Crowd packs Carnegie for C.S. Lewis lecture
by Clay Neely
As the audience slowly filled the upstairs meeting room of the Newnan Carnegie Library, there was soon not a single empty seat available as more than 140 people gathered Tuesday evening to hear renowned C.S. Lewis scholar Colin Duriez deliver his “C.S. Lewis For the Ages” lecture.
Duriez began by providing a brief but essential biography on the life of C.S. Lewis, exploring not only the major events of his life but also exploring how some of the lesser known aspects of his upbringing may have contributed to his worldview later in life.
He spoke of many of Lewis’ friends and colleagues whom Lewis had ongoing debates with in regards to his own spirituality, which ultimately led him from atheism to Christianity.
He spoke of Lewis’ affectionately titled “Great War” with Owen Barfield — a friend, trustee and advisor to Lewis — a dialogue that greatly shaped his thinking and powerful imagination. The sustained conflict helped erode Lewis’ atheism.
Duriez also spoke about J.R.R. Tolkien, who attended Oxford University with Lewis. Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship developed through discussions and criticisms regarding poetry, literature, theology, philosophy and the politics of the English department, of which they were both involved.
Through Lewis, Tolkien found an appreciative audience for his tales of Middle-earth. Duriez said that without the years of encouragement from Lewis, perhaps Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” would have never been published.
Lewis equally appreciated Tolkien, whose views on myth and imagination and the relation of both of these to reality eventually helped convince Lewis, still an atheist at the time, on the truth of Christianity.
Lewis later confessed, “I never had the experience of looking for God. It was the other way around. He was the hunter, or so it seemed to me, and I was the deer. He stalked me like a redskin, took aim and fired. And I am very thankful, for that is how the first conscious meeting occurred.”
Duriez spoke about Lewis’ popularity among his readers and his lasting appeal.
Duriez believes that one of many factors in the popularity of Lewis’ writings is the author’s ability to be a powerful and effective storyteller.
Storytelling, for Lewis, was universal — stories should contain universal elements such as motifs of the quest and the journey, deep human themes of love and affection, the twisting of things by evil, and the ending of self perception through the exploration of dimensions beyond the material world.
Lewis’ stories provide many dimensions because of his extensive creation of secondary worlds, like in the popular Narnia series.
“His worlds open up possibilities, hopes and dreams — formulating in his readers a sense of disenchantment with secular culture or rather a hunger for re-enchantment, emphasis on the positive, not life denying. People of today have an uneasy sense that there are dimensions to life untapped by our materialist culture and that most of us are missing these dimensions in some way,” Duriez said.
Lewis’ stories warned of old European/Western values. Using the mode of fantasy, Lewis realistically portrayed the evil in ordinary life, the drama of salvation and damnation worked out in seemingly unremarkable lives, according to Duriez.
Duriez cited similar works by other authors, such as “Animal Farm,” “1984,” “Lord of the Flies” and “Lord of the Rings,” for their reshaping of contemporary fiction to come to terms with the horror of palpable evil revealed in modern global warfare and ideological control.
Another aspect of Lewis’ popularity, Duriez stated, lies in the fact Lewis presented an attractive spirituality that appeals to a broad readership seeking new meaning and fulfilment in a secularized world.
As both Lewis and Tolkien were “deeply inspired by trees, angels, the fall of humankind, the power of healing, the personification of wisdom, light and darkness, nature and grace and biblical portrayal of heroism and evil,” these elements helped shape the narrative that made their respective works so powerful.
Perhaps one of Lewis’ greatest strengths as a storyteller was the many years he spent as an atheist, which gave him a knowledge of what a materialistic universe encompassed so that he was able to write with sympathy to those of the same mindset.
Appealing to both the imagination as well as the intellect of the reader is one of Lewis’ most enduring characteristics as a writer, and perhaps is one of the most fundamental reasons his popularity endures among a wide variety or readers.
“Lewis’ ability to incarnate a defense of spiritual reality successfully into a well-told and globally-attractive children’s story is just one mark of increasing maturity as an effective spiritual writer with mainstream appeal,” Duriez said.
“I never tire of reading him,” said Duriez, “or his friends of whom he shares an affinity, such as Tolkien and Charles Williams.”
Following the lecture, the floor was opened for questions from participants.
One young attendee’s question dealt with the possible connection between “The Last Battle” from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the book of Revelations from the Bible.
Duriez recalled staying with a family where the parents had been reading the “The Chronicles of Narnia” to their young son as well as stories from the Bible. The child exclaimed after listening to Revelations: “That’s just like The Last Battle!” The parallel can be seen across a multitude of demographics, Duriez said.
Another question was about various ups and downs of the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis over the years, citing Tolkien’s misgivings in regards to Lewis’ broadcast talks on BBC radio on popular Christianity.
“Tolkien felt that if you were to talk publicly on the Christian faith, you should be trained to be able to do that properly and clearly,” said Duriez. “Tolkien felt that Lewis was simply a layperson in that regard.”
While there were many obvious differences in regards to their own beliefs and personalities, Lewis and Tolkien regarded each other in great esteem until the end of their respective lives, Duriez said.
In regards to J.K. Rowling, Duriez said that “it is clear the themes are set against black magic.”
“The stories are championing the virtues of self-sacrifice, friendship and the fight against evil. The more I read of the Harry Potter stories, the more I feel an affinity between her writing and C.S. Lewis. She’s a highly intelligent writer and thoughtful,” he said,
Duriez believes that although the backdrop of the Harry Potter school is based on the education of witchcraft, it’s actually teaching the virtues of how to fight the dark magic and handle technology, which could be considered as the newest form of magic.
While his favorite author is C.S. Lewis, Duriez admitted his favorite book of all time is “Lord of the Rings.”
When asked if he had a favorite volume in the “Chronicles of Narnia,” Duriez said he would start with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” although he believes Lewis’ publishers made a mistake by numbering the books. “Chronologically, it’s the first book. It introduces you to the world of Narnia.”
Following the Q&A period, Duriez remained to sign copies of his books.
“It was a really nice experience,” said Duriez of the evening. “It’s my first time to a small Southern town and I really enjoyed it.”
“You get a much better picture of American life in a small town rather than in a large city. I genuinely hope to return someday.”