November 22, 2013
When C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today, he thought his works were likewise not long for this world.
The famous professor, who had graced the cover of Time magazine and delivered radio broadcasts heard by most Britons (the original title of Mere Christianity was Broadcast Talks), thought popular memory of him would linger for five years, give or take. Then he would belong to the specialists.
Book critic Michael Dirda joked of this comically pessimistic assessment, "Lewis was clearly no prophet." However, give Lewis this much: it would be hard even for a drunken optimist to foresee the success that he has enjoyed since his passing.
All of Lewis's books are still available, sold to and read by millions of people around the globe. His life and writings are the subject of serious study by scholars and laymen. Movies based on his Chronicles of Narniaseries have grossed about $1.6 billion.
In fact, Lewis is not only still in print 50 years later, but still publishing new works.
Every year or two, the literary arm of the C.S. Lewis estate, overseen by his onetime secretary Walter Hooper, finds some scrap or translation by Lewis that has not yet been collected and releases it to the world.
As I was reminded yesterday when I opened the mailbox.
A brand new Lewis book tumbled out.
I wasn't altogether sure what Image and Imagination was when I ordered it. Some sort of a collection, I thought. That turned out to be an underestimation of Lewisian proportions.
Image and Imagination, which I am still working my way through, has 40-plus book reviews by Lewis, never before collected elsewhere; introductions and papers that are not always easy to find; brand new, never-before-published essays including the one that gives the book its title; and his take on France (on the French Enlightenment: "This France to some degree I consider my enemy, but she is a noble enemy.").
This new book gives us several Lewis essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's elfin epic; Lewis on The Odyssey, Aristotle, and Boethius; Lewis on Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh and -- most surprisingly -- Harold Bloom.
Reviews aimed at diverse audiences are collected in these pages. Some will prove more accessible than others, but everything I've paged through shows off Lewis's characteristic intelligence and his deceptively straightforward prose, punctuated by wit.
To wit, the Sunday Telegraph sought out Lewis to review Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey, aimed at an American audience. Lewis cautions readers he might not be quite up to the task: "I know some Greek, but I know very little American."
Lewis knew American a little better than he let on -- after all, he married one -- but enough with the pedantry. I plan to mark his death by reading Image and Imagination, and wondering what the professor will publish next.