In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death this Friday, we asked some readers and contributors to reflect on their favorite Lewis books. The results are in; I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did. (And, if you feel so inclined, let us know your favorite below.) I’ll start things off with some thoughts on The Great Divorce.
Martin Luther, expounding on St. Augustine, once described the state of sin as incurvatus in se, a life in which we are “curved inward on ourselves” rather than “turned outward” for others and the reality of God. I was first attuned to this faith-changing theological insight in The Great Divorce, the story of a narrator’s Dante-like journey through the realms of the afterlife.
We start in Hell, although most of its inhabitants don’t know its true nature. That’s because it looks mostly like our ordinary lives—with a particular focus on the “curved inward on ourselves” part. It turns out that everyone in Hell is slowly, misanthropically moving farther away from everyone else (some people live way out in the boonies), preoccupied as they are with their own pride and their own “bentness” (see the Out of the Silent Planet reflection below). They are trapped, willingly, in the dungeons of their fallen minds. It’s not until we get on a bus to the fields outside of Heaven that things are put into perspective; to begin with, Hell’s pettiness is revealed, its literal size “smaller than one pebble of your earthly world.” For the grand realm we’ve entered is Reality Itself, and its real, physical solidity hurts the visiting shadow-people, who have “thinned out,” spiritually-speaking, from their life in Hell. Most, when given the opportunity, go back to despair, offering up the same-old excuses and self-deception that have kept them there in the first place. But the few who stay, who brave the pain of adapting to true reality, begin the healing work of turning outward from themselves—a gesture of love, of repentance, and finally, of their salvation.
Despite its setting, this book is really about how we are to live now, striving, bentness and all, toward the ultimate reality of God’s love. In the end, “if we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
Laura Laurie, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
In my everyday reading, I seldom revisit Greek mythology—the exception is Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid in Till We Have Faces. He brings this myth to life by crafting this already compelling story into a drama of faith that continues to resonate deeply with me. What is both bewildering and refreshing is how Lewis reworks a pre-Christian and pagan myth into a story of conversion.
This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s older sister, whose protective and jealous love for Psyche becomes embittered on Psyche’s marriage to Cupid, the god of love. Feeling betrayed by Psyche, Orual persuades her to break her marriage vow. Banishment, sorrow, and grief ensue, the punishment of the gods for Psyche’s betrayal. This book is Orual’s defense against the gods of her harmful love for Psyche. Frustratingly, the gods remain silent. Yet in the process of retelling her story, Orual comes to realize the selfishness of her love which condemned Psyche to endless wandering. For the first time she hears herself truly and is undone by the clanging of her voice. She has no case for she has no voice. She writes, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
I remember being utterly bewildered by this question because I saw that it went beyond mere myth and penetrated the drama of my faith: I would accuse God of not hearing me or of being absent when, in fact, it was I who was deaf and mute. As Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Like Orual, I was confounded into silence.
At this point, Orual suffers what might be called a conversion, the process of which I found so captivating in reading this book. Orual removes the veil she has worn to mask her disfigured face, and as she drops her self-righteous defense, she beholds the glory of the god of love and is transformed. Beholding his glory with unveiled face, Orual becomes Psyche, beloved of Cupid. Lewis paints this vision beautifully and the stunning part about it is this is also the hope of the believer.
This story is very much like a dimly lit mirror through which we peer for a glimpse of glory. Orual had the advantage of stepping through it.
Caitlyn Ference, Out of the Silent Planet
I picked up Out of the Silent Planet in college at the recommendation of a close friend. I didn’t love it immediately, but as time has passed and I have reread the book several times, I have been deeply struck by the reality of God’s benevolence experienced by the characters. I continually see in Lewis’s writing an insistence that, no matter what our human eyes and feelings perceive, the sustainer of the universe is actively at work, lovingly rectifying those things which have “bent” away from Him.
For the creatures of an unfallen Malacandra (Mars), the existence of Maleldil (God) pervades all of reality; their guileless ideas about one another and the cosmos are truly alien to the Earth-born Dr. Ransom who encounters them. Through Ransom’s journey, Lewis envisions how things could have been, offering an alternative to our human distortion. The book (and entire Space Trilogy) feels like a good friend talking to me, reminding me of what it can feel like to walk within the providence of God, through both hardship and joy.
Mike Niebauer, The Space Trilogy
One of the blessings of fiction writing is the ability for it to transport the reader to another world in order to better examine the important questions of one’s own world. This is why Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) remains for me, despite Lewis’s own misgivings about their artistic merit, the most enjoyable and impactful of his works. Lewis uses the exploration of three planets as a staging ground for an examination of the fall (the first book is a pre-fall world, the second is undergoing temptation, the third is a post-fall earth), and this staging helps breath great theological insight into a Christian view of sin.
I still believe that Perelandra will grant the reader a greater understanding of Genesis 3 than any Biblical commentary. In addition, by grounding the axis of earthly evil in a university, Lewis provides a much needed critique of how the worship of academia can lead to the abandonment of morality.
Jens Notstad, The Abolition of Man
In an ideal world, C.S. Lewis’s series of lectures titled The Abolition of Man would be required reading for every freshman entering university study. Not only is his critique of the state of scholasticism in WWII-era Britain (which applies to nearly all of the current Western world) biting and timely, but it implicitly reveals an intimate knowledge of God’s good, created order. Perhaps the rich Anglican tradition surrounding him influenced Lewis to think this way; you get the sense that he never doubts that there is the way things ought to be, even as his (and our) societies produce “men without chests” who are raised to unwittingly believe the exact opposite.
Furthermore, these lectures display what I believe to be Lewis’s greatest gift to his readers: his ability to structure a profound analysis and conclusion so matter-of-factly. It is as if when you are reading, the veil over ordinary things has been pulled back for a brief glimpse of beautiful, deep reality. Your assurance at that moment of “Thy Kingdom Come” is only matched by your regrettably inept recounting of it later that day—you just had to be there, you just had to read it.
Ryan Laurie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, with no close competition, my favorite of Lewis’s works. The book is full of spiritual allegories, social commentary, and mythological allusions, but most of all, it’s a great adventure story. (Dawn Treader also begins with the greatest of all of Lewis’s one-liners: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”) The simple premise of the book is “let’s go adventuring to the end of the world”—and that is precisely what happens. The characters learn a great deal along the way, they meet incredible fantastic creatures and it all ends up being a riveting read and rip-roaring good time. It lends itself to reading in brief episodes or bingeing the whole thing in the afternoon.
My favorite read of it, however, was reading aloud 2-3 chapters each night to my 14-17 year old campers while leading a 2-week camping trip in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota (i.e. the end of the world). Perhaps it is not the greatest of Lewis’s works, but it is, by far, the most fun.