Dan DeWitt: With these guys I could probably just say go and we would be fine. But I do have some organized questions for you, and if you want to deviate from them, feel free. All three are experts on C. S. Lewis, and I am really looking forward to what they have to say. I’m going to start with some low-hanging fruit. If you would, just say your favorite Lewis book and why.
Colin Duriez: That is a very difficult question. I won’t give a political answer and say which books I like on Monday and which ones I like on Wednesday. I suppose my favorite nonfiction book by C. S. Lewis is Miracles. I find it extraordinarily helpful, and the mix of clear thinking and deep imagination is very evident in it. And in fiction, I think my favorite is Perelandra, the second in the science fiction trilogy.
Lyle Dorsett: I think my favorite will always be Surprised by Joy, because it was instrumental in pointing me to Christ and my conversion. But if I go to the old idea of if you were on an island and can only have one C. S. Lewis book what would you have, I’d probably get Walter Hooper’s edition of God in the Dock, because there are so many great short pieces in there.
N.D. Wilson: Nonfiction would be Surprised by Joy, because it’s a story about his own conversion especially, and he understands that people aren’t motivated by logic, but that logic is necessary in its proper place. But he discusses the true motivation of what moves a person, and hearing the story earlier about how it moved you was terrific. So I like it even more now. And then That Hideous Strength is my favorite as a novel. I think it’s just a magnificent novel. I love Perelandra too, but it’s fantabulous, to use a word coined by Charles Williams.
Dan DeWitt: Did Charles Williams coin that? Okay, just making sure. There’s some Inkling trivia there that would be good to know. I’m going to ask a few questions directed at individuals, but feel free, please, to jump in. I’d like to start with Colin Duriez. In your C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia, you make the statement that C. S. Lewis is an enigmatic figure, and you give something of a warning of trying to interpret Lewis from our own situation in life. Can you unpack that a little bit, Colin?
Colin Duriez: Well, since I wrote the C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia, which was about 14 years ago, I’ve actually done a new edition now called The A-Z of Lewis, which is bigger. And I still think that Lewis is an enigmatic character. I think it’s because there are so many sides to him. Preeminently, he was a scholar and a storyteller. You know he’s called Jack, and I think of him as the jack of two trades, really. But he was also lots of other things; he could write for children and he could write deep philosophy. In fact, when he was young, he was part of a group of young philosophers in Oxford. He used to meet informally. So there’s depth upon depth there, and I’m sure it has to do with the way that God worked in his life.
So the truth is that I haven’t gotten to the bottom of the enigma of C. S. Lewis. I just find his writings and his person constantly fascinating, and that’s why I keep writing about him. But I think the idea of the encyclopedia was that it gave you a way in. You could go in from whichever entry you wanted to find out more about him, whether you went in through one of his nonfiction books like Mere Christianity, or through a Narnian story, or through one of the science fiction stories. You’ll still come to the same person, but a different facet will be unfolding. And you will even if you read English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), which got Lewis off having to write about Shakespeare.
Dan DeWitt: You gave the warning there, and unfortunately I don’t have the newer edition, so I’ll have to get that. I have the older one. You give the warning that people try to interpret Lewis. What would be the danger, for even attendees at a conference like this, to kind of try and bring C. S. Lewis to our setting, instead of understanding him in his own time?
Colin Duriez: I think we have to be very careful of that, because people like to create Lewis in their own image. But I think the antidote to that is to make sure that you read Lewis widely. Once you start to get hooked on his thought and writings, make sure that you’re not just reading one of his types of books. But if you’re an adult and you’ve never read the Narnian stories, well, do read them, and enjoy them. And similarly, if you’ve only read fiction, try reading Mere Christianity, or Miracles, or his letters. His letters are absolutely wonderful, and they’re now available in three massive volumes. And if your wrist starts to ache, you can get them on Kindle, and carry them around like that, as I do.
Dan DeWitt: Lyle, I mentioned earlier that your biography of Joy really is one of the ones I’m the most thankful for. What led you to begin there in your Lewis scholarship, with Joy?
Lyle Dorsett: To be very honest with you, the book was originally published in 1983. The idea for the book came one night in late 1980. I had never written one line on C. S. Lewis. I’d been influenced by Lewis’s writings, they’d helped me become a Christian, and I had been a Christian four years. But I had been praying, “Lord, help me write a book that might further the kingdom.” I had been writing about secular history. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s important. But I wanted to write something else. And my wife had bought me, at a remainder table, a copy of Smoke on the Mountain, a hardback first edition. Helen Joy Davidman, Lewis’s wife, was a Jewish woman whose first book she ever wrote was entitled Smoke on the Mountain, and it’s a Jewish interpretation of the Ten Commandments for the 20th century.
I pulled that book off the shelf, I started reading it, and I was absolutely taken by the book. And I thought, “Man, this woman, her name rings a bell.” But at the time she wrote that book, this first edition, she had no relationship with Lewis. So I went and pulled off the Hooper-Green biography of Lewis, and sure enough, she was the one that married C. S. Lewis. But they devoted about two paragraphs to her. It was like they wanted to hide her. I decided that night that I wanted to know who this woman was.
And when I woke the next morning, I told my wife, “I think I’m going to write her biography. I really feel stirred by the Lord to do it.” And she said, “Well, if he’s in it, you’ll do it.” That’s a long answer to a story, but to me, it was nudging from God. I did it. And because of that book, I got into the world of C. S. Lewis that otherwise I really had no right to. I don’t know as much as Colin does about Lewis, but I love him and his stuff. I can’t wait to meet him and thank him for what he’s done.
Dan DeWitt: Absolutely. What was your most surprising discovery from her life?
Lyle Dorsett: My most surprising discovery in getting into her life was how abrasive she was, and how tedious it must’ve been to be around her. And as I began to gather materials and interview people that knew her, I even said to my wife, “Mary, I’m not sure I want to write this woman’s biography because she’s not that pretty, in a lot of ways.” And Mary said, “What kind of people do you think God has to work with? We need books that aren’t a bunch of hagiographical studies that airbrush every flaw.” So I wrote the story, and it became a movie, Shadowlands, and it opened a lot of doors for me to witness for Christ, especially among Jewish people.
Dan DeWitt: Alister McGrath’s biography, and his treatment of Joy, do you have any thoughts or commentary on that? Do you feel like that lines up pretty well?
Lyle Dorsett: I think Alister McGrath’s new biography of Lewis is a first-rate effort. It’s got some really sharp and keen insights into things that we haven’t seen before. He has superb material on World War I, and Lewis and the war. I’m very disappointed in the way he dealt with Joy Davidman. I don’t want to knock it. People have to write the book they have to write, but in one way, he does not show us the profound impact she had on C. S. Lewis. In fact, the book Surprised by Joy really has two meanings to it. He was surprised by Joy Davidman. He was surprised by sehnsucht (longing joy), but he also was surprised by Joy Davidman. Everybody that knew him knew that. I think she was so important to Lewis at a variety of levels that do not come through in that book.
Dan DeWitt: Well, that’s helpful, because you have Shadowlands, the movie version of Joy, and now we have a polar opposite.
Lyle Dorsett: It doesn’t bother me, because the movie really distorts Joy and the boys and Jack and everything, but it’s just there’s so much more of Joy that I think could have been helpful to hear. But everybody has to write the book they have to write. I’m glad he’s not here to tell me what he thinks of my biography of Joy.
Dan DeWitt: In Louisville, Kentucky, Douglas Gresham just spoke this last week with Devin Brown, who’s just published a book on Lewis. And what surprised me was him talking about Warnie, and he said Warnie’s grieving over Joy’s passing was extremely significant. And I had never thought about Warnie’s relationship with Joy.
Lyle Dorsett: She loved Warnie like a brother, and he loved her like a sister. And Warnie could be hard to love at times. He wrestled with alcoholism and he made a lot of mistakes, but she knew what it was to be a sinner saved by grace, and she loved him, and she was committed to him.
Dan DeWitt: Well, N. D., I’ve got a question for you. I know you have a great deal of interest in The Great Divorce, beyond it as a literary work of Lewis and your appreciation of it. I watched a video with you and your dad and Alan Jacobs. And at some point a comparison was made between Rob Bell and Love Wins and The Great Divorce. Could we find Rob Bell, perhaps, in The Great Divorce? Would Lewis have sympathized with Love Wins?
N.D. Wilson: Oh, man, you’re really setting me up here, aren’t you? Yeah, I think we do find Rob Bell in The Great Divorce. I think there’s actually a religious character grappling and wrestling with issues when the answer is right there, and it’s about the wrestle and the discussion. I don’t know Rob personally, so I can’t speak to his heart, but I can speak to the effect of what he’s done in a lot of his books, and also a lot of people I know who are reflections of it. I went through philosophy clubs. I was the kind of person who hated philosophy, but I really loved hating it. So I was in philosophy clubs, and reading Kant, and all that kind of stuff, and I knew a lot of people who were stuck in the perpetual wrestle, and they couldn’t stop when the answer finally came. And the journey is great, but the journey has to go to a place and it has to stop. There has to be a point of rest.
So the Chesterton quote dovetails here to a Lewis discussion, that an open mind serves the same purpose as an open mouth; it’s meant to close on something. It needs to close. And I think that Lewis does actually have religious seekers who refuse to see heaven and embrace heaven and grace, even when they’re there, because they’re still stuck in the wrestle, in the discussion. I think Lewis is intensely perceptive into people’s motivations, what makes humans do what humans do, and what makes us hold onto our weaknesses and cherish them. And I think The Great Divorce is one of the best examples of that. Obviously that happens in The Screwtape Letters and in his other novels, but The Great Divorce is just person by person with different discussions, different characters, and different insecurities, and it always comes down to serving oneself or forgetting oneself, laying oneself down or pursuing the self. On the one hand is heaven; on the other hand is hell.
Dan DeWitt: What about the use of George MacDonald in Lewis? What are we to make of that? I teach a class at Southern Seminary on Lewis, and I divide my class into the right side and the left side, and we argue. The right side argues a conservative Lewis, and the left side argues a less conservative Lewis, and they’ll go get the George MacDonald anthology and quote from that and say, “Look, Lewis is a universalist.” And I have to remind them that those aren’t his words and that he’s quoting MacDonald, but he places them in the story. Why is that?
N.D. Wilson: I think it’s gentle ribbing. I think he’s razzing a mentor of his that he didn’t know, but that was instrumental in his own salvation. He loves MacDonald, and I think inserting MacDonald into a situation where a bunch of people are coming from hell up to the edge of heaven, and are getting back on the bus and going back to hell, is just a direct disagreement with MacDonald. MacDonald in The Great Divorce is obviously not historical MacDonald. It’s Lewis as Lewis imagines MacDonald to be, now that he’s wiser and on the other side.
But it’s clear. You see some conversion in The Great Divorce, but the overwhelming majority of the people we see hang onto their vice, hang onto their little petty thing, and hop back up on the bus and go back down to gray town. There are a lot of little details in The Great Divorce that are fun to unpack. But when you’re down in gray town, there’s some people that are just ghosts, and some people are really shriveled up, hard, little monsters.
And the first thing that happens when everybody goes up into the light of heaven, into the light of grace, is that they all shrivel up. When they take the bus trip up, they all shrivel in that presence, in that light. And then we discover the origin of all those shriveled ones down in gray town. They’re the ones who’ve actually been to heaven and seen grace, and still have turned their backs on it and gone back down. And for MacDonald to be there, and for those people to be there, I think is just a clear comment and a point of disagreement with MacDonald, even though he loved him. And I admire MacDonald a lot as well.
Dan DeWitt: We’ve mentioned George MacDonald, Rob Bell, and C. S. Lewis in this short conversation.
N.D. Wilson: And we got Chesterton and Joy Davidman.
Dan DeWitt: That’s right. Where do we place C. S. Lewis on the evangelical scale? Where do we put him? Where does he fit?
N.D. Wilson: Early church.
Colin Duriez: Yeah, early church. Definitely. I think it’s almost a false category to try and fit Lewis into what we understand as evangelicalism. I think this conference is great because you’re bringing together two worlds, really. This is an evangelical group of people and you’re bringing Lewis into it. But you have to acknowledge that he’s very unusual. He doesn’t fit easily into our categories. He belongs to an older world. I just gave a little talk about whether Lewis was a dinosaur or a revolutionary. He’s representing an old world, but making that older world accessible to a modern world, so that we’ve got a wider perspective on the world in which we live. And if we’re just imposing our understanding of evangelicalism on him, we’re missing a lot of things.
It would be nice if he agreed with us on every point, but from my point of view, I’ve never found that being steeped in Lewis has weakened my beliefs, say, in the inerrancy of Scripture. It’s just helped me to read the Bible in a better way, to try and to appreciate the fact that there’s highly imaginative stuff in the Bible that you miss if you just look at it through a simple conceptual framework. And so Lewis has enormously enriched my reading of Scripture, without at all weakening my view of it. I don’t know if that fits in with anybody else?
Lyle Dorsett: I think, first of all, if you look at Lewis on a spectrum of Anglicanism, he’s fairly square in the middle. Because you have a very evangelical, lower church Anglican, and then you have a very high church Anglican, even to the extent almost of an Anglo-Catholic. And Lewis is pretty much in the middle of that. You can see that in the fact that he has a very high view of scripture and he has a very high view of the efficacy of prayer. On the other hand, he has a very high view of the sacraments, and felt that people ought to get communion at least once a week, and even more often if they could. He often had it twice a week.
He doesn’t fit neatly in a category because he wasn’t attempting to follow some systematic theology. His theology is very eclectic. He was a student of early church fathers, and he was a student of the reformers. He was influenced by Luther, influenced by Calvin, and influenced by Wesley. He read all of these people, and he refused to follow Calvin, or follow Wesley. He would be appalled if we followed Lewis. The man studied the Scriptures on his own. He was as good an exegete as anybody out of the best divinity schools in the English-speaking world. He didn’t go to divinity school, but he knew Koine Greek and he kept his Greek alive. He and Owen Barfield corresponded in Greek just to keep the language alive.
But the point is that he came to the conclusions he felt he must. He wrote an extremely interesting letter to a Roman Catholic man. And the Catholic had, in essence, asked him, “Why aren’t you Catholic?” And Lewis, among other things, wasn’t a transubstantiationalist, so he wasn’t going to go that route. But he did say, “What I like to do is try to find the areas where we can agree and get along.” And then he said this, it was a very interesting statement. He said, “I get far less criticism for my books from you people, the Catholics, or even from secular people and atheists, than I get from these Puritans.” He did not like Puritans. And his reason was this: he said that they were so separatistic and fundamentalist about things that if you didn’t agree with them, they felt a need to dash off a hot letter and tell you where you were wrong. And he found that very tiresome. He also found it hypocritical.
I don’t know what you all think. I’m trying to tell you what Lewis thought about these things. He said, for example, “I get criticized for having a spiritual director. People say you can go directly to the Lord. But for the Puritans, their favorite book next to the Bible was Pilgrim’s Progress. There are two women in that book that get chewed out because they didn’t have a proper conductor to get them to the celestial city.” So he said, “Let’s get off of the hypocrisy and find out where we can get along together. We have an enemy bigger than our differences. Let’s keep moving.” Sorry about the sermon.
N.D. Wilson: It was a nice sermon. I honestly think that placing Lewis is difficult, and kind of impossible, because of how much he’s influenced people. There’s so much of an avalanche in Christian thinking and Christian imagination after him that trying to locate him in it is weird because he’s up at the headwaters. And then, as a side note also, when you try to place somebody as if they were the same thing every moment of their life is also impossible. So Lewis’s early thoughts on Scripture were very different from his late thoughts on Scripture; his early thoughts on evolution were different from his thoughts at the end of his life. Like all of us, he was growing and learning and in motion.
He got along with Tolkien. Tolkien was his best friend, but then Tolkien also thought that he became so staunchly Protestant at the end of his life that they grew apart, and the friendship lessened. So, just looking at the canon of Lewis, I think that all of us stand with Lewis in a lot of ways, but only because he’s our teacher. He’s taught us so much. So in some ways, he’s able to stand next to a lot of people in a lot of different ways.
Lyle Dorsett: Can I make one point? This is really important, what you’re saying. Lewis grows and he changes. Well said, my man. He’s buying my dinner. The point is Lewis did change on things, but there’s another factor. For example, his brother Warren said, “Jack used to think if he had communion once a month, it was plenty.” Well, by the late 1950s, he was telling people to get communion as often as you can get it. He had totally switched his view.
Even going back to what we said about George MacDonald, Lewis is often accused of being a universalist because MacDonald said God would never give up on his people. But Lewis never said that. And there is that little episode at the end of The Last Battle, and people say, “Oh, there’s Lewis saying that everybody saved.” Lewis made it very clear that the Narnia Chronicles were not analogies. Aslan is not Jesus. The White Witch is not Satan. These are stories about longing, about spiritual quests. And it’s really unfair to Lewis to take one of his books where you have a fictional character and say, “Ah, we’ve caught him on some heresy here!” Because he’s telling a story. He wasn’t setting out to write the Christ story as Narnia. That was not what he did. It comes through, and it draws us to the Lord, but he had a totally different ambition.
N.D. Wilson: To pile in there at the end regarding what you said earlier about him disliking Puritans, I know, just from personal experience, I get more complaints from people who should be closer to me. It is just an odd thing. I still can’t get my head around Christians who don’t like magic. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And it is also really funny that people with whom I have more differences, it’s an easy interaction with letters and reviews and so on, versus people who want to pick very particular nits. And so I personally have had letters from people upset that I would promote the Narnia Chronicles because the doctrine of the atonement or the stone table is inaccurate, but it’s not the cross and it’s not Christ. It’s about redemption, it’s about repentance, and it’s about self-sacrifice. And he was not looking for a Pilgrim’s Progress allegorical structure. That’s not what he was trying to do.
Dan DeWitt: Well, related to that, related to Lewis speaking into areas of theology, directly or indirectly, we have a coffee shop on campus, as you might imagine, and I was sitting behind one of our apologetics professors, Mark Coppenger, and I asked Mark a question. Somehow we turned to the question, who was the most influential theologian of the 20th century? And without hesitation, he said C. S. Lewis. But C. S. Lewis never claimed to be a theologian. In fact, he always reminded us he wasn’t a theologian. What are we to make of that? He was a man who constantly reminded us he’s not a theologian, but he is considered by many, probably, to be the greatest theologian of the 20th century?
Colin Duriez: Well, perhaps that’s the answer, that we can see his quality as a theologian, even though he didn’t claim to be it, by the effect he’s had on our lives and on the lives of so many people. I find it mind-boggling, the way that Lewis’s books are received throughout the world and in many different cultures. In Japan, for example, which has a long history of opposition to Christianity, his books are published. Through the post, I received a beautiful Japanese edition of my little guide to Narnia. And I just thought it was amazing that in Japan there’s a place in bookshops and in libraries for my little guide to Lewis’s books, and the books are obviously translated into Japanese. And that’s pretty staggering.
I think that’s the way to look at it. We can see in Lewis something which enriches our theological understanding, even though he didn’t claim it. The irony is that Tolkien was extremely irritated by Lewis’s lay theology. He thought Lewis was totally out of place to be giving the BBC wartime broadcast on what we know as Mere Christianity now. He thought that it should be left to the experts, the priests, the people who’d been trained in theology, because they had a careful training of the biblical languages and everything, so that they would speak accurately about the doctrines.
Lyle Dorsett: Owen Barfield, who was Lewis’s good friend and his lawyer, among other things, talked to me when my wife and I were doing an oral history interview with him. I asked him, “Is it true that Tolkien was embarrassed and upset that The Screwtape Letters were dedicated to him?” And Barfield’s response was, “Well, of course he was. I would’ve been too.” And I said, “Well, that shocks me. I would’ve been so honored.” He said, “Jack was neither trained as a theologian nor ordained in the church. He had no business writing on those subjects.” However, Lewis’s response was that until the theologians and the clergy can communicate basic doctrine to ordinary people, he was going to have to do it. So he thought, “When you guys get the job done, I won’t have to do it.” I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s the most influential, because he speaks to those of us who are not a bunch of specialists writing for 500 people in our field.
N.D. Wilson: But with Lewis, I think that’s what made him an evangelical. If you want to know what the most evangelical aspect of Lewis is, it’s his John-the-Baptist willingness to go around and prepare the way without a pedigree, without asking permission, without having been trained. That was an extremely evangelical impulse that he had, and has blessed, not just thousands of people, but actually millions of people, that he would do those radio broadcasts that became Mere Christianity. So in everything he did he walked around untidily, messing people’s hair up who were experts. Except for English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), everything else was just without permission. He just did it without permission.
Colin Duriez: I think we have to remember something about the kind of God that we know. God is unexpected, he works in ways that sometimes appear to be very foolish. The crucifixion itself has been described as the devil’s mousetrap because it was so unexpected that that would be the way of saving the world. It’s part of the way that God worked, that he’s chosen somebody like C. S. Lewis to speak to the modern world. We’ve often, as evangelicals, neglected to communicate to the world in which we live. We get into safe subcultures. It may not be so much in America, but certainly in the UK there’s a great divorce between the general culture and the Christian culture, which is very, very sad. It’s not entirely that way, because in the academic world there are a lot of Christians who have worked very hard in the academic world, in secular universities, to have a Christian presence.
Dan DeWitt: Let’s take this issue from the other side. We’ve talked about how sometimes Lewis will leave things messy. He’ll get in an area and kind of mess up our theology.
N.D. Wilson: And drive Tolkien nuts.
Dan DeWitt: Yeah. But could someone say that was a bit of a cop out to start all these letters with, “I’m not really a theologian. I’m going to say this, but I’m not a theologian, so I always have this back door.” Would such a criticism have any bearing at all? Would it be warranted at all?
N.D. Wilson: I think absolutely not. It’s one of those things that it’s really silly how specialized we’ve made education and training, because would we make theologians write something at the beginning that said, “I have not been trained in stories”? Or would we make them say, “I unfortunately have not studied narrative”? No, we don’t make them do that. Either they can do it or they can’t, and that’s it. When you have people who are really broad, incredibly educated, very well-read, and then have kind of the pastoral sensibility and insight into humans individually that Lewis did — that Tolkien showed glimmers of, but didn’t have the same depth of insight — I think it’s fine that he said that. I think he said that to placate his friends, who were more tidy-minded.
But you have to remember that he was best buds with somebody who would obsess over the cycles of the moon in Middle Earth, and not release a manuscript until he had the moon right. And thousands of people waited in frustration for the book to come out while he was getting the lunar cycles correct in Rohan. Really? And then Lewis would just handwrite Voyage of the Dawn Treader and send it off. So I think the answer is no. His skill and ability and insight is his authority there. Truth is his authority. If he hadn’t had the insight, it wouldn’t have lasted, it wouldn’t have mattered, and it would have just faded.
Lyle Dorsett: I think he was genuinely humble, too. I think he started some of those letters by saying, “I’m really not an authority here. However, I’m going to tell you what I think.” And he could take a strong stand. There was one woman who wrote to him a series of letters and said, “Well, my pastor tells me he doesn’t believe that Mary was a virgin. And he has several arguments for that.” And Lewis wrote back to her very simply and said, “Then he would be wrong.”
Dan DeWitt: Related to Tolkien, since we went there a bit, Colin has written quite a bit about Tolkien, perhaps more about Tolkien than Lewis. I didn’t count them. Talk a little bit about their friendship, and the uniqueness of their friendship, and if you want to expand it to the Inklings, you’ve written books about the Inklings as well.
Colin Duriez: Well, sometimes when I’m talking about their friendship I say, “Imagine a world without Lord of the Rings, or without The Chronicles of Narnia. And that’s what the world would be like if it wasn’t for the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien.” It was that important. And in my book on their friendship, The Gift of Friendship, I try and spell that out, about why they were so important to each other. Just earlier I spoke on that subject, and somebody said to me after they didn’t realize how important their friendship was. And I think that the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was very much at the core of the Inklings.
There’s a lot of mystery about how the Inklings evolved, because we have very little documentation. Part of the fun is to dig out letters and scraps of information here and there, and try and build up a picture. And you know you’re going to tread on a few people’s corns when you do it, because people have various theories about when they began, what the Inklings were like, and who the members were and who they weren’t. If you say it started in a certain year, they’ll say, “But it might’ve been a later year! How do you know?”
But one thing I’ve come to realize recently is that the beginning of the Inklings was very much tied into Lewis’s conversion, because he often made a point of describing the Inklings in the early years as being made up of people who were Christians and had a desire to write. So those were the two characteristics of the group. Now, Lewis points out somewhere that you can’t be too precious over the use of the word Christian. We like to only call people Christians if they’re subscribed to the 39 Articles, or the five principles of Calvinism, or something like that. But it has a wider usefulness than that. So, in the case of Lewis and Tolkien, you could describe them both as Christians, though Lewis had the Puritan background and Tolkien had the Roman Catholic background.
But that seemed to be very much at the heart of what the Inklings were, and also that they were something of an oasis in a world they regarded as hostile, in a modern world that was, in Lewis’s words, “post-Christian.” But it allowed them to gain strength and encouragement to actually address the world that they were in, even though they seemed like reactionaries. Lewis hardly ever read newspapers, for example. How on earth could somebody who never read newspapers address the modern world in a relevant way? How can you wrap your brain around that? But somehow, Lewis and his friends were in touch with the deeper currents of what was happening in our world as it changed into the world that we know today.
Dan DeWitt: Tolkien didn’t approve of Joy, did he?
Lyle Dorsett: Tolkien did not like Joy. I think, in part, it was because he was appalled that Lewis would marry a divorced woman. Tolkien was very Catholic, and he was puzzled by Lewis. He couldn’t understand why Lewis wouldn’t become a Catholic. In fact, Tolkien even wrote a letter to his son, saying, “I just don’t understand Jack. He loves holy communion, and he speaks highly of nuns, but he won’t have anything to do with Catholicism.” Well, he was an Ulsterman, among other things, and he had some great doctrinal differences with the Catholics.
But Tolkien did not like Joy Davidman because she was abrasive, he didn’t like her because she was Jewish, he didn’t like her because she was an American, and he didn’t like her because she was divorced. She barged into Lewis’s life. He was a confirmed bachelor. And people had strong opinions about her. I was shocked when I went to work on that biography about how much antisemitism I encountered in England when I did interviews with people. I was shocked by the virulent antisemitism. There were people that just loathed her because she was a “Jewess,” as they said. And it just left me reeling.
One time at Wheaton, two Anglican nuns came into the Wade Center there, and there was a picture of C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, sitting on a table there. I was standing off to the side, and one of them looked at the other and said, “Oh, there’s that Jewess that Lewis married.” And they spit the word out. And I said, “Yes, she was Jewish, but we worship a Jewish carpenter too, don’t we?” And they didn’t see a lot of humor in that, but it wasn’t intended to be real humorous.
N.D. Wilson: I think Tolkien didn’t care for her because she was abrasive, and that was his job. It’s like he was threatened. He was that staunch, curmudgeon, sandpapery, tough guy to deal with and be around. And honestly, it was probably preparation for Jack to be able to be with Joy. So, it really is kind of funny, you can only have two real curmudgeons. Can they coexist? I don’t think they could very well.
Dan DeWitt: There’s just enough room for one.
N.D. Wilson: Yeah. There’s one and that’s it. But their friendship was absolutely key, because they challenged each other. I think one of the greatest gifts that God gave to Lewis was Tolkien, the curmudgeon, and Tolkien, the harsh critic. Because Lewis would’ve slapped things out there and happily generated pulp novel after pulp novel and thrown it out there, and it would’ve been good stuff. But Tolkien made him go back to it, and he complained about it, and Lewis’s work improved. It never necessarily got up to the level Tolkien wanted it to. He might still have petty problems with something, but Lewis’s work improved under that kind of criticism.
If you have to build a building that’s going to stand up in a windstorm, it’s going to be a stronger building. And given that he had to go down to the pub and read it out loud to Tolkien, it was a stronger work. He had to go resist this tough critic whom he loved and respected. And I think that’s absolutely essential for any creator — to have strong criticism that comes with affection. I think Tolkien can take credit for a huge amount of the quality of Lewis’s work.
Dan DeWitt: Now, did Lewis have the reverse effect? Did he speed Tolkien up at all?
N.D. Wilson: He was just a super fan.
Colin Duriez: I was just going to say that some other of Lewis’s friends were important in the way that he wrote. I think Ian Wilson points out that Lewis’s friendship with Arthur Greaves, his Ulster friend from teenage years, was very important in Lewis developing an ability to write for non-intellectual people. There was nothing wrong with Arthur’s intelligence, but he wasn’t an academic. Lewis appreciated him for his ability to feel and so on. But his correspondence with Arthur is absolutely enormous. If you look at the three massive volumes of Lewis’s correspondence that are in print, a lot of those letters are to Arthur. And that constant writing to him and sharing was very important. And without it, we wouldn’t have, perhaps, a lot of Lewis’s books that we love so much. So the pattern of friendship around Lewis is very complex.
Dan DeWitt: I was just going to say, I love C. S. Lewis’s last letter to Arthur Greaves, where he comes to grips with the fact that he won’t see him again. I want to ask a couple more questions to keep us on track. Did you want to add something?
Lyle Dorsett: I just wanted to say one thing about the Lewis-Tolkien relationship. When you read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there is a massive theme in there of longing, what Lewis calls joy, and those men shared a heartbeat for longing. And it’s in both of the men’s writings. I think there’s a point of connection there that it was like, “Hey, we’re in the same fraternity.”
Dan DeWitt: We could go on talking for a long time, and I would certainly enjoy it. But for the sake of time, I want to ask two more questions. The first one I’m just going to throw out there for anyone to respond to, and then my final question will be to everybody and I want to make sure everyone responds. Lyle, in your recent Christianity Today work on Lewis, you say, “[Lewis’s letters and books, and the lives these writings touch, are his legacy.” What’s the future of Lewis’s legacy?
Lyle Dorsett: I said this at a seminar earlier this afternoon that I believe his letters, especially his letters of spiritual counsel, are going to live on and on and on, because they are profound, and they flow out of a man who was really, deeply committed to the Great Physician. The Great Physician spoke through those letters and pushed Lewis to do them, because Lewis didn’t want to write all those letters. But he did it out of obedience because he felt the Lord told him to answer all his fan mail.
N.D. Wilson: I honestly believe that Christian school kids centuries from now will be saying, “So, Lewis and Augustine, did they live at the same time?” There will be that kind of muddling and confusion. I think what Lewis has done is lasting. I think it’s going to last. I think he’s going to be more read in 50 years than he is now, and I think he’s going to be around. And if you think about the history of the world, on into the future, give it a thousand years, and Augustine and Calvin and Lewis and Chesterton — these great ones who’ve really expressed it well, and beautifully, and touched lives — will just be all a blur for us as early church fathers are. It’s all back there.
Colin Duriez: Yes, there was a point where Lewis thought that he was a failed writer, that his book sales were going down, and he couldn’t see any future for the books. And then after that they took off. And since his death, sales have continued to rise, and his books are translated throughout the world. It’s very difficult to predict what it’s going to be like in 50 years time. But I think the idea that the Narnian stories are not well-written and so on, I think that’s a myth that’s being exploded. And Michael Ward’s work, for example, on Narnia, helps to show the quality of Lewis’s sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s phrase) in the way that he constructed the stories.
And in a way, if you can compare the books with, say, the recent Narnia films, the books are much stronger. They’re much more long-living than films. So some people have been very disappointed with at least some of the three films that have come out. But the books are translated into many, many languages, even Turkish. I was a student in Turkey many years ago, and I just longed for the day when the Narnian stories might be translated into Turkish. Aslan is Turkish for “lion”. And recently I asked a friend of mine, “What have they done with the Turkish translation? How have they translated Aslan? Have they put in the English word Lion instead of Aslan?” They said, “Oh no, they’ve just left it as Aslan.” But I think in 50 years time, whatever books of Lewis’s are still available, I think that the Narnian stories will be in the lead.
Dan DeWitt: You mentioned Michael Ward. We took our students to the Kilns, and Michael came over and gave a talk, and it was so convincing and so compelling. I wish we had more time to talk about that, but it was fascinating to hear from him. The last question I want to leave you with is this: What is your favorite quote or passage in the Lewis writings? If you’re expressing to someone your love for Lewis, and you want to make it as concise as a quote (or passage) as you can, what would it be?
N.D. Wilson: I have two actually, but I can’t do it verbatim. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian says, “Oh, you come from one of those round worlds. You come from a ball world.” He says, “I’ve always wanted to be on a round world.” And I think that that right there encapsulates everything Lewis wanted to say to kids about the magic of their own world, the magic of here and our lives. And I love that. You have a fantasy character yearning, like we yearn to go to Narnia, to see this world and England.
And then the other one was the description of a star as a burning ball of gas, and the correction being, “No, even in our world, that’s only what it’s made of. That’s not what it is.” And that’s another deep insight. It’s like calling us bags of water. There’s so much more to it than that. Those are the two for me.
Lyle Dorsett: I would say, if not the last letter C. S. Lewis wrote, it’s one of the very last. He was very sick. He wrote a letter to a little girl in America and he told her, “Keep your eyes on Jesus. Follow him, obey him, and nothing else ever fundamentally can go wrong.”
Colin Duriez: One of the quotes that stays with me — and I can’t quote the whole passage — is related to the link between the inconsolable longing, which he calls joy, and how it is the secret signature of each soul. I think that is one of the great passages. Another one is when he describes the way that we’ve disenchanted the world through what he calls “the abolition of humanity,” and he talks about the way we have stripped away qualities from human beings. First of all, we stripped it from nature, and then we turned to stripping these qualities from human beings. So we’re left with human beings being absolutely nothing. And I think that’s such a powerful passage. The acuteness of Lewis’s thinking is there, plus the depth of his imagination.
Dan DeWitt: My favorite quote from Lewis, if I could add to it, is the final line from his essay “Is Theology Poetry?” He says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but that by it, I see everything else.” C. S. Lewis has been so helpful in helping me see it and everything else through the power of the gospel. Thank you, men, for your time.