St Thomas More Letter 57: Tell Me A Story

Tell me a story, 
Tell me a story, 
Tell me a story before I go to bed, 
You promised me, 
You said you would, 
You promised me, 
You said you would, 
Tell me a story before I go to bed!

What makes human beings different from other animals, it has been suggested by Alexandra Hudson in Storytelling and the Human Condition is story-telling.  We all tell stories. We all enjoy stories.  A common sense philosopher might object that what is distinctive about human beings is not so much storytelling, but language, or more specifically, the ability to abstract, the ability to universalise, to see beyond the single instance, the ability to enunciate propositions, the ability to reason, the ability to choose different courses of action.

Even accepting this objection, storytelling is an aspect of what makes us human.  Stories, according to Alexandra Hudson, harness the best, and circumscribe the worst in human nature.  Stories, in various ways, define what human civilisation is about, what we are about.  Some stories are true. 

C S (Clive Staples) Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, was one of the most important writers, one of the most important story-tellers, of the 20th century, at least in the English-speaking world.

Over summer, I tried to read some of C S Lewis’ writing.  Lewis wrote beautifully about many things.  Not all of Lewis’ writing are stories.  Some of Lewis’ writing, for instance, The Problem of Pain (1940), Miracles (1947), Reflections on the Psalms (1958), The Four Loves (1960), and his posthumous Letters to MalcolmChiefly on Prayer (1964), explicitly explain and defend Christianity.  These works provide background to Lewis’ storytelling.  Indeed, it seems to me, C S Lewis’ most important writings explain and defend Christianity.  His story-telling is in second place, albeit one cannot understand Lewis’ story-telling, unless one is familiar with the Gospels, indeed Lewis’ explanations and defence of Christianity. 

Given limitations of space and time, I discuss only two of Lewis’ works: one non-fictional, Mere Christianity; one fictional, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in the Narnia series.

Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity (1952) is perhaps the most important of Lewis’ apologetic works, drawn from a series of BBC war-time radio talks.  Originally spoken rather than written, they have vibrancy, even today, even when read.

Lewis argues the nature of right and wrong is a clue to the meaning of the universe.  All human beings of whatever time and place have the idea that they ought to behave in a certain way.  Yet human beings realise they do not behave as they should.

It might be objected that we do things as a result of instinct.  Our instinct (or tendency) to eat and drink is something we act on, but if we allow our instinct to eat and drink to go unrestrained, we ruin our health.  Reason tells us that we must restrain our appetite, in particular, our instinct to eat and drink.  Instinct is constrained by what is good for us as human beings, constrained by the good of our human nature.

It might be objected we do things because of custom.  It is true the slave-owning culture of the south of the United States, and the bellicose culture of certain Russian elites, for instance in Ukraine today, justifies actions which are immoral.  We recognise there are customs, social practices, which are inconsistent with respect for human dignity, respect for fundamental human rights.  Reason tells us that certain customs, certain social practices, cannot be reconciled with respect for human dignity, with respect for fundamental human rights.  Such customs, such social practices, are unreasonable.

Human nature tells us what human beings ought do, and ought not do.  Reason tells us we ought act in accord with what we are as human beings, respecting and pursuing only what is truly good for us.  According to Lewis, behaviour in accordance with human nature means being content with $50 when you might have got $150 dishonestly, doing school work honestly when it is easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places in accordance with your duty as a soldier when you rather go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, telling the truth when under oath when it makes you look a fool.

The law of human nature, the law of right and wrong, the law of decent behaviour, according to Lewis, is a reality which none of us has created, but a law which, even if we break it, or simply ignore it, presses on us.  This law does not tell us what persons in fact do, only what they ought do, what they ought not do.  Even when persons knowingly act contrary to this law, or ignore it, they know they ought act in accordance with it.

Lewis sees two views of the universe.  Lewis outlines the materialist view:

People who take [this] view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance, the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, living creatures developed into things like us.

As for the religious view of the universe, the suggestion of a conscious mindthis is not a fact, according to Lewis, that can be established by empirical scientific inquiry:

Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up.You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense.Scientists works by experiments.They watch how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15 and saw so and so’ or ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such and such a temperature and it did so and so.’Do not think that I am saying anything against science.I’m only saying what its job is.And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science – and a very useful and necessary job it is too.But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the thing science observes –something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question.If there is ‘Something Behind’, then it will either have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way.The statement there is such a thing, and the statement there is no such thing, and are neither statements that science can make.

Lewis argues that we know human beings, not merely by observation, by empirical scientific inquiry, but by observing ourselves from within.  According to Lewis, we have the inside information!  We are in on the know!  We know from ourselves we are under a moral law, which we did not make, and cannot quite forget even when we try, a moral law which we know we ought to obey.  Everything in the universe we know by empirical observation, but only by introspection can we know the moral law which governs our behaviour.

According to Lewis, this leads to the conclusion there is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.  Lewis argues that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct –  in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.  This makes sense of Christianity, and impels us to repent: there is a real moral law, and a power behind that law; we have broken that moral law, and put ourselves wrong with that law.  The answer is repentance.

Elsewhere, in a quite distinct part of Mere Christianity, Lewis deals with what he calls Christian behaviour.

Some see morality as a lot of rules, or of an objection to people enjoying themselves, or an obsession with sex, or seeking to achieve ideals which are entirely arguable (achieving the perfect retirement, marrying the perfect wife, having the perfect house).  Morality is none of these things.  According to Lewis, morality is more like a band, where each player plays well, where the individual player comes in at the right moment to combine with others, and where the band agrees on the music it is to play.  Thus, morality is about the individual person, about the person’s co-operation with others in community.  If, as Christianity teaches, we are to confront a final judgment, and life everlasting, that has important implications for how we are to live as individual persons, and with others.

Lewis argues for the traditional human virtues-prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance-and the traditional theological virtues-faith, hope and charity.  While the concept of “virtue” for a time fell into disfavour, perhaps because of an unvirtuous understanding of virtue, perhaps virtue has become more acceptable, understood as being what one is, fulfilling one’s impetus towards good, not merely one’s own good, but one’s good in union with others, as a spouse, a parent, a child, a member of the community. The novels of Jane Austen illustrate this understanding of human virtue.

Lewis refers to the cardinal virtues, on which a happy life depends–prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance.  The intellectual origin of the identification of these virtues is in Greek thought.  Concern with the cardinal virtues is not peculiar to either Jewish or Christian thought.  The cardinal virtues are to be distinguished from the theological virtues–faith, hope and charity. 

Prudence is understood by Lewis as practical common-sense, taking the trouble to think out what one is doing and what is likely to come of it.  As a personal injury lawyer, I see many examples of prudence and lack thereof.

For instance, on the part of insurers, refusing to pay a legitimate claim for a small medical bill, giving rise to litigation involving hundreds of thousands of dollars; qualifying dishonest doctors, notorious for their prejudice against claimants, whose opinion no one of common-sense would believe; running up legal costs by refusing reasonable offers of settlement; instructing lawyers who alienate their opponents and the courts by their aggressive unreasonable behaviour.

On the part of claimants, by failing to take care in providing a description of the circumstances of the injury and its effects; wasting time with medical practitioners who make no real attempt to rehabilitate their patients; spending time off work, watching television, instead of using time profitably, walking, engaging in a hobby, doing voluntary work, helping with grandchildren; believing insurers’ bogus claims about “independent” doctors; deliberating staying off work to inflate their claims.

On the part of governments, failing to establish schemes which bring an end to disability, by providing lump sums which enable injured persons to get on with their lives; unreasonably scrutinising claimants with a parade of claims officers, “rehabilitation” consultants, “investigators”, “doctors”, to the extent of provoking psychiatric illness on the part of claimants; paying inadequate compensation, causing homes to be sold, families to break up, giving rise to somatic illnesses; establishing highly technical systems of compensation which cause delay, confusion, and reasonable suspicion of decision-makers who appear to lack independence, and who rely for re-appointment on making decisions unfavourable to injured persons.

Lewis transforms a traditional saying, “Be good sweet maid, and let who can be clever” with “Be good sweet maid, and don’t forget this involves being as clever as you can.”

The Apostles may have been hardy practical men, but, after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, they immersed themselves in the Jewish scriptures.  As a result of their study, prayer, and preaching of the scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we have what we call the New Testament, a fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures, a collection of writings whose depth has never been excelled in the history of human thought.  The Apostles became wiser

As Lewis says, anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence sharpened.  One of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.

Of course, there is a world of difference between prudencedirected to human good, and trickery, deception, double-speak, shiftiness, Machiavellianism, craftiness, guile.  There is a semblance of prudence which is no prudence at all.

Justice according to Lewis is fairness. It includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and so on.

Fortitude according to Lewis, includes both kinds of courage  –  the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain. ‘Guts’ is the nearest in modern English. You cannot practise any of the other virtues long without fortitude.

Temperance refers to the right use of pleasure, not abstaining, but going to the right length and no further.

Lewis wonders: what is the most unpopular Christian virtue? chastity? forgiveness of one’s enemies?  The obligation to forgive one’s enemies is in black and white in the Lord’s Prayer  –   forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”   – said so often that we pay no attention to its meaning.  But what about the person on the bus who stinks? the bore who drives me to distraction with his longwinded self-important stories? the rapist? the paedophile? the racist? the warmonger? the neighbour who throws his rubbish over the fence? the person who has a minor accident and stops in the middle of the road while he leisurely surveys the damage, causing a massive traffic jam, disrupting the day of tens of thousands of people who need to get to work?

Lewis makes the practical suggestion, one might start by forgiving one’s spouse, one’s parents, one’s children, one’s work colleagues.  Lewis endorses the idea of hating the sin but not the sinner.  A judge may have to impose a sentence of imprisonment, but he should treat the defendant with respect, and speak of him, and to him, respectfully.

Lewis sees the greatest sin as pride, the source of all other sins.  While Lewis does not precisely define pride, he seems to be saying pride involves seeing everything from one’s own perspective, from one’s own interest, leaving both God and others out.  As a practical way of assessing how proud one is, one might ask: how much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?  Lewis distinguishes between pride and, say, having a warm-hearted esteem for one’s children when they do well, or one’s profession, or one’s country–or one’s football team!  Pride is to be distinguished from accepting a merited award or honor, the award of which may enable one to undertake one’s professional work more effectively.

Lewis draws a distinction between feelings and will. Charity involves more than benevolent feelings.  It involves the intention, the determination to do good, whatever one’s feelings.  So, although one is annoyed with one’s friend, one disregards one’s annoyance and goes for a walk, has a chat to him, and helps him.

According to Lewis, hope means continual looking forward to the eternal world, not a form of escapism nor wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.  If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the world were just those who thought most of the next.  The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this life.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’:  Aim at earth and you will get neither. 

According to Lewis, the longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. Lewis is not speaking of what would be called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. Lewis is speaking of the best possible ones.  According to Lewis there is something we seek out, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in reality.  The spouse may be a good spouse, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and the chemistry may be a very interesting job:  but something has evaded us.   

According to Lewis, if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy, but only to arouse, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, according to Lewis, must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other hand, never mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo or mirage.  According to Lewis, I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death.  I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside.  I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same

According to Lewis, faith, in the sense in which he uses the word, is the art of holding onto things one’s reason has once accepted, in spite of one’s changing mood.  For moods will change, whatever view one’s reason takes.  Now as a Christian one does have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable.  But when one was an atheist, one had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.  This rebellion of one’s moods against one’s real self is going to come anyway.  That is why faith is such a necessary virtue: unless one teaches one’s moods ‘where they get off’ one can never either be a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with one’s beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of one’s digestion.  Consequently, one must train the habit of faith.

According to Lewis, the first step is to recognise the fact that one’s moods change.  The next is to make sure that, if one has accepted Christianity, its main doctrines ought deliberately held before one’s mind for some time every day.  That is why daily prayers and religious readings and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian lifeWe have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed.  And as a matter of fact, if one examines a hundred people who have lost their faith, one wonders how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument?  Do not most people simply drift away?

Finally, Lewis deals with the Trinity, and what it means for us.  Lewis deals with an initial objection that any serious discussion of theology is too abstruse, too remote for modern readers.  His answer is that modern culture is full of theological ideas, often quite wrong, often quite banal, so we might as well get things right.

Lewis rejects the opinion that Jesus of Nazareth is just like Plato or Aristotle or Confucius.  Lewis argues that Jesus of Nazareth has three unique things to say:

  • he is the Son of God;
  • we can become sons of God;
  • the death of Jesus saved us from our sins

Lewis acknowledges these three propositions are opaque, their meaning does not readily jump out at us, they require unpacking.  Any serious area of knowledge (e.g. modern physics) will require unpacking.

Lewis argues that humans are unlike stones or grass or trees or horses, that what we are, what we may be, is not merely determined by materiality, by biology.  We have a spiritual life.

One of Lewis’ themes is that if we stick rigidly to what we think reality should be like, we will not get things right.  Modern physics demonstrates that our “common-sense” preconceptions of reality are far from the truth.  We have to do the hard work of studying physics to understand reality.  And the more we understand, the more we will realise how little we know!  Similarly, we have to do the hard work of studying philosophy and theology to understand reality, casting away our preconceptions from reading the astrology section of some rag, or the agony columns of social media!  If we do the hard work of studying philosophy and theology, the more we understand, the more we will realise how little we know!

In the context of trying to explain the Trinity, three persons in one God, Lewis says something to me, quite extraordinary.  According to Lewis, God can show Himself as He really is, only to real men.  And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another.  For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body.

Consequently, according to Lewis, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together.  Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science – the laboratory outfit. 

What Lewis says, is of course true, but what is amazing is that Lewis, having said this, did not immediately throw off his clothes, dive into the Tiber, and swim home!  How did Lewis not take the logical step?  This is a question Joseph Pearce attempts to answer in CS Lewis and the Catholic Church.

Lewis describes the Trinity, quite simply:

  • God contains three persons while remaining one Being;
  • the Son exists because the Father exists, but there was never a time before the Father produced the Son, the Son always was, so to speak, streaming forth from the Father, the Father delights in His Son, the Son looking up to the Father;
  • the union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union is also a person, the Holy Spirit, this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.

This Trinitarian life is to be played out in each of us.  We are to share in the life of Christ, the life of the Son.  We shall love the Father as the Son does, and the Holy Spirit will arise in us.  Every Christian is to become another Christ, alter Christi.  The whole purpose of being a Christian is nothing else.

The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became man to enable each of us to become a son or daughter of God.  Jesus of Nazareth was an actual man just as we are.  But additionally, he is the Son of God.  God sees us not as mere “individuals” but as related to one another.

By reason of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, we have the means of becoming sons and daughters of God, through our responding to the life of grace within us at Baptism–and, as Catholics, we would say, additionally, through the Mass and the Sacraments; through reading of Sacred Scripture which is actually reading the life of Christ; through prayer and almsgiving; through the traditional practices of Christians; through our family life, our friendships, our work.

Why did God take all the trouble of becoming man, living, dying on the cross, rising from the dead? and why do we have to take all the trouble of struggling to live a Christian life with all its sins, its falls and imperfections? Could God not have made us to love him?  This is the mystery of free-will by which, through love, we come to share in the life of God as sons and daughters of God. This is the drama, the story of every human life!

What is the use of theology?  The use of theology is to enable us to say “Our Father” with conviction; to enable us to realise we are sons and daughters of God, however sinful and deficient we are; to enable us to repent; to struggle to change our lives, day by day, minute by minute; to repeat in our own lives the life of Christ.

Lewis argues that the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them other Christs.  If we are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.  God made man for no other purpose.  

Lewis sees Christ as demanding.  According to Lewis, the Christian way, is different: harder, and easier.  Christ says, according to Lewis: ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You.  I’ve not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a tree here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.  I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, but to have it out.  Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’ 

Reflecting on Our Lord’s words “Be ye perfect” Lewis imagines Our Lord is like the dentist.  If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell.  Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness).  Well, He will cure it aright:  but He will not stop there.  That may be all you ask; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.’  That is why He warns people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians.  ‘Make no mistake’, He says.  ‘If you let me, I will make you perfect.  The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for.  Nothing less, or other than that.  You have freewill, and if you choose, you can push Me away.  But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through.  Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest until you are literally perfect – until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do.  But I will not do anything less.’ 

Second Vatican Council 
Rather scary!  To become the new person Christ wants, we must lose ourselves, we must become like other Christs. Knowingly or unknowingly CS Lewis is echoing not merely the words of Jesus of Nazareth, and of all the saints.  Lewis wrote before the Second Vatican Council, but that precisely is what the Second Vatican Council had to say:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord.Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and obtain their crown:  Gaudium et Spes 22

Elsewhere, the Second Vatican Council says:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father, ‘that all may be one … as we are one’ opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity.This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself:  Gaudium et Spes 24

Lewis puts it in different words, but the idea is the same.  As Lewis says, the more we get ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.  Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self.  Keep back nothing.  Nothing that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.  CS Lewis urges, look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

True Story 
Does Lewis get it right in Mere Christianity? Largely. Where Lewis does not get it right is what he leaves out–the Church and the Pope, the Mass and the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Of course, these are very important matters. But we should not overlook the beautiful and the good and the true in Lewis’ writing. There is much more to Lewis than what is lacking.  But more, Mere Christianity is a story, an account of things, not the full story but a true story which invites us to join, to become part of that story. 

Caitlin West 
If you think that Lewis is interesting, a contemporary podcast in the same genre, albeit from a Catholic perspective, is Caitlin West’s Crash Course Catholicism, a podcast about Catholic teaching and why it makes sense. 

Lewis’ non-fictional writing, such as Mere Christianity, true story that it is, provides a key to understanding Lewis’ fictional story-telling, fictional but nevertheless true.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

In what Lewis considered a “fairy story”, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the first in the Narnia series, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy, refugees from the German bombing of London during the Second World War, take refuge in a large rambling country house inhabited by an amiable but absent-minded professor and his stern housekeeper.

The children emerge through a wardrobe full of fur coats into the land of Narnia, a land in which it is forever winter, a land ruled by the White Witch, a land in which Christmas is never celebrated.  But the lion Aslan, a Christlike figure comes, and spring breaks forth.  The talking animals of Narnia celebrate with laughter and good cheer to the horror of the Witch who uses her wand to turn the talking animals to stone.

Edmund’s treachery, induced partly by his love of Turkish delight, is addressed by Aslan’s acceptance of death on behalf of Edmund on the stone table at the hands of the Witch.  But Aslan comes back to life for there is a deeper magic of which the Witch is unaware.  Edmund is redeemed by Aslan’s death.  Edmund proves himself in a tremendous battle in which the Witch is overcome, and her forces are destroyed. Edmund is forgiven.  Peter and Edmund, Susan and Lucy, reign as kings and queens of Narnia.

Of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, can be read as a mere “story”.  But the frequent references to the Gospel story are easily observed, especially in the Christ-like figure of Aslan, albeit there are important differences.  This is not mere “allegory”.

Lewis is interesting, not only because of his writing, but because of his relationship with JRR Tolkien, as well as other writers, in many cases members of the Inklings, a group of mainly Oxford academics who, from 1933, read their works in draft to each other, and provided each other with mutual criticism.  The Inklings continued until Lewis’ appointment to Cambridge in 1954.

Jack Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast Northern Ireland to a middle-class protestant family, bitterly anti-Catholic.  Lewis’ father was a solicitor-a bibliophile, and so Lewis was exposed to books from infancy.  When Lewis was ten years of age, his mother died.  Lewis was shipped off to boarding school, an experience he hated.  Lewis’ studies at Oxford were interrupted by military service in the trenches of the Somme where he was wounded.

From 1925 to 1954 Lewis was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College Oxford.  Lewis’ major academic works are English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954) and An Experiment in Criticism(1961).

In, perhaps, 1929, Lewis returned to faith in God.  In 1931 Lewis returned to the Christianity of his childhood, encouraged by his friend JRR Tolkien.  Lewis remained an Anglican for the rest of his life.  Lewis influenced many of his friends who were Catholics, as well as others who read his writings, and crossed the Tiber.  Today Lewis’ writing on Christianity remains popular, both among Catholics and evangelicals, amongst those who accept scripture as the word of God, amongst those who recite the Apostles’ Creed with conviction.

In 1954 Lewis was appointed Professor of Medieval & Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, a position he occupied until his death.

In 1957 Lewis, late in life, married Joy Davidman.  In 1961 Joy died. One could write a book about their gathering romance and marriage.  On 22 November 1963 Lewis himself died.

While Lewis was a prolific writer, and much that he wrote remains of interest sixty years after his death, the Narnia series (of which The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first in the series) are the writings that remain most popular, the writings that are most enjoyed by young and old.

To my mind, great writer, great storyteller, though C S Lewis is, his friend, JRR Tolkien, is the far greater story-teller.  It is Tolkien whose stories will be more read and reread, whose writing will be more often returned to, again and again.  For the stories of Tolkien, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, bring to life, and explore, the complexity and variety of human experience, the rich variety of personalities, in a way that the Narnia series, well worth the read though it is, does not.  But both Tolkien and Lewis demonstrate that to be human is to tell stories.  And that stories carry within them timeless truths which we unwisely ignore.  Both Tolkien and Lewis, each in their different way, regard the Gospels as a story, a true story, to which we are invited, despite ourselves, to be part.  As Tolkien commented in his essay, On Fairy Stories, creating a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator wishes to be a real maker, hopes that he is drawing on reality, hopes that the peculiar quality of the secondary world is derived from reality, or is moving into it.  Both Tolkien and Lewis achieve this. 

Michael McAuley
20 July 2023


Children & Others

1. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (1950)
2. Prince Caspian (1951)
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
4. The Silver Chair (1953)
5. The Horse and his Boy (1954)
6. The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
7. The Last Battle (1956)

Apologetics ETC

8. The Allegory of Love (1936)
9. The Problem of Pain (1940)
10. Broadcast Talks (1942)
11. The Screwtape Letters (1942)
12. The Abolition of Man (1943)
13. Christian Behaviour (1943)
14. The Great Divorce (1946)
15. Miracles (1947)
16. The Weight of Glory (1949)
17. Mere Christianity (1952)
18. Surprised by Joy (1955)
19. Reflections on the Psalms (1958)
20. The Four Loves (1960)
21. A Grief Observed(1961)
22. Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1963)
23. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (1963)
24. Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics & Theology (1966)
25. How to be a Christian: Reflections & Essays (1967)
26. How to Pray: Reflections & Essays (1967)
27. Christian Reflections (1967)
28. The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes (2020)
29. The Neglected CS Lewis (ed Mark Neal & Jerry Root) (2020)

Adult Fiction

30. Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
31. Perelandra (1943)
32. That Hideous Strength (1945)
33. Till We Have Faces (1956)


1895Brother Warren born
1898Born Belfast, Northern Ireland
1908Death of mother
1917-18Serves and is wounded in the Somme in the First World War
1917-23Student at Oxford
1925-54Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College Oxford
1927The Coalbiters started
1929Death of father
1929(?)Conversion to atheism
1930Lived at The Kilns with his brother Warnie Lewis and Mrs Maureen Moore
1931Conversion to Christianity
1933The Inklings started
1933The Pilgrim’s Regress
1938Out of the Silent Planet
1940The Problem of Pain
1942The Screwtape Letters (fiction)
1942-54President of Oxford Socratic Club
1943The Abolition of Man
1943Perelandra (fiction)
1945That Hideous Strength
1946The Great Divorce
1950The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Narnia)
1950Begins correspondence with Joy Davidman
1951Death of Mrs Maureen Moore
1951Prince Caspian (Narnia)
1952First meets Joy Davidman
1952Mere Christianity
1952The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Narnia)
1953The Silver Chair (Narnia)
1954The Horse and His Boy (Narnia)
1954English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
1954Professor of Medieval & Renaissance Literature Cambridge
1955The Magician’s Nephew (Narnia)
1955Joy Davidman moves to Oxford
1956The Last Battle (Narnia)
1956Till We Have Faces (fiction)-dedicated to Joy Davidman
23 April 1956“Marries” Joy Davidman in civil ceremony to ensure her permanent residency in England
October 1956Joy Davidman diagnosed with cancer
21 March 1957Marries ailing Joy Davidman in church ceremony. Joy moves into The Kilns
1958Reflections on the Psalms
1960The Four Loves
1960Death of spouse Joy Lewis (Davidman)
1960The World’s Last Night and Other Essays
1961A Grief Observed
1961An Experiment in Criticism
22 November 1963Death, aged 64
1964Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer