The Life of C.S. Lewis
I must admit up front that the title of this post is a little misleading. I am not writing on the life of C.S. Lewis. This is not a short bio because that might be boring. Instead, I want to share with you some brief, but fascinating, anecdotes about the life and character of one of the most prolific and popular Christian writers in recent history. This post is easily digestible because I will share the anecdotes in bullet form. My hope is that skimming this short article will give you a deeper sense of appreciation for this remarkable man.
Lewis brilliance was obvious at a young age. At 17 he heard that Dante was better in medieval Italian so he taught himself how to read medieval Italian. How many teenagers do you know like that? As he grew up, Lewis had many significant correspondences. One correspondence he carried on with a Catholic Priest entirely in Latin. He knew his Greek as well. He spoke and read in multiple languages. He was terrible at math, though.
You’ve probably heard it said that, ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ Not true. One of the most prolific defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century was, as a young man, an atheist in a foxhole. Lewis was wounded in the trenches by ‘friendly fire’ in the 1st World War. The shrapnel he took from the blast later worked its way dangerously close to his heart requiring surgery. He compared the shrapnel slowly inching its way into his heart to the danger of hidden sin.
Lewis had a two-stage conversion. First, he was converted to theism. He called himself the most reluctant convert in all of England. He didn’t want there to be a God. But he found himself so convinced, based on evidence and argumentation that such a being must exist. Lewis even turned the most significant argument against God’s existence, evil, into a clue for God’s necessary reality. He wrote, somewhat ironically:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. Just how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.” (Mere Christianity, 45-46)
A few years later Lewis became a Christian. A late night chat with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson had much to do with Lewis taking the final step of faith. For a summation of Tolkien’s argument on that night read his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories.’ (See epilogue, specifically) It might be in and around this time that Lewis first came up with his influential idea about Jesus either being the Son of God or a bad man. Lewis would have none of that ‘patronizing nonsense’ that simply referred to Jesus as a good moral teacher, but simultaneously rejected him as the saviour and the Son of God. To quote Lewis:
“I am here trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice… But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity, p. 52 See also essay entitled, What are we to make of Jesus Christ?)
Lewis was a significant member of the Oxford literary group called the ‘inklings.’ The other justly famous member would, of course, be J.R.R. Tolkien, but ‘lesser’ literary luminaries like Charles Williams also attended. It is interesting to note that the Hobbit and the subsequent Lord of the Rings Trilogy would likely never have been finished apart from Lewis constantly encouraging Tolkien about the book’s considerable merits and the necessity of finishing it. It is probably just to refer to Lewis as the mid-wife of Tolkien’s most significant works. Just think, apart from Lewis’ kindly prodding Tolkien to finish his fantasy tales, there would be no material for Peter Jackson to butcher… Tolkien, himself, willingly acknowledged the literary benefits of his friendship with Lewis. “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is normally understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”
Lewis and Tolkien experienced significant strain on their friendship in the later years. The reasons for this are multifaceted. I mainly blame Tolkien, for reasons I can’t get into here, and it is mostly educated guesswork anyways. But Alister McGrath, in his recent biography on Lewis, tracked down a letter that Lewis wrote, during this period of estrangement, in which he recommended strongly that Tolkien be awarded the Noble Prize for literature. I find this fact to be very touching. Even though Lewis was, in some ways, estranged from Tolkien, he was still willing to advocate on his behalf and live, not only for his own career success, but also for the success of his long-time friend. Tolkien and Lewis were reconciled in the end, and Tolkien and Christopher (Tolkien’s son) visited Lewis shortly before his death in 1961. Tolkien would say about Lewis’ passing that, “ So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” 1I culled these quotes from the Internet but they can be readily found in any Lewis or Tolkien biography.
Lewis’ Literary Career
Lewis really had three different successful careers as a writer. First, he was a literary critic and his book Allegory of Love on medieval romantic literature, was a scholarly success. In fact, many scholars at the time thought that Lewis should have stuck to writing these types of scholarly works, instead of popular books on Christianity. (Writing popular level books defending Christianity cost Lewis occasional criticism from colleagues and, in the end, may have contributed slightly to the stunting of his professional advancement at Oxford for many years. For Lewis, commending the reasonable of Christianity to the masses was worth being ostracized by some of his academic peers). In addition, Lewis’ preface on Milton’s Paradise Lost was brilliant and his two-inch thick book on 16th Century English leaders was an impressive scholarly feat of literary criticism. To write this book on English literature (which he detested writing – that and Screwtape letters were his least favourite projects) he read everything written in English in the 16th century and everything translated into English in the 16th century. Anything that still existed, of course. He refused to give an opinion on an author he had not directly read!
Second, Lewis was famous as a Christian devotional writer and apologist. Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain are the most popular works along this vein.
Third, Lewis was known as a writer of fantasy books for children. The Narnia Chronicles still sell a million copies a year. In fact, J.K. Rowling, the author of the enormously successful Harry Potter series, is a self-confessed Narnia fan and claims that she can’t leave a room, in which there is a copy of a Narnia book, without flipping through its pages. The lion of Gryffindor may be a nod to the literary figure of Aslan. 2See Looking For God in Harry Potter by John Granger So, count them up: three successful literary careers! Most authors and scholars would hope for just one. I guess I could also add successful science fiction writer as well…
Lewis on Books
When asked if there would be books in heaven, Lewis responded, I think with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘only those books we gave away and never had returned to us.’ There is something profound in this response, I think.
Lewis always urged the reading of old books and original sources. “Naturally, since I myself am I writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old…Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.” 3From Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius This is great advice for pastors and theological students. It suggests an irony too; if you would like to appear ‘original’ today (perhaps a dubious goal), spend time reading the long forgotten, little read works of yesterday.
Lewis’ Narnia series sparked a huge correspondence with fans of the series. This included a significant amount of children. One little boy’s mother wrote to Lewis because her young son was deeply concerned that he loved Aslan more than Jesus and was worried about becoming an idolater. Lewis wrote back a beautiful letter that I find very edifying to read. I quote significant portions of this letter below:
“Dear Mrs. K,
Tell Laurence from me, with my love:
Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving him more than he ever did before…. If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things you don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.” That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’ Will this help? I am terribly sorry to have caused such trouble, and would take it as a great favor if you would write again and tell me how Laurence goes on… I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I daresay the saints’ mothers have, in some ways, a rough time!
C.S. Lewis” 4C.S. Lewis Letters To Children
Here is this famous man, this massive intellect, this literary genius with enormous amounts of learning and a huge workload, taking the time to right a young child pastoral advice that is both wise and beautiful. His brother, Warnie, wrote some of his letters, but not this one. I find this to be moving; it is a mark of humility, the greater descending to meet the needs of the weaker. Lewis learned this pattern of descent from Jesus.
In conclusion, Lewis has flaws like every other human being and sometimes his missteps were of a theological/philosophical nature. But I hope this article increases your appreciation for a literary giant and faithful defender of ‘Mere Christianity’; a man who didn’t just baptize our intellect in Christian truth, but also our imagination. I thank God for him. And so should Peter Jackson.
Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life
Alister McGrath, The intellectual World of C.S. Lewis
Roger Lancelyn & Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography
Douglas Greshem, Jack’s LIfe: The Life Story of C.S. Lewis
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I culled these quotes from the Internet but they can be readily found in any Lewis or Tolkien biography.|
|2.||↑||See Looking For God in Harry Potter by John Granger|
|3.||↑||From Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius|
|4.||↑||C.S. Lewis Letters To Children|