Tor.com content by

Matt Mikalatos

The End of All Stories: Bidding a Fond Farewell to The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

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.”

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Unforgiveable Sin, Womanhood, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

What exactly Joy Davidman Gresham’s role was in the writing of Till We Have Faces is debated. We know this much for sure: it was in an evening conversation with her that C.S. Lewis felt he had finally cracked the story. That night, after everyone was sleeping, he wrote the first chapter, eager to show it to her the next day.

In the months to come, Davidman also typed up the manuscript for Till We Have Faces. She was Lewis’ “first reader.”

There are some who contend that Davidman co-wrote the book with Lewis, and others who bristle at the thought that “typing up the manuscript” need necessarily mean that she gave any input. What is very clear is that Lewis’ portrayal of women is suddenly more nuanced, rich, interesting and, well… it has the ring of truth to it in a way that some of his other attempts don’t.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Power in the Blood: True Religion and Transformation in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

I’ve been reflecting on Till We Have Faces and all the different things we could discuss. There’s more to say about Greek philosophy and how it’s reflected in the book, and about the Christian symbolism and nature of myth that Lewis smuggled in, or about the constant dualities which become, over and over, unifications. But I’m afraid we’d end up with more words than the book has itself, so I’ve decided to limit myself to two more articles. In two weeks, we’ll explore how Lewis’ views of women shifted and changed over the years, and how this book is, in many ways, a rebuttal to his own previous views.

But first, this week we’re going to talk about an underlying theme of Till We Have Faces: Lewis’ thoughts about how a true religion must function.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Human Sacrifice in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

Orual can’t give Psyche up.

Not willingly. Orual’s not willing to sacrifice her sister to the gods, and that makes Psyche (in her own eyes as well as our own) a hero. Human sacrifice is wrong. It’s evil. Orual, as a Greek-educated philosopher, knows this well. To kill a human being, to give them over to the gods, is not an act of piety but a moral failure. Especially because these sacrifices are performed with singular purpose.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Library of Glome: Literary Allusion in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

Where is Glome, exactly? And when does Till We Have Faces take place?

C.S. Lewis plays coy on both counts. The people (or at least the royalty) of Glome are fair-skinned and somewhere on the edge of the Greek empire, which narrows both the time and place, but Lewis has removed most signposts that would give us clarity on when exactly and where exactly Till We Have Faces takes place. No doubt this is completely on purpose. It’s “a myth retold” and it takes on the mythic timelessness that is common to the genre. The names of kings and rulers don’t lead us to anyone historical, and even the references to familiar stories are (mostly) to mythological stories, not historical events.

So we get plenty of references to the gods of ancient Greece and their stories. We get references to the Trojan War and particularly the beauty of Helen. There are throwaway comments about people like Oedipus, as well as the occasional allusion to historical figures (mostly philosophers) like Plato (Lewis can’t help it, he loves Plato) and Aristotle and Socrates. Still, there are precious few “real world” references to actual history, which is interesting given that this novel works hard to give one the impression of something that may have really happened.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Invisible Palace: Madness and Faith in Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis loved the story of Psyche and Cupid and spent a lot of time thinking about it from the first time he read it, sometime in his late teens. He attempted to write some poetry about it at 19. He began and then abandoned more than one project intending to retell the story. The tale held his interest during the years of his atheism, his movement into some form of deism, and his eventual conversion to Christianity.

In fact, Lewis himself says that in his first, youthful draft of the story, “(Orual) was to be in the right and the gods in the wrong.” The story was always about Psyche’s sister and her objection to the behavior of the gods, which Orual sees as unjust. It’s about a lot more, of course, which we’ll get to.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Gods on Trial: C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

I am so excited to talk about this book together.

It’s the last full work of fiction that Lewis wrote, and the last we’ll be discussing in this series at Tor.com. It’s quintessentially Lewis in so many ways, but unique among his other books. There are critiques to be had, I’m sure, but it’s a book I love, and one I came to late. When I was reading my way through Lewis I left it till last because it seemed very much like it might be the least interesting. But it quickly became one of my favorite of his novels, if not the favorite.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Safest Road to Hell: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

When I was a kid, I was in an unfamiliar church with my Dad, and there was a painting on one of the walls of some sort of giant, glistening slug thing moving through the crowd of tortured souls in Hell. I asked my dad what that horrible thing was meant to be and he told me it was Satan. I was very confused, because I was 100% certain that Satan had goat legs and little horns and a pitchfork. Why a pitchfork? I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it was for poking lost souls in the butt, as I had seen many times in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So much of how a person might think of Satan or demons or devils, or whatever name you might like to use for them, is shaped by our experience of them in our culture. Maybe that’s a musician duking it out with the devil at a crossroads, or cartoon devils standing on people’s shoulders. Or, since the 1940s at least, the urbane demonic bureaucrat who is politely training his under-demons on how to corrupt their assigned “patients.”

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Raising Vegetables and Saving the World in That Hideous Strength

Toward the end of That Hideous Strength, after the villains have all perished and we’ve learned that the gods have done their work, our sensible skeptic MacPhee turns to the supposed heroes of the story and says,

…it could be right good history without mentioning you and me or most of those present. I’d be greatly obliged if anyone would tell me what we have done–always apart from feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables.

They’ve been told that they’re in the middle of some great cosmic battle, the fate of humanity and even biological life in their hands, and that, for a time at least, they’ve won. And MacPhee can’t even tell what they’ve done, other than the everyday chores around them. They danced a bit, sure. They helped a young married couple rediscover each other. But what had they actually done?

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Two Roads to Conversion: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

To understand That Hideous Strength well, it’s useful to read the essays collected in the short non-fiction book The Abolition of Man, where Lewis lays out the exact arguments and conclusions that make up the framework of his novel. It is, essentially, an examination of “value theory” and an argument in favor of the idea that there is such a thing as natural law. Lewis argues that there are things which have value not because of a subjective opinion that they do, but that there is an objective, true value to things. It is, in other words, an argument against moral subjectivism. (Lewis says that the beauty of a waterfall, for instance, can be objectively valuable, and that to try to deny this is ultimately to undermine the human capacity for morality.)

He doesn’t couch this in primarily Christian terms. In fact, the word he chooses to represent natural law is the “Tao” (from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching). He’s arguing for a universal underlying natural law that the “traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew” all come to, even though he admits it requires some “removal of contradictions” and “real development.”

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

When C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie were young, they enjoyed writing about two different worlds—Jack’s was filled with brave adventures and talking animals (it was called “Animal-Land”), and Warnie’s was essentially modern-day India, with a lot of emphasis on trains and politics and battles. They folded these two together and created an imaginary world called “Boxen.”

The medieval adventures of Animal-Land gave way to frogs in suits and King Bunny having goofy semi-political adventures that involved a great deal of standing around and some societal farce. The stories aren’t terrible at all, especially given that they were made by kids. Lewis called much of his early work “prosaic” with “no poetry, even no romance, in it.”

One of the main problems with Boxen, according to Lewis, was that he was trying to write a “grown-up story,” and his impression of grown-ups was they talked endlessly about rather dull things and had meaningless parties and so on. So that’s what his stories were about, too.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Not an Adventure but a Myth: C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra

Ransom realizes soon after his arrival in Perelandra that he is not on an ordinary adventure: “If a naked man and a wise dragon were indeed the sole inhabitants of this floating paradise, then this also was fitting, for at that moment he had a sensation not of following an adventure but of enacting a myth.” The echoes of Eden, of the story of Jesus, are not a mistake in Ransom’s world, not even a coincidence. He’s in a Passion Play—the medieval drama in which the players tell the story of the life and death and resurrection of the Christ.

It’s not an allegory; Lewis bristled at those who suggested this interpretation.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Demon Possession—IN SPACE! Lewis’s Perelandra as Exorcism Narrative

C.S. Lewis believed in a literal Satan. He believed in demons as living, actual beings who interacted with humanity. It was certainly common in his day that an educated person, even an educated Christian, might look at demons as a metaphor for human foibles and temptations, but Lewis had no patience for that point of view.

From Lewis’s Mere Christianity:

I know someone will ask me, “Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?” Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects, my answer is “Yes, I do.” I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better, I would say to that person, “Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.”

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Brazen Smuggler: Biblical Allusions in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra

“Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” C.S. Lewis felt that reviews of Out of the Silent Planet largely seemed to miss the Christian underpinnings of the novel. No doubt emboldened by this, he packed Perelandra as full of Christianity and allusions as he could. In fact, Perelandra has enough Bible verses for a few months of Sunday School, and Lewis seemed to give up on disguising what he was doing at all… He could have only made it more plain by giving us a character list that included things like “Maleldil = Jesus.” But that would have been too far even for Lewis.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Worlds Beyond: How The Chronicles of Narnia Introduced Me to a Lifetime of SFF

I had come to Narnia as a kid after spending an entire year working my way through the Fellowship of the Ring. When I said “more!” to my dad, he took me to the living room and showed me seven books in a box set. I sat down and immediately thought, “Well, these are easier to read” and devoured them over the course of that summer. It had been very much like discovering a magical wardrobe in the guest room. I kept thinking, those were sitting in the living room the whole time! When I finished Narnia, I demanded to know what would be next and set out to find more books about magic or space or talking animals or time travel.

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