Tag Archive: C. S. Lewis

A Diabolical Correspondence

Lent is upon us, and so I thought it would be a good idea to pick up a book or two dealing more directly with spirituality.  Having had my admiration for C. S. Lewis reignited and deepened by Planet Narnia, I decided to revisit Lewis’s little gem The Screwtape Letters.

I don’t remember when I first read The Screwtape Letters – I think it was toward the end of my time in college, but it may have been shortly thereafter.  At any rate, though I recall enjoying the book, I had forgotten just how insightful it is.  For those who have never read it, the book is presented as one side of a fictional correspondence between an elder demon (the titular “Screwtape”) and a minor demon, his nephew “Wormwood.”  In these letters Screwtape provides Wormwood with diabolical advice on how to ensnare a recently converted Christian under the minor demon’s “care.”  The book offers a humorous but penetrating take on the nature of the spiritual life generally and temptation in particular.

Every time I read Lewis I’m struck by his insight into the human condition, and The Screwtape Letters is no exception.  One of the main premises of the book is that often it is the little sins, the seemingly insignificant ones, that lead one off the right track.  Wormwood, being a young pup (as demon years go), is eager to get his subject to commit heinous crimes, but Screwtape reminds him, “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.”  Like a slow drip of water that wears away at a rock for years, these little sins can do more damage than a deluge that is over in an instant.

Another important theme in the book is how even our virtues can be twisted into vices.  Lewis offers a brilliant discussion of the interaction between humility and pride.  When Wormwood’s subject has become humble, Screwtape advises him to draw the subject’s attention to his humility.  This will naturally instill pride in him, pride at having been humble.  If he realizes this and tries to overcome the pride again, Wormwood is to stir up pride over the attempt.  Thus, he can create a vicious cycle, continuing to trap his subject in pride.  This is not the only way to twist humility, though.  Screwtape also encourages Wormwood to foster a false idea of humility in the subject: let him think humility means downplaying his talents, rather than not thinking about them.  Toward the end of the letter, he summarizes “the Enemy’s” (i.e. God’s) approach to these things: “Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.”  With a delicious line, he highlights the absurdity of pride when you really think about it: “The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings – the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.”  This section struck a chord with me, particularly in light of my newfound habit of blogging.  Though when I first joined the blog I was doing it mostly for myself, ever since one of my posts was freshly pressed, I often find myself checking to see how many people have read my posts, commented on them, “liked” them, etc.  This was a good reminder not to worry about those things.

There is so much more I could go into.  This time through the book I nearly ran out of pencil lead as I read (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I did underline a lot).  Among other things, I was struck by his discussion of human beings as psychosomatic wholes (“they are animals and … whatever their bodies do affects their souls”); by his emphasis on virtue as a habit (“All mortals turn into the thing they are pretending to be.  This is elementary.”); by his insistence on the importance of disposition (“There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper [i.e., one looking for nourishment].”).  And this is just the tip of the iceberg – which is all the more astonishing considering that my version of the book is a scant 134 pages.

If you are looking for an easy-to-read, entertaining, and yet profound book to read during Lent, I highly recommend The Screwtape Letters.  With thirty-one letters in all, reading one a day would pretty much get you through to Easter.

Twenty down, (at least) thirty-two to go.


Cracking the Narnia Code

Suppose someone claimed to have discovered a secret code in one of the most wildly popular children’s series in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Moreover, suppose that this person claimed the code would unlock the architectonic structure of a series that, while certainly a modern classic, has often been accused of being written in a bit of a slapdash manner, with no clear guiding principle.  Then suppose that our interpreter further claimed that the author of the series intentionally used this code, but kept it a secret, only to be “discovered” nearly half a century after the author’s death.  You would think this guy was crazy, no?  These are precisely the claims that Michael Ward makes in his recent study of the Chronicles of Narnia, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.  Want to hear the most outrageous part?  He actually pulls it off!

Words fail to express the genius of this work, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Ward’s claim at first appears audacious, bordering on absurd.  The argument can be summed up briefly: each of the seven books in the Narniad (the scholarly term for the series) reflects the characteristics of one of the seven heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn).  Not only does each book reflect one of these spheres, though; each one actually embodies the spirit of the planet, from beginning to end.  The characters, the plot, the imagery of each book – all of these combine to establish an overall Gestalt corresponding to the book’s planetary symbol.  To take just one example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, is imbued with the characteristics of Jupiter.  It is a Jovial book filled with kingly features, joyfulness, feasting, and the passing from winter into spring.  Aslan embodies many of these features, but so, in their own way, do the four Pevensie children, as do other characters and the very plot of the story.  This Jovial character explains appearances that have seemed anomalies to most interpreters.  Many critics, for example, argue that Father Christmas is out of place in Narnia and so was simply a blunder on Lewis’s part.  Narnia was a mishmash of various mythologies carelessly cobbled together (this was J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous criticism of the book).  Ward argues that the Jovial theme explains the appearance of Father Christmas: rather than an oddity or an incongruity, Father Christmas appears because he is the quintessential Jovial character in modern culture – both in the sense of jocularity, and in the sense of reflecting this and other characteristics of Jove, king of the gods.

The lion’s share of Ward’s book interprets each of the Chronicles along these lines.  Ward does not confine himself to the Chronicles, though.  In each chapter he also discusses the significance of one of the planetary spheres in Lewis’s scholarship, in his poetry, and in the space trilogy (the other work obviously influenced by Lewis’s fascination with medieval cosmology) before turning to the Chronicle that embodies the sphere.  With each successive chapter, the case becomes stronger and stronger, such that by the end the reader can’t help but agree with Ward that his discovery of the schema is definitive – not in the sense of closing off discussion, but in the sense of explaining the fundamental guiding principle behind the series.

Ward does more than offer a fascinating literary analysis, however.  He also opens a window onto Lewis’s genius, his broadmindedness, and his playfulness.  His thesis shows numerous connections between Lewis the scholar, Lewis the poet, and Lewis the storyteller.  Lewis lived and breathed medieval culture, and he synthesized it in a stunning way.  Moreover, Ward demonstrates the capaciousness of Lewis’s Christianity.  Like his medieval hero Dante (and the medieval spirit in general), Lewis did not disdain all things pagan, but rather intentionally drew upon the good, the true, and the beautiful in pagan mythology.  In short, he baptized the pagan gods and used them to represent different aspects of the Christian God he had come to worship.  Finally, the fact that Lewis could use such a schema and yet keep it a secret suggests an endearing puckishness on his part.  Ward suggests that one of the reasons Lewis may have kept the schema a secret was to see if anyone would get it.  The joke paid off, as it took nearly fifty years for someone to get it.

Planet Narnia is a breathtaking work.  It opens new vistas on this modern classic, and it deserves to become a classic itself.  I have long been a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien, but I always considered the latter’s Middle Earth the superior achievement.  While my loyalty still lies with Tolkien, Ward has convinced me that Lewis’s Narniad is no less spectacular.  For any serious fan of Lewis and of the Chronicles, Planet Narnia is an absolute must-read.

Seventeen down, (at least) thirty-five to go.


P.S. If you are a bit daunted at the prospect of tackling a work that began as a doctoral thesis, Ward has also published a more popular version of the work, The Narnia Code (also available on DVD).