekly Standard a few years ago, two different evangelical colleges here in America both claim to possess the True Wardrobe, that is, the very piece of furniture that Lewis imagined as the gateway to Narnia and made part of the title of his first Chronicle of Narnia.
17. roncoolhad
I am ardent C.S Lewis fan, a brillant man nonetheless. His influence in the present fantasy world cannot be denied. And who can actually forget Mere Christanity. A brillant work of Mr. Lewis.
18. Tim Hodkinson
thats a funny comment about the Wardrobe. It is, in fact, in a Victorian house on the outer ring of east Belfast, believe it or not. An interesting connection with other modern fantasy literature comes with Game of Thrones, though the TV series rather than the books themselves. Apparently Lewis imagined Narnia as the area around the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, particularly near Rostrevor. A lot of the HBO series of Game of Thrones was filmed in that area and its ironic to think that when most people watch scenes set in palces like Vaes Dothrak they are really looking at "Narnia".
19. Freelancer

Well, as a fundamentalist, I am aware that Lewis' works were influenced by decidedly non-fundamentalist concepts. I also know that while he leaned more to one direction than another in his personal beliefs, he wrote in such a way as to avoid the accusation that he was directing people toward one sect of faith over another. While some legalistic folks can grumble about that, I applaud it. Since he wasn't after championing "his" particular take on things, instead giving the reader the intellectual tools to assume their own responsibility for understanding the Gospel, this is completely understandable.

The fact remains that, among authors of the last two hundred years, few if any approach, much less match, Lewis' pure presentation of human nature, and of how we must relate to God to understand how He must relate to us.
Anthony Pero
20. anthonypero
Calling him a Christian Apologist is neither incorrect nor inflammatory, since the field and style he was writing in is called Apologetics.

I read the Screwtape Letters in high school. I loved it to peices. I actually didn't read Narnia until after my own children were born. Which is a shame. There is no way I could love them as well having come to them solely as an adult.
Anthony Pero
21. anthonypero
@15, 19:

If by fundamentalist, we are meaning American Evangelicalism, then CS Lewis is a long way off, and understandably so. Since he wasn't. But there aren't a lot of theological issues with his apologetical work that make him inaccessible to evangelicals. Even for those who actually care about such things.

I.e; while he himself may or may not believe what fundamentalist of today believe when it comes to scripture, he doesn't contradict scripture anywhere, or state anything that a fundamentalist might find in error. Which makes sense, considering how he came to his faith in the first place. Which, as the story goes, was through Tolkien challenging him to read through the whole bible before condemning it as innaccurate and irrelevant. I have no idea whether that story is apocryphal or historical, but it fits his writing, at any rate.
22. Freelancer
By fundamentalist, I mean a believer in the literal accuracy and direct (non-allegorical) meaning of the words of the Bible (KJV, in case anyone asks). And while I do know of some who take a dim view of Lewis' writing simply because he was of the "wrong" church, that sort of stance is far too legalistic, and would lump such a one with the Pharisees. I make no judgement of the convictions and principles of another who calls themself a believer, outside of what is commanded by Scripture. And with that freedom, I can love the amazing intellectual works of Lewis for the treasure that they are.

Yes, AP, where Lewis chose to be specific about belief, he was aligned to Scripture in all points, and he chose to be diplomatically silent about those points which were likely to generate the most disagreement amongst his audience. Some claim that the story of The Great Divorce proved that he believed in purgatory. I completely disagree, but here is not the place to debate such.

As for Lewis' conversion, many fictitious statements abound as to the manner and source. I claim no better knowledge of the subject than one can find on wikipedia, not that I consider that source any more trustworthy. I can say that much can be gleaned about his path to Christianity, if not the specifics, by a careful reading of three of his titles: Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Pilgrim's Regress (the latter being a self-abasing parody of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress). I defy anyone to read those three small volumes and not be forever changed.
Mark Lawrence
23. incurablyGeek
His short story, "The Great Divorce" saved faith for me by providing me a different way to frame the possibilities of the afterlife.

One of my cherished possessions is a small book of quotes edited by C.S. Lewis of George MacDonald's works (fiction and sermons). Lewis was a student of MacDonald and valued his work. MacDonald was fired from his pulpit because people took his sermons and writings to advocate Christian Universalism. No matter where you stand, both Lewis and MacDonald are worthy reads.
24. srEDIT
@ 23: A book of quotes from George MacDonald's works (not the one compiled by Lewis) was my only lifeline during a period of my life that I could not focus on any longer passage, even in the Bible.

All: Doesn't Lewis himself mention Tolkien's involvement in his salvation in the autobiography Surprised by Joy?

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