The distinctive Dantes of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers


Here’s a rough introduction to next week’s contribution to Christianity Today‘s history blog. The rest of the article will touch on such works as Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, Williams’s Figure of Beatrice, and Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy:

C. S. Lewis was a scholar and professor who became one of the premier lay theologians of the 20th century. He chose to communicate the truths of Christian faith both in essays and in fiction writing, with powerful effects that have resonated into the 21st century.

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, arguably the linchpin of the “Inklings” literary circle to which Lewis, Tolkien, and others belonged, also wrote both essays and imaginative literature with a deeply Christian message.

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist, playwright, and essayist, corresponded with both Lewis and Williams. And she developed her own deeply individual and powerful Christian apologetic, which she also expressed in both nonfiction and fiction.

These three “literary Brits” shared more than a lively Christian faith, the writing of imaginative literature, and a strong mutual regard. Together they launched a literary holy war on their era’s scientific materialism and the spiritual declension that accompanied it. Each lifted up in their writings a rich, world-embracing Christian vision against the grey deadness of secularization. For each, this was a life-and-death battle, with the future of the Western world hanging in the balance. They saw their age’s new creed of hard-nosed scientific pragmatism draining the world of spirit and meaning—indeed, as Lewis put it, threatening to abolish humanity itself.

In that precarious moment of Western history, on the war-torn front of secularization, all three of these famous authors fought from the armory provisioned by the venerable four-star general of 20th-century Christian literary antimodernism, journalist and amateur medievalist G. K. Chesterton. To be precise, although they never came to share Chesterton’s Roman Catholic faith, Lewis, Williams, and Sayers took a very “Chestertonian” approach to their own antimodern campaign: they turned for help to the pulsating, faith-filled energy of the medieval worldview.

This was hardly dilettantism. Each of the three was a professional medievalist with an Oxford University connection. Williams was a polymath editor at Oxford University Press and sometime lecturer on Milton who dwelt long and lovingly on medieval themes in his poetry and other writings. Lewis was an Oxford (and later Cambridge) professor of medieval and renaissance literature whose imaginative works similarly marinated in the medieval. And Sayers did her graduate work at Oxford in medieval French and made a number of published translations of medieval works (along with her prolific writing in many other genres).

Each of these “Oxford apologists” turned, too, to different sources than had Chesterton. He had looked to such figures as Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, and to a medieval-guild-based economic vision of homesteading and small crafts. The Oxford figures sat together at the feet of a different medieval master: the great 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

But while they joined in loving Dante, these three authors could hardly have been more different in their devotion. Each found in the great Florentine poet a very different—one might even say idiosyncratically different—tonic for the ills of modernity.

For Williams it was Dante’s lifelong obsession with the girl Beatrice, and the alchemy by which the material of human love became the gold of Christian salvation, that drew him to recover an older “Affirmative Way” of faith.

For Lewis it was Dante’s vivid rendering of the medieval cosmology—the “Discarded Image” of a pre-scientific age—that captivated him, transposing his own worldview into a more spiritual key.

For Sayers it was Dante’s striking and forceful rendering of humanity’s moral condition that made her blood rise and her pen flow over in wartime exhortations.

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