C. S. Lewis: Soldier, Scholar, Poet, and Secret Agent
December 13, 2015
Fascinating new information, reported directly by the person who discovered it:
“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent: A recent discovery unveils an unknown chapter in the life the famous Oxford Don.”
Harry Lee Poe, Christianity Today, December 10th, 2015
He happened to see an old phonograph record on Ebay, which turned out to be of a lecture that Lewis scholars never knew he had given—until now.
Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. . . . When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.
. . . it needed Lewis in the wake of the German invasion of Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940. Though the British sent troops to Norway to counter the German invasion, it was too late to intervene in Denmark, whose subjugation was accomplished in only one day. One month later on May 10, 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and by June 22 the French government had capitulated, leaving Britain to fight on alone.
On that same morning in May, however, the British did the next best thing they could do to help Denmark and the rest of Europe: They launched a surprise invasion of Iceland, which was part of the Kingdom of Denmark. . . . In the Battle of the Atlantic, Iceland could have provided Germany with a strategic naval and air base. Instead, thanks to the British invasion, Iceland provided the ideal base for seaplanes to search for the German naval vessels that prowled the Atlantic sinking the merchant fleet with its crucial supplies.
Though British control of Iceland was critical, Britain could not afford to deploy its troops to hold the island when greater battles loomed elsewhere, beginning with the struggle for North Africa. Holding Iceland depended upon the goodwill of the people of Iceland who never had asked to be invaded by the British. If Britain retained Icelandic goodwill, then Churchill could occupy the island with reserve troops rather than his best fighting forces.
This was the strategic situation in which C. S. Lewis was recruited. And his mission was simple: To help win the hearts of the Icelandic people.
Lewis may have been the perfect man for the job, not only because of his scholarly erudition and long love of Norse mythology.
At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. . . . Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.
Whatever their reasons, MI6 did select this World War I veteran and Christian apologist for their unusual mission, and he accepted.
And what did an Oxford don have to say that might help turn the tide of war in Britain’s darkest hour? He spoke on the subject “The Norse Spirit in English Literature.” Lewis provided a touchstone between the Norse people and the English, which Lewis made clear in his first recorded statement. He said that he did not know why he had been asked to address the people of Iceland, but that he agreed to do it in order to repay a great debt. He explained that his imaginative life had been awakened by Norse mythology when he was 14. He went on to explain how his love of Norse mythology only deepened when he began to learn the Icelandic language at Oxford.
This beginning may surprise people familiar with Lewis, because Lewis was not prone to publicly share information about his personal life. His introduction anticipates his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy by almost 15 years. He first fell in love with Norse mythology when he came across some of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Wagner’s Ring published in 1911. He began to learn Old Icelandic in 1926 when J. R. R. Tolkien started a small group called the Coalbiters to read the old sagas together in the original tongue.
After this introduction, Lewis proceeded to praise the Icelandic tongue as one of the most poetic on earth. Rather than a private view of his own, Lewis argued that successive generations of English writers have felt this affinity with the old Norse tales and that this influence has found its way into the greatest of English literature. He cited Sir William Temple, William Morris, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Fielding, and Thomas Grey as examples of what he meant. The literature of England, inspired by the Norse, views self-important office holders as knaves and fools. By implication, the English had come to Iceland to repay a great debt and help fend off the knave and fool who ran Germany.
Behind the literature itself, Lewis focused on a prevailing spirit found in those Norse explorers who refused to be part of a mere medieval kingdom. Instead, Lewis argued that the English and the Norse share a spirit of independence which finds its origins in the Norse settlers of Iceland and animates English literature.
Lewis claimed that this common spirit is different from what one finds in Europe.
Hat top to John Schroeder at Hugh Hewitt’s Web site (headline: “Double-Oh Narnia”), who also offers some thoughts.