The many faces of C. S. Lewis

The A-Z of C. S. Lewis, by Colin Duriez (Lion Hudson, £14.99 / €17.99)

The recent centenary of the birth of C. S. Lewis, which was widely noticed, will have encouraged many people, perhaps familiar with some of his novels such as the Narnia series, to begin to explore his literary world more deeply.

This mini-encyclopedia will prove a great boon to such readers. It is the work of a well known British expert on Lewis, but is written with a wide general audience in mind.  In a series of entries Dureiz deals not just with Lewis own writings and life, but also with the many personal, theological and philosophical influences that came to bear upon him.

University don

Lewis was by avocation a university don. Though some of his former students are on record as finding him a poor tutor, such very varied talents as Kenneth Tynan and John Wain have asserted the important impact which he had on their own lives and later work. Wain, for instance, who wrote later in life a biography of Dr Johnson, was introduced to that great man by Lewis. But Lewis ranged with his students widely over classical, medieval, and renaissance literature, Virgil, Chaucer and others linked in his mind with the Georgians.

For the Irish reader, however, the book has one weakness. Lewis is now celebrated as an Ulster writer, through the fact of his Belfast birth. An odd monument, featuring the famous wardrobe, now stands in the city. Yet this book says little about what his long-time friend Tolkien, another Oxford don of course, called his “Ulsterior motifs”.

Oxford friends

Lewis may have been born an Anglican and later, after a period as a professed atheist, returned to that confession. Yet the Church of Ireland he was reared in was a very Low Church body compared with the Anglicanism of some of his Oxford friends such as Charles Williams, which was very High Church, indeed Anglo-Catholic.

Belfast left Lewis with a long-time distrust of Catholicism which ameliorated through his friendship with Tolkien. But did he ever quite lose it?  Lewis espoused what he called “mere Christianity”, that wide but traditional basis to faith, but one which some Catholics might question.

The Ulster background aside, some of the entries might well have been fuller, such as those on Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers, which leave a lot unsaid about these authors.

One entry deals with Lewis’s reading, and lists the books that influenced him most. Some like Virgil’s Aeneid are classics; other such as George MacDonald’s Phantastes are little read today.

But among them was a single work by a theologian. This was Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, published in 1917, which was subtitled “on the Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational”.

For those, inspired by Duriez’s survey, who might want to follow Lewis’s intellectual trail this book, and its theme of the numinous in religion and life, would be the ideal place to begin.