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C.S. Lewis wrote one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time, The Chronicles of Narnia, the most famous of which is The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Seven fantastical stories full of magical forest creatures and pirates ships. But they were serious books too, dealing with subjects like death, loss and betrayal. They have been adapted into countless plays and films and his books are firmly fixed in the hearts of many young readers. “Narnia” is now synonymous with hidden, fantasy worlds full of wonder and magic.
But Lewis was not just a children’s book writer. He also wrote adult books extensively on themes such as death, grief and religion. His interest in these subjects was no doubt influenced by his own life, which was not free of struggle or loss.
Read on for my short bio of C.S. Lewis, one of Britain’s greatest writers.
A young "Jack" Lewis
Lewis was born Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 in Ulster, Northern Ireland. His mother was Irish and his father had emigrated from Wales many years before. He spent much of his early childhood in Strandtown, a suburb of East Belfast. He was nicknamed “Jack”, after a childhood dog friend, by his friends and family throughout his life. The wild and dramatic landscape of Ulster would later inspired his kingdom of Narnia.
Lewis' childhood home, "Little Lea", in East Belfast
He loved stories and books from an early age. The family home was filled with books, for which he had unrestricted access. He especially adored the stories of Beatrix Potter, and enjoyed writing his own tales too. He was educated by his mother and a private tutor in his early years. Age at 10, his mother died of cancer and he briefly attended a succession of schools in Northern Ireland and England.
Young Lewis with his older brother, Warnie
As a teenager, Lewis’ interests began to widen. He developed a keen interest in Mythology, especially Scandinavian literature and the Icelandic sagas. He began experimenting with writing his own poetry influenced by his love of Norse stories and the natural world.
Lewis in 1917
At age 18, he was awarded a scholarship to University College in Oxford. Shortly after his enrolment, he joined the Officer’s Training Corps and was thereafter served in a regiment that was shipped to France. He was present at the battle of Somme and was later injured with two fellow soldiers killed by a British shell that fell short of its intended target. This incident and his subsequent convalescence left him depressed and deeply pessimistic. After being demobilised in 1918, he resumed his studies. In 1920, he received a first three subjects: Latin and Greek literature, English and Philosophy.
Lewis at Magdalen College in 1928
In 1925, he was elected as a fellow at Magdalen College, where he stayed for the next 29 years. At Oxford, Lewis was part of a group of writers and intellectuals called the “Inklings”, which included Tolkein, Nevill Coghill, Lord David Cecil, his brother Warren and others. They would meet on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub in St. Giles’ Street.
The first editions of Chronicles of Narnia
Lewis’ novels were strongly influenced by his conversion to Christianity. He wrote, along with the Narnia series, a science fiction trilogy called Space Trilogy. The Narnia series was written between 1949 and 1954. It would go on to be published in 41 languages with nearly 100 million copies sold to date. While the series is considered to be a Christian allegory, Lewis himself was an expert on allegory and said they were not, and any allegorical elements were “suppositional”. Lewis was also influenced by European and Hindu mythology. To this effect, many readers enjoy these books without any knowledge of his Christianity. His last novel, Till We Have Faces, was published in 1956. It was retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
In 1930, Lewis moved to The Kilns, a house in Risinghurst, with his older brother, Warren, his friend Janie Moore and Maureen Dunbar, her daughter. Janie Moore was the mother of his university friend Paddy Moore. They had made a pact during the war to care for each other family’s if the other was killed. Lewis kept his promise and grew very close to Janie, who become a surrogate mother to him. He continued to care for her right up until her death in 1951.
In 1954, he became chair of Medical and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. Throughout his academic career, he wrote prodigiously - scholarly articles, books and volumes commissioned by Oxford University.
Lewis and Davidman
In his fifties, Lewis began corresponding with American writer, Joy Davidman Gresham. Initially just companions, they entered into a civil marriage in 1956 so that she could stay in the U.K. with her two sons. Their relationship deepened just as Gresham was diagnosed with bone cancer. They had a wedding ceremony at her bedside whilst she was hospitalised. They lived together in remission for several years, along with his brother Warren, and travelled a little through Greece. She succumbed to her illness in 1960. Lewis wrote about his experience with her death in a A Grief Observed, an account so astonishingly and painfully honest that it was initially released under a pseudonym, his authorship only being made public after his death with the permission of his executors. His continued to raise her two sons until his own death.
Lewis' plaque at Westminster Abbey
Between 1961 and 1963, he experienced a series of serious illnesses which eventually caused him to give up his post at Cambridge. He died on 22nd of November 1963 and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Headington, Oxford.
Lewis’ Narnia books continue to have a wide readership today and Lewis is universally revered as one of the greatest writers of children’s books. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honoured with a plaque in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. His influence can be clearly seen in the works of many other children’s books writers such as Philip Pullman, Eoin Colfer and J.K. Rowling. Not that he has escaped criticism - modern critics have attacked the books as having racist and sexist elements. Indeed, the modern reader might find some of the themes and characterisations questionable. But Lewis’ influences on the minds and imaginations of young readers is undeniable.
Shadowlands (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger
Some of my favourite C.S. Lewis quotes...
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
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