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C.S. Lewis: Scholar to the Common Man

The first book I read by C.S. Lewis was, perhaps obviously, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was immediately captivated, and Lewis’s writings became an integral part of my growing up. He was the first author to introduce me to theology and philosophy. During college, his space trilogy offered a delightful escape from textbook reading. But it was also during college that I first encountered C.S. Lewis skeptics, people who criticized his tone and style, deriding him as a not very “serious” scholar.

In a sense, they’re right. Lewis was very jolly. Most of his books seem to glow with laughter. His humorous writing showed that one needn’t divorce serious subjects from good humor. Perhaps this is why some angst-ridden existential types seem to dislike him so: Lewis (even at his most serious) refuses to take life too seriously.

Their dislike of his work could also stem from his casual, friendly writing style. Some people have said C.S. Lewis sounds as if he’s talking “down” to his readers. But his style is only childish in the sense that it is grammatically simple. His pithy writing welcomed readers of all ages and backgrounds. It makes sense that this would anger some intellectuals: most academics write for each other, not for the ordinary reader. Yet that is what Lewis sought to do. When writing books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, he did not merely have Oxford scholars in mind. He presented his readers with lucid arguments on a variety of theological problems. His books could make any churchgoer feel like a scholar.

CSL never seemed to fully “grow up.” His childlike spirit enchants such works as his Narnia series: he loved fairy tales, and his stories were born out of that delight. While his fairy tales haven’t the sober drama of Tolkien’s work, they awaken the imagination. His characters were perhaps the best facet of his fiction writing. Readers tire of flat protagonists and antagonists. Lewis invented loveable, frightening, and humorous characters. His Screwtape and Wormtongue often embodied both humor and menace—and their ironic believability continues to captivate readers today. In Till We Have Faces, Orual makes a particularly appealing protagonist: she contains all the emotional complexity of a true human being. We love and despise her, recognizing ourselves in her actions and words. As far as terrible villains go, we have the possessed Weston in Perelandra: frightening, mysterious, incredibly menacing. Edmund will always be one of my favorite characters. He’s the selfish bully, the redeemed sinner, the contrite penitent. We grow to love him, as we see him grow.

Many of us have benefited from the books CSL encouraged others to write. Without him, Tolkien would not have written The Lord of the Rings. Without him, Sheldon and Jean Vanauken may never have converted to Christianity, and A Severe Mercy would never have been written. In such volumes as Yours, Jack, we get a glimpse into the devoted companionship and wisdom Lewis offered to his friends. This testimony of kindness, devotion, and love helps one build trust with him as an author. Unlike so many other hostile and reclusive writers, Lewis welcomed people into his life. His devotion and love for Joy Davidman and her son Douglas had an incredible impact on their lives (and many others, through the book he wrote after her passing).

C.S. Lewis has also helped readers through the reality of his work. He didn’t have a trite, one-dimensional idea of darkness or evil: his antagonists had a deadly ominousness about them (like the queen of the underworld in The Silver Chair). Perhaps some of this “reality” stemmed from the fact that CSL himself had a painful life: he lost his mother at a young age and was abused by a villainous schoolmaster. When reading A Grief Observed, one gets a glimpse of a writer who didn’t just cheerfully meander through scholastic life. He was a man of both thought and emotion, who wrote unabashedly of anger and bewilderment with God.

Finally, Lewis helped readers navigate the difficulties of Christian doctrine. Oftentimes, American Christians seem to fall prey either to materialism or stoicism; we seem to find the extremes appealing. We’ve struggled to reconcile matter with spirit, pleasure with holiness. Many Christians with little doctrinal background continue to struggle with the division between soul and matter. But CSL’s religious writing brought sanctity back to aesthetics: he took back matter from the materialists, and awakened Christian minds to its spirituality. At the same time, he was not an epicurean: the whole point of beauty and aesthetics, in his mind, was to awaken readers to a more beautiful, glorious spiritual realm (his writing of joy and heaven in Surprised by Joy, his call to go “further up and further in” in The Last Battle, reveal this). Lewis, with his mouth-watering Narnian feasts and gorgeous descriptions of nature, showed matter to be beautiful and good. He showed us that beauty can redeem the world.

Because of Lewis, I can have interesting theological discussions with people who never went to college. I’ve met troubled college students who found solace in Mere Christianity, four-year-olds who delighted in The Magician’s Nephew, 50-year-olds who love to ruminate over The Abolition of Man. The beauty of Lewis’s legacy is that it transcends class, country, and age. Even 50 years after his passing, he continues to teach us all.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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