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Lewis, C S

Category: Writer

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad story.  The good ones last – the reason for writing one should be because a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say”

C.S. Lewis by Walter Stoneman
Bromide print, 1955

Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963), commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis, was an academic, medievalist,  literary critic,  essayist and  lay theologian.   He was born in Ireland.

Lewis was baptised in the Church of Ireland. His mother Florence was the daughter of a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest, she died in 1908 from cancer.

The death of his mother, along with his early schooling had a profound effect on Lewis.  Lewis’s first school  - Wynyard - was closed due to a lack of pupils — the headmaster was soon after committed to an insane asylum. After Wynyard closed, Lewis was then sent to Campbell College [Belfast], but left after a few months due to respiratory problems. He was then sent away from home to Malvern, where he first went to preparatory school and then in September 1913, to Malvern College.

It was during this time that 15-year-old Lewis abandoned his childhood Christian faith and became an atheist.  Lewis quoted Lucretius (De rerum natura, 5.198–9) as having one of the strongest arguments for atheism:
Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratam
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa

"Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see."

 

As his studies started to include Greek mythology, Lewis’s spiritual interests started to develop in a new direction.  Lewis was wonderstruck by the songs and legends of what he called Northernness, the ancient literature of Scandinavia preserved in the Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology.  His studies also gave him a love of Greek literature and mythology, as well as Irish mythology.  He developed a particular fondness for W. B. Yeats, in part because of Yeats’s use of Ireland’s Celtic heritage in poetry. These legends and his love of nature intensified a longing he had within, a deep desire he would later call "joy".  

 

Although Lewis won a scholarship to University College, Oxford in 1916, he volunteered a year later for the British Army to fight in World War I, and was commissioned an officer in the Third Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. Lewis arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France on his nineteenth birthday, and experienced trench warfare.  On 15 April 1918, he was wounded and suffered depression during his convalescence. He was discharged in December 1918.  The suffering and illness was also to have a profound and long term influence on him.

Lewis returned to Oxford to resume his studies and received a First in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin Literature) in 1920, a First in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) in 1922, and a First in English in 1923.

Lewis's interest in fantasy and mythology, especially in relation to the works of the Christian fantasy writer George MacDonald, gradually turned him from atheism. This can be seen particularly well through this passage in Lewis's The Great Divorce, chapter nine, when the semi-autobiographical main character meets MacDonald in Heaven:

‘…I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how …. Phantastes …. had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness’.

 

Lewis was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien,  the author of The Lord of the Rings.  Both authors were leading figures in the English faculty at Oxford University. Influenced by discussions with Tolkien, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton, Lewis slowly rediscovered Christianity. He fought greatly up to the moment of his conversion noting, "I came into Christianity kicking and screaming."

‘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. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. 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’.

After his conversion in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, at the age of 33,  becoming "a very ordinary layman of the Church of England”. His conversion had a profound effect on his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

After his conversion to Christianity, his interests gravitated towards Christian spirituality and away from 'pagan' Celtic mysticism.

But it is his Celtic mysticism phase that is the most interesting and the most revealing, and the one that actually shaped his final beliefs.

Books

Jill Freud, the inspiration for Lucy in 'Narnia'

Lewis is known primarily for his works of fiction, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy.  All are superficially a way of describing  Christian themes such as sin, humanity's fall from grace, and redemption.  But no, look beneath the surface and it is clear C S Lewis knew his symbolism.

His children’s book show a deep understanding of the symbolism of the spiritual world.  He has islands, boats, spirits, destiny …. The list could go on and on.

Space Trilogy

His Space Trilogy or Ransom Trilogy novels (also called the Cosmic Trilogy) dealt with what Lewis saw as the then-current dehumanising trends in modern science fiction. The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, was apparently written following a conversation with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien.  The second novel, Perelandra, illustrates a new Garden of Eden, a new Adam and Eve, and a new "serpent figure" to tempt them.  The last novel in the Trilogy is That Hideous Strength.   Many of the ideas presented in the books, particularly in That Hideous Strength, are dramatizations of arguments made more formally in Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

 

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven fantasy novels for children.

Written between 1949 and 1954 and illustrated by Pauline Baynes, the series is Lewis's most popular work having sold over 100 million copies in forty-one languages.

It has been adapted several times, complete or in part, for radio, television, stage, and cinema.  

The series has been published in several different orders, and the preferred reading order for the series is often debated among fans; Douglas Gresham has stated that Lewis preferred that they be read in "Narnian chronology", not the order in which they were published.

It is these books that contain the most symbolism and are actually an allegory of the spiritual path.  The books are easily accessible to younger readers,  however, and can be read for their adventure, colour, and richness of ideas alone. Lewis borrows characters from Greek and Roman mythology as well as traditional British and Irish fairy tales.

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters consists of letters of advice from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, on the best ways to tempt a particular human and secure his damnation.

 

Other works

Lewis wrote a number of works on Heaven and Hell. One of these, The Great Divorce, is a short novella in which a few residents of Hell take a bus ride to Heaven, where they are met by people who dwell there. The proposition is that they can stay (in which case they can call the place where they had come from “Purgatory”, instead of “Hell”); but many find it not to their taste. The title is a reference to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

References

Space Trilogy

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (aka Voyage to Venus) (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1946)
 

The Chronicles of Narnia

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
  • Prince Caspian (1951)
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
  • The Silver Chair (1953)
  • The Horse and His Boy (1954)
  • The Magician's Nephew (1955)
  • The Last Battle (1956)

Screwtape

  • The screwtape letters[1942]
  • Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1961) (an addition to The Screwtape Letters)

Other

  • The Great Divorce (1945)
  • Till We Have Faces (1956)
  • The Four Loves (1960)

The Dark Tower (1977)

Observations

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