In an essay of literary criticism titled “Variation in Shakespeare and Others,” C.S. Lewis had this to say concerning Shakespeare’s method of description:
Shakespeare behaves rather like a swallow. He darts at the subject and glances away; and then he is back again before your eyes can follow him. It is as if he kept on having tries at it, and being dissatisfied. He darts image after image at you and still seems to think that he has not done enough. He brings up a whole light artillery of mythology, and gets tired of each piece almost before he has fired it. He wants to see the object from a dozen different angles.
In a funny turn of events, Lewis’s description about Shakespeare’s description is itself an apt description of a new book about Lewis, C.S. Lewis & His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society.
Fresh Food for Thought from Lewis’s Circle
As its title indicates, the book is not a single, coherent narrative of Lewis’s life, but a collection of insights and reflections on Lewis written by people who either knew him personally or have done extensive scholarly work on him.
What ties the chapters of C.S. Lewis & His Circle together is that each one was in some form originally addressed orally to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, a student organization founded in 1982 and devoted to “literature, faith, and daily life.” The editors state in the preface that “some of the Society talks have since been published, but until now, many had remained only on audiotapes in the Society archives.” In other words, there is plenty of fresh food for thought to consider in these essays.
By its nature, the book does not deliver anything like a comprehensive account of Lewis’s life or personality. This is no weakness, though, but a strength, for each author sheds his or her own illuminating beam of light on the person of C.S. Lewis.
From Elizabeth Anscombe, a British philosopher, discussing Lewis’s famous argument against naturalism (which she once publicly disputed), to the vicar of the church Lewis attended recounting how he used to deliberately sit behind a pillar in order to remain unseen, the essays collectively work much like Shakespeare the swallow, revealing fascinating tidbits about its subject from many different angles.
He Could Be “Quite Fierce” as a Professor
Specifically, the chapters fall under four categories: “Philosophy and Theology,” “Literature,” “Memories of C.S. Lewis by His Family and Friends,” and “Memories of the Inklings” (the nickname for Lewis’s inner circle).
As many of these were written by people who personally knew Lewis – friends, family, colleagues, and others – they possess a tangible sense of intimacy and familiarity that most biographers could never claim.
To name just one example, I particularly enjoyed the recollections of George Sayer, one of Lewis’s former students of English at Oxford. Apparently Lewis could be “quite fierce” as a professor, for he made a practice of meeting with his students to discuss their essays one-on-one, and if it hadn’t been completed, “he would be sent away at once.” But Lewis also had a deep love for his students, as evidenced by the fact that “he gave end of term parties, or at least end of year dinners, for his pupils.”
The book is full of personal details and memories such as these. Rest assured, though, that even the chapters by people who never actually met Lewis are thought-provoking all the same. Stephen Logan’s contribution on the relationship between reason and imagination as manifested in Lewis’s work stands out especially.
Be aware that the book really is about C.S. Lewis and his circle – that is, some of the chapters are more about his colleagues, such as Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, rather than Lewis himself. But even when this occurs, Lewis always remains in the background (if only mentioned in passing), and these other figures are interesting in their own right.
It is easy to think that C.S. Lewis is a known quantity – by now it seems as though everyone is aware of who he is and what he wrote: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and so on. Moreover, in the last ten years there has been a noticeable spike in books written about Lewis and his work, including this one. What sets C.S. Lewis & His Circle apart is the absence of a biographer’s voice pulling everything together, allowing each account, each reflection, to speak for itself.
If you want a deeper understanding of C.S. Lewis straight from the mouths of those who were closest to him, then you won’t want to miss this book.
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