It was announced recently that C.S. Lewis is to get a memorial at poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey. On the surface of it, this appears odd. Lewis was from Belfast, for a start, thus not strictly speaking – or anyways speaking – an English poet. Secondly, he is not particularly well-known as a poet. He is known foremost for his children’s literature, the Chronicles of Narnia, then as a Christian apologist, and thirdly as an etymologist, with the role of poet a very distant fourth (maybe fifth after that of science fiction writer).
Lewis did though spend most of his adult life in England commuting between Oxford and Cambridge, and was from early adulthood a staunch Anglican. There’s no literary figure, perhaps no public figure, that did as much as Lewis to stand up for Christian values and the church in Britain in the 20th century. Certainly, if Anglicans care about such things any more, he’s more deserving of a place in an Anglican Cathedral than William Shakespeare or Ted Hughes. If ‘poet’ is used in the rarer sense of a person with an imaginative vision, then Lewis certainly qualifies. I have to admit to not having persevered with the Narnia books as a child and having no inclination to try again now, though I have started on – and quite enjoyed – his eccentric Space Trilogy. It is Lewis’s non-fiction prose that really captured my imagination, though; not so much ‘Mere Christianity’ (Chesterton makes the argument better), as ‘The Abolition of Man’, a book defending universal spiritual values, art and beauty, and the dignity of man against well-meaning utilitarianism and Fabian utopianism. On the whole, I’d say he merits that place in the Abbey.
An actual Englishman of equal stature, a friend and companion of Lewis, who definitely will not be getting a place in Westminster Abbey, is the writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a Catholic. Tolkien’s own work was as much as Lewis’s influenced by his faith, although perhaps less obviously so. He was also influenced by the English landscape and by a particularly English idea of freedom. There was a fascinating article in the Guardian not long ago, by Jonathan Jones, about Tolkien’s illustrations of Middle Earth. They showed, visually speaking, a very much gentler Middle Earth than the epic, jagged (admittedly impressive) vision of the director, Peter Jackson. His Shire is homely, warm and modest, his Rivendell ethereal, as Jones describes it, graceful and Cathedral-like. An interesting aspect that Jones focuses on was the influence of Modern Art on his illustration, how abstract and Art Nouveau stylings overlay Tolkien’s vision of an ancient land. One detail in particular caught my eye, though – it was the gardens and farms of Hobbitton, laid out in strips, as England’s farms once were, before the acts of enclosure. It’s a vision of smallness and self-sufficiency that Cobbett and other champions of the English common soil would approve of. Part of theEnglish ideal was that of smallness – of modest private property alongside common land, and of self-sufficiency and freedom from grand schemes and alien ideologies.
Some fantasy fans complain about Tolkien’s books for their focus on small details, from the etymology of the Elves’ names to the foodstuffs and customs of the hobbits. But this was essential to the stories and part of what makes them so enveloping. Part of Tolkien’s art was the bringing of the humdrum and the commonplace into the fantastical. This brings us back to Lewis, because in some of his best work, he brings the fantastical and the cosmic into the humdrum and the everyday.
In ‘The Screwtape Letters’, for example, Lewis imagines the letters between a young demon and his mentor, Uncle Screwtape, as the protégé tries his utmost to tempt a young man into the fold of ‘His Lowness’, the devil. These temptations are not towards theft, murder, rape or other mortal sins, but everyday conceitedness, selfishness and arrogance. These same peccadillos are what keep the lost souls of the story ‘The Great Divorce’ trapped in purgatory. Lewis’s vision is one in which everyday exchanges and conversations between people and their families are the stage for the cosmic battle between good and evil.
The cosmic significance of life on earth finds poetic expression in ‘The Meteorite’, in which Lewis redirects some of our awe at the universe towards our earth and, by implication ourselves. It is quite the riposte, I would say, to those who use man’s natural awe at the universe to mock the smallness and insignificance of man.
Among the hills a meteorite
Lies huge; and moss has overgrown,
And wind and rain with touches light
Made soft, the contours of the stone.
Thus easily can Earth digest
A cinder of sidereal fire,
And make her translunary guest
The native of an English shire.
Nor is it strange these wanderers
Find in her lap their fitting place,
For every particle that’s hers
Came at the first from outer space.
All that is Earth has once been sky;
Down from the sun of old she came,
Or from some star that travelled by
Too close to his entangling flame.
Hence, if belated drops yet fall
From heaven, on these her plastic power
Still works as once it worked on all
The glad rush of the golden shower.