C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Like many people, I first met C. S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia stories. They had a profound influence on me as I felt that they "rang true" at a deep level. There are those who would say that they are crude allegory, designed to corrupt the young and implant the Christian message by stealth. I would say that children are not that stupid. If they respond to the themes of the Narnia stories it is because those themes reflect deep truths about the world and our place in it. As I grew older I came across Mere Christianity and his other works of Christian apologetics, which seemed forthright and full-blooded and helped me at an early stage of my adult Christian development. But I knew almost nothing about the man himself, except some unhelpful blurb at the beginning of every book which told me little more than that he disliked school. More recently I turned to his autobiography Surprised by Joy which gave an insight into his life, written in his inimitable analytical style, but not telling the whole story. Shortly afterwards I saw the film Shadowlands which was something of a revelation. Nowhere in Lewis' work will you learn that everyone called him Jack. More importantly, the film brought him vividly to life in a way that I had not imagined. Finally, in preparation for this article I have read A. N. Wilson's excellent biography which has drawn the threads together for me. The surprise has been to find that the Narnia stories, written quite late in his career, reflect closely Lewis' most personal feelings and concerns. In finding out more about the man I discovered that I was closest when I started.

An unusual personal life

The film was true to life in many ways, yet misleading in others. One might imagine from it that Lewis had been a crusty bachelor until Joy Gresham opened his eyes to the value of love. The truth was far stranger. Born into a Protestant family in Belfast, the younger of two brothers and the son of a police-court lawyer, his idyllic childhood was shattered by the death of his mother when he was nine. Almost immediately he was sent to a severe boarding school in England. His relationship with his father was increasingly distant from then on. At fifteen he went to live with his father's old headmaster who tutored him until he gained a place at Oxford. He saw active service in the trenches of the First World War and was wounded. On returning to England at the age of 20 he began a long and intense relationship with a married woman 27 years his senior which only ended with her death when he was 53. They lived together all this time with Lewis constantly carrying out domestic chores, but the personal details of their relationship have remained secret. At 58 he married an American divorcee 17 years his junior, who died of cancer a few years later. Throughout his life he looked after his elder brother "Warnie" who gradually descended into alcoholism.

A brilliant traditionalist

Academically he was brilliant (far cleverer than Warnie), for many years a vigorous and charismatic English tutor at Magdalene college Oxford where he disliked his colleagues, and from 1954 a Professor of English at Cambridge where he was much happier. As he once described himself,

I am tall, fat, bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired and wear glasses for reading.

He wore shabby tweeds, drank a lot of beer, could be loud, boorish and a bullying debater using techniques derived from his police-court-lawyer father. He was a private man who would not enquire about colleagues' personal lives and did not talk about his own. He thought it was nonsense to suppose that you had to understand an author in order to understand his work, calling this the "personal heresy". Very much a conservative and traditionalist, he held out against the teaching of nineteenth century English literature at Oxford as being too modern, could not stand T. S. Eliot -

For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening, any evening, would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.

and held a staunchly conservative and full-blooded supernatural Christian faith. Despite his Protestant upbringing it is said that he was better appreciated by Pope John-Paul II than Robert Runcie. For many years he was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien who was instrumental in his conversion to full Christian faith. Although Lewis had already had a numinous experience of God (on the top of a bus), it was the Catholic Tolkien who led him into full faith by suggesting that the story of Christ was in fact a true myth, with profound meaning that cannot be fully put into words, but which really happened. Lewis repaid the compliment by chivvying Tolkien into continuing and completing the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

A wounding debate

Lewis was a profoundly knowledgeable and excellent academic writer, but his religious works are his best known. His first book of Christian apologetics was The Problem of Pain, followed by Screwtape, Mere Christianity and several others, ending with Miracles. Though written with the best of intentions, their rhetoric is rather bullying and he takes a strongly dualist position, arguing passionately (in the manner of his father) for one side against the other. It seems that he had not yet realised that argument alone is not enough to convince people. In 1948 shortly after Miracles was published he had a public debate with Elizabeth Anscombe over one of its chapters. She was better practised in philosophy, could be equally bullying, and trounced him. He became profoundly depressed for a while and felt that his whole argument for God had been demolished. Gradually he began to look for another way to express the reality of things. It was while he was in this state of mind that the Narnia stories were born. They have an emotional intensity coming from a man searching for a way to express his religious beliefs and the experiences of his life, and perhaps contain his best religious writing. He moved on to have a less dualist view of Christianity and began to feel for the first time that he knew what was meant by the grace and forgiveness of God, a feeling that colours his later work such as The Four Loves. His beliefs were greatly tested with the death of his wife in 1960, and the anguish he went through was candidly recorded and analysed in A Grief Observed, initially published anonymously, which has been a help and consolation to many.

Holding on

Many who knew Lewis were aware of a greatness within him, though it would appear that he himself had no real sense of the image that he projected. He was a complex man: a ruddy-faced stout boorish beer-drinker, a brilliant academic, a kind correspondent, a lost and emotionally vulnerable child, a loyal partner and husband. And yet, having found all this out, I find myself returning to the heart of the man in his Narnia stories; the brilliant apologist whose logical arguments have been found wanting, holding on doggedly to the truth to which he has committed himself which mere words cannot adequately describe. I sum up my journey in the words of the poet whom he did not admire -

…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Michael Leuty, January 1996

C. S. Lewis web site

Into the Wardrobe

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 13th June 1998