C. S. LEWIS quietly died of a heart attack the same day that President Kennedy was felled by an assassin's rifle. The news was tucked away on an inside page, a few days later.I remember wondering at the time -- how well would Lewis's work survive? Much as I admired him, I assumed that most of his books would gradually slip into the niches of literary history, and only a few occupy favored positions on personal library shelves.
The gradual decline in his sales never took place; today many of his books are selling better than in his lifetime. In America there are 1.4 million copies of The Screwtape Letters at large, and Mere Christianity is hot on its heels. Meanwhile every other young person seems to be reading Narnia. Even rather technical books like The problem of pain are doing well. Apparently this Oxford don and Cambridge professor is going to be around a long time; he called himself a dinosaur but he seems to speak to people where they are, Charles W. Colson of Watergate fame thanks Mere Christianity for playing a major role in his born-again conversion.
Lewis, like any good writer, is at his best if read whole rather than in snippets. On the other hand, the sudden insights that make his whole books memorable also lend themselves to display in a "wit and wisdom" type of anthology. That is what The Joyful Christian is. William Griffin, a senior editor of Macmillan, has chosen passages ranging from a few lines to several pages from Lewis's expository and argumentative books, reinforced by passages from The Screwtape Letters . The Result is a good selection of excerpts all of which can stand alone. What fun the book is! Lewis's ability as a writer -- and thinker -- guarantees that. It will doubtless lead many readers to explore the whole book from which a tidbit is taken. The passages are arranged under headings ranging from "Right and Wrong" to "Hell" and "Heaven," with such topics in between as "Life on Other Planets," "The Three-Personal God," "Sex", "Devotions to Saints," and "Justice and Fortitude." The reader, for instance, who wants to learn about humility can look it up in the table of contents and find waiting for him this plain advice.
"If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed."
Apart from Screwtape , Griffin does not tap the rich resources of the more imaginative books, such as the space trilogy, Narnia, and The Great Divorce . If this had been done, many of Lewis's ideas, elsewhere plainly stated in expository prose, would come more intensely alive, clothes in the colors of fantasy. Take, for instance, the question of what is the destiny of a noble pagan who knows not the true God. Nowhere does Lewis deal with this as convincingly as in the episode near the end of The LAst Battle when Emeth, the true servant of the hideous god, Tash, encounters Aslan and learns that all the good service he has rendered to the evil divinity was actually directed toward the Aslan whom he thought he was rejecting. Such a parable is worth many paragraphs of dutiful logic-chopping. But I am writing about a possible book. The one Griffin has actually produced is a good introduction to Lewis's religious and philosophic thought, and a useful reference work for Lewis devotees wishing to locate his ideas on specific questions. I can also imagine it being used for daily mediations.
The other book belongs here because it reproduces 18 previously unpublished letters of C. S. Lewis, and the author tells a love story in the course of which he ("Van") and his wife ("Davy") come to know Lewis.
The story itself is simple enough. Van and Davy, two young Americans, meet and fall in love. By the time of their marriage they have resolved that they will share a complete world to themselves, erecting a "shining barrier" against the bustling tumult beyond them. They even go so far as to renounce having children, since child-bearing is not an experience they can share. Their marriage is one of great beauty and tenderness, but unhealthily inbred. Then, partly under the influence of Lewis, they have religious conversions, Davy perhaps more completely than Van; the latter recognizes a twinge of jealousy as he thinks of God and Davy.
A mysterious ailment gradually strikes Davy down, and there is a heart-breakingly poignant description of her last day alive, as she blindly fumbles to touch her husband's face. Indeed, this is as beautiful a love story as I have come on in a long time. But the story does not end with her death. Van must come to terms with what has happened. It is at this point that one of Lewis's letters speaks strongly to him:
"Perpetual springtime is not allowed . . . You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see . . . that you were jealous of God. So from US you have been led back to US AND GOD; it remains to go on to GOD AND US. She was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth."
This incidentally was the same kind of advice Lewis gave himself later on when he tried to see some meaning in the death of his own wife. As described in A Grief Observed , he found it cold comfort. Van, however, responded to Lewis' words, perhaps recognizing that Lewis was saying things that he already half recognized.
No brief review can do justice to the human depth of his book. It invites us to explore a beautiful dollhouse of love and to witness the destruction of a relation too exquisite to last. Whether God smashed the beautiful house is a theologically debatable question, but if it hadn't been God, it would have been somebody or something. And from the experience, Mr. Vanauken (and the reader) emerge older and wiser.