This essay will survey Lewis’s writings and outline the development of his aesthetic ideas in relation to music, emphasizing his enjoyment of Wagner and explaining nuanced references to Wagner throughout Lewis’s works. Moreover, this essay will describe how Lewis’s ideas about God advanced in counterpoint to his ideas about music and how Lewis eventually came to conclude that music is “a medium for meeting God.” John MacInnis, CAGO, PhD serves as Associate Professor of Music and Music Department Chair at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Music listening and discussion factored regularly in C. S. Lewis’s relationships, and love for music inspired his creative endeavors and prompted his best thinking. Lewis credited his imaginative renaissance to the moment when he encountered the titles to music dramas by Richard Wagner, and later, Lewis pointed to his sudden affinity for Wagner and what he called “Northernness” as a grace; he thought God was calling him to faith through these old stories and music.1 Though not a musician himself, Lewis often wrote about and mentioned music, especially Wagner’s Ring cycle, in his essays, letters, autobiography, and other books.2 Despite his lifelong engagement with music, scholarly work on Lewis has been largely silent on the influence of music upon his thinking generally and in his creative output.3 There are two leading benefits for filling this gap: 1) Lewis’s theorizing about music, what it contributes to our human development and how it speaks into our lives, is a valuable lens through which to see and better appreciate Lewis’s development as a thinker. 2) Lewis’s ideas are instructive for musicians and music lovers desiring to strengthen their understanding of music from a Christian perspective.
In his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his imaginative renaissance as happening suddenly, when he came across the 1911 Christmas issue of The Bookman.4 Lewis recounted that, as he read the words “Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods” accompanied by a picture by Arthur Rackham,5
Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me, a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity … and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago.6
Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung is a cycle of four mammoth music dramas based on Nordic myths that lasts around fifteen hours, in total, and spans three generations of characters; in order, the four titles are The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, The Twilight of the Gods.7 Both the librettos and music were written by Wagner himself, and he even built a special theatre to perform his music dramas, at Bayreuth.8 The Ring is a well-loved classic of Western music history, and its plot centers on a golden ring which grants power to rule the world, but requires that its owner forswear all love.9
Almost immediately after his personal renaissance, Lewis wrote over 800 lines of an epic tragedy called Loki Bound that he considered Norse in subject and Greek in form.10 The libretto of Wagner’s Ring cycle was an obvious inspiration for Loki Bound, though Lewis had not yet experienced the Ring set to music.11 Loki Bound became a collaborative project with Arthur Greeves, Lewis’s childhood friend and longest correspondent; as a musician, Greeves planned to write the music accompanying Lewis’s text.12
This collaboration of Lewis and Greeves continued into 1914, and Lewis included a plot summary in a letter to Greeves dated 6 October 1914.13 Lewis intended the part of Loki to be sung by a tenor, Odin by a baritone, and Thor by a bass (“of course”). With his plot summary, Lewis also included some musical ideas for Greeves, which are instructive to gage his musical sense at this point, in 1914. By now, Lewis had experienced Wagner’s music and learned ways in which that music functioned in Wagner’s music dramas.14 In the following excerpt from his letter to Greeves, note the variety of musical elements that Lewis considers, such as music for atmosphere, music to express an actor’s emotions and character, leitmotifs, and so on:
Of course you would readily see what musical points could be made. Nevertheless I cannot refrain from giving you a few of my ideas. To begin with, Loki’s speech would be somber and eerie, – expressive of the fire-god’s intrigueing [sic.] soul, and endless hatred. Then (Parados) the first song of the chorus would be bright and tuneful, as a relief to the dramatic duet that precedes it. The next great opportunity for ‘atmospheric’ music comes (Episode I) where the theme of the ‘spirit of madness’ is introduced. You can well imagine what it ought to be like. Then (Episode II) we would have a bluff, swinging ballad for the huge, hearty giant; and of course the ‘madness motive’ again, where the horse breaks lose. Then some ‘Dawn’ music as a prelude to (Episode III) and Odin’s speech about their position! What an opening for majestic and mournful themes. But the real gem would be some inexpressibly sad, yearning little theme, where (Exodos) Odin expresses his eternal loneliness.15
Later, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his work on Loki Bound as a reversal of other Nordic stories; here, Loki is the hero who opposes Odin, because Odin created the world and forced existence upon creatures without their consent. By Lewis’s own admission, in this story, Loki is a projection of himself and voices his own questions about God.16 Here, almost immediately, Lewis used his fresh love for Wagner and “Northernness” to express and explore a theological difficulty.
In his many letters to Arthur Greeves, Lewis often mentioned their mutual love for Wagner’s music and critiqued concerts he had seen and recordings he enjoyed. Surveying Lewis’s correspondence, therefore, especially notes from Lewis to Greeves, is instructive for understanding the importance of Wagner and music generally in Lewis’s life and relationships and comparing his thoughts about music with his theological ideas.17
On 8 February 1916, in a letter to Greeves, Lewis speculated that listening to gramophone recordings actually spoils one for hearing live music. That is, listening to recordings improves a person’s taste through wide exposure, but conditions one to expect a standard of performance that is not often realistic.18 And, when we return to one of the “best things” in a recording, for repeated hearings, it may not be as powerful to us when we finally hear the music performed live—the
original pleasure may elude us.19
Lewis owned English translations of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but he also read Wagner in the original German. In a letter to Greeves from 8 July 1917, Lewis mentioned that all morning he had been reading the text of Siegfried in German, and he commended the “lovely wild” poetry, which he found to be better in its original language.20 On 17 June 1918, Lewis wrote Greeves to describe a performance of Wagner’s The Valkyrie that he attended at Drury Lane with Thomas Beecham conducting. Lewis wrote: “The dream of years has been realized, and without disillusionment: I have had thrills and delights of the real old sort, I have felt as I felt five years ago [i.e., at his imaginative renaissance].” Lewis described that he had trouble getting seats and could only see part of the stage. He was also frustrated with the people who sat near him because of their enthusiasm:
One little man in front of me was so moved that at several interesting points he stood up, until at last I became so exasperated that I caught him by his coat tails and pulled him into his seat. Another, who was following the score, kept on giving vent to quite audible criticism such as ‘Louder, Louder!’ or ‘No, no, no’ whenever the conductor’s design differed from his own.21
Despite these frustrations, Lewis enjoyed the performance and went on to describe what he heard:
The first act as you remember is in Hunding’s hut with the tree growing in it: and towards the end you remember how Siegmund draws the sword and how they throw open the great doors at the back. This showed us a most beautiful scene of distant snow covered peaks and a wild valley. The lighting gave a really unusual impression of spring moon light, and that combined with the glorious love-music of the orchestra (you remember the spring song?) simply swept you away – and then all the time creeping in under this the faint horn blown motive of the Niblungs – oh, ami, it was simply heaven! … Wotan was magnificent whenever he came on, and all his music is splendid – there are whole hours of music just as wonderful as the little bits we know: the singing was in English, and so clear and un-strained that with my knowledge of the story, I could follow nearly all the dialogue, and so all the poetic and romantic pleasure came to help the musical. As a spectacle the third act was the best, where Brünhilde is hiding from Wotan. The stage is almost dark, lit only from time to time by flashes of lightening [sic.], as the angry god draws nearer and nearer and at last enters in a glare of red light, glinting on the huge raven-wings of his helmet and the rings of his mail–one gleaming figure in that sinister gloom–and the music, I cannot describe it.22
In this same letter, Lewis also explained to Greeves a solipsistic philosophy that Lewis later came to repudiate—that an individual is essentially trapped in her own head, without true access to the outside world:23
Of course we all start with the idea that our senses put us in direct contact with reality – you think that your eyes are windows by which your brain ‘sees’ the world. But science teaches you that your eye, or rather the nerve of your eye, is merely a telegraph wire. … [W]e still remain dependant [sic.] on this long chain of communications, traveling by vibration from atom to atom: and we can never have any proof that the sensation which it produces in our brain conveys any true idea of the external Thing. … Hence you see we are driven to the conclusion that we have no knowledge of the external world: that it is concievable [sic.] that there IS no external world at all, and that if it does exist it must be quite different from our usual ideas of it.24
His statements are striking here, especially when they are read immediately after such rich and evocative descriptions of what he saw and heard at the opera. Lewis described an experience that was outside himself, powerful and meaningful, and he was confident that his friend would understand him and sympathize. In fact, this is just the sort of disconnect Lewis said he lived with at this time, a disjunction between his philosophy and the richness of his imaginative life.25 In another letter to Greeves, earlier that month, Lewis went so far as to assert that beauty is simply a sensation in the mind; “beauty cannot be in the material thing.”26 If Lewis’s theological journey was in counterpoint to his development as a music lover, as I have suggested, this is an instance of dissonance, of discord between Lewis’s gray materialism and his passion for Wagner.
Lewis made a point of attending subsequent Wagner performances; for example, on Monday, 23 June 1924, Lewis again saw Wagner’s The Valkyrie at His Majesty’s Theatre in London, with the British National Opera Company performing. Lewis attended with A. Cecil Harwood. Lewis was visiting Harwood in London at the time, and they sat together in the upper circle of the theatre. Albert Coates was the conductor.27 The performance was reviewed in The Times as poorly attended, but the orchestra was commended, especially the musical details from the woodwinds and horns and a good balance between voices and instruments in the performing space.28 The reviewer had some criticism for Robert Parker who played Wotan; apparently, he tended to rant and rave excessively.29
On 1 June 1930, in a note to Greeves, Lewis explained that he was sorting through old records and, since he was listening as he sorted, he played the “Magic Fire Music” from the Valkyrie:
Lying on the sofa and hearing these old favourites I had sensations which you can imagine. And at once (here is the advantage of growing older) I knew that the enemy would take advantage of the vague longings and tendernesses to try & make me believe later on that he had the fulfillment which I really wanted: so I baulked him by letting the longings go even deeper and turning my mind to the One, the real object of all desire, which (you know my view) is what we are really wanting in all wants.”30
In referring to the “One” here, in 1930, Lewis expressed his current view, Absolute Idealism.31 In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explained how he treated Absolute Idealism as a sort of safe religion, in which there was no fear of the Absolute concerning itself with us.32 It was as an Idealist that Lewis reread Euripides’ Hippolytus and so entered the final stages before his acceptance of Christianity.33
In a letter to Owen Barfield, on 6 May 1932, Lewis asked Barfield to purchase tickets for them to see Wagner’s Siegfried at Covent Garden Theatre, on 16 May. In a same-day reply to what was obviously a negative response from Barfield, Lewis said that he was sorry that Barfield could not manage Siegfried but that Lewis could not pass up the opportunity. He asked Barfield to secure him a ticket as well as one for himself, should he reconsider.34 In a letter to his brother Warnie dated 14 June, Lewis wrote that this was his first time seeing Siegfried, his first visit to Covent Garden, and that he enjoyed the experience enormously. Lewis praised the acting of the performance, but explained that he found some of the singers to be mediocre. The review for Siegfried in the Sunday Times, on 22 May 1932, apparently agreed with Lewis’s assessment of the singers, some of whom were described as “a little tired this year.”35
On 2 May 1933, Lewis attended Wagner’s Das Rheingold at Covent Garden with Owen Barfield. Lewis described the experience, in a letter to Greeves dated 13 June 1933, and said that he enjoyed it less than Siegfried and that they had bad seats. A generally positive review of this performance appeared in The Times on 3 May 1933.36
In 1934, Lewis had hoped to attend the entire Ring cycle with his brother Warnie, Tolkien, Barfield, and Harwood. In preparation, Lewis, Warnie, and Tolkien met periodically to read the operas in German.37 Harwood was appointed to arrange tickets, and Lewis reminded him of his duty in a mock-serious note, in April 1934:
Pray, pray, Sir, exert yourself. Reflect that no small part of the satisfaction of five persons depends upon your conduct: that the object of their desires is rational and innocent: and that their desires are fervent and of long standing.”38
In a letter to Greeves on 7 December 1935, Lewis commented on a recent performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that he heard and that he had “seldom enjoyed anything more.”39 Lewis added that Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (a symphonic poem titled for Wagner’s own son Siegfried) was included on the program, but that he found it dull.40 Despite the disappointment of the Siegfried Idyll, Lewis went on to state that the only composer, subsequent to Wagner, to affect him as much as Wagner was the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, a fact that Lewis attributed to his love for Northern things. Greeves must have pressed Lewis on this point, and, in a note dated 29 December 1935, Lewis explained what he meant. He referenced a previous conversation in which Lewis and Greeves had agreed that Beethoven should be considered Olympian and Wagner Titanic, Beethoven as spiritual and Wagner natural.41 To Lewis’s thinking, Sibelius’s music is natural and evocative of Northern landscapes, like Wagner, and not “noble,” like Beethoven.
Lewis’s metaphors, here, are striking in that they seem to reverse history. Wagner came after Beethoven—and considered himself to be Beethoven’s heir, but, in Greek mythology, the Titans precede their children, the Olympians, who eventually overthrow them. It may be that Lewis thought of Beethoven and Wagner as expressing two independent and contradictory principles, regardless of chronology, and that he identified with the natural over the spiritual. Or, pehaps more likely, he was employing categories used by Friedrich Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who theorized that spirit emerges from nature as its ultimate object.42 With this paradigm in mind, derived from German Absolute Idealism, Lewis’s comments speak to the narrative he presents for his conversion process in Surprised by Joy, in which his love for the natural led to love for the spiritual, and his theism led to Christianity. Lewis’s comments about Wagner and Beethoven then reinforce his account that love for Wagner (and the like) was a push towards something higher and better.43
Other mentions of music in Lewis’s correspondence are brief and occasional, with the exception of a letter to Mrs. R. E. Halvorson, in March 1956, in which Lewis briefly discussed church music and confirmed his emphatic dislike for hymn singing and organ playing.44 Lewis’s subsequent comments, about the direct emotional impact of music and the learned ability to perceive musical structures, are instructive, especially given Lewis’s previous comments about Wagner’s naturalness versus Beethoven’s nobility. Lewis confessed his reliance upon direct, emotional content when enjoying music:
One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.
Wagner’s music dramas are lush with emotional elements, in text and music, so it is no wonder that Wagner in particular worked powerfully upon Lewis. Whether one is inclined to receive music emotionally, as Lewis, or equipped to receive it intellectually, Lewis stressed that “each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment. In that respect, music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscapes, poetry, philosophy.”
Lewis’s notion that human experiences and human creativity are capable of orienting an individual toward God, and, in fact, constitute avenues for meeting God, is actually quite old. For example, Augustine of Hippo taught the same principle, in his treatise on music.45 For Augustine, and subsequent Christian writers (such as those in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition), God is encountered and known through the created universe.46 In De musica, Augustine extended this principle to the products of human culture, even music; that is, everything presents an opportunity to know God.47 In contrast, any created thing may become an idol, if it becomes an end in itself. Lewis’s concluding comments to Halvorson place him squarely in this philosophical tradition and present a reliable test of music:
I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so. When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural. … So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same – do they make one more obedient, more God-centered, and neighbour-centered and less self-centered? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!48
Lewis’s references of Wagner and music generally in his personal correspondence tended to be brief, anecdotal, and informal, while those in his essay collections and books were more extensive, thoughtful, and integrated within a larger argument. The following examines statements about Wagner in Lewis’s books and essays to explain how his aesthetic ideas developed in relation to music and, secondarily, how his thinking about music accompanied and reflected elements of his theological journey.
“The Funeral of a Great Myth”
In a letter to Christopher Dawson dated 27 September 1948, Lewis developed a train of thought that he had begun earlier, in an essay for The Socratic Digest, in 1945, by taking on what he called the “Great Myth” of “Developmentalism.”49 For Lewis, Developmentalism presented a wrongheaded accounting for all existence, and he was careful to distinguish Developmentalism from the biological theory of evolution, which is used to describe changes observed in organic life (evolution describes change, Developmentalism describes a process of perfection). Lewis’s thinking on this topic is fleshed out in “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” included in his essay collection Christian Reflections.50 In this essay, Lewis pointed to excellent artistic examples of Developmentalism in Keats’s Hyperion and Wagner’s Ring cycle and argued that, contrary to what one might assume about Developmentalism flowing naturally after the writings of Charles Darwin, Developmentalism actually predates Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published in 1859.51 Lewis wrote,
And on the continent we have the Nibelung’s Ring. Coming, as I do, to bury but also to praise the receding age, I will by no means join in the modern depreciation of Wagner. He may, for all I know, have been a bad man. He may (though I shall never believe it) have been a bad musician. But as a mythopoeic poet he is incomparable. The tragedy of the Evolutionary Myth has never been more nobly expressed than in his Wotan: its heady raptures never more irresistibly than in Siegfried. That [Wagner] himself knew quite well what he was writing about can be seen from his letter to August Rockel in 1854. “The progress of the whole drama shows the necessity of recognizing and submitting to the change, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal novelty, of the Real. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own downfall. This is all we have to learn from the history of Man—to will the necessary and ourselves to bring it to pass.”52
Lewis made consistent reference to Wagner’s Ring cycle in this essay, and one may observe that, for Lewis, the Ring story was not just a fantastical tale about dwarfs, giants, and a magical ring. It was not only a moralistic tale about the importance of love. It was not even simply about the lust for power and how such desire can destroy us. Lewis perceived in Wagner’s Ring a powerful expression of the dominant story told by Modernity, one of inexorable progress and development until our eventual undoing, the heat death of the universe—the twilight of the gods:
All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool—all suns will cool—the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness, ‘Universal darkness covers all.’ True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than an Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories: enden sah ich die welt. I grew up believing in this Myth and I have felt—I still feel—its almost perfect grandeur.53
With that last bit of German (translated, “I saw the world end”), Lewis quoted an unpublished ending to Wagner’s The Twilight of the Gods (Act III, Scene 3). Wagner actually struggled with how the Ring cycle should conclude, and he wrote several possible endings, one of which is known as the “Schopenhauer Ending,” because it evinces the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy upon Wagner, at that time.54 In this possible conclusion to the Ring cycle, Brünhilde seeks an end to suffering through nonexistence, and she sings,
Enlightened and redeemed from reincarnation, I shall proceed to the most hallowed chosen land beyond both desire and illusion, the end of the earthly journey. Do you know how I attained the blessed goal of all that is eternal? The deepest pain of grieving love opened my eyes: I saw the world end.”55
By quoting such an obscure portion of the Ring—not the ending usually heard in performances, Lewis assumes a great deal about his reader, in this essay.
Continuing his critique of Developmentalism, Lewis went on to explain some reasons why the Great Myth has such power in modern culture. For example, it presents a rationale to disregard one’s parents and teachers. We do not descend from them; we emerge from them as something higher and finer. Again, drawing upon Wagner in his explanation, Lewis wrote,
One then gets a kind of cosmic excuse for regarding one’s father as a muddling old Mima [i.e., Mime] and his claims upon our gratitude or respect as an insufferable stamenlied [i.e., stammenlied]. “Out of the way, old fool: it is we who know to forge Nothung!”56
In this essay, Lewis’s condemnation of Developmentalism was final, though he emphasized, in his conclusion, that, like all good myths, Developmentalism may be certainly enjoyed with good will and pleasure—just not believed.57
Surprised By Joy
Turning to Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy, one may note that Lewis’s concept of joy, the key theme of this book, is tied to Wagner and “Northernness,” throughout the narrative. After his imaginative renaissance, in 1911, Lewis immersed himself in Norse mythology, and he recounted how he tried to recapture the initial sensation of joyful longing through subsequent mythological studies. He soon discovered, though, that focusing on the feeling and trying to achieve it through self-effort was futile.58 Lewis concluded that the joy he wanted was only possible while oriented towards an object, even if only its memory, and that to achieve joy, he must, in a sense, forget himself. This insight resonates with Lewis’s letter to Greeves, in 1930, in which he applied Idealist philosophy to the act of listening to Wagner’s music “by letting the longings go even deeper and turning my mind to the One, the real object of all desire.” Lewis went on to speculate that all pleasures might actually point to the experience of Joy that he so prized, and that Joy itself pointed to something more ultimate: “Inexorably Joy proclaimed, ‘You want – I myself am your want of – something other, outside, not you nor any state of you.’”59
It is a well-known portion of Lewis’s biography, that, though he tried to live out Absolute Idealism consistently, he found that he could not.60 Through that experience, though, he concluded that there must be a personal God. Lewis did not come to this conclusion willingly; he described it as the sort of instant when a mouse finds the cat. And what was his chosen metaphor to express his state in this moment? “The best image of my predicament is the meeting of Mime and Wotan in the first act of Siegfried: hier brauch’ ich nicht Spärer, noch Späher, Einsam will ich … (I’ve no use for spies and snoopers. I would be private…)”61 Here, Lewis took on the persona of treacherous old Mime who, in the first act of Siegfried, unsuccessfully tried to dismiss the god Wotan.62
Lewis’s constant reference back to Wagner and Northernness in his theological journey is understandable because those stories worked powerfully upon his imagination. And, as he explained in Surprised by Joy, Lewis thought that God was at work in his life, through his engagement with Wagner. He wrote: “Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.”63
An Experiment in Criticism
Lewis’s most extensive engagement with music and the arts is found in his book An Experiment in Criticism. In the chapter titled “How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music,” Lewis considered illustrations that he had loved in his youth, and saw that he failed to distinguish their merits. For example, he noted the admirable composition of Rackham’s illustrations to Wagner’s Ring, but that he only later saw that the human figures were often like “dummies.” Lewis concluded that his earlier error was in the act of substitution; in his thinking, he substituted the art for what it prompted within him, neglecting to engage what was objectively before him.64 Lewis went on to explain that real appreciation, real joy begins when you lay yourself aside; that is, your “preconceptions, interests, and associations,” and take in something on its own terms. It is the difference between using and receiving, and the call is to orient oneself outward and engage the “other.”65
The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world. Zum Eckel find’ ich immer nur mich.66
In that last bit of German (translated, “With disgust I find only ever myself”), Lewis paraphrased Wotan in The Valkyrie (Act II, Scene 2); in this scene, Wotan needs to find a free agent to accomplish a task that he cannot; he calls out for something free of himself, something “other.” Here is a larger portion of Wagner’s text that Lewis paraphrases:
How can I create a free agent whom I have never protected, who by defying me will be most dear to me? How can I make that other, no longer part of me, who of his own accord will do what I alone desire? What a predicament for a god, a grievous disgrace! With disgust I find only myself, every time, in everything I create. The other man for whom I long, that other I can never find: for the free man has to create himself; I can only create subjects to myself.67
With this example, drawn from Wagner’s Ring, Lewis explained how one should receive music and other arts: as an opportunity to improve your perception of the world, to become a changed person, to get over yourself. In comparison to this open-hearted and outward orientation of reception, Lewis described how many people tend to hear music. Some music listeners seek only a tune to hum or tap their foot to; they disregard the musical structure, the performance, the interpretation, and so on. Others listen only as a means of seeking status or so that the music may prompt fanciful imaginings within them:
In general the parallel between the popular uses of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of ‘using’ rather than ‘receiving’. Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them. … And if the work contains nothing that can be so used—if there are no catchy tunes in the symphony, if the picture is of things that the majority does not care about—it is completely rejected. Neither reaction need be in itself reprehensible; but both leave a man outside the full experience of the arts in question.”68
Lewis’s aesthetic insights, here, are commanding because of their historical precedent, their intuitiveness, and because they seem conducive to a healthy life. Furthermore, his emphasis on receiving the things of our lived experience as opportunities for perspective and personal development are consistent with his assertion about music being a “medium for meeting God.” That is, when music and art call us out of ourselves in the engagement of something “other,” they set the stage for an encounter with God, provided we distinguish first and second things.
“First and Second Things”
In his essay “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock, Lewis again drew upon Wagner to make a larger argument. He noted that the Nazis, in their glorification of Nordic mythology, seemed to exchange all their cultural inheritance for pre-Christian mythology—and then, paradoxically, had gotten the mythology all wrong. They substituted the hero Siegfried for Hagen (a minor character who eventually stabs Siegfried in the back):
When I read in Time and Tide on June 6  that the Germans have selected Hagen in preference to Siegfried as their national hero, I could have laughed out loud for pleasure. For I am a romantic person who has frankly reveled in my Nibelungs, and specially in Wagner’s version of the story, ever since one golden summer in adolescence when I first heard the “Ride of the Valkyries” on the gramophone and saw Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to The Ring. Even now the very smell of those volumes can come over me with the poignancy of remembered calf love. It was, therefore, a bitter moment when the Nazi’s took over my treasure and made it part of their ideology. But now all is well. They have proved unable to digest it. They can retain it only by standing the story on its head and making one of the minor villains the hero.69
Lewis went on to explain that this error is an example of a larger principle: “every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.”70 Even love of art, when made ultimate, that is, an end in itself, actually constitutes a regression and results in loss. Said theologically, misidentifying an aspect of the world as somehow ultimate is a form of idolatry, for we end up feebly serving the creation instead of the Creator.71 On the other hand, when fashioned and received appropriately, music and all art teach us to seek ultimate meaning from its true source. Lewis’s lesson is well taken: Music is a medium for meeting God.
In conclusion, the consideration of Lewis’s lifelong engagement with Richard Wagner’s art showcases the development of Lewis’s thinking in a novel way, especially with regard to his eventual embrace of Christianity. That is, considering Lewis’s growth in terms of his love for music (especially Wagner) is just as valid as similar considerations in terms of Lewis’s engagement with Medieval culture or sixteenth-century literature. Truly, Lewis’s ideas about God advanced in counterpoint to his ideas about music.
One final consideration should be raised, though. Wagner’s music dramas meant much to Lewis for what they awoke within him and where their narratives led him, spiritually and intellectually, but does the trajectory of Lewis’s lifelong engagement with Wagner suggest anything about what music should be, when cultivated faithfully by us today, moving forward? Remembering that Lewis attended to and learned from both positive and negative aspects of Wagner’s oeuvre, what can we extrapolate and conclude regarding the cultivation of art in our contemporary context?
Firstly, a story is a powerful thing, and, when told powerfully, it can simultaneously reflect the spirit of a given age and inspire new generations to live out that narrative. If Wagner’s Ring tells the dominant story of Modernity, Christian artists are certainly free to tell a different story, one that emphasizes the ever-present possibility of renewal, here and now, and how fruitful it can be to build upon the past, rather than viewing one’s forebears as superseded. For example, perhaps modern composers should follow Donald Swann’s example and try their hands setting the story of Lewis’s Perelandra to music.
Likewise, believing musicians and artists can act boldly, confident that God can work through their art and, indeed, may be known in its cultivation. If Lewis was right, that art may, by its very construction, lend itself to drawing people outward into open-hearted engagement of the world and of the “other,” Christians should dedicate themselves to such creative activities, believing that God will bless their efforts. In rehearsal, performance, improvisation, teaching, and study, musicians lead their audiences to new ways of hearing, interacting, and living, and their artistic work can pay rich dividends in the lives of their hearers, as in the life of C. S. Lewis.72
Cite this article
- C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), 73.
- For a description of Lewis’s use of musical images in his narrative works, especially to describe “occasions or atmospheres of festivity, celebration, or praise,” see “Four Fiddles, Three Flutes and a Drum: Lewis and Music,” in Peter Schakel’s Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).
- C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, Vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (New York, HarperCollins Publishing, 2004), 630. For example, Lewis himself acknowledged an “operatic” character to the climax in Perelandra, but no explanation has been offered as to what he intended by that assertion or if such affinities can be found in other of his books. The musical quality of Perelandra obviously resonated with others: Lewis’s science fiction novel was recast as a libretto and composed as an opera by Donald Swann (first performed in 1962). Relatedly, no comparison has been made between Lewis’s and Tolkien’s thoughts about Richard Wagner, though both men maintained deeply-held views about Wagner’s music; see also Alex Ross, “The Ring and the Rings: Wagner vs. Tolkien,” The New Yorker (December 22, 2003), accessed 12 August 2016, http://www.newyorker.com. “Tolkien refused to admit that his ring had anything to do with Wagner’s. ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased,’ he said. But he certainly knew his Wagner, and made an informal study of ‘Die Walküre’ not long before writing the novels. The idea of the omnipotent ring must have come directly from Wagner; nothing quite like it appears in the old sagas. … When Wotan steals the ring for his own godly purposes, Alberich places a curse upon it, and in so doing he speaks of ‘the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.’ Such details make it hard to believe Tolkien’s disavowals.”
- C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), 72. Lewis described his renaissance as an adolescent as the sort of reawakening that happens when a person seems to experience the beauties and joys of the world with new eyes and ears. Lewis also called this a renaissance because he viewed the intervening years of boyhood, between childhood and adolescence, as a sort of desert. He wrote, “My childhood is at unity with the rest of my life; my boyhood not so.”
- Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to the Ring may be found online at http://www.artpassions.net/rackham/wagner_ring.html or published in Rackham’s Color Illustrations for Wagner’s “Ring” (Mineola: Dover Publishing, 2009). Wagner’s ring cycle has been fruitful inspiration for subsequent visual artists; for example, see P. Craig Russell’s award-winning comic-book depiction of the complete cycle: The Ring of the Nibelung (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2019).
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 73. Also, in this moment, Lewis remembered Joy: “And with this plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss.” Given Lewis’s affinity for Neoplatonic thought, his description, here, sounds reminiscent of the Neoplatonic doctrine of recollection. That is, his recollection is not simply of the joys of his childhood; he seems to recall and long for something further back than that.
- In German, the titles are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Wagner’s sources for his music dramas include the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied.
- An artistic ideal for Wagner, exemplified well in his Ring cycle, was the unity, the oneness of drama and music. For Wagner, all the artistic elements of an opera combine and collaborate to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork, with text and music working together; that is, music communicating the inner, emotional aspect of the story and the text advancing the story’s action with the specificity of language. Though, to be sure, the Ring texts have often stood on their own and gained admiration from readers, apart from Wagner’s music.
- The significance of Wagner’s music and musical ideas in Western music history are unquestioned, though receptions of his music vary. For example, the composer Gioachino Rossini famously quipped: “Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures.” (Mr. Wagner has good moments, but awful quarter hours.) Quoted in Emile Naumann, Italienische Tondichter (1883).
- C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Family Letters (1905-1931), Vol. 1, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), 20.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 75.
- A portion of Loki Bound is published in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2015), 33-36. Additionally, Lewis wrote three cantos and started a fourth in his heroic narrative poem “Descend to Earth, Celestial Nine” (referred to in Surprised by Joy) that is loosely based on the Wagnerian Ring cycle. See The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis, 10ff.
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 75.
- See, for example, Surprised by Joy, 75. Lewis reported that he first heard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (from The Valkyrie) in a local shop, and that he then began collecting records of Wagner’s music. “[T]he Ride came like a thunderbolt. From that moment Wagnerian records (principally from the Ring, but also from Lohengrin and Parsifal) became the chief drain on my pocket money and the presents I invariably asked for. My general appreciation of music was not, at first, much altered. ‘Music’ was one thing, ‘Wagnerian Music’ quite another, and there was no common measure between them.”
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 78.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 115. Lewis wrote: “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.”
- See Walter Hooper, ed., They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963) (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979).
- Lewis’s comments to Greeves about record recommendations often display a wide exposure to music and a keen memory for musical details. For example, on 5 October 1915, he wrote, “It is very annoying that after waiting all the holydays for those Columbia records, I should just manage to miss them: mind you tell the girl to send me on the monthly lists of Zono, Columbia, & H.M.V. I noticed by the way that the Zono list contains an attractive record with the ‘Serenade’ and ‘Church Scene’ from [Charles Gounod’s] Faust. Do you remember the latter – that magnificent duet outside the Church, with organ accompaniment where Gretchen is hunted about the stage with Mephisto behind her? You must hear it and tell me your impressions.” Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 143.
- Ibid., 164.
- Ibid., 323.
- Ibid., 381-382.
- Ibid., 381-382.
- Lewis would probably have referred to this philosophical position as Subjective Idealism.
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 382-383.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 170. “Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 377.
- o appreciate the sort of performance Lewis may have heard, recordings are available of Albert Coates conducting Wagner’s music: see Albert Coates (Great Conductors of the 20th Century), EMI Classics, 0724357548625 (2003).
- “The Valkyrie [Review],” The Times, 24 June 1924, Issue: 43686.
- This performance was reviewed positively in The Sunday Times (29 June 1924, Issue: 5281), but that reviewer was critical of illogical and inconsistent set design choices and the omission of Wotan’s monologue to Brünhilde.
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 898-899.
- If Lewis’s “One” is understandable, in this quotation, Lewis’s reference to an “enemy” is puzzling.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 210.
- Ibid., 217. It is striking that, in his account of rereading Hippolytus, Lewis used the same language as when he first discovered “Northernness,” in the titles of Wagner’s music dramas, back in 1911. He described the imaginative renaissance of his adolescence as leaving behind the “desert” of boyhood and as a recollection of and reengagement in joyful longing. Here too, after reading Hippolytus, Lewis left a desert: “The dry desert lay behind. I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days at Bookham.”
- In a letter dated 12 May, Lewis thanked Barfield for getting him a ticket and again asked Barfield to join him, though he probably attended the concert alone. Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 79.
- “The Week’s Music,” The Sunday Times, 22 May 1932, Issue: 5693. Also, in corroboration of Lewis’s praise for the acting, the Sunday Times reviewer wrote, “Mr. Tessmer’s Mime again struck me as the best I have ever seen: this is no mere whimpering weakling, but a thoroughly dangerous little rat who turns, as Mime should do, our sympathies in the direction of Siegfried: we feel that it is by the merest accident that Alberich forestalled him in the matter of the possession of the Rheingold, and that had Mime obtained it first, it might have gone even worse with the gods and the world.”
- “Covent Garden Opera: Opening of Wagner Series [Review],” The Times, 3 May 1933, Is- sue: 46434. The reviewer’s only criticism was of costuming choices which featured “semi-ecclesiastical négligé” in place of the “traditional Viking costume.”
- Readers interested in Tolkien’s knowledge of Wagner will note that this intensive study happened just a few years before Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 138ff. Harwood apparently failed to secure tickets, and Lewis wrote him a long sarcastic letter, on 7 May: “As soon as you can, pray let me know through some respectable acquaintance what plans you have formed for the future. In what quarter of the globe do you intend to sustain that irrevocable exile, hopeless penury, and perpetual disgrace to which you have condemned yourself? Do not give in to the sin of Despair: learn from this example the fatal consequences of error and hope, in some humbler station and some distant land, that you may yet become useful to your species.”
- Ibid., 171.
- Ibid., 175.
- Benjamin Berger, “From Nature to Spirit: Schelling, Hegel, and the Logic of Emergence” (Ph.D. diss., University of Warwick, 2016).
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 175.
- C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harp- erCollins, 2007), 731.
- See for example John MacInnis, “Augustine’s De Musica in the 21st Century Music Classroom,” Religions 6 (March 2015): 211-220.
- See for example John MacInnis, “Teaching Music in the Reformed/Calvinist Tradition: Sphere Sovereignty and the Arts,” Religions 8 (March 2017).
- In his Retractions, Augustine described his music treatise: “Next, as I mentioned above, I wrote six books On Music. The sixth of these was especially well known, because in it a matter worthy of investigation was taken up—how from corporeal and spiritual but changeable rhythms, one comes to the knowledge of unchangeable rhythms which are already in immutable truth, and, in this way, the invisible things of God, being understood through the things that are made, are clearly seen.” Translation by author; see also Augustine, Retractions, trans. Mary Bogan (Washington: Catholic University of American Press, 1999), 45. Augustine and many Christian thinkers after him looked to Romans 1:20 as firm justification for the work of human inquiry: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 3, 731ff.
- Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 3, 1584. The earlier essay from The Socratic Digest is titled “Is Theology Poetry” (see for example Christian Reflections, xiii).
- C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed., Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1967), 82ff.
- Lewis is referring to Wagner’s libretto to the Ring cycle which was completed in 1852 and published in 1853, which is when Wagner began composing music for the cycle.
- Lewis, Christian Reflections, 84. Lewis goes on to say, “Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of ‘Evolution’ it wanted. It wanted the Keatian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the Titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious treaty-entangled Wotan” (85-86).
- Ibid., 88.
- See for example Warren Darcy, “The Metaphysics of Annihilation: Wagner, Schopenhauer, and the Ending of the Ring, Music Theory Spectrum 16.1 (Spring 1994): 1-40.
- Quoted in Roger Hollinrake, Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Philosophy of Pessimism (New York, Routledge, 2010), 47-48.
- Lewis, Christian Reflections, 92. Here, Lewis is referencing Act 1 of Wagner’s Siegfried, and the hero Siegfried’s rude dismissal of the dwarf Mime, who raised him from an infant. In the story, Siegfried decides to forge again the magical sword Nothung, since Mime cannot do it. Nothung is the same sword Siegfried uses when he unknowingly fights with Wotan and breaks Wotan’s spear.
- Lewis’s own creative answer to Developmentalism (and, perhaps, Wagner’s Ring) was Perelandra. In this science fiction story, which Lewis considered one of his finest works, two human men travel to Venus (called Perelandra), a young, unfallen planet. In a situation resembling the Garden of Eden, one man, Elwin Ransom interacts with Perelandra’s first humanoid female advising her against the deceptions of Edward Weston, who is controlled by evil powers and advocates emergent evolution.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 166.
- Ibid., 221.
- Ibid., 228.
- Ibid., 227-228.
- It is interesting that Lewis again adopts a character from Wagner’s Ring in opposition to Wotan, as he did when he used Loki in conflict with Wotan in Loki Bound to express his doubts about Christianity.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 77.
- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 14.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 21-22.
- “Libretti Die Walküre,” accessed 1 July 2016, <http://www.rwagner.net>.
- Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 25-26. Though Lewis does not discuss specific musical repertoires, comparing their relative merits, he leaves the question open as to whether there are songs that are simply bad, which to delight in is to delight in badness.
- C. S. Lewis, “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 278. A similar war-time misappropriation of Wagner by the Germans had occurred a generation earlier. Just before the end of the Great War, Lewis wrote to Greeves (13 October 1918) and mentioned that the Germans had named their trench systems after the heroes of the Ring. His own view was that “Anything more vulgar than the application of that grand old cycle to the wearisome ugliness of modern war I can’t imagine” (Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, 406).
- Lewis, “First and Second Things,” 280.
- The work of redemptive scholarship and service, therefore, is re-orienting human culture and all creation in proper relation to the Creator. Albert Wolters expounds this principle in terms of “structure and direction,” in his book Creation Regained (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 59ff.
- This article is an updated and expanded presentation of research shared at the “Arts and the Inklings” Conference at Trinity Western University (British Columbia, Canada) and the 10th Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C. S. Lewis and Friends at Taylor University, in 2016. Special thanks to the following readers for providing valuable feedback: Anna Bartlett, Walker Cosgrove, Karen DeMol, Joshua Matthews, Paul Munson, Stephen Self, Bryan Smith, and Kyoko Yuasa.