Jack Lewis, 1919
Public DomainJack Lewis, 1919

"I still remember how I first saw C. S. Lewis, and I thought, 'Nothing more remarkable than this will ever take place in my life.'" Walter Hooper, quoted in C. S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends and Colleagues (Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe, general editors; Zondervan, 2006)

 

Albert Lewis, C. S. Lewis's father
Public DomainAlbert Lewis, C. S. Lewis's father
Flora Augusta Lewis, C. S. Lewis's mother
Public DomainFlora Augusta Lewis, C. S. Lewis's mother

Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, Albert James Lewis, was a solicitor. His mother, Flora Hamilton Lewis, died of cancer before his tenth birthday. Around age fifteen, C. S. Lewis (or “Jack,” as he preferred to be called) rejected the Christian faith and started to consider himself an atheist.

In 1914 he began to study privately with William T. Kirkpatrick (1848–1921), whom Lewis referred to affectionately as “The Great Knock.” Lewis attended University College, Oxford, from April to September 1917. England had been at war since 1914; Lewis "could have claimed exemption from military service by being Irish. But Jack ... believed he should earn his right to be in the University by passing through the Officers' Training Corps (O.T.C.) into the Army" (All My Road before Me). He reached the Somme Valley in France on November 29, 1917, his nineteenth birthday. After being wounded in the spring of 1918, he returned to duty in England and was discharged in December of that year.

From January 1919 until June 1924, he resumed his studies at University College, Oxford, where he 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. (http://www.cslewis.org/resources/chronocsl.html)

C. S. Lewis (far left) and Paddy Moore (far right), 1917
Public DomainC. S. Lewis (far left) and Paddy Moore (far right), 1917

A close friend and former roommate of Lewis’s, Edward Courtenay Francis “Paddy” Moore, was killed in battle in 1918. Lewis had promised to look after Moore’s mother, Mrs. Janie King Moore, in case of Paddy’s death, and during the summer of 1920 Lewis, Mrs. Moore, and Paddy’s sister, Maureen, took up residence together, a fact that Lewis went to great lengths to keep secret from his father. The nature of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore has been the subject of much speculation, but Lewis never publicly commented on it.

 

C. S. Lewis and his father, 1917
Public DomainC. S. Lewis and his father, 1917

After years of study, poverty, and frustration, Lewis was finally elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925. He served as tutor in English Language and Literature there until 1954. It was during this time that he formed a friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien (“a smooth, pale, fluent little chap . . . no harm in him: only needs a smack or so” [Lewis’s diary, Tuesday, 11 May 1926 (All My Road Before Me, 392)]) and H. V. V. Dyson, “both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give [Lewis] much help” in becoming a Christian himself. (Surprised by Joy, 216)

 

In 1929 Lewis’s theological position began to turn, and he rejected atheism and embraced theism. The decision was not a sudden one, as he later recounted in Surprised by Joy:

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew* sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape? (223-24)

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. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? . . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. (228-29)

Being a theist is not the same thing, however, as being a Christian: “It must be understood that the conversion recorded in the last chapter was only to Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity. I knew nothing yet about the Incarnation. The God to whom I surrendered was sheerly nonhuman.” (Surprised by Joy, 230)

 

Jack and Warnie Lewis, early 1900s
Public DomainJack and Warnie Lewis, early 1900s

In 1930 Lewis, along with Mrs. Moore and Lewis’s brother, Warnie, purchased a house they called The Kilns at Headington, Oxford. It would remain Lewis’s home until his death.

On October 1 of 1931 Lewis wrote to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves, “How deep I am just now beginning to see; for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.” (They Stand Together, 425)

Lewis later elaborated on his conversion in Surprised by Joy:

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. . . . If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. . . . And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (235-36)

 

C. S. Lewis--and Screwtape--made the cover of Time on 8 September 1947.
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumC. S. Lewis--and Screwtape--made the cover of Time on 8 September 1947. - Credit: Steven N. Skaggs

In the fall of 1933 Lewis began meeting with a group of friends to discuss literature and philosophy. Calling themselves “The Inklings,” the group continued to meet for the next sixteen years. Some of his best-known works from the 1930s and ’40s include The Pilgrim’s Regress, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, and Miracles.

 

Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was published in 1950. In early 1951, the same year in which Prince Caspian was published, Mrs. Moore passed away, having spent the last months of her life in a nursing home.

In September of 1952 Lewis met his future wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish woman from the United States. Like Lewis, she was a former atheist who had converted to Christianity. She had been a fan of Lewis’s books for years, and they formed a strong intellectual companionship.

As the 1950s progressed, Lewis produced a profusion of books:

  • 1952: Mere Christianity; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • 1953: The Silver Chair
  • 1954: The Horse and His Boy; English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama
  • 1955: The Magician’s Nephew; Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
  • 1956: The Last Battle; Till We Have Faces
  • 1958: Reflections on the Psalms

In 1954 he accepted the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, moving to Magdalene College in 1955.

on April 23, [1956], he entered into a civil marriage with Joy Davidman at the Oxford Registry Office for the purpose of conferring upon her the status of British citizenship in order to prevent her threatened deportation by British migration authorities. (http://www.cslewis.org/resources/chronocsl.html)

On March 20, 1957, after Joy had to return to the Wingfield Hospital [where she was being treated for cancer], Lewis contacted one of his former pupils, the Rev. Peter Bide, and asked him to come to the hospital to lay hands on Joy and to pray for her healing; on March 21, 1957, Bide went to the hospital and, at Lewis's request, first married Lewis and Joy and then laid hands on Joy and prayed for her healing. (Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, p. 310)

Afterwards Joy experienced an extraordinary—Lewis would say miraculous—recovery from her cancer, and the two of them took a vacation to Ireland. In 1960, when her cancer returned with a vengeance, the Lewises toured Greece with friends. Joy died in July 1960; she was only forty-five years old. In 1961 Lewis published his notebooks recording his grief and despair at Joy’s death. Titled A Grief Observed and initially published under a pseudonym (“N. W. Clerk”), the book is a no-holds-barred look at the grieving process and the struggles with doubt and bitterness that can assault even a committed Christian at such times.

Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, recounts the author's days in his book Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis:

Jack’s habit of regarding everyone as more important than himself had taken its toll on him and his own health. He was by this time [late 1960] a sick man. . . . Jack had an inflamed prostate, and it needed to be removed, but it had resulted in an infection that damaged his kidneys, and this put strain on his heart. . . . He had been left with a weak spine by the loss of calcium from his bones and had to wear a back brace at all times. He slowly had to accept that he was and always would be an invalid, but he was careful not to let it show any more than was completely unavoidable. His condition improved again for a while, and in 1962 he was back at Cambridge, still writing and teaching.

Jack had realized by late in 1961 that he was coming to the end of his eventful and productive life. . . . Jack was ready to go on and be with Jesus. He did not long for death but was ready just to wait and accept whatever the Lord sent. . . . Now, once again loaded with responsibilities—two orphaned teenage boys, an elderly alcoholic brother, and a household—bereaved and sorrowing, ill and tired, Jack discovered one of the greatest secrets of life: that no matter what is actually happening around you, you can still be content if you hand your life over entirely to Christ. . . .

On Friday, November 22, 1963, the famous writer Aldous Huxley died. On the same day in Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy, then president of the United States of America, was shot dead. Also on the same day at 5:34 in the afternoon, C. S. Lewis died at his much loved home, The Kilns, Kiln Lane, Headington Quarry, Oxford. . . . He had done all he wanted to do and said all that he wanted to say; and more important still, God was ready to take him home. (160–64)

 

C. S. Lewis, early 1900s
Public DomainC. S. Lewis, early 1900s

 

* This may be a reference to Thomas Dewar Weldon. In All My Road Before Me, 379-80, Lewis’s diary entry for Tuesday, 27 April, 1926, recounts an evening Lewis spent with Weldon. It reads in part as follows: “We somehow got on the historical truth of the Gospels, and agreed that there was a lot that could not be explained away. He believes in the Hegelian doctrine of the Trinity and said the whole thing fitted in: in fact he is a Christian ‘of a sort’. I should never have suspected it. . . . Got to bed v. late at last with a headache, regretting a wasted, tho’ interesting evening.”

 

 

For further reading:

The C. S. Lewis Foundation website

C. S. Lewis website by HarperCollins Publishers: cslewis.com

Website created by a Lewis fan: Into the Wardrobe