C.S. Lewis: Spy?

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Everybody knows that Ian Fleming and John LeCarre based their literary creations on their serving time in British intelligence during World War II. Now  we learn that C.S. Lewis also served MI6 during World War II.

He served the intelligence service by going on the radio to encourage Icelanders to welcome the British who invaded and secured Iceland after the Germans invaded and secured Denmark in 1940.

Harry Lee Poe, writing in Christianity Today:

Lewis came to the attention of MI6, it needed Lewis in the wake of the German invasion of Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940. Though the British sent troops to Norway to counter the German invasion, it was too late to intervene in Denmark, whose subjugation was accomplished in only one day. One month later on May 10, 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and by June 22 the French government had capitulated, leaving Britain to fight on alone.

On that same morning in May, however, the British did the next best thing they could do to help Denmark and the rest of Europe: They launched a surprise invasion of Iceland, which was part of the Kingdom of Denmark…. In the Battle of the Atlantic, Iceland could have provided Germany with a strategic naval and air base. Instead, thanks to the British invasion, Iceland provided the ideal base for seaplanes to search for the German naval vessels that prowled the Atlantic sinking the merchant fleet with its crucial supplies.

Though British control of Iceland was critical, Britain could not afford to deploy its troops to hold the island when greater battles loomed elsewhere, beginning with the struggle for North Africa. Holding Iceland depended upon the goodwill of the people of Iceland who never had asked to be invaded by the British. If Britain retained Icelandic goodwill, then Churchill could occupy the island with reserve troops rather than his best fighting forces.

C. S. Lewis’ mission was simple: To help win the hearts of the Icelandic people. He did this by speaking on the radio to Icelandic people talking about the connections between Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic cultures.

And what did an Oxford don have to say that might help turn the tide of war in Britain’s darkest hour? He spoke on the subject “The Norse Spirit in English Literature.” Lewis provided a touchstone between the Norse people and the English, which Lewis made clear in his first recorded statement. He said that he did not know why he had been asked to address the people of Iceland, but that he agreed to do it in order to repay a great debt. He explained that his imaginative life had been awakened by Norse mythology when he was 14. He went on to explain how his love of Norse mythology only deepened when he began to learn the Icelandic language at Oxford.

This beginning may surprise people familiar with Lewis, because Lewis was not prone to publicly share information about his personal life. His introduction anticipates his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy by almost 15 years. He first fell in love with Norse mythology when he came across some of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Wagner’s Ring published in 1911. He began to learn Old Icelandic in 1926 when J. R. R. Tolkien started a small group called the Coalbiters to read the old sagas together in the original tongue.

After this introduction, Lewis proceeded to praise the Icelandic tongue as one of the most poetic on earth. Rather than a private view of his own, Lewis argued that successive generations of English writers have felt this affinity with the old Norse tales and that this influence has found its way into the greatest of English literature. He cited Sir William Temple, William Morris, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Fielding, and Thomas Grey as examples of what he meant. The literature of England, inspired by the Norse, views self-important office holders as knaves and fools. By implication, the English had come to Iceland to repay a great debt and help fend off the knave and fool who ran Germany.

So while Lewis may not have jumped out of planes or used clever technological toys, like James Bond or run networks of agents like George Smiley, he did his part for the war effort as scholar and broadcaster.

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Rod Gillis
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Rod Gillis

From the article, "And what did an Oxford don have to say that might help turn the tide of war in Britain’s darkest hour? He spoke on the subject 'The Norse Spirit in English Literature.' "

"The FBI decides to lob in teargas, but they don't have teargas, so several of the agents put on the death scene from Camellia. Tearstricken my abducters give themselves up. "
-Woody Allen

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JC Fisher
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JC Fisher

He began to learn Old Icelandic in 1926 when J. R. R. Tolkien started a small group called the Coalbiters to read the old sagas together in the original tongue.

Now THIS makes sense! I would have thought a notable Norsephile like Tolkien would have been selected for this task...

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Shirley O'Shea
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Shirley O'Shea

From what I understand, Tolkien was the superior writer of the two, Lewis the better teacher. Perhaps Lewis was tapped for the mission because of his spoken language facility.

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David Streever
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David Streever

Ouch! Poor Lewis 🙂

I don't know if Tolkien was a better writer; I think he was better at creating a fantasy world, and better at creating languages, but I think Lewis was an admirable theology writer. I've always thought it a shame he's remembered more for Narnia than he is for A Grief, Observed or Surprised by Joy or the Screwtape Letters.

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