The Legacy of C. S. Lewis
November 22, 2013
Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the deaths of three notable men: John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. Like everyone else, I clearly remember where I was when the news reached me that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. I was in Disque Junior High School, Mrs. Wragg’s 8th grade English class. Mr. Norris announced the news over the intercom. A couple of heartless boys in the back of the room cheered and clapped. Some began to cry. I sat there stunned.
I would not learn about the life and writings of C.S. Lewis until four years later in 1967, when Tim Fortner handed me a copy of the Screwtape Letters and asked me to read it. “Tim,” I asked, “who is C.S. Lewis?” “Read this,” Tim replied, “and you will never have to ask that question again.” He was right.
Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World would not be on my radar until college.
Having been greatly influenced by the life and writings of C.S. Lewis for more than 45 years, I decided to remember him this morning by listening to a lecture on The Life and Legacy of C.S. Lewis that I heard scholar and author Dr. Thomas Howard (brother of Elisabeth Elliot and David Howard) deliver at Oxbridge, the centennial celebration of the birth of Lewis which was held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in 1998. For fifteen years, I have revisited that superb lecture in my mind – many times. But today I longed to hear Howard’s voice again, to be reminded of his clear perspective on why I – and so many others – continue to be influenced by Lewis’ writings.
The cassette tape of Howard’s lecture is 15 years old. But it worked. I found the lecture as I had remembered it when it was delivered before 750 people who delighted in his use of the English language, his knowledge of literature and history, and his scholarly understanding of Lewis. Believing his remarks could add to your own celebration of the life of C.S. Lewis today, I decided to transcribe some of his most thoughtful insights and share them with you. So, while there will be many offerings today about the lives of Kennedy, Lewis, and Huxley, I hope these brief portions of Thomas Howard’s lecture will add to those and provide a fresh reminder of why so many millions of people around the world are still attracted to Lewis’ works and drawn to the God whom he worshiped and served.
Howard On Lewis’ Legacy
“The legacy is the imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of a life, most of which, at least the part that has affected you and me most directly, was spent sitting at a desk pushing a pen – the letters, the essays, the apologetics, the fiction and fairy tales, the musings on prayer, grief, Psalms, pain, glory, and sanctity. The prose and poetry in these books proceeds from matter forged in an intense, intelligent, tough, courageous, articulate and just mind.”
Howard On Aslan
“In Aslan, the great Lion, we see what could almost be called a stock character – the Lion as King which, heaven knows, Lewis did not cook up. But…But…it is in this figure, it seems to me, that Lewis has scored perhaps the most important point he ever scored. For he did the thing that is nearly impossible, namely, restored to the imagination of a whole generation entire categories that had vanished from the moral and metaphysical map. Ask yourself how you would even begin to suggest to a generation, brought up on MTV, rock music, lewd cinema, pornography, and the omnipotent conspiracy of the whole of academia, political power, and the media, what T.S. Eliot called the permanent things of the human imagination. How would you get a foothold in that generation and replace relativism, egocentrism, cynicism, ostentatious squalor, and a sensuality that makes Gomorrah look like Mr. McGregor’s garden with the permanent things? Ask yourself how you would flag down that generation with such notions as majesty, valor, purity, magnanimity, magnificence, glory, holiness.
“In the figure of Aslan we are regaled all that has been expunged from our unhappy century. You need only to see the quivering nostrils and pricked-forward ears of the animals at the creation of Narnia, or sail with the Dawn Treader toward the Utter East, or go with Digory to the garden where he will pick the apple, or with Susan and Lucy on the night of Aslan’s passion to see what can be done. It is a weight of glory that marks Aslan’s presence in Aslan’s country.”
Howard’s Concluding Remarks
“What is C.S. Lewis’ legacy? Who will attempt the summary? Muscular, perspicuous, vastly generous literary criticism; exhaustive, but vibrant scholarship; letters of infinite charity; essays that are engaging and never self-serving; a hard-headed, even tough, handling of moral questions; lucid, nay, pellucid teaching; a prose style that startles us awake again and again in line after line with the sheer delight of the English language – modesty, ebullience, humor, and deep seriousness, all in one paragraph; stony severity with all humbug, preening, tergiversation. But arching far, far above all of this, the vision of Hell and Heaven. The squalor, vacuousness, wrath, putrescence, and egocentrism of the one, and the bliss, joy, freedom, beatitude, merriment, courtesy, and sheer glory of the other. If I were forced at knife-point to offer a single word that might suggest Lewis’ legacy, I would offer this one: Glory.”
Download a PDF of this essay.