An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. LewisTHOMAS HOWARD
Carl E. Olson recently interviewed Thomas Howard about his friend C. S. Lewis and the approaching release of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis's famed Chronicles of Narnia.
When did you first discover
the work of C. S. Lewis and what attracted you to it?
Dr. Thomas Howard: I first heard
of, and then began to read, Lewis in the mid-l940's when an older sister
of mine came home from college with Mere Christianity. I was only ten or
twelve, but I seem to recall knowing that here was a writer whose work I would
like to pursue. Later, when I was an undergraduate, the Narnia Chronicles were
coming out, and since they became a sort of fad immediately, I, rather perversely,
put off reading them. I read them while I was in the Army in the late l950's,
and was utterly overwhelmed, shedding copious tears.
You had a correspondence with C. S. Lewis many
years ago. How did that come about? Did you ever meet Lewis in person?
Howard: While I was in the
Army, a friend sent me the Tolkien trilogy. I was so swept away that on an impulse
I fired off a letter to Lewis, whom I knew to be a fellow of Magdalen (I didn't
know how to find Tolkien). I just addressed it to "C. S. Lewis, Magdalen
College, Oxford, England. He wrote back a most gracious letter all about Tolkien,
and then thanking me for liking "my own little efforts." An intermittent
correspondence ensued, and some years ago I gave all the letters to the Wade Collection
at Wheaton College, Illinois, where there is the best collection of Tolkien, Lewis,
Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Owen Barfield, and other writers, outside of
While I was living in England in the early 1960's, I arranged
to pop out to The Kilns [Lewis's residence] one time when I was in Oxford
visiting a friend at Queen's College. Lewis received me most jovially, and
we sat and chatted for just under an hour, as I recall it. I asked him about hell:
"There might be such a place," he said. We talked of Purgatory, too.
I can't remember the whole conversation since I could not bring myself to
sit jotting notes, and I don't think we had tape recorders in those days
(which I wouldn't have used anyway). Lewis looked just as you would hope
he'd look: stout; rubicund face; twinkly eyes; baggy tweeds; and a magnificent
Lewis was one of the most popular Christian writers of the
20th century, perhaps the most read Christian author of the past fifty years.
Why has he been so popular among a diverse readership that includes non-Christians,
Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox? What sets him apart as an author
popularity derived, I am sure, from the remorseless clarity of everything he wrote,
plus his glorious imagination, plus his splendid mastery of the English language.
Of course his gigantic intellect and his rigorous training in argument from his
mentor the "Great Knock" [W.T. Kirkpatrick] set his work altogether
apart from most other writers, especially popular writers, whose "intellects
are not so hard at work as they suppose" (Lewis's remark about some
schoolboys). His vast readership, drawn from non-religious types, and from every
ventricle of Christendom (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Calvinist, fundamentalist,
and everything else) testifies to the qualities I have mentioned above. He refused
to be partisan in any cheap sense, although of course his robust Christian orthodoxy
no one could escape.
You recently wrote, in your regular "Ashes to
Ashes" column in Crisis
magazine (Nov. 2005), that you "have read every syllable Lewis ever wrote, including
all the books no one else has read. What are some of the lesser-known books of
Lewis? Which of Lewis's books do you think deserves a wider readership? Why?
Howard: Of Lewis's
lesser-known books, I would mention: The Discarded Image, a glorious book
about the Mediaeval outlook on the universe; A Preface to Paradise Lost,
which I would say is infinitely worth reading even if you never get around to
Milton; his Poems, which incline me to say that they are his best work;
The Allegory of Love, about the whole nettlesome topic of "courtly
love" in the late Middle Ages – and beautifully readable even for non-scholars;
and then his huge English Literature in the Sixteen Century Excluding Drama,
which I open at random just for the sheer delight of it. I often find myself laughing
at Lewis's obvious hilarious delight in the works he is treating. I would
say any of these books would reward readers who have read only his most famous
They differ from most other childrens literature
in that they draw us all into the precincts of sheer Goodness (without sentimentalism),
and Joy, and, finally, Holiness. That is an achievement when you are writing for
The Chronicles of Narnia, of course, are
very well known and have sold over 85 million copies since first appearing in
the 1950s. Why do you think that series has been so popular? What distinguishes
it from other works of children's literature?
Howard: The Narnia Chronicles
owe their worldwide popularity, surely, both to Lewis's love for the genre
fairy tale, and to his unpatronizing delight in children, knowing, as he did,
what would draw them in to his world. They differ from most other children's
literature in that they draw us all into the precincts of sheer Goodness (without
sentimentalism), and Joy, and, finally, Holiness. That is an achievement when
you are writing for children. I would put his work in a class with Pooh and Alice
and Beatrix Potter's books, and The Wind in the Willows.
Do you plan on seeing on seeing
the movie adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia? If so, what do expect,
or hope to see?
Howard: Yes, I most certainly plan to see the movie. I have already
seen excerpts (I think they are called "trailers" now). The film is
good beyond one's wildest hopes. It will take its place with The Lord
of the Rings, I predict. After the somewhat abortive, not to say pathetic,
efforts to get up a film of Narnia over the past twenty or more years, this one
is a prize.
You mentioned some of the strengths of Lewis
and his writing. Did he have any notable weaknesses as a thinker or writer? Are
there any topics that he avoided or didn't address that you wish he had?
Howard: Any weaknesses in
Lewis? Who would wish to find himself saying Yes to that! The only case in point
I can think of is, perhaps, the "defeat"(if it was a defeat – I think
Lewis thought it was) at the hands of Elizabeth Anscombe in a debate about, I
think, Miracles, in which she seems to have found some wobbly spots in
But are there topics he avoided? Most emphatically Yes!
He avoided, like the black pestilence, the whole topic of The Church. He hated
ecclesiology. It divided Christians, he said (certainly accurately). He wanted
to be known as a "mere Christian," so he simply fled all talk of The
Church as such. He would not participate in anything that remotely resembled a
discussion of matters ecclesiological. He was firm in his non- (or anti- ?) Catholicism.
People ask me if he would by now have been received into the Ancient Church, and
I usually say yes. I don't see how, as an orthodox Christian apologist, he
could have stayed in the Anglican Church during these last decades of its hasty
Do you have a favorite book or series of books
by Lewis? For those who haven't yet read Lewis, where do you suggest they begin?
What Lewis books should be read?
Howard: My favorite Lewis books? I would
say his Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; and That Hideous
Strength) and the Narnia books. In these books we find, clothed in drama,
all of the ideas that he treated in his more strictly discursive works. The remorseless
clarity with which he saw Good and Evil is prophetic. What he wrote in the l940's
could have been written tomorrow. I would invite any newcomer to his work to start
Howard. "An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis." IgnatiusInsight.com
(November 16, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of IgnatiusInsight.com.
IgnatiusInsight.com and the Insight Scoop weblog are online resources of Ignatius
Press and are meant to assist readers who wish to learn more about the Catholic
Church and her teachings, beliefs, practices, and history.
Dr. Thomas Howard was raised in a prominent
Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth
Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church
in 1985, at the age of fifty.Howard
is a highly acclaimed writer and scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S.
Lewis (C.S. Lewis: Man of Letters ) and Charles Williams (The
Novels of Charles Williams ), as well as books including Christ the
Tiger (1967), Chance
or the Dance? (1969), Hallowed be This House (1976), Evangelical
is Not Enough (1984), If
Your Mind Wanders at Mass (1995), On
Being Catholic (1997), and The
Secret of New York Revealed. Howard's story of his how and why he
became Catholic, Lead,
Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, was published last year by Ignatius
Press. His book on T.S. Eliot's "The Four Quartets" will be published
by Ignatius Press in 2006.
Copyright 2005 IgnatiusInsight.com