Best known for his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series and his pro-Christian texts, CS Lewis is one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day.
This prolific writer and scholar was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland to Flora Albert J. Lewis and August Hamilton Lewis who died of cancer when Clive was 10. As a child, Clive Staple who was known to his family and friends as “Jack” was raised in a library.
“There were books in the study, books in the dining room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds,”
Lewis remembered, and none were off-limits to him. On rainy days—and there were many in Northern Ireland— he pulled volumes off the shelves and entered into worlds created by authors such as Conan Doyle, E. Nesbit, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At very young age, together with his only brother Warren, he created the imaginary land of Boxen, complete with an intricate history that served them for years. Lewis became more reclusive when Warren was sent off to English boarding school in 1905—spending more time in books and an imaginary world where animals talked and had adventures, writing a few stories and making illustrations as well. He became even more withdrawn after his mother’s death three months before his birthday. The death of his mother dealt his father a severe blow, making both boys estranged from him. These circumstances convinced Lewis that God was, if not cruel, at least a vague abstraction. By 1911 or 1912, with the additional influence of a spiritually unorthodox boarding school matron, Lewis rejected Christianity and became an avowed atheist.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Focusing on literature and classic philosophy, Lewis graduated from Oxford University in 1925 where he was awarded a fellowship teaching position at Magdalen College. With Warren, he joined the group known as The Inklings, an informal collective of writers and intellectuals where he met two Christians: Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. They eventually became his close friends, helping Lewis to re-embrace Christianity after having become disillusioned with the faith as a youth. In 1929 C.S. Lewis finally surrendered to God, admitting “God was God, and knelt and prayed.” Within two years the reluctant convert also moved from theism to Christianity and joined the Church of England.
Almost immediately, Lewis began publishing books in the mid-1920s with his first book, the satirical Dymer (1926). After penning other titles—including The Allegory of Love (1936), for which he won the Hawthornden Prize—he released in 1938 his first sci-fi work, Out of the Silent Planet, the first of a trilogy which dealt sub-textually with concepts of sin and desire. Later, during World War II, Lewis gave highly popular radio broadcasts on Christianity which won many converts; his speeches were collected in the work Mere Christianity.
Part of setting out in a new direction were preaching sermons, giving talks, and expressing his theological views over the radio throughout the United Kingdom which also bolstered his reputation and increased his book sales. Nevertheless, money was always scarce. His finances were also tight even with the regular tutorial stipend. And when money no longer became an issue, Lewis did not upgrade his standard of living but established a charitable fund for his royalty earnings—supporting numerous impoverished families, underwrote education fees for orphans and poor seminarians, and put monies into scores of charities and church ministries.
A brilliant academic, Lewis became a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He became renowned for his rich apologist texts, where he explained his spiritual beliefs via platforms of logic and philosophy.
The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series
Among other things, Lewis was known throughout the world as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, which became his main literary nod to Christmas. The book did receive some negative reviews; however, general readers took to the story in a big way that it retained its international popularity over the decades. Time magazine has listed it as one of the top 100 English language novels written in the 20th century. Furthermore, Time had confirmed Lewis’ stature as a writer of international renown when it featured him on its cover in September 1947.
Lewis started to publish the seven books in 1950s. It comprised The Chronicles of Narnia children’s series, with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe being the first release. The book introduces Narnia as a land where it was always winter but never Christmas which was resplendent with mythical creatures and talking animals. The story began when the four Pevency children entered Narnia through the magical wardrobe. Throughout the series, a variety of Biblical themes are presented; one prominent character is Aslan, a lion and the ruler of Narnia, who has also been interpreted as a Jesus Christ figure.
In 2005, a big-screen adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe hit movie theaters, starring Tilda Swinton as the witch Jadis and Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan. Two more Narnia films were brought to theaters as well: Prince Caspian (2008) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). A movie version of The Silver Chair was slated to hit theaters later in the decade.
Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American English teacher in 1956. She was once Jewish, divorced, a former Communist, and personally abrasive. The marriage did not set well with most of Lewis’s friends and acquaintances. Despite this, Lewis was happy during the years of their marriage, though Gresham died of cancer in 1960. Lewis grieved deeply for his wife and expressed his grief, anger, and doubts in the book A Grief Observed, using a pen name, N.W. Clerk. Also, their relationship was depicted in Shadowlands, presented as a play and two films; one of the film versions was directed by Richard Attenborough and starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis.
In 1963, Lewis resigned from his Cambridge position after experiencing heart trouble. He died on November 22, that same year in Headington, Oxford.