Profile: Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis

Picture of C.S.Lewis sitting at his desk C.S. Lewis taught English literature at Oxford. Former students say his lectures were incredibly popular

Related Stories

C.S. Lewis was a writer, poet, scholar of English literature and defender of Christianity. His most famous work is the series Chronicles of Narnia, which includes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast on 29 November 1898. He was known to his family as Jack, as that was the name he chose for himself at the age of three, when he started ignoring anyone who called him Clive.

His parents, Albert and Flora, were both keen readers and Jack and his older brother Warren grew up surrounded by books. They were an Ulster Protestant family and, growing up, Lewis attended church every Sunday. Lewis did not feel the services were very spiritual and he developed a dislike for Christianity that would last until adulthood.

Image of C.S. Lewis statue in Belfast Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast on 29 November 1898

In August 1908 his mother died from cancer. Shortly afterwards, he was sent to the Wynyard boarding school in Hertfordshire, a place he regarded as dreadful.

Northernness

When Wynyard closed down, Lewis was sent to Cherbourg House, a preparatory school in Malvern, Worcestershire. There he discovered Richard Wagner's music and the work of artist Arthur Rackham, both in vogue at the time.

Wagner was also a gateway to other important elements in the writer's formation, such as Norse mythology and sagas, which led to the development of his concept of "northernness".

Northernness was an extreme fascination with the northern lands of Britain and Scandinavia, but also a sense of longing for something unattainable, an imaginary world.

C.S. Lewis's Christian philosophy

When he went to secondary school at Malvern College his experience there was completely different from Cherbourg, due to a group of older pupils bullying younger students.

Lewis's imagination was a source of great solace at this time and helped him find one of his best friends: a boy named Arthur Greeves, who also loved Norse mythology.

Lewis demonstrated considerable academic talent and one of his teachers remarked that he would be a good candidate for a Classics degree at Oxford.

Three first-class degrees
The Narnia window, Holy Trinity Church The Narnia window in Oxford's Holy Trinity Church

He started university in 1916 and, after four years, gained three first-class degrees: Greek and Latin literature, classical philosophy and English language and literature.

It was during his time at university he met some remarkable figures, including author J.R.R. Tolkien, poet Adam Fox, lecturer Hugo Dyson and novelist Charles Williams. They were part of a literary discussion group called The Inklings, where members would hear and criticise each other's writing.

At Oxford, Lewis also met Edward Moore, who served with him in WWI. As an Irishman Lewis did not have an obligation to fight, but he wanted to do his part so joined the army.

Lewis and Moore had an agreement that, should one of them be killed in battle, the other would look after his family. When Moore died, Lewis honoured this pact by living with Mrs Moore, who had moved to Oxford, until she died in 1951.

Conversion

Lewis's conversion to Christianity was influenced, like many other aspects of his life, by books and friends. He often argued philosophy and religion with them, including Catholic Tolkien.

Start Quote

Picture of Richard Butler, former choirboy at Holy Trinity

He used to sit behind the pillar because he didn't like people looking at him”

End Quote Richard Butler Former choirboy at the Holy Trinity Church

In 1931, following a long night-time walk and discussion on Addison's Walk in Magdalen College with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis grew increasingly convinced by his friends' arguments.

The final phase of his conversion to Christianity took place three days later, during a motorbike trip to Whipsnade zoo. Lewis said about the experience: "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." His book The Pilgrim's Regress is an allegorical rendition of the story of his conversion.

Lewis joined the Church of England and attended the Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, where he began taking Holy Communion in 1931. He worshipped there for 30 years.

"He was a rather anonymous person," recalls Richard Butler, a former choirboy at Holy Trinity.

"No-one ever had a conversation with him. He used to sit behind the pillar because he didn't like people looking at him."

After his conversion Lewis began writing the Christian apologetic works he is also famous for.

Selected bibliography

Fiction

  • Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (1943); That Hideous Strength (1946)
  • The Screwtape Letters (1942)
  • The Great Divorce (1945)
  • 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)
  • Till We Have Faces (1956)

Apologetics (theological books)

  • The Problem of Pain (1940)
  • Miracles (1947, revised 1960)
  • Mere Christianity (1952)

Autobiographical

  • Surprised by Joy (1955)
  • A Grief Observed (1961)

Poetry

  • Spirits in Bondage (1919)
  • Narrative Poems (1969)

Academic and other

  • A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942)
  • The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936)
  • English Literature in the 16th Century Excluding Drama (1954)
  • Reflections on the Psalms (1958)
  • Of This and Other Worlds (1982)

Source: BBC Religion and Ethics

Literary output

It was after his father died in 1929, Lewis inherited some money and bought a house - the Kilns - with his brother Warren and Mrs Moore. During WWII the Kilns hosted several evacuees, an early inspiration for the Chronicles of Narnia.

"It was a frightening place, so overgrown, and you always felt that someone was watching you," says Mr Butler, who occasionally delivered letters for Lewis at the Kilns.

At that point, Lewis was teaching English literature.

"His lectures were very famous, and packed - there were hundreds of students in the lecture hall," according to Kitty Datta, a former student of Lewis's.

"What struck me was a tolerance of odd ideas. Lewis was fascinated with continental thinkers who were struggling with new ideas, and gave me the basis for my own thinking."

In 1937 Lewis published his first science fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet, in which philologist Dr Ransom is abducted and taken to planet Malacandra to be sacrificed.

The Problem of Pain, in which Lewis offers Christian answers to questions around sufferance, was published in 1940. Between 1941 and 1944 Lewis gave a series of talks on BBC radio on the pillars of Christian faith. These talks were later collected in the book Mere Christianity.

In The Screwtape Letters (1942) a demon and his sidekick exchange letters on their preferred methods of tempting a human. The Chronicles of Narnia were published between 1948 and 1956 and, at the same time, Lewis also wrote his partial autobiography Surprised by Joy - an account of his spiritual journey.

His books were very popular and he received hundreds of letters from fans. Had he kept his income he would have been a very rich man, but he gave most of it away by setting up a trust which distributed the net income from his books and royalties to small charities.

Joy and grief

In 1952 Joy Gresham, an English literature teacher from New York with whom Lewis had been corresponding, visited England.

When she returned home she discovered her husband had cheated on her, so she and her two sons moved to England permanently and settled in a house near the Kilns.

Image of C.S. Lewis grave with the quote "Men must endure their going hence" The inscription on C.S. Lewis's grave was inspired by a Shakespearian quote on his mother's calendar

When her work permit expired in 1956, Lewis married her at a quiet civil ceremony in a registry office. But soon after, Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died in 1960.

Her death put Lewis's faith to the test. He recorded his feelings, including his moments of doubt, in A Grief Observed, which he wrote under a pseudonym and later revealed to be his work.

The author died only three years later, in 1963 on November 22 - the same day as Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and USA president John F Kennedy.

Lewis is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity. The inscription on his grave reads "Men must endure their going hence" - a quote from King Lear. His mother had a calendar with a Shakespearian quote for each day of the year, and that was the quote on the day she died.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Programmes

BBC iPlayer
  • Sian WilliamsSunday Morning Live

    Naturalist Bill Oddie gives his views on plans to bring back wolves to Britain

Things To Do

RUN BY THE BBC AND PARTNERS

More Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.