Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), known to the world as C.S. Lewis, is an iconic figure in the realms of literature, theology, and fantasy. The creator of the enchanting world of Narnia and a prolific writer on Christian apologetics, Lewis remains a celebrated author whose influence extends far beyond his works.
Here we explore the life, legacy, and contributions of arguably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Early life and education
C.S. Lewis was born on 29 November 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. As a child, he was fascinated with anthropomorphic animals, and enjoyed Beatrix Potter’s stories. He often wrote and illustrated his own animal tales, including Boxen (written with his brother), about a fantasy land run by animals.
Having been schooled by private tutors, after his mother’s death when he was aged 9, he was ultimately sent to Malvern, Englandy, where he attended Cherbourg House and Malvern College, before studying privately with his father’s old tutor.
As a teenager, Lewis was interested in the Icelandic Sagas and Norse and Greek mythology, and later received a scholarship to Oxford University (University College), where he excelled in languages, particularly literature and philosophy.
Shortly after he came to Oxford University, on 8 June 1917, Lewis enlisted in the Officer’s Training Corps. After his training, he was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant, and later transferred to the 1st Battalion of the regiment, who were then serving in France.
Thus within months of entering Oxford, Lewis was shipped by the British Army to France to fight in the First World War. On 29 November 1917 (his 19th birthday), he arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France, and experienced trench warfare.
Less than a year later, in April 1918 his close friend Paddy Moore was reported killed in battle, while Lewis was wounded in the Battle of Arras. The two friends had made a pact that if either died, the other would take care of both their families.
After his discharge from the army in December 1918, Lewis moved in with Moore’s mother, Mrs Janie King Moore, and Moore’s sister, Maureen. Having lost his own mother, Lewis is said to have developed a deeply affectionate friendship with Moore, treating her as a surrogate mother figure (in part due to his own father’s distant relationship with him). He lived with her until she was hospitalised in the late 1940s, then visited her every day once she had moved into a nursing home. Some have speculated their relationship was on more of a romantic basis.
After serving in World War One, Lewis soon returned to Oxford, receiving a triple First across his three areas of study. In 1924 he became a Philosophy tutor, and in 1925 was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, in which he remained for nearly three decades until 1954.
He was later elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge University (during the time he was writing The Chronicles of Narnia series), holding the post until his retirement. His academic career flourished, contributing significantly to literary criticism and medieval literature studies.
The Inklings and friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien
Whilst lecturing at Oxford University, from April 1940 Lewis was a core member of the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group that included fellow renowned author and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien and Lewis’s deep friendship and mutual respect had a profound influence on their literary works, and the two authors often shared their writings and discussed their fantastical worlds, contributing to the creation of both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series.
Conversion to Christianity
Though raised in a Christian household, Lewis faced a period of atheism during his youth, which he later claimed was due to the loss of his mother, unhappiness at school, and the horrors experienced in war. However, through profound intellectual exploration and discussions with close friends like Tolkien, Lewis experienced a spiritual awakening, and later embraced Christianity (Anglicanism) aged 32. He converted in September 1931, and became a layman of the Church of England.
This conversion became a cornerstone of his life and work, and whilst he seldom spoke of his beliefs during university lectures, his Christian faith significantly influenced his writing.
Lewis was only 40 at World War Two’s outbreak, and tried to re-enter military service, but was not accepted and he later served in the Home Guard. From 1941-1943, Lewis spoke in many BBC radio war-time broadcasts about Christianity, which gained widespread acclaim.
These broadcasts were anthologised in one of Lewis’s most influential works is Mere Christianity, a seminal book in Christian apologetics (a defence of the faith). In this work, Lewis logically and persuasively presents the core beliefs of Christianity in a way that resonates with believers and sceptics alike, making complex theological concepts accessible to a wider audience. (During this time, Lewis was made President of Oxford’s Socratic Club).
Literary career and The Chronicles of Narnia
Lewis wrote over 30 books which have been translated into over 40 languages, including The Space Trilogy, Miracles, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, and his memoir Surprised by Joy). However, his most famous literary legacy remains The Chronicles of Narnia series, considered a classic of children’s literature.
The beloved series began with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (published on 16 October 1950), and consists of 7 fantasy novels exploring themes of courage, sacrifice, redemption, and spirituality, captivating readers of all ages with its imaginative storytelling and moral depth. The books contain Christian ideas, intended to be easily accessible to young readers.
To date, Lewis’s Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and have been transformed into 3 major films.
Lewis’s writing style is known for its clarity, wit, and profound insight. His ability to blend deep philosophical ideas with captivating narratives continues to captivate readers worldwide, influencing countless authors and readers, shaping the genre of fantasy literature and theological writings.
The impact of Lewis’s writings extends beyond books. The Chronicles of Narnia series has been adapted into films, radio plays, and stage productions, captivating audiences across various mediums, and his profound theological works continue to inspire scholars and theologians.
Lewis’s personal life was marked by enduring friendships, including his deep bond with Tolkien.
In later life, Lewis corresponded with American writer Joy Davidman Gresham, who was separated from her abusive husband and had two sons. At first, Lewis regarded her as an intellectual companion and close friend, and agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her in 1956 so she could continue living in the UK. They later sought a Christian marriage service.
Joy died of cancer 4 years later on 13 July 1960, aged 45, and Lewis continued to raise her sons after her death. Their relationship, chronicled in A Grief Observed, reflects Lewis’s emotional journey through love, loss, and faith.
C.S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 – an event overshadowed somewhat in the news by the assassination of President Kennedy the same day. However, he left behind a legacy that continues to shape literature, theology, and popular culture. His writings on faith, morality, and the human condition remain relevant, resonating with readers across generations and cultures, though many readers of his fiction are often unaware of the Christian themes of his works.
C.S. Lewis had been named on the last list of honours by George VI in 1951 as a CBE, but declined, wanting to avoid association with political issues. However, in 2013, C.S. Lewis was honoured with a memorial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
His multifaceted contributions as a scholar, author, and Christian thinker – along with his timeless works, philosophical insights, and imaginative storytelling – continue to impact the literary and spiritual landscapes.