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  Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan

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"Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless." [1] With these words C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, described the early years of his life. The story of his pre-conversion self, however, is much more than the autobiography of one 20th-century Englishman. It depicts the spiritual torpor of modern man, namely post-Christian man.

For the first time in the history of humanity, man does not believe in the supernatural. The supernatural was natural to the pre-Christian age. The sun and the stars, trees and rivers, everything that surrounded them was inhabited by dryads and nymphs and all sorts of mythological creatures. Everything bore the trace of the divine. Modern man may smile at the primitiveness of their beliefs. In the best case, he will admit that it would make a good fairy tale for children.

Lewis did not think so; to him it was the twentieth century that was regressive. By reducing the world to the material reality which one can experience with one’s senses, man has turned the world into a vacuum in which men spend their time, as T.S. Eliot would say, "dodging [their] emptiness." [2] Surprisingly enough, it was pagan mythological literature, permeated as it was with the intuitive belief in the supernatural, which set Lewis searching for God. He became a theist and his conversion to Christ followed later. Pagan literature–Greek myths, the sagas and eddas of Norse mythology and the epics of classical antiquity–acted upon him as a preparatio evangelica. His imagination and his sensibility were "baptised" [3] first, which proved to be a pre-requisite for the conversion of his heart. The material reality around him was the same but his gaze had been converted. Like the post-conversion T.S. Eliot, he ended up revisiting the ordinary experiences of his daily life and saw a transfigured reality:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’. Oh bright Vision! [5]

When Lewis uttered these words he was, of course, not encouraging his contemporaries to start worshipping pagan gods. The world that emerged out of the literature of the pagan age, however, seemed much more appealing to him than the grim and meaningless one he found himself to be living in before his conversion. It was nonetheless an imaginary world and therefore, he believed, a lie. His imaginary life and his intellect were at war. The post-conversion Lewis came to see that, despite the primitiveness of their beliefs, the pagans were more spiritually enlightened than most of his contemporaries. To the pagans there was more to reality than the material world. They saw something modern man is blind to. Spirit and matter were indivisible to them. They looked at the sun and they saw, if not a god, at least an expression of the divinity; we see a "huge ball of flaming gas," [6] thus reducing the world to "what it is made of" instead of seeing what it "is." [7] They seemed to see, touch and feel the invisible reality of the spiritual world. The "disease" of our age is that "Spirit and Nature have quarreled in us" [8]; this is where the healing needs to take place.

If our contemporaries had to study the pagans’ beliefs, they would delight in introducing the role of subjectivity and the way in which it impacted their way of looking at the world. Lewis believed in an objective reality: the invisible, universal and changeless reality of the spiritual world. Pagan writers intuitively knew that this world was far more than what could be seen, and that belief transfigured their gaze. Having the privilege to live after Christ we know that they worshipped the wrong gods and worshipped them in the wrong way. Nevertheless Lewis found in them a spark of truth that was ultimately going to lead him–the intellectual, the agnostic and the post-Christian–to the true God.

Pagan literature testifies to their need to invent gods, to fill the universe with something that could give it meaning. And they somehow knew that this something was to be found in the supernatural realm. Out of that search were born the innumerable gods who filled their myths. These were imaginary gods and could, therefore, only offer "desire without hope." [9] And yet, as Lewis came to see it, their dreams were inspired by God. Their search was an unfocused one; they had the intuition of a God but lacked the revelation. In spite of that and of the darkness that clouded their human minds because of Original Sin, we find in their writings some fragments of the Truth.

The theme of the god who dies and rises again is recurs in their literature. When Lewis acknowledged the historicity of Christ’s life, he saw in the Incarnation the fulfillment of that longing which dwelled in the Pagans. With Christ man’s dream had become a fact. As Chesterton writes, "Pan died because Christ was born [10] […] The place that the shepherds found [...] was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search." [11] Pagan poetry was permeated by a sense of sadness because they lacked the revelation that would prove their dream true. But that very sense of emptiness was a pointer to the One who could fill it and change their mourning into gladness.

Unlike them, we have had the revelation of Christ. We do not need to go through that long and painful search, with all the uncertainties which any search implies. We know where Joy is to be found. Like them, however, we are the heirs of Original Sin and, as such, we still need to acknowledge our emptiness and poverty, our longing and need for our Savior so that he may come and fill us with his life and graces. The tragedy of post-Christian man is that he does not know himself to be sick and needy, and when he does, he looks for material remedies to his spiritual thirst. He has become so alienated from his Creator that he has lost that instinctive knowledge that this thirst can only be quenched by God and that, outside of God, he is nothing.

It is that very longing which the authors of the pagan age were able to revive in Lewis. This desire set him searching for the Truth and eventually led him to the One to Whom every longing ultimately points. He came to understand that, by denying God, man has killed the divinity in himself and has become less than human. In The Abolition of Man Lewis pictures his contemporaries as branches rebelling against the tree. It is their own roots that the branches are desperately attempting to destroy. Lewis concludes by saying that "if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves" [12] Modern man does not want to have to bother about religion; he wants to be in control of his own life. He has felt the need to master the world and its complexities and, by dint of reducing the universe to a sum of scientific laws, has gradually emptied the world, stripping it and himself of God and of reality. In the process he has deprived himself of the very possibility of happiness. As Lewis wrote in a passage full of spiritual realism:
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. [13]

…the world was made through [the Word], yet the world knew him not (Jn 1:10)

The only area of our modern world where we are still allowed to indulge in the supernatural is the world of fairy-stories . . . although most children’s books are slowly going further and further away from that and turning into factual books. Facts are what adults want their children to learn because they need to know what life is allegedly all about. The world is turning into a vast spiritual desert. Lewis saw himself as endowed with the task of ‘irrigat[ing] deserts’ [14]. It was necessary, the author writes, to "wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years" [15].

The point, of course, is not to leave the material world aside. Plato, who was a major influence in Lewis’ conversion to theism, saw all earthly things as shadowy reflections of the ultimate reality and yearned to be freed from the world and from his body so that he might draw closer and closer to the Truth. Ours is an incarnational religion. We profess Christ, the Word made flesh, and we believe in the resurrection of the body. We cannot accept the dichotomy which Plato saw between matter and spirit, lest we be guilty of trying to be more spiritual than God; but, we know that the material world (Nature and our bodies) is not an end in itself and could not have any existence outside of its spiritual reality.

This material world gives us glimpses of the eternal Truth because we bear in mind its origin and the purpose for which it was created: Christ, the alpha and the omega, through Whom all things came into existence and towards Whom all things tend. We do not demonstrate the existence of things by their material reality. Rather we know them to be real because of their spiritual reality that gives them life. To Lewis there was no reality more palpable than God; he is the "ultimate fact" [16]. As Lewis wrote, "only Supernaturalists really see Nature" [17]. To them the whole of creation (Nature and men) is an epiphany. It is God’s love made manifest in his attributes–beauty, harmony, power, order, intelligence, etc.; and, as such, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, it "ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will." [18]

The whole of creation is an invitation to taste the goodness of the Lord and penetrate the divine mysteries we profess. The Gospel is full of parables, examples taken from our earthy world (leaven, bread, treasures, grains, etc). To Lewis it was not that the natural world happened, a posteriori, to provide our Lord with handy comparisons, thus allowing him to explain spiritual truths. Rather the whole world was informed by the Divine Truth and the very life of Christ. The material world is what it is because divine life is engraved on it, or rather, is its very life. He resorts to the example of the grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die so that it may bear fruit (Jn 12:24). The natural cycle of life is characterized by this pattern of death and re-birth, descent and ascent–the day follows the night, springs follow winter, etc.–because the whole of creation is informed by what Lewis calls the "Grand Miracle" [19]: the Incarnation. The pattern of death and re-birth is "there in Nature because it was first there in God." [20]

The best illustration of this theme is found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The land of Narnia has been put under a curse by the evil witch. It is always "winter and never Christmas." [21] Time has been frozen. The day Aslan–the Christ-like figure of the Chronicles–is back, the children immediately see the snow melting around them, and nature bursting into life again. Within a few hours nature passes from January to May as if it could not contain the secret it had been holding for so long, that promise of a new beginning, that promise of life and resurrection.

Human beings too, of course, are informed by this "Grand Miracle." Both the physical and the spiritual life of man are characterized by this pattern of death and re-birth. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit and, as such, divine Life flows in us. Our lives are scanned by the very divine mysteries that marked the life of our Lord. It is sometimes so hard to distinguish the features of Christ in one another because we have too often let sin disfigure us and do not necessarily let that Life flow in us, resisting the death which must necessarily precede the resurrection. But, even then, we ought to be reminded of the disfigured Christ. He had nothing to attract our eyes as he was walking toward his Cross, carrying our faults as if they were his own, with a Love that surpasses all understanding.

Lewis’ conversion dramatically transfigured his way of looking at people. His awareness of man’s origin and final destination made him realize how seriously we should take human relationships. We are not to look at others as mere companions during this earthly life; we are to help one another reach our final destination. Lewis was all too aware what a huge responsibility that meant, "a load so heavy that only humility can carry it"; [22] it is not "ordinary people" we deal with, he writes,

. . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. […] Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him the Christ vere latitat–the glorifer and the glorified, Glory Himself–is truly hidden. [23]
The pagans of the pre-Christian age, by reconciling him to the spiritual reality of the world, were thus able to lead Lewis to God. They converted his gaze and enabled him to start on the path that was going to lead him to Christ. Their role was only an intermediary one but it was a pre-requisite to his conversion. He believed that it would be so for many others, hence his own attempt, in his own fictional writings, to reawaken in his readers that longing for God by giving them a taste of the supernatural. It is hard not to think of the Divine Comedy at this point. At the end of Purgatory Virgil has to leave Dante if the latter is to make any progress. He can only lead the pilgrim up to a certain point. Dante turns towards Virgil to find reassurance when he catches a glimpse of Heaven and is intimidated by its brightness but he realizes that the latter has disappeared: "But Virgil–O he had left us, and we stood/ Orpheaned of him; Virgil, dear father…" [24]. By acknowledging Virgil’s fatherhood, he too makes it clear that he, the Pagan and the poet, is the one who has led him to the threshold of Heaven. The latter has had the necessary role of mediator. It is now time for Dante to stop looking "through veils of mist" [25] to face the "splendour of the living light eterne" [26].

In 1931 Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had that famous conversation about the nature of myths as they were walking down Magdalen College parks in Oxford. [27] This discussion completed the conversion process of Lewis’ gaze. Lewis, who was still an agnostic, claimed that despite his great love for myths, he could see in them nothing but lies. Tolkien explained his belief that God spoke through the minds of the poets, and that, although containing error, myths reveal glimpses of the Truth. He reiterated the idea that Lewis had found in Chesterton a few years earlier on, that the Incarnation was the fulfillment of our dreams. A few days later Lewis converted to Christianity.

Following this discussion Tolkien addressed a poem to Lewis, the "one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, ‘even though breathed through silver’," [28] in which he praises the poets and the legend makers and denounces the materialistic spirit of his age. The post-conversion Lewis could have made Tolkien’s words his own:
I will not walk with your progressive ages,
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends. [29]

• This article originally appeared in the March/April edition of Catholic Dossier.


[1] Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1989), p.138.
[2]Eliot T.S., The Complete Poems and Plays, "Choruses," V.
[3] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.146.
[4] Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, ed. V. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), "Four Quartets."
[5] Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1964), "A cliché came out of its cage."
[6] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (London: Lions, 1980), p.159.
[7] Ibid., p.159.
[8] Lewis, Miracles, (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1976), p.209.
[9] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.169.
[10] Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p.160.
[11] Ibid., p.175.
[12] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (Glasgow: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1990), pp.29-30.
[13] Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Collins Fontana Books, 1969), p.50.
[14] Lewis, Abolition, p.13.
[15] Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, (London, Fount, 1991), p. 98.
[16] Lewis, Miracles, p.204.
[17] Ibid., p.89.
[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.341.
[19] Lewis, Miracles, p.143.
[20] Lewis, Miracles, p.149.
[21] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (London: Lions, 1980), p.23.
[22] Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, p.109.
[23] Ibid., p.109.
[24] Alighieri Dante, The Divine Comedy; II: Purgatory, trans. by D.L. Sayers (Edinburgh: Penguin Classics, 1951), Canto XXX, p.308.
[25] Ibid., p.307.
[26] Ibid., p.319.
[27] cf. Joseph Pearce, Tolkien, Man and Myth, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.56-60.
[28] J. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf including Mythopoeia (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p.97.
[29] Tolkien, Mythopoeia, p.100.

Clotilde Morhan
is a graduate in English literature from Oxford University. She writes from the Bay Area.

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