Knights & Martyrs

In the Cambridge Review obituary of C. S. Lewis, the anonymous author wrote: “It is Chaucer’s Knight … who comes most often to mind when one remembers C. S. Lewis. … He was a chivalric figure, and his imagination ran most richly in the forms of chivalry and adventure.” As a medievalist, Lewis was intimately acquainted with the tradition of chivalry and knightly courage, and, indeed, in some ways he embodied that tradition himself. The knight, in Lewis’s view, was not a dead ideal, but a real possibility even in the modern world. Lewis thought and wrote a great deal about martial and military matters, both in his imaginative works and in his nonfiction. This is not surprising when one remembers that he lived through two World Wars and served as a soldier in the first. He volunteered for active service in the Great War (as an Irishman, he could not be conscripted), joining the army in June 1917. He arrived in the trenches of France later that year on November 29 (his 19th birthday) and served for six months before being wounded by friendly fire during the Battle of Arras in spring 1918. He was invalided back to Eng lan and spent six months convalescing. In sum, one&ndash–a hal years of his life were spent as a soldier: first training for war, then fighting in war, then recovering from war. Lewis abandoned his childhood faith several years before becoming a soldier. He did not return to Christianity for more than a decade after the end of the Great War. However, his willingness to fight in the armed forces did not stem from his atheism. Both during his period of unbelief and during his years as a practicing Christian, Lewis thought military service was justifiable. It was not pleasant—in fact, it was in many ways appalling and repulsive—but that did not automatically mean that it was wrong. In promoting knightliness rather than pacifism as the correct response to war, Lewis shows his determination to help his readers think through this difficult issue and focus on what he believed was real (though unpleasant), rather than turning to a fanciful but more palatable alternative.

Just war

Lewis once explained his views to a pacifist society in Oxford (the address now published as “Why I Am Not a Pacifist"). He argued that although war was highly disagreeable, it could not be shown never to have done any good. Referring to his own wartime service, he reasoned that “if a Germanised Europe in 1914 would have been an evil, then the war which prevented that evil was, so far, justified.”

Of course, there were many examples of useless wars; mere were even more examples of wars which tailed to do all the good that the leaders claimed they would achieve. But some wars served—at least in part—a good purpose. Lewis gave his address in 1940, near the start of World War II. By the end of that conflict, in 1945, the evil of Nazi tyranny had been defeated. Despite the terrible cost of defeating Hitler, Lewis believed that a pacifist surrender to Nazism would have been a greater failure than all the failings that were involved in tackling it with armed force. As early as 1933, Lewis had understood the true nature of Hitler, calling him"as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.”

Besides arguing that some wars were useful and legitimate, Lewis claimed that many respectable human authorities defended the right to go to war—including Plato, Aristotle, Homer, and Virgil. Furthermore, many Christian authorities defended the right of the Christian to do the same. Lewis found approval of the use of force in the writings of the apostles Paul and Peter, as well as in the works of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Cranmer Lewis did not adopt his martial views lightly; he remembered the trenches too well to do that. He told his pacifist audience: All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat thirst and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the galleys, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil—every evil except dishonor…

If a given war were necessary and justifiable, Lewis thought it would be dishonorable not to serve as a soldier when called upon to do so by properly constituted civil authority.

The honorable knight

Lewis’s concept of honor comes largely from his understanding of medieval chivalry, a tradition he held in great respect. In his radio talks broadcast during the Second World War (later published as Mere Christianity), he claimed that"the idea of the knight—the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause—is one of the great Christian ideas.” He promoted this ideal in various articles, such as"Private Bates,”"Talking About Bicycles,” and"The Necessity of Chivalry.”

The place where he communicates most about the nature of martial honor imaginatively is in Prince Caspian, the second of his Chronicles of Narnia. In that story, King Peter, a brave knight and commander, determined to defeat the tyranny of the usurping King Miraz, is equally determined to abide by the rules of honoL So, when Peter and Miraz meet in single combat and Miraz trips and falls, Peter does not exploit his advantage, but waits for his enemy to rise to his feet. Peter’s brother, Edmund, watching from the sidelines is impatient:

"Oh, bother, bother, bother. Need he be as gentlemanly as all that? I suppose he must. Comes of being a Knight and a High King. I suppose it is what Aslan would like.”

In this crucial moment and indeed throughout Prince Caspian, Lewis communicates through story the same message that he presented elsewhere through rational argument, namely that warfare must observe rules and limits if it is to be justifiable. Free from all brutality, humiliating prisoners, targeting non-combatants, unfeasible war aims—these things are certainly not honorable military conduct.

On the home front

Although Lewis did not serve in the Second World War, he did what he could to assist the British war effort. He joined the Oxford branch of the Home Guard, the local defense volunteers; he also toured Royal Air Force stations, giving talks about Christianity to airmen, most of whom had a life expectancy calculated in weeks rather than years. In his talks, Lewis would speak about taking up the cross to follow Christ and would reminisce about his own wartime experience. One chaplain who heard him speak recalled how Lewis “never showed any emotion, although I think his listeners knew instinctively that his thoughts had been hammered out in the furnace rather than stored inside a glacier.”

Lewis also addressed the University of Oxford in a sermon at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, reminding his congregation that war—however demanding it may be—is not an absolute, that the life of the mind could and should continue despite it. This sermon, now published as “Learning in War-time,” argues that war is one of the things that civilizations have to go through every now and again to preserve civilized life. War does not replace that life, but serves and rescues it. War is a means, not an end.

But perhaps the most practical thing Lewis did in his war service was to pray for his enemies, praying every night for the people he was most tempted to hate. He told his brother in a letter that Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were at the top of his prayer list. He wrote to another correspondent that when he prayed for Hitler and Stalin, he tried to recollect how his own cruelty might have blossomed under different conditions into something as terrible as theirs, to remember that Christ died for them as much as for him, and that, at bottom, he himself was not"so different from these ghastly creatures.”

A higher ideal

It was as he contemplated Christ’s example that Lewis qualified his respect for the knight at arms. Although he considered the knightly ideal a high one, it was not the highest which may be why his most chivalric Namian character, the"martial mouse,” Reepicheep, is gently satirized even as he is held up for our admiration. Lewis wrote in"Christianity and Culture” that"to the perfected Christian, the ideal of honor is simply a temptation. His courage has a better root and, being learned in Gethsemane, may have no honor about it. But to the man coming up from below, the ideal of knighthood may prove a schoolmaster to the ideal of martyrdom. Galahad is the son of Lancelot.”

In other words, there may be shame to be endured, not just honor to be enjoyed. Christ set his face like flint in the garden of Gethsemane and endured the Cross, despising its shame (Heb. 12:2), before going to an ignominious death.

However, the martyr’s death is even greater than the knight’s service. Although it may sometimes be justifiable to kill your enemies, the highest wisdom, when it can be rightly and conscientiously achieved, is self-sacrifice.

The last thing to mention about Lewis’s part in the British war effort was his decision to receive evacuees from among the many, many thousands of children removed from the dangers of the London bombings to the relative safety of other locations. It was their presence in his household that prompted him to begin his most famous story, the story of a kingly lion who both commands an army and sacrifices himself:"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”

The retelling of the gospel story in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe illustrates how a true king is both warrior and martyr. Of all Lewis’s responses to war, it is highly fitting that this should be best known.

By Michael Ward

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]

Michael Ward is chaplain of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. His doctorate from St. Andrews University, Scotland, examined Lewis’s theological imagination and its links with medieval cosmology.
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