The Imagination of C.S. Lewis

Published June 1, 2016

Commentary Magazine

Over Memorial Day weekend, eager to find some relief from this dreary political year, I retreated to the world of Narnia, or at least to the world of the man who created Narnia.

During the holiday, I read the excellent biography by Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. There are several things in it that are perhaps worth sharing.

In the book we’re told that the theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan, himself not a believer, after having read Lewis’s The Hideous Strength, said, “How thrilling he makes goodness seem — how tangible and radiant!” (Lewis had been a tutor of Tynan’s at Oxford; Tynan considered Lewis the greatest English literary critic of the 20th century and one of the best writers of English prose who ever lived.)

That’s a lovely attribute of a rare, prized gift Lewis possessed – the ability to make goodness, and the Good Life, seem thrilling, radiant, and enchanting; to convince people that the right ordering of our loves can lead to greater fulfillment and to genuine human flourishing. That connection has often been lost, including by those who, when they speak out on behalf of morality and decency, sometimes come across as moral scolds, dour, and utterly unappealing; what we once referred to as a killjoy.

Mr. Jacobs, a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University, also writes of how Lewis described his dear friend Owen Barfield, the British philosopher, poet and fellow member of The Inklings:

He [Barfield] is not so much the alter-ego as the antiself. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise, he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it. How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?

And yet Jacobs describes Barfield as one of the most important people in Lewis’s life, among the most intellectually gifted, and says, “it is Barfield, and Barfield alone, without whom we could not imagine C.S. Lewis as we now know him.” One reason for this, as Lewis himself put in his autobiography Surprised By Joy, is that the friendship with Barfield altered how Lewis understood the world:

When you set out to correct his heresies, you will find that he forsooth to correct yours! And then you go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night, night after night, or walking through fine country that neither gives a glance to, each learning the weight of the other’s punches, and often more like mutually respectful enemies than friends. Actually (though it never seems so at the time) you modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dogfight, a community of mind and a deep affection emerge.

Think about how unusual, capacious, and wise that view of friendship is. Out of the differences comes refinement of one’s thought; and out of that arises a “community of mind” and deep affection. This is the opposite of friendships that lead to confirmation bias, the friendship of the echo chamber.

There’s also a nice discussion in The Narnian about knowledge giving the power of myth and fantasy — which Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien understood to be “true myth” — and how myths communicate truths that cannot be communicated in any other way. Lewis explained it this way:

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.

To which Jacobs adds:

So, too, the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a nonphysiological need that they satisfy — or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.

For Lewis, that longing eventually led him to faith, specifically the Christian faith. But that pilgrimage required of Lewis that he jettison his belief that all myths are lies. According to Walter Hooper, trustee of Lewis’s literary estate: “What Tolkien showed Lewis was that through the pagan myths, God was hinting, in divine form, at something that would one day turn out to be true.”

Lewis, describing the early years of his life when he perceived a clash between his imagination and his intellect, said this:

Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.

For Lewis, the great reconciliation took place when what he loved and what he believed to be real were no longer in conflict but in concert; where the imagination and reason ultimately led him — and those who read him and came to love him and joined him in the journey — to joy, to enchantment, to truth.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

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