CS Lewis

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CS Lewis: his story


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 Magdalene College

This brief life of CS Lewis is told in four episodes:
School of hard knocks
God’s quarry
God’s smuggler
Surprised by Joy

To read a special feature by Andrew Walker on CS Lewis’s childhood and early life, which laid the foundation for his whole life as a writer, click here.

For the full story of the life of CS Lewis, see our further reading section – click here.

Photo: Arthur Strong, used by permission.

School of hard knocks

Almost as soon as he could talk, Clive Staples Lewis announced to his family, pointing to himself: “He is Jacksie” – a creative and independent mind from the start, it seems. And so throughout his life, to friends and family, he was Jack.

The Lewises lived near Belfast. Jack was a solitary child, unless he was with his older brother Warren, with whom he wrote stories about a land of animals who talked and wore clothes like humans. The rest of the time he would read, vast amounts, from Squirrel Nutkin to Paradise Lost. “I was living almost entirely in my imagination,” he later said.

Jack’s mother died when he was nine, and “all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life”. Four weeks later, he was sent to his brother’s boarding school, which he describes in his autobiography as a brutal, stupid regime, calling it a concentration camp. He was thoroughly unhappy at a series of schools, and he was still solitary and unusually clever. Although he had been brought up as a Christian, he became an atheist, and at the same time grew utterly absorbed in the myths of the Norse gods.

At 15 he was released from school and went to live with a tutor, WT Kirkpatrick, in Surrey. Kirkpatrick, or “The Knock” as Jack called him, taught him an array of languages and their literature. He also learned a lot from Kirkpatrick’s ruthless, razor-sharp logic.

Lewis served as an officer in the First World War for four months, before returning wounded. He studied at Oxford University and stayed there as an English lecturer from 1925. He set up house with Mrs Moore, the mother of a fellow officer who had been killed – each had promised to look after the other’s parent if one of them died.

Jack’s relations with his father were increasingly distant, and some have suggested there was something more complicated to his relationship with Mrs Moore than simply adopted son. He certainly looked after her constantly until her death 30 years later.

God’s quarry

JRR Tolkien, not yet the creator of hobbits, started teaching at Oxford at the same time as CS Lewis. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and was one of a circle of Christian friends who surrounded Lewis.

Jack felt they shared so much in common with him – a love of old literature, the romantic, heroic, fantastic, mythical, and a distaste for modernism – except that they inexplicably believed in God.

He felt the same with literature. So much of what he loved was spoilt by the fact that its author was a Christian. He hated the idea that the universe was not a wild wasteland, but the artificial contraption of a creator. He hated the idea that there was a Great Controller who wanted to interfere with his life. But he could not escape the fact that he seemed more and more to be encountering that Controller.

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet… In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

But which God? Lewis had not accepted Christianity yet, just the existence of “Him”. Finally, in 1931, Tolkien and friends persuaded him that the pagan myths they all loved about dying gods and the like were God’s way of preparing the world for “the true myth”, when in Jesus, God really did die and rise from the dead.

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”

God’s smuggler

CS Lewis wrote his first book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, in 1932, a year after his conversion. It tells the story, in an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress, of his journey from atheism to Christianity.

He formed a writers’ group called the Inklings, which included Tolkien and his own brother Warren. They met in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford to read their work to each other, smoke and drink. It’s a thought that has made many fans long to be flies on the wall – such world famous authors as Tolkien and Lewis (and others less well known to day, but still read, such as Charles Williams) not only meeting together for decades, but discussing each other’s writing and their literary theories and ideas.

In 1936, Lewis and Tolkien decided to write science-fiction, seeing so much potential in the genre and so much rubbish published. They tossed a coin to decide who would do space travel and who time travel. Tolkien never got anywhere with his time travel story, but Lewis wrote a trilogy of space books.

Jack disliked the assumption in science-fiction that aliens are evil and humans good. Seeing it as a Christian, wasn’t it more likely to be the other way round? So his first book, Out of the Silent Planet, told the story of humans corrupting a perfect planet.

In fact, Lewis found himself retelling the biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity. He let the other stories embody Christian ideas too, and found that many non-Christian readers seemed to embrace the ideas without realising that they were biblical. “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it,” he remarked ironically.

During the Second World War, Jack wrote some less round-about theological books, and became a tremendously popular author, “smuggling” his ideas only by their being so readable and clear.

He gave a series of BBC radio talks, where he began by showing that everyone has moral standards and arguing from that starting point – over the space of three years – for the truth of Christianity. The talks eventually became the book Mere Christianity. ‘Mere’ because he did not want to argue for his own brand of Christianity, but for Christianity itself, the rock bottom truths that all churches share in common.

In fact, this impartial approach was a stream running through all his writings. It made him popular across a surprising spectrum of Christianity, because Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, etc., all felt they were reading someone who saw the world as they did. He also made a great impression through the persuasive clarity of his writing, his common sense and his wit.

The theatre director Kenneth Tynan, a student of Lewis’s, said, “If I were ever to stray into the Christian camp, it would be because of Lewis’s arguments”. And in fact many people have become Christians through reading Mere Christianity.

At the same time, Jack wrote The Screwtape Letters – his advice on the spiritual life in the back-to-front form of advice from a senior devil to a junior tempter. This was another great hit. It was hardly the first time anyone had written a book of moral and spiritual teaching, but perhaps the first time in memory that someone had made it such fun. Telling it from the enemy’s point of view brought a refreshing new light onto the old subject. The New Statesman said, “Mr Lewis possesses the rare gift of being able to make righteousness readable”.

This is Screwtape on the ways of God (whom he calls ‘The Enemy’): “To get permanent possession of a soul, The Enemy relies on the troughs even more than the peaks. Our cause is never in more danger than when a human – no longer desiring but still intending to do The Enemy’s will – looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

There was great appetite for a sequel, but Lewis never wrote one. “Though I had never written anything more easily,” he explained, “I never wrote with less enjoyment… The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch”.

In 1945 he turned down an OBE from Churchill, not wanting to be associated with right-wings politics.

Surprised by Joy

From 1949 to 1953 Lewis wrote the Narnia stories. As with the science-fiction, these started with a simple idea for a story, but rapidly turned out to be ideal vehicles for stealing Christian ideas “past those watchful dragons”, as he put it.

They were instantly successful with children, and had the unexpected side effect of providing a new generation of readers for his adult books when they grew up. This continuing process has helped to keep Lewis in general circulation longer than most religious writers.

He then wrote Surprised by Joy, an autobiography that only goes up to his conversion. In 1951, Mrs Moore died. “And so ends the mysterious self-imposed slavery in which Jack has lived for at least 30 years,” said his brother Warren.

Lewis had started exchanging letters with Joy Davidman, a New York Jewish Christian writer. She had been left by her husband, with two sons. She and Jack met in 1952 and married in a civil ceremony 1956. At first, this was a sham marriage to save her being repatriated to the United States, but they grew to love each other.

Within six months, though, Joy was diagnosed with cancer. Her boys were the same age as Jack and Warren when cancer took their mother. While she was in hospital they were married “properly” by a priest. She was prayed for, and enjoyed an extraordinary remission. “The doctors predicted a few months of life,” Jack said. “A year later the man who took the last x-ray photos was saying, ‘These bones are solid as a rock. It’s miraculous.’” They took a belated honeymoon and enjoyed a couple of years of married life, but it was not to last. The cancer returned, and Joy died in 1960.

Jack was devastated. He had found the love his life at 60 – a woman he was already married to – and lost her and regained her and lost her finally all within a few years. But he kept a diary of bereavement, which he published anonymously the following year as the gruellingly powerful A Grief Observed.

“What pitiable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them. It was H. I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind!”

He was not well himself, and died in 1963, on the same day as the writer Aldous Huxley and President JF Kennedy.

Forty years later, his books sell an estimated 1.5 million copies each year, and he is the most widely read religious writer in the English speaking world. The Times Literary Supplement explained his appeal as “a quite unique power of making theology an attractive, exciting and (one might almost say) an uproariously fascinating quest.”

He appeals equally to people who are considering Christianity for the first time – because his explanation of it is clear, compelling, unbiased and foundational – and to people who have been Christians all their life, for much the same reasons.

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About this module

Our famous follower in these pages is CS Lewis, known as ‘the apostle to the sceptics’ in 20th century Britain, but his books, including Narnia, are read around the world. He is the author of scholarly books, science fiction, popular theology and his children’s classics, the Chronicles of Narnia. All of them shot through with his imaginative and powerful retelling of the Christian story.

These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.

Categories: Lives, Biographical, Reviews,

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