Overshadowed but Not Outdone: The Death of Renowned Author C.S. Lewis Was Almost Lost in the Reporting of the Passing of an American President, but Lewis' Written Works Continue to Win Converts
Kenny, Jack, The New American
One of the many stories that grew out of John F. Kennedy's aborted term as President has to do with an idle question put to him by a reporter aboard Air Force One. What would happen, the reporter wondered, if the plane went down, killing all on board?
"Your name will be in the paper," the President assured him, "but it will be in the small print."
Something like that happened to a pair of famous men who died on the same day President Kennedy was assassinated. While the world's attention was focused on Dallas, Texas, and Washington, D.C., few noticed that across the ocean in England two literary giants had also breathed their last. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and C.S. Lewis, author of the "Narnia" series of children's stories and numerous books and essays about the Christian faith, both died on November 22, 1963. Their deaths did, within the next couple of days, receive more recognition, and in larger type, than might have been spent on that unknown reporter on Air Force One. But to say their passing was overshadowed by the event in Dallas would be a rather large understatement.
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft made that interesting historical coincidence the basis of an imaginary conversation among the three men, all of whom arrived within a few hours of each other somewhere Between Heaven & Hell--the green room of Eternity, perhaps. It is a lively and imaginative read, but not as fascinating as the imaginary letters from the devil and one of his minions chronicled by Lewis in his enormously popular 1941 tale The Screwtape Letters. That book was even mentioned in the announcement of his death. "C.S. LEWIS DEAD; AUTHOR, CRITIC, 64" said the headline in the New York Times of November 25, 1963, with the subhead: "Cambridge Professor Wrote The Screwtape Letters.'" What made that book, then more than two decades old, so remarkable among the many that Lewis produced? Thomas Howard described it well in The Achievement of C.S. Lewis.
"In the early days of World War II, an odd book appeared in England and America. It seemed to be a collection of letters from an old devil to a younger one, telling him how to handle a man who had been assigned to him as his special demonic responsibility," wrote Howard. What was remarkable, both for that day and our own, Howard noted, was the way the book "assumed blithely and unapologetically, that the Devil is real, for heaven's sake. Here was Christian theology, anxiously plucking at coattails of the Western world, assuring everyone that we don't for a moment believe in any nonsense about miracles and God-in-the-flesh, and parthenogenesis and so forth, and along comes a book, not by a white-sock stump-preacher from the boondocks, but by a vastly civilized and luminously intelligent don, who obviously believed this awkward stuff."
Yes, Clives Staples Lewis, the eminent and erudite professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, believed not only in God, but in the literal existence of an evil spirit known as the devil, who is very much at work in the world, luring souls into the abyss of hell and eternal damnation. Lewis' devil, known to millions of readers as "Uncle Screwtape," is much more subtle than he appears in the stereotypical depiction of a demon in red pajamas with a pitchfork. Indeed, as Lewis described him, he might easily pass for a respectable British bureaucrat.
The seduction of the human mind is a subtle business, after all. In our time we tend to think of temptation, if we think of it at all, as a matter primarily of sexual lust. Lewis' Screwtape goes much deeper to manipulate that part of the mind where reason has abdicated, leaving the field to chaos. The book's opening letter from Screwtape to his deputy, Wormwood, gives the reader a clear view of the kind of war being waged for the "hearts and minds" of men.
I note what you say about guiding our patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. …