The Transformative Power of Memory: Lewis and the World Wars

tumblr_mdboehjp9f1qhrj0uo1_1280The first reader of C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, might be puzzled by the fact that WWI—the catastrophe that decided the fate of so many of Europe’s great thinkers and artists and inventors—makes up very little of Lewis’ narrative. “It is even in a way unimportant,” Lewis wrote in a longish paragraph that talks about the death of his mother, the realities of trench warfare, a shivering French mouse, environmental and other kinds of mental degradation, cold feet and heroes tales and

“horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet…”

Surprised by Joy by C.S. LewisAs vivid as his narrative is, Lewis is not anxious to root his life to the Great War, even though it was fateful for him. Every day is fateful, I suppose. And though he spoke in letters of nostalgia and nightmares, Lewis emerged from WWI with a robust conscience, an invitation to Oxford, and a manuscript of poems (Spirits in Bondage, 1919).

His deepest thoughts about the war and the shrapnel embedded in his frame both accompanied him to his own grave 45 years later.

Although Lewis refused to give WWI a formative place in his life, WWII orients his writing in an unusual way.

After writing Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and a couple of academic books, Lewis was invited to use his unique literary gifts and his training in philosophy to write The Problem of Pain (1940)—a book that addresses the question, “if God is good, why do people suffer?” Though he wrote this popular theodicy in the first few months of the war, WWII does not shape the entire book. “War” is one of things that seemed to confirm Lewis’ youthful atheism, and is one of the parts of human pain that snaps us out of our self-serving Monday to Friday inattention to the real world around us.

140627155704-10-wwi-chemical-weapons-horizontal-large-galleryBy the time The Problem of Pain led to a few talks on the BBC, he assumes that war is the one thing everyone has in common. It becomes an image that orients the reader, giving us some measure against which to weigh the world. In The Screwtape Letters (1941-42), war is the backdrop to the “patient’s” temptation. In the end, it is a bomb raid that takes the patient’s life, as is the threat in the last lines of the dream story, The Great Divorce (1944-45), which closes WWII. Miracles, though published in 1947, was mostly written during WWII, and reflects the war reality in some of its illustrations.

Although the Ransom Cycle begins before the war with Out of the Silent Planet, WWII haunts the series. The blackout of the opening chapters of Perelandra (1943) is doubtless because of the war, and That Hideous Strength (1945), though it follows the war, shows the kinds of tyrannies that were possible in the WWII-era.

WWIEven when we move beyond wartime, the battlefield continues to inform Lewis’ writing. The late 1940s and early 1950s were dominated by two projects: his huge literary history of 16th Century Poetry and Prose (OHEL, 1954), and Narnia (1950-56). OHEL is intentionally timeless, but do you remember how Narnia begins? In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950) the children are sent out of London because of the Blitzkrieg. I’ve always wondered if the serious railway accident that ends life for three of the Pevensies and brings them to Aslan’s country was an act of war, but Walter Hooper thinks otherwise in Past Watchful Dragons. In any case, The Last Battle (1956) is the only Narnian tale to occur definitely after WWII (in Earth time), even though they were all written well after V-Day.

remembrance-albums-remembrance-day-picture83-remembrance-honour-our-brave-soldiersAfter Narnia was penned Lewis finished Surprised by Joy (1954), where WWI is played down and WWII is almost ignored—despite how the last world war roots more than a decade of Lewis’ work. Till We Have Faces (1955) treats war like a biblical or classical chronicle—“In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…” (2 Samuel 11)—or like an Arthurian tale as imagined by a young King Henry VIII. In the same way that Lewis warned against pacifism in a talk in WWII, he warns against patriotism in The Four Loves (1959-60)—the two tensions that Screwtape plays with in Letter V of The Screwtape Letters.

And Reflections on the Psalms (1957), if you have not read it, approaches some of the most difficult moments of the Psalter as only someone who faced enemy weaponry could dare to face it.

I’m left, then, with two thoughts when thinking about Lewis and the war.

Ransom_CycleWhen I think about men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who survived the war, my first thought is to wonder what great transformational writer did not survive. What story is missing from our bookshelves? What worlds are missing from our mental multiplex of universes?

And not just writers, but subcreators of all kinds. In the machinery of the two World Wars, have we lost that genius that would have cured cancer or made nuclear energy safe? Would the crises of global warming and ethnic cleansing have been stopped before they started? Would we have a political future better than a promise of entrenched ideologies—and not particularly good ideologies to begin with? Would we still have poetry and imagination and innovation in our classrooms?

We can never know. Working against the wars of the future is all that is in our power, such as it is.

The second thought is to you the reader: what has happened in your life to root you? As you go about your daily life, building the worlds you build, where do you root your work, your story, your love?

I don’t mean this in just a spiritual way. Lewis rooted himself in Christ; my PhD project is about how his conversion is the basis of his work. I think one’s religion or worldview will be the key root of whether their art will grow. We shouldn’t be surprised that with all the skill and beauty we see around us today, there is a lack of depth and rootedness.

3 British soldiers in trench under fire during World War 1I think it is valuable to ask what events orient the work that we do. When I look at the last nine years of my life, with the exception of my children’s writing and some essays, my academic work and my fiction has had the theme of “death” at its core. It seems that I have been returning to the death of my father and brother 26 years ago. This event formed and transformed me, but I thought I had left it behind some time ago. Yet, as I grow as father, husband, Christian, writer, brother, friend, son, and teacher, I find myself returning to those fateful moments.

Although my life is marked by tragedy, I live with the luxury of peace. If I wonder that Lewis underestimated the impact of war on his life, it is a choice I have never had to face.

So we are left with two things that can transform our lives.

remembrance-day-quotes-hd-wallpaper-29First, we are the writers and artists and inventors that did not die. It is up to us to apply ourselves to our work.

Second, we have the opportunity to be aware of the forces that shape us.

Today is Remembrance Day, when we set apart a day to remember those that have fallen in the wars of the 20th century, and to promise to a future generation that we will never allow war to ravage the world again. Memory is not just about encapsulating the past, but is the engine that shapes the future.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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34 Responses to The Transformative Power of Memory: Lewis and the World Wars

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How fine this is! And to read someday “about how his conversion is the basis of his work”, is something to look forward to! For, Spirits in Bondage is an astonishing volume, about which I have never yet begun to think sufficiently. And, in a slightly expanded version of your excellent first ‘section’, here, you might say something about the revolution – and other fighting – in Dymer, and reflections on various thoughts about war in Pilgrim’s Regress.

    People working on, so well and normally – and very fruitfully, Lewis and Tolkien (and Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers), for example, amidst all the strains and threats and uncertainties of modern warfare going on and on – it amazes me! And among these, Tolkien having Michael and Christopher away fighting, and all the Inklings who knows how many old students and younger friends: what a constant anxiety it must have been!

    We may aspire “to promise to a future generation that we will never allow war to ravage the world again”, but who may allow, and who may prevent – where, in the phrase apparently varied from Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”?


    • I might take up this challenge–to read Dymer with this question in mind. I actually struggle with that text. I understand the front narrative, but I feel like there is meaning behind the plot and characters that I am missing.
      I also find the idea of doing such normal things in WWII so strange. When a moment like that shows up in history, I don’t know how everyone doesn’t just stop everything and stare at the world. I was obsessing over news of the American elections, and that’s a relatively minor moment compared with the hugest war of history.
      While I say “never again,” I would also say “Don’t be a Neville Chamberlain.” To miss the moment at such a time is his legacy, and it could have been worse.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve only (finally!) read Dymer once, so far (!) It is so variously vivid – and curious. I should wrestle with it, some more.

        It is astonishing to me to find various things having gone on (apparently) ‘much as usual’ in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Simply straightforwardly interesting old books where, when you look at the publication date, you think, ‘what?!’ And maybe that copy inscribed to somebody as a birthday or Christmas present. We have a handsome little Roman Missal that got its Imprimatur in 1944 – and when I looked up the exact place and date listed, there was fighting going on around there, then (was it the liberating Canadians? – I’ll have to look it up, again). I have another book, a fairly dryly interesting Dutch adaptation of a German book about Pope Adrian VI – until you read it right through, and pretty far along find things with very ‘encouraging’ meanings for those suffering Nazi occupation!

        Do you happen to know the television series, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, with Lewis’s admiring old student, Robert Hardy? It gives a fascinating picture of complex strands and tensions of variously facing, and not facing, up to what was going on in the 1930s, as things in fact got ever more dire.


        • Canadians did sometimes liberate the Dutch, though often enough by accident–coming into town just as the Germans were fleeing! I don’t know enough of the history to know their movements, though.
          I don’t know that Churchill piece, but new that Hardy worked in film. I wonder if the Churchill legacy is still strong in the UK.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I just encountered someone quoting an astonishing example of ‘business as usual’ in wartime – from The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969) by Harrison Salisbury, about A. A. Ukhtomsky, a 66-year old distinguished physiologist, who by the end of spring, 1942, “was still alive and on June 27, despite his gangrene, his cancer, his emphysema and his hypertension, made his way on foot from his flat on the 16th Line of Vasilevsky Island to the Zoological Institute, where with half a dozen other academic colleagues he discussed the candidate dissertations of V.V. Kuznetsov and L.K. Mischchenko and acted as the official opponent of N.N. Malyshev, who was defending a doctoral thesis on the subject, ‘Materials on the Physics of Electrons.’ The presentation and defense of doctoral dissertations had gone on without pause in Leningrad, all through the terrible winter, in air-raid shelters, in cellars. There had been 847 defenses of dissertations in the first months of the war. In December the Leningrad Party Committee warned the academic community ‘not to permit any liberalization in evaluating the work of students’ just because of the war and its hardships” – !


          • Wow, that’s brilliant! I never want to see war, for me or my son. But there is value to the edge, the problem, the need to survive, the normalization of what has been normal in story, the iron that sharpens iron.


  2. Hannah says:

    Thanks for your Remembrance Day post and tracing war influences in Lewis’s work. Even if WWI makes up so very little of his narrative, it must have made deep impact on his life, e.g. George Sayer’s explanation in the biography “Jack” of how his living with Mrs Moore gave him structure and security, so that he could work and write because, and not in spite of that (as other biographers maintain, due to remarks by his brother Warren?) – as he couldn’t have lived on his own with such shattered and shell shocked nerves … and maybe it took him till WWII before any of it would come out in his narratives?
    I love this quote “Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met?” (‘Christian Reflections’ & Essay ‘Historicism’). Living through death gives you that understanding of living in the present with heaven in your heart, making the here and now so much more precious.


    • This is a good link back to Sayers’ bio, Hannah. Did Lewis wait until WWII to talk about it? There are mobs in “Dymer” and swords are brandished a couple of times in “Pilgrim’s Regress.” But the real stuff comes later, I think.


  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Thank you for this. You’ve given us lots to think about. I hate thinking about those we lost, and the holes they left behind. I discovered that the man who wrote the famous aviator’s poem, “High Flight” was only 19 years old when he wrote it, and already recognized as a poet of some substance. He was killed just a couple months later in a training flight. So sad to think of his words being taken from us. It’s interesting to ponder what shapes our own writing, too. I’m not sure exactly, about mine, although I certainly see some themes of being the “outsider” which certainly is something I’ve grappled with on and off for most of my life.
    Lewis’ comment of the shattered men “still moving like half-crushed beetles” is giving me a shiver…


  4. tess says:

    “First, we are the writers and artists and inventors that did not die. It is up to us to apply ourselves to our work.”

    This is beautiful and deeply meaningful. Thank you.


  5. Michelle Joelle says:

    What a powerful question – “what has happened in your life to root you?” I love the interiority of the metaphor, which requires more that we dig into the depths of our memories and experiences for truth than ascend and overcome them (asceticism).


    • Thanks Michelle. I would love to recover the “root” of the word “radical.” My passion comes from rootedness. But we often do the opposite, don’t we? We accuse others of being radical in a way that presumes their idea can’t have a rootedness.
      The part of blogging that has been most helpful to me as a scholar is that this genre turns the lens inwards. A frightening picture, sometimes, but essential to speaking back into the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Having read this exchange the other day, I came across a fascinating little discussion from 1935 by Johan Huizinga of the political uses of terms like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ – and ‘radical’ (all of which seem to come from early 19th-c. England) – in an essay which also considers what he thinks problematical about Dutch ‘Christian’ political parties: interesting to compare with Lewis’s January 1941 essay (but I can’t find that the Huizinga essay’s been translated, alas).


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’ve now embarked on the Dutch original of Huizinga’s In the Shadow of Tomorrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Time, as it was translated by his son, Jakob Herman Huizinga, and published in London and Toronto in 1936 by Heinemann. It looks interesting to compare with The Abolition of Man: I wonder if Lewis or any of the other Inklings read it when it came out in this English translation?


          • There’s a Masters project for someone. I always wonder what the possibilities of the past really are. I am right now working on a project of population, labour, and GDP projection. And although I’ll put out some figures with our team, I am a skeptic. When I go back to the same projections from 2007, no one was even a little bit right.
            What about the cultural critics of the past? Is there something key that we might be missing in our metric of what a cultural critic today really is?


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              He is interesting in looking at historical crises – where we know how they turned out as well as what was expected and feared beforehand – and in what ways they are, and are not comparable. And then at trying to think what is likely to follow from the differences of the then-contemporary situation from anything before.

              I’ve heard George Grant’s work has been called something like ‘higher journalism’ and I think that’s an interesting perspective on Huizinga and Lewis, too – breadth of attention, thoroughness of attempted analysis, and presented if not easily yet in some sense popularly. (I haven’t read enough culture critics writing today, to think how this may, or may not, characterize some of them as well…)


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I’m over half way through, now, and it goes on being wonderful – and vividly giving me all sorts of new context of things the Inklings may in fact be addressing without my having ever realized it. Lots of exciting juxtapositions – with Tolkien’s ‘Middle-earth’ project, with Williams’s earliest fiction and latest poetry, with Screwtape and Out of the Silent Planet and Lewis’s continuing attention from his undergraduate work and temporary philosophy lecturing job through Abolition of Man and beyond, to relations and distinctions between religion and revelation and morality.

            I really want to see JHH’s English version of his dad’s book: which may or may not be in the public domain (Huizinga’s published works are, his son’s are not – but just how does a translation contemporary with the original fit in?). Time to look for heirs…


  6. Hannah says:

    Your question on roots links for me to current events and devaluation of truth – the Oxford’s Word of the Year for 2016 even is ‘Post-Truth’: “Describing a situation in which feelings trump facts …. …. fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment” …. (

    After a long search I found those roots and true truth in Christianity as it gives answers that fit best to the reality we live in, this in line with Lewis’s concept of Tao in The Abolition of Man. It gives hope that real truth will prevail over all those falsehoods, e.g. the reality checks Obama mentioned in a press conference.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I would have thought a richer sense of ‘post-truth’ would look back to Nietzsche who George Grant noted always put words like ‘justice’ in quotation marks – and a lot that follows on from that. (‘We are all equal, equal before God!’ ‘But now that “god” has died!) Though Eric Voegelin points out that Plato shows Socrates confronting something similar in Thrasymachus in The Republic.

      But “a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment” sounds a lot more like a brief characterization of Karl Jaspers’ idea of the ‘Axial’ age where, in different civilizations, people did something like that in the pursuit of (recovering) truth: the prophets in Israel, the philosophers in Greece, the Confucians and Taoists in China, and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Having mentioned Socrates myself made me think of David Jones’s vivid evocation of him as an old foot soldier, in that astonishing Great War book, In Parenthesis (1937) (which we happen to know Charles Williams read in proof – I suppose thanks to T.S. Eliot, since Faber published it).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Post-Truth. That’s something. I know that part of our culture is lost, but I still have hope for a return to rootedness.


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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve gotten thinking – and wishing I knew more about – Lewis, wounded Great War vet – and author of Spirits in Bondage, with its anything but orthodox Christian content, ranging all over the country to talk to and with the mostly young soldiers during World War II: how did his Great War experience in all its details help him try to ‘meet’ and ‘address’ (in more than one sense) these men young enough to be his sons (or nephews)?


    • That’s an interesting question, David. In “Surprised by Joy” he talks about being adopted by some Canadian soldiers in his first days. Otherwise, I don’t know. I have two random thoughts.
      The familial language was a part of war experience, I think. Friendship and partnership as “brotherhood” is an important feature of WWI and WWII–at least in the stories and poems that came out of the wars.
      Second, I think Lewis was finely tuned to hierarchies that he considered beautiful. I know we as a culture don’t see beauty in hierarchy any more, but Lewis did. I suspect the highly ordered and hierarchical reality of the army combined with his own inclination made him more accurately connect relationally to the mentor figures in his world there.
      Just some thoughts.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks for such very interesting thoughts! I ought to reread John Garth with an eye to anything similar in Tolkien’s experience in service; (re)reading for glimpses in Lewis would be a wider-ranging business… What senior officers did – or might – he have had contact with, and what did he say – or might he have plausibly thought? A sort of equivalent study to The Magdalen Metaphysicals – ?

        And, again, Lewis at the camps as, not only broadcaster, writer, don, but old soldier, what ‘brothering’ might or did that give (albeit ‘older-brotherly’)? What delicacy might – or did – he feel appropriate in touching on, or, again, avoiding noting, that, in his exchanges? (How does – or might – ‘Colonel Blimp’ come in, here?)


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just got this in a Christmas letter from the now 94-year-old younger brother of the principal figure in it – a rich, strange, vivid, terrible glimpse of ‘civilian life’ in the occupied Netherlands:


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