On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

The Animal World of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a prolific writer throughout the the 1940s and ’50s. Not to be confined to one field, he wrote on and in every genre imaginable. As a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, his area of specialty was medieval studies. But he worked with linguistics, and later, heavily with philosophy and theology after a dramatic conversion from atheism to Christianity. Today he is noted in academic circles as being an insightful literary critic. To most of us, he is probably most famous for penning the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, which was the bestselling children’s series until Harry Potter and effectively paved the way for the fantasy genre as it is today. In the midst of his sea of writings concerning many other areas, particularly in the midst of post-war trauma, Lewis is very rarely considered an animal welfare activist.

However, Lewis was incredibly passionate about the cause of animals, and during his time was very vocal about animal welfare. It is obvious to anyone who picks up a work of Lewis’ fiction that he loved animals. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, deal with a world populated mostly by talking, sentient animals, with the most significant and most central character being a wise lion named Aslan. Animals are also featured heavily in his Space Trilogy, which features lush visions of life on Mars and Venus, where animals live in harmony with the inhabitants. However, Lewis’ real “activism” is most evident in the final books in both these series respectively.

In The Last Battle (1956), the final book in the Narnia series, the sentient animals who had so long lived as equals with their human counterparts are enslaved by the humans and treated like real-world work animals. This appalls all of the protagonists and the reader, and is clearly meant to inspire shock and horror. Throughout the series, Lewis had made readers think of his animal characters as empathetic, well-rounded characters; to see them treated as real-world animals is intentionally jarring and disturbing.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

In the final book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), there are two distinct factions, one obviously good, and one very clearly evil. The good faction has many animals about their headquarters, who behave charmingly despite their ferocious nature — a wild bear is kept as a house pet, among others. The bad faction, by contrast, has no respect for animal life and uses them in hideous and vicious experiments, including vivisection (the practice of dissecting still-living animals) from which one can constantly hear them shrieking in pain. Here, as in other places in Lewis’ writing, vivisection is characterized as one of the cruelest and most senseless acts humans are capable of doing. This disregard for the feeling of animals is one way in which the antagonists  are distinguished as irredeemably evil. Furthermore, one of the most redeeming moments occurs when the animals are allowed to exact revenge against their tormentors, and there is never any question of which side the reader is meant to be on.

Lewis did not only acknowledge the subject of animal welfare in his fiction, however. In his theological text The Problem of Pain (1940), Lewis dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of animals, where he refers to animal suffering as “appalling.” The book is a discussion of what theological purpose pain has, and while Lewis found in his faith suitable justification for the pain one feels as a human, he admits, in this chapter, to wrestling with the idea of animal pain. It was very obvious to Lewis that animals suffered physical and even emotional pain.

It’s important to look at Lewis’ views in perspective. At the time, most Western religions did not place any emphasis on animal welfare or fair treatment. Scientific practices were increasingly utilitarian, with animals subjected to cruel experimentation with little justification other than that humans were “more evolved.”  Lewis was one of the only people during this period to really address the topic of animal suffering in light of both religion and science, and given his wide audience his influence in the many subjects he wrote upon is monumental. Lewis believed that taking a stance for animal welfare was not only kind, but the proper thing to do — as a Christian as well as a thinking, feeling human being.

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