I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when I was young but had no special regard for C S Lewis until I saw Shadowlands in 1993. I was in my first year at university. The film intrigued me so off to the university library I went to see if I could find any books by this man.
The Lewis I met then was the Christian apologist. I can’t remember whether I read Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters first, though it hardly matters. Mere Christianity was special for the strong defence of the Christian faith that it put up, while Screwtape‘s value lay in its expert dissection of human nature.
To this day, I don’t think anyone has been able to contradict Screwtape’s letters; Mere Christianity, by contrast, has had its critics. In his most memorable passage, Lewis gives us what he calls the trilemma – Jesus was either mad, bad, or really the Son of God. But, of course, the Apostles may have been mistaken or lied.
After Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters came The Four Loves. I especially like this book as it reminds us what many people in our society seem to have forgotten – that love means more than sexual love. We saw this shallow view three years ago around the time that Cardinal Newman was beatified with the claims that he was homosexual (based on his deep friendship with Hurrell Froude). I don’t want to comment here on the validity or otherwise of homosexual relationships but what I would like to say is that anyone who thinks that love is only, or is primarily, about sex is plain wrong and ignorant to boot. The way in which I love my parents is different to the way I would (if I were married) love my wife which is different to the way I love my best friend which is different to the way I love you as, or rather in, Christ.
Once I had read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, I was hooked and within a very few years I had all of Lewis’ apologetic books. Lewis himself was a member of the Church of England. I started my university days as the same but graduated four years later (I studied i. scotland) as a Catholic. How did this happen? Why did Lewis not keep me in the C of E? I joined the Catholic Church because I believed, and still do, that its teachings were and are true. The reason CSL didn’t stop me is because although I don’t think he had huge love for the Catholic Church – coming at it as an Ulster Protestant – he wrote his Christian apologetics from a non-partisan perspective. I’m sure you can find his Ulster background in his books and essays somewhere but he did his best to write only about the beliefs of all Christians as opposed to those held only by the Catholic/Orthodox Churches or the various Protestant denominations.
Once I had devoured C S Lewis the apologist, I turned to C S Lewis the literary critic. The Allegory of Love – a seminal text on the mediæval idea of Courtly Love – is my favourite of those but I have to admit I was most pleased the day I visited a second hand bookstall on the south bank in London and found – finally! – OHEL – English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (which was part of the Oxford history of English literature, hence the name, which also alludes to the effort it cost Lewis to write). I believe it has been republished since but in the mid/late 90s it was a rarity. In between times I came back to Narnia and then to Out of the Silent Plant and the other science fiction novels and that brilliant and moving Till We Have Faces.
Inevitably, I read biographies of Lewis. One of the first was perhaps one of the worst – A N Wilson’s with its obsession with Lewis’ sex life. Was it really as bad as I remember? I need to look it up gain to be sure. Then there were the books produced by the late Kathryn Lindskoog which made various allegations of underhand behaviour against Lewis’ literary executor Walter Hooper. I have no idea what the consensus is on those now, and to be honest, I’m not sure I care. Even if Hooper did exaggerate his own rôle in Lewis’ later life or act dishonestly in respect of some unpublished works, he also did a lot of good in getting not just Lewis’ works but letters into published form. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt until or unless someone can prove beyond reasonably doubt that he did wrong.
I don’t agree with everything that C S Lewis ever wrote but the only thing to do with him that I really don’t like is the fact that his estate seems to have ended up in the hands of a bunch of private investors – C S Lewis Pte Ltd. I suppose we have to blame Douglas and / or David Gresham for this – I am presuming that the investors took over because they sold their share in Lewis’ works in the 70s to said people. If that’s how it was, though, who could blame them? Lewis was not nearly as popular then as he is now.
Anyway, what I owe C S Lewis is this – not just an intellectual underpinning to the Christian faith but a friendly one, too. Lewis the don could be a formidable figure but also a very kind one, this comes out really strongly, really strongly, in his books. He is a man that you would like to sit down with and talk to. Not about nonsense but about things that matter. Beer and meat conversation.
This is not to say that Lewis was a no nonsense man. He was not above making up bawdy rhymes. And this makes him all the better. There’s no worse chap than a humourless one; Lewis, though, was one of the best. May he rest in peace.