A.N. Wilson

The greatness of C.S. Lewis

[Illustration: John Broadley]

He died on the very day that President Kennedy was assassinated, Friday 22 November 1963, so it is not surprising that the event was overshadowed at the time. With the passage of 60 years, C.S. Lewis’s reputation is undiminished and the sheer range of his achievements as a writer and teacher appears ever more prodigious. For many, he is most beloved as the creator of the seven Narnia books: for others as the author of the science-fiction Space trilogy, which is not only a page-turner but horrifyingly and accurately prophetic.

For still others – and for a long time this would have included myself – the great work is his scholarly but always readable contribution to literary studies. I am thinking of the ever-accessible English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, or the wonderful account of how medieval humanity looked at the cosmos: The Discarded Image. When I made feeble attempts to teach medieval literature to undergraduates, and when I wrote my book on Dante, I found I read Lewis’s chapter in that book, entitled ‘The Heavens’, so often that I almost knew it by heart.

Although Lewis risked scandal during the years of his young manhood by sharing his domestic life with a much older woman, Mrs Moore – mother of a comrade killed in the Great War – his world was essentially male. His cronies in the circle known as the Inklings – J.R.R.Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Nevill Coghill and others – met in colleges or pubs, drank and smoked a lot, and regarded women as semi-jokes. ‘Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor[e],’ Dyson would joke, misapplying a line in Othello. And in Lewis’s book The Four Loves, we read that friendship between the sexes is impossible, because ‘men’s talk’ and ‘women’s talk’ are immiscibles. ‘What were the women doing meanwhile? How should I know? I am a man and never spied on the mysteries of the Bona Dea.’

There is a certain coarseness to Lewis which the experience of falling in love chastened

Even when allowance has been made for a different ethos in those days, you can’t deny this is pretty tedious.

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