It wasn’t what you’d think.
The wind was bright and sharp, the blue sky cold, our skin reddened with the icy air, but we didn’t mind. The day of the C.S. Lewis symposium at Westminster, we Lewis lovers got to the doors of St. Margaret’s almost an hour before they opened. As I tightened my scarf, I watched the line grow, hundreds of us queued in the chilly air, ready to honor an author whose words had formed us, heart, mind, and soul.
But a question grew in my mind as I waited, clapping my hands against the cold, watching my breath etch the frosty air. Why, I wondered, is the draw of C.S. Lewis so strong? What power in his self or stories summoned us from around the world, from all walks of life, to honor his tales and study his thoughts? His books are famous, yes. But so are countless others. Novelists, we have aplenty. Apologists too. And though his status as an Oxford don intrigues us, it’s really not enough to kindle the kind of love that lasts for decades and links the hearts of countless different kinds of souls.
I pondered this the rest of the day. Even as I heard the excellent symposium talks, I wondered. I glimpsed the fact that part of it was the extraordinary way that Lewis reconciled reason and imagination. But I felt there was another element still to identify. I mulled it as I walked home that night and as I rode the Tube back to Westminster for the memorial dedication next morning. Only at the end of the service, after two hours crammed with the truths that Lewis strove to tell spoken into the air of that storied, sacred place, echoing down the decades to us, did I finally begin to guess. Two weeks later, I think I understand.
We came because Lewis lived a great story. The best tale that Jack Lewis ever told was the tale of his own life and that story lends a power to his words that time cannot dispel.
In his essay On Stories, Lewis wrote of the “atmosphere” imbuing his favorite books of “romance.” Some tales were steeped in a certain air beyond the cycle of mere events, an air that struck the reader with a sense of the other or beyond. Whether the long, aweful dark of outer space, or the chill, pure sky of Northern myths, some stories let us enter, for a moment, a “sheer state of being” that stirs our souls to life with hunger, awe, or wonder.
Human lives have atmospheres as well. Some are a mere series of events. But some lives, like the tales that Lewis loved, are marked by a vibrancy of mind, body, and soul so potent that we taste the numinous in their history and presence. The life of C.S. Lewis is a romance in and of itself.
His story bears the atmosphere of pipe smoke and good pints drunk midst a world of word craft and learning. His tale has the air of hearth sides and shabby college rooms in which fast friendships and strong opinions played out in brusque good humor and jolly tones. In his tale, the fresh air of long walks and even longer thoughts blows free. His elements are tea and common sense and books and the call of the distant hills.
But into this rich air flows a fresher one from the vast beyond; the heady wind of imagination. Who would have thought that an Oxford don skilled in logic, the “best read man” of a generation whose intellect cowed countless students (and peers) could countenance a fairy tale? The atmosphere of Lewis’ story grows wondrous as we marvel that the mind at work in Miracles wove also the tale of a little girl named Lucy and the love she had for a wild, but very good lion. Talking trees and tea-drinking fauns peer round the corners of Lewis’ life. Lions roar through his dreams and give his story an atmosphere in which any number of wonders might take place. We love his tale because it gives us hope that our own stories could quicken with the wind of imagination.
But I think our love of Lewis and his story runs far deeper.
In his pithy little book An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis identifies six qualities belonging to the kind of story that he calls a “myth.” He describes myth as a story that is “a permanent object of contemplation – more like a thing than a narration – which works upon us by its peculiar flavour or quality…” Myth, he contends, is a story not dependent on literary finesse or narrative twist. A tale of absolutes, it deals with “impossibles and preternaturals.” “Myth, “ says Lewis “may be sad or joyful but it is always grave.” Last, and most important of all, Lewis believed that in reading myth we encounter some facet of Reality itself. We come up against something, clothed in story, that “will move us as as long as we live.” In tales of dying gods or kings returned or great sea-faring heroes, we apprehend some aspect of eternal Reality. Myth, at its best, gestures to Christ.
The life of Lewis was the best kind of myth.
Not because he was sinless or brilliant, not because he was a legend, but because he turned every facet of himself to the love of God and that turns a person mythic in the end. Lewis did nothing by halves. From the point of his conversion he followed every logical conclusion demanded by faith. He shirked nothing. His books are certainly marked by reason, by beauty, by vivid imagination. But they are also shaped by an eminently practical faith. His frank, good-humored obedience to worship and pray, confess his sins and love his neighbor, succor the poor and bear the difficult made his very life “a permanent object of contemplation.” His was a heroic virtue, the “impossible or preternatural” virtue that comes through Christ, lived on the scale of the every day. The longer he lived, the more his own story was subsumed into the life of God. His life became a form, as he described, a fixed and lovely object, that gestured fully toward Reality.
Perhaps any man who spends a lifetime loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength will begin to grow mythic in the end. The lines grow starker the longer you follow Christ. Sin gets sloughed away. The soul grows crystalline with love and the light of Christ shines through, “lovely to the Father in the features of men’s faces.” (Hopkins) Lewis believed his own words in The Weight of Glory and “conducted all his dealings” in such a way that his life was the slow becoming of “everlasting splendor.”
His way was not without pain and doubt. His books fully picture the inner dilemmas of temptation. He knew the struggle that comes with truly learning to love. And when death took his beloved wife, Joy, the book that he wrote voiced the anguished abandonment we know in loss. He knew the way that God himself seems to change when suffering obscures our sight. But I remember how Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward described him in the months after Joy’s death: as if he had fought a battle that cost him everything. And yet, “there was almost a light upon his face.”
I don’t believe that the stories Lewis told or the truths he argued could wield such power today without the bedrock story of his faithful life. His writing and work were rooted in the primary story of his life. I think that perhaps even his remarkable ability to reconcile reason and imagination grew out of a life in which the concepts of Love were embodied by faith. He chose God and lived Love at every turn, and his life became a living story gesturing toward that Love.
When the life of C.S. Lewis is considered, I often hear people wonder who the next Lewis will be. Young Christians are encouraged to pursue rigorous training in reason and apologetics, or aim for the best kind of literary education at a prestigious university. These are fine pursuits for believers who hope to emulate Lewis’ genius at cultural engagement and imaginative apologetics. But if we really want to raise up another Lewis or two, I think we have to start with our own hearts and follow the advice of Lewis himself:
Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Look for Christ and you will get Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.
Those words pounded down the corridors and echoed in the air at Westminster Abbey on the day of the memorial service. They came to us in Lewis’ own recorded voice, and they opened the service with a challenge. Everything that followed, the tributes and songs, the prayers and stories honoring Lewis’ life were framed by his own ringing description of what he thought it meant to live, and live to the full. The story of Lewis confronted each of us present at the service with an invitation: to join the best story that has ever been told. To live the one true myth in Christ.
Lewis once said that “you could never find a book long enough” to suit his taste. Like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who found the best tale ever told within the house of a great magician and wished she could read it forever, Lewis himself hungered from childhood to get inside of the great myths he loved. The great, Joyous fact of his life was that he actually did. In his love of Christ, Lewis entered the one true myth of the world. He got right inside the best story ever told and his life became a living image of its beauty. And he calls to us, through the stories he left behind, to join him.
“Further up and further in!” said Aslan… and Lewis. Shall we follow?
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.