Fragility, Fiction, and Faith: C. S. Lewis’s War Wounds

This is a companion piece to “C. S. Lewis, the Great War, and an Unwitting Canadian Connection” in December 2018’s issue of Rupert’s Land News on Sacred Space.

Fragility. On one of the branches of the River Cherwell, near Magdalen College of the University of Oxford, there is an area once reserved for male students to bathe nude. In a 1922 diary entry, C. S. Lewis records swimming there, adding a sobering observation: “Amid so much nudity I was interested to note the passing of my own generation: two years ago every second man had a wound mark, but I did not see one today.” Lewis had scars of his own, and not just physical ones: “The early loss of my mother, great unhappiness at school, and the shadow of the last war… had given me a very pessimistic view of existence.”

He describes the physical injuries sustained in the trenches of France in a 1918 letter, with apparent understatement to spare his father some anxiety: “I was… hit in the back of the left hand, on the left leg from behind and just above the knee, and in the left side just under the arm pit. All three were only flesh wounds.” While recovering in London, he again downplays the situation in a letter to a friend: “There are still two pieces of shrapnel in my chest, but they give me no discomfort.” Others in Lewis’s circle had similar experiences. Fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson, for one, fought in the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Battle of Arras (1917), and the Battle of Passchendaele at Ypres (1918), and was badly wounded in the last. One suspects there is something of J. R. R. Tolkien’s memories of the trenches in later descriptions of the Dead Marshes.

According to Lewis’s letters of the 1930s and ’40s, there were continual reminders of aging, mortality, vulnerability, emotional distress, and war, among them the failing health of his “mother” Janie Moore; his brother’s return to active military service during wartime; food shortages and rationing; his own worsening rheumatism; and the sudden death of friend and Inkling Charles Williams. All the while, interestingly, Lewis was writing fiction with conspicuous attention to the recovery of damaged bodies and spirits.

Fiction. Lewis turned 41 on November 29, 1939, thus avoiding conscription, but his writing suggests deep concern about conflict and human fragility. In Perelandra, the protagonist Ransom uses his “middle-aged, sedentary body” to fight a demonic enemy on another planet. Ransom, like Lewis, and like Tolkien on whom the character is based, has memories of “very dangerous job[s] in the last war” and is aware that another one rages back on Earth – the Germans “may be bombing London to bits at this moment!” Wars past and present intrude on the fantasy.

The story culminates in a great battle between Ransom and the devilish Weston, a fight of good against evil. Ransom is victorious, but badly hurt. His injuries include a vicious bite to the foot (recalling humanity’s struggle with the serpent in Genesis 3:15). This wound does not heal, but the rest of his body does, and “surprisingly quickly” when he enters an Edenic garden. Ransom rejuvenates, body and mind, in this sinless, new world. After returning home, an astonished friend finds him “glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger,” despite the bleeding foot. Perelandra reverses the decrepitude and decay known back on Earth. In That Hideous Strength, Ransom appears a young man even though “nearer fifty than forty.” (Lewis turned 47 the year he published this book, Tolkien 53). It is a both/and situation, a paradox. Healed yet broken. Our frail bodies and minds are prone to all manner of emotional distresses, illnesses and injuries, and ultimately death, but in the most important sense, which is to say spiritually, the Christian sings, It is well with my soul.

Lewis struggled with his physical wounds in later years: “I’ve finished another book wh. concludes the Ransom trilogy,” he writes to a friend. He then adds in the very next sentence, suggesting a connection with the story just mentioned, whether consciously or otherwise, “I’ve had an operation for the removal of a piece of shell I got into me in the last war, which, after lying snug and silent like an unrepented sin for 20 years or so, began giving me trouble.” An interesting simile, one hinting that battle with a physical enemy (WWI) is somehow analogous with battling spiritual ones. Sometimes the enemy scores a blow (shrapnel, sin), and we suffer as a result.

Tolkien also writes about injuries sustained in war and the restoration of body and spirit. Thus spake Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor, in The Return of the King, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” After Aragorn’s ministrations, Faramir opens his eyes, and says,

“‘My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?’

‘Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!’ said Aragorn.

King Aslan in Lewis’s Narnia tales also heals the victims of war, as does Lucy. When Father Christmas distributes gifts in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he gives her a cordial: “If you or any of your friends is hurt [fighting the enemy], a few drops of this will restore them.” Aslan secures Edmund Pevensie’s spiritual rescue, and when his body breaks in battle, Lucy’s cordial is at hand.

These writers infuse their fiction with an expansive sense of personhood, recognizing bodies, minds, and souls are susceptible to injury. Sometimes we recover, but sometimes not. Lewis finds relief from the damage caused by shrapnel (surgery) but is yet haunted by “the shadow” of the Great War. Éowyn recovers from the Black Breath, a spiritual wound, as does Faramir, who is to walk no more in “the shadows.” But whereas Frodo’s body mends, except for the piercings left by the Nazgûl’s blade and Shelob’s stinger, his spirit does not.

Faith. Without appealing to allegory to interpret these books, it is enough to suggest they resemble elements of the Christian story. Faith-inclined readers recognize in Tolkien’s returning king, who brings healing for a broken world, something of the Christian hope of Christ returning as king to wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4). Father Christmas is one of the few overt references to Christianity in the Chronicles of Narnia. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Narnia also has its share of war, trauma, illness, and death. The devout Roman Catholic Tolkien and the devout Anglican Lewis allow Christian longing for ultimate healing and restoration, even resurrection, to permeate their fantasies. Mere hints of the new heaven and the new earth to come. These soldiers’ stories about lingering scars and restored bodies and souls reflect deep faith. As they well know, Christ’s own resurrected body bore the scars of battle.

Michael Gilmour teaches at Providence University College. He is the author of Eden’s Other Residents: The Bible and Animals (2014) and Animals in the Writings of C. S. Lewis (2017).

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