The Cambridge companion to C.S. Lewis

The Cambridge companion to C.S. Lewis

Edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward
Cambridge University Press, 2010, £18.99, Pbk., 325 pp., ISBN 9780521711142, Hbk £55.00, ISBN 9780521884136

This is a new title in the Cambridge Companion to Religion series. The series covers either major topics or key figures in theology and religious studies through wide ranging, specially commissioned essays by international scholars. Although it may sound as if the level of writing is designed for serious academic study, it is a fascinating and wide ranging collection of essays on one of the twentieth century’s most well known religious writers. As such it is as much for the non-specialist reader who wants an in depth and well rounded introductory overview of Lewis’ work in its totality.

But C. S. Lewis is much more than ‘the most influential religious author of the twentieth century’. He is also one of its most controversial. As the introduction makes clear, he attracts diverse and often extreme reactions across a wide spectrum from his large following in American Evangelical circles, to more dismissive theologians or literary critics. The film versions of his Narnia series continue to attract the objections of secularists to their perceived Christian proselytising.(1) The debate around the evaluation of the man and the work surfaces in this volume in the editorial decision to issue it as a Cambridge Companion to Religion rather than a Cambridge Companion to Literature. Of twenty one chapters, fifteen are primarily by theologians, four by literary critics and two by contributors who are both.

As Robert MacSwain notes in his introduction, this polarity is fuelled by Lewis the celebrity whose persona, life, and friendships are part of the story, and whose popularity not only undermines serious consideration of his religious writing and but also completely obscures his enormous scholarship from the general reader. And here for me is the richness of this Companion in that it engages with every aspect of Lewis’ work, giving the reader an extensive and at times contradictory overview.

Michael Ward, of Planet Narnia fame, is its second editor. It therefore comes as no surprise that Alan Jacobs in the chapter on ‘the Chronicles of Narnia’ introduces and affirms Ward’s research (2) on the use of the concepts of the planets in medieval cosmology as a shaping force. (See a recent review in Christian Librarian (3) for further comments)

The book is structured in three sections which reflect the three major areas of Lewis’ persona and work: scholar, thinker, and writer. The two brief pages of biographical information in the introduction provide a level of context for the deeper discussion of his ideas and influence. Given the many changes in his life from his reluctant conversion onwards which so often radically moved his thinking, it is both inevitable and helpful that many of the contributors locate their discussion of particular works and ideas within the context of Lewis’ experience.

Interestingly for a Companion on Religion we begin by a developed discussion of the Lewis of the ‘day job’ as literary critic. John Fleming sets his analysis within the context of the literature faculties of the time, allowing him to show the revolutionary nature of Lewis’ intellectual debate. Ann Loades in the chapter on ‘gender’ feels the need to deflect the unspoken criticism of Lewis’ attitudes to women by locating his views within their cultural and historical context. David Jasper, in contrasting The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy as his two conversion narratives, relates the development of the thinking in both to Lewis’ experience and his other writing at the time.

This is a book which invites a serendipitous approach. I enjoyed dipping into chapters which look at some of the more well known aspects of Lewis thinking, or consider his more popular works, and the greater challenge of the evaluation of his work as a theologian, intellectual historian or classicist. As a whole it engages with the whole range of Lewis work, and resists pinning him down in the service of any specific doctrinal view. He is neither a fundamentalist nor modern biblical critic; both an erudite literary historian and a writer of tales for children. The third section, on Lewis as writer uniquely brings together discussion of all his imaginative writing, including an excellent final chapter on Lewis as a poet, one on Till We Have Faces – perhaps his most underrated novel.

This volume has much to offer the general reader who wants to move on from the more popular aspects of Lewis’ work. It is a counterbalance to popular and limited constructs of Lewis the Christian apologist and personality. It does not allow the reader to settle for a simplistic view but challenges and provokes in a way which takes into consideration the complexity and sheer scale of the man and the work.

1. See ‘ Philip Pullman attacks Narnia film plans’, BBC News, 16 Oct 2005 ‘ Pullman has attacked plans to film the Chronicles of Narnia calling C S Lewis books misogynistic and racial’.
2. Michael Ward, Planet Narnia :the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S.Lewis(Oxford and New York O.U.P, 2008)
3. See Jessica Yates’ review. Jessica Yates ‘Planet Narnia : the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis’, Christian Librarian Summer (2008) 36-38.

Contributed by: Margaret Keeling, MA, MCLIP, PhD, who is a CLIS Vice-Presidentand worked until her retirement as Head of Services for Libraries, Culture and Adult Community Learning for Essex County Council.