C.S.Lewis was the author of dozens of books in many different genres—literary criticism, children’s stories, adult fantasies and novels, poetry, Christian apologetics (as allegory, autobiography, and broadcast). Probably best known as the creator of Narnia, a series of children’s fantasy books, he is also one of the abler writers of the essay in the 20th century. Moreover, the distinctive Lewis style is consistent in occasional talks, apologetics, and literary criticism so that his work stands out among others’ academic efforts.
Lewis’ reputation as an essayist was made as a Christian apologist. During the Blitz of World War II he made four series of BBC broadcasts, from August 1941 to 1944. These radio talks, each ten minutes long, were intended to explain Christianity to the ordinary person; hence the qualities of the essay—conversational, simple, vivid, informative— were crucial and mask the breadth of references to learning. Already known for an allegorical tale, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), The Problem of Pain (1940), and The Screwtape Letters (1942), originally published in the Manchester Guardian, Lewis in his radio talks presented the fundamentals of belief in a way especially suited to the time and audience. Response was enthusiastic, and Lewis became a popular figure, in both Britain and the United States. Almost immediately he published three volumes: Broadcast Talks (1942; also as The Case for Christianity), Christian Behaviour: A Further Series of Broadcast Talks (1943), and Beyond Personality: The Christian Idea of God (1944). A revised and enlarged edition appeared as Mere Christianity (1952), and continuing sales and testimonials of readers indicate its ongoing influence.
Lewis’ style as an essayist, as well as a thinker, is clear in this work. Notable are the logical putting of a case and easy conversational quality. In the preface to Mere Christianity Lewis observes a distinction between talk and essay, explaining that he had expanded the contractions and recast sentences where he had voiced italics, “but without altering, I hope, the ‘popular’ and ‘familiar’ tone which I had all along intended.” The “voice” of Lewis is consistent—direct and personable, with a clear argument presented with conviction combined with an evolving awareness of human limitation as his Christianity was more deeply experienced. The clear, and declared, antecedent for C.S.Lewis as an essayist is G.K.Chesterton, the great Edwardian essayist and Roman Catholic apologist. Lewis explains in Surprised by Joy (1955), a spiritual autobiography, that he first read Chesterton while in hospital recovering from wounds in World War I, when he was an aggressive atheist. Agreement about ideas was not the issue, but rather enjoyment, especially for “the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the ‘bloom’ on dialectic itself.” “[S]trange as it may seem,” Lewis continued, “I liked him for his goodness.” Further reading led to a conviction that “Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together.”
Such crisp judgment is typical of Lewis, whose conviction about the rightness of his own point of view annoys many—as does Chesterton’s. The two also share a delight in polemical argument, classical training, an extraordinary range of reading, and a relish of the good life, especially male company and friendship, and of many particularities of sense experience described with pleasure.
Lewis’ essays combine a relentless Aristotelian logic—perhaps best deployed in The Abolition of Man (1943), ostensibly a reflection on education—with a use of metaphor that ranges from simple comparison to vision, carrying the argument more surely than logic would. He usually begins with something very ordinary, a little parable, like the quarrel in the opening of Mere Christianity, and then shows that the common experience has a universal basis; in this way he moves from particulars to moral absolutes. Analogy is a key technique in making abstract thought concrete, and often the analogy develops over several pages to produce the effect of proof. Association of ideas, not syllogism, determines the flow of a Lewis essay, which often includes fascinating and memorable digressions. Such strategies mask Lewis’ Western habit of an either/or argument which fosters his extremes. Defenders of these limitations note that Lewis is competing against clever skeptics; opponents fault him for glibness and superficiality.
The Four Loves (1960) originated as radio talks in America. This late effort includes six chapters: “Introduction,” “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human,” “Affection,” “Friendship,” “Eros,” “Charity.” As always there are clear definitions, often setting one view against another, and vivid parables; there is also a greater intensity of personal feeling and understanding, reflecting Lewis’ late, brief marriage. The second chapter includes a long logical, systematic, and balanced consideration which could be considered a separate essay. As always, Lewis combines relaxed conversation with a careful progression of points to reach a conclusion stated with great conviction, having been presented with countless ordinary details and many references to literature and theology, and to Western culture.
A volume of Selected Literary Essays (1969) shows Lewis as the scholar who wrote about William Morris, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as verse forms and medieval and Renaissance authors and texts; such writing made him famous as a literary critic and historian in several notable books. Written between 1932 and 1962, the essays reveal both the range of Lewis’ knowledge and the consistency of his personal interests and style. The scholarly essays contain footnotes and less familiar references, but the manner closely resembles that of the broadcast essays—personal, conversational, excited by argument, assured. Lewis called his own selected collection of his essays They Asked for a Paper (1962), a title that suggests his response to challenges and reflects how much he sustained “an atmosphere of hopeful debate,” a characteristic of the Edwardian intellectual life of his childhood, while presenting himself as an anachronism who admired and loved the Middle Ages and Renaissance (which he saw as less antithetical than usually argued) and believed as a Christian in an age when few shared his values.
At the end of the 20th century Lewis’ ideas require yet more vigor to convince a jaded audience, but the legacy of the essays is an alternate way of thinking embodied in the style as well as the statements.
VELMA BOURGEOIS RICHMOND
Clive Staples Lewis. Born 29 November 1898 in Belfast. Studied at Cherbourg School, Malvern, Worcestershire, 1911–13; Malvern College, 1913–14; privately, in Great Bookham, Surrey, 1914–17; University College, Oxford (Chancellor’s English Essay Prize, 1921), 1917, 1919–23, B.A., 1921. Served as first lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917–19. Philosophy tutor and lecturer in English, University College, Oxford,
1924, and fellow and tutor in English, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1925–54; professor of medieval and Renaissance English, Cambridge University, 1954–63. Married Joy Davidman Gresham, 1956 (died, 1960): two stepsons. Awards: Gollancz Prize, 1937;
Library Association Carnegie Medal, for The Chronicles of Narnia, 1957; honorary degrees from five universities; Honorary Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1955, University College, Oxford, 1958, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1963; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1948, and British Academy, 1955. Died in Oxford, 22 November 1963.
Essays and Related Prose
Rehabilitations and Other Essays, 1939
The Personal Heresy, with E.M.W.Tillyard, 1939
Broadcast Talks, 1942; as The Case for Christianity, 1943
Christian Behaviour: A Further Series of Broadcast Talks, 1943
The Abolition of Man; or, Reflections on Education (lectures), 1943
English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge), 1944
Beyond Personality: The Christian Idea of God, 1944
Transposition, and Other Addresses, 1949; as The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, 1949
Mere Christianity, 1952
The Four Loves, 1960
The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays, 1960
Studies in Words, 1960
They Asked for a Paper, 1962
Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, edited by Walter Hooper, 1966
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, edited by Walter Hooper, 1967
Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper, 1967
A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C.S.Lewis, edited by Clyde S. Kilby, 1968
Selected Literary Essays, edited by Walter Hooper, 1969
God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, 1970; as Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 1971
Fern-Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity, edited by Walter Hooper, 1975
On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, edited by Walter Hooper, 1982
First and Second Things: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, 1985
Present Concerns, edited by Walter Hooper, 1986
Timeless at Heart: Essays on Theology, edited by Walter Hooper, 1987
The Essential C.S.Lewis, edited by Lyle W.Dorsett, 1988 Christian Reunion and Other Essays, 1990
Other writings: the fiction series for children The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56), an adult science-fiction trilogy (1938–45), the fables The Screwtape Letters (1942) and The Great Divorce (1945), poetry, works on literary history (including The Allegory of Love, 1936; The Discarded Image, 1964) and religion, autobiography (including The Pilgrim’s
Regress, 1933; Surprised by Joy, 1955; A Grief Observed, 1961), diaries, and correspondence.
Christopher, Joe R., and Joan K.Ostling, C.S.Lewis: An Annotated Checklist of Writings
About Him and His Works, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975
Hooper, Walter, “A Bibliography of the Writings of C.S.Lewis,” in Light on C.S.Lewis, edited by Jocelyn Gibb, London: Bles, 1965; New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1966:117–60
Carpenter, Humphrey, The Inklings: C.S.Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, London: Allen and Unwin, 1978; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979
Christopher, Joe R., C.S.Lewis, Boston: Twayne, 1987
Gibb, Jocelyn, editor, Light on C.S.Lewis, London: Bles, 1965; New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1966
Hannay, Margaret Patterson, C.S.Lewis, New York: Ungar, 1981
Schakel, Peter J., and Charles A.Huttar, editors, Word and Story in C.S.Lewis, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991
Walsh, Chad, C.S.Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, New York: Macmillan, 1949
Walsh, Chad, The Literary Legacy of C.S.Lewis, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and London: Sheldon Press, 1979
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