Clive Staples “C.S.” Lewis was born on November 29, 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He grew up at Little Lea in the County Down in sight of the Mountains of Mourne. As a writer later in life, he would take inspiration from the Irish landscape and the whimsy and fantasy of Irish fairy-tales for his own fictional works. As a child of four, Clive demanded to be called “Jacksie.” For the rest of his life, his friends and family knew him simply as Jack. Young Jack grew up creating imaginary worlds with his older brother Warnie. Especially fascinated by the stories of Beatrix Potter, Jack invented the fantasy world of Boxen and populated it with talking animals. To this imaginary land, Warnie added the medieval knights and battles that fascinated him. These childhood fantasies were the kernels that later grew into Lewis’s most well-known books, The Chronicles of Narnia.
At the age of nine, Jack’s mother Flora Hamilton Lewis died of cancer. The boy was devastated. After her death, Lewis grew further away from his father Albert, who sent him off to boarding school. One of the schools that Jack attended was run by a sadistic headmaster who was later certified insane and institutionalized. Lewis noted that the students there were “beaten, cheated, scared, [and] ill-fed” (“My First School,” Present Concerns). He was later privately tutored by William T. Kirkpatrick, who instilled in him a love of rigorous, logical thinking and prepared him well for his upcoming university education.
World War I interrupted Lewis’s schooling at Oxford University. He joined the British Army in 1917 and participated in trench warfare on the Western Front. While in France, he was wounded when a shell exploded nearby, and he had the good fortune to have dozens of German soldiers surrender to him en masse with little effort on his part. Some of his friends and colleagues died during the war, including Paddy Moore. Lewis had promised Moore that he would take care of Moore’s mother and sister if he should die. After the war, Janie Moore and her daughter Maureen moved in with Lewis. There has been some speculation as to the nature of his long-term relationship with Mrs. Moore. Lewis’s friend and biographer, George Sayer, asserts that after talking to Maureen Moore, he now believes that Lewis and the much-older Mrs. Moore were likely lovers in Lewis’s younger years. This relationship appears to have evolved into a more platonic mother-son type relationship after Lewis’s later conversion to Christianity.
After World War I, C.S. Lewis finished his education successfully and became a don at Oxford. While tutoring at Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis met philologist and fellow scholar J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien encouraged Lewis to join his informal literary group, the Coalbiters. Together the Coalbiters studied the Icelandic language and read early Old Norse sagas. Later Lewis and Tolkien formed the literary society, the Inklings, with several of their Oxford colleagues and friends, including Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Lewis’s brother Warnie, and several others. The Inklings, which mainly consisted of Christian authors, read many of their works aloud to each other while still in the writing stages. In particular, Lewis encouraged Tolkien in his creation of the stories of Middle Earth. Lewis was one of the first people to see early drafts of the stories that later became The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. In addition, Lewis prodded the slow-working, perfectionist Tolkien to finish and publish his fantasy writings, especially The Lord of Rings, which Lewis considered a masterpiece. In the meanwhile, Tolkien provided a model for the leading character Ransom, the philologist, in Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945)). Discussions with Tolkien initially prompted Lewis to begin work on the trilogy, which took inspiration from the Bible, ancient and medieval myths, and modern science-fiction authors that Lewis enjoyed such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The final book in the series, That Hideous Strength, also showed the influence of Lewis’s new friend, writer and publisher Charles Williams. Lewis also emphasized in the book what he saw as the growing danger of moral relativism and the disintegration of society’s standards of right and wrong. This fascination with moral relativism led Lewis to pen The Abolition of Man (1943), an impassioned defense of the concept of natural law.
More significantly for Lewis’s future, J.R.R. Tolkien (and their mutual friend Hugo Dyson) helped lead Lewis to Christianity. After his often disturbing childhood and young adulthood, Lewis had abandoned the Christian faith of his boyhood. However, once he was in his early thirties he began a slow reconversion to theism and then to Christianity. Once he converted, Lewis began to infuse his writings with his newfound religious beliefs. He released popular volumes of Christian apologetics, including Miracles (1947) and The Problem of Pain (1940). During World War II, the BBC hired Lewis to deliver a series of radio talks about Christianity. This brought Lewis a new celebrity and provided the raw material that later became his most popular non-fiction book, Mere Christianity (1952).
His Christian beliefs also influenced his fictional writings. In his 1942 book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis illustrated a novel way to view temptation and evil. The key character and narrator of the book, Screwtape, a powerful demon, advises his nephew cleverly and insightfully how to lead humans astray. The Great Divorce (1945) provided a fantasy view of heaven and hell and displayed the influence of one of Lewis’s favorite authors, George MacDonald. Inspired by his childhood fantasy worlds, his academic specialty of the Middle Ages, and his extensive knowledge of ancient, Germanic, and Celtic myths, Lewis wrote a series of seven children’s fantasy books in the 1950s. These books, The Chronicles of Narnia, displayed key tenants of his Christian philosophy in a straight-forward and fun style, but they also combined many strands of traditional fantasy writing in new ways. 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), and The Last Battle (1956)) remain immensely popular to this day with over 120 million volumes sold and have recently been made into a series of movies.
Lewis became a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University in 1953. Although he published scholarly works while at Oxford such as the well-acclaimed A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), his academic output increased after his move to Cambridge, including literary works such as The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964), Studies in Words (1960), An Experiment in Criticism (1961), and the voluminous English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954).
The most important event in his life during the 1950s, however, was his meeting with Joy Davidman Gresham. Lewis spent much of his work day answering letters from his readers (many of Lewis’s letters have since been collected and published). Gresham, a Jew who had recently converted to Christianity, carried on a correspondence with Lewis and later met him on a trip to England. Over time this meeting blossomed into a hearty and intellectually lively friendship. Once Lewis discovered that Joy and her young sons, David and Douglas, were being deported back to the United States, where Joy’s abusive and alcoholic ex-husband lived, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in order to extend his British citizenship her and her sons. Not long after their marriage, doctors diagnosed Joy with terminal cancer. Lewis, realizing that he loved her, asked her to marry him before God. They were married again in a religious ceremony in Joy’s hospital room. Although expected to die soon, Joy made a miraculous recovery and they spent three happy years together before her cancer returned and claimed her life. The story of Jack and Joy Lewis’s relationship was later made into a play, a TV movie, and a film entitled Shadowlands (1993), which starred Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis.
After Joy’s death, Lewis continued writing even as his own health declined. Under a pseudonym, he published a short journal chronicling his own misery and doubts after his wife’s loss, which he entitled A Grief Observed (1961). The last book that he wrote was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964, published posthumously). He passed away on November 22, 1963, the same day that fellow writer Aldous Huxley died and American president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lewis’s colleagues and friends remembered him as a good-humored, generous, and highly-intelligent man. His books continue sell in the millions.