Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 58-62.
C. S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections. By John Lawlor. Spence. 132 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender
When John Lawlor became a student at Magdalen College of Oxford University in October of 1936, he found that C. S. Lewis was to be his tutor. At that time, of course, he knew nothing in particular of Lewis, but over the next three years as student—and more years after that as friend and colleague—he was to learn much more. There will be increasingly few who can recount their own memories of Lewis the man, the teacher, and the scholar, so it is good that Lawlor has given us his own recollections. He has, however, given much more. This book not only offers memories of Lewis; it also reflects upon and evaluates much of Lewis’ literary output.
Lawlor’s memories of Lewis do not, for the most part, diverge greatly from what others have said, but he has a sense for detail that is effective. From his study of Anglo–Saxon with Lewis he recalls Lewis’ suggested translation of Eala pu biscop as "Tut! tut! Your Grace." Lewis as tutor was not just witty, however; he was also formidable and in love with argument. "[T]he more the pupil showed a capacity for self–defense the better." To read one’s essay for Lewis and submit to his examination of it could be a chastening experience. Some students flourished under the heavy bombardment; others wilted. All were treated with equal—and impersonal—rigor. A phrase such as "no nonsense" might summarize much that Lawlor remembers of Lewis, who did not really enjoy teaching.
From his very first meeting with Lewis, Lawlor had the sense that Lewis did not want to waste time. He "valued time as few men I have met. . . . ‘The hungry generations tread thee down’ was a witticism he ruefully acknowledged." For all the argumentativeness and rhetorical firepower of Lewis’ teaching, however, Lawlor recalls a significant fact: "One thing Lewis never did, in any recollection I have of him. He never imposed his Christianity on the argument." Over time, Lawlor was one of those who flourished under this treatment. He gradually "passed from dislike and hostility to stubborn affection, and then to gratitude for the weekly bout in which no quarter was asked or given."
There is more to Lawlor’s memories than just a student’s view of Lewis. He also provides sketches—some brief, at least one longer—of others at Oxford who moved in Lewis’ circle of friends: his brother, W. H. Lewis, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, Nevill Coghill, and, at greater length, J. R. R. Tolkien. Lawlor explores the deep friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, but also the strains on that friendship later in life. The two men were, at least on Lawlor’s recollection, strikingly alike in some respects—in their "unworldliness," in their indifference to their surroundings, in their deep and abiding faith.
But they were also very different men—Tolkien married with a family, Lewis, for most of his years, unmarried; Tolkien ruminative, Lewis argumentative; Tolkien Catholic, Lewis an Ulster Protestant. Lawlor calls attention especially, though, to their quite different approaches to writing, which perhaps express very different temperaments. Tolkien thought of himself as, in some sense, recording ancient truth, not inventing. Lewis’ writing was imaginative, and for him imagination was the organ of meaning, not of truth. For Tolkien, therefore, writing was a task at which one labored, and he was slow to publish. By contrast, Lewis’ writing always seems to be a thing of ease, and that very facility was "peculiarly unsettling for Tolkien"—or so Lawlor thinks.
Whatever the truth of the contrast, Lawlor’s account of Lewis’ own recollection of how he wrote is striking. "He once told me that he was what might be called a ‘first–time’ writer, in the sense that we speak of ‘first–time’ gifts in a games–player—no hesitation, the stroke delivered with perfect immediacy. I write one draft, he used to say; then I read it through and correct it; and then if I don’t like it, away it goes into the wastepaper basket."
Lewis was not only a great writer; he was also a great scholar. Having recalled Lewis the man and the teacher, Lawlor turns to the writings. In separate chapters he explores Lewis’ space fantasies, his Narnia stories, the reconciliation of reason and imagination—of duty and delight—in his writing, and his critical works as a scholar of English language and literature. On these matters Lawlor’s judgments are always informative and sometimes diverge in interesting ways from commonly held assessments of Lewis’ work.
Thus, for example, Lawlor knows that critics have tended to regard That Hideous Strength as the weakest of the three space fantasies—containing more themes than Lewis can successfully draw together in a coherent narrative. But he disagrees. "I, on the contrary, find in this last work of the trilogy a freedom and energy that superbly command attention, and an ironic humor that stamps the authenticity of characters and setting." The denouement of that story, the confounding of tongues at the banquet at Belbury, has often been criticized—even by friends of Lewis such as Owen Barfield and Austin Farrer—as a piece of buffoonery. For Lawlor, though, and perhaps for some other readers whose estimate he will reinforce, it is "Lewis at his best."
Among Lewis’ best works, of course, the Chronicles of Narnia is generally near the top of the list. Lawlor notes how, imaginatively, the Chronicles move to a different perspective from that of the space fantasies. The fantasies are stories of interplanetary voyaging. They take us into strange (to us) worlds, but not, strictly speaking, into other worlds. They take us to other planets that are still a part of our world, to which we could get if we just went far enough. But the Narnia stories take us into "a really Other World" that could be reached only by magic, as Uncle Andrew puts it in The Magician’s Nephew. Notes Lawlor: "There is the farewell to space–fantasy, couched in terms that draw upon the older meaning of the word ‘world.’" In the Narnia stories, therefore, we travel in time, but into a time–dimension not correlated (in any way we can understand) with earthly time. This gives, Lawlor thinks, "the true liberation of the human spirit," which is "a release from the order of merely successive time to a simultaneity which knows nothing of past or future. . . . This has, not surprisingly, an entirely liberating effect on the writer’s imagination."
Lawlor is an instructive reader of the Chronicles. He notes, for example, how MacPhee of That Hideous Strength is re–presented in new form in the person of Trumpkin in Prince Caspian. Each is something of a skeptic and a rationalist, slow to believe. Each, therefore, teaches us the importance of "a capacity for mere obedience." Thus, Lawlor suggests, that "‘bare willing of obedience’ is an abiding principle throughout the Chronicles of Narnia; and since it is so, allowing no variation or exception, there is ample room for banter, for cheerful parody." I have to admit that I cannot concur in Lawlor’s judgment that The Silver Chair is "the perfect Narnian story," though he is right to note that the Great Snow Dance, at the end of that story, is "the paradigm of freedom in submission to constraint."
For Lewis’ scholarly writings Lawlor is a knowledgable guide. If Lewis is both writer and scholar, Lawlor thinks he is first of all writer, a fact that is strikingly apparent in his literary criticism. It may be useful here simply to note some of the judgments Lawlor offers. The Allegory of Love, which first established Lewis’ critical reputation, "joins company with the very small class of books for which a future can be confidently predicted." Even if some of Lewis’ positions have been overturned or modified, Allegory "remains compulsively readable, as few other works of historical literary criticism can claim to be, even in isolated passages." A Preface to Paradise Lost contains "the most remarkable single piece of criticism in Lewis’ entire output—the brilliant account of Virgil as one who ‘added a new dimension to poetry.’"
Lewis’ volume on sixteenth–century literature in the Oxford History of English Literature is hampered, in some respects, by the artificial confines of a century. "Lewis has no bent for detecting order or pattern within set chronological limits," though he is often here "at his best in the accounts he gives of favorite authors." Lawlor reminds us that in this volume Lewis, when translating neo–Latin authors of the century, consistently translated them into sixteenth–century English. His motive was not mere "idle virtuosity," but, as he himself put it, to keep readers from supposing that Latinists translated into contemporary English were somehow less remote or more enlightened than vernacular writers of the same period. The doing of it is, however, a remarkable achievement. "If few had been sensitive enough to perceive this defect, inherent in the historical study of literature, there were even fewer who had the wit and scholarship to remedy it."
Studies in Words "captivates and exhilarates even at the seventieth times seven of re–reading." An Experiment in Criticism, however one reacts to the theory it defends, shows that "No one ever spoke from so full and unjaded an experience as reader." The Discarded Image, Lewis’ introduction to the medieval picture of the world, is "an instance of scholarship which, truly, ‘leads in’" to the literature rather than taking one out of it as so much criticism does.
When Lawlor comes, in the Postscript, to ask himself what it was that was distinctive about Lewis, he offers an illuminating answer: "I have to say that it was his being able to accept, with unusual simplicity and absolute constancy, the concept of Divine forgiveness of sin. . . . Newness of life sustained a special receptivity to each day’s offering to the senses and imagination." This was not, Lawlor thinks, a matter of the will, and he thereby differs from Owen Barfield, who thought that Lewis as Christian had adopted a kind of willed indifference to himself, a studied impersonality. Lawlor, however, thinks of it not as a matter of the will but as a special gift. If one believed in forgiveness, one could only accept it thankfully. "He once clarified this by reminding an anxious correspondent that when the Sun stands overhead at noon, it casts no shadow of the man beneath."
Released from himself by this forgiveness, Lewis’ enormous creative energies were liberated. Reason and imagination could be reconciled in a "unified sensibility," in a life directed out of the self toward God. Thus, Lawlor concludes, "if we put his work to the test of a fully attentive reading we may record of Lewis, as he did of Spenser, that ‘to read him is to grow in mental health.’"
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.