Lewis Books Worth Looking Into
bibliography in Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide runs
83 pages. Books alone account for 70 entries and, since its publication
date in 2002, there could have been at least five more entries. All are worth
reading. Most are still in print. A few will surely please readers of all persuasions
Here are some of my personal favorites.
Two books come to mind. First, a joyful one with the word “joy” in
the title, but with no reference to Joy Davidman
Gresham. The second book is a sad one; “joy” isn’t in the
title but the book is filled with the joy given him by Joy Davidman, the
American woman whom Lewis loved, married and lost to cancer.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955),
the sort of book talented young Englishmen were expected to write
age, covers Lewis’s birth in 1898 through his conversions
in the late 1920s. The title comes from the first line of a Wordsworth
poem. The words describe varying levels and objects of desire that,
once gotten, truly deliver joy. In
Lewis’s case the ultimate
joy was in discovering God, three persons in God, and particularly
the Son of God. There were many minor joys along
the way. Indeed the key to virtually all of his books may be found
in this one.
In A Grief Observed (1961), Lewis knew all there was to
know about religion in the books and all about Christianity on
the hoof. But
none of that had prepared him in for the loss of his wife in 1961.
He howled as though she were the first person in the universe to
die. In reality, he was just another bloke howling at the unfairness
of it all. It’s a path all of us must travel, and he traveled
it no better than the rest of us.
of Jack (as Lewis was called by his friends) and Joy in their
was in his late fifties, she in her late forties—revealed
nothing special; they just seemed to be anonymous middle-aged frumps. But
in each other’s eyes they saw only the beautiful young
woman and the handsome young man of their earlier lifetimes.
took Lewis five or six weeks to write A Grief Observed, and
published under a pseudonym, was a modest success. Surprisingly, several
copies of the
book appeared in his mailbox, sent by friends and acquaintances to soften
the anguish over his recent loss. After his death in 1963, the work was
republished under his own name and has continued to ease the
grief of all who have picked
it up since.
Another source of autobiography is composed of correspondence.
Letters edited by Lewis’s brother Warren appeared in 1966
and again in 1988 in a revised and expanded form edited by Walter
is now engaged in bringing out a three-volume edition of Collected Letters.
Volume I covers family letters (1905-1931);
Volume II, books, broadcasts, and war (1931-1949). Volume II
(1950-1963) is in the works.
between there have been small collections. Letters to an American
Lady (1967). The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur
Greeves, 1914-1963 (1979). Letters to
Children (1985). The Latin Letters of C. S.
Lewis by Martin Moynihan described Lewis’s correspondence
with the Italian priest Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria, commented on,
and quoted from the letters in English translation (1986); a subsequent
volume titled Letters, C. S. Lewis, Don Giovanni Calabria:
A Study in Friendship included the Latin text of Lewis’s letters,
35 of them (1988).
Don Giovanni Calabria (1947-1954), founder of an Italian religious
order devoted to the care of orphans, was the sort of person
who, as something of a hobby, wrote to stars and celebrities
engage them in conversation, sometimes offering a spiritual point
of view, and not infrequently asking in an eloquent sort of way
for a donation to the writer’s most worthy and indeed most
Lewis, Don Giovanni was just another priest correspondent, but today
we know him as a canonized saint. In
his letters, Lewis
his soul. A jewel of a book!
Mere Christianity, published in 1952, is a collection
of five series of radio talks that Lewis gave on late night
BBC Radio during
World War II. The talks had already been published in three slim
volumes: Broadcast Talks in 1942; Christian Behaviour in
Beyond Personality in 1944. When putting the whole collection
together, Lewis added some new material to make the many into
a cohesive whole.
its publication in 1952, and especially since 1960 when
it was published in paperback by Macmillan USA,
Mere Christianity has become something
of a classic; the sort of grubby, counter-cultural work
that could cause major damage—that’s to say,
it had the ability to turn wayward souls around to face
God. If a
reader valued his atheism, Lewis would surely say, he’d
do well to stay away from Mere Christianity.
work has its admirers and its detractors, but all should know
two things. First, the BBC advised Lewis
that the vast English
radio audience didn’t know much about their Christianity,
and hence he should stick to the basics. Second, Lewis decided
to speak about only what was common among the Christian denominations;
hence, nothing about the papacy and nothing about Mary the
mother of Jesus. To insure his success, he had his radio scripts
by an Anglican, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic. Hence, the
title Mere Christianity, which means Common Christianity or
Plain and Simple. Rarely has a title so successfully hit the
target audience right in the bull’s eye. A million copies
sold in a year hasn’t been unusual. And if sales are
THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS
Did Lewis believe in the Devil? He had to admit that good angels
and bad angels were found in the various Christian creeds, and
that agreed “with the plain sense of scripture, the tradition
of Christendom, and the beliefs of most men at most times.”
when he came to write about the Devil, how did he write about
him? He could have described the Devil as Dante and Milton
did; that’s to say as a magisterial creature with
a good tongue in his head. He could have described the
Devil as depicted by
Renaissance painters and engravers; Jegher pictured him as
an old man with a lively beard and wiry eyebrows; the
visualized him as a pious monk wearing a hairy habit with goat
horns sprouting from his head and webbed toes emanating from
his feet. He could have described the Devil the way that
counter reformer did; Ignatius Loyola saw him and his minions
as lords of evil gathering for battle against the fair Jesus
on a plain near Babylon.
Lewis described the Devil in the manner of medieval drama;
that’s to say, a
comic figure in a contemporary setting. In fact, under
Lewis’s imaginative hands, Screwtape, one
of the Devil’s minions, is a sort of fussy professor
at a technical college, a downscale establishment up the
Oxford proper. He’s tutor to a young graduate named
Wormwood, who, for his final collegiate exercise, has been
sent to London
and assigned to tempt one soul.
form, Screwtape is an epistolary novel; there are 31
letters, and there’s much merriment
in each. That’s especially
true in letter 11, in which Screwtape describes four causes
of laughter: Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy; all
turn out to be four fonts of temptation.
published in 1942, Screwtape tells more than one wants
to know about
temptation. Most editions today
Proposes a Toast” (1960).
jewel in Lewis’s bibliography,
and indeed my favorite Lewis book, is Collected Poems (1964,
1994). It includes
Spirits in Bondage, Lewis’s first book of poems,
published in 1919, but it doesn’t include Lewis’s
four narrative poems, written when he was a young man and out
of fashion even
then. Later in his career Lewis had no trouble placing his poems
in such popular and fashionable settings as Punch, The
Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement.
Lewis has never been given the critical regard he so well deserves.
Spender and Auden, Pound and Eliot, seem to have won the day,
but I put Lewis on at least a par with all of them.
Confession,” he uttered an anti-Eliotic sentiment
by suggesting that he’d never seen an evening, any evening,
that suggested “a patient etherized upon a table.”
Suite,” a rousing, thumping onomatopoeic
poem, there are two parts: “March for Strings, Kettledrums,
and Sixty-three Dwarfs” and “March for Drum, Trumpet,
and Twenty-one Giants.” This poem alone is worth the
price of the book.
Hymn” is a ripping satire using as a model
the hymn "Lead us, heavenly father, lead us." Alternative
voices were composed by Jack and Joy (she was a prize-winning
American poet), while they lay confined to their beds with
fatigue, both physical and spiritual, are “Pilgrim’s
Problem” and “Apologist’s Evening Prayer.” A
meditative reading of them will reveal what they meant
the last quatrain of “Deadly Sins,” Lewis
portrays the Godhead as pursuing his shattered foes.
That may seem odd
since, according to Lewis, the seven deadly sins, for
all their attractiveness, eventually come apart at the
In “Epitaph 14” Lewis lays dying in a hospital ward.
The other patients are playing the wireless at top volume. Lewis
asks them to desist. They refuse. The majority rules, and Lewis
dies, ending his sonnet abruptly by stating that he’d died “both
for, and of, democracy.”
LETTERS TO MALCOLM, CHIEFLY ON PRAYER
Write about prayer always, Lewis could say to himself, adapting
a sentiment of the apostle Paul’s, for one can find passages
about prayer in most of Lewis’s books and a great deal
of his correspondence.
The best of what he’s written is contained in Letters
to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, which was published in 1964, the
year after his death. That the work has become something of a
classic obscures the fact that for at least a decade before he’d
attempted to begin just such a work.
am trying to write a book about private prayers
for the use of the laity,” he wrote to
Don Giovanni Calabria on January 5, 1953, “especially
for those who have been recently converted
to the Christian faith and so far are without
regular habit of prayer. I
tackled the job because I saw no doubt very beautiful books
written on the subject of prayer for the
religious but few which instruct … those still babes
(so to say) in the Faith.”
The form seemed to be something of a problem, until he thought
of his own Screwtape Letters. It became an epistolary
work, and the ink flowed almost in a continuous stream during
Lewis’s most memorable advice had to do with “festoonery.” He’d
take a prayer, any prayer, and festoon a word or phrase of
it with prayerful thoughts of his own. This was contrary to
of the prayer theory before him, which considered such things
as festoons to be just another name for distractions.
“However badly needed a good book on prayer is,” he wrote
to Malcolm in Letter XII, “I shall never try to write
it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private
very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be
attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to
offer the world
instruction about prayer would be impudence.” Yet,
Letters to Malcolm proved to be precisely the book the world
THE WEIGHT OF GLORY
Early Sunday evening, June 8, 1941, at solemn
evensong in St. Mary the Virgin’s,
Lewis ascended the pulpit—the very pulpit from which began not only Methodism
but also the Tractarian movement—and placed his manuscript on the lectern. "The
Weight of Glory," it was titled. He began to read, his voice deep, his
tone serious, his appearance cheerful.
The reward for Christians was Heaven, he stated, but he quickly pointed
out how for a hundred years, "the evil enchantment of worldliness" had
led people to believe that man's true home was on earth, that earth could be
made into a sort of Heaven, or that if there were a heavenly Heaven, it was
a long way off. Philosophies like progress and creative evolution promised
happiness, but even if they could deliver it, he countered with a little logic, "each
generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and
the whole story could be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever."
This and eight other sermons and addresses—jewels all— may be found
in The Weight of Glory, revised and expanded edition (1965).
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
In one of their boozier moments, the young Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien thought
that they should write the sort of stories they’d read in their
own youths. Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit and such, and
Jack went on to write The
Chronicles of Narnia. They all became international bestsellers,
and so publishing, television, and indeed movie history was made.
Both men have already provided their opinions on the validity of the
fairy tale as bearer of literary truth. Truths breathed through silver—that,
or something very much like it, was Tolkien’s view. Allegory was
insight, and into the seven novels of Narnia he smuggled any number of
deft was he that the work as a whole, relying on
a bundle of archetypes
for its own success, became an archetype itself. That explains how
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has
successfully invaded the American
of copies per year for decades now. And yet such allegory and symbolism
as the work contains are clear as crystals to an American Christian.
Today’s reader should beware that when one comes to read the seven novels,
there are two sequences. First, there’s the sequence in which Lewis wrote
them and the publishers brought them out. Second, after writing Lion, Lewis
wrote prequels and postquels to it.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician’s Nephew
The Last Battle
The Magician’s Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle
A lover of scientifiction (science fiction) since he first learned to read,
Lewis wrote three such novels himself. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra,
and That Hideous Strength.
quite agree that most scientifiction is at the
level of cowboy boys' stories. But I think the
fundamental moral assumptions in popular fiction
are a very
important symptom." Lewis was responding to Arthur C. Clarke, who’d
written him a cantankerous letter about the character of Weston, the mad
scientist in both Out of The Silent Planet and Perelandra.
as described by Lewis, had been traveling about
the country, proselytizing "in
obscure works of 'scientifiction,' in little interplanetary societies and
rocketry clubs," making converts to the idea that humankind should
explore the universe and colonize other planets.
who had his own set of interplanetary longings,
was offended not
only on his own behalf but also on behalf of other such scientists.
"I don't, of course, think at the moment many scientists are believing Westons,'" said
Lewis concluding his reply of December 7th, "but I do think (hang
it all, I live among scientists!) that a point of view not unlike Weston's
is on the
you like science fiction, read any one of the three.
For a larger view of Lewis’s life and times, I would refer
readers to the major biographies.
C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1974) was written by Roger Lancelyn
Green, a former pupil of Lewis’s and a good friend of his
in later life. Co-author was the young Walter Hooper. A “fully
revised and expanded” edition appeared in 2002.
My own C.S. Lewis, A Dramatic Life appeared in 1986; in
England, a paperback edition under the title C.S. Lewis: The
Authentic Voice appeared in 1987 (the British
edition has been reissued; it's not available in American bookstores
but may be ordered through amazon.co.uk).
George Sayer’s Jack, C. S. Lewis & His Times was
published in 1988, and A. N. Wilson’s C. S Lewis, A Biography in
All but Wilson’s acknowledge the validity of Lewis’s
religious experience. All including Wilson’s have much to
enrich the reader’s knowledge of the complexities of Lewis’s
life and times.
Last but certainly not least is Walter Hooper’s
lordly C.S. Lewis, A Companion & Guide (1996). After thumbing
through this, one can only conclude that there’s very little
left to find out about Clive Staples Lewis’s life and work.
copyright ©2005 William