November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. His impact on the life of others over the last half-century has continued to grow. It seems only natural to celebrate his many accomplishments and review some of the major events in his life in this first of a monthly series.
Each column will remind those already familiar with Lewis why he is so well respected and perhaps increase the admiration of others who are unaware of his wide range of achievements and various landmarks in his life.
During the month of January Lewis experience several “firsts.” Highlights include:
- January 23, 1926: his first lecture at the Oxford English School where he had just become a Fellow the previous May.
- January 26, 1942: the Oxford University Socratic Club had its first meeting (and Lewis was the first president).
- January 7, 1955: Lewis spent his first night in his new rooms at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he had been elected the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature.
The first appearance of three of Lewis’s books occurred this month. They are The Abolition of Man (January 6, 1944), The Great Divorce (January 14, 1946), and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (posthumously on January 27, 1964).
Space doesn’t allow an adequate summary of these diverse works. The first is an academic title that came out of lectures he had given the previous year on education. The Great Divorce was a fictional serial published weekly from November 10, 1944 to April 13, 1945 about visitors to Heaven. Letters to Malcolm obviously dealt with prayer, but finds Lewis offering his thoughts on the subject in a more tentative approach via letters instead of attempting to give the topic a complete treatment. In fact, Malcolm in the book isn’t a real person.
Several of Lewis’s essays were first printed in January. “Religion and Science” was originally seen in 1945 in the January 3rd edition of The Coventry Evening Telegraph. It addresses the question of miracles via a conversation between two people with opposing views. One of the few places Lewis touched on political topics was in “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” found in the January 10, 1941 issue of The Guardian. Both of these essays are available in the essay collection God in the Dock. On January 22, 1955, The Spectator published “Prudery and Philology,” a piece dealing with obscenity in literature (available in Present Concerns).
Several poems also made their debuts in January. They include at least these four poems:
- January 9, 1946, “The Birth of Language” in Punch.
- January 15, 1947, “Pan’s Purge,” also in Punch.
- January 16, 1947, “The Romantics” in The New English Weekly. It is now found in Poems as “The Prudent Jailer.”
- January 21, 1955, “On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa” in The Times Literary Supplement.
Mere Christianity has an indirect appearance this month in 1942. The second series of talks on the BBC appeared on the 11th. The series was called “What Christians Believe,” but the individual addresses were not given a title when initially available in the first book version, Broadcast Talks (the U.S. edition was called The Case for Christianity). “The Rival Conceptions of God” is the chapter’s name in the famous book that came out ten years later. The second broadcast was aired on the 18th and is now known as “The Invasion.”
Lewis gave several sermons during his life. It just so happens he gave his last one on January 29, 1956. “A Slip of the Tongue” was preached at Evensong at Magdalene College. Before he died it was printed in an abbreviated form in the January 1963 edition of The Lion as “Thoughts of a Cambridge Don.” The full version is best available in the revised edition of The Weight of Glory. In the message Lewis admits to recently having prayed “to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal,” and realized he had reversed the priorities. Then he reflected on how easy it is for this to be not just “a slip of the tongue,” but that one actually tends to lose sight of things eternal and place more value on the temporary aspects of one’s present life.
As you can see from these highlights, Lewis’s career frequently shot off in new directions in his Januarys. His Februarys were often just as exciting. Next time I’ll note his famous debate loss, the publication of three books, including one that first made him well-known, and the start of the fourth and final BBC radio series.
Learn more details about the topics already mentioned here in a weekly version at William O’Flaherty’s website, EssentialCSLewis.com.