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Reflections On C.S. Lewis

The following article (with minor revisions) is reprinted from APA:NESFA #33, February 1973. The notes and the after thought are new.

I have been rereading the Interplanetary trilogy by C. S. Lewis recently. I find Lewis's work very interesting because it is, in a sense, the only really religious science fiction or fantasy. [1] Technically there are a number of stories in SF that deal with religion. For the most part, however, they don't much deal with religion as such. That is, they tend to treat religion as a branch of knowledge to be manipulated for the purposes of the story and are not very concerned with the feelings and questions that are the concern of a religion. Thus in Blish's Black Easter there is a great deal of theology but very little religion. In most fantasy, particularly sword and sorcery, there is that which is called evil, but in most cases the evil consists of little more than being the bad guy for the purposes of the plot. Quite often the villain is the most attractive character.

The interesting thing about C.S. Lewis is that he had a very clear picture of good and evil as direct personal, human concepts and that he could bring them to life in his writing. He is the only writer that I know of that could provide an image of Heaven that was psychologically plausible. Thus, in The Great Divorce and in the last book of the Narnia series he gives two distinct but closely related pictures of Heaven. Both are convincing - we are only given an introduction, a prelude of Heaven. But that introduction is enough to make it plausible that Heaven is better than anything in our life here and that it can go on forever. [2]

The Narnia books are children's fantasy. The Great Divorce and the Interplanetary trilogy are nominally books for adults. In all of them, however, Lewis is acutely concerned with what one might call children's morality. That is, he places a lot of emphasis on the morality and character building that one tries to teach children. There are a number of scenes where he deals with the notion that lying is wrong. He gets at the petty self-indulgences, the little ego-trips, the tattling and snooping, the self-prevarication, the very human and very little sins that we indulge in. It is not a popular topic with authors these days - most people, including authors, do not really wish to acknowledge how much lying to ourselves and cheating of ourselves and others that almost everyone indulges in. [3]

C.S. Lewis was a Anglican convert and it quite definitely shows in his writing. One way that it shows is in his dogmatic presumption that Catholic moral dogma is, ipso facto, absolutely true and correct. In That Hideous Strength birth control is made out to be a moral wrong. Women are supposed to live the traditional roles - the God figure, Maleldil, has "old-fashioned" notions. The picture is somewhat confused because Lewis was a medievalist and felt that kings and nobility and the old fashioned ways were goodnesses in their own right. In That Hideous Strength he was quite unfair and quite drastic in misrepresenting those aspects of modern life that he disliked. [4]

Lewis also placed a great deal of emphasis on obedience. Obedience is often thought of as being a particularly Catholic requirement. However it is more than that; it comes from the rather more general (or lower case catholic) requirement of Christianity that one should obey God's will. In Catholicism this required obedience is mediated through the Church. In these days we hear a great deal about guilt complexes [5] and such resulting from demands upon people for obedience to moral laws and very little about the positive virtues of moral obedience. One of the reasons why we don't hear so much about obedience is that most people do not want to hear about reasons for not doing what they want to. This self-indulgent spirit is a real moral sin and it is one of the great ones for it tends to lessen one - to make one a smaller and meaner person.

Lewis wrote a lot about evil. Unlike many authors and many people in general to whom evil is something dark and rather glamorous Lewis saw Evil as being bad, evil in fact. Lewis has several visions of Evil which all tie together. He pays a good deal of attention to the petty little sins of greed and pride and in a number of times he follows them to show where they lead to. Thus, in the Narnia series, we see both Eustace and Edmund being ordinary nasty little boys - and we see Edmund becoming a traitor without quite realizing how he got there. That is another consequence of small sins - not only do they make you smaller and meaner but they also blind you to what is going on around you. The picture of the smallness and meanness of evil is drawn on a large canvas in The Great Divorce.

Lewis also equates evil and psychopathy. This is shown very clearly in _Perelandra_ during the temptation of the Queen, Tinidril. When Weston (in whom the spirit of evil temporarily resides) is taking time off from the temptation he indulges in various pointless psychopathic acts. For no good reason he wanders about crippling and hurting the local fauna. He also indulges in some rather childish heckling of Ransom (the hero). I found Ransom's comment that the evil spirit turned off intelligence when it is was not need because the evil spirit had no interest in intelligence in its own right to be a particularly thought provoking comment. [6]

Lewis also writes about the Grand Evil and miserific vision. Lewis believes in the Devil; he does not, as so many contemporary writers and thinkers do, deny the existence of the Devil and he does not make of him a comic opera figure. Satan is real, very real, to Lewis. However he is also very evil and the character of that evil is carefully delineated. To begin with, Satan is not coeval with God (which is indeed a heresy) but instead is one of God's lieutenants who has become "bent". By being bent his powers are diminished. It is true that his powers are very great (and seem greater to us because we are directly exposed to them) but they are great despite his evil. The Evil one is incommunicado, cut off from communication with God. This affects not only him but us as well; his closure creates a barrier between us and God. It is not impenetrable but it is there, none-the-less. [7]

He has two great advantages: First of all he may do literally anything to gain his ends since he cares nothing for things being as they ought to be; Secondly it does not matter to him in which way things deviate from the way they ought to be since the deviation itself is his aim.

He has one great weakness though; his successes are self defeating. This has to be since his aim is ultimately one of destruction; each success is a diminishment. Two examples:

In the trilogy his aim is presented as becoming master of all life, particularly human life. His method in becoming master is to destroy life, i.e., his ultimate success would be a defeat since he would be master of nothing.

In Perelandra his defeat comes because humans have ventured into interplanetary space. They did so because he induced them to do so. And the reason he did so is because they were not supposed to. By inducing them to violate the Law he laid the groundwork for his own defeat.

Notes

[1] This is certainly arguable and I was immediately prepared to argue with it upon first reading. Upon reflection, however, it stands better than I first thought. My first reaction was "What about Case of Conscience, A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Quest for Saint Aquin, Black Easter, hmmm" a handful of others but the soil is thin and not well worked. Interestingly enough, one can point to a number of stories written of late which have a deep religious element. However they are not Christian; they draw on Native American or aboriginal cultures. Perhaps Christianity and Science Fiction are uncomfortable bedfellows.
[2] There must be others but I haven't read them. Most depictions of Heaven make it out to be quite tedious as Mark Twain trenchantly observes in Letters From The Earth.
[3] Again this is arguable. There certainly is no shortage of fiction, at least main stream fiction, that grubs in the nasty little corners of the human soul. Fiction for young readers is replete with little moral lectures. Perhaps adults feel themselves immunized to small morality.
[4] I once remarked of Lewis that he was fundamentally confused about the difference between being an English gentleman and being a Christian. As an after thought there is a connection between Christian obedience and the oath-bound authoritarian structure of feudalism. It is all very well to write about kings and nobles who are on the top of the heap; everyone else is expected to obey and enjoy it. In these democractic times it is unfashionable to recognize that they might - that there is a satisfaction and pleasure in being obedient.

The original essay is wrong about Lewis being a Catholic; he was an Anglican convert. However the Anglican Church is close to the Roman Catholic Church in ritual and theology except, of course, in their opinion about the authority of the Pope. Even though the essay gets Lewis's denomination wrong it is not far wrong.
[5] Guilt complexes have gone out of style. Today's fashion is for ideological explanations. The principle remains that personal responsibility is unpopular - for ourselves of course. People can be quite enthusiastic about other people being personally responsible.
[6] One is reminded of the torture of animals by children as a harbinger of psychopathy in later life.
[7] This image is familiar enough; Milton has told this tale. But there is a real difference between Milton's Satan and Lewis's. Milton's Satan is a grand figure, even sympathetic with the ringing declaration, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven". Lewis strips Satan of glamour.

Afterthought

For all his preoccupation with evil, Lewis does not really comes to terms with it. His focus is on the small and the petty, the ordinary and little. When it comes to evil on a large scale he turns to figures which are not precisely human, e.g. the witches and giants in the Narnia series. He doesn't treat evil on the large, human scale. His villains simply aren't very villainous compared to the atrocities of this century. He sees the petty selfishness of daily bourgeois life; he doesn't see the death camps at Dachau.

Are the horrors simply the end result of the small sins, written large, or is there something else beyond "diminishing"? He doesn't ask the question, let alone answer it.

This page was last updated December 12, 1997.