C.S. Lewis possessed an immense personality, the kind of personality that affected not only those around him, but also all those who came after him. Full of charisma and brilliance, he both attracted loyal friends and made bitter enemies wherever he went.
Strangely enough, I didn’t come to C.S. Lewis as a person or as a writer until my junior year of college. I write “strange” for two reasons. First, Lewis has never really left me since 1988. He’s been a perennial favorite since then. Second, it’s odd that I was so into Tolkien (since 1977) but hadn’t made the connection to Lewis. Looking back over my life, though, I can see that Lewis has become a constant friend and companion to me. Of course, I’ll never know what he would’ve thought of me. I’ll also never know what it would be like to read Narnia as a kid (except through the reactions of my children—which have been rather glorious). Still, Lewis remains a friend, though I was born four years after his death.
Let’s admit, right from the beginning of this essay, though, that Lewis possessed an immense personality, the kind of personality that affected not only those around him, but also all those who came after him. The best word for this would be “charisma,” but it would be charisma of a very immense type, the type possessed by only a few persons in history. It must have been overwhelming for those immediately around him during his life, for good and for ill. We know, of course, that he created communities wherever he went. His friends were deeply loyal to him, and his enemies despised him.
This still doesn’t quite explain how such a personality happened or why it happened. We know, though, that it did. Still, it was beyond the mere expression of words; it was something greater than, at least, what I’m capable of describing. Yet, there it is: Lewis possessed an immense personality.
So, what can we say of Lewis’s personality with some definitiveness?
Well, first, let’s recognize that, as mentioned above, Lewis created communities wherever he went and spoke. Simply put, he drew others to him. The best example, and the most famous, is, of course, the Inklings, the group that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Lord David Cecil. There were other clubs, though, such as the famous Oxford Socratic Club and the Dante Society. One might, without much exaggeration, claim that clubs followed Lewis wherever he went, and he created and led them as well.
Second, though, would be a caution. Students did not think as highly of Lewis as we might expect them to have thought of him. Students, not surprisingly, flocked to his lectures, but only a few were enamored of his tutoring. Many thought that he was too full of himself to teach properly in a one-on-one setting. In his remembrances, for example, Anthony Curtis, literary editor of The Financial Times, claimed that Lewis would look out the college window at the wild (well, tame) deer and state creepily, “A deer has only two concepts… the concept of food which they approach and the concept of danger from which they retreat. Now what interests me is how a deer would react to the idea of poison… which is both food and dangerous.” Additionally, if one met Lewis, Lewis made the student feel a fool. “At the end of an hour with Lewis I always felt a complete ignoramus,” Curtis remembered. Tolkien, in contrast, made everyone—college men and women—feel more intelligent and inspired than they really were.
One must also note that Lewis did, indeed, make a number of enemies during his lifetime, as I’ve had the opportunity to explore in previous essays here at The Imaginative Conservative. In some ways, though, this only reveals even more the depths of his charisma, as his personality not only attracted but repulsed. Public figures such as America’s Ayn Rand loathed him and all that he stood for.
A final caution would be that many of Lewis’s books are intensely fascinating—such as Miracles and The Problem of Pain—not merely because of the subject, but because Lewis decided to write about these particular subjects. His personality shines forth so brightly that one can’t help but find even his most dense books fascinating, as they are all, at some profound and fundamental level, autobiographical. Like his autobiography, Lewis finds a problem intriguing, thinks about it with seemingly ceaseless attention, and then plunges into its examination and, where possible, provides a solution to the problems posed. As often as not, Lewis, especially in his theological works, “re-discovers” what had already been made manifest in the works of a St. Augustine or a St. Thomas Aquinas, but always with a captivating Lewis-ian autobiographical spin on it. Truly, Lewis was the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century. Not because of his originality, but because of the originality of the presentation of already orthodox teaching.
Third, whenever Lewis wrote or spoke, he offered a wisdom that seemed sharp and full of the moment yet timeless. One only has to pick up any novel, speech, book, or letter written by Lewis to see that what would be contradictory in other writers becomes precious and beautiful in the hands (and soul and mind) of C.S. Lewis. Opening Lewis’s Letters to an American Lady at random, I find him quoting St. Augustine and then explaining: “A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift. Perhaps these parcels are not always sins or earthly cares, but sometimes are our own fussy attempts to worship Him in our way. Incidentally, what most often interrupts my own prayers is not great distractions, but tiny ones—that one will have to do or avoid in the course of the next hour.”
Here, we have Lewis at his best: witty, insightful, relevant, autobiographical, self-effacing, full of wonder, and gracious. His personality shines truthfully and brilliantly, but it does not overwhelm his reader. In fact, he brings the reader to the best of the reader’s capability.
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