C.A.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was from Ulster, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) from California. The two men wrote fantasy fiction, distrusted science, and rejected modernism. They had two initials in common too, but not much else. Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis believed in angels but, again like Tolkien, he didn’t write like one. CAS didn’t believe in angels, but did write like one. There is less literary magic in the whole of the Narnia series (1950-6) or Lord of the Rings (1954-5) than in a single of CAS’s Zothique stories, like “The Dark Eidolon” (1935) or “Empire of the Necromancers” (1932). If the English language is a harp, Lewis and Tolkien rarely plucked its sweetest strings. CASean notes do sound now and then in Lord of the Rings, like “The Mirror of Galadriel” and “The Pyre of Denethor”, but the prose of these chapters doesn’t match their titles. CAS, by contrast, could have written prose worthy of the titles. Elsewhere in Lord of the Rings, it’s the prose of a chapter that’s CASean rather than the title. But not very CASean, and not for very long:

The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (The Two Towers, Book IV, chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir. (Ibid., chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

Queen Jadis rides a hackney-cab in nineteenth-century London

Lewis does better, or at least longer: he sustains a flight of CASean invention over two chapters of The Magician’s Nephew (1955). As usual, Pauline Baynes’ drawings are better than his writing, but the prose is conjuring something unusual for Lewis: a genuine sense of antiquity, mystery and desolation. The two young protagonists of the book, Digory and Polly, have been tricked into a “Wood between the Worlds” by the book’s magician. The wood is full of magic pools. Jump into one of them and you’ll be transported to another world. Digory and Polly jump into a pool and find themselves in an ancient abandoned palace lit by a “dull, rather red light”. They begin to explore:

Every now and then they thought they were going to get out into the open and see what sort of country lay around the enormous palace. But each time they only got into another courtyard. They must have been magnificent places when people were still living there. In one there had once been a fountain. A great stone monster with wide-spread wings stood with its mouth open and you could still see a bit of piping at the back of its mouth, out of which the water used to pour. Under it was a wide stone basin to hold the water; but it was as dry as a bone. In other places there were the dry sticks of some sort of climbing plant which had wound itself round the pillars and helped to pull some of them down. But it had died long ago. And there were no ants or spiders or any of the other living things you expect to see in a ruin; and where the dry earth showed between the broken flagstones there was no grass or moss. (Op. cit., chapter four, “The bell and the hammer” (sic))

The prose plods, but one’s aesthetics nods: Lewis is invoking a strange and powerful world. Then the children find a room full of richly dressed men and women frozen like statues. Some look kind and wise, some proud and cruel, some evil and despairing. One woman, the most richly dressed of all and, to Digory, the most beautiful, has a “look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away.” There is magic in the room and Digory triggers it, thereby breaking the spell that holds the beautiful woman in suspended animation. She is both a queen and a witch – the witch Jadis. Her name in French means “of old, in olden times”, but the children are not in France, as they discover when Jadis guides them out of the palace:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of that withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of gray dust.

“Look well on that which no eyes will ever see again,” said the Queen. “Such was Charn, that great city, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds…” (chapter five, “The Deplorable Word”)

Jadis and the city of Charn are Lewis’s most successful invocations of CASean themes like female beauty, sorcerous evil, and dying (or dead) worlds. But the prose is weak and insipid beside that of Clark Ashton Smith – as you can see for yourself by following the links below:

“The Dark Eidolon”

“Empire of the Necromancers”

“The Charnel God”

4 thoughts on “C.A.S. Lewis

  1. An interesting article. However, one wonders if it is fair to compare Lewis’ “insipid” writing about these grim images with those of one of the stars of the golden era of “weird tales.” The two authors clearly had different audiences in mind, and Lewis never aspired to write like H.P. Lovecraft.

  2. I read the Narnia books as a child. The Charn scenes were very memorable, almost like a different book.

    CS Lewis’ prose doesn’t stand out as exceptional, but his imagination is impressive. A fawn with an umbrella standing under a lamppost, an army of one-footed dwarves…these are striking and memorable ideas, even if they’re presented in a lacklustre fashion.

    I’d categorise CS Lewis as one of those literary paradoxes…a poor storyteller who often tells good stories.

    • The Charn scenes were very memorable, almost like a different book.

      Yes, CASean rather than CSLean. It would be interesting to know whether Lewis and Tolkien ever saw a copy of Weird Tales and sampled some classic CAS.

      CS Lewis’ prose doesn’t stand out as exceptional…

      I think the Narnia books are rushed and uneven. The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce are better as literature. Generally, I prefer his non-fiction nowadays, tho’ his EngLit stuff doesn’t seem v. good. Surprised by Joy may be his best book.

      …but his imagination is impressive. A fawn with an umbrella standing under a lamppost, an army of one-footed dwarves…these are striking and memorable ideas, even if they’re presented in a lacklustre fashion.

      Yes, lots of good ideas, but Pauline Baynes does more with them than he himself did.

      I’d categorise CS Lewis as one of those literary paradoxes…a poor storyteller who often tells good stories.

      Or he’s like Wagner (in some people’s opinion): wonderful moments, bad quarters-of-an-hour.

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