An excerpt from a Christianity Today interview with Rowan Wililams on C. S. Lewis:
What do you think the artistry of Narnia tell us about Lewis?
Lewis is a brilliant storyteller; he’s not one of the world’s great novelists. But even so, what he does, he does wonderfully. He is always very good at depicting something about joy.
If you look at an extraordinary episode in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Lucy finds herself reading a story in a magical book, when she puts the book down she can’t remember the details of the story. She just knows that it’s the best thing she’s ever read, the most enriching and beautiful thing she’s ever encountered. As she’s talking to Aslan afterward she says, “Will you tell me that story again?” Aslan says, “One day I shall tell it to you forever.” It’s that kind of moment where you realize that Lewis has got hold of something that very few writers do manage to crystallize, a sense of absolute immersion in the richness of the moment.
It comes across in The Screwtape Letters, which still read very well, when the one, old devil says to the younger devil that God’s great secret is that he’s a pleasure lover at heart. At the heart of it is joy. That’s Lewis all over.
A good deal of Lewis’s life, of course, was marked by enormous stress and great suffering. It’s not as if he had an unchallenged life. Some of the emotional force of his writing does come from his being a motherless child, looking back to that sort of magical world before the suffering broke in—and we all have a little bit of that in us.
But what he does with it then, instead of making it a cozy, backward-looking thing, he unites it to all of these great moral challenges, the challenge of facing up to yourself, the challenge of going on being faithful in prosaic ways day by day. It’s really only by doing the next thing—being faithful in small particulars—that you come to this joy. It’s not magic; it’s not nostalgia. It’s a very fine balance that he deals with remarkably.
So when he comes to write about his wife’s death in A Grief Observed, which is, for many people, the most extraordinary and challenging of all his books, it’s as if you know anything he says about joy or hope is hard won. It’s really something that’s come to him not by glib formulations or easy answers. He really has fought for it.
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How have you seen Lewis’s legacy change in the UK over the past 50 years?
Obviously Lewis is still read by people for the apologetic and intellectual side, but for me—as well as a great many other people—that’s not necessarily the best place to start or finish. Here is somebody who knew the world of English literature—and indeed, European literature—as well as anybody in his generation, who himself had a really vigorous, creative imagination. I think more and more people are aware that you acquire faith not by a great exercise of the will, not by a great exercise of the intellect, but by something that happens to your imagination when it’s turned upside down.