Was Lewis a Revolutionary or Dinosaur?

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

My talk is, “C.S. Lewis: Revolutionary or Dinosaur,” and briefly, what I’m going to be speaking about in my brief talk is, Lewis famously described himself as a “dinosaur” — a living relic of a past age, soon to be extinct (“De Descriptione Temporum). If we look around today, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be extinct for a while. But the question is, were Lewis and his Inklings friends — his friends in his group called the Inklings — a circle of instigators, as someone said, standing against the modern post-Christian world, rather than just a group of friends trying to hold onto a bygone era? In other words, was Lewis a cultural innovator or a dinosaur?

The Inklings

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Inklings. You’ve heard a little bit about ink in the previous talk. Inklings is a kind of a pun, isn’t it, on spilling ink and having insights. But it was a group of friends, particularly centered around C.S. Lewis and cutting past lots of discussion about how the Inklings were put together. But basically, Lewis was at the center of them, being the life and soul of the party in a sense. And Tolkien was also a very important member, and others were Charles Williams, who you may not be so familiar with, and various other Oxford Dons or professional people, including Lewis’s family doctor and his brother as part of the group. So it’s very much a mixed bag of people.

Now, this group lasted for many, many years. It perhaps started in 1933. I get into trouble with other scholars if I say it definitely was 1933, but it lasted until Lewis’s death in 1963, basically. But it changed in shape over the years. For much of the time it was a literary group, but then it became more a conversational group. But even when it was a literary group, the group spilled over into meetings in local pubs, informal groups where they talked about all kinds of subjects, such as whether dogs have souls and issues like that, that are very important to understanding the nature of reality.

And his group of friends, which as you know, gave rise to all kinds of books like the writings of C.S. Lewis and of Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction stories, his essays, his broadcast talks on BBC during the wartime, which became the famous book, Mere Christianity.

All these spilled out of the Inklings, out discussions and readings from works in progress. And they go against the modern tendency to regard writers and artists as being in isolation, tormented, isolated souls who do things in private and then share them with the world. But rather, they actually have a context in friendship and other groups like, for example, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the friendships between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and others.

The Inklings: Instigators or Mere Friends

Now, there’s two diametric ways of seeing the Inklings. One of them was to see the group as a circle of instigators standing against the modern world, a circle led by Tolkien and Lewis as they did their pioneering work on writing stories like The Lord of the Rings, or science fiction, or the Narnian stories. And this view was articulated by a very young member of the Inklings who’s barely become a postgraduate at Oxford, called John Wain (not to be confused with another John Wayne). He described the Inklings like this, “This was a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” So that was one view of them.

Another view of them was put forward in a very influential book by Humphrey Carpenter, which was called The Inklings. And it was a study of the group, which was published in the 1970s. And he remains the standard work on the Inklings. Now, according to Humphrey Carpenter, the Inklings were merely a group of Lewis’s friends, and he keeps using the phrase, asking whether there was, in his words, a “common Inklings attitude” (156). But he describes this as nonexistent.

He describes Lewis as the fox that isn’t there, and essentially, all the Inklings are a group of Lewis’s friends and nothing more. They didn’t influence each other in any way. Now, since then, there has been a lot of scholarly work on the Inklings which sheds doubt on that. And then there are other views which shed doubt on the idea that Lewis and the Inklings were a group of instigators. Now, to quote Humphrey Carpenter, he said, “The Inklings were a group of Lewis’s friends: the group gathered round him, and in the end, one does not have to look any further than Lewis to see why it came into being. He himself is the fox” (171).

Self-Confessed Dinosaur

Now, Lewis, late in life was offered a very exciting job at Cambridge University. Up to then he’d been associated with Oxford University, he’d been a Don, he’d been a tutor of many students that passed through, but he’d never had the distinction of being offered a Chair at Oxford. It was left to Cambridge University to offer him the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Now, Lewis chose his inaugural lecture to attack the modern world, and this is when he famously described himself as a dinosaur.

So this was a very brave thing to do, where at the point when he was establishing his presence at Cambridge, he was saying that he was representing enormous lost few, and he chose his inaugural lecture to declare the follies of the modern world. He described it as the age of the machine. He described the modern world as post-Christian. He described himself as a dinosaur, a valuable relic. He described himself as “an old Western man,” an old European man. And he said this new age was in danger of abolishing humanity itself.

And he’d already written a book called The Abolition of Man, which was not a feminist tract but a philosophical essay, arguing that humanity itself was in danger of extinction. And Lewis concluded his inaugural lecture, “Where I fail as the critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. . . . Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”

And if you’re interested, there’s a Christian thinker called Francis Schaeffer. I wrote a biography of him, and some of his ideas have affinities with C.S. Lewis’s view that there was a catastrophic change in recent Western history — there was a discontinuity, a watershed that occurred sometime in the 19th century. In Lewis’s view, this was when the age of the machine was inaugurated. It counts as important as the Stone Age, the Iron Age, or the Bronze Age.

Rehabilitating the Pre-Modern and Modern World

And just finally, I want to say that Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, was engaged in rehabilitating a pre-modern worldview. I’m in the process of writing a book at the moment, a group portrait of the Inklings. So I’m struggling with the whole question of what the Inklings were.

But in some ways, I think the Inklings were like the loyal old Narnians in the Narnian stories. And if I can quote from Prince Caspian, where you have a discussion between some of the old Narnians who are faithful in the presence of modernizing tendencies in Narnia, which was cutting down the talking trees, and so on. A conversation between a dwarf and a badger:

“Do you believe all those old stories?” asked Trumpkin.

“I tell you, we don’t change, we beasts,” said Trufflehunter. “We don’t forget. I believe in the High King Peter and the rest that reigned at Cair Paravel, as firmly as I believe in Aslan himself.” (70)

And I think the real evidence that Lewis wasn’t a dinosaur, and that as somebody that is actually very relevant to our modern world, is his reception. The very existence of this conference is a part of that reception, where you’ve come together to find out more about Lewis’s thoughts and writings. No doubt you’ve read at least some of his books or seen films based on his works. Lewis’s and Tolkien’s increasing global appeal demonstrates that they are not mere relics, but forces of change to be reckoned with. He wasn’t a reactionary, but he was appropriating the past for today. What he says speaks with relevance to both modernism and postmodernism.

I heard last night in an email that many of Lewis’s books were actually published in mainland China. In fact, two biographies I’ve recently written, one on Tolkien and one on C.S. Lewis, are going to be published in mainland China next year. This is amazing. Just my little study of them has relevance in a country like Red China. Moreover, if you go to Japan or other parts of the world, you’ll find people reading Tolkien and Lewis, seeing the films; they speak today. So the answer is, I think, that Lewis is not a dinosaur but an agent for change in our modern world. Thank you.

lives in Keswick (northwest England) and writes, lectures, and serves as a part-time tutor at Lancaster University.