This short, 134-page book (and that includes references, index, etc.) is part of an Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions” that aim to provide “a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject.” The author’s impressive credentials are laid out on the book jacket:
James Como is Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and Public Communication at York College (CUNY). A founding member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society (1969), his works include Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis, a ground-breaking study of Lewis as a rhetorician and Remembering C. S. Lewis, a benchmark biographical anthology now in its third edition (and fourth decade). These, along with his many articles on Lewis in such journals as The Wilson Quarterly and The New Criterion and on-air commentary for five biographical documentaries have established Dr. Como as one of the most highly-regarded Lewis scholars in the world.
Appropriate to introducing this book, and speaking of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, Como recounts (108-09, italics in original) how its members identified “some sources of [Lewis’s] appeal, intangible characteristics of style or voice, which seem as much a part of the man as any doctrine. Brilliance, clarity, Britishness, nobility, humility, veracity, and joy were the words used by the membership. Those who met Lewis have remarked upon these same qualities. As Thomas Howard (scholar and critics) put it, he was ‘down to the last molecule the man I would have expected.'” (The idea that Christianity is not only taught but caught is found elsewhere in the book — e.g., 110-11: St. Augustine insisted that “the man whose life is in harmony with his teaching will teach with greater effect,” and Richard Cunningham observed, “When the idea of not-God and the idea of Lewis meet in a sympathetic mind, it is the idea of not-God that must change. Lewis himself is the finest Christian apology.”)
I like Como’s work on Lewis and I’m glad I read this book, which is an excellent distillation. But it is, needless to say, difficult to summarize Lewis’s life and work in 116 pages of text, and the biographical parts of the book, in particular, often seem terse and rushed. And if someone like me, who knows a lot about Lewis already, thought this, then someone new to Lewis is I suspect likely to feel it even more. Como himself says (xix) that for the most part he “proceeds chronologically. Since this book is essentially a literary survey, not a study, I thought it useful to include (much abbreviated) Lewis’s own story, his life and personality being vital in much of his work. Thus each chapter contains summaries of works, some biography, and an occasional connection between the two.”
And if you want something really “stimulating and accessible” — as the Oxford series here promises — I’d recommend first reading Lewis’s own Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters, which are two of his best books and which also weigh in at under 200 pages.
Como’s book has a number of noteworthy features. There are ten well-selected photographs (for example, of Lewis’s plaque in Westminster Abbey (105): “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen. Not only because I can see it but because by it I can see everything else”).
The “Further Reading” section in the book is especially useful. In addition to a good listing of Lewis’s own works by type, secondary sources, and journal/Lewis society websites, there is this interesting, selected list of “Books of particular importance to C.S. Lewis”:
Samuel Alexander, Space, Time and Deity (see, e.g., ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’).
Aristotle, Metaphysics, Ethics.
Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, History in English Words, etc.
Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism and Belief.
Plato, The Republic.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (see Lewis’s discussion in The Allegory of Love).
Dante, The Divine Comedy.
H. M. A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas.
Homer, The Iliad (‘This is war,’ Lewis said when he arrived at the front, ‘this is what Homer wrote about’).
David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus.
William Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Tegners’s Drapa’ in The Seaside and the Fireside.
William Morris, The Well at the World’s End, The Wood Beyond the World.
Beatrix Potter, Squirrel Nutkin (especially for ‘the idea of Autumn’).
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (see Lewis’s discussion in The Allegory of Love and Spenser’s Images of Life, ed. Alastair Fowler). J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings.
Virgil, The Aeneid (see a partial translation by Lewis in A. T. Reyes, ed., C. S. Lewis’s Lost ‘Aeneid’).
Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion, etc.
Richard Baxter, Church-History of the Government of Bishops (source of ‘Mere Christianity’), The Saint’s Everlasting Rest.
Jacob Boehme, The Way to Christ.
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.
Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
George MacDonald, Phantastes, etc. (see Lewis’s George MacDonald: an Anthology).
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy.
St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude.
E. R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus.
Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy.
The book is dedicated to Walter Hooper, and there is a nice tribute to him in the preface (xix; see also 104): “Now and again there arises the question of who is the greatest authority on Lewis, to which my answer is: there is none, except … Hooper.” And I love the preface’s final sentence (xx): “[I]f I sometimes seem to be an enthusiast that is because I am.” Kudos to Como for his enthusiasm, in light of his belief (20, 82) also that Lewis had a lingering prejudice against Catholicism — and I assume that Como is himself a Catholic, since his online curriculum vitae lists his membership in a group of Catholic scholars.
Some odds and ends:
- Lewis rejected a knighthood (67-68).
- I was surprised that Como (22) asserts without qualification that Lewis had “a sexual relationship” with Janie King Moore; I had thought this matter unresolved (as well as unimportant).
- Here’s a nice pun (34): “It’s not nice to fool alma mater.”
- I wonder if there is any other book that block quotes Debra Winger (109) and Walker Percy (111) within two pages of each other! Here is the latter quotation, by the way, which Como says “fittingly describes what Lewis has accomplished”:
What man is cannot be grasped by the science of man. The case is rather that man’s science is one of the things that man does, a mode of existence…. Man is not merely a higher organism responding to and controlling his environment. He is … that being-in-the-world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.
Note that Percy was a Christian existentialist, and a few pages later (115) Como argues
that Lewis had a broad existential streak: not that he was irrational but, in trusting experience, that he could be non-rational. His resemblance to Kierkegaard, the godfather of Existentialism, is telling. In “Three Kinds of Men” (1943) his analysis closely mimics that of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic, ethnical, and religious stages; the same is true of his frequent dependence on “indirect communication”; and Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” was essentially Lewis’s. His response to Joy is nothing if not that.
- Como says (65) that Lewis’s George MacDonald: An Anthology is “nothing less than a handbook of Lewis’s own thinking.”
I’ll close with some of Como’s summations. Here’s the last paragraph of his first chapter (12-13):
… I believe Lewis’s achievement lies in the following: (1) his personal influence upon very many millions of people is deep, significant, and abiding; (2) his personality and life continue to arouse interest; (3) his many voices have produced a trenchant body of work that includes hallmarks of its many types, remains relevant, and invites commentary; and, especially in that light, (4) as a prose stylist his gifts of wit, analogy, imagery, epigrammatic economy, rhythmical dexterity, and rhetorical adroitness should place him in any canon worthy of study by anyone who pretends to know—let alone to teach—the literature of English-speaking peoples.
Como — in the penultimate section (“Hope”) of the book (111-13) — says he has “saved … for this final chapter [two items that] are seminal, expressing best the heart of Lewis’s project, and [that are] among the most moving pieces he ever wrote,” namely “an essay [“The World’s Last Night”] that appeared in Religion in Life in 1953; the second is Lewis’s greatest sermon — indeed, perhaps his greatest religious statement [“The Weight of Glory”]” (111).
And in his closing sentences of the book (116), Como says this with regard to Lewis’s “broad appeal as thinker, apologist, conversationalist, and scholar”:
… Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, draws a distinction between two fundamental impulses in Western culture, the Hellenic and the Hebraic, that seems like a final judgement of Lewis’s work. Arnold defines the two cultures the way: “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is with conduct and obedience.” Add breathtaking powers of varied expression and a genius of the will and there we have C.S. Lewis.
All true, and many thanks to James Como for this book.