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The British novelist and essayist C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was an established literary figure whose impact is increasingly recognized by scholars and teachers. He is known and respected for both his allegorical fantasy, particularly the classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia (1965), as well as his accessible and persuasive works on Christian belief and theology such as The Screwtape Letters (1941) and Mere Christianity (1952).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on November 29, 1898, the son of Albert J. and Flora Hamilton Lewis. His mother died when he was still a boy. Little Lea, the family home, had long corridors, empty rooms, and secret nooks in which Lewis and his brother, Warren, played. In the attic, the boys spent many rainy days writing and illustrating stories about imaginary worlds. Sometimes, when their cousin came to visit, the three of them would climb into a black oak wardrobe, hand-carved by Lewis and Warren’s grandfather, and sit in the dark while Lewis told stories. These boyhood playtimes would be famously fictionalized years later in the children’s fantasy classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), the first in the seven-book The Chronicles of Narnia series. In the series, four brothers and sisters travel to another world called Narnia by various means, first finding it through the back of a large wardrobe.
Lewis’s early education was by private tutoring, at various public schools, and at Malvern College. In 1917 he entered University College, Oxford, but left to serve as a soldier in World War I. World War I was a devastating conflict that claimed the lives of many of Lewis’s contemporaries—indeed, nearly 900,000 British service members died between 1914 and 1918. Lewis was one of the lucky soldiers who returned from the war. After returning to Oxford and completing his studies, Lewis taught English literature there (at Magdalen College) until 1954, the year he accepted the chairmanship of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.
Becoming a Christian
As an Oxford student and eventual fellow of Magdalen College, Lewis became close friends with writers and scholars who altered his world-view and encouraged him to write. This circle of friends, later dubbed the “Inklings,” included J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Neville Coghill, and Owen Barfeld. Like many writers who had survived the horrors of World War I, Lewis was eager to find meaning and comfort in a world that seemed to him so clearly flawed. Though he had been skeptical of the value of religion in his youth, Lewis was eventually able to find what he was looking for in Christianity. Each of his influential friends was instrumental in convincing Lewis of the reasonableness of Christianity, but it was Tolkien’s views on the relevance of myth to the Christian faith that most moved him. Lewis became a Christian at the age of thirty-two.
Quiet about the details of his youth, his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), fails to provide enlightenment and leaves the Lewis scholar to speculations about his early disenchantment with emotional Christianity. His autobiography does reveal, however, that he had little interest in sports as a boy and that he was an enthusiastic reader. Among his early favorite authors was G.K. Chesterton, who was himself a paradoxical and religious writer.
Superb Conversationalist, Renowned Scholar
Widely read as an adult, his knowledge of literature was impressive and made him a superb conversationalist. Lewis thoroughly enjoyed sitting up into the early hours in college rooms ”talking nonsense, poetry, theology, and metaphysics.”
His subjects at Oxford were medieval and Renaissance English literature, in which he became a scholar, lecturer, and tutor of renown. His academic reputation was made secure by his English Literature in the 16th Century (1954) and Experiment in Criticism (1961). Aside from scholarly writings, his output included science fiction, children’s stories, and religious apology, a genre of argumentative writing that takes the position of defending a scrutinized or often-attacked position such as religion.
The Christian Apologist: Explaining Christianity
Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) is an allegory presented as an apology—in this use of the term, apology means “defense” or “explanation”—for Christianity. It was not until the appearance of his second allegorical work, The Allegory of Love (1936), however, that Lewis received acclaim by winning the coveted Hawthornden prize. This book, which addresses in easily understandable terms the theological problem of evil and related moral and ethical issues, had met with widespread success; Lewis’s invitation to do a series of radio talks for the BBC was prompted no doubt by the book’s popularity but also in response to its demonstration of Lewis’s ability to write engagingly on complex theological issues for a nonspecialist audience.
The first four successful fifteen-minute talks—”Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe?”— were broadcast in August 1941 and later published in Broadcast Talks (1942) and were followed in short order by three more series: ”What Christians Believe,” ”Christian Behaviour,” and ”Beyond Personality,” the last two separately published in 1943 and 1944. Lewis’s status as a radio celebrity and as a writer and speaker in great demand was assured by the end of 1942. Throughout the remainder of World War II he pursued an exhausting schedule of speaking engagements arranged by the chaplain-in-chief of the Royal Air Force, and he lectured at numerous churches, theological societies, and religious retreats from then until the end of his life.
Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first of the so-called Space Trilogy, is a work of allegorical science fiction, in which a scholar is kidnapped by evil scientists. Lewis was a master of allegory, or using a story symbolically to teach a broader moral or philosophical lesson. The Screwtape Letters (1941), for which he is perhaps best known, is a satire in which the Devil, here known as Screwtape, writes letters instructing his young nephew, Wormwood, how to tempt souls to damnation. Of his seven religious allegories for children collectively titled The Complete Chronicles of Narnia (1965) he commented that, ”stories of this kind could steal past. . . inhibitions which had dissuaded him from his own religion.”
Lewis’s deft handling of allegory likely derives from G.K. Chesterton, whose Everlasting Man (1925) was instrumental in Lewis’s conversion. While in the hospital during 1918 after being wounded in World War I, Lewis had read a volume of Chesterton’s essays and later wrote of the experience: ”I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. …His humor was of the kind which I like best—not ‘jokes’ embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather . . . the bloom on dialectic itself.”
Lewis was married, rather late in life, in 1956, to Joy Davidman Gresham, the daughter of a New York Jewish couple. She was a graduate of Hunter College and for a time was a member of the Communist Party. She had previously been married twice. When her first husband suffered a heart attack, she turned to prayer. Reading the writings of Lewis, she began to attend Presbyterian services. Later, led by his writings to Lewis himself, she divorced her second husband, William Gresham, left the Communist Party, and married Lewis. Her death preceded her husband’s by some three years. C.S. Lewis died at his home in Headington, Oxford, on November 22, 1963, on the same day that writer Aldous Huxley died and U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Works in Literary Context
Though Lewis reportedly read parts of John Milton’s challenging Paradise Lost at the age of ten, his early literary influences were more ordinary: adventure novels and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle. Later, however, Lewis blossomed intellectually and became an avid scholar of ancient Greek drama and philosophy, Greek and Roman mythology, Irish mythology (an interest he shared with his contemporary W.B. Yeats), Norse mythology (an interest he shared with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien), fairy tales, and the classics of English literature. Literary influences that led Lewis toward Christianity included books by John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), the works of the German mystic Jacob Boehme, Thomas Traheren’s Centuries of Meditations (1908), and G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925).
Fantasy and Allegory
Allegory is a kind of writing in which objects and characters are used as symbols of concepts. Lewis made memorable use of allegory, a device likely derived from his knowledge of Christian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas. Lewis knew the allegorical mode quite well: his first autobiography, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), employs the genre, and one of his outstanding pieces of academic scholarship is The Allegory of Love (1936).
At times, Lewis blended allegory and pure fantasy into a kind of modern myth. In Till We Have Faces (1956), a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, the reader is clearly in the world of mythic narrative, but the book also has allegorical features. Lewis’s famous The Chronicles of Narnia is widely accepted as a Christian allegory, though countless young readers have enjoyed it purely as a fantasy story.
Lewis’s importance as an essayist is identifiable with, and to a great extent owing to, his role as a popular apologist (in this context, apologist means “defender”) for the Christian faith. Christian apology is a long tradition of scholarly explication and defense of the tenets of the faith. Lewis distinguished himself as an apologist by making complex theological concepts approachable and understandable to lay people without pandering or oversimplifying.
Lewis styled himself as a common man addressing concerns faced by all, including both the naive but honest skeptic and the unsophisticated Christian in an intellectually complex world; the title Mere Christianity, a phrase used by the seventeenth-century clergyman Richard Baxter, was meant to evoke the core of Christian belief system and, as well, the common intellectual issues faced by everyday believers or inquirers into the Christian faith.
Works in Critical Context
Lewis’s essays have been described by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, his biographers, as characteristically manifesting a ”love of clarity,” with ”striking metaphors” and ”inexorable logic,” demonstrating the ”ability to incapsulate a great many facts into a few words.” Nevill Coghill points to a ”weight and clarity of argument, sudden turns of generalization and general paradox, the telling short sentence to sum a complex paragraph, and unexpected touches of personal approach to the reader.”
On the subject of his novels, Corbin Scott Carell writes, ”Only an anti-religious bias can deny Lewis a place in the canon of worthwhile minor writers of twentieth century British fiction. He is not one of the giants (as a novelist—he is a giant as a thinker). He is not a Joyce or a Lawrence. But neither is Huxley or Orwell and they continue to be taught.”
The Chronicles of Narnia
The seven Narnia books are fantasies written for children but intended to be appreciated by adults. The first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, has achieved fame apart from the rest, winning the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1962. The Narnia books have been both praised and criticized for intermingling mythologies, including not only classical fauns and talking animals but also Father Christmas and a Christ-like lion named Aslan (Turkish for ”lion”). Despite mixed critical response, the books have gained popularity over the decades, and a set published in paperback by Puffin between 1977 and 1979 was a best seller.
- Caughey, Shanna, ed. Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth and Religion in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles. Dallas, Tex.: BenBella Books, 2005.
- Hooper, Walter. C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996.
- Ryken, Leland, and Marjorie Lamp Mead. A Reader’s Guide through the Wardrobe: Exploring C.S. Lewis’s Classic Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
- Schakel, Peter J. Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
- Moorman, Charles. ‘‘Space Ship and Grail: The Myths of C.S. Lewis.’’ College English(May 1957): vol. 18.8:401–405.
- Niedbala, Amanda M. ‘‘From Hades to Heaven: Greek Mythological Influences in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair.’’ Mythlore (Winter-Spring 2006): vol.24.3–4: 71.
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