C.S. Lewis Goes to War: Some Silver-Linings in Chaos and Unrest

Many people may not realize that their favorite childhood author was also a veteran of what is widely considered to be the most devastating war in world history. Long before Lucy discovered a mystical land that lay hidden through a magical wardrobe, and long before Aslan led his armies to battle in the Great Wars of Narnia, 2nd Lieutenant Clive Staples Lewis found himself entrenched in heavy combat on the front lines of World War I.

The Great War left humanity horrified, as we met our first acquaintances with the savagery of mechanized combat and the horrors of chemical warfare. Lewis would later paint this graphic description of the war, “the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [High Explosive], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet…”[1]

When the smoked cleared, 20 million soldiers would lay dead, 21 million more would be wounded, and faith in the benevolent God who oversaw it all would hit a new low.

British Troops engaged in trench warfare in WWI.

After losing a majority of his friends to the conflict, C.S. Lewis added to these statistics himself near the small French village of Riez du Vinage, as his battalion, England’s Somerset Light Infantry, came under heavy German artillery fire. On April 15, 1918, one of these shells would land near him, instantly killing his Sergeant, piercing Lewis with three shards of hot shrapnel, and sending the 2nd Lieutenant back to Great Britain.

Lewis’s experiences in Northern France did not paint a pleasant picture of humanity’s nature for the young atheistic Oxford student, and it certainly did not alleviate the anger he felt towards the God he did not yet believe in. He had already alleged that creation was “a great injustice,”[2] as he would recall later, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating the world.”[3] Lewis’s first publication was a collection of poetry entitled Spirits in Bondage in which he melodiously shakes a fist at the god who was not there, inviting his readers, “Come let us curse our Master ere we die / For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.”[4]

His pessimism did not plague his life for long however, as his atheistic façade began to encounter cracks, almost from the very moment he was pulled from battle.

After suffering his wounds, Lewis found himself breathing in the English countryside on a train ride to London where he was sent to heal. Staring out of the window, in both physical and mental recovery, he recognized a slight spiritual opening.

“I think I never enjoyed anything so much as that scenery – all the white in the hedges, and the fields so full of buttercups that in the distance that seemed to be of solid gold,” he wrote a friend. “You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy that there is something right outside time and place… You see how frankly I admit that my views have changed.”

The wounded and strident atheist, after surviving humankind’s bloodiest war, saw beauty and was receptive to the spiritual, perhaps, for the first time as a young adult. He contrasted the beauty that lay in front of him with the hell that lay behind, and it pointed towards something larger than he. The turmoil of humanity that he had just escaped only served to make the spiritual all too noticeable.

A young C.S. Lewis in England’s Somerset Light Infantry.

After converting to Christianity (interestingly enough via the influence of his fellow WWI veteran J.R.R. Tolkien), Lewis understood the beauty this world had to offer, because he was so keenly aware of its ugliness.

Here we find an undertone found in much of Lewis’s future works. Out of the many known and unknown reasons why a loving God may allow his creation to suffer chaos and unrest (the final, satisfactory reasons are still largely unknown I’m sure), one silver-lining is certainly that, we experience chaos and unrest so that we may enjoy peace and stability all the more. One would never enjoy the pure if they had never experienced the impure. The patient would never know that they were healed unless they were at first sick.

This was one reason why Lewis allowed his famous children books to display so much violence and evil. In regards to writing for children he wrote, “Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book… Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”[5]

A story where the protagonist experiences no trials or dread would be a boring one indeed. When the hero walks onto the scene, they would be unrecognizable. It is the same with our stories. If we experience no sadness or sickness, when the Cure appeared, we would have no need for it.

We experience pain, at the very least, so that we may recognize and enjoy, that which soothes.

___________________

When the chinook helicopters landed in the isolated deserts near Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2004, I shuffled off the ramp with my fellow infantrymen from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and formed a perimeter. Our rucksacks on our back, M-16’s in our shoulders, and in the prone position, we waited for the helicopters to leave and for the dust to settle. We laid there in the eventual quietness, looking and listening to our new surroundings, adapting to our new environment.

Though our war experiences were quite different, I relate greatly to what Lewis wrote about his initial deployment into combat, “At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is war. This is what Homer wrote about.’”[6]

1st Battalion 6th Marines in central Afghanistan, 2004.

For the next half a year the warriors of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines engaged in combat in what, up until that point, was considered the most successful campaign of Operation Enduring Freedom. Tragically, not everyone came home from that desert, and we both mourn and celebrate them today. The ones that did come home however, did so with a many new and differentiating perspectives. Here is one of mine:

In combat, the word “home” takes on a new meaning. It is no longer simply a place where one grew up. It is not a building where one spent years doing their homework, playing in the backyard, and fighting for the remote control. The word “home” is now your concrete place of belonging; one’s place of rest. It is one’s identity. Nothing unveils this more than combat in a foreign land, focused on one’s mission, all the while awaiting orders to pack up and come home.

The fighting holes we lived in, the neighborhoods that we patrolled, the militia we trained, the insurgents who tried to kill us, and the lovely residents who shook our hands and fed us, all had one thing in common: they were not our home. We were never in a restful state because it was not our place of rest. It was not for is a place of stability or peace, but of unrest, and at times chaos.

Until we are home, humanity will be at a perpetual state of unease.

Lewis would say that war is not actually a rare phenomenon, it only reveals what lays just beneath the surface of humankind’s fallen nature. He wrote that, “The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in history books, only because sea and savagery are to us less interesting.”[7]

The normal state of salt water makes the rare state of dry earth more appealing. The normal state of conflict and disharmony makes stability and peace more appealing. We know that, in a state of combat, stability and peace are reserved only for that special place we call “home,” and wherever we were, we weren’t there.

Of course, anyone who has even a slight moral compass knows that the environments in which we find ourselves today – combative, unstable, and sometimes frightening – are not synonymous with that special place we call “home.” They are indeed telltale signs that we are not at rest. They are clues pointing elsewhere that “home” is possible, as Lewis would say, the way that hunger points to the fact that food is possible, and it does in fact satisfy, but it is not yet within our grasp.

Lewis wrote, “If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”[8] If there is any redeeming facet to chaos and unrest, it is that we are awoken to the fact that we are yet home. We are still in a land of war, awaiting orders to pack up and come home.

___________________

While we do not yet know all the reasons why a benevolent God might allow atrocities such as war and chaos and unrest in our society, Lewis reminds us that, at the very least, they are signposts to the beauty that awaits, recognizable only because of the ugliness that we leave behind.

Pre-Battle in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The great wars in Narnia, the barbarism and violence, all seem to heal over at once with the words of Jewel the unicorn, after Aslan had remade all of creation, when he stamped his hooves and exclaimed, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… come further up, come further in!”[9] For now however, we remain in what Lewis called The Shadowlands: the dim existence of this world that only offers faint glimpses of our real home; our final home where, like Reepicheep the brave mouse, we will one day lay down our weapons, and, leaving war, chaos, and unrest behind us, sail deep into Aslan’s Country.


              [1] Lewis, C.S. Surprised By Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 196.

              [2] Ibid., 116.

              [3] Ibid., 115.

              [4] Lewis, Spirits in Bondage (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 22.

              [5] Lewis, C.S. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), 59 – 60.

              [6] Lewis, C.S. Surprised By Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 196.

              [7] Lewis, C.S. Rehabilitation and Other Essays (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972), 80.

              [8] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 53.

              [9] Lewis, C.S. The Last Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 1956), 196.

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