C.S. Lewis's Language of Beauty
County Down, Northern Ireland

County Down, Northern Ireland

In studying beauty within the writings of C.S. Lewis I get the distinct feeling he would be repulsed by the activity. He disdained literary theory and would rather folks let the object d’ art speak for itself. Looking under the literary and theological hood, as it were, for a beauty schema within his corpus seems like grounds for banishment from Narnia itself.

My trepidation for fumbling into the Lewis corpus on a covert mission notwithstanding, I offer this observation from my search for Lewis’s beauty schema, his dialectic for communicating an apologetic unawares.

Lewis uses beauty as a language—as a way of communicating something nearly impossible to describe: God. Human language is spoken and written, and as such is a method for communication. It is also a style, a way to communicate in which others may understand clearly.

Lewis employs beauty both as a communication method and style. “For Lewis, ideas and words are not something one only looks at, they are the tools for looking at everything else.”[1] His method developed from his encounter with a currant bush as a young boy and then through his encounter with Arthur Rackham’s illustration of the Rhine-maidens begging Siegfried to return the ring of power, a picture found in Margaret Armour’s translation of Wagner’s libretti of The Ring. His early encounters with beauty painted his theological lens even pre-conversion.[2]

But Lewis’s language of beauty does not end with his boyhood encounters that manifest themselves into his writing. It expands into Sehnsucht, the German compound word that means “intense longing” (das Sehen) or “desire” or “nostalgia” coupled with “addiction” (die Sucht).[3]

Sehen” and “Sucht,” however, do not have a truly accurate English translation and find their meaning in emotional concepts such as “alienation.” So, carved into Lewis’s Sehnsucht we find a reconciliatory angle that dripped from much of Lewis’s work—a longing for his true home, as it were.

Sehnsucht is far more than a simple element of Lewis’s literary development. It is the impetus for his spiritual pilgrimage and provides important insight into his romantic vision of Christianity.

Sehnsucht is also a significant result of the so-called “aesthetic experience” (a phrasing Lewis would not appreciate me using, I think) in general and, according to G. Gabrielle Starr of New York University, “works to produce new value in what we see and what we feel.”[4] We encounter a beautiful object d’art, or person, or experience and are compelled to possess it, to climb inside of it because it touches our core consciousness, our very essence.

Lewis’s language of beauty extends, then, toward the object of desire. Lewis called this Joy: “There was no doubt that Joy was a desire. … But a desire is turned not to itself but to its object.”[5] Joy was the object, for Lewis, that made his desire desirable.

Finally, Lewis’s language of beauty possesses a quiddity of style: numinous and “Northernness.” Michael Ward has reminded us about “The Kappa Element in Romance,”[6] a paper Lewis read at an Oxford literary society, in which he suggests the most valuable element of stories are their atmosphere.

It is helpful to think of Numinous and Northernness as the atmosphere created by paint on a canvass. It is the unsafeness of Aslan, the apocalyptic feel in That Hideous Strength, it is Orual’s breath letting her into terror, joy, and overpowering sweetness as the god approached.  

As I reflect on this language of beauty I see it as the beam of light Lewis encountered one day in an old toolshed. And in observing this beam of Lewis’s beauty language it is difficult not to step into it and, thus, to see along it instead of at it. 

But I cannot help myself. When I do step into Lewis’s beam I see his beauty language as the meaning behind his words and the goal of his communication. “If you become a writer,” wrote Lewis to a young fan, “you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”[7] Lewis’s goal was not only to “to find the place where all the beauty came from,”[8] but tell you and I what he found with indelible language.

For Lewis, beauty, Sehnsucht, Joy, numinous and even Northernness are not disparate literary elements. Rather, they form a cohesive language by which Lewis speaks to us, beckoning us “further up and further in”[9] to his beatific beam that allows us to see the bright shadow of reality—the world as it was meant to be seen.






[1] Paul L Holmer, C.S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought (London: Sheldon, 1977), 107. Here Holmer is referring to Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Toolshed.”

[2] Lewis admits that, as a teenager, reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes baptized his imagination.

[3] Acacia M. Doktorchick, “Sehnsucht and Alienation in Schubert’s Mignon Settings” (University of Lethbridge, 2009), 2.

[4] G. Gabrielle Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: The MIT Press, 2013), 66.

[5] C. S Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York; London: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 220.

[6] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 15. 

[7] C. S Lewis and Walter Hooper, Collected Letters (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 766.

[8] C. S Lewis, Till We Have Faces; a Myth Retold. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957), 75.

[9]  We find the idea of “further up and further in,” and perhaps most memorably in The Last Battle as the group moves further into a recreated Narnia. It is also interesting to note that “further in” is a Norse referent to one of several heavens surrounding Yggdrasil; “one is called Andlang and another ‘further up’, is where light elves live. See Snorri Sturluson and Jesse L. Byock, eds., The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (London: Penguin, 2005), 119.      

Timothy Willard is the author of three books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life. He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. He lived in Oxford, England for two years studying beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis. He earned his PhD in Theology under the supervision of world-renowned theologian Alister McGrath. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.