C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) A religious biography
Clive Staples Lewis was an author and scholar born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He adopted the name "Jack" as a young boy, which is how he was known to his friends and acquaintances. A former atheist, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931.
Although Lewis' primary occupation was as a tutor of medieval literature at Oxford and Cambridge, he is especially remembered for his works of Christian apologetics and imaginative fiction. His Chronicles of Narnia series, in particular, has been extremely popular with children and adults alike.
Fast Facts on C.S. Lewis
- also known as:
- Clive Staples Lewis
- November 29, 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland
- November 22, 1963 in Oxford, England
- Headington Quarry, Oxford
- literature scholar, novelist, Christian apologist
- major life events:
- Conversion to theism (1929)
Conversion to Christianity (1931)
Series of talks on Christianity on BBC Radio (1941-44)
Civil marriage to Joy Gresham (1956)
Ecclesiastical marriage to Joy (1957)
Joy dies of cancer (1960)
- major works:
- *Pilgrim's Regress* (1933)
*The Chronicles of Narnia* (1950-56)
*The Four Loves* (1960)
*A Grief Observed* (1961)
*The Great Divorce* (1945)
*Mere Christianity* (1941-1944 BBC radio)
*Miracles: A Preliminary Study* (1947)
*The Screwtape Letters* (1941)
The Space Trilogy (1938-45)
*Surprised by Joy* (1955)
*Till We Have Faces* (1956)
- related people:
- Helen Joy Davidson
Thought of C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis was a literature scholar by profession; in the fields of philosophy and theology he described himself as a "very ordinary layman of the Church of England." Yet Lewis was one of the most popular and respected Christian authors of the 20th century.
Despite his sharp intelligence and astonishing talent, he possessed the rare ability to translate complex concepts into simple terms that the "common man" can understand. Writing in his trademark conversational style, Lewis always invites his readers to reason along with him as he writes and allows with humility the possibility that he is in error.
Perhaps also owing to his layman status, the topics Lewis addressed were those that concerns the average Christian, not just the theologian: Why is there suffering? What is the essence of Christianity? Is Christianity reasonable? What should love look like? Does God answer prayer?
Works of C.S. Lewis
Lewis' fictional works are magical, imaginative, and clearly the work of a man who is himself enchanted by myths and magical tales. Some have explicitly Christian themes, such as The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, while others are more subtle (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy). Still others are not Christian at all, but exercises of his literary expertise (Till We Have Faces, Dymer). Regardless of the subject matter, all of Lewis' fictional works incorporate his love for myth and his sharp insight into human nature.
This section provides brief summaries of each of Lewis' major works of fiction and nonfiction, presented in chronological order of publication.
The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (1933)
Like John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress, The Pilgrim's Regress is an allegory of a man's spiritual journey. In Lewis' version, however, the journey is in reverse: the protagonist, John, must gradually unlearn many things and go back to where he started. Written shortly after his conversion from atheism to Christianity, the allegory is an autobiographical account of Lewis' own journey. Like Lewis, John searches for Joy and Truth and is surprised to find them in religious faith.
Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
Out of the Silent Planet is the first novel of the Space Trilogy. In it the main character, Dr. Elwin Ransom, is taken to Malacandra (Mars) by the evil atheist physicist Professor Edward Weston. Weston considers humankind the most advanced species in the universe and plans to conquer all planets and repopulate them with the citizens of earth. Ransom quickly manages to escape and discovers the beautiful, colorful terrain of Malacandra. He meets its friendly inhabitants, including the hrossa (otter-like creatures who create song and poetry), the seroni (spindly-limbed creatures with giant heads who turn out to be philosophers) and the pfifltriggi (bespectacled badger-like creatures who are goldsmiths).
The book culminates in a trial scene of Ransom and his former captors before Oyarsa, the great ruler of Malacandra. Dr. Weston, blind to any sense of splendor or awe, treats the Malacandrans assembled there as idiots, and makes a fool out of himself. In the course of the trial we learn of Weston's diabolical agenda to take over planet after planet, and that Oyarsa could have annhilated him at any time. We discover that Earth is known as Thulcandra - the silent planet. Because its Oyarsa chose to strike out on his own in an attempt to seize the omnipotence of Maleldil (the ruler and maker of all worlds), the inhabitants of our planet are deaf to the "Music of the Spheres" and our telescopes are blind to the glory of the universe.
In the end, Weston, his henchman Devine, and Ransom are sent back to Earth. Despite his awe at the overwhelming reality and clarity of Malacandra, Ransom bursts into grateful tears upon their landing in an English field with such familiar sights as grass, rain, cows, a gate, and a lane. The last line of the book has Ransom happily ordering a pint of bitter in an English pub.
The Problem of Pain (1940)
In this philosophical work, Lewis addresses the age-old problem of theodicy: "If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?" The great monotheistic religions have always struggled with the paradox of a good God and an evil world, and today it is one of the primary intellectual reasons given for atheism (in which it is called the "proof [of the non-existence of God] from evil").
For Lewis, the solution to the problem may lie in the doctrine of free will. If humans are truly free to choose good or evil, he reasons, then evil must be a real possibility. An omnipotent God could surely prevent evil, but he could only do so at the cost of human freedom. Human freedom is better than a world without suffering because it makes real love and real goodness possible. (See also A Grief Observed, below.)
Mere Christianity (1941-44)
The material eventually published as Mere Christianity, one of C.S. Lewis' most popular works, began as a series of talks given on BBC Radio. The title is taken from the writings of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), an author who sought to articulate the fundamentals of the Christian faith on which all denominations could agree. This is also the goal of Lewis' Mere Christianity. As he writes in the Preface,
In four books, Lewis lays out in simple terms the reasonableness of Christianity, fundamental Christian beliefs, the basics of Christian morality, and the goal of the Christian life.
In the second installment of the Space Trilogy, Ransom is summoned to Perelandra (Venus) by divine command. After an awe-inspiring journey through space, Ransom finds himself in a warm sea surrounded by lush, green islands. He meets the Green Lady, who is the Eve figure of Venus. Ransom discovers that Venus is an unfallen world, and he has been chosen by Maleldil (God) to fight off Dr. Weston (the evil physicist of Out of the Silent Planet) who has been sent by the Dark Archon (the ruler of earth) to tempt the Green Lady.
The Green Lady and her husband Tor (who is off elsewhere on the planet for his own lessons) are in a period of schooling before they can become king and queen of Perelandra. The Green Lady has been given a rule that she may step ashore on the stable island anytime, but may never spend the night there. She must therefore learn to rest on the undulating lands, trusting in the Will of Maleldil.
Weston soon arrives, and begins his attempts at corrupting the Green Lady at once. He first appeals to her feminine vanity and self-consciousness (which he supposes she has) by offering her a mirror and making a cloak out of yellow-feathered birds. He then tells her that she is like a little child, continually holding Maleldil's hand, but that Maleldil wants her to learn to walk by herself. He adds that all the great heroines of Thulcandra (earth) have done just that.
Ransom fights off Weston first by verbal argument, in the course of which Weston commits blasphemy and is hit by a bolt of lightening. He is reduced to an "Un-man," a ghastly remnant of a man that is characteristic of Lewis' image of a damned soul. The battle against evil then turns physical, which is at first ridiculous to Ransom until he remembers that the greatest battle against evil on earth involved whips, thorns, and nails.
In the course of the lenghty battle, Ransom is drawn down into deep caverns, but Weston eventually falls into the fiery abyss. After a long journey back to the surface, Ransom emerges into a paradise and witnesses a solemn ceremony granting Tor and Tinidril (the Green Lady) suzerainty of the planet. It is revealed that Malacandra and Perelandra (Mars and Venus) are pure masculinity and pure femininity and, ever since "time turned a corner" when Maleldril became human on Thulcandra, have only been regents of their respective planets until humanity steps into its inheritance.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955)
Surprised by Joy is Lewis' spiritual autobiography, chronicling his journey from childhood Christianity to atheism and back to Christianity. The journey is characterized by the continual search for something Lewis caught glimpses of throughout his life, but could never fully take hold of it or even articulate what it was. He finally articulates this "something" as Joy, which has its fullest expression in Christianity.
The Great Divorce (1946)
The Great Divorce is the story, told in the first person, of an English professor who suddenly finds himself waiting at a bus stop on a rainy evening. To his surprise, the bus travels straight up, and he soon discovers that the bus is en route to Heaven, and his fellow passengers - who are perhaps a bit impatient and pushy, but otherwise average - are inhabitants of Hell. It seems that those in Hell are able to visit the outer reaches of Heaven and may stay if they like. The interesting thing is that very people wish to do so, even when met and encouraged by benevolent spirits.
In addition to its imaginative and fascinating portrayal of the afterlife, The Great Divorce showcases Lewis' trademark insight into human nature and his ability to create flawed yet compelling characters in whom the reader too often sees himself. It is worthy of note that the narrator's guide in Heaven is none other than George MacDonald, who is much admired by both the narrator and Lewis himself.
As Lewis explains in the preface, the name of the book is derived from Blake's reference to "the great marriage of heaven and hell."
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first installment in the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series. Written for children in seven books, the Chronicles follow the adventures of English schoolchildren who find their way into the magical land of Narnia. Christian themes are much more evident in these works (although some more than others) than in his friend Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, but Lewis insisted that is not their central purpose and they were not meant as allegory. Indeed, many children have grown up with these works never realizing their religious significance. But they are beloved by many Christian adults for their presentation of central Christian ideas in a delightful new way. And even those uninterested in the underlying Christian concepts have been enchanted by Lewis' storytelling and the compelling battle between good and evil.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we meet four English schoolchildren - Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan - who go to stay with an eccentric professor during the evacuation of London in wartime. Occupying themselves with a game of hide-and-seek in the large house, they discover that through the fur coats in an old wardrobe is another world: the land of Narnia. There they meet talking animals who are very interested to meet "Sons of Adam" and "Daughters of Eve." The children learn of the oppressive reign of the evil White Witch, who has caused it to be always winter but never Christmas. Bribed with magically-enhanced Turkish Delight, Edmund betrays his friends to the Witch, putting all of their lives in danger. The only hope for the children and the Narnians is the lion Aslan, who ultimately defeats the White Witch by dying at the hands of the Witch in Edmund's place. When he comes back to life a short while later, the snow melts and Spring finally comes to Narnia.
Prince Caspian (1951)
In the second book in the Narnia series, the four children return to Narnia and find that thousands of years have passed, Narnia time, since their last visit. They meet the chivalrous mouse Reepicheep and assist Prince Caspian in defeating the Telmarines.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
Edmund, Lucy and their ill-tempered cousin Eustace Clarence Scrubb (of the name: "he almost deserved it") enter Narnia through a magical painting. The three children join King Caspian (the prince of the last book) in various adventures at sea. Caspian and the mouse Reepicheep sail to the World's End, and Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that they are now too old for Narnia and must learn to see him in their own world.
The Silver Chair (1953)
Eustace Scrubb (of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and his friend Jill Pole are sent by Aslan to find the imprisoned Rilian, the true heir to the Narnian throne. Guided by Puddleglum, the children help Rilian to escape from Underland, where he had been bewitched by the Evil Queen.
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta helps save Archenland from invasion, aided by the Tarkheena Aravis and two Talking Horses (Hwin and Bree).
The Magician's Nephew (1955)
The Magician's Nephew is a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Set in Victorian London, it tells the story of Polly and Digory, who are transported to Narnia when Digory's uncle meddles in magic. There they witness Aslan's creation of Narnia, where gives the gift of speech to the animals. They also meet an evil Queen, who even manages to transport herself to London before being defeated. for now.
The Last Battle (1956)
The final book in the Chronicles of Narnia series has an eschatological theme. In the last days of Narnia, a false Aslan appears. Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb help Tirian to expose the deception, confusion reigns. The children die in a railway accident in England at the same time that Narnia ends. The children go on to find a new Narnia where "the inside is larger than the outside."
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956)
Till We Have Faces is a literary work, retelling the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the viewpoint of Orual, Psyche's sister.
The Four Loves (1960)
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explored four types of love: affection, friendship, erotic or romantic love, and unconditional love. He also discusses the differences between Need-Love and Gift-Love. The book was originally a radio talk and it is one of the few recordings of Lewis' voice that is still available.
A Grief Observed (1961)
In 1940, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, which offered a solution to the age-old problem of theodicy: "If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?" In it he argues that it is necessary for God to allow suffering in order to preserve human free will. Twenty-one years later, Lewis again wrote on the problem of suffering, in A Grief Observed. But this time the suffering is his own and the philosophical problem has become intensely personal. It chronicles his deep suffering after losing his wife to cancer. The two works together provide a rare opportunity to see how a theory that is convincing in the lecture hall holds up in the trenches. The love story between Lewis and his wife, and his subsequent grief after her death, is dramatized in the film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy.
In addition to his prolific writing career, Lewis devoted a great deal of his time to letter writing. Early in his career, he replied to all fan mail himself. When the volume became unmanageable, he enlisted the help of his brother Warnie, but still tried to answer as many as he could personally. Some of these letters have been collected and published, and they offer a wonderful inside look at Lewis' work as well as the personal side of "Jack" (as he was known to his friends).
- Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West, Jr., eds., The C.S. Lewis Reader's Encyclopedia (Zondervan, 1998).
- Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Tyndale House, 1989).
- "Lewis, C.S.." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
External Links on C.S. Lewis
An attractive site sponsored by HarperCollins Publishers. Includes brief biography, book descriptions, excerpts and reading guides for Lewis' most popular works, essay contest and discussion board.
- Sacred Destinations: C.S. Lewis Pilgrimage
Beautiful photos and descriptions of a visit to C.S. Lewis' home and gravesite.
- C.S. Lewis
and the Inklings Resources
Site maintained by Dr. Bruce Edwards of Bowling Green University. Features a brief bibliography and timeline, a small photo gallery, original essays, and links to resources on Lewis and the Inklings.
A well-organized and complete website dedicated to Lewis. Includes timeline, photos, news and events, descriptions of Lewis' works, extensive list of links, over 30 essays on Lewis and a message forum.
- C.S. Lewis and Mother Kirk: Why Lewis was a Protestant
S.M. Hutchens, Books & Culture, November/December 2004.
A beautiful website maintained by Walden Media, who is producing a live-action motion picture of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Features a complete, multimedia tour of Narnia, including a complete history, guide to lands and characters, and an opportunity to test your knowledge.
- The C.S.
"Dedicated to advancing the renewal of Christian scholarship and artistic expression throughout the mainstream of our colleges and universities." Site features information on conferences and seminars, a timeline of Lewis' life and information on The Kilns and Oxford.
- C.S. Lewis Tours - guided tours of Lewis sites in Oxford
- The Orthodox C.S. Lewis - Conciliar Press
- Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity .
- Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life .
- Lewis, C.S., C. S. Lewis Signature Classics: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and The Great Divorce (Boxed Set) .
- Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain .
- Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed .
- Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves .
- Lewis, C.S., The Great Divorce .
- Lewis, C.S., Miracles .
- Lewis, C.S., Letters of C. S. Lewis .
- Lewis, C.S., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927 .
- Lewis, C.S., Chronicles of Narnia Box Set .