RETROSPECT: June 1st – 11th

The following is part of a series reflecting on the life of C.S. Lewis. This is accomplished by summarizing various events or happenings during his lifetime for the noted period and may include significant events related to him after his death.

Highlights for the first third of June (1st – 11th) include: two standout letters to children about Narnia, the acceptance of a new position late in his professional career and his most famous sermon.

Before the magic of Narnia started in 1950 C.S. Lewis had a magical year in 1941. In April he gave his first RAF talk, in May his first letter by Screwtape was published, in August he gave his first radio talk on the BBC and was asked to do a second series in September, then in December he gave a special series of lectures that became A Preface to Paradise Lost. But it is during the first part of June, 1941 that some would say was the best thing he did for the year. On the 8th this month in he gave what was just his second sermon. If you are familiar with any of his shorter works you already know its name, “The Weight of Glory.”

The Weight of GlorySome may not be aware that this piece from Lewis was actually a sermon because the style of preaching he did was more like a lecture. But unlike boring lectures given by most people, Lewis nearly always had very readable talks. In fact “The Weight of Glory” (included in the 1949 collection called Transpositions that was published as The Weight of Glory in the U.S.), is a very quotable work. His humor also shines through, especially noted in the line: “who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?” One of the best lines, however, is close to the very end when he states, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object present to your senses.”

Most who know Lewis’s life fairly well are aware that he spent his final years at Cambridge University. However, the landmark decision to make this move that occurred on the 4th in 1954 was something that didn’t come easy for Lewis. This is despite the fact that he had been overlooked for advancement at Oxford on more than one occasion and Cambridge even created the position of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature with him in mind. In fact, Lewis didn’t even apply for the position. However, the committee overseeing the selection decided unanimously to extend an offer to Lewis. He then declined their offer, not once, but twice! Alister McGrath’s biography from 2013, C.S. Lewis: A Life, provides further interesting details on how he finally accepted it and why he initially declined it.

Lewis responded to many questions from adults and children about Narnia. One such letter he wrote was to Hila Newman on the 3rd in 1953. Hila was an eleven-year-old girl who had sent him pictures she had drawn along with a major question. She wondered about “Aslan’s other name.” Lewis didn’t give her a straight answer. Instead he gave her five clues to help her figure it out, including “Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb” as the final hint. He even encouraged her to write back to let him know what her answer was.

Aslan (book cover)Another letter he wrote related to Narnia was on the 8th in 1960 to Patricia Mackey, a 13 year-old girl who had apparently connected too many dots when it came to the parallels to the Christian faith. Before giving seven specific examples of differences, he notes, “I’m more saying ‘Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the “Great Emperor oversea”) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?’” This and the previous letter is available in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III.

Several shorter works appeared for the first time during this period. “Is History Bunk?” came out on the 1st in 1957 in The Cambridge Review. While reprinted in the more general audience collection, Present Concerns, Lewis dealt with the question from the standpoint of the history of literature while arguing that the study of history in general is useful.

Studies in Medieval and Renaissance LiteratureOn the 7th in 1947 Lewis published a book review in The Times Literary Supplement about a manuscript from Thomas Malory. “The Morte D’Arthur” was also included as one of fourteen essays in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, which was posthumously released on the 9th in 1966. So, if the title of the review didn’t spark any recognition then the fact that it was included in a book dealing with Lewis’s professional work probably clued you in as to why (unless, of course, you happen to also enjoy that aspect of Lewis’s writings). Interestingly only half of the fourteen essays in this collection were ever published during Lewis’s life.

The sixth letter from Screwtape appeared in The Guardian on the 6th in 1941. In it he reminds Wormwood that keeping humans in “the maximum uncertainty” is very important. He also advises him on how to “weaken his (patient’s) prayers.” Another key point dealt with how he views humans: “Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy.”

A few things occurred during this time that there’s not a lot to say about, even though they are significant. In 1913 on the 9th he won a scholarship to Malvern College based on his really good exam scores. Part of the significance is the fact that he was very sick when he took the tests. A year later (on the 5th) he wrote his first letter to his eventual long-time friend, Arthur Greeves. He wrote so many letters to him that they first filled a single book in 1979 (They Stand Together) before being included in the later three volume Collected Letters.  Additionally, Lewis gave a talk at the Socratic Club on the 5th in 1944, “Is Institutional Christianity Necessary?” that was never republished.

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