C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis and pipeClive Staples Lewis (“Jack”) (1898-1963) was an Irish medievalist and popular religious writer whose seven-volume children’s fantasy about Narnia, starting with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), has become a classic. His science fiction trilogy, sometimes called the Cosmic Trilogy, starting with Out of the Silent Planet (1938), is not so widely read, and has caused science fiction readers problems, because of its very open rejection of the then state of scientific knowledge. For a discussion of his science fiction and fantasy, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Lewis was born in Belfast, the son of a solicitor and a Queen’s University Belfast maths graduate, both of whom were Protestants. His mother died when he was nine, and he attended a boarding school in Watford—”let us call it Belsen” (SJ 24)—and a school in Belfast before being settled in first at the preparatory school for Malvern College, and then at Malvern itself. He calls it Wyvern in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy.

Never, except in the front-line trenches (and not always there) do I remember such aching and continuous weariness as at Wyvern. Oh, the implacable day, the horror of waking, the endless desert of hours that separated one from bedtime! And remember that, even with­ out fagging, a school day contains hardly any leisure for a boy who does not like games. For him, to pass from the form room to the playing field is simply to exchange work in which he can take some interest for work in which he can take none, in which failure is more severely punished, and in which (worst of all) he must feign an interest (SJ 96-97).

As a child he read voraciously, and wrote his own fantasies; at school he discovered a love for medieval literature, and, later, Latin and Greek writers. When, writing his autobiography, he remembered the compensations as well as the miseries:

Reading through what I have just written about Wyvern, I find myself exclaiming, “Lies, lies! This was really a period of ecstasy. It consisted chiefly of moments when you were too happy to speak, when the gods and heroes rioted through your head, when satyrs danced and Maenads roared on the mountains, when Brynhild and Sieglinde, Deirdre, Maeve and Helen were all about you, till sometimes you felt that it might break you with mere richness.” And all that is true. There were more Leprechauns than fags in that House. I have seen the victories of Cuchulain more often than those of the first eleven (SJ 118).

He left Malvern in the summer of 1914, when rumours were beginning to circulate about possible war.

Memory paints the last hours of that term in slightly apocalyptic colors, and perhaps memory lies. Or perhaps for me it was apocalyptic enough to know that I was leaving, to see all those hated things for the last time; yet not simply (at that moment) to hate them. There is a “rumness,” a ghostliness, about even a Windsor chair when it says, “You will not see me again.” Early in the holidays we declared war. My brother, then on leave from Sandhurst, was recalled. Some weeks later I went to Mr. Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham in Surrey (SJ 131).

With Kirk as a tutor, he got through Homer and Virgil, and the Two Great Bores (Demosthenes and Cicero), and most of the other classics; and he read Dante in Italian, and Faust in German; in his spare time he read many of the English classics. With this extraordinary education, it is not surprising that he won a scholarship to University College Oxford in December 1916, but when he got to Oxford in 1917 it was to enter officer training: see under War Experiences.

He returned to Oxford after the War, and in January 1919 began studying classics. He lived with the mother and sister of his best friend from the War, Paddy Moore, who had been killed in 1918, and did so until she died in 1951. In 1920 he got a first in classical moderations (Mods), and in 1922 a first in literae humaniores, with a first in English language and literature the following year. In 1925 Magdalen College elected him to a fellowship in English language and literature, which he held until he left Oxford for Cambridge in 1956, for a Chair and for a fellowship at Magdalene College Cambridge. Among his most influential academic books were The Allegory of Love (1936), English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954) and The Discarded Image (1964).

At Oxford he joined a reading group called the Inklings, which had a moving membership, but which included two of his closest friends, the philosopher Owen Barfield and the philologist J.R.R. Tolkien. It was those two whose conversation was largely responsible for his conversion (from atheism to moderate Anglicanism) in 1930. Thereafter he established a second reputation for himself as a writer of books about Christianity, and a broadcaster on BBC radio, mostly about religion. Books like The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), and Mere Christianity (1952) became, and remain, best sellers. Christianity, of course, is a major inspiration for his fiction; Aslan is the Narnian representation of Christ. But his studies in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance are never far from his fiction. Reading The Discarded Image, his study of the medieval universe, shows clearly that in the Cosmic Trilogy, his science fiction books, he was trying to represent the solar system as seen by medieval, pre-Copernican cosmologists, and that (as Michael Ward argues in Planet Narnia) the seven books of the Narnia sequence each stand for one of the seven heavenly bodies of the medieval cosmos.

In 1950, Lewis began corresponding with Mrs Joy Gresham, an American writer. She moved to England in 1952, and she and Lewis married in 1956. In 1960, knowing that she was about to die from cancer, she and Lewis went to Greece for a holiday: it was the first time he had crossed the Channel since 1918. She died in 1960, and Lewis died three years later.

I have taken most of this information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by his pupil and friend J.A.W. Bennett, revised by Emma Plaskitt, enlivened by a few quotations from his own Surprised by Joy (= SJ) (using the Harcourt Brace and World (New York) edition of 1955). There are numerous biographies and studies, of course, and his own letters, collected into three volumes, are a valuable source of biographical material.


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