The A-Z of C.S. Lewis
An Encyclopedia of his Life, Thought and Writings
Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2013
New Edition. Originally published as C.S. Lewis Handbook. Eastbourne: Monarch, 1990
Hardcover. 352 p. ISBN 978-0745955865. £14.99 / $24.95
Reviewed by Ann Loades
University of Durham & University of St Andrews
This is an updated version of a work first produced two decades ago, since when interest in Lewis (CSL) has hardly abated. This is partly due to the success of the films made from his ‘Narnia’ books, and the phenomenon of ‘Shadowlands’ in its various versions. The present book is beautifully produced and bound, but is better construed as a reference book for those at least partly ‘in the know’ about CSL rather than as an ‘introduction’ to any and every aspect of CSL. It could be bewildering for a ‘beginner’ on CSL to start with ‘A’ and work through to ‘Z’ , even if advised to make their own notes on what belongs with what and with whom. A few clues would help, for instance, CSL’s sympathies with and imagination abundant to write about ‘talking beasts’. This is no trivial matter, as one soon discovers, since one can learn much about CSL’s understanding of appropriate relationships between the human and the non-human from his work. And humour abounds – who but CSL would have been able to tweak the name of a 16th-17th British Admiral, Cloudesley Shovell, to suit a mole, Clodsley Shovel?
CSL himself ‘mapped’ the books he read, so it is no disservice to him to follow his example, beginning with CSL’s own life, that of an Irishman who with his brother was bereft of their mother all too young, and, in a well-meaning but disastrous move on their father’s part, sent first to an abominable school in England. Nowadays CSL’s account of life under a headmaster eventually certified as insane should be recognised as an unambiguous account of sustained physical abuse inflicted on the boys, with CSL avoiding comment on the possible lives of the headmaster’s wife and daughters. For a markedly compassionate man, it was impossible for him to understand how his father could have sent the boys to a school he had never visited, miles away from home, and oblivious to pleas to be schooled elsewhere (eventually possible and necessary as the boys grew). It is no part of Duriez’ self-chosen brief to venture comment on the character of some of CSL’s later religious convictions, but it seems that it was only his hell of grief at his wife’s progress through dying (before the days of hospices) that finally nudged him away from the ‘cosmic sadist’ deity of his first school days to find other resources in the Christian tradition. He needed the theology of The Last Battle (1956) for himself, written years before Joy’s death (1960), and then the reflections of the posthumously published Letters to Malcolm (1964) which might well replace Mere Christianity (1952) as a ‘core’ CSL theological text.
We may also note the importance of the chapter ‘Griefs and Consolations’ in Austin Farrer’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (1961) which may well be the result of this friend’s conversations with CSL, dislodging CSL’s too narrow and ‘worst-case-scenario’ view of God in the initial stages of his grief – which he had been unable to address since his childhood years. Incidentally, Duriez’ entry on Farrer (with his wife both good friends to Joy) is curiously limited. He does not mention that CSL dedicated his Reflections on the Psalms (1955) to Farrer, nor that the latter conducted Joy’s burial service, and delivered a perceptive address on CSL after the latter’s death. There is no reference to the liturgical life of Magdalen College Chapel and its daily attention in Matins and Evensong to the recital of the Psalms – by no means merely a ‘literary text’. Those who take their clues from CSL need also to pay attention to how Farrer explained how CSL had misconstrued God’s relationship to the world of his making, and thence CSL’s indefensible opinion of the meaning of even the most appalling pain. CSL did not get everything ‘right’ as it were.
That apart, it has taken time for those who read CSL and his contemporaries to take on board the influence Farrer may have had on CSL (and perhaps vice versa) when addressing biblical texts. Duriez’ entry on ‘Idealism’ mentions ‘logical positivism’, but makes no reference to the post-World War Two impact of A.J. Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic (1938) and the devastating effect it had for a time on the discussion of ‘religious language’, which should be coupled with the influence on the other hand of Bultmann’s ‘de-mythologising’ project, (see the entry on ‘myth’). CSL had his own distinctive way of responding to such undoubted challenges, but an important conversation partner so far largely missed in the work of those concerned with CSL was Farrer, who gave lectures published as The Glass of Vision (1948). One may well have inter-acted with the other in ways yet to be explored.(1)
Turning to other topics, we may note that as Irishmen, neither CSL nor his brother ‘Warnie’ would have been required to join British and Imperial forces in the ghastly warfare of 1914-1918, CSL recalling some of his own experiences in The Problem of Pain (1940) towards the beginning of another stint of European and world-wide misery. Like many others, both men were profoundly traumatised by the war, which added to their earliest childhood experiences inflicted long-term emotional damage on them, in Warnie’s case resulting in alcoholism, difficult to acknowledge. If anything, the bond between them was strengthened by Joy’s capacity to ‘mother’ them both as well as her own two boys. The present writer has no patience with the idea that when CSL found a kind of respite in his care for Mrs Moore and hers for him, as well as for a succession of evacuees living with her, he at least for a time became her ‘lover’. It is constantly overlooked that as the eldest daughter in her original family she herself had had to become a ‘parent’ to her own siblings, eventually with complete responsibility for running the family household. She may have been as desperate for children, and a ‘son’ in particular to replace her own lost in battle, as CSL needed care in a home life for which College could never substitute, much though it provided support for generations of emotionally bereft men. No doubt she became crotchety in the frailties and frustrations of old age, but Warnie seems to have had little sense of what she would have had to put up with from him – a retired army officer who would have had everything done for him, incapable of setting up an establishment of his own, unmarriageable and alcoholic. He was fortunate to be able to share so much of CSL’s college life, with his gifts as an historian as well as for managing CSL’s mushrooming international correspondence. In an important sense, such life as the two men had with a series of evacuees and Mrs Moore all unwittingly prepared them for life with Joy Davidman and her two boys and an entirely novel household. That said, Duriez has no entry on the vexed topic of ‘gender’ in CSL’s work – still a bone of contention in some North American Christian circles, these very distant from the world CSL inhabited, but still supposedly relevant. It needs as much critique as his view on the meaning(s) of pain.
For the rest, Duriez is an expert on the relationship between CSL and Tolkien, which receives pride of place in this Encyclopedia. It is worth pointing up the continued importance of some of CSL’s work which does not fall within that particular ambit. Thus, for example, CSL’s The Abolition of Man (1943) – a favourite of CSL’s, has received a valuable analysis by one of his contemporaries, J.R. Lucas. CSL’s lecture was originally given in King’s College, Newcastle on Tyne when the latter was part of Durham University. Lucas’s analysis was given in Durham itself, on Thursday, October 22, 1992, the fiftieth anniversary of CSL’s original lecture.(2) Taken together with some features of That Hideous Strength (1943) it stimulates reflection on the conflict between good and evil in contemporary politics, not least for their impact on the integrity of universities in our own time. For instance, CSL wrote a damning account of the conduct of a college ‘Governing Body’ meeting, in which the unscrupulous get their own way-one of the manifold ways in which the corruption of any institution may become manifest not least under pressure for ‘fund-raising’.
Finally, one or two surprising omissions, given Duriez’ primary interest in CSL’s and others’ literary relationships. There is no reference to The Figure of Beatrice : A Study in Dante (1943) in the entry on Charles Williams, despite the reference to the fact that Dorothy Leigh Sayers praised his work on Dante. So in the entry on the latter, there is no mention of the fact that it was her reading of Williams on ‘Beatrice’ and the exchange of correspondence they had in what turned out to be the last two months of Williams’ life, that set her off to make her own inimitable translation and commentary of Dante’s Divine Comedy (completed by Barbara Reynolds after Sayers’ death). Nor does the entry refer to her plays written for performance in Cathedrals – something never within CSL’s grasp, or her pioneering work in religious broadcasting – not exclusive to CSL.(3) Never an enthusiast for her detective fiction, CSL re-read every year Sayers’ set of twelve radio plays, The Man Born to be King (the first of which was broadcast in December 1941).
No doubt interest in CSL and his extraordinary range of writing in many genres will continue. Duriez’ new edition of his Encyclopedia remains an invaluable introduction – from brief comments on a single word to more substantial entries on a whole range of figures of CSL’s age – and more attention to them in their own right may well shed further light on CSL himself.
(1) In the meantime, see Robert MacSwain (ed.), Scripture, Metaphysics and Poetry : Austin Farrer’s The Glass of Vision with Critical Commentary (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).
(3) Suzanne Bray has edited some of Sayers’ broadcast talks: Dorothy L. Sayers. The Christ of the Creeds and Other Broadcast Messages to the British People during World War II. Introduction and notes by Suzanne Bray. Hurstpierpoint: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2008.
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