17 February 2018

C. S. Lewis: The Man Behind the Myth

C. S. Lewis is perhaps best known as the author of the seven fantasy novels, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ relating the history of the mythical land of Narnia from its creation in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ to its final destruction in ‘The Last Battle’, but his own life story is equally interesting.
Clive Staples Lewis, known to his family and friends as ‘Jack’, was born on 29 November 1898 in Dundela Villas, Belfast. His father, Albert, was a solicitor in the city and the first Sunday School Superintendent in St. Mark’s parish church, Belfast. His mother, Flora, was a daughter of Rev. Thomas Hamilton, the first minister of St Mark’s (1874-1900) and she was a pioneer female mathematics graduate from Queen’s College, the Royal University of Ireland, (now Queen’s University, Belfast). His only other sibling was an older brother, Warren.

Jack was accustomed to suffering and death. His mother died of cancer, aged 47 when he was only nine years old, co-incidentally on his father’s 45th birthday. Over the next eight years Jack was sent to a succession of English boarding schools, in Hertfordshire and Worcestershire, and a very brief spell at Campbell College in Belfast, but all were unhappy experiences for him. Eventually, from 1914-16, he found educational stimulus under the teaching of William Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham in Surrey. Kirkpatrick had formerly been headmaster of Lurgan College in Armagh where he had taught and formed a close friendship with Albert Lewis. Jack also grew close to Kirkpatrick. In 1916 he was accepted into University College, Oxford but enlisted in the army in 1917, as an officer in the 3rd Battalion, Light Somerset Infantry. He arrived on the Somme battlefield and soon saw action, sustaining shrapnel wounds to his leg, arm and chest in the battle of Arras on 15 April 1918. As a result he was posted back to England to recuperate. His closest friend from officer training days, ‘Paddy’ Moore, was killed on 24 March 1918.

He resumed his studies after the war and graduated with a First class degree in Greek and Latin Literature from University College, Oxford in 1920. He also obtained a First in Philosophy and Ancient History in 1922 and a First in English in 1923.

From the summer of 1920 Lewis shared a home with Mrs Jane Moore, mother of his friend ‘Paddy’, and her daughter, Maureen. On 20 May 1925 Lewis was appointed as a tutor in English Language and Literature in Magdalen College, Oxford; a post which he held for 29 years. Lewis was a member of a group of intellectuals, ‘The Inklings’, who were interested in theological issues and who met weekly for lively discussion. They included literary critics and writers. His atheism was challenged at ‘Inkling’ meetings. In 1929 Lewis became a theist; finally admitting that God existed. In this same year his father died of cancer. After much thought and many conversations with his friends and associates, including ‘The Lord of the Rings’ author J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis became a Christian in September 1931.

Lewis had several publications in the 1930s and 40s, which secured his reputation as a foremost Christian apologist. ‘Screwtape Letters’ were published in weekly instalments in ‘The Guardian’ (a Christian magazine) in 1941. Other notable publications included; ‘Miracles’ (1947), ‘Mere Christianity’ (1952), ‘The Four Loves’ (1960) and ‘A Grief Observed’ (1961). During the 1940s he gave several BBC radio talks on various aspects of Christianity and these broadcasts affirmed his growing reputation as a leading Christian apologist. During the 1940s and 1950s C.S. Lewis was the most popular Christian apologist writing in English. In all, he published 42 books; the first, ‘Spirits in Bondage’: ‘A Cycle of Lyrics’ in 1919 and the last, ‘They Asked for a Paper’: ‘Papers and Addresses’ in 1962. They display a variety of genres; theological, literary, romantic, poetic and biographical.

Some of his words are truly memorable. Three examples will amply illustrate, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (Screwtape Letters). “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (Mere Christianity). “Christ died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for; to make them worth it.” (The World’s Last Night).

Arguably, Lewis’ most famous publication is ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. This consists of seven volumes of fairy story, at first sight written for children but containing themes and allegories for adults.

These stories were originally published separately, commencing with ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

in 1950 and concluding with ‘The Last Battle in 1956’. The children’s adventures in the fantasy land of Narnia under the leadership of the lion Aslan mirror human life before Jesus Christ

Jack was in communication with Joy Gresham, a novelist and poet, from about 1950. She was an American Jewish convert to Christianity. Following the breakup of her marriage she moved to England in 1953. In June 1954 Lewis was appointed Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalen College, Cambridge. He married Joy Gresham at Oxford Registry Office on 23 April 1956 and she was diagnosed with breast cancer only six months later. After a brief period of remission, Joy died on 13 July 1960 at the age of 45. Lewis resigned his professorship at Cambridge in August 1963 and  died from a heart attack at 5:30pm on Friday 22 November that year – the same day as Aldous Huxley and American president J. F. Kennedy. The grave of C.S. Lewis is beside Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford.

The message of C.S. Lewis is relevant for Christians today. Personally, he did not find Christianity easy to believe and consequently he did not present it as an easy option, but rather a journey of discovery, fraught with many dangers and trials. For him, Christianity was relevant for all situations in life, the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the enjoyable and the painful.

Laurence Kirkpatrick