Some C.S. Lewis Books Worth Looking Into
magisterial bibliography in Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion &
Guide runs 83 pages. Books alone account for 70 entries and, since its
publication date in 2002, there could have been at least five more entries. All
are worth reading. Most are still in print. A few will surely please readers of
all persuasions and educations.
Here are some of my personal favorites.
Two books come to mind. First, a joyful one with the word “joy” in the title, but with no reference to Joy Davidman Gresham. The second book is a sad one; “joy” isn’t in the title but the book is filled with the joy given him by Joy Davidman, the American woman whom Lewis loved, married and lost to cancer.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), the sort of book talented young Englishmen were expected to write in middle age, covers Lewis’s birth in 1898 through his conversions in the late 1920s. The title comes from the first line of a Wordsworth poem. The words describe varying levels and objects of desire that, once gotten, truly deliver joy. In Lewis’s case the ultimate joy was in discovering God, three persons in God, and particularly the Son of God. There were many minor joys along the way. Indeed the key to virtually all of his books may be found in this one.
In A Grief Observed (1961), Lewis knew all there was to know about religion in the books and all about Christianity on the hoof. But none of that had prepared him in for the loss of his wife in 1961. He howled as though she were the first person in the universe to die. In reality, he was just another bloke howling at the unfairness of it all. It’s a path all of us must travel, and he traveled it no better than the rest of us.
Photographs of Jack (as Lewis was called by his friends) and Joy in their married years—he was in his late fifties, she in her late forties—revealed nothing special; they just seemed to be anonymous middle-aged frumps. But in each other’s eyes they saw only the beautiful young woman and the handsome young man of their earlier lifetimes.
It took Lewis five or six weeks to write A Grief Observed, and the work, published under a pseudonym, was a modest success. Surprisingly, several copies of the book appeared in his mailbox, sent by friends and acquaintances to soften the anguish over his recent loss. After his death in 1963, the work was republished under his own name and has continued to ease the grief of all who have picked it up since.
Another source of autobiography is composed of correspondence. Letters edited by Lewis’s brother Warren appeared in 1966 and again in 1988 in a revised and expanded form edited by Walter Hooper.
Hooper is now engaged in bringing out a three-volume edition of Collected Letters. Volume I covers family letters (1905-1931); Volume II, books, broadcasts, and war (1931-1949). Volume II (1950-1963) is in the works.
between there have been small collections. Letters to an American Lady
(1967). The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963
(1979). Letters to Children (1985). The Latin Letters of C. S.
Lewis by Martin Moynihan described Lewis’s correspondence with the Italian
priest Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria, commented on, and quoted from the letters in
English translation (1986); a subsequent volume titled Letters, C. S. Lewis,
Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship included the Latin text of
Lewis’s letters, 35 of them (1988).
Don Giovanni Calabria (1947-1954), founder of an Italian religious order devoted to the care of orphans, was the sort of person who, as something of a hobby, wrote to stars and celebrities just to engage them in conversation, sometimes offering a spiritual point of view, and not infrequently asking in an eloquent sort of way for a donation to the writer’s most worthy and indeed most needy charity.
To Lewis, Don Giovanni was just another priest correspondent, but today we know him as a canonized saint. In his letters, Lewis opened his soul. A jewel of a book!
Mere Christianity, published in 1952, is a collection of five series of radio talks that Lewis gave on late night BBC Radio during World War II. The talks had already been published in three slim volumes: Broadcast Talks in 1942; Christian Behaviour in 1943; Beyond Personality in 1944. When putting the whole collection together, Lewis added some new material to make the many into a cohesive whole.
Since its publication in 1952, and especially since 1960 when it was published in paperback by Macmillan USA, Mere Christianity has become something of a classic; the sort of grubby, counter-cultural work that could cause major damage—that’s to say, it had the ability to turn wayward souls around to face God. If a reader valued his atheism, Lewis would surely say, he’d do well to stay away from Mere Christianity.
The work has its admirers and its detractors, but all should know two things. First, the BBC advised Lewis that the vast English radio audience didn’t know much about their Christianity, and hence he should stick to the basics. Second, Lewis decided to speak about only what was common among the Christian denominations; hence, nothing about the papacy and nothing about Mary the mother of Jesus. To insure his success, he had his radio scripts vetted by an Anglican, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic. Hence, the title Mere Christianity, which means Common Christianity or Christianity Plain and Simple. Rarely has a title so successfully hit the target audience right in the bull’s eye. A million copies sold in a year hasn’t been unusual. And if sales are souls…
Did Lewis believe in the Devil? He had to admit that good angels and bad angels were found in the various Christian creeds, and that agreed “with the plain sense of scripture, the tradition of Christendom, and the beliefs of most men at most times.”
So, when he came to write about the Devil, how did he write about him? He could have described the Devil as Dante and Milton did; that’s to say as a magisterial creature with a good tongue in his head. He could have described the Devil as depicted by Renaissance painters and engravers; Jegher pictured him as an old man with a lively beard and wiry eyebrows; the Flemish Flandes visualized him as a pious monk wearing a hairy habit with goat horns sprouting from his head and webbed toes emanating from his feet. He could have described the Devil the way that the Renaissance counter reformer did; Ignatius Loyola saw him and his minions as lords of evil gathering for battle against the fair Jesus on a plain near Babylon.
Rather, Lewis described the Devil in the manner of medieval drama; that’s to say, a comic figure in a contemporary setting. In fact, under Lewis’s imaginative hands, Screwtape, one of the Devil’s minions, is a sort of fussy professor at a technical college, a downscale establishment up the hill from Oxford proper. He’s tutor to a young graduate named Wormwood, who, for his final collegiate exercise, has been sent to London and assigned to tempt one soul.
In form, Screwtape is an epistolary novel; there are 31 letters, and there’s much merriment in each. That’s especially true in letter 11, in which Screwtape describes four causes of laughter: Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy; all of which turn out to be four fonts of temptation.
Originally published in 1942, Screwtape tells more than one
wants to know about temptation. Most editions today include “Screwtape Proposes
a Toast” (1960).
The hidden jewel in Lewis’s bibliography, and indeed my favorite Lewis book, is Collected Poems (1964, 1994). It includes Spirits in Bondage, Lewis’s first book of poems, published in 1919, but it doesn’t include Lewis’s four narrative poems, written when he was a young man and out of fashion even then. Later in his career Lewis had no trouble placing his poems in such popular and fashionable settings as Punch, The Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. Lewis has never been given the critical regard he so well deserves. Spender and Auden, Pound and Eliot, seem to have won the day, but I put Lewis on at least a par with all of them.
In “A Confession,” he uttered an anti-Eliotic sentiment by suggesting that he’d never seen an evening, any evening, that suggested “a patient etherized upon a table.”
In “Narnian Suite,” a rousing, thumping onomatopoeic poem, there are two parts: “March for Strings, Kettledrums, and Sixty-three Dwarfs” and “March for Drum, Trumpet, and Twenty-one Giants.” This poem alone is worth the price of the book.
“Evolutionary Hymn” is a ripping satire using as a model the hymn "Lead us, heavenly father, lead us." Alternative voices were composed by Jack and Joy (she was a prize-winning American poet), while they lay confined to their beds with illness.
Illuminating fatigue, both physical and spiritual, are “Pilgrim’s Problem” and “Apologist’s Evening Prayer.” A meditative reading of them will reveal what they meant to Lewis.
last quatrain of “Deadly Sins,” Lewis portrays the Godhead as pursuing his
shattered foes. That may seem odd since, according to Lewis, the seven deadly
sins, for all their attractiveness, eventually come apart at the seams.
In “Epitaph 14” Lewis lays dying in a hospital ward. The other patients are playing the wireless at top volume. Lewis asks them to desist. They refuse. The majority rules, and Lewis dies, ending his sonnet abruptly by stating that he’d died “both for, and of, democracy.”
LETTERS TO MALCOLM, CHIEFLY ON
Write about prayer always, Lewis could say to himself, adapting a sentiment of the apostle Paul’s, for one can find passages about prayer in most of Lewis’s books and a great deal of his correspondence.
The best of what he’s written is contained in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, which was published in 1964, the year after his death. That the work has become something of a classic obscures the fact that for at least a decade before he’d attempted to begin just such a work.
“I am trying to write a book about private
prayers for the use of the laity,” he wrote to Don Giovanni Calabria on January
5, 1953, “especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian
faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of
prayer. I tackled the job because I saw no doubt very beautiful books written on
the subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct … those still
babes (so to say) in the Faith.”
The form seemed to be something of a problem, until he thought of his own Screwtape Letters. It became an epistolary work, and the ink flowed almost in a continuous stream during March and April 1963.
most memorable advice had to do with “festoonery.” He’d take a prayer, any
prayer, and festoon a word or phrase of it with prayerful thoughts of his own.
This was contrary to much of the prayer theory before him, which considered such
things as festoons to be just another name for distractions.
“However badly needed a good book on prayer is,” he wrote to Malcolm in Letter XII, “I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” Yet, Letters to Malcolm proved to be precisely the book the world was looking for.
THE WEIGHT OF GLORY
Early Sunday evening, June 8, 1941, at solemn evensong in St. Mary the Virgin’s, Lewis ascended the pulpit—the very pulpit from which began not only Methodism but also the Tractarian movement—and placed his manuscript on the lectern. "The Weight of Glory," it was titled. He began to read, his voice deep, his tone serious, his appearance cheerful.
The reward for Christians was Heaven, he stated, but he quickly pointed out how for a hundred years, "the evil enchantment of worldliness" had led people to believe that man's true home was on earth, that earth could be made into a sort of Heaven, or that if there were a heavenly Heaven, it was a long way off. Philosophies like progress and creative evolution promised happiness, but even if they could deliver it, he countered with a little logic, "each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story could be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever."
This and eight other sermons and addresses—jewels all— may be found in The Weight of Glory, revised and expanded edition (1965).
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
In one of their boozier moments, the young Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien thought that they should write the sort of stories they’d read in their own youths. Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit and such, and Jack went on to write The Chronicles of Narnia. They all became international bestsellers, and so publishing, television, and indeed movie history was made.
Both men have already provided their opinions on the validity of the fairy tale as bearer of literary truth. Truths breathed through silver—that, or something very much like it, was Tolkien’s view. Allegory was Lewis’s insight, and into the seven novels of Narnia he smuggled any number of theological truths.
So deft was he that the work as a whole, relying on a bundle of
archetypes for its own success, became an archetype itself. That explains how
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has successfully invaded the
American public school—millions of copies per year for decades now.
yet such allegory and symbolism as the work contains are clear as crystals to an
Today’s reader should beware that when one comes to read the seven novels, there are two sequences. First, there’s the sequence in which Lewis wrote them and the publishers brought them out. Second, after writing Lion, Lewis wrote prequels and postquels to it.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician’s Nephew
The Last Battle
The Magician’s Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle
A lover of scientifiction (science fiction) since he first learned to read, Lewis wrote three such novels himself. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
"I quite agree that most scientifiction is at the level of cowboy boys' stories. But I think the fundamental moral assumptions in popular fiction are a very important symptom." Lewis was responding to Arthur C. Clarke, who’d written him a cantankerous letter about the character of Weston, the mad scientist in both Out of The Silent Planet and Perelandra.
Weston, as described by Lewis, had been traveling about the country, proselytizing "in obscure works of 'scientifiction,' in little interplanetary societies and rocketry clubs," making converts to the idea that humankind should explore the universe and colonize other planets.
who had his own set of interplanetary longings, was offended not only on his own
behalf but also on behalf of other such scientists.
"I don't, of course, think at the moment many scientists are believing Westons,'" said Lewis concluding his reply of December 7th, "but I do think (hang it all, I live among scientists!) that a point of view not unlike Weston's is on the way."
If you like science fiction, read any one of the three.
For a larger view of Lewis’s life and times, I would refer readers to the major biographies.
C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1974) was written by Roger Lancelyn Green, a former pupil of Lewis’s and a good friend of his in later life. Co-author was the young Walter Hooper. A “fully revised and expanded” edition appeared in 2002. My own C.S. Lewis, A Dramatic Life appeared in 1986; in England, a paperback edition under the title C.S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice appeared in 1987 (the British edition has been reissued; it's not available in American bookstores but may be ordered through amazon.co.uk). George Sayer’s Jack, C. S. Lewis & His Times was published in 1988, and A. N. Wilson’s C. S Lewis, A Biography in 1990.
All but Wilson’s acknowledge the validity of Lewis’s religious experience. All including Wilson’s have much to enrich the reader’s knowledge of the complexities of Lewis’s life and times.
Last but certainly not least is Walter Hooper’s lordly C.S. Lewis, A Companion & Guide (1996). After thumbing through this, one can only conclude that there’s very little left to find out about Clive Staples Lewis’s life and work.
Copyright ©2005 William Griffin.