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Marriage in the Shadowlands

The marriage of C. S. Lewis to Joy Davidman took everyone by surprise. But what an intense and wonderful surprise their marriage became. An MP interview with Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham.

What an unlikely couple! C. S. ("Jack") Lewis was an Oxford professor and author who made a mark on Christianity that few have equaled. His classics include Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and Surprised by Joy, as well as the children's series The Chronicles of Narnia. Joy Davidman, a gifted writer herself, was an American divorced mother of two, former Communist, and convert to Christianity from Judaism. And yet these two shared a fierce tenderness and commitment in their marriage so stunning and powerful that, even 45 years later, it's been the subject of numerous books, as well as the movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

"We feasted on love," said Lewis, "every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers." Their marriage would last a mere four years, until Joy's death in 1960, which grieved Lewis so greatly that he survived her only three more years, until his death in November 1963.

One eyewitness to Jack and Joy's marriage was Joy's son Douglas Gresham. Douglas first met Jack when he was 8 years old (his mother married Jack when Douglas was 10) and spent the next 10 years growing a strong bond with the man whom he considered to be "the finest man and best Christian I have ever known."

So moved by the "Deep Magic" of their marriage and faith, Douglas has written several books on their lives, including Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins) and his recent offering, Jack's Life: A Memoir of C. S. Lewis (Broadman & Holman). He is also co-producer for the upcoming movie version of one of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which will be released in theaters nationwide on December 9.

MP asked Douglas Gresham what made this marriage so powerful and inspirational, and what we can learn about the true nature of marriage and love.

Describe your mother's marriage to C. S. Lewis.

Theirs was a marriage of intense love, overshadowing fear, occasional agony, and deep enduring delights. Much like any truly successful marriage, except that instead of 40 or 50 years to experience it, they had it all concentrated and condensed into 4. Those years were both extraordinarily happy and yet, at the same time, shot through with dread and fear.

Dread and fear?

My mother was diagnosed with cancer before they were married. Although the prognosis was not good, because of so many faithful prayers, my mother went into remission. Interestingly enough, all through the difficult, bitter months of her cancer, she remained strong and comforted Jack, rather than the other way around. She encouraged and teased him out of his sorrow.

Never in my life (and I am 60 years old) have I seen two people who loved each other more than Jack and my mother. Rarely have I encountered two people who fit together better than they did.

Really? Many biographers have said that your mother's marriage to Lewis was such a surprise because they were so different. They paint Lewis as a pensive, withdrawn, polite British scholar, and your mother as an opinionated and blunt American. Was that true?

Absolutely not. My mother was certainly forthcoming, open, and blunt. But so was Jack. From my experience, anyone who described Jack as pensive, withdrawn, and British (in that particular sense) never knew the man at all. I think the trouble here is that you are starting out with a basic misconception about Jack and Mother. This is the trouble with trusting the works of poor biographers.

I think perhaps this image of him stems largely from the fictional character that playwright William Nicholson presented in Shadowlands. It was brilliant writing to be sure. But Jack was an ebullient, outgoing, loud, and joyful man, bursting with life and laughter. He was quite able to be blunt, and it gained him some enemies here and there among minor minds. Even when deep in his grief over Mother's death, Jack was not "withdrawn," but wore his grief visibly, sometimes to my embarrassment.

British he was in all the best senses, but without the emotionless coldness usually implied by that expression.

So they were more alike than people knew?

Yes. I only once saw either of them angry with the other, and that was when Jack was annoyed with Mother for over-stressing herself. Although it was a short marriage, they lived it with a rare intensity of devotion.

Do you think that's because they both understood how short their time together would be?

Jack and Mother both knew that her remission was a gift from God and not likely to last long, so they crammed as much life into the short time they had as they possibly could. They flew (for the first time for either of them) to Ireland and Greece, fulfilling lifelong dreams for both of them.

They spent hours walking and talking together. They often read aloud to each other, or played Scrabble. Or just silently enjoyed each other's comfortable company.

Both were deeply committed to Christ, both were brilliantly intelligent, both were widely read in most of the same genres of literature, both had prodigious memories. In addition they shared a love of plain speaking and forthright conversation. How could they fail to fit together?

Even though you were only ten when they married, what did you learn from watching their marriage?

That there were more important things in the world than me, for one thing. I learned that loving is a process of submission: submission to the needs and desires of another, submission to the inevitable beautiful pain of love, and submission to God. I learned that love between a man and woman is often the less genuine the more publicly it is displayed. Jack and Mother did not flaunt their love for each other in public, but the glow of it seeped out of every word they spoke and every glance at each other. I learned that pain is never suffered alone, but is inescapably shared among those who love. I learned that courage is a rich resource that grows with use and nurture. I learned that those who squabble and fight and pack suitcases and slam doors and go home to Mother are petty, childish fools who have no idea what endurance means, and no idea of how difficult things can be in a marriage, and how even great agony can be overcome and defeated by steadfastness of purpose and acceptance of the pain of love.

You talk about the pain of love. Jack and your mother knew about that intimately. What impact did the "in sickness, for better or for worse" of their marriage make upon you?

Their example of dealing with adversity taught me that most of us are blessed in our marriages—simply because we do not have to endure the agony of finding love and losing it so quickly and so terribly. We are without excuse if we do not treasure every moment we have with those we love.

My wife, Merrie, and I have been married 38 years—in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, for richer and poorer. I thank God that I have not had the trials that Jack had to suffer. Life can be avoided and shunned, it can be endured, or it can be lived. Merrie and I have chosen to live it.

What can other couples learn from their marriage?

That a marriage based on "falling in love" is like a stool with only one leg. Our society has so distorted the nature of love and marriage that we have lost sight of what it really means.

Jack wrote of the Four Loves (from four Greek words for love) on which a marriage must be founded. The beginning of any relationship must be agapé; love, the love of God that flows through one person to another and drives people to heroism for strangers. The staggering courage of those fireman who ran into the Twin Towers as they burned in the hope of rescuing people whom they had never met is agapé;.

When agapé; has founded a relationship, the next form of love to develop is philia. It's often called "friendship." When two people who have a firm base in agapé; find philia growing between them, they have the basis of a real relationship.

Then the third form of love, storge, begins to grow. When someone for whom one has a wealth of storge dies, or moves away, they leave behind a gap in the other person's emotional being, a hole, a vacancy that no one else can fill no matter how wonderful a person they may be. 

After these three loves are strong and healthy in a relationship, then can one dare to reach for the stars and "fall in love," to indulge in romance, or eros, that wistful, trivial, but so distortedly powerful, self-indulgent force celebrated in our literature, films, and dramas.

You ask what we can learn from the love and marriage of Jack and my mother? We can learn all of the Four Loves. That was the legacy they left me for my marriage.

What advice would you give parents as they think about the marital legacy they can leave for their children?

Teach your children morality and ethical values by your example, by living your lives as a demonstration of right as opposed to wrong. In short, do what Jesus says.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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Commitment; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2005
Posted September 12, 2008

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