Last reviewed: June 2017
British writer, lay theologian, and critic
November 29, 1898
Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland)
November 22, 1963
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on November 29, 1898, Clive Staples Jack Lewis was reared in a peculiarly bookish home, one in which the reality he found on the pages of the books within his parents’ extensive library seemed as tangible and meaningful to him as anything that transpired outside their doors. As adolescents, Lewis and his older brother, Warren, were more at home in the world of ideas and books of the past than with the material, technological world of the twentieth century. When the tranquillity and sanctity of the Lewis home was shattered beyond repair by the death of his mother when he was ten years old, Lewis sought refuge in composing stories and excelling in scholastics. Soon thereafter, he became precociously oriented toward the metaphysical.
The rest of his saga and the particulars of his writing career might be seen as the melancholy search for the security he had taken for granted during the peace and grace of his childhood. By Lewis’s testimony, this recovery was to be had only in the “joy” he discovered in an adult conversion to Christianity. Longtime friend and literary executor of the Lewis estate Owen Barfield has suggested that there were, in fact, three “C. S. Lewises.” That is to say, during his lifetime Lewis fulfilled three very different vocations—and fulfilled them successfully. There was, first, Lewis the distinguished Oxbridge literary scholar and critic; second, Lewis the highly acclaimed author of science-fiction and children’s literature; and third, Lewis the popular writer and broadcaster of Christian apologetics. The amazing thing, Barfield notes, is that those who may have known of Lewis in any single role may not have known that he performed in the other two. In a varied and comprehensive writing career, Lewis carved out a sterling reputation as a scholar, a novelist, and a theologian for three very different audiences. Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe. Entitled "The Searcher" by Ross Wilson.
Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe. Entitled "The Searcher" by Ross Wilson.
No brief summary can thus do justice to the many and varied works Lewis produced in his lifetime between 1919 and 1961. Indeed, more Lewis volumes—collections of essays, chiefly—have appeared after his death than during his lifetime. The first books that Lewis published were two volumes of poetry: Spirits in Bondage, published in 1919 when Lewis was only twenty-three years old, and his long narrative poem, Dymer, published in 1926. Neither was a critical success, convincing the classically trained Lewis that he would never become an accomplished poet given the rise of modernism; subsequently, he turned his attention to literary history, specifically the field of medieval and Renaissance literature. Along the way, however, Lewis embraced Christianity and in 1933 published his first theological work, The Pilgrim’s Regress, a parody of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), that details Lewis’s flight from skepticism to faith in a lively allegory.
In 1936, Lewis published the breakthrough work that earned for him his reputation as a scholar, The Allegory of Love, a work of high-calibre, original scholarship that revolutionized scholars’ understanding of the function of allegory in medieval literature, particularly Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Between 1939 and 1954, Lewis continued to publish well-received works in criticism and theory, debating E. M. W. Tillyard on the objectivity of poetry in The Personal Heresy, published in 1939, and in that same year publishing a collection of essays under the title Rehabilitations—a work whose title characterized much of Lewis’s work, as he attempted to bring the fading critical reputation of authors he revered back into balance. In 1942, A Preface to “Paradise Lost” attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of John Milton, while in 1954 he offered a comprehensive overview of sixteenth century British poetry and prose in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama.
Lewis is best known, however, for his fiction and his Christian apologetics, two disciplines complementary to each other within his oeuvre. In 1938, Lewis completed the first book in a science-fiction space trilogy called Out of the Silent Planet, which introduced the hero Edwin Ransom, a philologist modeled roughly on Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien. Perelandra, a new version of Milton’s Paradise Lost set on Venus, followed in 1943, and That Hideous Strength completed the trilogy in 1945; the latter Lewis billed as “a fairy tale for adults,” treating novelistically the themes Lewis had developed in his critique of modern education in The Abolition of Man, published two years earlier.
Lewis’s most notable critical and commercial success, however, is certainly his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia series. These popular children’s fantasies began with the 1950 volume, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a tale centered on Aslan the lion, a Christ figure who creates and rules the supernatural land of Narnia, and the improbable adventures of four undaunted British schoolchildren who stumble into Narnia through a wardrobe.
Lewis’s own favorite fictional work, Till We Have Faces, his last imaginative work, published in 1956, is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth; it has never achieved the critical recognition he hoped it would.
Lewis’s reputation as a winsome, articulate proponent of Christianity began with the publication of two important theological works: The Problem of Pain, a defense of pain—and the doctrine of hell—as evidence of an ordered universe, published in 1940; and The Screwtape Letters, an “interception” of a senior devil’s correspondence with a junior devil fighting with “the Enemy,” Christ, over the soul of an unsuspecting believer, published in 1942. Lewis emerged during the war years as a religious broadcaster who became famous as “the apostle to skeptics,” in Great Britain and abroad, especially in the United States. His wartime radio essays defending and explaining the Christian faith comforted the fearful and wounded and were eventually collected and published in America as Mere Christianity in 1952. In the midst of this prolific output, Lewis took time to write his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, published in 1955. In the two decades before his death, Lewis published more than eight books that directly or indirectly served him in the task of apologetics. He is certainly one of the most important Christian writers of the twentieth century.