No. 17: C. S. Lewis at 40

LewisBorn in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis turned 40 in 1938. With a name like that it’s no wonder before he was four he’d already defiantly demanded to be known as Jack, and of course we know him better today by his initials, CS.

In many ways the Lewis we see at 40 is a far cry from the Lewis we know today. Narnia wasn’t to hit the press for another twelve years (1950-1956); The Screwtape Letters were still lurking somewhere in the netherworld (1941); even JFK was still alive (he died the same day as Lewis incidentally, within half an hour, 1963).

In 1938 by day Lewis was an academic. Based at Magdalen College, Oxford, and teaching for the Faculty of English, he gave lectures and tutorials to students across the University. But in those rare breaks in the day, particularly after lunch, he would write.

And then there’s his night-time identity – by night he talked. A strange superhero identity you might be wondering, well yes and no. Spending time at the pub chatting is a regular occurrence, but meeting up with the likes of JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Neville Coghill and others, is perhaps less ordinary. In the ’30s, following the demise of a group bearing the same name, Lewis formed the Inklings – a group of likeminded individuals who met on Tuesday lunchtimes at the pub (usually the Eagle and Child) and on Thursday evenings in Lewis’ rooms. On the Thursdays they met to read and discuss unpublished work, primarily fiction, and on the Tuesdays it was about socialising and drinking first, writing second.

Charles Williams
Charles Williams

Lewis, at this age had no idea of the success he would later know (and the thousands of letters it would bring..). His first monograph, The Allegory of Love (1936) had been well received and he had received some comments following the publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), but the land of Narnia and Screwtape success was still some years away. Nor did he anticipate the success his friend Tolkien would achieve, though he did keep badgering him about finishing that hobbit story. In fact, in 1938, it was Charles Williams (novelist, OUP editor, and dabbler in occult arts) that Lewis thought would be the most famous of his friends. He wrote: ‘I begin to suspect that we are living in the age of “Williams” and our friendship with you will be our only passport to fame’. Lewis was clearly thrilled by this. He told Williams: ‘I’ve a good mind to punch your head when we next meet’.[1] Charles Williams is now known primarily of course through his association with people like Lewis, you only have to look at the subtitle of the biography of Williams to know that – the Inklings name sells.[2]

 

But what was Lewis writing in his 40th year? A real mix, as is characteristic of his life and output. He had a Milton-heavy first few months of the year, spending January to April (Hilary Term) writing and lecturing on Paradise Lost and the epic. We see this pop up in his later published works in Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) or how to justify Milton’s eloquent devil; in fictional form in The Screwtape Letters (1942) or the devil answers back; and in disguise in Perelandra (1943) or how not to fall from paradise. In the latter part of the year he lectured on Shakespeare, probably an earlier version of his Hamlet lecture, Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem, which he later gives to the British Academy (1942).

Lewis Sixteenth CenturyWhen he wasn’t lecturing, he was busy working on his volume for the Oxford History of English Literature or, as he nicknamed it, O HELL. You can guess how that was going. By 1938 he’s already written material on Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Sidney, among others, but he’s still not happy. In January he writes, ‘the O HELL lies like a nightmare on my chest ever since I got your specimen bibliography: I shan’t try to desert – anyway, I suppose the exit is thronged with dreadful faces and firey arms – but I have a growing doubt I ought to be doing this’. He’s already hoping to find some way out and wondering if ‘think there’s any chance of the world ending before the O HELL appears?’ before signing off, ‘Yours, in deep depression’.[3] Unfortunately things aren’t any better by December when Lewis again is keen to withdraw from the project altogether and asks the editors for ‘an honourable pretext’ to do so. His volume, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama was of course published in 1954, he fought the research war and won, but the battle behind the pages is evident in his correspondence.

lewis-outEver the industrious, Lewis also published a couple of works in his 40th year: an essay on Donne and Love Poetry, and a Sci-Fi novel entitled Out of the Silent Planet. An avid lover of Sci-Fi, especially WellsThe First Men in the Moon (1901), Lewis wanted to write a rather more moral tale than was common to the genre. He wrote to one the novel’s first readers: I ‘simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) pt. of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side’.[4] Set on Mars and featuring attempted sacrifice, hrossa (seal-like creatures), and haunting music, this is Sci-Fi with a troubling, but largely happy, ending.

Aged 40, Lewis was just beginning to get into his stride, but the Second World War was looming, and while the rumblings of it can be detected in Out of the Silent Planet, the impact is far more evident in his later fiction. It was certainly during and post-war Lewis found fame not as a Sci-Fi author, or as an academic. Ultimately his fame lay elsewhere: first as an apologist’s voice from the wireless, then as a satirical writer ventriloquizing devils, and finally for the works he is perhaps best known for today, Narnia.

Lewis and Buckingham: This post was written by Sarah Waters, who followed her BA at Buckingham with a research MA that analysed the influence of Shakespeare’s plays upon Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. The MA was awarded a distinction.

 

 

[1] Lewis, Letter to Charles Williams June 7 1938 see Collected Letters vol. 2 ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[2] Grevel Lindop, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[3] Lewis, letter to Frank Percy Wilson, 25 January 1938, see Collected Letters vol. 2.

[4] Lewis, letter to Roger Lancelyn Green 28 Dec 1938, see Collected Letters vol. 2.

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