Last month marked the 50th anniversary of a bizarre day in history. Three men of significant importance each died on November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy, author Aldous Huxley, and author and scholar C.S. Lewis.
On that day, the developed world (appropriately) halted at the news of the assassination of the United States’ 35th president. The front page of The New York Times on Saturday morning, the day after the tragic shooting, read, “Kennedy Is Killed by Sniper as he Rides in Car in Dallas; Johnson Sworn in on Plane,” and virtually every other news service around the world ran similar coverage and developed these stories for days and weeks following.
Huxley’s death, meanwhile, made the front page of The New York Times the day after Kennedy’s coverage began. The English-born writer spent his final hours in Los Angeles, high on LSD. His wife, Laura, administered the psychedelic drug during the writer's final day battling cancer, honoring his wishes to prepare for death like the characters in his novels Eyeless in Gaza and Island. Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a haunting futuristic world where a sovereign, global government harvests its tightly controlled social order in glass jars; the Times obituary writer declared that Huxley’s well-known book “set a model for writers of his generation.”
The news of Lewis’s death, though, didn't appear in print until Nov. 25, and it appeared in the normal obituary section of The New York Times weekday paper. At an earlier point in his life, Lewis enjoyed vibrant community with family, friends, and colleagues displayed famously in his writers’ club, the Inklings—which included, among others, J.R.R. Tolkien. By the time Lewis died, however, many of those relationships had fizzled out, and only a handful people even knew about Lewis’s funeral in time to attend. In one of the new biographies of Lewis by Alister McGrath (the now-definitive C.S. Lewis: A Life), the writer lists eight attendees, and assumes others, at the funeral for Lewis. No immediate family members were present—his brother, Warnie, stayed in bed, too drunk and distraught to venture to the ceremony. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, represented the family at the understated memorial.
But amid all of the attention to these three men during the past year—new biographies, films, conferences, magazines, articles—the legacy of Lewis stands out in relation to both those of the 35th U.S. president and of the prescient Brave New World author.
As Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. puts it in Publishers Weekly, “While Huxley is now largely forgotten and Kennedy remains a symbol of lost promise, Lewis lives on through his novels, stories, essays, and autobiographical works.” While I think that oversimplifies Kennedy and underestimates Huxley, the underlying point is worth considering: In one of the great ironies of history, Lewis at his death received less attention than Huxley, and far less than Kennedy. But it may be true that Lewis’s ideas claim the most lasting influence, both on the Christian tradition and on the Western culture beyond.
Lewis, a native of Belfast, Ireland, taught English literature at Oxford and Cambridge during the middle of the 20th century. Beginning in his teenage years and up through his early career, he was an atheist—but an uncomfortable one. In 1931, he became convinced that the Christian faith was more than a series of rational deductions; that it offered him a narrative that not only answered intellectual questions, but also satisfied his spiritual longings—what he described as the “god-sized hole” in his life. From that point on, he dedicated a significant portion of his energies to this idea that Christianity transcends facts and experience—Lewis believed Christianity wedded facts and experience in a deeper logical and emotional reality.
Lewis’s writing flowed in three streams: scholarly works, defenses of the Christian faith, and fiction. His canon, in addition to hundreds of essays and short writings, consists of more than 30 books, including widely celebrated criticisms on English literature and widely read works of fiction, poetry, and children’s stories. Today, several of these titles are familiar even to those with only a cursory interest in literature—such as the Chronicles of Narnia (which includes 1950’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), 1956’s Till We Have Faces, 1952’s Mere Christianity, and 1942’s The Screwtape Letters.
Just about any list of the best Christian books in the English language, of course, will include at least one Lewis title. In fact, when Christianity Today magazine asked more than 100 Christian writers and leaders to rank the most influential religious books of the 20th century, they named Lewis’s Mere Christianity No. 1 by far—which explains why readers have purchased the around 18 million copies of the book. And Harper Collins, which distributed some 10 million in unit sales since it acquired the rights to most of Lewis’s titles in 2001, reports more than 150,000 copies of Mere Christianity sold in the past year.
But even those numbers seem small compared to the more than 100 million copies (in at least 30 different languages) of The Chronicles of Narnia series sold.
And Lewis’s stories seem just as comfortable in Hollywood as they are in a corner bookstore. In recent years, three stories of the Chronicles of Narnia appeared as major film adaptations, with a fourth in development. And other films based on his life and works have materialized, too—such as Shadowlands, which casts Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and tells the story of his marriage to Joy Davidman, and a forthcoming film version of The Great Divorce, currently in the development stage.
Lewis’s works also appear onstage: Shadowlands began as television film and later turned into a play, and the theater production of The Screwtape Letters will continue its current tour in California later this month.
Traces of Lewis even appear in the works of other writers. Most significantly, he helped Tolkien finish perhaps the best work of English literature from the century, The Lord of the Rings; McGrath calls Lewis the “chief midwife” to the stories. Another biographer suggests that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series includes seven volumes as a kind of homage to the Narnia stories. Rowling’s character Dudley sounds and acts like Lewis’s Eustace Scrubb (from the Chronicles of Narnia series), and in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Rowling said she found herself “thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at a barrier in Kings Cross Station.” Lewis’s work also shapes, axiomatically, the stories of Christian writers like N.D. Wilson (also the screenwriter for The Great Divorce adaptation) and Andrew Peterson, and has also influenced writers like Lloyd Alexander—who said, “In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.”