C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent
A recent discovery unveils an unknown chapter in the life the famous Oxford Don.
Harry Lee Poe/ CHRISTIANITY TODAY; DECEMBER 10, 2015
As I browsed eBay not long ago, I came across a 78 rpm recording of a lecture by Lewis. I assumed that it was a mistake or that the seller was trying to defraud an unwitting public. I knew Lewis well enough to know that he had never made a 78 rpm recording for general distribution, much less one produced by something called the Joint Broadcasting Committee. I also knew that Lewis never delivered a lecture on the subject “The Norse Spirit in English Literature.” At least, I knew we had no evidence of such a lecture. Fortunately, curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the record from the dealer in Iceland.
Over the years, I have assembled a significant collection of items related to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their literary friends. I regularly mount exhibitions for universities and major municipal libraries to spur interest in the Inklings, especially when the secular market is all abuzz when a new Lewis or Tolkien movie is released. At one time, collecting letters, manuscripts, first editions, and other artifacts and ephemera was a slow process that depended upon visiting faraway places with strange sounding names. But all of that changed with e-commerce, which led to this unusual recording being in my possession.
And what an unusual find it turned out to be. I discovered some things about a secret episode in Lewis’s life that few, if any, people knew about.
In His Majesty’s Secret Service
How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.
The first thing I discovered was that the Joint Broadcasting Committee was an arm of British secret intelligence that served a propaganda purpose by broadcasting to people in occupied enemy territory during World War II. Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6. Long before James Bond, Lewis rendered service to this clandestine branch of British Intelligence, which was so secret for so long that few people knew of its existence, and few of those knew its actual name. Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. Ian Fleming gave the head of this spy network the code name of M, but in real life he is simply known as the Chief. When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.
Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6.
However 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. Iceland’s strategic significance in the North Atlantic had been known since the Viking voyages a thousand years earlier. Iceland sits along the arc of islands that include Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. Each island became a staging ground for pushing farther westward. 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.
This was the strategic situation in which C. S. Lewis was recruited. And his mission was simple: To help win the hearts of the Icelandic people.
The Work of a Literary Secret Agent
The Joint Broadcasting Committee recruited C. S. Lewis to record a message to the people of Iceland to be broadcast by radio within Iceland. Lewis made no record of his assignment, nor does he appear to have mentioned it to anyone. Without disclosing his involvement with military intelligence, however, Lewis did make an indiscreet disclosure to his friend Arthur Greeves in a letter dated May 25, 1941. Lewis remarked that three weeks earlier he had made a gramophone record which he heard played afterwards. He wrote that it had been a shock to hear his own voice for the first time. It did not sound at all the way his voice sounded to himself, and he realized that people who imitated him had actually gotten it right!
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.”
Until now, Lewis scholars have assumed that this gramophone recording by Lewis in early May 1941, which they had only read about in this letter, must have been a recorded voice test for his BBC broadcasts. It was the only logical explanation. The famous broadcast talks, however, did not come until August, and they were not recorded. Lewis was already famous for his voice, which would not have required a recording to test.
Furthermore, Lewis delivered his broadcasts live, so why would the BBC have bothered to record a voice test? In all likelihood, the recording of early May was his radio talk to Iceland.
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.
Behind the literature itself, Lewis focused on a prevailing spirit found in those Norse explorers who refused to be part of a mere medieval kingdom. Instead, Lewis argued that the English and the Norse share a spirit of independence which finds its origins in the Norse settlers of Iceland and animates English literature.
Lewis claimed that this common spirit is different from what one finds in Europe. He did not want to identify it as democracy, because this spirit rejects the interference of democracy as much as dictatorship. Nor does he regard it as a revolutionary spirit or individualism. This spirit is often marked by great loyalty that individualism does not possess. This loyalty, however, is based on choice rooted in worthy values—a chief who deserves loyalty. Just when it seems that Lewis had succeeded in avoiding jargon altogether, he names this spirit personal realism! Fortunately, he explained that personal realism involves loyalty between two people that is not based on abstractions, but on what those two people really are.
Sadly, Lewis’s first radio talk breaks off at that point.
The original radio talk involved four parts on two records. The first record contains part one and part three. The second record contained part two and part four. The records were probably meant to be stacked on the turntable and then flipped together. The second record with parts two and four is missing. Perhaps it will turn up in a flea market someday. Stranger things have happened. After all, this record turned up on eBay.
For now, however, several questions remain. If Lewis felt so strongly about the Norse influence on the development of English literature, why did he never write on the subject later? We know that he felt strongly about the subject in his personal development, but why the great silence in his major critical works? Was the address only propaganda? Once the fragment is available to the public, scholars will begin to explore such questions.
In the meantime, I plan to have the first public playing of Lewis’s Icelandic address in July 2016 at the Inklings Week in Oxford. Future exhibits will be announced through the website of the Inklings Fellowship.
Hal Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Tennessee. He is the author of a number of books, including The Inklings of Oxford: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Their Friends (Zondervan).