Countless books, documentaries, and news segments have been queued up to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. That was also the day C.S. Lewis died.
Unlike Kennedy, Lewis died of natural causes: likely one part weak heart, two parts kidney failure. According to Devin Brown’s new biography A Life Observed, at four that afternoon, Lewis’s older brother Warnie “carried tea to the small downstairs bedroom of his home” in the Kilns at Oxford where Lewis was resting. They exchanged a few forgettable words. At 5:30, Warnie “heard a sound and rushed to find his brother lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. A few minutes later…Lewis ceased breathing.” It was one week shy of his 65th birthday.
Lewis’s passing was not much noted at the time in America or even in Britain. All eyes were glued to the television, a medium that was largely foreign to the famous Oxford, and later Cambridge, don. Though he had for a time one of the most recognizable voices in Britain because of his wartime radio broadcasts, only two score or so photographs of the man survive. It’s possible he went through his entire life without ever being captured by a video camera.
At the time, Lewis did not regard his legacy with much confidence. He thought he would be remembered for about five years, then forgotten by all but specialists. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda recently poked some fun at that dour assessment: “Lewis was clearly no prophet.” (Online religious magazine Read the Spirit points out that, “no other Christian author—except St. Paul himself—has sold more books, decade after decade.”) Children, explains Dirda, “are still reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; his trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength—is a science fiction classic; and his thoughtful justification for religious belief, Mere Christianity, has been voted the most influential religious book of the 20th century.” Recently, when speaking with New York magazine, Antonin Scalia got tangled up with the interviewer over his belief in the existence of the Devil. Finally, the Supreme Court justice asked, “Have you read The Screwtape Letters?” He praised the book as “a study of human nature.”
Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft published the first save-the-date card for the anniversary of Lewis’s death back in 1982 with Between Heaven and Hell, an imagined dialogue between Lewis, JFK, and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who also died on the same day. This year, Westminster Abbey held a “symposium and commemoration” of Lewis at the end of November. The event, according to its website, featured lectures “examining Lewis’s philosophical and fictional approaches to communicating the Christian faith” and a panel “discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis’s various endeavors.” Scheduled speakers included biographer and theologian Alister McGrath, singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite, novelist Jeanette Sears, and philosopher William Lane Craig, among many others. The grand finale was a memorial statue to Lewis “unveiled in Poets’ Corner during a service of thanksgiving for his life and work.”
That grand celebration is but a small part of a vast and growing C.S. Lewis Industry in America, the United Kingdom, and all over the globe. There are C.S. Lewis journals, C.S. Lewis societies, C.S. Lewis endowed chairs at universities, even plans to launch a C.S. Lewis College devoted to the study of great books. It would hardly come as a shock if a toy company decided to produce C.S. Lewis action figures with special battery-powered light-up pipes.
To a point—one that we passed a long time ago—Lewis’s newfound fame was in keeping with the post-mortem literary life of reasonably popular authors. Upon his death, a few of Lewis’s works, including most of his letters, had yet to be published. Some works already in print did not have his name attached to them. A Grief Observed, his great, bracingly honest diary about the loss and absence of his wife Joy, appeared under the nom de plume N.W. Clerk. Lewis’s first published work, Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems, still bore the thin pseudonym Clive Hamilton: thin because his first name was Clive, though he had insisted from age four that nobody call him that, and because his mother Flora’s maiden name was Hamilton.
The C.S. Lewis estate, under the supervision of Walter Hooper, who briefly served as Lewis’s private secretary, has not been stingy with its archive. Once Hooper got things organized, he brought out new Lewis essay collections, edited Lewis’s voluminous correspondence, and gave us works in progress. A large backlog of material led to the old and now thoroughly discredited charge that Hooper was passing off his own work under the C.S. Lewis brand name.
One critic in the New Republic recently wondered whether the Lewis estate wasn’t being—wait for it—too thorough. Yale University Press had brought out the book C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid, his partial translation of Virgil’s epic poem. The critic, Emily Wilson, complained that “lost” meant “totally unfinished.” The translation, she pointed out, covered “all of Book One and a lot of Books Two and Six; but the rest is just scraps,” making for a “dubious and mixed” reading experience. Yet after going back-and-forth for 2,597 words about Lewis’s views on women, his arguments with modern poets, and his “sensuous vitality,” she concluded: “So Lewis’s translation is, finally, worth reading, and not just by Lewis-o-philes.”
Then there are the film adaptations, three so far from the Narnia series, the latest being 2010’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which stars British child stars Georgie Henley and Skander Keynes (great-great nephew of John Maynard Keynes) as brother and sister Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. They find themselves transported once again to the magical parallel world of Narnia, along with other notables: Ben Barnes reprises his royal role from Prince Caspian, Will Poulter plays his Limey heart out as Pevensie cousin/surprise scaly fire-breather Eustace Scrubb, and of course there is the talking lion himself, Aslan, rendered in CGI and voiced by Liam Neeson.
The movie did tolerably well, taking in $415 million worldwide, though it grossed only $104 million in the United States. That brought total global ticket sales for the three movies to just shy of $1.6 billion, a figure that decidedly does not include DVD and digital revenues. With but three of the seven books so far given the big budget treatment, we’ll doubtless be seeing more of Narnia. In October, the Lewis estate announced it had signed a development deal with the Mark Gordon Company, the production outfit behind several popular TV series including Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy, to bring The Silver Chair to the silver screen.
All of this, to some extent, seeps into the culture, and not just through toys, posters, and official merchandise. For instance, three years ago the stars of Dawn Treader were offered—after a generous donation from 20th Century Fox and Walden Media—the right to name a newborn lion cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. They called him Aslan.
It’s not often barkers publicly profess bafflement about the products they’re hawking. That would require not only introspection, a trait in short supply among salesmen, but also an admirable insistence on truth over the bottom line. Yet Mark Tauber, the publisher of HarperOne, which sells millions of copies C.S. Lewis’s books, did just that. “As a publisher,” he said in an October interview, “I find it just crazy that Lewis’s sales have not dropped after so many years. Of course, I know that his sales always rise in a movie year. And, there’s news of a movie that’s coming—The Silver Chair—but Lewis’s sales do well with or without a movie.” Slightly snarky translation: Our books’ sales…aren’t slipping. Yay! How did this happen?
Taking a stab at explaining Lewis’s popularity, Tauber stressed his broad appeal. He could think of no one else “who is so widely read in mainline Protestant churches, Catholic parishes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of course the evangelical community.” (On the Latter-day Saints front, this correspondent will resist the urge to tell the story of how walking while reading a book about Lewis led Mormon missionaries to occupy his front porch for three weeks.) Tauber also explained that Lewis attracted “the whole fantasy crowd for the Chronicles series” as well as sci-fi fans for his “work in that genre” and “scholars who seek out Lewis for his scholarly work.”
But none of this explains why one of the fastest growing parts of the C.S. Lewis Industry is its biographical arm. (This year alone saw two major biographies: by Brown and McGrath respectively.) Lewis’s love affair with his wife Joy was turned into Shadowlands, a television show, play, book, and movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Biographers continue to prod and poke at every aspect of his life, from his Irish upbringing, to his time in the Somme trenches, to his relationship with fellow Oxford man J.R.R. Tolkien, to pick three aspects almost at random.
Why all the interest in the man himself? His life wasn’t boring, exactly, but most of his great adventures were interior: his learning, his adult conversion, his grief, his joy. Lewis didn’t travel much. He was born in Belfast and spent much of his childhood shut in the house for fear that he would take sick from the damp, cold weather. After his mom died of cancer, Lewis’s father shipped him off to a series of dreary boarding schools. Second Lieutenant Lewis spent about as much time during World War I in the hospital as in battle. He then lived the bulk of his adult life at Oxford, learning and teaching and drinking and debating with his friends. He decamped for some years to Cambridge, took ill, returned to his old Oxford home, and died.
Not that all this digging has been unproductive. We have learned a lot about how the Irish countryside set the scene for Narnia, and how Tolkien probably would not have written the Lord of the Rings books without Lewis’s influence. Still, Lewis himself would be flummoxed and embarrassed at all the attention.
It’s not possible to get as big as Lewis has, post mortem, without drawing criticism. Yet critics must be infuriated to find that they’re not arguing with the works of a dead man, or even anything so clumsy as a religious bureaucracy or university faculty. Instead they end up tangling with a whole decentralized and highly creative commercial response. The C.S. Lewis Industry has demonstrated a real knack for taking Hegelian thesis and antithesis and turning them into a synthesis that is incredibly profitable.
Take the ur-text of modern Lewis critics, the 1990 biography written by A.N. Wilson, who poured cold water over many pious myths that had sprung up about Lewis. Wilson gave us instead a complicated, speculative, and scandalous picture of the man. He read Lewis’s failures and political concerns right into all seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia, to decidedly mixed results. He portrayed Lewis’s wife as having been initially something of a gold digger. He played up Lewis’s youthful fascination with sadomasochism, and charged that Lewis agreed to take care of the mother of a friend killed during the war because he and the woman were, for a time, lovers.
This critical effort was so traumatic to the Anglican Wilson that he soon renounced his faith. He penned the pamphlet Against Religion with the wonderfully British subtitle “Why we should try to live without it.” He couldn’t, it turned out. Wilson explained in an essay almost two decades later that “my atheist-conversion experience had been a bit of middle-aged madness.”
The C.S. Lewis Industry took it all in stride. It has incorporated some of Wilson’s evidence and conclusions, rejected all the angst and doubt, and continues to sell one of the most improbable products known to man. One suspects that the success the great novelist and apologist has found in the 50 years since his death will last well into the next 50, too.