And what did an Oxford don have to say that might help turn the tide of war in Britain’s darkest hour? He spoke on the subject “The Norse Spirit in English Literature.” Lewis provided a touchstone between the Norse people and the English, which Lewis made clear in his first recorded statement. He said that he did not know why he had been asked to address the people of Iceland, but that he agreed to do it in order to repay a great debt. He explained that his imaginative life had been awakened by Norse mythology when he was 14. He went on to explain how his love of Norse mythology only deepened when he began to learn the Icelandic language at Oxford.
This beginning may surprise people familiar with Lewis, because Lewis was not prone to publicly share information about his personal life. His introduction anticipates his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy by almost 15 years. He first fell in love with Norse mythology when he came across some of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Wagner’s Ring published in 1911. He began to learn Old Icelandic in 1926 when J. R. R. Tolkien started a small group called the Coalbiters to read the old sagas together in the original tongue.
After this introduction, Lewis proceeded to praise the Icelandic tongue as one of the most poetic on earth. Rather than a private view of his own, Lewis argued that successive generations of English writers have felt this affinity with the old Norse tales and that this influence has found its way into the greatest of English literature. He cited Sir William Temple, William Morris, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Fielding, and Thomas Grey as examples of what he meant. The literature of England, inspired by the Norse, views self-important office holders as knaves and fools. By implication, the English had come to Iceland to repay a great debt and help fend off the knave and fool who ran Germany.
Behind the literature itself, Lewis focused on a prevailing spirit found in those Norse explorers who refused to be part of a mere medieval kingdom. Instead, Lewis argued that the English and the Norse share a spirit of independence which finds its origins in the Norse settlers of Iceland and animates English literature.
Lewis claimed that this common spirit is different from what one finds in Europe. He did not want to identify it as democracy, because this spirit rejects the interference of democracy as much as dictatorship. Nor does he regard it as a revolutionary spirit or individualism. This spirit is often marked by great loyalty that individualism does not possess. This loyalty, however, is based on choice rooted in worthy values—a chief who deserves loyalty. Just when it seems that Lewis had succeeded in avoiding jargon altogether, he names this spirit personal realism! Fortunately, he explained that personal realism involves loyalty between two people that is not based on abstractions, but on what those two people really are.
Sadly, Lewis’s first radio talk breaks off at that point.
The original radio talk involved four parts on two records. The first record contains part one and part three. The second record contained part two and part four. The records were probably meant to be stacked on the turntable and then flipped together. The second record with parts two and four is missing. Perhaps it will turn up in a flea market someday. Stranger things have happened. After all, this record turned up on eBay.
For now, however, several questions remain. If Lewis felt so strongly about the Norse influence on the development of English literature, why did he never write on the subject later? We know that he felt strongly about the subject in his personal development, but why the great silence in his major critical works? Was the address only propaganda? Once the fragment is available to the public, scholars will begin to explore such questions.
In the meantime, I plan to have the first public playing of Lewis’s Icelandic address in July 2016 at the Inklings Week in Oxford. Future exhibits will be announced through the website of the Inklings Fellowship.
Hal Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Tennessee. He is the author of a number of books, including The Inklings of Oxford: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Their Friends (Zondervan).