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Thanks for the life of CS Lewis, who died on 22nd November 1963


Lewis - if true

Today is fifty years since CS Lewis died.

Like Mother Theresa slipping quietly away under cover of Lady Di’s death, so Lewis was little noticed on the day of JFK’s assassination. I was 13 months old at the time, and I am privately grateful to have trodden the earth while he was on it, even if my first shaky step was about the time of Lewis’s last shaky step.

Lewis smoking

There is a class of people to whom I owe a special debt of thanks, and those are the Christian writers who have been pillars of confidence to a teenager and young adult trying to grasp the Grand Unified Theory of existence. Lewis is the main pillar, and I had read most of his books by age fifteen. Others, at different stages of life, include Malcolm Muggeridge, Peter Marshall, GK Chesterton, Tolstoy, Mother Theresa, and most recently Joseph Ratzinger.

Reading Lewis is an education in itself – in theology (and he is arguably the most influential of the twentieth century), literature (and his like may never be seen again at Oxbridge in the field of mediaeval and renaissance English literature), logic (fruits of his extraordinary instruction at the hands of ‘The Great Knock’), and above all in the discipline of clear thinking and writing. I don’t know if there is a better way to ‘tune the ear’ of a young person than to read the perfectly pitched writing of someone like Lewis: never a word that could have been more apt; never a smudgy moment in even the most complex sentences; always the sense that he is writing out of a burning desire to say something worth saying. I recall his summary advice to any writer: “Have something to say; then say it”.

More profoundly, in the same way as Lewis said his reading of George Macdonald’s ‘Phantastes’ was an unwitting ‘baptism of the imagination’, so the childhood experience of reading Narnia is an unmatched enrichment of Christian imagination. The Stone Table murder; deeper magic from before the dawn of time; the breath of life for the statues in the White Witch’s castle; those drops of blood into the stream to bring Caspian back to life; the reproach to Lucy that she should have followed him even if the others could not see him; the faithfulness of the lugubrious Marshwiggle (and the bracing smell of his burning foot) vowing his loyalty to Aslan “even if what you (the Green Witch) say is true, and there isn’t an Aslan … because if so the made-up things seem a great deal better than the real ones”; the mystical scene at Aslan’s Table where the feast is daily replenished; the private devotion and joy of Reepicheep as he spills over the edge of the world; the words of the Lamb-turned-Lion to Lucy and Edmond that “The reason you were brought to Narnia was so that you can know Me better in your world”; the moment of judgement as the creatures flee the old Narnia and meet Aslan’s eye: in some the light of reason goes out and they revert to animal status and pass into darkness, while for others it is recognition and entry via the stable door – “farther in and higher up”…

Given the millions of children who have relished the Chronicles, this quickly completed aspect of Lewis’s work has had profound cultural consequences. No wonder the new atheists hate the series so much.

Someone has commented (and after forty years reading Lewis, I have trouble recalling where quotes come from) that Lewis and Tolkien, with their respective imaginative blockbusters, set out to ‘re-baptise the Western imagination’. Very different books, but Tolkien in particular continues to remind our degraded postmodern imagination of a world where good and evil, nobility and infamy, mercy and forgiveness, are compelling and unforgettable; an antidote to the value-free relativistic pap fed to our schoolchildren.

As I wrote a decade ago in The Canberra Times:

Writing to a critic in 1958 who wanted to analyse relevant facts about the author’s life, Tolkien confirmed that “a few basic facts are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”

It is far from obvious to most readers or viewers of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy how this welter of orcs and elves, trolls and wizards is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, and how it implies a Christian author. It is certainly not a Christian allegory – unlike the Narnia series of children’s books by his closest friend at Oxford University, CS Lewis. Tolkien “cordially disliked” allegory, and had no time for Lewis’s books. However, he acknowledged that without Lewis’s shared passion for ancient myth and his consistent enthusiasm for the chapters of the Ring that Tolkien read to their circle of Christian friends, the book would never have been completed.

How good that these men lived, and were friends.

I have done my pilgrimage, as a university student, to Lewis’s grave in Oxford (“Men must endure their going hence as their coming hither; ripeness is all” – the Shakespearean quote on his tombstone that was on his father’s desk the day Lewis’s young mother died); to the Bird & Baby pub where Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams and the Inklings would meet each week for beer, bawdy, and ‘getting high’; to the Kilns at Headington Quarry, his home for years and the wooded pond behind. And to the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, to read the most famous of his sermons, delivered there at the height of WW2: “The weight of glory”. It concludes:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – 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 splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

It is very rare, but possible, to love somebody you have never met, to know him as a teacher and elder brother in the faith, to have his steady, intelligent and companionable expression burned on one’s mind from childhood to adulthood – and on days like today, to give particular thanks for CS Lewis.

Lewis thoughtful

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