Book Review: Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolkien and the Shadow of Evil
Colin Duriez’s latest book is full of evil.
Or more specifically, it explores how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wove the theme of good and evil into their respective literary works.
You may be familiar with Duriez’s work. He is absolutely prolific. My shelf is full of works from various scholars and I can confidently say that only a few can rival Duriez’s breadth of knowledge and accessible writing style. If you have been paying any attention to Inklings scholarship in the last three years, the market has been positively brimming with academic works examining the relationship between some of the brightest minds of the 20th century. The Inklings were an informal group of writers who met a couple of times a week to fraternize but also to share drafts of their work. As Diana Glyer reveals in her book Bandersnatch, the group met for pints at The Eagle and Child pub, but also met in Lewis’s room at Oxford to share drafts and provide feedback late into the night (drafts were NOT shared at the pub, just in Lewis’s room). Members of this group include J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and many others. The group was a womb where many of the classics of the age found “midwives” through examination, criticism, and revision.
Colin Duriez is, without question, one of the leading scholars in the field of Inkling studies. He has published a LONG list of books on the subject which include (click on covers to purchase):
You may even recognize him from his interview for the Lord of the Rings DVD.
Duriez’s newest book, Bedeviled, explores the themes of good and evil in the works of Lewis and Tolkien. As many know, both authors were veterans of World War I. Duriez points out that the experience would have lifelong implications on many aspects of their lives, but especially in their writings. He undermines the importance of history in shaping story with two chapters outlining the Inklings and war. Duriez explores many of Lewis’ works including Ransom Trilogy or Cosmic Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce, and The Chronicles of Narnia (among others) to locate a central theme of good versus evil. In a similar fashion, he explores Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and “Leaf by Niggle” to uncover Tolkien’s handling of the subject. At their core, the works of Lewis and Tolkien center around the theme that humans are fragile creatures, easily tempted by power or fame or greed. Take, for example, Edmund’s partaking of Turkish Delight and hot chocolate, which easily brings him into the White Witch’s disastrous plan. Or Boromir’s devastating end when he attempts to capture the ring. Duriez leads the reader through the crucial moments where time after time, characters inspire us to examine the perpetual flaw in our nature.
There isn’t time or space to fully articulate all of the things I love about this book, but I’ll name a few. For one, Duriez always teaches me something new. I’ve studied C.S. Lewis for the last fourteen years, and every single time I read another of Duriez’s fantastic works, I learn something new. For example, Duriez tells us that “calor” is Latin for “hot.” Thus the antagonistic Calormenes from The Horse and His Boy hail from the south where the climate is hotter (and they also have hot tempers!). He also unravels the meaning behind the famous phrase “men without chests” which Lewis mentions in The Abolition of Man: “In his philosophical treatise he refers to an ancient index of the human body, with ‘the chest’ as the healthy and wholesome balance of life. The chest, the ancients argued, is the seat of balance in the mature human being. It harmonizes our cerebral and emotional aspects, our heads and hearts. For Lewis, modern people increasingly lack ‘chests’ – a process he warned would eventually lead to the abolition of humanity” (126).
Duriez also does a stellar job of weaving biography and literary analysis in this book. I’m not a New Critic (which, in literary theory, is someone who believes that work should be viewed apart from its biographical and historical context) because I firmly endorse the belief that we are ultimately shaped by our culture. In his work, Duriez paints a beautiful and complex portrait of the modern age – its conflicts, its spiritual ambiguity, its follies – and correlates it to the literary masterpieces that it would eventually inspire. Lewis and Tolkien came of age in a tumultuous time, one of world wars and economic hardships and threats of biological warfare. These events cast long shadows in the works of Lewis and Tolkien. I particularly liked how Duriez connected history to Lewis’s fiction and nonfiction, including a discussion of The Four Loves and A Grief Observed. I also enjoyed Duriez’s discussion of Lewis’s war efforts through the BBC (radio broadcasts which would later become Mere Christianity) and how Lewis’s sermons to the RAF (Royal Air Force) “led him to work very hard to be more successful in his speaking to nonacademic people” (98).
C.S. Lewis with RAF Officers
Photo Courtesy of Lantern Hollow Press
Of all of the sections, my personal favorite is his analysis of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy. Lewis’s three science fiction novels seem to be a best-kept secret among popular fiction. Published between 1938-1945 (pre-Narnia), the cosmic trilogy showcases some of Lewis’s best work and deserves far more accolades than it receives. In this scene, protagonist Elwin Ransom is kidnapped (professor-napped?) and taken to space on a spaceship to infiltrate a colony on Malacandra. While on the journey, Ransom makes an observation about the beauty of space:
“There was an endless night on one side of the ship and an endless day on the other: each was marvelous and he moved from the one to the other at his will, delighted…There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pinpricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness…But the days – that is, the hours’ spent in the sunward hemisphere of their microcosm-were the best of all. Often he rose after only a few hours’ sleep to return, drawn by an irresistible attraction, to the regions of light; he could not cease to wonder at the noon which always awaited you however early you went to seek it. There, totally immersed in a bath of pure ethereal colour and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness, stretched his full length and with eyes half closed in a strange chariot that bore them, faintly quivering, through depth after depth of tranquility far above the reach of night, he felt his body and mind daily rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality.
But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very same “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam” (Out of the Silent Planet 33-34).
Duriez provides us with an excerpt of George Orwell’s favorable review of the final installment That Hideous Strength, in which Orwell praises Lewis’s work against the backdrop of the most recent world conflict:
“…Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself…Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable” (117).
Duriez does a marvelous job connecting the cosmic books to other literary works (the Bible, Paradise Lost) while displaying the common theme of good and evil. The books are rich in commentary about tyranny, about relationships, and about the human condition. Duriez touches on all of these points, completing a comprehensive and satisfying examination of the text.
Duriez has hit another one out of the park with Bedeviled. It is a nuanced, thoroughly-researched, and enjoyable text accessible for any age. From the battlefields of France to the lecture halls of Oxford and beyond, Duriez illustrates how history influenced Lewis and Tolkien to craft stories from their war experiences and personal journeys of faith. I recommend this book to fans and scholars to gain a better understanding of the conflict that eventually shaped literature we love in innovative and fascinating ways.