Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963) was a British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist. He held academic positions at both Oxford University(Magdalen College), 1925–54, and Cambridge University (Magdalene College), 1954–63. He is best known for his fictional work, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.
Lewis and fellow novelist J. R. R. Tolkien were close friends. They both served on the English faculty at Oxford University, and were active in the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. According to Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, he was baptised in the Church of Ireland, but fell away from his faith during adolescence. Lewis returned to Anglicanism at the age of 32, owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, and he became an “ordinary layman of the Church of England”. His faith profoundly affected his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.
In 1956, he married American writer Joy Davidman; she died of cancer four years later at the age of 45. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 from renal failure, one week before his 65th birthday. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Lewis’s works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularised on stage, TV, radio, and cinema. His works entered the public domain in 2014 in countries where copyright expires 50 years after the death of the creator, such as Canada.
As a boy, Lewis was fascinated with anthropomorphic animals; he fell in love with Beatrix Potter’s stories and often wrote and illustrated his own animal stories. He and his brother Warnie created the world of Boxen, inhabited and run by animals. Lewis loved to read. His father’s house was filled with books, and he felt that finding a book to read was as easy as walking into a field and “finding a new blade of grass”.
Lewis was born into a bookish family of Protestants in Belfast, Ireland. Eclectic in their reading tastes, they purchased and read “endless” books. “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.
After his only brother, Warren, was sent off to English boarding school in 1905, Jack became somewhat reclusive. He spent more time in books and an imaginary world of “dressed animals” and “knights in armor.” But he did more than read books, he wrote and illustrated his own stories as well.
Lewis was schooled by private tutors before being sent to the Wynyard School in Watford, Hertfordshire, in 1908, just after his mother’s death from cancer. Lewis’s brother had enrolled there three years previously. The school was closed not long afterwards due to a lack of pupils; the headmaster Robert “Oldie” Capron was soon after committed to a psychiatric hospital. Lewis then attended Campbell College in the east of Belfast about a mile from his home, but he left after a few months due to respiratory problems. He was then sent to the health-resort town of Malvern, Worcestershire, where he attended the preparatory school Cherbourg House, which Lewis calls “Chartres” in his autobiography. It was during this time that Lewis abandoned his childhood Christian faith and became an atheist, becoming interested in mythology and the occult. In September 1913, Lewis enrolled at Malvern College, where he remained until the following June. He found the school socially competitive. After leaving Malvern, he studied privately with William T. Kirkpatrick, his father’s old tutor and former headmaster of Lurgan College.
As a teenager, Lewis was wonder-struck by the songs and legends of what he called Northernness, the ancient literature of Scandinavia preserved in the Icelandic sagas. These legends intensified an inner longing he later called “joy”. He also grew to love nature; its beauty reminded him of the stories of the North, and the stories of the North reminded him of the beauties of nature. His teenage writings moved away from the tales of Boxen, and he began using different art forms, including epic poetry and opera, to try to capture his new-found interest in Norse mythology and the natural world. Studying with Kirkpatrick (“The Great Knock”, as Lewis afterwards called him) instilled in him a love of Greek literature and mythology and sharpened his debate and reasoning skills. In 1916, Lewis was awarded a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Within months of entering Oxford, the British Army shipped him to France to fight in the First World War. His experience of the horror of war confirmed his atheism.
His mother’s death from cancer in 1908 came just three months before Jack’s tenth birthday, and the young man was hurt deeply by her passing. Not only did he lose a mother, his father never fully recovered from her death. Both boys felt estranged from their father, and home life was never warm and satisfying again.
The death of Mrs. Lewis convinced young Jack that the God he encountered in the Bible his mother gave him 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.
Return to Christianity
Lewis was raised in a religious family that attended the Church of Ireland. He became an atheist at age 15, though he later described his young self as being paradoxically “angry with God for not existing”. His early separation from Christianity began when he started to view his religion as a chore and a duty; around this time, he also gained an interest in the occult, as his studies expanded to include such topics. 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.
Lewis’s interest in the works of George MacDonald was part of what 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 a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) 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.
He eventually returned to Christianity, having been influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, whom he seems to have met for the first time on 11 May 1926, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton. Lewis vigorously resisted conversion, noting that he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”. He described his last struggle in Surprised by Joy:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], 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 to theism in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. He records making a specific commitment to Christian belief while on his way to the zoo with his brother. He became a member of the Church of England – somewhat to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped that he would join the Catholic Church.
Lewis was a committed Anglican who upheld a largely orthodox Anglican theology, though in his apologetic writings, he made an effort to avoid espousing any one denomination. In his later writings, some believe that he proposed ideas such as purification of venial sins after death in purgatory (The Great Divorce and Letters to Malcolm) and mortal sin (The Screwtape Letters), which are generally considered to be Roman Catholic teachings, although they are also widely held in Anglicanism (particularly in high church Anglo-Catholic circles). Regardless, Lewis considered himself an entirely orthodox Anglican to the end of his life, reflecting that he had initially attended church only to receive communion and had been repelled by the hymns and the poor quality of the sermons. He later came to consider himself honoured by worshipping with men of faith who came in shabby clothes and work boots and who sang all the verses to all the hymns.
Illness and Death
In early June 1961, Lewis began suffering from inflammation of the kidneys, which resulted in blood poisoning. His illness caused him to miss the autumn term at Cambridge, though his health gradually began improving in 1962 and he returned that April. Lewis’s health continued to improve, and according to his friend George Sayer, Lewis was fully himself by early 1963. On 15 July that year he fell ill and was admitted to hospital. The next day at 5:00 pm, Lewis suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma, unexpectedly awaking the following day at 2:00 pm. After he was discharged from the hospital, Lewis returned to the Kilns, though he was too ill to return to work. As a result, he resigned from his post at Cambridge in August. Lewis’s condition continued to decline, and in mid-November he was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. On 22 November, exactly one week before his 65th birthday, Lewis collapsed in his bedroom at 5:30 pm and died a few minutes later. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford. His brother Warren Hamilton “Warnie” Lewis, who died on 9 April 1973, was later buried in the same grave.
Media coverage of Lewis’s death was almost completely overshadowed by news of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on the same day (approximately 55 minutes following Lewis’s collapse), as did the death of English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. This coincidence was the inspiration for Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley. Lewis is commemorated on 22 November in the church calendar of the Episcopal Church.