Evelyn Underhill and C.S. Lewis: Elective Affinities

by Ron Dart

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It is this capacity for giving imaginative body to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity that seems to me one of the most remarkable things about your work.

~ Evelyn Underhill letter to C.S. Lewis, January 13 1941

Many with a minimal literary background will have read articles or books by C.S. Lewis. The Lewis of popular consumption is certainly not the more nuanced and layered Lewis. The more popular books by Lewis were, mostly, published in the 1940s-1950s and up to his death in 1963. There have been many letters, books, articles by Lewis published since his death, but, the C.S. Lewis of the 1930s was still in the budding phase with a few blossoms that hinted further fruit.

The rather abstract and initial autobiography of Lewis’ journey to Christian faith, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism, left the publishing press in 1933. It is certainly not one of Lewis’ better books, but there are hints in it of finer things to come. The emergence of Lewis, the Oxford don and Medieval literary scholar, was clearly established when The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition left the publishing tarmac in 1936. Who would have guessed by the mid-1930s that Lewis was about to launch as a significant writer of international breadth and depth, and that his first real work of imaginative fiction would appeal to Evelyn Underhill?

Evelyn Underhill in the mid-late 1930s was very much in her waning and autumn years. She was a generation older than Lewis, and was, probably, the most significant and substantive writer on mystical theology, the church, and public responsibility in England (and beyond) in the first half of the 20th century. She dared to question (as did most of the best and brightest of her generation) the dominating and reductionistic ideology of scientism and secularism. Underhill’s recovery of the motherlode of the Christian mystical tradition (in all its pied fullness) and the relationship of the Christian contemplative tradition in dialogue with other religious traditions opened hitherto closed doors, breathed fresh spring air into musty rooms and crossed religious boundaries. Many of these obvious concerns were shared by Lewis and the Inklings.

The publication, then, in 1938 of the first of Lewis’ space (cosmic) trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet (that described Ransom’s visit to Malacandra and back), was a surprise to many who knew nothing of this side of Lewis’ imaginative life and it warmed Underhill to Lewis. Lewis was pleasantly surprised when he received a letter from Evelyn Underhill on October 26 1938 applauding his insights and approach to a more mysterious world in Out of the Silent Planet. Indeed, Lewis had this to say in response to Underhill’s letter: “Your letter is one of the most surprising and, in a way, alarming honours I have ever had. I have not been for very long a believer and have hitherto regarded the great mystical writers as a man in the foothills regards the glaciers and precipices” (October 29 1938). He then commented on some incisive distinctions made by Underhill when referring to Out of the Silent Planet, a novel that, in many ways, explored how a certain worldview, from a fuller and deeper perspective, could make planet earth appear the aberration and silent place from which the music of the spheres was stilled.

Underhill replied to Lewis in a short letter (November 3 1938) identifying very much with Ransom and wondering if Lewis had read much of St. Catherine of Genoa (a favourite of Underhill and Baron Von Hugel). The heart of the pointer was the process of transformation needed to truly inhabit the heavenly dimension, hence the necessity, when understood aright, of purgatory. It is significant to note that Underhill finished this letter in a most hospitable manner: ‘If ever you are in London and feel able to come and see me, it would be a great pleasure to make your acquaintance.’

The letters between Underhill and Lewis in 1941, interestingly enough, continue the discussion of Out of the Silent Planet, ponder the relevance of Lewis’ recent book, The Problem of Pain (1940) and, of suggestive importance, initiate a discussion of animal rights. Underhill had been living with a variety of physical ailments at the time, and she found, for the most part, Lewis’ missive on pain and suffering of some explanatory worth. But, she had some questions about his attitude towards animals. Underhill took the position that animals in the wild could reflect the glory of God in a better way than tamed, or, worse yet, animals caged or merely used for the purpose of human use and consumption. Underhill was, of course, no naïve romantic but she felt Lewis went too far in the direction of equating tamed animals with a sort of Edenic ideal. Lewis replied to Underhill’s letter (January 13 1941) by taking the discussion to a more nuanced and suggestive level. He ended the Letter (January 16 1941) by stating, ‘I suspect we are not in great disagreement’. The two letters between Underhill and Lewis in 1941 do point the way, when unravelled and fleshed out in a fuller manner, to a fine discussion on the layered nature of the relationships between God, humanity and animals and, as such, anticipate, in a thoughtful manner, the animal rights movement.

The five letters between Underhill and Lewis reveal much about Underhill’s willingness to encourage new writers, engage in thoughtful dialogue on mysticism-science fiction and go where few had gone (animal rights) at the time. It’s too bad, in many ways that the elective affinities between Underhill and Lewis emerged as Underhill was nearing the end of her all too human journey.

Appendix

It is somewhat significant that the discussion about the suffering of animals that Lewis touched on in The Problem of Pain initiated a lively discussion with C.E. Joad (Head of Philosophy at the University of London). The animated discussion between Joad-Lewis was published in the collection of essays by Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics as “The Pains of Animals: A Problem in Theology.”

Lewis included another article, “Vivisection”, in the same volume. There can be little doubt his interaction with Underhill was part of a larger discussion and that such literary dialogues about the suffering of animals and the role of animals informed much of Lewis’ description of oppressed and healthy animals in Chronicles of Narnia. It is a needful point to be noted in The Horse and his Boy (“The Hermit of the Southern March”: 10) that the wise hermit calls Shasta and the healed animals “cousins”—an uncommon notion of humans and animals at that period of time.

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science/Philosophy and Religious Studies at University of the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford, British Columbia) since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. Ron has had an abiding interest in Evelyn Underhill and C.S. Lewis for many a decade.

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