Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

70-year-old letters that reveal even CS Lewis became caught up in the creationism debate

A collection of letters by CS Lewis will go on display to the public at Queen's University in Belfast

It's an issue that is still debated strongly in Northern Ireland today — and one that exercised the intellectual might of Narnia creator CS Lewis back in the 40s.

A rare insight into the author’s views of creationist and evolution theories, religion and the origins of life have been revealed in a batch of letters written by him.

The collection of 11 letters was found in an attic in England by the son of one of Lewis's friends Captain Bernard Acworth.

In the correspondence with Capt Acworth — founder of an organisation opposed to the teaching of evolution as scientific fact in the 30s — Lewis outlined his own views on religion and the origins of life. The revered Chronicles of Narnia author was a committed Christian but also believed strongly in evolution.

Nearly 70 years on from the first dated letter, the topic of creationism — which believes that the world was created by God in seven days and is no older than 6,000 years — is still intensely debated today.

It recently hit the headlines when the National Trust was criticised for including a section in the newly-opened Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre on the creationist view of how the world-famous stones were formed.

The 11 letters, written between 1944-1960 by the east Belfast-born author, were presented to Queen’s University yesterday so they can be viewed by the public.

Capt Acworth’s son, the Rev Dr Richard Acworth, has donated the letters after visiting Queen’s last year with his daughter Phyllida, who is a Queen’s graduate.

In Captain Acworth’s letters to Lewis, he corresponded with views on the incompatibility of evolution and Christianity.

Lewis returns with his views on the question of origins.

The yellowing letters, penned in black ink and inscribed with spidery writing, were uncovered in a suitcase in the attic of Rev Dr Acworth’s home in Portsmouth a few years after his dad’s death in 1963. Rev Dr Acworth said the letters suggest that Lewis's view that evolution and Christianity were compatible began to change later in his life.

“Originally Lewis was more or less agnostic on that subject but it seems in the course of the correspondence he gradually became much more to my father's way of thinking,” he said.

He also said the letters revealed a lot about the author.

“He does describe when he married his wife,” he said.

“She was dying and she made a remarkable recovery and was able to walk about.

“He also talks of visiting Donegal, describing the scenery in north Donegal as ‘lovely’ and south Donegal as having a ‘sinister character’.”

The presentation took place in the CS Lewis reading room at the McClay library at Queen’s.

The event is entered through a replica version of the magical wardrobe door from The Chronicles of Narnia.

The letters will be stored in a environmentally controlled manuscript room which the public are allowed to visit, by appointment.

Deirdre Wildy, head of special collections and archives at Queen’s said: “It was a bolt out of the blue - being offered this treasure.

“It is very exciting.”

Background

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. CS Lewis is seen as an ‘intellectual giant’ and is regarded as one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century. In 1916 he received a scholarship to Oxford University. Lewis is best known for his children’s series The Chronicles Of Narnia. The series consisting of seven books sold millions of copies across the world, and the books were translated into 30 languages. Three of the Narnia chronicles have been adapted into films by Disney. C.S Lewis died in England on November 22, 1963.

Copyright restriction is last word on extracts

The excitement was palpable as a group of journalists gathered at Queen’s University yesterday for the unveiling of previously unpublished letters by CS Lewis.

But that soon disappeared after it was revealed copyright restrictions from the CS Lewis Estate would prevent the press publishing significant extracts from the rare letters.

While the letters are available to view in full by any visitors to the CS Lewis Library, the estate ruled that only limited sections could be repeated by media.

The Belfast Telegraph was told we could publish just 30 words from one letter — while broadcast media were allowed to read out 60. When we contacted the CS Lewis Estate to enquire about the reasons behind the restrictions, it softened its stance and stretched our limit to 60 words.

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