In the evening of November 22nd, 1963, C.S. Lewis sat down at his desk and answered fan mail. The last letter he wrote was to a boy named Philip, and my favorite bit of it is when he writes, “thank you for telling me that you like my books, a thing an author is always pleased to hear. It is a funny thing that all the children who have written to me see at once who Aslan is, and grown ups never do!” I love that Lewis always wrote with such respect and collegiality to children, and I also enjoy the real pleasure Lewis seemed to take in hearing that a kid liked his books.
The next morning, Lewis made his way out of this world and into the next. He was in his longtime home, in his bedroom. Kidney failure. Those close to him said that he had been cheerful, even peaceful about his eventual passing. He had briefly slipped into a coma a few months earlier, and had been almost disappointed to find himself back in this life. “Poor Lazarus!” he had written to his good friend Arthur Greeves. He spent what time remained writing letters, reading books (both new ones he wanted to finish, and old beloved ones). A week before he died he said to his brother, “Warnie, I have done all that I was sent into the world to do, and I am ready to go.”
Lewis died on the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the same day Aldous Huxley died. It was also the day that that first episode of Doctor Who aired. I would have loved to have heard Lewis’ thoughts on that one!
When Lewis’ old friend J.R.R. Tolkien heard the news, he wrote a letter to his daughter, saying, “So far I have felt like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
A few months previous, Lewis had written to a friend in the hospital, “There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” Lewis believed it.
A Life Transformed
If you had to choose one word to describe the major theme of Lewis’ work, I can’t think of a better one than “transformation.” Lewis was deeply interested in, maybe obsessed with, the way that human beings change and grow. Every single one of his novels deals with transformation. Children become adults and then children again. Terrible prigs become heroes. Or possibly dragons. Witches turn into serpents. An unassuming professor becomes the galactic avatar for the Creator. Phantoms in Hell take on reality in the suburbs of Heaven.
Lewis didn’t believe in stagnation in the spiritual life. We’re always either becoming someone better or something worse. Talking animals can become dumb beasts. Humans are always on the verge of becoming something more like animals or more like the gods. We’re always in motion, making decisions every day, every moment, that are pushing us toward one or the other.
Of course he looked at his own life for evidence, where he saw his own character grow and take shape over time, and was acutely aware of the times when he slid backward or made costly mistakes. He seemed to think often about the atheist who became an agnostic and then a deist and eventually a Christian and then an apologist. He was always curious, always pushing to understand more, always trying to grow as a human being, always seeking deeper understanding of his own faith.
There is a long quote from his essay The Weight of Glory that has become, deservedly, one of Lewis’ most quoted writings. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
Lewis looked at humanity—and at himself—and saw creatures who could be something unimaginably beautiful, or inconceivably horrific. He believed to his core that the job of humanity at its best was to help each other move toward splendor, and that the worst instincts of humanity involved pushing each other in the opposite direction. I love that he used his books to shape us toward becoming someone beautiful.
Lewis believed without embarrassment that the main catalyst in spiritual change was always a mystical encounter with God. He may have sometimes called him Jesus, and sometimes Aslan, and sometimes Maleldil the Young, but at the end of the day people changed by interacting directly with the divine on a personal level.
I sometimes see Lewis presented as the stuffy don who sat in his ivory tower pontificating about theology, but I don’t see that man at all. He was a spiritual adventurer who believed you had to get into a space-coffin, dive into a painting, step through a wardrobe, take a seat on a flying bus and move with gusto into spiritual realms. I love that about him, and his example has been meaningful in my own life.
Most Meaningful Moments
I was originally going to make a list of my favorite articles in the Great C.S. Lewis Re-read, but with over sixty articles to choose from it was turning into a Top Ten list, which just felt a little self-aggrandizing by the time I had a list assembled.
But here are a few that were the most meaningful to me over the last couple of years. Given the amount of loss that many of us have experienced since the pandemic started, On Grief, Joy, and Saying Good-bye is an article that continues to resonate for me. It’s amazing how that gallant mouse Reepicheep can be one of my favorite characters both when I was a child and now as an adult, for completely different reasons.
The article I learned the most researching was almost certainly this one about “The Shoddy Lands” and “Ministering Angels,” where the context of the latter story in particular radically altered my understanding of it. I’m so thankful we were able to dig into the complexities of Lewis as a person, not just labeling him as one thing, and also that we could recognize the changes in his beliefs over time.
One of my main objectives in this reread was comparing my experience as an adult reader with my experience as a child. Reading the Space Trilogy as an adult was like reading new books… I just understood more of it. In fact, that’s probably the case for all the non-Narnia books. I also never realized just how much Plato there was in Lewis. But the thing that may have surprised and encouraged me the most was seeing how clearly Lewis talked about spiritual abuse. It warmed my heart to see Lewis teaching children about this, especially given how much abuse targeting children we’ve seen in the recent years. I wish we had more religious children’s authors talking about this today!
And lastly, far and away my favorite, and the article that I got the most feedback on without a doubt, was The Problem(s) of Susan. For me, this post let me put to rest some of my childhood discomfort with The Last Battle and thus Narnia. The little piece of fan fiction I wrote in that article gave me some peace, and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve written in the last couple of years.
Almost three years ago I reached out to Tor.com and pitched a short series going through a few of C.S. Lewis’ science fiction and fantasy works, with the intention of writing an article more-or-less like this one about colonialism in Out of the Silent Planet.
The editors at Tor wisely and generously suggested we start with the better-known Narnia books, and then gave me freedom to wander through the whole of Lewis’ speculative work. It’s been an amazing and wonderful experience for me, and I’m so thankful to them and to you. So please indulge a few brief thanks before I sign off.
Bridget McGovern has been my editor throughout. She has been kind, wise, generous, insightful and patient. I cannot say enough about what a delight she has made this whole project. Bridget, thank you. It has been a highlight of my last couple years to be working on this series with you. If you’ve enjoyed this series, it never would have existed without Bridget!
The Tor moderators and team likewise deserve high praise. I’ve worked with plenty of outlets and I’ve never worked with one that matched Tor.com for the speed and clarity with which the team deals with comments. It definitely helped us build a better community as we worked our way through Lewis’ writings, and I wrote a few articles that, uh, invited challenges. So thank you and I’m sorry to the excellent mods!
And, of course, all of you. It has been such a joy to read your comments, which often provided new insights, new books to read, or better nuance to understand what Lewis was up to. Every time a new article was scheduled I wondered to myself, “What am I going to learn this time?” It was an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Thank you for the generosity you all showed to me and one another as we talked about Lewis together.
Lastly, to Jack Lewis. Thank you for creating magical worlds that shaped me as both a kid and an adult. There are so many of my current theological thoughts that trace back to reading one of your books as a kid. I know for a fact you’d have passionate disagreement with some of the things I’ve written, and I also know that you loved a good fight with your friends. So here’s to you, Jack! Thank you for sharing your words with us.
Let’s Give C.S. Lewis the Last Word
Here we come to the end, or the end of this series at least. I’m of course still on the internet, so feel free to reach out via social media or email, and if you’d like to read more of my work and haven’t read my YA fantasy trilogy, I think you may enjoy it. The first book is The Crescent Stone!
The Great C.S. Lewis Reread has been a gift to me, and while a large part of that was revisiting beloved books from a favorite author, the larger part was certainly the wonderful conversations you all created in the comments, emails, and social media afterward. Thank you!
Until we meet again, here are Lewis’ words from the end of The Last Battle and the final paragraph in the Chronicles of Narnia:
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.
Peace to you, friends!
Further up and further in!