C. S. Lewis & Three Wars: 1941

The Second World War had begun in 1939, and the world was turned upside down. As normally happens during a war, people began to think more frequently about ultimate issues, life and death, good and evil, suffering and eternity, and the nature of reality. C. S. Lewis was not immune to such thinking, and during 1941 he addressed some of those ultimate issues in his writings. The Second World War began a year before the publication of The Problem of Pain (1940) and three years before the publication of The Screwtape Letters (1942). Justin Phillips commented, “But what is transparent is the parallel of Lewis writing his most convincing books dealing with evil, pain and the devil and all his works at the moment in the war when Britain was taking its biggest battering and was most at risk of enemy invasion.”

Lewis did not cease to be an English Fellow, and, as he had advised in his essay “Learning in War-Time,” he continued his academic pursuits in the area of his discipline. Like all of the war years, Lewis published a significant number of pieces this year, including two books and seven essays, in part, because the number of students dwindled, especially during the later part of the war. The papers or talks that Lewis gave which were most directly related to the Second World War were “The Weight of Glory,” “Evil and God,” and the first series of BBC talks which later became part of Mere Christianity. But Lewis waged two other wars at the same time, one within the larger circle of the Christian faith and one within the circle of his academic discipline of English.

Since some were advocating another political party through letters to The Guardian, Lewis wrote his brief essay, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” for the January 10, 1941 issue of The Guardian. Some wanted a Christian political party, but Lewis cited Jacques Maritain’s Scholasticism and Politics (translated in 1940) against this idea because of two problems. First, Christians were not united on the means to accomplish various ends, some seeing democracy as a monster, others as the only hope, and still others seeing the need for revolution. Such a party could not speak for Christianity, but only for a part of Christianity. Then, by calling itself the Christian Party, it would claim to represent all Christians. The second problem was that a Christian Party would be tempted to justify whatever it wanted to do, utilizing its theology to justify even treachery and murder. Far better, Lewis argued, for Christians to influence politics by writing letters to Members of Parliament, and, best of all, by witnessing to their neighbors. The timing both of the letter and of Lewis’s article and the mention of both Fascists and Communists in the article suggests that the war heightened the issue in the minds of many Christians and resulted in this exchange of letters and article in The Guardian.

Lewis’s article for the Feb. 7, 1941 issue of The Spectator, “Evil and God,” carried the same title as that of Dr. C. E. M. Joad, whose article had appeared the previous week on January 31, 1941. In the face of the evil of Nazi genocide, the reality of evil, previously underestimated by Joad, came to the forefront of British life. In his article, Lewis anticipated some of the arguments that he would deliver over the BBC and that would later appear in Mere Christianity, such as the attraction of monotheism or dualism above creeds and the emergent evolution of Henri Bergson, both of which Joad had rejected in his article. Evil is parasitic, a corruption of the good and therefore not on the same level as good. Therefore, dualism should be rejected also. Although a rationalist and a socialist who once rejoiced that clergymen would be extinct by 1960, Joad himself later returned to the Christianity of his youth. That happened in part due to the influence of Lewis, including this exchange of articles in The Spectator.

Lewis carried on his own war against Freudianism in his March 29, 1941 essay in Time and Tide, “Bulverism,” or “The Foundation of 20th Century Thought.” With an allusion to “looking at,” which he later articulated more fully in his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis challenged the perception of the Freudians, who “discovered” that people were bundles of complexes; the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who “discovered” that religion was mere subjective feeling; and Karl Marx, who “discovered” that people were simply members of an economic class. Each of these three thinkers rejected the existence of God without offering any evidence for their position. These are the ones who “have had it all their own way,” as Lewis later wrote. They made these discoveries, including the assumption that they knew the real story behind the story, without refuting the systems of thought they challenged. From these discoveries, they proceeded to explain the errors of Christianity without demonstrating logically and rationally the alleged errors of Christianity. Bulverism, named after an imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, is the name Lewis gave to this system of thought that assumed, without proof, the error of another position. Lewis argued that before you can explain someone else’s errors, you must show that he is wrong. Bulverists don’t do this.

On Friday, May 2, the first Screwtape letter appeared in The Guardian. For thirty-one consecutive weeks one letter would appear every Friday through November 28. That these letters, imaginatively portrayed as letters of advice on the art of temptation from a senior devil to a junior devil, appeared during the war is no accident. One is tempted to say that the battles being fought on the Continent between the Allied powers and the Axis powers brought to the minds of many people another battle, a spiritual battle, that was daily being fought in the minds and hearts of every human being.

The university church, St. Mary the Virgin, where Lewis spoke on at least two occasions, held a weekly Sunday evening service. Lewis delivered his famous talk, “The Weight of Glory,” at St. Mary on Sunday evening, June 8, 1941, at a time when the Second World War was in full swing. In that talk, he held up the infinite worth of the individual human soul and our responsibility to care for it and to witness to it. Beauty turns out to be a pointer to something not yet experienced, an expression of a desire for heaven. There are no ordinary people. Since heaven is the ultimate goal, we need to recognize that every moment of every day, we are helping people toward that goal or away from it.

(Photo: Lewis with Paddy Moore during the War) “The Weight of Glory” was delivered less than a month after the end of the London Blitz. During World War Two, the London Blitz of 1940-1941 was Germany’s attempt to bring England to its knees. In July 1940, Hitler had given Hermann Goering the task of destroying British air power before invading Britain. In August the Battle of Britain began, and on September 7 German bombers struck London. The Blitz struck London for fifty-seven consecutive days and then off and on until May 10 and 11, 1941, the worst part of the Blitz, just a few days after Lewis had his microphone test in preparation for his first series of BBC broadcasts. Beginning in April, Lewis had begun to lecture on weekends for the RAF, giving theological talks to pilots on a lay level, a practice which continued through July 1945. These pilots were crucial to the defense of the British Isles, and Lewis helped maintain their morale.

Lewis began his BBC radio talks on August 6. Lewis had been invited by Rev. James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC. Welch had been so impressed by Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain that he concluded that Lewis was the clear voice he had been seeking to champion Christianity. Welch wrote to Lewis on Feb. 7, 1941 to ask him to consider a series of radio talks on the BBC. Lewis agreed and gave five talks under the title “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” The second series “What Christians Believe” was arranged in 1941 and given in the following year. These two series were published together under the title Broadcast Talks and later as the first half of Mere Christianity.

In the fall of 1941, Lewis’s essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” again took aim at Freud’s theories. Lewis admitted that the psychologists appeared at first glance to have a good case. But a closer look at realities and substitutes suggested that it was often difficult to tell the difference between the reality and the substitute. His own experience as a boy with the gramophone, in comparison to a live orchestra, taught him that musical miseducation could lead one, as it did him, to think the reality to be a substitute and the substitute to be a reality. A father could just as easily be a substitute for God, who is the reality, instead of Freud’s view that God is a substitute for a father figure. One must learn from one of three sources—authority, reason, or experience—and link that source to faith.

On Dec. 1, 2, and 3, 1941, Lewis gave the Ballard Matthews lectures at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, Wales (now Bangor University). If World War Two was the first war going on at this time and theology was the playing field for the second war, this was Lewis’s third war, the one that was taking place in the field of English literature. These lectures were later published as A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” Lewis had been lecturing on Milton for some time, so this series of lectures in Wales was a revision of those Oxford lectures.

In these lectures, Lewis challenged the notions that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost (as Blake and Shelley held), that Adam and Eve were naïve in Eden, and that Paradise Lost was a monument to dead ideas (as Sir Walter Raleigh thought). In addition, Lewis further responded to I. A. Richards. Richards taught that literature produced “a wholesome equilibrium of our psychological attitudes,” and Lewis agreed, and Richards regarded literature that drew out stock responses as bad literature, but Lewis disagreed. Lewis said that certain stock responses were “the first necessities of human life,” coming from “a delicate balance of trained habits, laboriously acquired and easily lost.” Those stock responses are a part of the education that young people need, because they develop trained emotions, virtue, and morality, something that Lewis especially encouraged in The Abolition of Man. In The Abolition of Man Lewis later defended the value of classical literature and philosophy, thereby supporting traditional ideas of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True (all characteristics of the Tao) and opposing the errors of Richards and others that would lead to men without chests and, indeed, to the end of man as we know him.

In A Preface, Lewis also expressed his dissatisfaction with the quest for the historical Jesus, which created a Jesus completely different from that of the Gospels. In addition to agreeing with parts of the writings of Richards, Lewis also wrote affirmatively of David G. James (1905-1968). James agreed with Richards, that poetry produced a wholesome equilibrium of our attitudes, and offered his own idea that poetry produced a secondary imagination, which gives us a view of the world.

One of Lewis’s chief objections to the interpretation of Paradise Lost came in Prof. Denis Saurat, who had suggested that it was necessary to disentangle Milton’s thought from “theological rubbish.”  You wouldn’t have John Milton, claimed Lewis, if you removed his theology from his poetry. Saurat was apparently unhappy with the profound Christian theology that appears in Paradise Lost, as also was Dr. F. R. Leavis, whom Lewis mentioned later in the book. Lewis and Leavis differed on the nature of man, Lewis wrote, rather than the properties of Milton’s poetry. Lewis also mentioned Henry More six times in this book for his belief that the writings of the Pagans contained a good deal of truth and that aerial spirits or daemons, which appeared in Paradise Lost, existed. More, a seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist, was the philosopher about whom Lewis had at one point entertained the possibility of writing a doctoral dissertation.

In A Preface, Lewis also gave a passing reference to several authors. First, he wrote favorably about Charles Williams’s Introduction to the 1940 work, The English Poems of John Milton, which helped readers to understand Milton’s Messiah. Williams wrote that we should see the Messiah in Milton’s work as a cosmic Son rather than the incarnate Lord. Secondly, he mentioned James Joyce’s novel Ulysses for its popularity based on its disorganized stream-of-consciousness technique, stating that Milton must not be criticized for failing to write in Joyce’s manner. In Chapter II, he also disagreed with Eliot’s position that only poets can judge poetry. Thirdly, he mentioned T. S. Eliot’s dislike of epic poetry, stating that Eliot must not conclude that all poetry should have the qualities that Eliot’s has. Finally, Lewis mentioned Mr. Brian Hone (1907-1978), a Rhodes Scholar of New College, Oxford (1932) approvingly for his comment about needing notes for reading Milton much like Milton would need notes if he read a modern book. Hone, later a teacher and schoolmaster, had been tutored in English by Lewis.

Lewis’s short essay, “Edmund Spenser,” later retitled “On Reading The Faerie Queene,” first appeared in Fifteen Poets from Oxford University Press (1941).  In it, he discussed the young reader of The Faerie Queene (Lewis first read Spenser as a young reader), the mature reader, and the ideal reader. Spenser was the last of the medieval poets, even though The Faerie Queene was not really medieval, and the first of the romantic medievalists. His hope was to encourage the modern reader to read Spenser, even though it differed greatly from the usual reading fare. By encouraging the reading of Spenser Lewis was helping to rehabilitate the attitude of the Middle Ages with its old school values, including chivalry, the love of God, courage, honor, and hospitality.

The year 1941 was the second most prolific year in Lewis’s life up to this point in his career. Little did he know that in future years he would surpass this total of nine publications in one year twelve times and match it twice. While World War Two would end in 1945, the wars being fought about the Christian faith and various aspects of the academic discipline of English would continue to the end of Lewis’s life.


Appendix I: Lewis Publications: 1941 (nine published pieces in approximate chronological order)

“Meditation on the Third Commandment” from The Guardian on January 10, 1941 (Christian Reunion and Other Essays, 15; also God in the Dock)

“Evil and God” in The Spectator, Vol. CLXVI, on February 7, 1941 (Christian Reunion and Other Essays, 15; also God in the Dock)

“‘Bulverism’” (as “Notes on the Way”) in Time and Tide, Vol. XXII, on March 29, 1941 (God in the Dock, 16)

“Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism” was published in Essays and Studies, Vol. XXVII (1941, probably June; originally delivered on Jan. 28, 1940 to the English Adventurers Society) (Selected Literary Essays, xix) Originally read to a literary society at Westfield College and elsewhere.

“The Weight of Glory” was preached in St. Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, on June 8, 1941 (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 18)

Broadcast Talks (‘Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe’ and ‘What Christians Believe’, given on August 6, 13, 20, and 27, and Sept. 3, 1941) (Bles 1942; as The Case for Christianity, Macmillan 1943) (in Mere Christianity)

“Religion: Reality or Substitute” (Christian Reflections, xiii) appeared in World Dominion (September-October 1941)

A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (“Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures Delivered at University College, North Wales, Dec. 1, 2, and 3, 1941, Revised and Enlarged”) (Oxford 1942)

“On Reading The Fairie Queene” first appeared in Fifteen Poets under the title “Edmund Spenser” (Oxford University Press, 1941) (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ix).


Since 1998, Rev. Dr. Joel D. Heck has served Concordia University at Austin as Professor of Theology. He teaches courses in Old Testament, New Testament, Reformation history, and the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Read more about Dr. Heck.


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