On the writing about C. S. Lewis there is no end – or so it seems. And for good reason: Lewis was one of the greatest apologists and Christian thinkers of last century. He has impacted millions of people already, and will continue to do so for years to come.
My excuse for again writing on Lewis is this: I just finished the latest biography to appear on him. I refer to the quite helpful 400-plus page work by Alister McGrath: C. S. Lewis: A Life (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013). It is a welcome addition to the growing collection of volumes on his life, thought and writings.
Thus I offer here a collection of random thoughts, based on the life and work of Lewis. One angle I wish to take here is the simple if ironic truth that those people who seem to be the busiest also somehow manage to be the most productive. Whether it is literary productivity or some other prodigious output, these incredible souls seem to cram into one life what most of us could not do in a dozen.
One bibliography of his work came to 282 items: books, serious articles, and essays. That is a lot of material. And he had plenty of disadvantages here. As to his preferred writing method, he disliked typewriters and chose instead to write with pen and paper.
He of course had no computers with which to copy and paste, and so on. While he was a bachelor most of his life, he was extremely busy, not only with his teaching duties at Oxford and Cambridge, but with his growing throng of worldwide fans.
He sought to reply to the thousands of letters which came his way, especially from a keen American audience. A collection of his correspondence edited by Walter Hooper runs to 3,500 pages. That is a lot of correspondence. He also looked after Mrs Moore for many years, and later, his alcoholic brother.
He lived to be 65, dying on 22 November 1963, the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley died. In five years I will be that age, and I ask myself, what do I have to show for my time? Sure, I have a few books out, and over 2,500 articles on my website.
But of course most of this is quite incomparable to the sort of great works Lewis produced. And he lived in another time. Some of the things that have helped my productivity he may have eschewed, such as computers and the Internet. But these new technologies also bring their own downsides.
Lewis did not have to worry about wasting time surfing the Net, doing Twitter or Facebook, and so on. Indeed, he never liked newspapers or TV, so he may not have taken kindly to the newer technologies. His few entertainments and diversions were going for walks, meeting with other writers and thinkers (the Inklings) and so on.
Speaking of the Inklings, entire volumes have been penned about this amazing group. One older volume still worth getting is Humphrey Carpenter’s 1978 volume, The Inklings (Allen & Unwin/Ballantine Books, 1981). Imagine sitting around in an English pub sipping warm English beer, with the likes of Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Charles Williams.
These and other writers would discuss their works, and read out parts of what they were writing to the others for edification, criticism, and helpful input. And as McGrath reminds us, the world owes us a debt of gratitude to Lewis for one of the greatest works of recent fiction, The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien had written The Hobbit – also encouraged by Lewis – which was eventually published in 1937 and sold very well. His publishers wanted him to do another “Hobbit-Book” but Tolkien got bogged down in it. Partly because of his busyness with academic activities, he lost interest in the project, but Lewis kept prodding him and hounding him to make it happen.
Thus McGrath is right to call Lewis the “literary midwife” to The Lord of the Rings. One lunchtime meeting of the pair in March 1944 really helped to get Tolkien inspired to complete the task, and in 1954-1955 the three-volume work was finally published, for which multiple millions are most grateful.
His work of course was the result of his love of philology, the old Nordic and Germanic mythologies, and his Catholic faith. (Tolkien was instrumental in helping Lewis abandon his atheism and become a Christian around 1930.)
Lewis also loved older books and literature, and always insisted that we pay much more attention to those than to anything contemporary. His essay “On the Reading of Old Books” attests to this. In it he wrote, “Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.”
And again, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” Of course his wealth of knowledge about older works provided the platform upon which he could write so sagely and incisively on the matters of the day.
I need to learn some lessons here. I read newspapers all the time, and modern works, partly so that I might be well-versed to comment on current affairs and the ideas and activities of the contemporary world. But Lewis seemed much better able to speak into the issues of the day, by submerging himself in what had gone before.
One final thing I wish to speak to here is the sad truth that we might not even have had a giant like C. S. Lewis. He went off to war as a young man, and unlike many of his colleagues, he managed to survive World War I. He was deployed to France in November, 1917, and spent some months there in the trenches.
The way he coped with all the incoming shell fire was to read voraciously and write poetry. He was wounded in battle in April, 1918. While many of his colleagues died on the front line, his wounds allowed him to be returned to hospital in the UK.
Just imagine if a stray bullet had got him, or his shrapnel wound was more serious. The world may never have known of C. S. Lewis. It seems God was providentially sparing him, allowing his many gifts and talents to eventually be used greatly for the Kingdom.
In a similar vein, as I have written elsewhere, many of my young hippy friends never made it out of the cultural wars alive. Some suicided, and some died of drug overdoses. So why was I spared? God only knows, and I hope my remaining days on earth will be used wisely for the kingdom and for God’s glory.
If I last another five years, my legacy will be nothing like that of the masterful C.S. Lewis. But reading his story again reminds me of how we all have a role to play, we all can have godly influence, and we all have a job to do. I hope I will not only be as productive as Lewis was, but that what little work I do here will have some sort of influence and impact.
The world needs many more C. S. Lewises. But the world also needs many more Christians who will do all and everything for Christ and His Kingdom. Will you be one of those?
(For Australians, McGrath’s book is available at Koorong Books.)