As part of my reflection on the strength of Tolkien Studies projects of late, and on the heels of a series where I am trying to encourage strong Lewis studies books, I decided to share some of the good and useful Lewis studies books of the last decade that were not necessarily highlighted by major awards or media releases. I began the imperiously named “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” series by talking about various helpful and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies. I then followed up with resource-filled posts on “C.S. Lewis Biographies” and “Literary Studies”–including an extra piece on Lewis and Dante.
Today, I want to focus on C.S. Lewis Reception Studies. “Reception Studies” is such a huge field, including approaches like reader response criticism, the new historicism, book histories (and book biographies, as we’ll see), studies of publication trends, pedagogical approaches and syllabus treatments, library and archival studies, transmedia and adaptation studies, text criticism (in the sense of versions and variants), studies of fan culture and fan fiction, genre histories, thoughts about the “intended reader,” mass media biography-making, the author’s “legacy,” and more. It’s a big field.
I could include, for example, books where the author writes herself into conversation with C.S. Lewis, such as Katherine Langrish‘s From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with My Nine Year-old Self (2021) or Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (2008)–two beautifully written books of personal and literary essays from two different angles. I have left them out for the simple (and I hope, forgivable) reason that I haven’t read all of Langrish’s book yet and it is a decade since I read Miller’s.
In a similar vein, there are quite a number of very engaging “encounter books,” as I call them in my mind–books where readers (and sometimes students and friends) of Lewis share their encounter stories. These narratives are widely spread through prefaces and book introductions, but my bookshelf has a number of collections of these tales:
- James T. Como, Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him (2005), with pieces by Leo Baker, Alan Bede Griffiths, A.C. Harwood, John Wain, Adam Fox, Gervase Mathew, Walter Hooper, Roger Lancelyn Green, George Sayer, and Austin Farrer
- Mary Anne P: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C.S. Lewis (2009), including pieces by Walter Hooper, Marjorie Lamp Mead, Randy Alcorn, Francis S. Collins, Charles Colson, Jill Briscoe, Philip Yancey, Joy Davidman, David C. Downing, Lyle W. Dorsett, Michael Ward, Anne Rice, Elton Trueblood, Jerry Root, George Gallup, Jr., Don W. King, Earl F. Palmer, and Pierce Pettis
- Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe, C.S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends and Colleagues (2006), including pieces by Owen Barfield, Walter Hooper, Alistair Fowler, Peter Milward, Barbara Reynolds, Sarah Tisdall, Laurence Harwood, and Francis Warner
- Stephen Schofield, In Search of C.S. Lewis (1983), with pieces by Kenneth Tynan, Eddie L. Edmonds, Jill Freud, Kathryn Lindskoog, George Sayer, H.C. Chang, Naoyuki Yagyu, Ruth Pitter, and Malcolm Muggeridge
That so much work was done at around the time that the Disney adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was being released is, itself, a part of “Reception Studies.” There have been other clusters of activity, such as the years after Lewis’ death in 1963, including events I have blogged about: an obituary by John Wain, a note by J.R.R. Tolkien (in response to a memorial by George Bailey), and essay collections by George Watson, John Lawlor, and Jock Gibb. The 1998 centenniel of Lewis’ birth spurred a lot of this kind of activity, especially as Mythcon was held at Wheaton College with a particular focus on celebrating the life and letters of C.S. Lewis. Beyond this event, there were pieces like J.I. Packer’s “Still Surprised by Lewis” in Christianity Today (1998) that sought to weave together personal memories and the legacy of an author whose works still live. And, greatest of all is the flurry of activity around the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death in 2013, including C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (2016), edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams and Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship (2015), edited by Rob Fennell (and which includes an essay by me).
As you can probably see, the list of possible books could grow dramatically. Anyone who is a specialist in this sort of work will immediately see how very limited I am in this intriguing area–though one that is outside of my knowledge, for the most part. I hope you experts will forgive me. And in exchange, I will admit that this entire post is really to highlight three works that I think are under-considered: Alan Snyder’s American Lewis historical approach (and see my note about Mark Noll), Stephanie Derrick’s recent reception study (which deserved a Mythopoeic Award nod, I think), and Sam Joeckel’s brilliant and challenging study of Lewis as a public intellectual. If you think I am missing something crucial, let me know.
- Part 1: C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life
- Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies
- Insert: Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality
- Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis
- Part 4: C.S. Lewis Reception Studies
- Part 5: Recent and Foundational Studies on Lewis and Gender
C.S. Lewis Reception Studies (A Selection)
While I have talked about my toy collection of interesting C.S. Lewis books (see here), among the master collectors of Lewis was the late Edwin W. Brown, an American doctor. He began collecting in the 1960s and was instrumental to those who built the archival collection in The Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University in Upland, IN. In those book-finding decades, Dr. Brown had collected multiple 1st editions of most of Lewis’ books, as well as an extensive collection of Lewis letters and two original manuscripts—a rare thing indeed. In 2006, with the help of his friend and George MacDonald editor, Dan Hamilton, Dr. Brown wrote up his experience of collecting C.S. Lewis artifacts, providing a guide for collectors and scholars. The delightful In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis is being updated by Dan Hamilton and has been useful to me as a scholar who plays in the archives. And, as I admit in this review I wrote while sick with a cold seven years ago, it was a lot of fun to read (for a book about books, I mean). Interested folks should also check out “The Disordered Image,” an image catalogue of Lewis’ books collected and maintained by Gordon Greenhill, a Lewis scholar and audiobook reader.
I had been anxiously waiting for this book when it finally arrived in 2018. Dr. Stephanie Derrick, while she was a Ph.D. student, was one of the people who revealed C.S. Lewis’ lost “Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” and I have used her dissertation on the reception of Lewis. While I am disappointed that The Fame of C.S. Lewis is not a little longer–hardly a terrible critique for most writers–this conversion of a thesis to a hybrid academic/popular-level book is a lot of fun to read. Based on research that many of us have no chance to undertake, Derrick keeps pressing on the question about why Lewis was so well received in the US, how he was viewed in the UK, and how his image grew globally in the 55 years since his death. Derrick’s volume is one of the more important reception studies in Inklings scholarship and, I think, deserved a space on the Mythopoeic Award shortlist.
The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon is one of the most important Lewis studies text that Lewis scholars fail to read. In this long, weighty study, Joeckel names the ways in which Lewis’s presentations of Christianity in both his fiction and non-fiction depend upon the conventions of the public square. There are two main arguments in this book. First, Joeckel shows the ways in which Lewis plays the role of a public intellectual–providing a great deal of material for students of Lewis’ rhetoric and communication, as well as biographers and those interested in reception studies and apologetics. Second, by conceiving of Lewis as a public intellectual, Joeckel then provides a useful meta-critical lens for exploring Lewis’ symbiotic relationship to the public sphere. Joeckel’s sophisticated and elegant argument reveals an image of Lewis as a man both in and out of his time–and provides worrisome and intriguing reflections on the Lewis industry and how Lewis has been “shaped” by journalists and readers since the beginning of his work as a public intellectual. Yes, this is a difficult book to read and quite long. However, the literary criticism is often bracing and generative, and Lewis scholars ignore it to their own intellectual poverty.
Mere Christianity is no doubt C.S. Lewis’s most important Christian work, originating as a series of BBC radio talks broadcast during the dark days of WWII and becoming (probably) the most influential work of popular apologetics in the century. In this book “biography,” American historian of religion George Marsden tells the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this much-beloved and occasionally maligned book. Honestly, I was surprised how good this was. I know I am being fussy when I want so much more in a reception study, but I wish it was 100 pages longer. However, for what it is designed to be, Marsden’s book about a book is a pretty great, quick read. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity pairs well with Justin Phillips’ C.S. Lewis at the BBC/C.S. Lewis In A Time Of War (which I reviewed here) and a series of careful papers by Bruce Johnson in the last decade.
Like George Marsden, Alan Snyder is an American historian, though his work is typically focussed on political history. Drawn in by C.S. Lewis’ continuing influence in the world outside of Great Britain, Snyder turns to the question of Lewis’ particular impact on the American reading public, starting with the publication of the American version of The Screwtape Letters in 1943. As Snyder argues–supported by Derrick, who looks at the question from a different angle–Lewis has not only influenced the lives of Americans we may consider prominent, but also the multitude of individuals who have come across his works and have been deeply affected spiritually by what they read. Lewis readers are constantly telling the story of how, because of his works, they are able to drink from deeper wells or explore adventurous lands of the mind and spirit. With historical acuity, Snyder documents Lewis’ impact on Americans from Lewis’ lifetime until the last decade. In seeking to understand why Lewis was so taken up in America and why his popularity grows, Snyder takes time to consider some of the key figures who have curated Lewis’ legacy, including Chad Walsh and Walter Hooper (see Walsh below, and you can see my own note about Hooper here). Alan is an active blogger, and you can see his work at Pondering Principles.
Snyder’s study has ongoing relevance, as we see in Derrick’s work, but also in a brand new essay by American religious historian Mark Noll, “C. S. Lewis in America, 1933-1947,” an extremely focussed and detailed study in the 2021 gedenkschrift, The Undiscovered C. S. Lewis, edited by Bruce R. Johnson (with thanks to Mark for allerting me of the essay some years ago and sharing the spreadsheet behind the essay while doing my research).
As almost everyone has argued, Chad Walsh is pretty critical to the reception of Lewis in the Americas. One of the earliest biographers, a thoughtful critic of his poetry and fiction, and the man who helped introduce Joy Davidman to Lewis’ works, Walsh opened up possibilities for Lewis readers through decades of writing and speaking. Walsh’s major biographical study, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (1974), is a must-read prequel to his broad consideration of Lewis’ “Literary Legacy.” Walsh works to bring together Lewis the Christian apologist and Lewis the writer of science fiction and fantasy in a unified whole. As a legacy piece, this work is quite datad. And yet, Walsh’s ability to draw out critical moments of Lewis’ poetry, fiction, and criticism highlight his dynamic originality. Well-written and thoughtful, this is the first major critical study to examine Lewis’ work as the creation of a single unique mind, and pairs well with Owen Barfield On C.S. Lewis (particularly the “5 C.S. Lewises” essay). As the study is long out of print and hard to find, The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis is helpfully reprinted in the C. S. Lewis Secondary Studies Series, edited by William Griffin for Wipf and Stock.
Thanks for reading these mini-reviews and bibliographies. If you have literary studies from 2011-2020 that you think I am missing, let me know. The next piece will include some “Lewis and Gender” studies. You can see the three articles composed of a dozen reasons why I think that Lewis scholarship (as a whole) is not as strong as Tolkien scholarship (as a whole):
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 1: Creative Breaks that Inspired Tolkien Readers
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2: Literary Breadth and Depth
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 3: Other Factors
I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“). I also made a resource pack with the hope of transforming readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.” If you would like to support my free, open-sourced scholarship, please share your favourite pieces on social media or by email and reference material when you use it in your writing and teaching.