As I neared the end of my C. S. Lewis retrospective—reading (mostly re-reading) all the books we own by or about the prolific author—I was challenged by my friend, The Occasional CEO, to relate a few of the most significant things I have learned from Lewis. I began with the idea of trying to distill a Top Five from his many areas of influence in my life.
It soon became clear that of everything I have learned from Lewis—from faith to literature to history to the changing meaning of words to the critical importance of one's model of the universe—two stood out, orders of magnitude greater than the rest.
All is gift. I am Oyarsa not by His gift alone but by our foster mother’s, not by hers alone but by yours, not by yours alone but my wife’s—nay, in some sort, by gift of the very beasts and birds. Through many hands, enriched with many different kinds of love and labor, the gift comes to me. It is the Law. The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not his own.” (Perelandra)
The first gift I received from C. S. Lewis was his Narnia stories. I was introduced to them in mid-elementary school: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a gift from my mother, who brought it to me in a stack of books from the library when I was sick in bed. The remainder of the series came about two years later, a gift from a neighbor, who owned all seven and shared them around our group of friends. I was delighted, enthralled. However, my attempt to find similar delight in his other fiction was at the time unsuccessful. I tried the first of his Space Trilogy, but I was a hard-core science fiction fan—Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke—and Out of the Silent Planet was not sufficiently science-based for me. One of Lewis's earliest books, it lacks the beauty and enchantment of the Narnia stories, and was intended for an adult audience. I have since come to enjoy it, but I wasn't ready then.
I rediscovered Narnia in college, thanks to the University of Rochester's Education Library, which was well-stocked with children's books. There I also first encountered Mere Christianity: the gift of my roommate, and my introduction to Lewis's nonfiction. To my shock, there I discovered that all the delight—the goodness, truth, and beauty—that I had encountered in Narnia was for Lewis an expression of reality, a reality far greater than he could depict, even in fantasy. I came later to respect the background in Christianity I had received in my childhood, but it was through Lewis and Narnia that the reality of God began to make sense to me.
This is the first and great gift, and the second is like unto it.
I went on to read more of Lewis's non-fiction, and to gain from it, but his next pivotal gift came many years later, through a friend—all is gift—who shared with me Lewis's George MacDonald: An Anthology.
If Narnia had shown me a God who made sense of the world, MacDonald showed me a God I could love.
George MacDonald is another author I had met before—as a child through his Curdie books and At the Back of the North Wind—but I'd never followed through to find what else he might have written. To be fair to myself, his other books weren't easy to find back then.
Of MacDonald, Lewis wrote,
In making these extracts I have been concerned with MacDonald not as a writer but as a Christian teacher. If I were to deal with him as a writer, a man of letters, I should be faced with a difficult critical problem. If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages, many of them in this collection, where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament (it runs right through them from Dunbar to the Waverly Novels), sometimes an oversweetness picked up from Novalis. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Lewis's preface to George MacDonald, An Anthology.)
MacDonald's works can be divided roughly into three parts, though they overlap: the fantasy that so impressed Lewis; books of sermons; and his many adult novels—the craft of which left Lewis so unimpressed—which served both to feed his family of thirteen and as vehicles for reaching a wider audience with his preaching. The last sounds dreary, but in reality the preaching is what makes his novels shine. (Those who know my lack of appreciation for most sermons will recognize the peculiarity of such a statement coming from me.)
Having been reawakened to MacDonald by Lewis's Anthology, I looked around for more, and the best I could find were modern re-workings of his novels, some by Michael R. Phillips and some by Dan Hamilton. I give credit to both authors for their obvious respect for MacDonald, and their faithfulness to his ideas, even though in their efforts they exaggerated the parts I like least from the originals (the Romantic elements) and reduced the best (the preaching). The library had most of them, and I wolfed them down.
Most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another.
The next contributor to my journey was a church secretary who had obtained photocopies of all three Unspoken Sermons books, which she graciously shared. I wonder if the generations who grew up with easy access to a universe of electronic resources can even imagine how valuable bound photocopies could be. Or what an incredible gift it was to the world when, in the 1990's, Johannesen began republishing all of MacDonald's works, in beautifully-crafted sets. All of these treasures were given to me, over several years of birthdays and Christmases, by my father. He himself had no particular appreciation of MacDonald—I doubt he read any of the books—but a great deal of love for his children and grandchildren, for whom I consider the collection a legacy. Now, Kindle versions of almost all of MacDonald's works are available at no cost.
I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.
Lewis is not exaggerating the frequency of MacDonald's influence on his own works. Having tackled my MacDonald retrospective first, I easily recognized his ideas and often his words when I encountered them in Lewis.
I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read George MacDonald. (from a letter of Lewis to Arthur Greeves)
I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.
What greater endorsement could there be?
Lewis was puzzled as to how people could idolize him and ignore MacDonald. I have some ideas. MacDonald's books were old, even then—he had died before Lewis turned seven—and our society's "chronological snobbery" was well established. Although full of gold, many of his books are difficult to read, even those not laden with Scottish dialect. I can now say that it's well worth the effort, and the reading and understanding get much easier with practice. But I can't forget that I had actually encountered MacDonald's novels years before, deep in the stacks of our main college library. But apparently this, too, had to wait to be a gift rather than my own choice: to my everlasting embarrassment, I turned aside from those unattractive, ancient, brown, and dusty tomes. Perhaps it was the library's revenge that I later became a genealogist, whose blood now quickens at the mere scent of such books.
Then, too, from the beginning MacDonald was plagued by charges of heresy and branded "Universalist" for his belief that, in the end, God's love would triumph. Lewis did not see him that way, but it led (and still leads) some to dismiss MacDonald out of hand.
Reaction against early [strict Scottish Calvinist] teachings might ... have very easily driven him into a shallow liberalism. But it does not. He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent.
Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.
Inexorability—but never the inexorability of anything less than love—runs through [MacDonald's thought] like a refrain; "escape is hopeless"—"agree quickly with your adversary"—"compulsion waits behind"—"the uttermost farthing will be exacted." Yet this urgency never becomes shrill. All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder which prevents it from doing so. MacDonald shows God threatening, but (as Jeremy Taylor says) "He threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."
The effect of C. S. Lewis's writings on my thinking is incalculable, and not just from his most popular books. Who would have guessed, for example, that I would give a five-star rating to Studies in Words—a book on philology, addressed to scholars, of which I understood less than half? But I was fascinated, and my eyes were opened to the pernicious habit (especially common among both literary critics and high school English teachers) of simply seeking meaning in what we read, instead of seeking what the author meant by his words and what his contemporary audience understood him to be saying.
There's no doubt that Lewis was quirky, humble, and absolutely brilliant—all the more brilliant that so many of his writings were written to be accessible to the ordinary British public, yet there's no hint of condescension. I could start my Lewis retrospective over again from the beginning and learn a lot more.
But for all that, Lewis's greatest influence on my life came less through my mind than through my spirit. Lewis said that reading MacDonald's Phantastes "baptized his imagination." The Narnia books first, and then George MacDonald directly, did the same for me.
This surprising realization came nearly sixty years after my first encounter with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and was itself a gift—thanks to my friend's challenge.