Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Christian Epic

C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile, A.T. Reyes, ed., Yale University Press, 256 pages

C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile, A.T. Reyes, ed., Yale University Press, 256 pages

Virgil’s Aeneid opened a “mass of religious ideas” to a teenaged C.S. Lewis. The Roman epic poem, combined with Lewis’s tradition of rigorous skepticism up to that point, forced the young man to consider two ideas, neither of which was wholly compatible with the other. The tension resulting from these two notions would raise a number of important questions in the person who would become perhaps the finest Christian apologist of the 20th century.

First, Lewis thought, the Aeneid proved that Virgil’s form of Roman paganism was a whole and comprehensive religion, legitimate in itself, and therefore equal to Christianity in its scope and strength. After all, Lewis reasoned—a bit cynical from the shallow pieties imposed upon him by his schooling—“In the midst of a thousand such religions” stood Christianity, assumed by many to be “true.” In reality, he thought, Christianity was merely the “thousand and first” religion.

More importantly for Lewis, a second idea arose in the form of a question. What if Christianity, rather than being one religion among a thousand and one, were true because it answered the longings of the earlier faiths? What if, rather than seeing various paganisms in opposition to one another and to Christianity, one saw Christianity as the fulfillment of all previous religions? Could there exist a line of continuity between the ancient and the Christian?

Thoughts of this kind shaped some of the most incisive minds of the 20th century. Though he may not have recognized them as such, Lewis had intellectual allies in Romano Guardini, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, Hans urs von Balthasar, and Carl Ratzinger, to name a few. Friends closer to home, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, not only asked the same questions but did so in the same college rooms as Lewis, finding answers together through their Oxford literary society, the Inklings.

As Lewis would explain:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remember that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Myth, properly understood, means “story,” but especially in terms of man’s relationship to the divine in history. One would be hard pressed to find words better describing the Christian humanist impulse of the 20th century.

As Lewis came to realize, the Aeneid provides one of the finest bridges possible between the ancient and Christian worlds. Famously, at least from the Christian standpoint, Virgil seems to have predicted the coming of the Incarnate Word in his Fourth Eclogue, leading Dante to choose the Roman poet as his guide through the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

The last great age the Sybil told has come;

The new order of centuries is born;

The Virgin now returns, and the reign of Saturn;

The new generation now comes down from heaven.

Lucina, look with favor on this child,

—Lucina, goddess, pure—this child by whom

The Age of Iron gives way to the Golden Age.

Equally important, one cannot read St. Augustine’s City of God without seeing innumerable references to the Aeneid, with Augustine claiming Virgil’s eternal city of Rome to be a shadow of the real eternal city, the New Jerusalem.

C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid shows just how great an influence Virgil’s epic poem was upon a later Christian apologist. An Oxford- and Harvard-trained classicist and now a teacher of classics at Groton, A.T. Reyes has done an admirable job editing Lewis’s previously unpublished translation of parts of the Aeneid. During his life, Lewis only completed translations of two of the epic’s 12 books. Books 1 and 2 appear here in full. But only fragments of Books 3 through 7 and Book 12 remain. No reader should purchase Lewis’s Lost Aeneid expecting a complete translation or even a comprehensive introduction to Lewis’s thought on Virgil.

Reyes’s book is deep rather than broad. Within the constraints Lewis’s extant papers place upon any scholarly study, Reyes does a fine job of explaining the text, comparing Lewis’s translation to the original, and discussing the nuances of the poem itself. Most importantly, though, especially for someone interested in Lewis and his voluminous writings, Reyes provides an index of every reference to the Aeneid throughout Lewis’s corpus, attempting to find what words Lewis might have used had he continued his translation beyond November 22, 1963. (Should the reader need an exact index to every reference to Virgil in Lewis’s scholarly writings, he should turn to Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide.)

What will most spark the imagination of Lewis aficionados in this book is not Lewis’s translations, incomplete in scope and thought. Rather, Lost Aeneid forces one to reevaluate the role of Virgil’s poetic and intellectual pull not only on Lewis but by extension on 20th-century Christian humanism. Frankly, the implications are huge, especially if one compares Lewis’s thought on Virgil with that of another literary giant, Theodor Haecker (whose Virgil, Father of The West was edited by Christopher Dawson). As much as I admire both Lewis and Virgil and have studied each extensively, I had never made a strong connection between the two until seeing C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid.

Perhaps I should have.

Intrigued, I went back through Lewis’s letters, scholarly works, and fiction to trace the influence. I will never be able to look at Lewis in the same way again. From the earliest part of his intellectual awakening to his very deathbed, Lewis was enrapt by the Aeneid. Truly, the ghost of Virgil haunted the great Christian apologist.

In the middle of his academic career, Lewis revealed explicitly the influence of Virgil in two of his best essays, “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic” and “Historicism.” In the former, Lewis described the Aeneid as brilliant precisely because it satisfied Roman longings. Unlike the Greeks, who seemed only to care about eternal things, believing time to be “mere flux,” Virgil’s poetry proved incarnate and sacramental, recognizing things as eternal within the necessity and bounds of time.

Virgil, Lewis argued, took “one single national legend and treat[ed] it in such a way that we feel the vaster theme to be somehow implicit in it.” Further, Virgil offered the listener or reader “a legendary past and yet make[s] us feel the present, and the intervening centuries, already foreshadowed.” For the Romans, time, space, place, and family mattered. As Lewis persuasively claimed, Virgil’s Aeneid speaks to us because, like the hero Aeneas, we know ourselves to be a remnant, “survivors, and, as it were ghosts,” Old Western Men trapped in the whirligig of modernity and postmodernity. The old, the ancient, and the venerable become key words in the Aeneid, Lewis believed. But not content with the traditions of the past, the attentive reader of the Aeneid also realizes that “Latium—Lurkwood, the hind place of aged Saturn—has been waiting for the Trojans from the beginning of the world.”

As Lewis understood it, the Aeneid represents a critical moment in history, the hinge upon which the door of the world opens, introducing the age of paganism to the age of Christianity—“the little remnant, the reliquias, of the old, [developing] into the germ of the new.” Lewis is no reactionary devoid of hope for the future.

As with the Christian humanists of the 20th century, Aeneas “is a ghost of Troy until he becomes the father of Rome.” He “is compelled to see something more important than happiness,” obedience and duty, recognizing eternal Justice as that which orders all things, including our roles within the community of the living and the dead. “To follow the vocation,” as Aeneas did, “does not mean happiness: but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.”

Lewis’s Space Trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, some of the best fiction of the century past—especially bears the imprint of Virgil. Who cannot read of the hero Ransom’s ultimate victory, with the figure of Venus descending upon the House of St. Anne’s, named after the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and not think of Venus, the mother of Aeneas, betraying her own father to help her son?

Lewis’s Venus possesses a voluptuous aura that fills the entire House of St. Anne’s with the desire to live and to procreate. In the last paragraph of the finale of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, the protagonist Jane—previously self-centered, unable to sacrifice for what she loves—walks out of the House of St. Anne’s, itself sanctified by the very being of Venus. No real love can exist, Lewis argued, without sacrifice. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. As Jane walks, she notices the area around the house, doused in “the liquid light and supernatural warmth of the garden and across the wet lawn (birds were everywhere) and past the see-saw and the greenhouse and the piggeries, going down all the time, down to the lodge, descending the ladder of humility,” Lewis writes, and “she thought of her obedience and the setting of each foot before the other became a kind of sacrificial ceremony. And she thought of children, and of pain and death.”

Plagued by the doubt that she is not worthy of the sacrifices made by her husband, she enters his lodge. With this, the book ends. But the reader is left with this thought: because sacrifice equals love, love too has its own rewards. Because of their respective sacrifices for one another, humanity, and God, Jane and her husband are about to experience their just rewards, thus continuing the story of goodness, truth, and beauty upon the future generation, just as the remnant of Aeneas, the armed exiles fated to found Rome, once did for the entirety of the West.

Brad Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History at Hillsdale College and the author of American Cicero.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here