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July 13 C.S Lewis - A Grief Observed

Today we remember how the wife of C.S. Lewis died from cancer. Clive Staples Lewis was ranked eleventh on the Times newspaper list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945". In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis joined some of Britain's greatest writers recognised at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.

After Joys death Lewis published A Grief Observed the following year, from notebooks he kept after his wife's death revealing his immense grief and a period of questioning God. In this painful process of grief, he ultimately came to a place of peace and gratitude.


Joy Davidman was a gifted American poet and writer and thought of as a child prodigy, she earned a master's degree at the age of twenty and awards for her poetry. She had been an atheist and a member of the American Communist Party, but during a troubled first marriage, she converted to Christianity. With her first husband, the American novelist William Gresham, they joined the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church. However, after Gresham continued to have extramarital affairs and developed an interest in tarot cards and the I Ching the couple slowly became estranged, and would eventually be divorced, Helen, would travel to England with her sons and settled into a flat in London. She had begun a correspondence with C. S. Lewis in 1950, working on a book of poetry on the Ten Commandments. Lewis lived with his brother in Oxford and she would spend Christmas and with the brothers. She was in love with Lewis, but at first it was not reciprocated. When Gresham stopped sending money for support, Joy ran into financial difficulties and Lewis stepped in to pay school fees for the boys and found them a house in Oxford. His brother observed the relationship deepen saying ‘For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met... who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun." Davidman's book Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments was published in in England with a preface by C. S. Lewis. It sold 3,000 copies, double that of US sales.

Charles Staples Lewis had been born in Belfast and baptised in the Church of Ireland, but had fallen away from his faith during adolescence. He held academic positions in English literature at Oxford and later Cambridge and was close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien. As a young man he became obsessed with W.B Yeats and was enthused by the Celtic Revival movement but when he moved to Oxford he was surprised to find his English peers indifferent to Yeats and the Celtic Revival movement. However, a growing interest in the writings of the Scottish minister George MacDonald started to challenge his atheism. However, the two growing influences that would lead to his conversion were Tolkien, and the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton (see pod of May 29). In his own words he vigorously resisted conversion, noting that he was brought back into Christianity, "kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape". His moment of surrender to God, he describes it eloquently You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Tolkien’s influence was probably the greatest because of their sustained contact and relationship and is worth considering. Lewis was quite happy to dismiss the “Christ myth.” While he loved myths, he thought they had little representative value–they don’t tell us much about real life. Tolkien in response wrote a poem, “From Philomythus to Misomythus“–from MythLover to MythHater, and he convinced Lewis that myths were not just “lies … breathed through silver,” but contained deeper truth than bare fact could tell us. Over beers and long conversations late into the night, Tolkien showed that the story of Christ was a true myth: of a God sacrificing himself, that is in Lewis’s words ‘ a myth working on us in the same way as pagan myths, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened

The informal literary group known as the Inklings was an outgrowth of meetings that Tolkien began to have with Lewis every week in 1929. The Inklings were a sounding board, a safe space to test creative ideas, and it was here that Tolkien read aloud his tales from Middle Earth that would become The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In a Letter Lewis said Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children’s story which Tolkien has just written [The Hobbit]. It would be published in 1937. Tolkien was disappointed that Lewis was received into the Anglican church as he had hoped that he would join the Catholic Church. It is worth noting that although in his later writings, his ideas such as purification of venial sins after death in purgatory (The Great Divorce and Letters to Malcolm) and mortal sin (The Screwtape Letters), are generally considered to be Roman Catholic teachings, although they are also widely held in high church Anglo-Catholic circles. After Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, his interests gravitated towards Christian theology and away from pagan Celtic mysticism. His returned to Anglicanism at the age of 32 and he became in his own words an "ordinary layman of the Church of England". However this would be understating his influence as his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

He would write more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The biggest impact were made by The Chronicles of Narnia series, seven fantasy novels for children now considered a classic of children's literature containing Christian themes intended to be easily accessible to young readers. His sci-fi trilogy, The Space Trilogy, was apparently written following a conversation with Tolkien about the dehumanising trends in science fiction dominated at the time by HG Wells (See podcast of June 28). Lewis agreed to write a "space travel" story and Tolkien a "time travel" one, but Tolkien never completed "The Lost Road", linking his Middle-earth to the modern world. Lewis's main character in the trilogy , Elwin Ransom, is based in part on Tolkien, and the second novel, Perelandra, depicts a new Garden of Eden on the planet Venus, a new Adam and Eve, and a new "serpent figure" to tempt Eve. The story can be seen as an account of what might have happened if the terrestrial Adam had defeated the serpent and avoided the Fall of Man, with Ransom intervening in the novel to "ransom" the new Adam and Eve from the deceptions of the enemy. At Oxford, Lewis continued his work as the tutor of poet John Betjeman, the critic Kenneth Tynan, and the mystic Bede Griffiths amongst others. Curiously, the religious and conservative Betjeman detested Lewis, whereas the anti-establishment Tynan retained a lifelong admiration for him.

He was forced to make a decision about his deepening friendship with Joy as her visitor's visa was not going to be renewed by the Home Office, requiring that she and her sons return to America. Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage with her so that she could continue to live in the UK, telling a friend that "the marriage was a pure matter of friendship and expediency". The couple continued to live separately after the marriage but then some time after, she was diagnosed with incurable cancer It was at this time that Lewis recognised that he had fallen in love with her, realising how despondent he would feel to lose her. He wrote to a friend: "new beauty and new tragedy have entered my life. You would be surprised to know how much of a strange sort of happiness and even gaiety there is between us." And later her wrote "One of the most painful days of my life. Sentence of death has been passed on Joy, and the end is only a matter of time." They sought a Christian marriage but this was not straightforward at the time, because she was divorced, however a friend and Anglican priest, Reverend Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at Davidman's hospital bed. The marriage did not win wide approval among Lewis's social circle, and some of his friends and colleagues avoided the new couple. They enjoyed two years of remission from the cancer and went on a belated honeymoon to Wales and then by air to Ireland. Sadly the cancer returned and was not responding to radiation therapy, so Lewis took her on a holiday to Greece to fulfil her lifelong wish to visit there, but her condition worsened quickly upon return from the trip, and she died on 13 July 1960.

Writing A Grief Observed under the pseudonym of N. W. Clerk, describing his feelings and paying tribute to his wife. In the book, he recounts his wavering faith due to the overwhelming grief which he suffered after Davidman's death, and his struggle to regain that faith. Extremely candid, the book details the anger and bewilderment that he felt towards God after her Tdeath as well as his impressions of life without her. The period of his bereavement was marked by a process of moving in and out of various stages of grief and remembrance, and it becomes obvious that it heavily influenced his spirituality. It lead to a deeper understanding of God: experiencing gratitude for having received and experienced the gift of a true love. When Lewis was first attempting to publish it, his agent sent it to the publishing company Faber and Faber. One of the directors of the company at the time was T.S. Eliot, who found the book intensely moving. It has also been compared to one of his earlier books, The Problem of Pain, written approximately twenty years before A Grief Observed. The former book attempts to provide a theory behind the pain in the world and in a Grief Observed it is at first, hard for Lewis to see the reason of his theories during the anguish of his wife's death Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?" but as the book unfolds the gradual reacceptance of his theories and the reacceptance of the necessity of suffering can be seen. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forebode. But the other, that 'all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'

Lewis developed a heart condition two years later – possibly broken heart syndrome – which is a temporary heart condition that's often brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions and Lewis fell into a coma, from which he recovered, but he died a year later—three years after his wife. The relationship that developed between Davidman and Lewis was turned into a film named Shadowlands.


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