November 22, 1963, the date of President Kennedy’s assassination, was also the day C.S. Lewis died. Seven years earlier he had thus described death: “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” The metaphor inherent in these words is striking. It comes from the world of students and pupils, but only a teacher would employ it as a metaphor for death. The words (from The Last Battle) bring down the curtain — or perhaps better, close the wardrobe door — on Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. But they also open a window into who C.S. Lewis really was.
Clive Staples Lewis (“Jack” to his friends) was born on 29 November 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the second son of Albert Lewis, a promising attorney and his wife, Florence (“Flora”), daughter of an Anglican clergyman and one of the earliest female graduates (in Mathematics and Logic) from what is now Queen’s University, Belfast. She was probably the sharper of the parents, although “Jack” did not inherit her mathematical gifts. Were it not for a military service waiver from the Oxford University mathematics entrance examination hislife might have been very different.
Flora died of abdominal cancer in 1908. Lewis was a motherless son. Sent off to boarding school, his teenage years were generally miserable. Latterly he was privately tutored by his father’s former headmaster, the remarkable W.T.Kirkpatrick (known by “Jack” and his brother Warren as “The Great Knock”). Kirkpatrick had earlier abandoned aspirations to the Presbyterian ministry and was by this time an avowed atheist (yet, still with a decidedly Presbyterian work ethic!). His influence was substantial, both religiously (sadly) and intellectually. Lewis had probably completed the required reading for his Oxford Bachelor’s degree even before entering University College, Oxford. He sailed through his studies with “firsts” in classics, then in philosophy and history, and then in literature, and after some time he became a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
The “Mere” Christian
Lewis tells the complex story of his pilgrimage to the Christian faith in genres ranging from the philosophical The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) to the autobiographical Surprised by Joy (1955). Doubtless, elements of it are also reflected in his works of imagination — his “science-fiction,” his children’s books, and in The Great Divorce (1945).
Immersed in ancient, medieval, and modern literature Lewis was inevitably confronted by Christianity. He was helped by various other scholars like Neville Coghill (1899–1980, a Chaucer expert), J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973, already professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford), and Hugo Dyson (1896–1975), and he was influenced by writers like G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald (whom he began to read as a teenager) — all of whom made a Christian profession.
Lewis came first to theism — and some time later to faith in Christ. Thereafter his thinking often expressed the common motif that the Christ-story was the ultimate story in which alone the longings and redemption-patterns in all great stories and myths were historically realized. Thus the need for the dying and rising divine figure would be echoed in as different literature as the ancient myths on the one hand to the Narnian Chronicles on the other.
In a sense (probably unwittingly), the Narnian Chronicles do in story form what Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) had done in dialogue form in Cur Deus Homo(Why God Became Man). Using what he called the “remoto Christo” principle (that is, without specific reference to the revelation of Christ in Scripture), he had attempted to show how the Gospel is necessary for our salvation.
Academic and Author
Lewis was an academic. An Oxford education was, and remains, one of the most rigorous and privileged in the world. While lectures are offered, the student is supervised by a tutor who is a scholar of distinction in his own right. Thus Lewis for many years listened to his students as they came weekly or fortnightly to “read” their papers to him. Many loved it — although not all: John Betjeman (1906–1984), later British Poet Laureate, was none-too-keen on Lewis. (He also failed to graduate.) Lewis, however, found it a trial. Being appointed to a professorship (an appointment of high distinction in the Oxford system) would have multiplied his salary and eased his tutorial work load. But the likelihood of this was probably in inverse proportion to the growth of his reputation as a popular Christian writer (the adjective “popular” being as damningas “Christian”).
Yet by any measure Lewis was an outstanding scholar. His best known academic works include a study of the literature of the Middle Ages, The Allegory of Love(1936), and his scintillating monograph on John Milton’s epic poem A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942). The eminence of his scholarship led to an invitation to write the volume on English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954) in the prestigious Oxford History of English Literature series. By the time of its publication, Oxford’s academic rival had claimed him, and in 1954 he became professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, resigning only shortly before his death.
Companions on the Way
Any account of Lewis’ life would be incomplete without reference to a number of other influences, including (and especially) two women.
Chief among the influences on Lewis’ way of “doing” Christian theology was George MacDonald (1824–1905). In 1946 he published an anthology of MacDonald’s writings, noting that he had virtually never written on the Christian faith without reflecting his influence: “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” Certainly anyone who has read MacDonald’s fantasies such as Phantastes and Lilith will soon realize the source of many ideas that might otherwise be thought of as uniquely Lewisian. MacDonald, it should be noted, was deeply influenced by the world of Romanticism, and this impacted his view of the Gospel. Lewis on the other hand employed his imaginative genius in the cause of a more mainstream orthodox, if not consistently evangelical, Christianity.
Lewis’ name is virtually synonymous with the group of scholars and others who met regularly in Oxford in an informal literary brotherhood called (brilliantly) “The Inklings.” Here they would share one another’s work. It is remarkable that this little group included the authors both of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
The two women whose lives were intertwined with Lewis’ were very different indeed. The first was Jane Moore, the mother of “Paddy” Moore, a young cadet with whom Lewis had trained for the army. They apparently promised to look after each other’s parent in the event of the other’s death. Moore was killed.
The relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore (which continued to her death in 1951) is one of the most enigmatic elements in the Lewis saga. Much has been made of it by both critical and sympathetic scholars. Was Jane Moore surrogate mother, sometime lover, or perhaps both? Whatever the truth, following his conversion, Lewis felt bound to provide support for her for the rest of her days, and he did this with an extraordinary sense of duty and single-mindedness.
In January 1950, Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer, began corresponding with Lewis. Estranged (later divorced) from her husband, in 1952 she visited England with her two sons. Lewis enjoyed the challenge of her company, and in 1956 formally married her, thus enabling the Greshams to remain in England. In time, the relationship blossomed into love — which it may well already have been without Lewis clearly recognizing it. Joy died of cancer in 1960, and this led to Lewis publishing (originally under the nom-de-plume N.W.Clark) A Grief Observed(1961). After three years of mixed health, Lewis himself died on November 22, 1963.
The Lewis corpus has, of course, become a minor industry in its own right. His books have sold over 200 million copies. The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), Mere Christianity (1952, based on radio talks from 1941–1944), and The Four Loves (1960) have been particularly widely read, as have some of his sermons, notably “The Weight of Glory.” Perhaps more than any other twentieth-century author, C.S. Lewis has played a role in people’s understanding of the Christian faith akin to the one that hymns used to play. His strength lay in his use of the imagination rather than his expertise as either exegete or theologian. Interestingly, he himself found it somewhat tiresome to be paraded as the great popular apologist for the Christian faith.
The most widely-read Christian author of his time, Lewis left behind not only his many academic and popular works but also a substantial collection of correspondence and papers, which have guaranteed the continuation of the Lewis industry to the present day. It is an indication of his impact that while “the holidays” began for him, a vast plethora of articles, research theses, books, institutes, journals, fan clubs, documentaries and screenplays — not to mention movies — have now occupied a term that has lasted more than forty years.
This post was originally published by Tabletalk magazine in an issue dedicated to the life and significance of C.S. Lewis.