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C.S. Lewis was True to Himself

August 26th, 2009 | 2 min read

By Jeremy Mann

In 1954, C.S. Lewis was asked by the Milton Society of America to comment on his own life’s work. In his statement, Lewis insists that the explanation for such a span of genres, topics, and formats is found in the development of his own personality:

The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic…It was, of course, he who has brought me, in the last few years to write the series of Narnian stories for children; not asking what children want and then endeavoring to adapt myself (this was not needed) but because the fairy-tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say."

Two things are worth noting. First, at least with Narnia, Lewis began with identifying what he wanted to say, not to whom he wanted to say it. Second, his “message” was a story, because the story-telling part of him was the most fundamental part. In fact, the picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood was a product of Lewis’s sixteen-year-old imagination.

Lewis’s example is instructive for any Christian who aims to use her talents, whether for writing or something else. Lewis employed his imagination in the explicit defense of the Faith, in implicit promotion of the Faith, and in ways that had no clear connection with the Faith. To put it another way, Lewis was imaginative when he was in church, walking to church, and skipping church. There were, however, self-imposed limits to his work. Lewis best shows this in a letter to a priest who asked him to write an apologetics book for the working class. He first flatly refuses: “I can’t write a book for workers. I know nothing at all of the realities of factory life.” He then explains his deeper frustration:

People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish…I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor—forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned."

Clearly Lewis did not consider popular apologetics to be the exclusive domain of professional scholars, otherwise no one could meet his criterion for writing a book for the working class. He is confident anyone could learn his “technique,” which, while an exaggeration, displays appropriate humility. Taken in isolation, Lewis’s work in each particular genre is very good, but not world-class. What makes him so powerful is his ability to combine often disparate elements: analytical rigor with fantastic imagination, depth with clarity, pagan myths with Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps this generalist quality contributes something to Lewis’ far greater popularity in the US than in the UK, where the boundaries between vocations and expertise are more sharply defined. Whatever the case, Lewis shows how one can be a genuinely interdisciplinary thinker (some might prefer to say “balanced”) without abandoning one’s native talent. As Barfield put it:

There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking… If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”