Authors: C. S. Lewis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

British writer, lay theologian, and critic

November 29, 1898

Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland)

November 22, 1963

Oxford, England

Biography

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.

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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.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Pilgrim's Regress, 1933 Out of the Silent Planet, 1938 The Screwtape Letters, 1942 Perelandra, 1943 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, 1945 The Great Divorce, 1945 The Chronicles of Narnia, 1950–1956 (collective title for the following seven novels) 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: A Myth Retold, 1956 Poetry: Spirits in Bondage, 1919 Dymer, 1926 Poems, 1964 Narrative Poems, 1969 Nonfiction: The Allegory of Love: A Study of Medieval Tradition, 1936 The Personal Heresy, 1939 (with E. M. W. Tillyard) Rehabilitations, 1939 The Problem of Pain, 1940 Broadcast Talks, 1942 A Preface to “Paradise Lost,” 1942 Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?, 1942 Christian Behaviour, 1943 The Abolition of Man, 1943 Beyond Personality, 1944 Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1947 Arthurian Torso, 1948 The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, 1949 Mere Christianity, 1952 English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, 1954 Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, 1955 Reflections on the Psalms, 1958 The Four Loves, 1960 The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays, 1960 Studies in Words, 1960 An Experiment in Criticism, 1961 A Grief Observed, 1961 They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses, 1962 The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1964 Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 1964 Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1966 Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1966 Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, 1966 Christian Reflections, 1967 Letters to an American Lady, 1967 Spenser’s Images of Life, 1967 Selected Literary Essays, 1969 God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 1970 They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914–1963, 1979 Letters to Children, 1985 Present Concerns, 1986 Letters: C. S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria, a Study in Friendship, 1988 (published in 1998 as The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis) All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922–1927, 1992 Collected Letters, 2000–5 Bibliography Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. A major study of the lives and works of the “Inklings,” a name first applied by Lewis, perhaps as early as 1933, to a group of literary friends who met regularly together at Oxford University. Capsule biographies of the Inklings, bibliographies of their major works, a section of photographs, extensive notes and an index enhance an illuminating exploration of Lewis’s literary milieu. Downing, David C. Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. The introduction contains a concise, insightful view of Lewis’s varied career as literary critic, novelist, philosopher, and theologian. The first chapter shows how his early life influenced the writing of his trilogy. Subsequent chapters explore his Christian vision, his use of classicism and medievalism, his portraits of evil, his treatment of the spiritual pilgrimage, and the overall achievement of his trilogy. Edwards, Bruce L., ed. The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988. Offers fourteen essays by prominent Lewis scholars whose analyses of Lewis’s fictional and critical principles explain how each informed the other. Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Rev. and expanded ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002. A biography by two men who knew Lewis personally. Griffin, William. C. S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. Offers a unique diary-like, strictly chronological look at Lewis’s life. Holbrook, David. The Skeleton in the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis’s Fantasies: A Phenomenological Study. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1991. Of use mainly to advanced students, Holbrook provides a probing reading of Lewis’s fiction for children and for adults. He explores the thesis that the Narnia stories make disturbing reading for children. Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: Companion and Guide. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. This extremely useful volume contains a 120-page biography, a chronology, summaries of major works, sample reviews, explanations of key ideas, and an exhaustive bibliography of Lewis’s works. Howard, Thomas. The Achievement of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw, 1980. Concentrates exclusively on Lewis’s Narnia tales and the space trilogy, providing evocative readings of both. Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. A biography that traces the events and people that shaped Lewis's philosophy, theology, and fiction. Lindskoog, Kathryn. C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian. 4th ed. Chicago: Cornerstone Press Chicago, 1997. An excellent single volume on the life and career of Lewis. Offers a broad overview and provocative evaluation of each of his works. Manlove, C. N. C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An explication of Lewis’s major works of fiction, from The Pilgrim’s Regress to Till We Have Faces, including an analysis of each of the Narnia books. Representative of a subgenre of Lewis studies and easily accessible is its consideration of narrative, structure, and theme in Lewis’s stories. Finds Lewis’s use of imagery and analogy a potent means of giving literary vitality to traditional Christian doctrines, though his complexly patterned works raise him above a facile religious apologist. Myers, Doris T. C. S. Lewis in Context. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. This readable study in criticism sees Lewis less as an isolated figure and more reflective of his times. Includes a useful works cited section. Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. An intimate biography by a former pupil and lifelong friend of Lewis. Assesses Lewis’s experience of grade-school life as less abnormal than that portrayed in his own autobiography and provides a personal account of the last years of Lewis’s life. Lewis emerges a gifted and sincere nonsectarian Christian. Smith, Robert Houston. Patches of Godlight: The Pattern of Thought of C. S. Lewis. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. A scholarly but accessible analysis of Lewis’s philosophy of religion, linking what is dubbed his Christian “Objectivism” to the profound influence of Platonism on his views of the nature of humanity and of God. A sympathetic treatment which nevertheless finds Lewis to have been flawed as a philosopher, a rational mystic torn between a romantic vision of the absolute and the boundaries of a reasoned faith. Wilson, A. N. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Originally published in 1989. An important interpretation of Lewis and his work from a Freudian perspective. Paints Lewis as neither a saint nor a full-time Christian apologist but as a man of real passions and a contradictory nature unbefitting the cult following that developed after his death. The chronological biography traces many of his adult preoccupations to the sometimes traumatic experiences of his early childhood and comes to some controversial conclusions regarding several of Lewis’s relationships. An iconoclastic portrait of the creator of Narnia.

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