The towering figures of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis straddle the twentieth century literary landscape like beacons of faith and reason, shining forth in the fog and murk of modernity. Their combined legacy as indomitable Christian apologists in an age of skepticism is without equal in the English-speaking world. Taking up the mantle of their illustrious nineteenth century forebear, John Henry Newman, who blazed the trail that they would follow, Chesterton and Lewis were in the vanguard of the Christian cultural revival that produced some of the greatest literary works of the past 150 years. Although both men are known for their lucid and accessible exposition of Christian doctrine in their works of non-fiction, most notably in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man and in Lewis’ Mere Christianity, it would be true to say of both writers that some of their finest apologetics is to be found in their works of fiction.
Born in 1874, G.K. Chesterton burst upon the literary scene as a journalist and controversialist at the beginning of the last century and continued to pour forth works of effervescent wit and wisdom until his death in 1936. He was in every sense of the word a man of letters who indulged his magnificent and magnanimous gifts across every literary genre. As an essayist, he ranks among the finest stylists in the English language, peppering his prose with the lively spice of paradox. As a poet, he is remembered primarily for his poem “Lepanto”, about the Christian victory over the Muslim fleet in 1571, and also for his poetic epic, The Ballad of the White Horse, which recounts the struggles of the Christian king, Alfred the Great, against the invading Vikings and their seemingly indomitable paganism. Other poetry, such as “The Donkey”, “The Secret People”, and “The Rolling English Road” remain well-known and well-loved and are often anthologized. He was also a literary critic of the first order writing studies of William Blake, Robert Browning and Geoffrey Chaucer. His study of Charles Dickens was greatly admired by T. S. Eliot, and his panoramic survey, The Victorian Age in Literature, remains the best introduction to this golden age of English letters.
Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas were hugely popular and have remained so, the latter being judged by the celebrated Thomist, Etienne Gilson, as one of the finest studies of Aquinas ever written. As already mentioned, Chesterton’s seminal apologetic works, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, were hugely influential and have been cited by many converts as being instrumental on their journeys in faith.
No appraisal of Chesterton’s legacy would be complete, however, without due consideration being given to the importance of his works of fiction. Best known for his invention of the priest detective, Father Brown, Chesterton was also the author of several full-length novels, each of which can be classified as a theological thriller. His first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), looks at the perennially important and perennially ignored issue of subsidiarity. As defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the principle of subsidiarity stipulates that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” To define the term with less subtle finesse but with more succinct frankness, subsidiarity implies that small government is generally better than big government, and that small business is generally better than big business. In consequence, and as the Catechism makes clear, “the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.” It was this principle, taught by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and championed by Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc in their advocacy of what became known as distributism, which was the principal inspiration for Chesterton’s first sortie into the realm of fiction. Another related source of inspiration was the Boer War (1899-1902) in which the might of the British Empire sought to crush the independent agrarian spirit of the Afrikaner nation in South Africa. Chesterton had opposed Britain’s role in the war and much of the spirit of the small nation defying the large empire percolates through the pages of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Amongst the novel’s admirers was George Orwell, whose novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired, at least in part, by Chesterton’s book. It is curious, for instance, that Chesterton set The Napoleon of Notting Hill in the year 1984 and it has been conjectured that this may have been the inspiration for Orwell’s selection of this particular date for the setting of his own dystopian fantasy about big government crushing the spirit of freedom.
The Man Who was Thursday (1908) is generally considered to be Chesterton’s greatest fictional achievement. Subtitled “a nightmare”, it has been compared with Franz Kafka’s nightmarish Metamorphosis. Making such a comparison, C.S. Lewis, wrote that “while both give a powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each one of us encounters in his (apparently) single-handed struggle with the universe, Chesterton, attributing to the universe a more complicated disguise, and admitting the exhilaration as well as the terror of the struggle, has got in rather more; is more balanced: in that sense, more classical, more permanent …” In essence, The Man Who was Thursday is Chesterton’s exorcizing of the spirit of nihilism which had led him to the brink of despair when he was a young man. Under the influence of the decadent aestheticism of Oscar Wilde, and seduced for a while by the radical pessimism of Schopenhauer, Chesterton had felt himself crushed by fundamental doubt in his youth. Emerging from this nihilistic nirvana and embracing the philosophy of Christian realism, Chesterton’s great philosophical novel exposes the sophistry of irrational doubt with the clarity of faith and reason.
If The Man Who was Thursday is Chesterton’s deepest and most difficult novel, The Ball and the Cross (1910) is his brightest and most dazzling. It’s a swashbuckling romp through England and France in which the two protagonists, an honest atheist and an honest Catholic, seek to fight a duel in defence of their principles. In endeavouring to do so, they find themselves at war with a world that puts convenience and pragmatism before self-sacrifice and principle. With its many twists and turns, the novel celebrates the value and virtue of the quest for truth amidst the worldliness of indifference.
Manalive (1911) contrasts the intrinsic wisdom of innocence with the willful naïvete of cynicism. Its main character, the symbolically named Innocent Smith, is misunderstood because his innocence is inaccessible to those around him. He is so innocent that they think he must be guilty and so honest that they believe he must be lying. The novel is, therefore, a meditation on the nature and supernature of sanctity and serves as an exposition of the reasons that saints are misunderstood by sinners and are indeed often martyred by them.
The Flying Inn (1914) is a rumbustious romp in defence of traditional Christian freedom and conviviality in the face of the puritanism of Islam, on the one hand, and the secular asceticism of George Bernard Shaw and his ilk, on the other. Chesterton had criticized Shaw for his militant vegetarianism and teetotalism, and for his belief that the state should impose its puritanically socialist will on the populace. The novel likens the temperance movement in the west, with its demands for the outlawing of alcoholic beverages, with the intolerance of Islam. As such, it serves as a prophecy of the experiment in Prohibition in the United States and also as a warning against the rise of socialist intolerance, epitomized perhaps by the rise of Hitler who, as a non-smoker, a vegetarian, and a teetotaler, represented the sort of secular asceticism that Chesterton lampoons in the novel, especially in his characterization of the novel’s antagonist, Lord Ivywood. Hitler, as a vegetarian teetotalitarian, could be seen as the character of Lord Ivywood taken to its logical extreme. At its deepest, therefore, The Flying Inn is a celebration of Christian freedoms against the forces of non-Christian and anti-Christian intolerance.
Like his illustrious forebear, C.S. Lewis was also a man of letters who wrote in many different literary genres. Born in 1898, he began with a fervent desire to be considered a poet but was disheartened by the lukewarm response that his poetry received from the critics. Thereafter, he abandoned poetry for prose and became known for works of literary criticism, as well as for works of Christian apologetics. Apart from his most influential work, Mere Christianity, he wrote several other important works of non-fiction, most notably Miracles, in which he makes a convincing philosophical case for the intervention of the supernatural in the natural order. He is, however, best known for his fictional works, most especially perhaps for The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), a series of seven novels written for children. Although ostensibly for a younger readership, the Narnian Chronicles are so full of profound theological and philosophical insights that they offer spiritual and intellectual nourishment to readers of all ages. In particular, the climax to The Last Battle, the final book in the series, contains some of the finest eschatological theology in the English language. It is indeed a proof of Lewis’ genius that he can embed such mystical profundity within the text of a children’s story.
Lewis’ earliest sortie into fiction was The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), a formal allegory which is a largely autobiographical account of Lewis’ own conversion from atheism to Christianity. Journeying from his childhood home in Puritania, representing the puritanical Calvinism that Lewis experienced as a child in Northern Ireland, the protagonist, “John”, meets various personified abstractions, representing the ideas Lewis encountered in his journey towards conversion, including the spirits of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism, and the Spirit of the Age, the last of which is overthrown by Reason, personified as a beautiful maiden on a horse. Eventually, and reluctantly, John submits to Mother Kirk (Mother Church) and is baptized.
If The Pilgrim’s Regress was clearly modeled after its progenitor, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a seventeenth century formal allegory, The Great Divorce (1945) owes an obvious debt to Dante’s Inferno in its exploration of the psychology of the damned. As we meet the various doomed souls, each of whom rejects the love of God and the grace being offered, it becomes clear that God does not condemn anyone to hell. Those in hell freely choose to go there, preferring the alienated Self to the Communion of Love. The same masterful understanding of the human psyche is present in The Screwtape Letters (1942), in which Lewis plays devil’s advocate in order to expose the diabolical nature of sin.
The Space Trilogy, sometimes also known as the Cosmic Trilogy or the Ransom Trilogy, is a series of science fiction novels in which Lewis counters the progressivism and scientism of the previous generation of science fiction writers, such as H. G. Wells. In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first of the series, Lewis deploys the character of Elwin Ransom, a middle-age philologist modeled on Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien, to counter the ideas of Dr Weston, a mad physicist modeled in part on the egocentric humanism of Wells and his ilk. Having been kidnapped by Weston and his accomplice Dick Devine, Ransom is taken to Malacandra (Mars), where the three men meet various strange beings, most notably the angelic eldila, whose wisdom exposes the shallow and narrowly bigoted nature of Weston’s philosophical materialism.
In the second book of the Trilogy, Perelandra (1943), the action takes place on Venus to which Ransom has been sent to counter the designs of the Black Oyarsa of Thulcandra (Satan). He once again encounters his old enemy Dr Weston, whose presence on the planet threatens the primal and unfallen innocence of the Lady, whom Ransom has been sent to protect. The novel then revolves around the dialectical engagement between Ransom and Weston, the former arguing for a traditional Christian understanding of the cosmos and the latter for an arrogant materialism that is eventually exposed as being satanic in its origin and purpose.
In the final book of the Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), Ransom, who is now older and has become something of a mystic, is the voice of sanity and sanctity in a world darkened by the forces of materialism. Set against the backdrop of an England in the grips of scientism, the novel is kaleidoscopic in its mixing of seemingly incompatible literary genres. Ostensibly a science fiction story, it incorporates an Arthurian dimension in the presence of the resurrected Merlin, and presents a plethora of modern ideologies and philosophies in an unholy alliance against the forces of goodness and truth.
Lewis’ final work of fiction, and the one that he believed was his best, is Till We Have Faces (1956), a retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. This is much more subtle than Lewis’ other fiction in its handling of the allegorical dimension, leaving many of Lewis’ admirers confused by its apparent obliqueness. At root, the novel is an exploration of the nature of faith, particularly from the perspective of one who lacks it. Lewis makes Psyche’s palace invisible to mortal eyes and thereby presents a challenge to those who can’t see it. The way in which Orual, the protagonist, responds to this hidden reality provides the dynamism of the plot.
Although Chesterton and Lewis approach the writing of fiction very differently, their novels serve the same purpose. Both writers aim to engage with the intellectual currents of the modern age in order to highlight the fallacious nature of modernity’s view of reality and to show the perennial and prevailing wisdom of Christianity. Chesterton’s swashbuckling adventures, awash with humour and almost dreamlike in their lurid surrealism, and Lewis’ voyages to other planets and to the gloomy world of the afterlife are intended to awaken us from the nightmare of nihilism so that we can rise from our bed of sleep to the dawning of the miraculous day that God has given us.
This essay is from Joseph Pearce’s forthcoming book, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture (St. Augustine’s Press).
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The featured image is a photo of G.K. Chesterton (left, 1909) and a photo of C.S. Lewis (right, 1947); the former is in the public domain, the latter licensed under fair use. Both are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The photo has been slightly modified for color.