In my chronological reading of C.S. Lewis’ writings, I was struggling a bit in 1941. Lewis makes what seems to be an unusual move when he chooses to take on a series of broadcasting talks at the BBC. The content isn’t really that surprising. Anyone who has read Mere Christianity—the book that began as the broadcast talks—can see Lewis’ unique voice throughout. These talks seem to follow The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters fairly well, offering an intriguing invitation to a generous Christianity.
But Lewis didn’t really listen to the radio much. He didn’t understand the medium of speech radio, and found it a distraction. As far as I can tell, he only turned it on because he wanted to hear some news about the war. Suddenly in 1941 he decided to write these radio talks. I have been struggling to understand what happened in 1937 to Lewis that he began to project his faith into the public sphere. I know that the BBC talks were just another way of doing that, but it seems like a big jump.
So I turned to Justin Phillips’ 2002 book, C.S. Lewis at the BBC. Here, Phillips sets the context for the BBC during wartime, shares details about the correspondence between C.S. Lewis and BBC producers Eric Fenn and James Welch, and shows how very difficult it was to get Lewis’ voice to the BBC public. Phillips is a BBC historian rather than a Lewis scholar, and I was immediately struck by the outsider tone of the book. He is knowledgeable and respectful of C.S. Lewis, and gives a refreshing and unusual look at Lewis’ impact and influence during a time of crisis in Britain’s history, and during a period of Lewis’ life when he rose to the level of a public intellectual.
There is a great deal to commend about this book. The first five chapters are about the history of the BBC and its mandate as a stabilizing voice of information, reason, and entertainment in WWII. Avid readers of WWII books would quickly move past Phillips’ account of the blitzkrieg of London and the rationing throughout Great Britain. I did a degree on antisemitism, so I know a great deal about WWII. But, honestly, I knew far more about Germany and the movement of Jews on the run throughout Europe. Consequently, I found the picture of wartime Britain that Phillips drew to be quite enlightening. That context is absolutely key to understanding C.S. Lewis’ WWII work, I think.
Because of the focus of C.S. Lewis at the BBC, the ground is less tamped down by previous biographers. And where Phillips wanders into common biographical fields, he is able flush out something new and interesting. For example, he goes into the domestic life of Lewis during the war. It is a complicated household: a distracted, overworked Oxford scholar; an alcoholic brother in the reserves; a cranky, territorial “mother” who dominated the kitchen; a part-time cook; a full-time gardener (Paxford) who was also working full-time in a factory; a number of children evacuated from London during the blitz; twenty-five chickens, some rabbits, and at least one dog.
Phillips brings new light to the domestic situation by interviewing Jill Freud, a career actress who was a childhood evacuee in the early part of the war. She found her way into the Lewis household and stayed throughout the war, setting aside a scholarship to a prominent school of the arts. It was C.S. Lewis, apparently, that ultimately provided her a scholarship and opened up for her the path that she chose. Her interview is a delightful read, and she gives a different view of life at The Kilns than that of Lewis’ friends or his own correspondence.
Phillips also fills in details of the correspondence between BBC and Lewis in a way that Walter Hooper’s excellent 3-volume letter collection cannot do. In Hooper’s collection we have most of Lewis’ letters to the BBC because of their accurate record keeping, so those letters are printed. But Phillips also provides the letters that BBC producers and directors wrote to Lewis—something that is contained only in this book or in the archives. This correspondence opened up for me how much work went into the BBC broadcasts, and how often Lewis had to change his scripts to match the unique demands of broadcasting. An already seasoned and focused writer, Lewis was stretched by his experience at the BBC. Phillips argues that the poignancy of Mere Christianity is what it is partly because of editorial process Lewis went through in trying to get his ideas to millions of BBC listeners. It is a point worth considering.
I also never knew how much Lewis had been asked to appear on the BBC. He declined literally dozens of request over the next decade or so, until they finally stopped asking (for the most part). He did broadcast four times after the war, but almost always he said no to the polite requests. And in saying no, he really limited his audience, as the broadcasts would have been repeated in Australia and later in America. He was offered a weekly radio show in the United States, which he turned down.
Part of the answer comes in Lewis’ increasing busyness throughout the war and in the years afterward. If you look at his letters and the biographers, this pace increased until things nearly broke at the end of the decade. Writing essays and books was easy for Lewis. Writing scripts was hard: timed to the minute, subject to censors, and vulnerable to the demands of a diverse audience and unseen political pressures. Lewis just did not have the time to do the work. Much of the work of talk radio today is done by the staff writers and producers, so that artists and thinkers are invited onto the radio (or television) to answer questions and engage in dialogue. It might be that if that format was available in the 40s, we would have heard more of Lewis. Better technologies, allowing him to record at home in Oxford instead of travel to London to speak live, may have made a difference too.
But there is a deeper reason that Lewis moved past the radio, one that Phillips only hints at. It might be that Lewis got bored with the format. Look at his work in the period. He writes a SciFi novel in 1937, then an apologetics book in 1939. He writes a popular book on Paradise Lost in 1940, and begins The Screwtape Letters, a series of demonic letters on spiritual theology. He preaches for the first time in at the outbreak of the war, and begins writing Letters to the Editor and short essays in Christian magazines. He writes a Miltonian space fantasy in 1942 (Perelandra), does The Abolition of Man lectures and then writes an apocalyptic, dystopic novel (That Hideous Strength) that fictionalizes the ideas of the lectures. He finishes the war with a serial dream sequence of a guy that gets to visit heaven for a day (later called The Great Divorce). Each one of these projects is a new challenge of genre, trying out innovative ideas in challenging forms. Miracles in 1947 is similar to The Problem of Pain, but then Lewis suddenly emerges as a children’s author in 1949, and publishes seven Narnia stories over the next five years. The 1950s moves from the Chronicles, to a myth retelling (Till We Have Faces), to a spiritual autobiography, The Four Loves and a series of academic books of lectures, a series of Reflections on the Psalms, and an epistolary book on prayer. Lewis was always on the move when it came to writing.
It seems, then, the specific and limiting of demands of broadcasting didn’t capture best what he did. Lewis wanted to stay fresh, and did that by exploring new avenues–not just the content of his work, but also in the discovery of new forms. I would guess that form and content emerged simultaneously for Lewis, and that the BBC approach to talks lacked a kind of artistic integrity that made it less than fulfilling for Lewis.
But the biggest reason of all might have been the letters. C.S. Lewis came to hate writing letters, and they flooded in after the broadcast talks. An audience of several million is going to create a burden of public response that he could not meet. Writing the Chronicles of Narnia might appear to be a bad move for someone that doesn’t like reader letters. But answering a bit of fan mail from children is different than being the voice of popular religion for the nation.
Phillips’ work revealed some interesting limitations in Lewis’ thinking (even if Phillips doesn’t make all the links). Lewis gave all his broadcast talk money away to charity, but complained of the cost of time and energy in making the scripts and answering letters. He could have used some of the BBC money to hire a secretary (beyond his brother, who was doing the job of helping with correspondence). This limitation of understanding money would grow in Lewis’ life. Alister McGrath tells the story well in C.S. Lewis: A Life. At the end of his life, Lewis was unsure if he would be able to cover all the bills in his estate. As it turns out, he had enough money to purchase several homes in England, if he had wanted to (the estate was approaching £1,000,000 in today’s currency). He was never able to be clever about money.
Overall, this was a great read. There are two chapters on Dorothy L. Sayers, a friend of Lewis’ and one of the fresh Christian voices on BBC in WWII, as well as appendices that help the reader. I would have liked to see more reprints of the original letters, and some more information about the changes made to the scripts. I think the “war” background gets lost a little as the book goes along, and so it is tempting to forget the rationing and other restrictions in place. Overall, however, C.S. Lewis at the BBC was very informative and a great read. I hoped to see more focused biographies in the future.