Not as the World Gives: C.S. Lewis and the Great War

Anna Russell Thornton


C.S. Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (38). Some have claimed that the harsh reality of war shattered Lewis’s imaginative assumptions about the world he had built through his reading (Gilchrist 51), but in examining Lewis’s writings, the effect of the war proves far more nuanced. Indeed, in his first published work immediately following World War I, then-atheist Lewis themes and tone prefigure and sometimes congrue with his works following conversion. Perhaps this is because when Lewis entered the war his imagination had already been “baptized” by George MacDonald (Surprised by Joy 209); at any rate, the author of Spirits in Bondage is not a man who has lost faith in his imagination, but one who is coming to grips with a new relationship between it and reality. The horror of war excluded the possibility of materialism as a valid view of the world and drove him back to the world of myth and imagination, where he would discover the truth about God. The war, far from being a “shattering” experience, opened his eyes to the complex relationship between spiritual beauty and earthly matter. It was a crucial and formative experience, one that haunted him for many years, but if it shattered anything in him it was not the gods of Myth, but the gods of the World.

Lewis writes of his attitude before the war: “Such, then, was my position: to care for almost nothing but the gods and heroes, the garden of the Hesperides, Launcelot and the Grail, and to believe in nothing but atoms and evolution and military service” (201). This position had solidified over years of trauma, beginning with the death of his mother, marking for Lewis the moment when “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life” (SBJ 22). From this unstable environment, Lewis was launched to a boarding school called “Oldie’s” where a sadistic schoolmaster provided him with “memories I could willingly dispense with” (SBJ 29). Lewis notes, however, that “Life at a vile boarding school is in this way a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope” (SBJ 39), and “not to take present things at their face value” (SBJ 41). Armed with the juxtaposing traits of hope and skepticism, Lewis marched into battle at another school called Wyvern. Here, the “unity” which existed between his “childhood and the rest of [his life]” (SBJ 82) diverged. Lewis writes, “Never, except in the front line trenches (and not always there), do I remember such aching and continuous weariness as at Wyvern” (SBJ 110). These horrible experiences at home and at school taught Lewis to separate his inner from his outer life. He writes, “My secret, imaginative life began to be so important and so distinct from my outer life that I almost have to tell two separate stories” (SBJ 89). Thus, when it became clear that Lewis would serve in the war, he “put the War on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible” (SBJ 184). He made “a treaty with reality,” saying to England, “‘You shall have me on a certain date, not before…You may have my body, but not my mind. I will take part in battles but not read about them’” (SBJ 184).

by Anna Russell Thornton

Of course, the taking part in battles had a profound impact on his life, his reading, and his writing—and the expectation of tribulation made all the difference, Lewis notes (SBJ 218). Lewis was drafted and sent out as Second Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry (SBJ 217). In his autobiography, Lewis dwells on the war far less than he does on his school experience; this, some scholars have argued, suggests that Lewis repressed the effects of the war. Lewis writes of the rest of the war as “too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant” (227). The next chapter begins, brightly: “The rest of my war experiences have little to do with this story” (229). The War’s impact on Lewis evidences itself in more of a steady current than a dramatic wave. The lasting impact of the war (in addition to an abiding love for mice), was a new appreciation for “energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow” (230). This appreciation of what Lewis identified as Beauty grew up amidst the bleak horror of the war that led him to write “I could sit down and cry over the whole business” (CL 388). Lewis began an “almost panic-stricken flight” from “all that sort of romanticism which had hitherto been the chief concern of my life” (234). He writes, “With the confidence of a boy I decided I had done with all that. No more Avalon, no more Hesperides. I had (this was very precisely the opposite of the truth) ‘seen through’ them. And I was never going to be taken in again” (237). This attitude surfaces in The Last Battle, when the dwarfs, following the great battle, declare themselves “for the Dwarfs!” (748) and, choosing “cunning instead of belief” are unable to receive the good gifts Aslan offers them; they are, in fact, “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out” (748).

The War made it harder for Lewis to care for the gods and heroes, while simultaneously making it more difficult to believe in nothing but atoms. He developed an appreciation for the tactile as well as the imagination, for though he recognized in war the basic evil of the material world, he also recognized the indispensableness of it. “I met there both the World and the great goddess Nonsense. The world presented itself in very ridiculous form” (SBJ 225). Well before the war, Lewis wrote to his dear friend Arthur Greeves, “What can you have been thinking about when you said ‘only’ books, music, etc., just as if these weren’t the real things!” (CL 205). After the war, he writes, “Oh don’t you sometimes feel that everything is dead? I feel, and apparently you feel, a sort of impossibility in getting on solidly with any serious book in the way we used to do” (CL 395). Lewis had to find a common ground between these two poles. Lewis emphasizes that he “never mistook imagination for reality” (SBJ 94); yet he knew imagination to be inextricably connected to that Joy which, to him, “was not a deception” (SBJ 258), but rather, “the moments of clearest consciousness we had” (SBJ 258). Reconciling these moments of clarity with his experience of the trenches began the expansion of his thinking which ultimately led to his conversion. On the warfront it is always winter; one cannot help but hope that Christmas might soon be arriving.

Lewis’s development might be aptly described in terms he used to describe the evolution of Medieval cosmology: “the change of the Model as a whole was not so simple an affair” (DI 218). Just as the Medieval Model “was not, in any exact sense, ‘refuted’ by the telescope” (DI 219), so Lewis’s universal model shaped by Animal Land and Norse mythology and Beatrix Potter shifted, expanded, and changed as a result of the War; but “there is no question here of the old Model’s being shattered” (DI 221). In The Discarded Image, Lewis writes, “there are those (some of them critics) who believe every novel and even every lyric to be autobiographical” (213). Lewis disagrees. In The Personal Heresy, published in 1939, Lewis argues: “when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all” (4). As a lover of poetry and aspiring poet himself, Lewis was defending his own work in writing this critique of poetry. Lewis suggests that readers of poetry, including his own, to “make of him not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles…I must enjoy him and not contemplate him” (12). Lewis’s faith in objective values, which contrasted so sharply with the relativism of solipsism, led him to believe that poetry should serve the public and its common people, rather than indulge the personal reflections of the poet. To approach Lewis’s poetry and fiction, then, with an eye for the strictly autobiographical impact of the war, would be a mistake. Lewis himself would have hated that such papers were written by undergraduates at his own university. Rather, in looking at C.S. Lewis’s work, a more profitable end would be to think about how the lens through which Lewis shows us the world is tinged; how does Lewis himself think about the world, and how does he ask us as readers to think about it?

by Anna Russell Thornton

Lewis’s Spirits in Bondage, his first published work, reveals the beginning of the change in Lewis’s universal model. Indeed, the desperate desire that pervades the cycle forms a striking prequel to Lewis’s later writings. The prologue ends thus: “In my coracle of verses I will sing of lands unknown / Flying from the scarlet city where a Lord that knows no pity, / Mocks the broken people praying round his iron throne, / Sing about the Hidden Country fresh and full of quiet green. / Sailing over seas uncharted to a port that none has seen” (SB). In addition to echoes of Milton’s Paradise Lost (King 70), I see Reepicheep in his coracle, riding up the wave to Aslan’s Country, “warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls” (Narnia 539). I hear Screwtape telling Wormwood of the “pretty cageful” of “religious” people to whom “meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades mean more…than prayer and sacraments and charity” (Screwtape 42-3). I hear Lewis, speaking to a group of Oxford students: “If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon” (Weight 47).

Though the young Lewis writing Spirits in Bondage does not yet know where this Hidden Country lies, he knows where it does not. The next poem in the cycle, “Satan Speaks,” Satan proclaims: “I am the battle’s filth and strain, / I am the widow’s empty pain. / I am the sea to smother your breath, / I am the bomb, the falling death. / I am the fact and the crushing reason / To thwart your fantasy’s new-born treason” (SB). These lines exemplify what Lewis learned in the war: all the ugliness of death and of battle, and all the autocratic reason which threatened to crush rebel fantasy, were bound up in the Devil and the World; and they had not Joy; “it was not in their gift” (SBJ 206). Lewis writes to Arthur Greeves, “Out here, where I see spirit continually dodging matter (shells, animal fears, animal pains) I have formulated my equation Matter = Nature = Satan. And on the other side Beauty, the only spiritual & not-natural thing I have yet found” (TST 214). Lewis’s pristinely idyllic world cannot find a foothold in this world rife with senses and emotions. Lewis laments the apparent loss: “faerie people from our woods are gone / No Dryads have I found in all our trees” (“Victory” SB), yet asserts that “like the phoenix, from each fiery bed / Higher the stricken spirit lifts its head” (“Victory” SB). This juxtaposition between hope and despair, myth and reality, God and god, permeates the cycle. “All these were rosy visions of the night, / The loveliness and wisdom feigned of old. / But now we wake” (“Apology” SB), writes the young Lewis. And yet: “If a man could cheat him! If you could flee away / Into some other country beyond the rosy West, / To hide in the deep forests and be for ever at rest” (“Ode to New Years Day”, SB). The young poet alternately rejects and longs for this “rosy” place, a “thirsting for the right” and “seeking of the light” which he would not “change for thy relentless might” (“De Profundis” SB). Having professed to have forgotten or left behind his mythical world, it is clear he has not forgotten it at all: “For we have seen the Glory—we have seen” (“Dungeon Grates” SB).

 Lewis foreshadows his own spiritual conclusion when he writes: “Some there are that in their daily walks / Have met archangels fresh from sight of God, / Or watched how in their beans and cabbage-stalks / Long files of faerie trod” (“Our Daily Bread” SB). Though this World leaves “the faerie maiden…weeping” on “homeless feet” (“World’s Desire” SB), there is another place, “rosy in the West” (“Death in Battle” SB), where “all’s cool and green” (Death in Battle SB). There the poet forgets “men cursing in fight and toiling” where “blinded I fought” (Death in Battle SB), welcomed “among the mountains and silent wastes untrod, / In the dewy upland places, in the garden of God” (Death in Battle SB). No longer surrounded by “faces of devils—yea, even as my own,” he will live in the “Country of Dreams…beyond the tide of the ocean…out of the sound of battles…full of dim woods and streams” (Death in Battle SB). Does that not sound like Aslan’s Country? Lewis begins to realize that his atheism “is just too simple…if the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning” (Mere 97). On the battlefield Lewis saw that his ivory tower must have a foundation in the earthiness of life.

by Anna Rusell Thornton

Lewis found the common ground between his two selves in the Gospel. Having being wounded in battle and carried away from the war on a stretcher (CL 368), much like Reepicheep in Prince Caspian, Lewis finds himself at a crossroads. While the devils may be “delirious with joy because the European humans have started another of their wars” (Screwtape 29), Lewis felt that “death would be much better than to live through another war” (CL 320). At war, Lewis learned that “war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it” (Weight 44). Having been too old for fairy tales for many years, he at last grew old enough to “take [them] down from some upper shelf, dust [them]” (Narnia 3) and start reading them again. In time of war, the world of thought, imagination, and ideas, came sharply into focus as the key to the beauty of reality. Though Lewis hated war, he writes, “If it’s got to be it’s got to be” (CL 320), because “If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful” (God in the Dock 326). Having acknowledged that human life is always “lived on the edge of a precipice” (Weight 44), Lewis also acknowledges that for all its ugliness, war points to the existence of beauty. Where Wyvern taught him to seek shelter in sleep, the battlefield forced him to open his eyes to the beauty which exists in the midst of reality, making more of human life and standing at odds with worldly matter. Lewis spent the rest of his authorial career helping to “shock” others awake to cosmic intelligence which created thought and rules the universe, as he had been on the battlefield (Phillips 147).

In a letter to his father, Lewis writes “I am the only survivor…one cannot help wondering why” (CL 416-17). Looking back on his life and his writings, Lewis observes:

There is a guiding thread. The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet… It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologised science¬fiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children. (LL 260)

That, perhaps, is why Lewis survived: that through his writing he could join those “whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth” (Chesterton) in pursuit of that “Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter” (Weight 48). Like the shred of metal lodged in his chest, Lewis carried the War inside him, a constant reminder of the duality of the spiritual and matter which finds its unity in myth: and in one myth in particular, which, as Tolkien put it, happens to be true.

Excerpt from Lewis' “Song of the Pilgrims”

With many deaths our fellowship is thinned,
Our flesh is withered in the parching wind,
Wandering the earth from Orkney unto Ind.

But we shall wake again in gardens bright
Of green and gold for infinite delight,
And ever living queens that grow not old
And poets wise in robes of faerie gold
Whisper a wild, sweet song that first was told. 
Ere God sat down to make the Milky Way.
And in those gardens we shall sleep and play
For ever and for ever and a day.

Or is it all a folly of the wise,
Bidding us walk these ways with blinded eyes
While all around us real flowers arise?
But, by the very God, we know, we know
That somewhere still, beyond the Northern snow
Waiting for us the red-rose gardens blow.

N.B. The Second World War provided great opportunity for reflection from Lewis, including the radio talks aired by the BBC and collected as Mere Christianity. I mention this because I would have liked to have discussed it, but simply ran out of time and space to do it justice.

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Works Consulted

Chesterton, G. K. “Lepanto.” Poetry Foundation. Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Gilchrist, K. J. A Morning After War: C.S. Lewis and WWI. Oxford: P. Lang, 2005. Print.
King, Don. C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impuls. N.p.: Kent State University, 2001. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. London: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.
-----The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper, 2007. Print.
-----“The Conditions for a Just War,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by                 Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970. 
-----The Discarded Image. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1964.
-----Mere Christianity. 1943. New York: Macmillan, 1952. Print.
-----The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1960.
-----They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963). London:      Collins, 1979. Print. 
-----Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print. 
-----Surprised by Joy. London: Collins, 2012. Print.
-----The Weight of Glory. N.p.: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942. Print. 
Lewis, C. S., and E. M. W. Tillyard. The Personal Heresy: A Controversy. Austin: Concordia University, 2008. Print. 
Phillips, Justin. C.S. Lewis at the BBC: Messages of Hope in the Darkness of War. London: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Comp. C.S. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University, 1947. Print.