For a review of the book. The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis, See page 40.

He set the truth free in fantasy.

CS. Lewis is not a temporary phenomenon. His fame leaped the Atlantic around the middle of World War II. Today, more than a third of a century after the American edition of Screwtape, the sales of his books are running higher than ever. Meanwhile, he has acquired whole new audiences, such as the children who read and reread the Chronicles of Narnia.

This is clearly no transient reputation. In particular, one cannot explain and discuss Lewis as a shallow religious popularizer. If he were merely that, equivalent apologists would have taken his place by now. His books are read by sophisticated atheists as well as the simply pious—and the sophisticated pious.

It is not hard to enumerate the assets that Lewis brought with him when he set out to be a writer. First of all, intelligence. His mind, sharpened by lifelong training, was formidable in its power and precision. One can disagree with him to the point of fury, but not condescend. Coupled with the superb mind was solid erudition. He was master of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature, so much at home in it that he could make use of its symbols and themes with unconscious ease and grace. Greek and Roman mythology and the legends of the Celts and Germanic peoples were as much a part of his literary frame of reference as the Bible. His books grew out of the collective memory of Western mankind.

Lewis brought to traditional mythology as much as he took from it. His vivid imagination could transport his mind to the floating islands of a distant planet, and from there he would evolve the Story of Paradise Retained. This absolute clarity of visual imagination is one of the main appeals of his more fantastic books. Anyone reading, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is given so distinct a picture of Aslan’s death that he could reproduce the scene on canvas with photographic detail.

Lewis’s intelligence and his imagination, taken together, are more than equal to the sum of the parts. In his fantasies one always senses barely beneath the surface a powerful mind controlling the movement of events. In the expository and argumentative books, when the tools of logic are at full strength, there are sudden epiphanies of “Joy,” so that the rules of reason are sweetened by fragrances from another land.

Lewis brought another asset to his writing. Conviction. There is something impressive and moving about a writer who genuinely believes in the world view he presents. Lewis’s adult Christianity was not for him an optional frame of reference. It was the core of his being. If he had lived in a country where martyrs still perish, he would have suffered the flames and never recanted. This can be called fanaticism, but so can every ultimate commitment. The content of Lewis’s conviction—traditional Christianity—may seem to many readers a misplaced loyalty, but when it is encountered as transmitted through his mind, it cannot be dismissed as superficial. And in ways his readers may not all consciously recognize, it gives strength to all that he wrote.

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No matter what great use he makes of pagan mythology, Lewis’s central symbol system is biblical. The pagan gods must fit themselves in Jehovah’s universe. It is easy to observe how, about the time he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, he had come to view all experience through the eyes of the Christian faith and to express them through its symbols. The advantage of a traditional symbol is that it is always rooted in the eternal archetypes. Lewis’s older contemporary, William Butler Yeats, regretfully found he could not believe in Christian doctrine, and as a substitute devised his own mythology and metaphysics, writing his book, A Vision, to explain it. His system worked well for his own creative imagination, giving him “metaphors for poetry,” but most readers find something contrived about it. It does not resonate in the same way that Lewis’s symbols do. From a purely literary point of view of the most fortunate thing that ever happened to Lewis was his embrace of Christianity in his early thirties. He now had the symbols by which he could say anything he wanted to say.

Finally, to conclude this inventory of assets, there is Lewis’s style. It can be seen evolving from two sources in his boyhood writing. There is first of all the “Boxen” style—brisk and businesslike, not poetic, but capable of irony and wit. The other source is represented by “Bleheris,” with its euphemistic delight in fancy language and flowery turns of phrase. From the marriage of the two styles came the remarkably flexible and gracious style we have examined in a number of contexts. It is straight to the point, lean, free of inflated language and the technical jargon of the professions. At the same time, thanks particularly to the use of exact metaphors, it is capable of modulating into highly poetic effects—more poetic, in fact, than most of Lewis’s verse. It is a modest style, summoning the reader to go beyond the exact words and to retain in his memory not the words but what they point to.

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The question now is twofold. First, what is distinct and individual about Lewis’s books, and secondly, how high a rank did he achieve as a writer? Will he be read for pleasure and profit a hundred years from now? Five hundred? All his books or only some? One can of course only speculate about this second question.

Lewis’s career as a published author began with two books of poetry, Spirits in Bondage and Dymer. He subsequently relegated verse to a corner of his life, making no serious attempt to bring out further books of poetry. Only after his death were two additional collections published.

His short poems frequently attempt to do in verse what he learned to accomplish equally well in prose. More problematical are the long narrative poems. Dymer is hopelessly confused and confusing, though with sections of brilliant writing. When it is compared with The Queen of Drum, the progress Lewis had made in a few years is startling. He was very close to becoming the modern Chaucer, though less tolerant of the foibles of daily existence. He backed away—perhaps as much because of public indifference as anything else.

One postscript on his poetry. It is strongly visual, turned outward, objective, far removed from the confessional tradition as represented, say, by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Such objectivity, though Homer would have understood it, is rare in modern poetry and not greatly in demand. All Lewis’s qualities, handicaps today, could become assets if some vast psychic shift, a movement from subjectivity to objectivity, realigned the landscape of poetry. Lewis’s verse, including the short poems, might suddenly speak with a much stronger voice. But no signs of such a psychic mutation are visible.

I come now to his achievements as a literary scholar. Such work is rather like scientific research. When a new theory is established, the monograph in which the theory was first stated becomes less essential. Good literary scholarship is absorbed into ongoing research. Sometimes, of course, the original, classical statement of new literary insights may continue to be read because it is well written and historically important. One can foresee such a future for Lewis’s two major works in criticism and literary history: The Allegory of Love and the sixteenth-century volume (exclusive of dramatists) of The Oxford History of English Literature. In a more specialized way, Lewis’s studies of Milton and Spenser will continue to be useful handbooks, and An Experiment in Criticism will long remain a valuable challenge to more conventional theories of literary criticism.

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Lewis was as much out of step in his criticism as in his poetry. At times, it is true, he talks like a New Critic, emphasizing the need to concentrate on the text itself and not become bogged down in biographical and historical details. But he seldom undertakes minute explications de texte. He also shows little interest in other modern critical approaches, such as the psychological or the archetypal. He is that type of scholar least in fashion—the appreciative critic, whose great gift is to whet a reader’s appetite for a particular book and to give him just enough practical guidance so he can find his way through it.

Few major reputations are based solely on criticism and literary history. Stubbornly and perhaps rightly, readers think of writing about writing as a secondary thing. There is nothing secondary about the next category of Lewis’s books—those dealing directly with religion, metaphysics, and ethics. The continuing popularity of these works, particularly Mere Christianity, is emphatic evidence that they speak to listening ears.

Perhaps part of the secret has been explored by Lewis in his doctrine of “great nouns” as contrasted with the “adjectival” role of mere literature (“Christianity and Literature,” in Rehabilitations). The overpowering effect of a book like Mere Christianity reflects the way it transcends itself and its author. The uncanny literary skill moves the reader’s thoughts beyond the gleaming metaphors and directs them to concepts and hopes that leave language behind. It is as though all the brilliant writing is designed to create clear windows of perception, so that the reader will look through the language and not at it. It is a kind of kenosis. Lewis withdraws himself so that he will not distract the reader from that which is visible through the clear panes of the writing. Any literary critic determined to concentrate on purely literary considerations constantly finds himself analyzing and debating the ideas and has to struggle against recalcitrant forces if he wants to keep his analysis on purely literary tracks.

Another source of power is Lewis’s ability to use Aristotle’s tools to maximum effect. Here a hypothetical shadow hangs over these books. Only the future will tell whether this kind of logic will continue to seem as much a part of the structure of the universe as it has long appeared to Western man. Ways of thought from the Far East—where Aristotle is a recent arrival—call into question traditional assumptions. Within the framework of Western philosophy other doubting questions are being raised. Some vast shift in sensibility, with a new kind of logic, may arise, negating at one stroke Lewis’s careful lines of reasoning. This would not necessarily mean that his argumentative books would lose all appeal. They might come to be enjoyed more as “poetry” than as “prose,” as literature rather than as ideas, and the great nouns would yield to adjectival delights. As Lewis pointed out in The Discarded Image, the poetic mind can still respond to medieval cosmology, though few schools of astronomy require their students to master it.

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The solid core of Lewis’s achievement, however, consists of those more imaginative and mythological books in which his ability as a writer and his sensibility as a Christian are fruitfully wedded. These books are the space trilogy and Narnia, together with The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce. (Till We Have Faces is a special case, to be discussed later.) In these books he puts to work every talent he possesses and raises to a high literary level the serious fantasy. The schism between logic and romance is healed, and myth, fact, and truth are revealed as mere interim categories.

Lewis is not the first writer to attempt serious fantasy, but he is one of the most powerful, haunting, and successful. Endowed with a tremendously effective visual imagination, he creates other worlds, including that supernatural realm where Maleldil reigns supreme, to set in juxtaposition with our familiar Tellus. He makes of this genre a means of dramatizing the human condition and posing the everlasting questions. He converts fantasy into a presentation of philosophic and theological insights. In so doing, he poses a major question for literary critics, whose trade is analysis and evaluation: Can a book of one genre be usefully compared with one in another genre? Does it lead anywhere if you compare a sonnet and a haiku? An epic and a lyric? Grant for the sake of argument that Perelandra is as great an achievement of its kind as King Lear is of its kind, does it follow that the two works have equal standing in that select bookshelf displaying supreme literary achievements?

In theory, such could be the case. (Perhaps Dante achieved this triumph in his serious fantasy, The Divine Comedy.) But does Lewis accomplish this? Assume again that from a purely literary viewpoint Lear and Perelandra are literarily equal. But they are not humanly equal. The most lasting literature seems to tell us important and profound things about what it is to be a human being. Lewis’s fantasies deal more with representative types—the Christian quester, the whining mother, the cosmic egoist. We are rarely permitted a glimpse into those churning depths where the individual and individualized soul finds and explores its confused destiny. In theory, Lewis could explore these depths and stand beside Shakespeare. But there would be loss as well as gain; the pageantlike quality of his tales would lose their clarity; fantasy would evolve into something closer to the realistic novel. With his love of mythology and his unerring visual imagination, Lewis was wise to stick to his last and exploit his special strength and gift.

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What does he do for us in his fantasies? He creates new worlds, and in creating them he sets Tellus in sharper relief. We see it almost for the first time as we compare it with Narnia, Mars, or Venus. Mere Christianity may become less compelling if the canons of logic change, but this would not cancel out the imaginative reality of Lewis’s worlds. Time can not destroy them. We now know that Venus has a temperature of 800° Fahrenheit, and that Mars is a nightmare of desert and monstrous volcanoes. No matter. Any reader of Lewis, by the magic of his vision, explores not the spheres of the astronomers, but the planets of the restless spirit. Meanwhile, he comes to understand his own provincial planet more precisely because it is not the only theater of Maleldil’s cosmic drama. Lewis’s particular way of relating imaginary worlds to our empirical world—through theology and mythology as well as actual voyages back and forth—is distinctive and gives him a central claim to being master of this literary form.

In The Pilgrim’s Regress we explore a parallel world of the spirit which illuminates the familiar world that cameras can photograph. In The Great Divorce the gray town, familiar here and now to us earthlings, is seen in contrast to the borderlands of heaven. In The Screwtape Letters we behold our world through demonic eyes and understand better each passing moment.

At any rate, these three books plus the trilogy and Narnia constitute the most distinctive achievements of Lewis’s visionary mind. They shape the reader’s consciousness to entertain thoughts of a dynamic cosmos in which supernatural dramas are acted out. These books take their places as a subdivision of the great mythologies that have supplied meaning to so many civilizations. Lewis is a myth adapter and a myth maker, expressing his mythology through the pageants enacted first in the theater of his own imagination and then on the stage of the reader’s mind.

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I have so far said nothing about Till We Have Faces. Its differences from the fantasies are much more striking than the similarities. True, mythology plays a key role, but not the same role. The Venus symbolized by blood-stained Ungit is more like a psychological or spiritual force surging inside the individual than the gloriously objective Venus of Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. In Till We have Faces, Lewis turns to traditional mythology as a way of saying something about those depths of heart and soul that he had previously left alone. This book is not a fantasy. It is a realistic novel. It is closer in insight to Dostoevsky than to the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche from which the narrative springs. If Lewis had lived longer, he might have explored these depths further. It is another “might have been.”

As it is, the fantasies must be the centerpiece of his achievement. It is easy to point out their occasional defects and limitations. There is sometimes the playing for cheap effects as in the dunking of Weston, and some details of the N.I.C.E.’s downfall. Certain of the characters are close to straw men. The narrative is often interrupted by editorializing and sermonizing. But how petty this list seems. The clarity and majesty of Lewis’s vision, and the literary skill with which he expressed it, engulf the minor defects.

Lewis fits so oddly in our accustomed literary categories that it will be a long time before we can see him in proper perspective. But as we meanwhile read him, our spontaneous responses tell us much. In a world where the sacred groves are being felled to make way for airports, he conjures into existence other worlds corresponding to the intuitions of mankind’s mythological dreams. Choosing not to seek originality, he produces some of the most original books of the century. In him is combined the sophistication of an Oxford don and the primal visions of a shaman. The roots of his vision lie in the unconscious mind where we are still one with the caveman painting sacred pictures on the wall. Thus Lewis, far from being an escapist, is a writer who renews our contact with the ever-present but often ignored sources of our psychic life. His visionary books are destined to survive, as much in our collective memories as in the footnotes we dutifully add.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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