The sole surviving recording of a series of talks by C. S. Lewis for the BBC in the 1940s.
It is interesting how the writings of CS Lewis have entered the national consciousness. Much as some people would like to dismiss his Christian apologetics as being written by a professor of medieval literature who had strayed outside his proper discipline, or others – of the Philip Pullman School of children’s fantasy writing – as being too old-fashioned for a post-Christian world, he has continued to be as popular as ever. Can it be that his critics don’t understand the nature of his appeal?
I think the reason why Lewis continues to be read – long after other religious or children’s writers will be forgotten – is partly because he has a beautiful, clear prose style, capable of describing complex ideas in a way suited to ordinary readers, and partly because of his “voice” itself; painfully honest, deeply serious and insightful about human psychology. Readers sense this; they don’t feel hectored or bullied by a hidden ideological agenda; they trust him enough to follow his arguments where they lead. He is not a “fashionable” writer; hence his continuing influence, when fashions have come and gone.
Of his books my favourite is Surprised by Joy, the story of his intellectual and spiritual journey which was to lead to Christian faith. Indeed, I chose it as one of the books I once read aloud onto tapes for an association of blind Catholics. Unlike many – or most – autobiographies, Lewis is not preoccupied with himself. His book is not an exercise in vanity but an attempt to describe how one individual, irresistibly drawn to the workings of the human imagination, makes the discovery that the imagination can lead to truth.
Thus I was curious to see how the recent post-Christmas BBC 4 programme on CS Lewis – “Narnia’s Lost Poet” – would treat him. It was narrated by the writer AN Wilson, a biographer of Lewis, in his fluent, elegant and precise way (even if he did look slightly comic, talking solemnly to the camera from the back of a bus going up Headington Hill, in imitation of a journey that Lewis had done many times over many years.) This being television there had to be an “angle”, even if it was slightly manufactured; this was the idea that Lewis had yearned to be taken seriously as a poet, had failed in this enterprise and, late in life, had poured his creative energies into his series of books for children.
There is something in this, of course, but as Wilson gave us an hour’s overview of Lewis’s whole life, his academic scholarship and Christian apologetics included, the programme might as easily have been described as “Our greatest wartime broadcaster” or “The man behind Screwtape”. It seems that such was the popularity of Lewis’s BBC wartime broadcasts that many people considered them superior to Churchill’s wartime speeches. And The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain are still read and reprinted. Surprisingly, Lewis’s space trilogy – Voyage to Venus, Perelandra and This Hideous Strength – which have their own devotees, were not mentioned at all; clearly one hour was not sufficient for such a wide-ranging writer.
Among the interviewees was the actor Robert Hardy, who had been a Magdalen College undergraduate during Lewis’s time. He related an anecdote of having read Lewis’s books before he met him and having imagined him to look like “an El Greco Jesuit”. Then Lewis walked past him in Magdalen’s gardens and Hardy assumed he must be the gardener, until Lewis introduced himself and – with a burst of laughter from Hardy – “There was this jolly farmer!” Hardy also mentioned Lewis’s kindness to him when he was late handing in an essay.
This was echoed by the reminiscences of Jill Raymond, the actress wife of the late Clement Freud. She had stayed at The Kilns, Lewis’s house in Headington which he shared with his brother Warnie and Mrs Moore, when she was 16. Like Hardy, she was startled by the appearance of a writer she had revered, and also like Hardy, she recalled his generosity. He personally financed her through two years of drama school and thus “changed my life.” I was glad to hear these two personal stories as I once knew someone whose mother had also been tutored by Lewis when at Oxford, and who had described him as “a bully”. I had always hated the thought that this wonderful writer could be thus described – though I daresay, like all tutors, he did not suffer all his students gladly.
Mention of “Mrs Moore” at The Kilns brings me to the one irritating aspect of the programme. Both Wilson and Lewis’s latest biographer, Professor Alister McGrath (who was interviewed by Wilson during the programme) made the assumption that Lewis would obviously have had a sexual relationship with this woman, 26 years older than him and whom he had promised to look after if her son, Paddy, a comrade in arms, was killed in the Great War. On Paddy’s death in the trenches the young Lewis, aged 20, honourably assumed responsibility for his mother and his sister, Maureen. He lived with them and financed the household for the next 30 years, until Mrs Moore died.
That their relationship was close is not disputed; but there is no evidence that Mrs Moore was other than a loving mother figure, who provided Lewis with the home life, emotional stability and maternal companionship that he had tragically lost, aged nine, when his own mother died of cancer. Modern people can’t conceive of straightforward domestic affection between a man and a woman not related (the kind of affection which Lewis describes in his book, The Four Loves.) But Lewis was a man who found it hard to disclose his emotions and who had made the choice to live largely inside his head; Mrs Moore gave him the warm hearth and home that his own father, a shy and reserved Belfast solicitor, could not provide.
I have just opened at random A Grief Observed, the book Lewis wrote in a state of emotional agony when his wife, the American writer, Joy Davidman, died of cancer after an all-too-brief married life, lasting from 1956-1960. Lewis writes, “It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night!” Perhaps Wilson should have quoted this passage in his film? It is evidence that late in life Lewis had experienced the full happiness that marriage can bring – and which had, until then, been denied him.
As long as people seek answers to the profound questions of life and as long as there are children who will delight in the magical world of Narnia – inspired, the author once said, by spontaneous images that came into his mind – Lewis’s wise and warm voice will be heard.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.