C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia has delighted readers young and old since its publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, and these books continue to form the cornerstone of Lewis’ literary legacy. Away from his life as a writer of children’s fiction, however, he was also a scholar of medieval literature and a soldier during the First World War. He also struggled with his own personal relationship with theism before his conversion to Christianity in 1929. Thereafter, he was also committed to sharing his religious beliefs through writing, broadcasting, and public speaking. Here, we will explore some of the many facets of C.S. Lewis’ extraordinary life.
C.S. Lewis’ Early Life: Studies in Ireland & England
Clive Staples Lewis was born on the 29th of November 1898 in Belfast, twenty-three years prior to Irish partition, to a well-to-do middle-class Protestant family. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Bishop Hugh Hamilton, and his maternal grandfather was Thomas Hamilton, a Church of Ireland priest who baptized the infant Lewis on the 29th of January 1899 in St Mark’s Church, Dundela.
Though he was christened Clive, he came to be known as Jack throughout his life after his childhood dog, Jackie, was killed by a car. Lewis, who was only four years old at the time, refused to go by any other name, though he was persuaded to call himself Jack rather than the more diminutive Jackie.
Prior to his university career, Lewis’ education was somewhat peripatetic. He was educated at home by private tutors until the age of nine, when his mother died from cancer and his father sent him to board at Wynyard School in Watford, Hertfordshire in England. In his book Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis wrote of the culture shock he experienced as a child moving to England and his early abhorrence for English accents and landscapes. This experience gave him a sense of his Irishness that was, perhaps to some, at odds with the Ulster Protestantism of his upbringing. Nonetheless, he was interested in the Irish language, Irish mythology, and the Celtic Revival, harboring a particular fondness for the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
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Lewis did not spend long in Hertfordshire, however, as the school closed fairly shortly after his arrival. He was then enrolled at Campbell College in his native Belfast for a few months before returning to England so that he could attend Cherbourg House Preparatory School. It was here, at the age of fifteen, that he lost his Christian faith. In 1913, he moved to Malvern College before resuming his studies at home with a private tutor. In 1916, Lewis won a scholarship to study at University College, Oxford.
Early Manhood: Oxford University & the First World War
Lewis matriculated at Oxford University in 1917, though soon afterward, he signed up to join the Officers’ Training Corps. In a matter of months, he was sent to France, arriving at the frontline of the Somme on his nineteenth birthday.
During his wartime experiences, Lewis met and befriended Edward Courtenay Francis “Paddy” Moore, and the two young men each promised to support the other’s family should they die in combat. When Moore died in 1918, Lewis kept his word and supported Moore’s mother, Janie, and sister, Maureen. When Lewis and Janie met, she was 45 years old to his 18. Nonetheless, they lived together (along with Lewis’s older brother, Warren) until Janie developed dementia and was put into a nursing home. Here, Lewis visited her every day until her death in 1951.
The exact nature of their relationship remains unclear. While some have speculated that theirs was a sexual or romantic relationship, Janie was married (though separated from) to Courtenay Edward Moore, the father of her children, and Lewis called Janie “mother” (having lost his own as a child). Nonetheless, the two were indubitably very close.
As the war reached its end, Lewis was demobilized in 1918 and returned to Oxford. He graduated in 1922 with Firsts in Honour Moderations (Ancient Greek and Latin literature) and Greats (philosophy and ancient history), and a year later with another First in English. He stayed on at University College after graduation, and in 1924, he was employed as a philosophy tutor at his old college. A year later, Lewis became a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained until 1954.
Lewis’s academic interests lay within the literature of the later English Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the period’s allegorical tradition. His 1936 study The Allegory of Love, for example, has become a seminal work of literary criticism that is still frequently cited to this day. In this study, Lewis explored the co-evolution of the “courtly love” tradition and the allegorical literary tradition of the late Medieval and Early Modern periods.
Return to the Fold: Conversion to Christianity
It was at Oxford University, on the 11th of May 1926, that Lewis met J.R.R. Tolkien, who was to become an important close friend and literary confidant to Lewis. Their enduring friendship, however, did not get off to a particularly auspicious start. Writing in Startled by Joy, Lewis recalled that: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” On their first meeting, however, Lewis concluded that there was “no harm in him: only needs a smack or two.”
Together they formed part of the Inklings, a literary discussion group at Oxford University, mainly set up so that members could read aloud their works in progress and so receive feedback. Lewis and Tolkien did not only discuss literary matters, however, as Tolkien and Hugo Dyson (another member of the Inklings) were instrumental in converting Lewis to Christianity in 1929. Tolkien, a committed Catholic, was somewhat dismayed that Lewis’ conversion from atheism brought him back to his Anglican roots.
After his conversion, Lewis became a lay preacher, and, from 1941 to 1943, he was featured in religious broadcasts by the BBC. On the weekends during the summer holidays, he also spoke at RAF stations on the Christian faith during the Second World War while also volunteering as a member of Oxford’s Home Guard. In January 1942, he was also appointed the first president of the Oxford Socratic Club, which was dedicated to religious and intellectual discussion, with a particular emphasis on Christian belief.
Lewis’ lately rediscovered Christian faith also informed his creative writing, from his lesser-known 1933 novel The Pilgrim’s Regress to The Screwtape Letters of 1942, an epistolary Christian apologetic novel written from the perspectives of devils and which he dedicated to Tolkien. It is perhaps The Chronicles of Narnia for which Lewis is best known, however, and here he blends Christian themes and symbolism with British and Irish folklore, as well as Ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
Leaving Oxford & Finding Joy
The 1950s saw a great deal of change in Lewis’ personal life, beginning with the death of Janie Moore, with whom Lewis had cohabited for 33 years. In 1954, Lewis was made chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. By this time, he had been at Oxford for decades, and he returned to the city (where he kept a home) frequently even after his Cambridge appointment until his death.
Following Janie’s death in 1951, Lewis began corresponding with Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer who, though of Jewish heritage and a former atheist and communist, shared his Christian faith. The two entered into a civil marriage in 1956 so that she and her two sons, David and Douglas (whom she shared with her previous husband, the abusive American novelist William L. Gresham), could continue to live in England. Theirs had been an intellectual relationship from the start, and their marriage was a matter of practicality rather than romance.
After Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, however, she and Lewis grew closer. As a result, a Christian marriage service was performed for the two of them at Joy’s bed in Churchill Hospital on the 21st of March 1957 by the Reverend Peter Bide. For a while, her cancer went into remission, and the couple enjoyed a happy though brief period of married life together. Joy’s cancer returned in 1960, however, and she died later that year on the 13th of July 1960.
Joy’s death informed his book A Grief Observed, which was released in 1961. Not wanting to publicize his own very personal experience of grief, Lewis published the book under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. He continued to raise Joy’s two sons after her death.
Lewis himself, however, was in poor health at this time. In June 1961, he fell ill with nephritis, which led to blood poisoning. In 1963, he suffered a heart attack on the 15th of July and fell into a coma, waking at around 2 pm the next day. He was discharged, though he was still very weak, so he resigned from his post at Cambridge University, fearing that he could no longer fulfill his professional duties there. By November of that year, he was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure, collapsing in his bedroom on the 22nd of November 1963 and dying soon after. He was 64 years old.
The news of C.S. Lewis’s death was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But to those who knew Lewis personally, the loss was deeply felt. On being told of his old friend’s passing, Tolkien wrote to his daughter: “So far I have felt like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
Likewise, Owen Barfield, Lewis’s legal advisor, trustee, fellow Inkling, and friend for more than forty years, remarked of Lewis that, “whatever he was, and as you know, he was a great many things, CS Lewis was for me, first and foremost, the absolutely unforgettable friend.”
Lewis was also a great loss to the academic world. Having graduated from Oxford University with a triple first, he made an indelible impression on medieval literary studies, and his scholarship continues to be appreciated and cited to this day. Moreover, his fiction has been loved by legions of fans, both young and old, since its publication. It is for this last reason that Lewis’s fame endures to this day and that in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, a memorial was dedicated to him in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.