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Beyond the Wardrobe
A Commendation of the Wider Works of C.S. Lewis
The older I get, the better C.S. Lewis gets. His wisdom gets keener, and his insight clearer year by year. Like Aslan, he grows as I do.
I can understand why some folks who didn’t grow up in Narnia with the Pevensies may not warm to those stories. Jesus himself tells us that it is hard to relearn the wisdom of childhood once we’ve allowed the accumulation of years to dilute our ability for faith and wonder.
But Lewis didn’t just write stories for kids. The Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) was meant for adults. It is well told fiction, well taught theology, and well wrought social commentary. Those who appreciate what Orwell does with “1984” should watch a master at work in That Hideous Strength.
Lewis understood that good fiction can do all sorts of things, and that the best fiction can do the most important things—chief among them is telling the truth.
Fiction is often the best medium because though “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Even so, if fiction is not your cup of tea, there is still no shortage of good—perhaps even the best—Lewis. His Preface to Paradise Lost is high art. More than a mere literary psychology of Milton, tracing his thought through Homer and Virgil and Beowulf, Lewis provides a psychology of Satan and litters the page with keen insights into human nature, evil, and the dynamics of the Fall. I dare say it’s impossible to understand Perelandra apart from his “Preface.” It may be the best place for a person to begin with Lewis—there in the Genesis of his thought.
Another gem that many overlook is his book on medieval cosmology disguised as literary criticism, The Discarded Image. Perhaps no other work has helped me understand the spirit of the Renaissance, with its humours, and hierarchies, and music of the spheres. More still, it helps us see what shaped the men who shaped the world. Beyond all of this, he provides a way to delight in their quaint ideas and provokes us to allow our souls to be shaped by them as well.
His Studies in Words is a heady shot of philosophical philology served neat with no chaser. Til We Have Faces is uphill reading; straight is its gate, and narrow is the way, and few there be that finish it. But it leads to riches untold for those who make the trek. And many have never heard of his academic magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) and this is a shame. It really is an engaging work, despite its rather drab title. It is a fascinating study of a logocentric world turned into words again.
I have largely avoided his most “popular” titles (Miracles, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed, etc.), because their ubiquity is its own testimony. Of course they are worth reading, and it is time well wasted.
Lewis is not overrated, people are simply not interesting enough these days to be sufficiently interested. To borrow from Chesterton, there’s no lack of wonder, only a lack of wonderers.
You will neglect Lewis to your own intellectual and imaginative impoverishment. But I would encourage you to pick up any one of his books, open the cover, and enter the wardrobe. Don’t settle for a Lewisless literary universe. There it is always winter but never Christmas.
C.S. Lewis has been dead for nearly sixty years (“Jack” Lewis died the same day that “Jack” Kennedy was assassinated). While not ancient, the books he left in his wake may now safely be considered “old.” This means that you now have his permission to read them.
I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light…It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.1
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C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 200-201.