An interview with Colin Duriez,
Author of The A-Z of C.S. Lewis
While the majority of readers are familiar with C.S. Lewis’s children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, or his popular theological releases Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, how well do they know the author himself? Although Lewis left this world 50 years ago, his writings live on, as popular as ever in the hearts of audiences young and old. In The A–Z of C.S. Lewis: An Encyclopedia of His Life, Thought and Writings (Lion Books/November 1, 2013/ISBN 978-0-7459-5586-5/$24.95), Colin Duriez provides a comprehensive introduction to Lewis’s life, family, friends, career, marriage and writings, as well as an inside look into the worlds he created, the creatures he imagined and the studies he delighted in.
Q: You are considered an authority on the Inklings. Who were the Inklings, and what about their writings drew you to become so interested in their works?
The Inklings were an informal group of academic and professional friends who gathered around C.S. Lewis in Oxford. They began as a few members who were Christians and were inclined to write. They would meet weekly in Lewis’s college room to read and comment upon work-in-progress and also to enjoy conversation that reflected their interests. Later the Inklings club broadened to even more informal meetings in local pubs that were entirely given over to conversation. Lewis and Tolkien were the most well-known among the group, but other important members included Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, both prolific and influential writers. Distinguished academics in the group included Lord David Cecil, H.V.D. Dyson and Nevill Coghill (who helped to train Richard Burton as a young actor). Among books-in-progress read to the Inklings were Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and Charles Williams’s poems based upon Arthurian legend.
Q: Most of our audience is familiar with Lewis’s children’s stories or his popular theology books, such as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, but aren’t familiar with his other areas of writing. What might we be missing out on?
One of the strikingly unusual features of C.S. Lewis’s life and work is his way of looking at the world, which was intellectually lucid and deeply imaginative. The modern world is marked by a fragmentation of knowledge, divided into domains belonging to professionals like physicists and psychologists, theologians and economists. While some of Lewis’s academic work is very demanding it is always clearly written, with ideas presented through illustrations and vivid images. This is true of all his writings, even his published letters.
As a storyteller, even his tales for children contain a rich array of ideas, some taken from the deepest discussions of philosophers and theologians, yet always remaining eminently readable to his child audience. Though an amateur in that field, Lewis presented theology for common folk in a way he did not dumb down. Indeed, many professional theologians have benefited from such books and, of course, his main readership.
As well as storyteller and scholar, Lewis knew not only the present world of ideas, but the thought and literature of the ancient past, spanning thousands of years. Through drawing upon this past, he was able to enrich and put into critical perspective our modern views. Reading a wider range of Lewis’s books can help to make our knowledge and experience more whole and deepen our enjoyment!
Q: How old were you when you first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
I missed out on reading the Narnia stories when a child. It was only after I discovered Lewis’s writings near the end of high school (we were reading and discussing his Mere Christianity in a general class) that I found out about and started reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then the other six books.
Q: What is your favorite book written by C.S. Lewis?
My most favorite fiction by C.S. Lewis is probably Perelandra and most favorite non-fiction book is Miracles. Ask me again next week.
Q: What are some of the qualities or characteristics of Lewis’s writing you believe have made his books so popular?
C.S. Lewis was once described as being able “to make righteousness readable.” His wide range of books, in both fiction and non-fiction, are in fact eminently readable. This same quality marks his letter-writing (his letters are now collected in three large volumes). Even his most erudite scholarship is readable, even though in some the concepts will inevitably be difficult for the non-specialist. His books are a marriage of reason and imagination, combining lucid thought and vivid, poetic imagination or apt illustration. He could write for the child and the most brilliant scholars at Oxford. Often he can be read at different levels according to the knowledge and experience of his reader. One of his most popular books, The Screwtape Letters, achieves a seeming miracle mix — authentically treating one of the most serious subjects possible, damnation, with humor and satire. These factors have helped to keep his books popular, with many having higher sales today than in his lifetime more than 50 years ago.
Q: What were some of the influences and relationships that led to Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity?
Lewis’s conversion was a long and complex process. When he came to believe in God, which was some time before he accepted that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, he described himself as perhaps “the most reluctant convert in all of England.” The people most influential in his conversion were fellow Inklings Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and H.V.D. Dyson. He was also deeply influenced by his reading of what he called “old books” by Christians such as George Herbert and Dr. Samuel Johnson and more recent writers like George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. Deeper than any philosophical or theological persuasion was an experience he called “Joy,” which gripped him from early childhood and which gave him a longing that was unsatisfied until his conversion. He writes about his pilgrimage in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.
Q: Do you think the extremes of Lewis’s spiritual life gave him a special insight to faith that readers can really hook into?
The pattern of Lewis’s spiritual experiences are captured in his first attempt at prose fiction, which is partly modeled upon John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Lewis called his The Pilgrim’s Regress. His portrayal of the twists and turns of his passage through the cultural climate of the 1920s and early 1930s in Oxford reveal in allegory the extremes of that time, from sensualism to arid intellectualism. One of his powerful works of Christian apologetics, The Problem of Pain, begins with a sympathetic picture of what the world looks like if it is not a divine creation but merely a material reality. Lewis’s honest experiences as an unbeliever gave him an empathy with those who struggle with faith in God and in Christianity. It can be felt in his words.
Q: Could you share with us a few facts about C. S. Lewis that most of his readers do not know?
I suspect most of Lewis’s readers may not have read his letters, which are among his best writing. These, together with memories of his friends, reveal his sense of humor as very much part of him. He laughed heartily, for example, when a newly-arrived wartime evacuee, a young girl, came across him in the grounds of his Oxford home and mistook him for a gardener. He was also full of witticisms. On one occasion, his brother Warren wondered why some stars twinkled and other stars did not. Lewis had a keen interest in astronomy and immediately responded, “Well, obviously, because the stars are lit by gas and the planets by electricity.” Another less-known fact is that one of Lewis’s closest friends was J.R.R. Tolkien and that both influenced each other to the extent that, without the friendship, we would today have neither The Lord of the Rings nor The Chronicles of Narnia (even though Tolkien did not in fact like the Narnia books — but that’s another story).