The author of the "Narnia" series lived a complicated life - he survived a mentally ill schoolmaster, served in the Great War, identified two types of joy, and became a source of inspiration as a religious writer and speaker.
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.
C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Albert J. Lewis and Florence Augusta Hamilton Lewis. His brother, Warren, known as "Warnie," was born three years prior.
When Lewis was four, his dog, Jacksie, was killed. From that day forward, he insisted that everyone should call him "Jacksie," which later morphed into "Jack."
Lewis had fond memories of his early childhood, growing up in a home filled with books. He later wrote, "There were books in the study, books in the dining room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds."
Young Lewis was tutored at home until 1908, when his mother died of cancer and his life was turned upside down. He was sent to a school called Wynyard, which was run by a cruel headmaster, Robert Capron. Students at Wynyard learned by rote, did endless sums on slates, attended dry church services, and endured regular floggings by their headmaster. The school closed in 1910, due to a lack of students, and - frighteningly - the headmaster was committed to a mental institution.
Lewis was enrolled at a boarding school at Campbell College, Belfast, for a few months, until he withdrew due to respiratory problems. He transferred to a prep school called Cherbourg House in Malvern, England, because of the climate's restorative powers. He thrived there, earning good grades and learning to love the music of Richard Wagner. His brother, Warnie, however, began to rebel and was expelled.
By the age of fourteen, while coping with the loss of his mother, uninspired church services, and his frightening experiences at school, Lewis lost his faith in God. He later wrote, "Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."
In 1913, Lewis left Chartres for Malvern College; in 1917 he began a brief stint at University College, Oxford. In September of 1917, Lewis left school to enlist in the British army, to do his duty during the Great War.
In 1917 Lewis completed his officers' training, then he was commissioned in the 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. On his nineteenth birthday, he was at the front line in the Somme Valley in France. He was wounded during the Battle of Arras in April of 1918; after recovering and briefly returning to battle, he was discharged from the military and resumed his studies at University College, Oxford.
In 1919, Lewis' essay, "Death in Battle," was published in "Reveille" magazine. Lewis' friend, Paddy Moore, had been killed in battle. The two had made a pact that if either of them were killed during the war, the other would take care of both of their families. Lewis followed through on this solemn promise.
Lewis lived with the mother and sister of his deceased friend, Paddy Moore, starting in 1921. Some historians believe that a romantic relationship developed between Moore's mother, Jane King Moore, and Lewis, despite an age difference of twenty-seven years. Whether or this happened, it is a certainty that Lewis kept the details of his relationship with Mrs. Moore a secret from his father.
In 1930, Lewis and his brother, Warnie, purchased a house in Oxford, known as "The Kilns," with Mrs. Moore, even though Warnie disliked her.
Lewis tried, unsuccessfully, to re-enlist in the army at the age of forty, at the outset of World War II. He turned down an opportunity to write propaganda columns for the Ministry of Information, but he broadcast inspirational messages to soldiers and civilians via BBC radio, sometimes during air raids in London. During a broadcast in March of 1944, he said, "History isn't just the story of bad people doing bad things. It's quite as much a story of people trying to do good things. But somehow, something goes wrong."
The Lewis brothers held life tenancy in The Kilns, but the house legally belonged to Mrs. Moore. When she died, in 1951, the house was passed on to her daughter, Dame Maureen Dunbar.
Lewis' faith in Christianity had been shaken during his early school days, then destroyed during his time in combat. Over the years, however, he was forced to confront the fact that many people he admired - including authors - were Christians. Notably, author J.R.R. Tolkien spoke to Lewis about his faith. Lewis' years at Oxford, as an academic, showed him the intellectual side of religious belief, and he gradually embraced theism. Then, after years of uncertainty, Lewis suddenly became a Christian in 1931, while riding to the zoo in the sidecar of his brother's motorcycle. He later commented, "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." He joined the Church of England.
Lewis explored notions of good and evil and temptation in the comedic "Screwtape Letters," first published in "The Guardian" in weekly installments, then later as a book. The project was difficult for him to write, because he was presenting the story from the Devil's point of view. He did not believe in the Devil as an evil equivalent of God, however. He stated, "There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite." He added, "Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael."
The Lewis brothers sheltered a group of children at The Kilns when Germany threatened to attack London in 1939. These evacuees helped inspire Lewis to write the "Chronicles of Narnia."
Starting in 1950 and continuing through 1956, Lewis publishing the seven books in his Narnia series. The story involves four children who escape the perils of wartime by traveling through an armoire to Narnia, a fantastic world with magic and talking animals. The books have religious undertones. Aslan, the lion, for example, represents Jesus Christ for many readers.
The first book published in the series was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Lewis later explained, "'The Lion' all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it.'" Lewis did not write the books in chronological order; also, they were not published in the order of their creation.
The Narnia books changed Lewis' life in a personal and unexpected way when an American woman named Joy Gresham wrote to him in 1950 about her sons' enjoyment of his writing. After she and Lewis wrote letters back and forth for two years, she flew to Oxford in 1952 to meet him. Eventually, she divorced her abusive husband and moved to England, and Lewis offered to marry her so she could stay. As if they were two characters in a romantic comedy, they fell in love after they were married. About Joy, Lewis said, "I never expected to have in my 60s that happiness that passed me by in my 20s."
Joy died of cancer in 1960. To deal with his grief, Lewis wrote a book, "A Grief Observed," under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk. He wrote, "Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical problems - are like that." A number of his friends recommended his own book to him, not realizing he was the author, to offer him comfort after his loss.
Lewis raised Joy Gresham's sons as his own, following her death.
Lewis was fond of nicknames. Wynyard School, which he hated, was "Belsen"; the schoolmaster was "Oldie." His prep school in Malvern, England, was "Chartres." He called his brother "Archpigiebotham"; his brother called him "Smallpigiebotham" - all because their nurse talked about spanking their piggybottoms. Lewis' tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick, was "The Great Knock." Lewis referred to his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, as "Tollers," and he called his surrogate mother, Mrs. Moore, "Minto."
Lewis declined election to the Order of the British Empire, under George VI, because he did not want to be involved in political matters.
As young boys, Lewis and his brother created an imaginary world called "Boxen," where animals could talk.
From 1933 to 1949, Lewis and a group of his literary friends, dubbed "The Inklings," met regularly at a pub called The Bird and Baby, to discuss their works in progress. Members included Lewis and his brother, Warnie, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.
Because Lewis pinched pennies, he wore threadbare clothing and kept The Kilns in disrepair.
Lewis enjoyed dispensing writing advice, especially to his younger fans. In one case, he wrote, "Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."
Lewis was fascinated by Norse mythology and the music of Wagner, which he referred to as "Northernness." He later dabbled in epic poetry and opera, embracing his love of Norse traditions.
Lewis did not want the "Chronicles of Narnia" to be presented in live action. In a 1959 letter he explained, "Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare."
Because Lewis was clumsy - or thought he was - he never learned to drive or to type.
Lewis set up a charitable trust, the Agape Fund, with the earnings from his books. He donated as much as ninety percent of his royalties to this fund, even though he was tight with money and had a fear of bankruptcy.
An autobiography written by Lewis, "Surprised by Joy," is not about his wife, Joy. Instead, the title was inspired by a William Wordsworth poem. "Joy" was, for Lewis, a way to describe his feelings about God and faith.
Final Days and Final Thoughts
Lewis resigned from his academic position at Cambridge in 1963, due to heart trouble. He died at The Kilns on November 22, 1963, but his death was overshadowed by the concurrent deaths of Aldous Huxley and John F. Kennedy. Lewis was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford.
C. S. Lewis struggled with his faith but found his joy at last. He is beloved not only for his children's literature, but also for his religious works. Given the religious undertones in his Narnia series, he may not have viewed the two types of writing as separate and distinct. In "Surprised by Joy," in fact, Lewis wrote, "I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least."