C.S. Lewis’s Wit

One of my favourite books is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.

The chapter on Comedy is especially good, I think. And especially needed. Both church-life and the world of theological study are far too po-faced.

As my contribution to injecting a little humour into this situation, I thought I would do a quick survey of C.S. Lewis’s shining wit.

Lewis once wrote: ‘The English take their “sense of humour” so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame.’ It must be remembered, of course, that C.S. Lewis was Irish. If he’d had the great good fortune to be born English (as I, I humbly admit, did) he would have realised how grievous a thing it is to be humour-impaired.

To lack a sense of humour is to lack a divine attribute. Lewis himself observed, in a letter he wrote in 1956, that ‘there may be some humour [in the New Testament]’. He gives three possible examples:

Matthew 9:12 – “People who are well . . . don’t need doctors.”

Matthew 17:25 – ‘Jesus said, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons . . . or from others’?”’

Mark 10:30 – ‘Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands – ahem, with tribulations, – and in the world to come eternal life.’

If there are other examples of dominical humour, Lewis wonders whether he, as a Westerner, would be able to spot them. He wrote, ‘I’ve been much struck in conversation with a Jewess’ – he means his wife, Joy Davidman – ‘by the extent to which Jews see humour in the [scriptures] where we don’t. Humour varies so much from culture to culture.’

So don’t worry if you don’t find this blog-post funny. Humour varies so much from culture to culture . . .

Lewis’s own humour itself varied enormously, ranging from bawdy puns all the way down to the level of an Oxford Senior Common Room.

As regards the former, Lewis liked to relate the story of a hapless Bishop of Exeter who was giving prizes at an all-girls’ school. ‘They did a performance,’ said Lewis, ‘of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Bishop stood up afterwards and announced, quite innocently, that it was the first time in his life he’d seen a female Bottom.’

As for his High Table humour, here are two tasters:

Over dinner one night at Magdalen College one of the courses was haggis, the national dish of Scotland, which consists mainly of the blood and intestines of sheep. Seated next to Lewis was a visiting Portuguese dignitary who, while eating his haggis, remarked that he felt like a ‘gastronomic Columbus’. ‘Surely you mean a vascular da Gama,’ said Lewis.

I had to do quite an extensive Google-search to understand that joke. But after I’d completed my researches, I realized that this sparkling, off-the-cuff riposte, was, indeed, very, very funny.

The second taster I have goes down more smoothly. On this occasion, Lewis, while still a young man, was dining at Exeter College, Oxford, seated next to a philosopher called Marett who said to him:

‘I saw in the papers this morning that there’s some scientist-fellah in Vienna who’s invented a way of splicing the glands of baby apes onto elderly gentlemen, thereby renewing their generative powers! Remarkable, isn’t it?’

‘Unnatural, I would have thought,’ said Lewis.

‘Oh, come now. Think of the opportunities it opens up! You’ll be an old man yourself, one day.’

I’d rather be an old man than a young monkey.’

He inherited his comic gene, it seems, from his own ‘old man’, his father, Albert, who, even on his death-bed, was still coming out with zinging one-liners. When his pretty nurse attempted to rally him by saying, ‘What an old pessimist you are! You’re just like my father,’ Albert replied, ‘I suppose he has several daughters.’

Lewis picked up on this wit from an early age. When he was about nine years old he came downstairs, sat in an armchair, pressed the tips of his fingers together and announced to the world at large, ‘I have a prejudice against the French.’ His father spun round, snorted and said, ‘Why on earth do you have a prejudice against the French?’ ‘If I knew that, it would not be a prejudice,’ said Lewis.

One of the uses to which humour can be put is the overcoming of prejudices in one’s audience. Against those who had blind faith in electorates and majorities, Lewis wrote a mock memorial inscription for himself, after a spell in hospital:

From end to end of the bright airy ward,

From end to end of each delirious day,

The wireless gibbered, hammered, squealed and roared;

That was the pain no drugs could drive away.

I asked for an hour of silence – half an hour –

Ten minutes – to die sane. It wasn’t granted.

Why should one Prig, one High-brow, have the power

To stop what all those honest fellows wanted?

Therefore, oh God, if heaven, as they tell,

Is full of music, yet in mercy save

For me one nook of silence even in hell,

And therefore, stranger, tip-toe past this grave;

And let posterity know this of me –

I died both for, and of, democracy.

And another example of Lewis’s comic verse, which perhaps came to him while pondering the ‘tribulations’ that accompany being a disciple, is this:

All things (e.g. a camel’s journey through

A needle’s eye) are possible, it’s true.

But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out

In one long bloody thread from tail to snout.

Many tribulations, of course, are unforeseeable. Lewis was a keen smoker of pipes. His rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, were on the first floor. (For any Americans reading this post, ‘first floor’ in British English means ‘second floor’.) One day he emptied his pipe, as was his habit, by knocking it out on the sill of his open window. A moment later a young man, an utter stranger, dashed into Lewis’s rooms and shouted: ‘Do you realise you almost blinded my baby?’ ‘No,’ said Lewis, ‘I didn’t even know you were married.’

Lewis was for many years President of the Oxford Socratic Club, a society that met for high-level debate between Christians and non-Christians, where students crowded into a room and sat on the floor or under the piano. Somebody who had been drinking deep of positivist philosophy asked in the course of a discussion, ‘Well, how can you prove anything? I mean, how can you prove there isn’t a blue cow sitting on that piano?’ To which Lewis replied, ‘Well, in what sense blue?’

In 1954 he moved from Oxford to Cambridge, which brought him professionally to close quarters with a great antagonist of his, F.R. Leavis. Leavis dominated the English Faculty at Cambridge as Lewis had dominated it at Oxford. When asked if he expected to meet Leavis in heaven Lewis said, ‘Certainly not. Unless, that is, our names are taken in alphabetical order.’ But he added, ‘I do think he’s saved. He must have saved: he’s not interested in money.’

I’ve saved my favourite example of his wit to close with. Lewis’s holiday of choice was always a walking-tour with friends. At the end of one such tour, unshaven, muddy, smelly and looking distinctly like a vagrant, he boarded a train for his journey back home. A prim-looking, well-dressed passenger opposite him in the carriage leant forward and said, ‘Excuse me: do you have a First Class Ticket?’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ said Lewis, ‘but I need it for myself.’

And what does all this have to do with Theology or Apologetics?  Harrumph!  I thought we were enrolled here in the School of Christian Thought at HBU in order to study serious things, not to make jokes about monkeys and camels and pipes and, and, and Bottoms!

Well, if this question must be addressed – if the answer isn’t obvious – I would suggest that jokes and wit and laughter not only give delight, but also help keep us sane.  They restore a sense of proportion.  By pricking the bubbles of our self-importance they even serve a moral purpose: they humble us.

And it’s worth noting that ‘humility’ and ‘humour’ are etymologically connected.  Both words relate to ‘humus’, – earth.  Humour, like humility, keeps us grounded.

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded, from time to time, that we are creatures of earth. We aren’t angels, but animals: rational animals, yes, with immortal souls, destined for glory, God willing, – but animals nonetheless.  How incongruous!  We are as weird as duck-billed platypuses.

And out of dust we were created, and unto dust we shall return.

7 responses

  1. Michael, this reminds me immediately of Lewis’s statement in The Weight of Glory, “This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must of of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

    Thank you so much for this. I especially enjoy the last two paragraphs and appreciate the needful reminder! Humour does help to keep us sane and grounded. And merry!

  2. You know, I’m sure, G.K. Chesterton’s statement on the subject in Orthodoxy: funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long paragraphs or in short jokes is akin to his choosing to tell the truth in French or in German. To insert my own, contemporary examples into his statement, a political cartoon is funny and serious. A stand-up comedian is funny and not serious. A journalist is not funny but serious. The average politician is not funny and not serious.

  3. Michael, Jesus is so full of absurd lines e.g. straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel. I think the whole ” woe to the Pharisees” reminds me of a ranting poet/standup comedian when you read it aloud. Great article

  4. As I dip bread into a snack of hummus, and give a hearty “Amen!,” I’d like to say that if I ever write a book, one chapter will be “The Four Laughs” with heavy reference given to Lewis.

  5. A wonderful monograph bringing to light the lighter side of a legend who remains a force to reckon with both in English literature and theology. The word humility and humour relate to humus(earth) as traced by the author also reminds me of another word hubris, the curse of humanity. People in their presumptions do not like humour and they do not like to be humoured too by keeping a reserve on their own volition. it is time such people shed their shallow hubris and come to terms with the lighter side of life so that in our brief span in the earth we do leave pleasant and happy memories for others to judge us by our gaiety and vivacious wit….. g.srinivasan, journalist, india

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