C.S. Lewis and the Sense of Smell

UK candle

Years after I was part of a Search and Recovery team at the site of a horrific airliner crash, images of the scene would flash into my mind. Strangely, they were seldom triggered by the things I saw or heard.

It was usually some unusual or unanticipated smell that ushered the sad memories to the forefront of my mind.

I know I am not alone in knowing the power of smells. Odors can evoke wholesome recollections from the past. Isn’t it amazing how we are reminded by some scent, of our mother’s or grandmother’s kitchens?

In 1915, C.S. Lewis wrote from his boarding school to his friend Arthur Greeves, referring to his longing to return home to Northern Ireland.

How I pity you people who never have known the pleasures and the pains—which are an integral part of the pleasures—of a regular interchange of home-coming and school going. . . .

These last few days! Every little nuiscance, every stale or tiresome bit of work, every feeling of that estrangement which I never quite get over in another country, serves as a delightful reminder of how different it will all be soon.

Already one’s mind dwells upon the sights and sounds and smells of home, the distant murmuring of the ‘yards,’ the broad sweep of the lough, the noble front of the cave hill, and the fragrant little glens and breazy meadows of our own hills!

And the sea! I cannot bear to live too far away from it. At Belfast, whether hidden or in sight, still it dominates the general impression of nature’s face, lending its own crisp flavour to the winds and its own subtle magic to horizons, even when they conceal it.

A sort of feeling of space, and clean fresh vigour hangs over all in a country by the sea: how different from the stuffiness of Bookham: here the wind—that is to say, the true, brisk, boisterous irresistable wind—never comes.

And yet, I would not for a moment disparage the beauty of Surrey: these slumbering little vallies, and quaint farmsteads have a mellow charm of their own, that Ulster has not.

C.S. Lewis employed the sense of smell in creative ways in his fiction. For example, consider the following episode from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross.

It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them.

After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance.

But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.

Another, more mundane but quite effective, example from the Chronicles of Narnia appears in The Horse and His Boy.

But what Shasta chiefly noticed was the air. He couldn’t think what was missing, until at last he realized that there was no smell of fish in it.

For of course, neither in the cottage nor among the nets, had he ever been away from that smell in his life. And this new air was so delicious, and all his old life seemed so far away, that he forgot for a moment about his bruises and his aching muscles . . .

Curiously, a book entitled The Perception of Odors references Lewis in the opening paragraph of its introduction.

Before odor pollution became a widespread problem, the sense of smell received only cursory attention in scientific treatments of its psychology and physiology.

By contrast, writers like C.S. Lewis held this modality in higher esteem.

As Lewis commented in a discussion of the value of perceptual experience: “Of landscapes, as of people, one becomes more tolerant after one’s twentieth year. . . . We learn to look at them not in the flat but in depth as things to be burrowed into. It is not merely a question of lines and colors but of smells, sounds and tastes as well: I often wonder if professional artists don’t lose by seeing it in eye sensation only.”*

C.S. Lewis’ Hyposmia

More “mature” readers of Mere Inkling may be familiar with hyposmia, even if the word is new to them. It refers to a decreased ability to smell. Like many others, Lewis suffered from it during his life. (Anosmia is the inability to perceive any odor, and is not always permanent.)

In some of his correspondence during 1953, Lewis candidly describes his frustration with this ailment. The following appears in a letter to one of his editors.

Your friend thinks I am ‘smelling things’ in the same sense in which the D.T. (delirium tremens) patient ‘sees things.’ But it’s not quite as bad as that. My smell (ambiguous phrase) is subjective only in the sense that it does not come from the outer world.

There is a real physical stimulus within the body—a sinus discharging its corrupt humours just under the olfactory nerves. So don’t be alarmed lest in my next letter I tell you that a marsh-wiggle called on me or something of that sort.

The same year, he told another correspondent, “I have been neglecting everything except the bare minimum of routine duties for many months, being worn to a ravelling by continued sinusitis in all its varying phases of much catarrh and little pain, much pain and little catarrh, and (sometimes) much of both.

Leave it to Lewis to draw a lesson out of even such an unpleasant illness. He continues the same letter with this astute observation.

One may perhaps add that the internal smell (‘bad smell in the nose’ like ‘bad taste in the mouth’) is rather allegorical: the world seems to stink, but (as often) the real corruption is in the observer.

We might well think of this, the next time we are tempted to remark that the world stinks. Perhaps some part of the problem—even if it is infinitesimal—lies within us. Acknowledging this truth, we may have more patience with others and be more inclined to sincerely pray for the wellbeing of our neighbor.

*The final section of this quotation appears in volume 1 of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis as: “I often wonder if professional artists don’t lose something of the real love of earth by seeing it in eye sensations exclusively?”

I’m not quite sure how they capture the smells of various nations, especially since they are “made in small batches in the USA,” but Homesick® hasn’t forgotten our neighbor to the north.

Canada candle

5 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the Sense of Smell

  1. What at great quote: (and bit of advice) “It is not merely a question of lines and colors but of smells, sounds and tastes as well: I often wonder if professional artists don’t lose by seeing it in eye sensation only.” It’s the little things that make writing feel real.
    Fascinating post on a topic few would have discovered.

    1. That certainly is a profound passage you cite.

      I like the way you refer to “a topic few would have discovered.” What a pleasant way to express that this is a peculiar subject that no one would ever expect to stumble over.

  2. Hi Rob,

    Smells are amazing things. They are negected by many, but they trigger so much especially memories. Great wonderful things that smell and touch do.

    In Christ,


  3. Pingback: Good & Bad Memories « Mere Inkling Press

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