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Podcast: The Life and Mind of C. S. Lewis (Harry Lee Poe)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Formative Years of C. S. Lewis's Life

In this episode, Harry Lee Poe discusses the formative years of C. S. Lewis as a prolific writer, including his private life, fascinating details about the start of his career, his own personal faith, the relationships that would shape his world, and the books that would make his name world-renowned.

The Making of C. S. Lewis

Harry Lee Poe

Tracing his transformation from a young atheist studying at Oxford to an avowed Christian apologist defending the faith, Harry Lee Poe brings to life one of the most prolific Christian voices of the 20th century. Volume 2 in a biographical trilogy covering the life of C. S. Lewis.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:52 - Edgar Allen Poe and C. S. Lewis

Matt Tully
Hal, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Harry Lee Poe
Thanks, Matt. It’s good to be with you.

Matt Tully
As I was doing some research to prepare for this interview I read that you’re distantly related to the famous poet Edgar Allen Poe, and I saw just a minute ago—our listeners won’t know this—but I saw that you had an Edgar Allan Poe mug that you were drinking from, so I’m assuming that that’s true.

Harry Lee Poe
It is. He was my great-great-grandfather’s cousin. For ten years I served as the president of The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia where Poe grew up. Several books have been written about Poe and his spiritual journey. Most people don’t realize that he came to faith about six weeks before he died, and that’s another remarkable story, but it’s virtually the same kind of conversion story as C. S. Lewis, the difference being that Lewis wrote all of his memorable works after his conversion and Poe didn’t write anything after his.

Matt Tully
That’s what I was going to ask you about: I read in an interview somewhere that you did that you saw some very interesting parallels between those two men. I wondered if you could briefly share a little bit more. What is it about their stories that is so similar? I think in our minds they feel like very, very different figures.

Harry Lee Poe
They do seem like different figures on the surface, but remember that Lewis loved science fiction and that Poe was the one who actually is the father of science fiction. Poe was experiencing spiritual questions that finally culminated in 1848 with his cosmological treatise on the universe, in which he concluded that there must be a God who exists. He was asking a number of questions, the same question Lewis was asking: If there’s just a brute, materialistic universe—and that’s where Lewis was in 1917 after studying with W. T. Kirkpatrick—there’s just a brute, material universe, no God, no spiritual reality. If that’s the case, then why do we have a sense of right and wrong? In just a brute universe, nothing is right or wrong; there’s just what is. There’s nothing beautiful or ugly; there’s just what is. Just as these questions bothered Lewis, they bothered Poe. Poe also invented the mystery story. The trick to the mystery story is it only works if the audience brings to the story the idea of justice—of right and wrong. The audience has to care about the truth. So here are all these ultimate values—universal values—that should not exist unless there’s something other than the material world. Poe was toying with all those ideas throughout the 1840s, just as Lewis was toying with them in the 1920s. So that’s the first chapter to Lewis’s Mere Christianity—”Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”—and his moral argument for the existence of God.

Matt Tully
What was it that first got you into C. S. Lewis? Not just in a cursory reading of some of his best-known works, but you’ve really spent a lot of your life studying Lewis and teaching Lewis to students. What pulled you in first?

Harry Lee Poe
In 1977 I was a seminary student and the provost of the seminary took a group of students to New York City on a ministry plunge to experience the city and see what was the state of ministry in New York City. As a born and bred Southerner, of course I knew that I would hate New York. But I loved it. I was absolutely fascinated and thrilled by the city. We were standing on a street corner and Dr. Bennett said, There are 40,000 people who live within a block of us. There was a guard standing at every door to every high rise and I thought, How in the world do they hear the gospel? I realized that the traditional means of evangelism in South Carolina and Kentucky and Tennessee wasn’t going to be effective in New York City, simply because you don’t have access to the people.

Matt Tully
How would you describe that traditional means?

Harry Lee Poe
The traditional means in a small culture means you come in contact with everybody in the community in the course of a year. You talk, have conversation, and you invite them to church and that sort of thing. It’s a very interpersonal, very relational approach to evangelism. Just attending to people. Very, very Jerusalem, second chapter of Acts kind of evangelism. In the complexity of urban life, people are more guarded, it’s more difficult to form relationships, and it seemed to me that we needed to find ways to get inside the homes of people who had all sorts of barriers protecting them from the gospel. It seemed to me that Lewis was someone who had found a way to reach people through his writing. It seemed to me that stories, whether written or through movies or television, would be an important element in an overall strategy of evangelism. It’s not the silver bullet, but it needs to be a piece of our thinking. So I got interested in what Lewis was doing. Of course, Lewis was a visionary. He was seeing ahead decades. When he wrote The Abolition of Man and gave those lectures during World War II, he was foreseeing post-Christian society decades later. He was seeing our world. He describes our world in that series of lectures. So I saw him as a valuable resource. I never thought of myself as a C. S. Lewis scholar because I was doing other things. I was interested in evangelism and some of the barriers to evangelism, so I’ve done major work in science and religion. A lot of my publishing is in that area. I’m concerned with a project we used to call the integration of faith and learning—how does an English professor or a physics professor or a political science professor teach from a Christian perspective? It seemed to me that Lewis understood that and did that. He said that the best kind of apologetics is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on every subject with a Christianity latent. To me that’s the key to the integration of faith and learning. You first have to understand in what way your discipline intersects with the gospel. So that’s been a major part of my work. But again, Lewis was very helpful in thinking through how to do that. I had written a number of books before I first wrote a book about Lewis, and I realized that Lewis figures prominently in all of these books about subjects other than C. S. Lewis. So that was how I got interested in him and his own concern for the evangelization of England.

10:38 - Lewis the Apologist

Matt Tully
You talked about how this interest in evangelism and apologetics was what initially led you to pay attention to Lewis, and I think that’s probably how a lot of us know Lewis, from books like Mere Christianity—he was this apologist. One question I have is did he describe himself as an apologist, or was that a side thing that he’s now really well known for?

Harry Lee Poe
There’s the old line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that you can modify and say, Some are born apologists, some achieve apologetics, and some have apologetics thrust upon them. To a great extent, Lewis had apologetics thrust upon him. His most famous books that we think of as apologetics—The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, Miracles—were not books that Lewis himself intended to write. He was not planning on writing The Problem of Pain, but he was approached by the publisher and they asked him to do it. He did it out of a sense of duty, as part of his war work. It’s was the same with Mere Christianity, which was originally a series of four different radio broadcasts during the war. He was asked by the BBC to do each of those four, and he agreed to do it as part of his war work. He had training in philosophy as an undergraduate, then he went on and did a second degree and wound up being an English professor. He knew how to think logically and he had thought through these matters, so he agreed to do it. But he didn’t think of himself as an apologist. He thought of himself as a literary critic and expert in Medieval and Renaissance literature who happened to do apologetic work on the side.

Matt Tully
What did he make of the success of Mere Christianity after the addresses were then published as a book?

Harry Lee Poe
It was a two-edged sword. He was gratified, of course, that people were buying it and reading it and it seemed to be making a difference, but he hated it because people were writing to him and it was taking up all of his time, everyday writing letters in reply to questions people had. He was writing thirty and forty letters a day for years, and it was a huge burden. He commented on it a number of times in letters to friends that he couldn’t write to his friends because he had to write all of these letters to strangers. He just wanted it to all go away.

10:38 - Lewis the Evangelical

Matt Tully
Obviously, evangelicals love C. S. Lewis. Many of us have read something that he’s written, whether it’s Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain or his Narnia series—all beloved books. But I’ve still heard some people say that Lewis likely wouldn’t consider himself an evangelical today if he were alive. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that. What do you think? Do you think that there’s truth in that? Are there any stark differences that Lewis would have with what we would consider to be evangelicalism?

Harry Lee Poe
What we mean by evangelicalism in the United States and what is meant by evangelicalism in Great Britain are a little bit different. In the United States, evangelicals tend to align politically to the right. In Britain, historically, evangelicals have tended to be politically involved to the left. That goes back to Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, Prime minister Gladstone was a famous evangelical and, of course, interested in social reform and that sort of thing. So you’ve got sort of a split in the early twentieth century over American evangelicals going a different way for different reasons, just because of the social context. But now, in terms of what evangelicals ought to be identifying ourselves, evangel—the gospel—Lewis was very much concerned with the core gospel message and not confusing it with ecclesiology, theological systems, or politics, but having a clear understanding of what is the Christian faith, whether than what we would add onto it. He talks about Christianity and other things in The Screwtape Letters. Uncle Screwtape wants Wormwood’s patient to adopt a Chrsitianity and something else mode, which is always dangerous. So Lewis wanted to avoid that. One of the most famous American preachers of the last century wasn’t an American, he was English—Stephen Olford. But he moved to this country after the second World War. He was a pastor in New York City. He was a model preacher that, for several generations, American evangelical preachers modeled themselves on Stephen Olford—a great pulpiteer and a great evangelist. He encouraged Billy Graham early on, and Graham, in some ways, modeled his preaching on Stephen Olford. But here’s the kicker: Lewis, in one of his essays, said it would make a good team if you had one person deal with the intellectual issues people might have to the Christian faith—those barriers to faith—and then have an evangelist preach a gospel message and call for a response. Well, that wasn’t a theoretical idea. Lewis actually did that with Stephen Olford in London at Westminster Hall, which is the huge Methodist meeting house across the street from Westminster Abbey. He did that a number of times after World War II. In a technical sense, he’s not an American evangelical, but he shares the concerns of evangelicals.

Matt Tully
Do you think—

Harry Lee Poe
Let me just say another thing. His view of the Bible would be an important part of that. The Bible as revelation, as definitive, as normal of determining Christian faith and practice. He had a high view of Scripture and the need for conversion.

Matt Tully
Are there any things that you think the average American evangelical who loves his Chronicles of Narnia and has read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters would be surprised to learn about Lewis if they were to dig into some of his other less well-known writings or some of his correspondence where we get a little bit more of an inside look on who he was?

Harry Lee Poe
He himself said that he was criticized by Baptists for drinking and smoking. I’m a Baptist, and I don’t drink or smoke, but I realize that some fine Christians do and that that’s not a bar to communion. I’m sure there would be surprises. I think you’ll find surprises in the book, but I primarily find Lewis edifying. I don’t venerate Lewis. He had his shortcomings, like all of us. One of the things I like about him is the transparency of his shortcomings. This is what he talks about in The Screwtape Letters and in The Great Divorce. When he talks about the temptations we have in life, he’s not doing research or theoretical theology; he’s doing testimony. Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce are all works of testimony. If you read his letters you’ll find him talking about these identical struggles that he then pictures in different forms as fiction in those books. So he’s pretty transparent. He’s often referred to as being very secretive and private. Well, he’s a typical Englishman in terms of not baring his heart on his shoulder, but he talks about it all in his letters to different people—but not everything to everybody. One of the comments about Jesus in John’s Gospel is he didn’t open himself up to everybody because not everybody is to be trusted. You have to be careful about that sort of thing.

20:56 - Lewis and Screwtape

Matt Tully
I remember reading somewhere that—going back to The Screwtape Letters and the way that was, in some ways, an autobiography for him—that he didn’t really enjoy the process of writing that book and that ended up being a very unpleasant experience for him. Is that true? Is that attested somewhere?

Harry Lee Poe
Yes. He learned a trick about getting points across, and it was to look at something from the other way around. You’ll find him mentioning that a number of times. He first started doing that when he was writing to his friend Arthur Greaves when he was a teenager living in England and Arthur was back home in Ireland. Arthur was a bit thick, so Lewis had to think of ways to explain difficult ideas to him. He would say, Arthur, think about it from the other way around. So that’s what he’s doing with The Screwtape Letters, looking at temptation from the perspective of Satan and his minions. To do that, Lewis had to think diabolically. He said it was a great spiritual strain, as though he were getting inside the head of Satan. I think one of the problems is it’s a fairly easy thing to do. He talked about this in terms of Paradise Lost. He wrote, really, the great work on Paradise Lost in the early 1940s. His friend Charles Williams had given a lecture on Paradise Lost and Lewis said, Oh my goodness! I need to do that. So he dusted off his Paradise Lost and gave a series of university lectures and then published the book—A Preface to Paradise Lost. It’s still in print, and anyone who’s working on Paradise Lost today still has to refer to Lewis. They may not agree with Lewis and many people disagree with Lewis, but he sort of set the gold standard for it, and you have to deal with him. But here’s what he said about Dryden’s idea that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost—the great anti-hero because he’s bold and exerting his freedom and he’s his own man and he’s the hero—Lewis said that’s just absolute rot. The very idea that Milton would have regarded Satan as a hero is just ridiculous. The great line of Satan in Paradise Lost is, “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” That’s a flip of the psalm that says, “Better to be a gatekeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of iniquity.” Lewis said the thing you have to remember about Satan is he’s an ass. He’s to be ridiculed. In Paradise Lost Milton is making fun of him for making such a foolish, foolish decision to rebel against the Lord of glory that he knew. How foolish! But then Lewis had to deal with the question, Why is Satan such a well-drawn character in Paradise Lost? Lewis said this is the problem with literature: our villains are often our most well-drawn characters because it’s pretty easy to imagine being worse than we are. We all have thoughts that we never act upon. We keep them inside us, but we all have these diabolical thoughts from time to time—not all the time and it’s not necessarily the way we are—but these thoughts pass through our heads of doing something that really is imaginable. It’s not unimaginable because we really can imagine doing it. Lewis says for that reason it’s pretty easy to draw a really diabolical figure, but it’s impossible for us to imagine someone better than we are. We don’t have a frame of reference for knowing what it is to be better than we are. So often in literature the really good character is just a little thin. What Lewis was having to do, and why it was a spiritual strain, is he was having to think like Satan thinks in tempting people.

25:41 - Lewis and Aslan

Matt Tully
That, then, is a nice segue into The Chronicles of Narnia where we have probably the dominant character that we all think of when we think of Narnia is Aslan, this lion figure. One thing I was reading about Narnia is there’s a default assumption when we think of The Chronicles of Narnia that it would probably stand in many of our minds as one of the best examples of Christian allegory ever to be written. We can see certain characters, like Aslan, as pretty clearly mapping onto Jesus as an allegory for the greatest Man. Yet, I read somewhere that Lewis actually rejected that label and that he didn’t really view his Narnia books as allegory specifically. Is there any truth behind that?

Harry Lee Poe
Yes, and it has to do with the technical definition of allegory. He wrote The Allegory of Love, which is the definitive treatment of allegory from the Classical period up through the time of Shakespeare. For fifteen hundred years it was the dominant form of literature. If you had said Aslan is a metaphor for Christ, or symbolizes Christ, Lewis would say, Oh, yes. That’s what it’s about. Completely. But it’s not an allegory because an allegory, technically, is a personification of a quality. The Statue of Liberty is a physical personification of the quality of freedom and liberty. Aslan is a representative of Jesus, who is not a quality, an idea, or a concept; he’s a person. So, in a technical sense, The Chronicles of Narnia are not an allegory, but they are representative of the Christian story. Lewis insisted on that a number of times. He wrote a number of letters to children in which he explained how Aslan is representative, or symbolic, of Jesus.

Matt Tully
When he started The Chronicles of Narnia did he have the whole story mapped out and all the different characters and all the different major events that were going to happen, or did it grow organically over time?

Harry Lee Poe
It grew. He only had the one story in mind, and he first envisioned the story as a picture in his mind when he was sixteen-years-old living in Great Bookham, studying with W. T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis loved the winter. He adored the snow and the cold and the wind—he just thought it was fabulous! They were having a dreadful winter and he had the picture in his mind of a fawn walking through the snow with paper packages and an umbrella. That was when he was sixteen, and it was years later that he finally sat down (in 1948) and started sketching out the story. He didn’t have Aslan in mind at all. He said Aslan just suddenly came bounding into the story, and he was as surprised as the children were! He only had the one story, but then he thought of a second story and he thought that would be it. But then he thought of a third story and thought, That’s it for sure. No more. But then he thought of a fourth one. He mentions this in another letter—how he came to write them—and he didn’t have an overall scheme. Only in retrospect did he write a creation story, almost toward the end of the series. So it grew organically.

Matt Tully
We’ve talked about how he expressed a level of discomfort and displeasure but also a certain ease that came with writing from the perspective of the demons in The Screwtape Letters. Did he ever talk about what it was like to write Aslan in these stories as this Christ figure?

Harry Lee Poe
I think that came quite easily. He wrote these stories quickly. Only a couple of them did he bog down. He bogged down on The Magician’s Nephew, and I’ve got my own thoughts about that. He didn’t say why he was bogging down, but that’s the story about him as a little boy with his mother dying. It was at the same time that he was writing Surprised by Joy. He was doing both of those at the same time and writing English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

Matt Tully
Surprised by Joy is his spiritual autobiography.

Harry Lee Poe
It’s his spiritual autobiography that focuses on his younger years—his life before he was thirty, but the majority of it is his life before he was eighteen. That may be why he bogged down and reworked it from his original start. But otherwise, they went very quickly, which annoyed his friend Tolkein. Writing was hard for Tolkein and it was easy for Lewis.

31:23 - The Early Years

Matt Tully
Let’s jump into his early years. Those who are familiar with Lewis will know the basic outlines of his story: he was an atheist and as a young man converted to Christianity, as we’ve already briefly discussed, but right in there as a young boy his mom died. Could you explain a little bit about what happened there and what effect that had on him?

Harry Lee Poe
His mother died when he was nine-years-old. She had cancer. She had, as all mothers do, ambitions for her sons. This was the Edwardian age, and so their rise in society would depend upon speaking English as an Englishman. They were Irish—they lived in Ireland—and they had Irish accents. Lewis and his brother, Warren, often made fun of their father’s accent, when, in fact, they had accents too, which they discovered when they were shipped off to boarding school in England. This is what the mother insisted on because there were schools they could have gone to in Ireland, but she knew that for them to really rise socially and professionally, they had to sound like an English gentleman.

Matt Tully
Is that because there was prejudice against the Irish?

Harry Lee Poe
Yes. There was an enormous prejudice against the Irish in England. I write about this in Becoming C. S. Lewis, the story of his first eighteen years, and Lewis was the recipient of this prejudice. He and his brother were treated pretty brutally by both the headmaster and by the other boys at the school. They were shunned and they were looked down on as inferiors. An accent marks a person out. You may possibly, if you’re a great linguist, be able to tell that I actually have a Southern accent. When I was the Dean for Academic Affairs at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota some years ago, the PR department was going to put out a press release and put a little article in the alumni magazine about me. I was being interviewed by the staff writer, and when I mentioned that I studied some at Oxford, she said, “Oh, were you embarrassed to sound so ignorant?”

Matt Tully
Wow.

Harry Lee Poe
It’s just a part of culture. We take note and we categorize people by their accents. Lewis’s mother understood that, so she obtained a solemn oath from Albert, her husband, that the boys would be educated in England. Though the boys pleaded and begged and did everything in the world to try to get free from English boarding school, he could not go back on his promise to his dead wife.

Matt Tully
Did they end up getting away from that Irish accent? Was that scrubbed away?

Harry Lee Poe
Yes, it was eventually scrubbed away. There are a few hints of it in the recordings we have of Lewis. We have a few recordings: The Four Loves, there’s one episode of his radio broadcasts during World War II that were recorded, there’s a lecture on Pilgrim’s Progress, one on Charles Williams, and a bit of The Great Divorce. So we have a number of recordings. I discovered one myself, a lecture that he gave to the people of Iceland at the beginning of World War II. You can hear his voice, but it’s what’s known as Oxford English. It’s a style of speaking almost unique to Oxford University. It’s what my mother-in-law would have called “affected.” It’s learned and it’s copied and it becomes the way you speak, but it’s a bit artificial in terms of an English accent. Lewis mastered it.

Matt Tully
What was the impact of his mom dying when he was this young boy? Did that shape his life in significant ways?

Harry Lee Poe
Not apparently so, but, in fact, it did years later. In a letter he wrote in the 1950s, he mentioned that this was really the beginning of his disenchantment with God. For him, this gave birth to the problem of suffering, about which he wrote at the beginning of World War II his book The Problem of Pain. If there’s a good, powerful, all-loving God, then why did my mother die of cancer? So it’s a huge issue, and he’s one of those people who was equipped to deal with it. He dealt with it in bookends. The first one was the intellectual problem—how do you think about that question, the problem of pain. But then years later when his wife died, he wrote the other bookend—how does it feel?—and that’s A Grief Observed. You need to read both of those books together to get the full sense of Lewis’s understanding of it. By the way, some people often think that his dark night of the soul over his wife’s death lasted for years and years. He wrote A Grief Observed in a month. It’s his diary of how he felt between her death at the end of July and about the third week of August. So it’s not a long period of time, and by the end of his diary he was coming out of it. His head was clearing and he was sorting it out. He never got over her death, but his spiritual travail was ended by the end of August.

Matt Tully
After he became a Christian and began to really dig into his faith, did his views on any significant things change over the course of his life?

Harry Lee Poe
They did, in fact. Remember that the Greek word metanoia, which is translated repentance means “to change your mind.” And so at the heart of the Christian faith is the need that we all have to constantly be changing our mind because we’ve all been pretty well cultured to the world before we get saved. Part of sanctification is the ongoing process of changing your mind. So he did change his mind about many things. His friend Owen Barfield, who was not a Christian, said, I believe in evolution and never changed my mind about anything. Lewis didn’t believe in evolution, but he was constantly changing his mind. It’s funny because he said it as a point of pride—I’ve never changed my mind about anything—and I think the thing to be proud of is that you are able to realize when you’re wrong about something and you change your mind. A big one would be his attitude towards women and the way he changed his mind about that. He had a limited exposure to women growing up—no sisters, his mother was dead, then he was in a male boarding school, and then in the army, and then in Oxford where, when he was there, women weren’t able to take a degree. So he didn’t really have much contact with women, and the women that he did have contact with weren’t really the best representatives of the sex. Mrs. Moore, who he took care of until she died in 1951, was not a woman who read widely—that would be the kind way to put it. Do you know those newspapers at the checkout counter at the grocery store? She would have read those, but that was about it. She was completely self-obsessed, a very selfish woman. You find him writing about her and her friends in The Screwtape Letters. So this was his exposure to women. During the war he began to meet some different kinds of women. Sister Penelope, the Anglican nun with whom he corresponded; Dorothy L. Sayers, the most formidable apologist in her own right and defender of the Christian faith; Ruth Pitter, the poet. She was a very fine poet—a much better poet than any of them in the Inklings—and Lewis began to turn to her for her critique of his poetry. He realized his friends were a good sort, but they weren’t poets and couldn’t help him with his poetry. So, he’s beginning to meet a number of women who can meet him on his own terms intellectually and are very clever, and their correspondence shows that. Sister Penelope, a brilliant patristic scholar and Greek scholar—and so he’s having to rethink that—and then he meets Joy Davidman. Well, it’s all over then. He realizes, Well, I guess it is possible for a woman and a man to be friends, and then he just sort of melts. But a number of other things as well changed his mind.

42:40 - The Only Book Lewis Ever Wrote

Matt Tully
You’ve been teaching courses on Lewis for over fifteen years now—

Harry Lee Poe
About twenty years.

Matt Tully
Is there a work of his that you find yourself returning to over and over again?

Harry Lee Poe
I turn to them every semester! I think the one that surprised me most was The Allegory of Love. The Allegory of Love was his scholarly work that made him a formidable figure in the academic world. He started writing it in the mid 1920s, and he published it in 1936. It was a long time coming, but it is, again, a great literary, critical work that is still in print. For your listeners, an academic book will get published with maybe 1,500 or 2,000 copies. Crossway does a few academic books; it’s a contribution to scholarship. If you’re lucky, you’ll have 3,000 copies and it stays in print for about three years, and then it goes out of print and it’s never seen again. That’s what Lewis expected of his books, because that’s what happened to everybody. They’ll be in print, you’ll sell a few thousand copies, and that’s it. He always feared being poor. Well, his books just don’t go out of print! The reason that The Allegory of Love is so important for me is as you go through it, you realize, Oh my goodness! This is really the only book C. S. Lewis ever wrote—because all the others are overflow from The Allegory of Love. His setting of The Chronicles of Narnia in a certain age that are characterized by certain knightly courtesies, is exemplified in Reepicheep. This is from The Allegory of Love—straight out of it. The big thing that Lewis loved—and I write about this in Becoming C. S. Lewis—as a teenager he fell in love with the journey story where you go there and back again. It’s the story of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, but then it’s fantasies by George MacDonald, it’s William Morris’s stories about the journey to the end of the world for the great thing and how you’re changed in the course of the journey. So, in The Allegory of Love Lewis explores why this is such a compelling story—the journey story—and you being to realize the journey story is the plot for the three science fiction stories, all seven of the Narnia stories, as well as The Great Divorce. It’s the journey there and back again. I argue in The Making of C. S. Lewis that Lewis, actually, is the one who influenced Tolkein to write a journey story when he wrote The Hobbit and when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. This wasn’t the kind of story that Tolkein normally told. Tolkein liked the old Norse sagas where you go there and you die and there’s no happy ending. It’s death, destruction, disaster, devastation, desolation. Yet, with The Hobbit, it’s there and back again.

Matt Tully
Right. That’s the subtitle.

Harry Lee Poe
Yes. That’s the story that Lewis loved and wrote about in The Allegory of Love.

Matt Tully
What evidence do you have that it was Lewis who pushed Tolkein to actually try that out?

Harry Lee Poe
That Lewis was writing The Allegory of Love when Tolkein was writing The Hobbit and that Tolkein stalled. This often happened with Tolkein. He often got the story started, but he didn’t know what it was about and he didn’t know where it was going. So you’ve got Lewis loving this story and always writing about it; and you have Tolkein liking a different kind of story. If you read The Silmarillion and all the other stories that Tolkein was writing up to that point, they’re just gosh-awful. They’re magnificent, but there’s no happy ending. Everything ends in disaster. There’s no journey back again because you’re destroyed. It’s the Beowulf story where Beowulf goes to fight knowing he’s going to die. That’s the kind of story that Tolkein was writing. Lewis liked a more cheerful ending and a story where someone is changed in the course of the journey. People are never changed in the course of The Silmarillion, but Bilbo is changed in the course of The Hobbit. So that’s my argument.

Matt Tully
Do we know that Lewis was involved? Did he read drafts of The Hobbit?

Harry Lee Poe
Oh, yes. They met every Monday morning at the East Gate hotel. There’s so much talk about the eagle and child, but the eagle and child wasn’t where people talked about their writing.

Matt Tully
That was a pub, right?

Harry Lee Poe
That was a pub. But it was the Eastgate Hotel pub where Lewis and Tolkein met every Monday morning for several decades and worked through The Hobbit and the science fiction stories and The Lord of the Rings. So I think Lewis had a huge impact on the plot.

Matt Tully
Do we see that influence in the other direction where Tolkein was influencing anything that Lewis wrote?

Harry Lee Poe
Not in terms of plot, but Tolkein was horrified and accused Lewis of plagiarism for using one of Tolkein’s words in his science fiction stories. So for the most part, Lewis avoided the possibility of offending Tolkein by showing any influence from him.

Matt Tully
So he was seriously upset about that?

Harry Lee Poe
Oh, yes. He was very seriously upset.

Matt Tully
Did that change their friendship?

Harry Lee Poe
I think to a certain degree it did because they became more distant then. That would have been in the middle of the war, and they just gradually grew apart by 1948 when Lewis was writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Tolkein just hated it. Tolkein wanted his myths pure. That is, he wanted Norse myths, and those had to be separated from Greek myths. The problem with that is Tolkein didn’t seem to understand the way that our culture draws on a number of different traditions. We are influenced by the Bible, we are influenced by the Greek civilization, we’re influenced by the Germanic and Norse cultures, and we have our mythologies and Father Christmas is part of the mythology of little children. For Lewis to put Father Christmas in there, of course it’s what you do because that’s what our culture thinks about. We blend them all together; our children hear all of those stories. They are not purists or philologists. They’re children who listen to stories. So, Lewis had an entirely different view of it than Tolkein. Tolkein was thinking of it from the point of view of scholarship, and Lewis was thinking of it from the point of view of storytelling.

Matt Tully
You mentioned The Allegory of Love as a book that you like to return to and that you feel drawn towards, but you also said it was somewhat academic in tone. Is there another Lewis work—maybe it is The Allegory of Love—that is not often read by the average Christian reader who might love Lewis but that you would say is worth picking up and trying to dig into—something that’s not as widely lauded as something like Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters?

Harry Lee Poe
I would go with his stories because those are things he most loved to write. My favorite of his science fiction is That Hideous Strength. I’m sort of like Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh loved stories, but he mainly loved stories about himself. That Hideous Strength is set in a university setting, so it’s a story about me! Anyone who has ever had a job where there was any back-biting and skullduggery and inner ring going on needs to read That Hideous Strength. So that’s one. Others I would say you need to read are The Great Divorce. Remember that he’s not giving a theology of heaven and hell. What he’s really doing is exploring the nature of temptation.

Matt Tully
That’s the critique of the book is that he’s got this low, weird view of hell, right?

Harry Lee Poe
He expresses no view of hell in the book. He says it’s imaginary and what he’s discussing is the nature of temptation.

53:38 - If I Could Ask Lewis Anything

Matt Tully
If you could sit down with Lewis now after years of teaching his works and thinking about him and his thinking and his life, is there a lingering question that’s in your mind that you would love to ask him if you could?

Harry Lee Poe
I would want to explore with him the idea of imagination. In the 1920s he was in a debate with Owen Barfield over the nature of imagination. Barfield took the view, with his own religious understanding, that the human race is evolving towards deity and there’s one cosmic imagination of which we all partake, and imagination is true. Therefore, Barfield gave equal credence to all the Gnostic heresies as well as the Christian Scriptures. He thought the Christian Scriptures were not definitive of religion, that we are still evolving in our understanding. That was Barfield’s understanding of imagination. Lewis was trying to figure out imagination and how it works. Of course, at one level it’s the ability to create imaginary worlds. But at another level, it’s the way science works. Science relies on empirical observation, but it’s actually imagination that allows a scientist to see what is not there, recognize what has never been seen before, and see the future and discover that invention. Also, the idea that the imagination is that capacity created by God and implanted in us that is, in fact, the means by which we receive revelation from God and by which we have spiritual experience with God. I’d like to talk with him about that because he never got around to writing the book. He talked about it, but he never had it quite finished, and I would love to talk about it with him because it’s something that fascinates me too.


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