The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis
Subject: Douglas Gresham
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcripts: Patrick Hammerlund
The segments included* in this interview excerpt were recorded during August, 2000 in Carlow County, Ireland as part of The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with Crouse Entertainment Group and WTTW-Chicago. The video, book, and compact disc are available for purchase at our company store. Douglas Gresham is one of two stepsons of C.S. Lewis from Lewis's marriage to Gresham's mother, Joy Davidman. He is also the author of Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman & C.S. Lewis. The book was the inspiration for the Richard Attenborough film Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Who was C.S. Lewis?
That's a very complicated question, actually, who was C.S. Lewis. I think first and foremost, he was a Christian, secondly he was a scholar. And he was probably the most intelligent man I have ever met in my life. And secondly, probably the most widely read man I have ever met in my life. … He had an uncanny ability to take what seemed to be the most complex of issues and reduce them to such simple language that anyone could understand what he was talking about. He was also a man who although conscious of his own sinfulness, was at the same time equally conscious of his own forgiveness. And this gave him a great sense of joy in life. He was a very humorous man, a great wit, great fun to be with. A conversation with Jack was mostly laughter. He was warm, compassionate extraordinarily humorous and a good companion. Who was C.S. Lewis, that's a very big question, we could probably go on for days.
What do you consider most important about Lewis the man and his work?
His work is far more important. I think Jack probably would far rather we remember Jesus Christ through the work, than remember C.S. Lewis for the work. So, I think the work is far more important than Lewis the man. People are very interested in Jack as a man and rightfully so. But, of course always beware of the personal heresy as Jack put it. It's far more important to remember the Christ whom Jack was pointing to all the time in his works, even his works of fiction. And then to get too tied up in Jack the man.
Can you talk about his relationship with his brother?
Jack and Warnie had a very close fraternal relationship. Warnie was his best friend throughout his whole life, as well as his only brother. I don't think in all the time I knew them I ever heard a cross word between them. They knew each other extremely well and spent most of their lives together except for periods when one or the other was away at war or college or somewhere. They were really great friends, inter-reliant on each other. Their friendship, and their brotherly love for each other could have been a model for any two siblings in the world. Warnie was one of the world's greatest English gentlemen of the old school. Of course he did have a binge alcoholism problem, but when he was sober, he was the most delightful character. And he and Jack were firm friends right up to Jack's death.
Warnie was a burden whenever he started drinking. And I think in a sense, Jack was a burden on Warnie in a way, because Jack's life took these strange twists of looking after, in an honor bound commitment, looking after Mrs. Moore and Maureen Moore and so forth. And Warnie had to stand and watch that even though he didn't really understand it, didn't really accept it, in any case. And then of course my mother came into the scene. And although Warnie loved my mother as much as Jack did, though in a different way, the burden of what happened with her death, what happened to Jack because of her death, was very difficult for Warnie to take.
You lived with him, what made him a colorful person?
Certainly he was respected in our community, in the area in which we lived, despite the fact that the people in the area were working class people for the most part. He was a man who would walk for miles at great speeds, and people found that a bit strange perhaps. I was only e-mailed by somebody the other day who found it extraordinary to think that someone would walk from The Kilns down to Magdalen and back, every day. Which isn't a great distance, but people just don't do it anymore. … Jack's colorful characteristics would have been mostly exhibited in his friendships. He was, I suppose, to a certain extent what one would describe as a bon vivant, a man with a great joy in life. That might have been regarded by some as being colorful. But, he wasn't your eccentric or weird professor by any stretch of the imagination. He was able to walk into a workingman's bar and discuss anything. And to find that plumbers, electricians, builders, laborers, farm laborers whatever, found him just as agreeable as academics. I don't think he was seen as being in any way eccentric.
Who were the Inklings, what did their name mean, and why did they exist?
The Inklings were a sort of unofficial and loose grouping of people … people who shared common interests, interests in literature, interests in words and languages and so on, who just started to meet together in order to discuss these things and have a few pints of beer and smoke a few pipes of tobacco and generally have a good time. What came of it later, of course, because, I suppose, of Jack's enormous intellectual ability and the people who were naturally attracted to that, it became a loose formation of some of the greatest writers of our century. The names that stand out are the people like Neville Coghill, J.R.R. Tolkien … they were men who first and foremost shared interests in literature and all kind of other things, and would get together to talk about not only literature and language, but also the works that they themselves were writing. It was a normal practice in a one of these informal meetings either in a pub or in Jack's room, for whoever was working on something at the time to read passages of it aloud to the rest of he group. And invite criticism. I'm not sure that I would have the courage to read my work aloud to people like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien and invite criticism. But they did. And I think that the process of honing their words with great minds of equal interest in literature is one of the things that characterizes the finished works of these men on such a high level. They had great minds to bounce their ideas and their word usage off and benefited from each other's criticism all the time. So, the Inklings became this kind of loose grouping together of literary minds. And as I said, they argued about practically everything under the sun, and yet remained friends.
Was C.S. Lewis a genius?
Oh, absolutely, there's no doubt about that. He was a complete genius. He also was a very fast reader, but he had honed the talent and perfected the strange memory that resulted in never forgetting anything he had read. Now he could, he could ask you to pick any book off of his shelves, and you would pick a page and read him a line and he would quote the rest of the page; in fact, quote the rest of the book until you told him to stop. He had this enormous capacity to remember everything he'd ever read.
A photographic memory?
I'm not sure, photographic perhaps or phonographic, one or the other. It might have been the sounds that stayed with him, I just don't know. I'd rather feel it would have been the sounds … Because he enjoyed the sounds of words and the sounds of word structures. So I feel it was probably the sounds that stayed with him, and the meanings that stayed with him. But the result of this of course, was that he had read enormously widely, all the great classics of literature before he was 25 or 26 years old and mostly in their own languages. And it stayed with him, so he could just draw on this huge morass, if you like, of knowledge of literature at any given second.
He not only remembered the words and the sounds of the words, and particularly in poetry the structure of the poetry and the rhythms of the poetry. But, he also remembered the personalities of the characters, the involvement in the text. That was important to him, how literature was constructed, how the emotions transmitted through the literary works were constructed, how they were transmitted. All of that was important to him, and he did retain it, yes.
Didn't your mother have the same ability?
Yes, she had the same kind of ability. I think actually hers was probably even more acute than Jack's. She was the only person I ever knew, who I ever saw able to catch Jack out in a slightly incorrect quotation. Which he loved, he found it delightful when he was called out. But, um, yes, her memory was extraordinary.
What were Lewis' early views of Christianity and how did they change over time?
Jack's views on Christianity began with him being a fairly fervent Christian child, when he was a little boy. He was the son of two devoted Christians, his mother particularly. And as a little boy he went to church and believed in God and believed in Jesus Christ. But his mother's death, I think, was the first wedge that was driven into that masonry, into that structure. And then his subsequent upbringing by people other than his parents, influences of people other than his parents began to shatter the structure of the Christian faith. And eventually at one of his schools, he lost it completely. Being a man with an intensely powerful intellect and rational mind, he soon began to try to rationalize everything around him, and rationalize God out of his life. That, of course, is in itself a sort of cyclic procedure, because, if you continue to do it, once you've rationalized God out of your life, and go further in the search for truth an rationality, you have to rationalize him back in again later on. And that's more or less what happened to Jack. His tutor W.T. Kirkpatrick was a rationalist and a humanist, and he had the influence on Jack of making him think and search for truth much more deeply than he had before. The end result of this being that he began to ask, what could be described by an atheist, which Jack was at the time, awkward questions. Then when he went to Oxford, he found much to his initial surprise, the people he liked the most and began to admire the most and began to associate with, were mostly Christians. The people whose minds he admired most, were mostly Christians. The people whose behavior he admired most were all Christians. And so you did really have to begin to look at this topic of Christianity and try to figure out what there was in it, if there was anything in it at all. In the end of course, people like Hugo Dyson and (J.R.R.) Ron Tolkien held enormously lengthy discussions with him. All night on occasions about such matters. And Jack, of course, being a rational mind and being a powerful intellect, began to realize that God, of course, did exist. And it's interesting to note that he really began to believe in God as existent almighty force, after a discussion with Hugo Dyson and (J.R.R.) Ron Tolkien at Addison's Walk that lasted almost all night. And he then found himself suddenly realizing that God was real.
Can you talk about why Lewis' work is accepted throughout Christendom and all of its denominations?
The fact that Jack's work as a Christian apologist and a Christian writer is so well accepted across all the denominational spectrum, is because it doesn't deal with anything denominational. He avoided denominational issues because he found them to be trivial. He found that what we all share in common is so much more important than the differences that separate us. I personally have no denominational affiliation at all, I am a non-denominational Christian because I do believe that one of the greatest problems with the denominational churches is that they tend to concentrate on the trivial at the cost of the essential. I think this is a sadness in Christendom. Jack obviously felt much the same way, it's reflected in his writings. He doesn't deal with the denominational issues at all. He works with Mere Christianity and that's the important part. That's what's important about life and about Christianity in general. The reason he's acceptable to all denominations is simply that he is not denominational in his writing. He is Christian. And I think the sooner we all wake up to the fact that we should be Christian rather than denominational, rather than Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic or whatever, the better off the world will be. We need to dispense with the trivialities and get back to Jesus Christ and I think that's the direction Jack was moving. Lots of people have tried to say, of course, if Jack had lived longer he would have become a roman Catholic or a Presbyterian or a this or a that or the other thing. I think the Mormons have probably baptized him in absentia since his death. But the truth of the matter is that toward the end of his life Jack was moving closer to Christ and further from any denominational lines at all. And I think that's the direction we should all be going.
Did he pray?
All the time.
Can you talk about that?
I don't know what he prayed, but it was not uncommon for me to walk into a room to find Jack praying. And I would say, "I'm so sorry Jack." And he would say, "Don't worry I was only praying." You know, it was, the interruption was not something he found irritating, when I'd walk in and interrupt him in prayer. He prayed while walking, he prayed while sitting in his chair, he would pray at, throughout the day. I think, for a man like Jack, prayer eventually becomes a matter of conversation with Christ, more than supplication. For many of us, in when we start in our Christian lives, regarding prayer is a matter of supplication first and foremost. And then a bit later on we get mature enough to include some thanksgiving and some praise in our prayer life. Eventually I think one should achieve a state where one's prayer is conversation with Christ, which includes thanksgiving, and praise and supplication as well.
When did your mother fall in love with C.S. Lewis?
Fairly enough, I think it happened after he fell in love with her. She loved, there's no doubt about that, with a sense of agape, philia, and storge. Right up to the point where she was dying. But there was one moment in their experience together at that point when he was looking after her when she realized that she had fallen head over heels in love with him. And I think it took place while he was being attentive and taking care of her as a sort of auxiliary nurse by that stage. She had been brought home to die at the Kilns. She was thought, at the time, only likely to live a few days maybe a matter of hours. And Jack was constantly nursing her, in conjunction with professional nurses. And it was at that point that she fell head over heels in love with him, emotionally.
And he with her?
I think he already had by that time. I think he'd already fallen and realized his love for her when she was in the hospital, before she was sent home to die. And they were actually married in the hospital. A lot of people have sort of postulated, or some people have postulated the idea that my mother set out to entrap Jack into marriage. But they forget that it was actually Jack's decision making process that brought the marriage about, not hers. She was dying. It was Jack who said I am going to marry you. And he set up and did it.
But there was romantic love between them?
Oh yes, enormously. But again this is something that grew larger and greater after they were married. They were married in the hospital, she came home to die, but she went into remission. And they had the happiest four years of their lives. And I don't think I have ever seen two people more in love. I mean there are some times when you see a young couple head over heels in love with each other in every sense of the word love. And they almost carry an aura of it with them. Well Jack and my mother in-in middle age developed this immensely powerful love for each other. And it was visible, you could actually see it. I remember one occasion I was being packed off to school in South Wales, mid-Wales, and they came to see me off at the railway station. And as the train pulled out; it was a weird experience, rather like one of those ancient Greek mythological experiences; I looked back and saw Jack and my mother standing in a glow of their own making. And it was a glow not only of great love and affection, a visible aura, but also had a tinge of doom about it. And I wept all the way from Oxford to South Wales, I couldn't stop.
The doom coming from?
That she was to die. It was evident to me at that, at that time that my mother was soon going to die. This was after they had lived together as husband and wife for three years. And she did die while I was at that school, within a year.
When she died, you then had three or four year where you were raised by C.S. Lewis,
I now want to try something with you. I will call out some of the titles of Lewis' book and you tell me what you think. Lets start with the Chronicles of Narnia…
The Chronicles of Narnia are today and will be forever, perhaps the greatest classics of children's literature of the 20th century. I think the reason for that, one of the reasons for that is that they deal with truth, inescapable truth. They dealt with reconciliation, forgiveness, things of that nature which are essential for children to learn at some point in their development. One of the greatest problems in western society today is that we've given up the search for forgiveness and reconciliation in favor of revenge. And that of course destroys any society quite quickly. You see a great deal of it in today's television programming, everyone looking for revenge and uh, it washes through the whole society. And this is one of the most destructive things in our society. Truth, truth telling, all of these things are dealt with in the Chronicles of Narnia.
They're also, of course, very beautiful stories, beautifully crafted in terms of the actual, the sculpture of the words formations, the sculpture of the book. They're beautifully done. They are, I think, exceptionally valuable books, and I don't care whether you're an atheist or a Buddhist or whatever, your children should still read the Chronicles of Narnia because of the moral teaching they get from them, and the great fun they will have reading them. Very enjoyable books, great books, great books.
Can you talk about the reaction to the Chronicles of Narnia when it was first created? I know Tolkien didn't like it.
Tolkien didn't like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because Tolkien was a purist in mythological terms. The idea of mixing mythologies was an anathema to him. He didn't like it at all. Couldn't understand it, I don't think. I don't think he had the depth of perception to understand what Jack was doing with it. It's fair to say that among the Inklings Hugo Dyson couldn't stand The Lord of the Rings. Jack on the other hand thought The Lord of the Rings was a great masterpiece of literature and was constantly encouraging Tolkien to carry on with it and finish it and publish it. Tolkien got very discouraged over that for a while. Tollers on the other hand didn't like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or the Narnian Chronicles at all. And I think it's largely because Jack did mix in so many different cultures and mythologies. Wh-which, mixing them all together to Tolkien would be rather like putting coffee and tea in the same cup. He liked to keep them separate and pure, he was very much a purist. So, the overall reaction to, I think, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when it was first introduced was greatly enthusiastic. And of course the reaction ever since has been greatly enthusiastic.
Why have they lasted for so long?
I think the question as to why the Narnian Chronicles have lasted as long as they have is probably somewhat short sighted. We look at it that way, I think the question should rather be, why will the Narnia Chronicles be eternal? As long as literature lasts they will last. And I think the answer is because they're true. They contain so much truth. All the greatest literature we have is truth, based on truth, based on the eternal truth of the war between good and evil. One of the greatest fictional pieces, Christian fictional pieces written for adults in current times is The Lord of the Rings. One of the most powerful Christian books ever written. Because it contains the essential truth, which is also contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The works of Dickens show the truth about society as it was at the time, and so on. And those sorts of things with these essential truths contained in them, as a sort of, almost like a-a flavoring, if you like, will go on forever.
The Screwtape Letters?
Ah, "The Screwtape Letters" is one, again one of the greatest books, I think, ever written. I love "The Screwtape Letters". For me it's a book of instruction a book of interest, amusement, delight. There's so much in it, so many depths in it. Interestingly, Jack found it one of the easiest books to write, but one of the most unpleasant to write. He had to do a, sort of, mental gear change; to change sides, to think like the enemy. And he found it a grubby, dirtying process. But the frightening thing to him was that as soon as he'd done so the ability to tempt seemed to be so, so good so easy so-so run so quickly from his mind, I think it rather disconcerted him. But yet it, I think it's a great book, it's a wonderful book, I think everybody should read The Screwtape Letters. Every Christian needs to have a copy close at hand at all times and probably re-read it once a year. It's only a small, short book it doesn't take long. There's a recording of it done by the English actor John Cleese, which I think is brilliant. Wonderful book, wonderful book.
Mere Christianity is a classic of Christian apologetics. I don't think it's ever been, certainly never been bettered and it probably never will be. It cuts through all of the denominational rubbish, all the dross that we've added to what Christ did, and what Christ taught. Cut through right to the nitty-gritty of the matter and makes it so very simple for people to understand what Jesus was really all about. Once you start waving the incense burners and putting on the golden robes and the great jeweled hats and the processionals and the icons ad all of these bits and pieces we add to it, get rid of all that stuff. Underneath is one of the most beautiful truths, the most beautiful truth, the world has ever seen. Mere Christianity reveals it. Mere Christianity draws back that dark curtain of religion that people try to draw across the blinding face of God. It's an all-time classic.
What were some of Jack's favorite things?
Some of Jack's favorite things; good tobacco, good beer, good tea, strong Darjeeling or Ceylon tea, good friendships good, conversation, good literature, good food, a good fast walk in the countryside, preferably, anything of beauty, anything finely crafted well constructed. I think that Jack enjoyed what was well done. Everything God does is well done. So he enjoyed all of nature, because God did it well. I don't think he much time for shoddy things, for planned obsolescence, things of that nature. Jack enjoyed good quality anything, in a sense, those things that display the beauties of God's creation to the best of their advantage, whether they be the artisanship of man bringing those out, like finely crafted woodwork, furniture and so on, or whether they simply be a beautiful oak tree.
Was he one of those kinds of people, a genius that only needed four hours of sleep a night?
Well Jack usually was up till, probably 11 or 12 at night and he was up in the morning around 5 or 6.
And when did he do most of his writing?
The correspondence would be done in the mornings. He would be up early, he would say his morning prayers, he would read the Bible, at least a chapter of the Bible a day every day. First he would answer his letters right after breakfast. All of them for the day, unless there was one that was particularly difficult to where he'd have to look into it, research it or something. And then he would write after lunch until tea time. And he would write after tea until dinnertime, 7 o'clock in the evening. And then after dinner he would read or talk or play Scrabble with mother or something. But he wrote mostly during the afternoons. He'd also take a walk during the afternoons he'd take time off to go for a walk for exercise. But most of his time, if he finished his correspondence early, he'd start writing before lunch. But usually it was after lunch, he'd begin writing, after he'd had his walk, and then he would continue writing until-until dinnertime.
Is there anything that you would like to talk about that my questions have not covered?
I think the only thing we haven't discussed is Jack's personal courage. Jack was a very brave man in many ways, many types of courage. He was very physically brave; he was a very brave soldier in the First World War. He was very brave in the fact that he married a woman that he knew to be dying and accepted the burden of loving wholeheartedly a woman he knew to be dying. He accepted two stepsons, the responsibility there. He was immensely courageous, he was courageous in his work, in his writings, the fact that people mightn't be prepared to accept what he wrote didn't worry him, he knew it had to be written and he wrote it. If it was true he wrote it. I think this is, this is one of the things that does get missed is Jack's immense personal courage on a lot of different levels. I think it's important that people know that he was a very brave man.Í