Editor’s Note: The following is written by Michael Ward, who was named as the foremost living C.S. Lewis Scholar by N.T. Wright. Ward has authored a number of books, including his latest After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
The supreme septet I’m writing about is not the seven-volume series of Narnia Chronicles, but rather seven titles by C.S. Lewis that I supremely admire. Seven is the number of perfection, and a “supreme septet” makes a welcome change, I trust, from yet another trundle through a tally of Top Ten titles. The seven works I list here are a mix of my favourite works and what I consider important works. By important I mean “important for an understanding of C.S. Lewis.”
7 C.S. Lewis Books I Supremely Admire
1. “Meditation in a Toolshed” from God in the Dock
Though originally nothing more than a short newspaper article (now available in the posthumous collection God in the Dock), “Meditation in a Toolshed” is foundationally important for a proper understanding of C.S. Lewis. It’s here that he introduces his readers to the crucial distinction between two ways of knowing, which he symbolises by reference to “looking at” and “looking along” a beam of light. We can “look at” a beam of light from the outside, inspecting it from an external, impersonal, detached point of view; or we can “look along” it from within, adopting a committed, engaged, involved perspective, seeing that which it illuminates. The two ways of knowing that Lewis is talking about have much in common with the saber/conocer distinction in Spanish, savoir/connaître in French, and wissen/kennen in German. In English our verb “to know” only comes in one form, so we have to split it into two, “knowledge about” and “knowledge of,” if we are to get close to the intended senses of “looking at” and “looking along.”
In this article, Lewis popularises the distinction between “Contemplation” and “Enjoyment” that he encountered as a young man in the work of the philosopher, Samuel Alexander. He immediately accepted Alexander’s distinction as true and ever afterward regarded it as “an indispensable tool of thought.” This is no small claim. It is indispensable as a tool of thought, according to Lewis, and it’s also indispensable, in my opinion, to a proper grasp of Lewis’s own works.
The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, for instance, are examples of “looking at” and “looking along” the subject of suffering. Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress, on the other hand, are examples of Lewis “looking at” and “looking along” his own conversion experience. We will notice other such pairings later in this list. Once you have this distinction firmly lodged in your mind, a lot of Lewis’s thinking and writing suddenly becomes clearer, – and not least his approach to the Christian faith. The gospel is much more than verbal “good news,” much more than a moral message that one approvingly listens to or intellectually assents to. Getting to know God is less like “learning a subject” and more like “breathing a new atmosphere” (as Lewis puts it in Reflections on the Psalms). Christian faith demands “a response from the whole man,” it involves “steeping ourselves in a Personality.” In that divine Personality that we are to “live and move and have our being,” as Paul told the Athenians (Acts 17:28). We are to “Enjoy” God and be “Enjoyed” by God. Mere “Contemplation” won’t cut it.
My personal favourite of the Narnia Chronicles is the third volume, The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ (1952), the story of a sea journey to the eastern edge of the world. One of the many brilliant things about this tale is the way it slowly builds and brightens. It has a more or less standard adventure-story start, the sort of thing Robert Louis Stevenson might have written, as the heroes abolish trading in slaves and over-turn a corrupt governor: all very social, political, “this worldly,” with no apparent input from the Christ-like Aslan. The middle section has a more typically fairy-tale feel, featuring dragons and golden hoards and other fantastical creatures, with the occasional appearance of Aslan to deepen the spiritual heft of the tale.
The story finishes in a positively mythic or even mystical realm, furnishing the reader with something like a taste of the Beatific Vision. The gradual ascent to this sun-drenched climax is handled in a masterly fashion, the changes in tone being achieved with breath-taking surety and lightness of touch. In toto, a beautiful, heart-breaking, wise, mysterious, dangerous, yet fun-filled fable. Literally, fabulous. What more could one ask for?
Well, actually, it turns out, one could ask for – and receive in return – a great deal more! The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ is designed to embody and express the qualities of Sol, as I show in my book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Sol is the name given to the Sun in medieval cosmology. Lewis, the great medieval scholar, described Sol and the other six planets of that pre-Copernican cosmos as “spiritual symbols of permanent value” which were “especially worth while in our own generation”. The Sun so understood provides the imaginative blueprint for this Chronicle and helps explain all manner of things in the tale. One particular thing I should mention, given the previous discussion of “Meditation in a Toolshed,” is the frightening episode when the ‘Dawn Treader’ is trapped in “the Dark Island” and Lucy prays a desperate prayer to Aslan for help. She sees a bright beam of light pierce the darkness and then, we read, “Lucy looked along the beam.” If you don’t know what she sees when she “looks along” the sunbeam, I won’t spoil it for you here. But I mention this moment as another example of something that makes better sense once we have the Contemplation/Enjoyment distinction straight in our minds. Lucy finds what she is seeking by “looking along” a beam of light, not by merely “looking at” it from a distance.
Aside from the Narnia Chronicles, Lewis’s only other attempt at a multi-volume fiction series was his interplanetary Ransom Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). It’s the third of these that I like most. (Lewis considered Perelandra “the best” of the trilogy, but named That Hideous Strength as his “favourite”.)
Having developed themes of masculinity and femininity in the first two volumes respectively (after all, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” as John Gray famously said), Lewis in this third book brings the genders together, with the opening word of the novel being “matrimony.” Mark and Jane Studdock, the protagonists, are locked in an unhappy marriage and the story tells of their escape, not from the bonds of wedlock, but from the prison of their unhappiness. To summarise it like that makes the novel sound terribly worthy and dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a rollicking “fairy-tale for grown-ups,” full of incident and sharp, striking contrasts.
The chapter entitled “The Descent of the Gods” contains one of the finest pieces of poetic prose that Lewis ever wrote. The villainous Wither and Frost are two of his most memorable creations. The scene where a common tramp is mistaken for the ancient wizard Merlin and invited to a college banquet as a guest of honour is hilarious. The grand guignol climax is deliciously gruesome, the bitter-sweet reconciliation at the very end perfectly judged. A colourful, challenging, vibrant carnival, this novel is the fictional counterpart to Lewis’s philosophical lecture series, The Abolition of Man, one of his most serious and influential works.
Note: For more on that, see my new book After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man respectively “look along” and “look at” the question of objective value. Who knew that philosophy could issue in such exuberant and searching entertainment? Sheer genius.
Till We Have Faces (1956) is the piece of Lewis’s fiction that I have read most often. His last novel, it’s a re-telling of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, which he makes into a profound psychological study of an ugly Queen in an ancient barbarian kingdom as she mourns the death of her beautiful and beloved sister. The heart of the story is the scene where Psyche is persuaded to take a lantern into her bedchamber at night so as to gaze upon the sleeping form of her husband, Cupid, whom she has only known in the darkness hitherto through his touch, his voice, his smell. Here, once more, Lewis explores the relative merits of “looking at” and “looking along,” and what happens to Psyche as a result of her attempt to “look at” someone who is literally too beautiful to behold is catastrophic.
I’ve read this work so often because it is the sort of story that one can’t easily capture or encapsulate in the memory. That’s not because it’s forgettable: on the contrary it carves a permanent groove in one’s mind. But a groove is a groove, not a reservoir, and re-reading the novel makes the water flow again through the channel, which is what you want to happen, over and over, as it’s such a rich and moving experience. This is a fluid, swirling, unfathomable story, touching on deep and sensitive pains but also reaching up to passionate and ennobling heights. An utterly extraordinary tale. Lewis thought it was “far and away my best book,” and it’s hard to disagree. But make sure you read it at least twice!
As with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany this is a work of such ingenuity that it makes a very different impact on second and subsequent readings. I also recommended reading it in conjunction with Lewis’s The Four Loves (1960), a non-fiction analysis of the various types of love and their distortions that are on display in the drama of Till We Have Faces. The two works together provide yet another example of Contemplation and Enjoyment.
Edited by Walter Hooper several years after Lewis’s death, this selection of his academic essays shows us the best – and the most accessible – side of Lewis in scholarly mode. It has to be admitted that, even here, there are some impenetrably specialist essays, but if one keeps to the main track there is much to please the “educated general reader,” as the publishers like to say. Of the twenty-two essays in the volume, let me mention seven stand-outs.
First, “A Note on Jane Austen,” which analyses Austen’s novels perceptively and helpfully. All lovers of Pride and Prejudice should read this piece.
Second, “The Vision of John Bunyan,” a discussion of Pilgrim’s Progress from someone who knew from first-hand experience how difficult it could be to write allegory and how symbols work best when they shine by their own light and don’t have to be laboriously translated into conceptual parallels.
Third, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” – a fascinating interrogation of responses to Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.
Fourth, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” a refreshingly hard-headed and clear-eyed treatment of “the Bible as literature.”
Fifth, the curiously titled “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare.” This essay is one of the most seminal things Lewis ever wrote and I consider it a “must read” for my students as they try to get a handle on his theory of communication. He differentiates between Masters’ Metaphors and Pupils’ Metaphors, – a bifurcation which, yet again, resonates with the all-important distinction between Contemplation and Enjoyment.
Sixth, the inaugural lecture Lewis delivered upon assuming the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. This is where he famously described himself as a “dinosaur,” but the lecture has many more interesting things to say besides that!
Seventh and lastly, “High and Low Brows,” which I think everyone should read, but especially academics, or would-be academics, in the field of English literature. It pricks the bubble of critical pretentiousness with surgical precision, and steers readers away from any amount of stupid self-regard about those kinds of books that are considered “serious” and any amount of equally stupid embarrassment about those kinds of books that are deemed “trivial.” It’s an essay that is at once bracing and grounding, a rare double achievement.
A ripe, late work (published two years before Lewis’s death), An Experiment in Criticism could be characterised as the book-length version of “High and Low Brows.” It’s a discussion of what makes books “good.” The conclusion Lewis comes to is that a book is good if it “permits, invites, or even compels good reading.” And “good reading” is the kind of reading which doesn’t use the book but receives it. To “use” a book is to make it serve some pre-existing purpose in your own mind, “as pastime for a dull or torturing hour, as a puzzle, as a help to castle-building, or perhaps as a source for ‘philosophies of life’.” But to “receive” a book is to accept it on its own terms, to rest in it, to see it (at least temporarily) as an end in itself, allowing it to work whatever degree of magic it can attain, and enjoying the various imaginative movements that it puts you through as reader.
An Experiment in Criticism is a welcome counterblast to what has come to be called “the hermeneutic of suspicion,” that critical approach to literature which sees every text as a disguised power-claim, and which ends up treating books as if they were bombs to be de-fused. Lewis, instead, propounds what we might call “the hermeneutic of charity”: he adopts a loving, open-hearted posture towards the literature in question, and positively wants to be taken in by it. Only by being taken in can he be taken out of himself. To be taken in requires a certain humility and involves risk. It also requires the ability to get beyond mere “Contemplation” (looking at the text warily from a distance) and enter into “Enjoyment” (looking along the text trustfully, up close and personal). By means of such “Enjoyment” experiences we achieve a sort of ecstasy – literally “a standing outside of” ourselves, leaving behind our own private preferences and perspectives so as to share the worldview of the work in question. As Lewis memorably puts it: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Lewis is not often remembered for his poetry, but the more I go back to it, the more I like it – or at least most of it. But that is true of all poets: no writer hits the mark every time and even the very greatest poets produce plenty of less than stellar work. The overall standard of Lewis’s poetry is impressively high. He had a keen interest in complex rhyme schemes and especially in subtle, internal rhymes. Take the phrase Aphrodite’s saffron light from “The Small Man Orders His Wedding.” At first glance, you might think this is just a reference to the warm glow attendant upon the act of marital love. Actually, there are four rhyming sounds in just these three words: “Aph-” rhymes with “saff-” and “-dit-” rhymes with “light”. The density of the sonic texture can be positively mind-boggling, and occasionally he overdoes it so that the result feels clotted and unmusical. But when he gets it right, letting the lines work lyrically while also being tightly woven, the results are splendid, pleasing both mind and heart.
My favourite of his poems is probably “On Being Human,” in which human beings are compared with angels. It’s simultaneously witty and sensuous, yet also, when you consider the internal rhymes, structured with a stunning level of linguistic skill. Other notable examples in this vein are “The Adam at Night” and “The Day With a White Mark.” Aside from these intricately rhymed works, there are more reflective and devotional offerings, such as “Five Sonnets,” “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” and “As the Ruin Falls.” And then there are poems of autobiographical significance, such as “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” set in Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis had the late-night conversation with Tolkien and Dyson that led to his Christian conversion. Also, there are poems that I’ve found fascinating from a more scholarly point of view, such as “The Planets,” which helped open my eyes to how he imagined the seven heavens and thence to his hidden planetary scheme in the Narniad. All in all, Lewis’s poetry is a smorgasbord: varied, tasty, plentiful, – something for almost every mood. If you’ve not yet come to the table, the place to start is Walter Hooper’s 1994 edition, entitled simply Poems. If you want the full banquet, go to Don King’s more comprehensive Collected Poems (2014).
Let me draw rein by quoting the closing lines of the poem “Dungeon Grates,” a very early work, and one which, yet again, touches upon the necessity of seeing things from within, and not supposing that an external vantage-point will open our eyes to the deepest mysteries of life:
Out leaps a sudden beam of larger light
Into our souls. All things are seen aright
Amid the blinding pillar of its gold,
Seven times more true than what for truth we hold
In vulgar hours. The miracle is done
And for one little moment we are one
With the eternal stream of loveliness
That flows so calm, aloof from all distress
Yet leaps and lives around us as a fire
Making us faint with overstrong desire
To sport and swim for ever in its deep –
Only a moment. O! but we shall keep
Our vision still. One moment was enough,
We know we are not made of mortal stuff.
And we can bear all trials that come after,
The hate of men and the fool’s loud bestial laughter
And Nature’s rule and cruelties unclean,
For we have seen the Glory – we have seen.
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