C. S. Lewis died today

N. S. Gill points out that today, 48 years ago, on Friday 22nd November, C. S. Lewis died at the age of 65.

I do not know what can be said about C. S. Lewis that has not been said many times before.  As with most Christians of my generation, my bookshelves are studded with his books.  The Narnia stories shaped my imagination at a young age — too young, indeed, and too isolated even to know that there was such a thing as Christianity.  Many years later, after my conversion, the slim cream-coloured paperbacks published by Fontana helped to form my understanding, while the outer space trilogy and The Great Divorce gave nourishment to my imagination again.  So it was with many of us.

A few years ago I picked up one of the Narnia books.  I was grieved to discover that the clear and transparent prose now seemed dated, and that it was not longer so simple to pass through it into Narnia.  I fear that they will not last much longer.  Can children today even enter Narnia?

Changes in language may mean that in a few decades the door to Narnia will be shut, and that learned pedants, and self-important scholars who have never been to Narnia, will write fanciful theories about the “meaning” of things that they do not understand with the utter certainty today reserved for books that no longer please the general public.

A few years ago, in a shop, I was turning over the pages of some jumped-up edition of The innocence of Father Brown.  The second story in the collection, The Secret Garden, ends with a flourish, as the murderer is proved to be the detective, Valentin and they rush to confront him:

The great detective sat at his desk apparently too occupied to hear their turbulent entrance. They paused a moment, and then something in the look of that upright and elegant back made the doctor run forward suddenly. A touch and a glance showed him that there was a small box of pills at Valentin’s elbow, and that Valentin was dead in his chair; and on the blind face of the suicide was more than the pride of Cato.

The annotated edition included a footnote here on the last word.  The exact words escape me, but they confidently informed the reader that here Chesterton meant the Devil, as only his pride was greater than the pride of Cato.

From this folly I learned instead that the annotator was a man without literary taste, unable to read or appreciate the text about which he was writing a commentary for the benefit of others.  For nothing of the kind is intended here; the reference to Cato merely informs us that this was a suicide, and “more than the pride of Cato” is merely a splendid literary flourish.  I myself read The Innocence of Father Brown long ago for enjoyment, as it was meant to be read.  I doubt that unhappy man enjoyed a line of the book.

No doubt similarly foolish people will soon write equally fatuous notes on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  It is a warning to us, in a way, to beware of learned ignorance.


5 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis died today

  1. This “literary flourish” does require a footnote for the common reader of today (in his self-inflicted death, Cato Minor denied Caesar the pleasure of either condemnation or forgiveness). But the reference to Satan is indeed superfluous, if not stupid.

  2. Oh, don’t worry. Lewis already gets stupid annotations. Spoilerific forewords to children’s editions of Narnia, too.

    But I wouldn’t worry about them being dated. I recall that Victorian childhood in books was less dated than 1960’s childhood, even though the mores of the Sixties child were far more familiar.

  3. How very tedious. Who, one wonders, do publishers imagine reads these things? (For which publishers have to pay, of course)

    The problem is language. Once you have to mentally translate something into the language you are used to using, it forms a barrier.

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