Profiles in Greatness: C.S. Lewis

Professionally defining C.S. Lewis is nearly impossible. He wasn’t just an author, a theologian or an academic. He was wholeheartedly each of these things. He was also a successful poet, literary critic and essayist.

Lewis is best-known as the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books in which four siblings join forces with talking animals to fight evil in a fictitious land. Though his work made Lewis popular, his commitment to answering questions about morality, religion and life made him a source of inspiration to generations.

We caught up with the spirit of Lewis at The Eagle and Child, a pub (full of spirits) in Oxford.

Q: For such a renowned academic, you seem to have a fascination with myth and fantasy. Are you even a little bit embarrassed by that?

A: “When I was 10, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now… I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Born in Belfast, Ireland, on Nov. 29, 1898, Clive Staples Lewis was encouraged by his father, a solicitor, and mother, the daughter of an Anglican priest, to do well in school. He did excel and began writing early, creating and illustrating animal stories that revealed his love of nature.

Lewis’s mother died of cancer in 1908, and young Lewis began to question his Anglican faith, becoming an atheist as a teenager. He continued to excel in school, but his personal studies turned to Greek, Roman, Norse and Irish mythology.

When he moved to England to attend Malvern College, he struggled socially as a result of culture shock. He hated everything about England—the countryside, the accents and the people; later in life he overcame this initial impression, but he always favored his Irish heritage and sought the company of other Irishmen living in England.

Q: What did you learn about humanity from your early experiences at school and in the war?

A: “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence and private—and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”

Lewis received a scholarship to University College, Oxford in 1916, but he left school to volunteer in the British Army the following year. He served in World War I, arriving at the front line in France on his 19th birthday. During harrowing trench warfare, Lewis was wounded and two of his friends were killed.

One of those friends, Paddy Moore, had made a pact with Lewis that each would care for the other’s family if they were killed in action. Upon Paddy’s death, Lewis followed through on his promise. He supported Paddy’s sister, Maureen, and mother, Jane King Moore, even purchasing property in Jane’s name. Lewis became very close with Jane, inciting some speculation as to the nature of their relationship. In her final years in a nursing home, Lewis visited her daily.

Lewis’s experiences during the war only aggravated his atheism, but he continued to explore the concepts inherent in mythology. He was discharged from the army and went on to complete his studies at Oxford in 1924. He served as a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford for the next 29 years.

Q: If there were anything you could tell your young self, what would it be?

A: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

The hard shell of spiritual disbelief that Lewis had built around himself after the tragedies of his youth began to disintegrate as Lewis taught and continued to study philosophy. He admitted to believing in a higher power in 1929 and converted to Christianity in 1931 after, he wrote to a friend, “my long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien.”

Friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, both writers, were also members of a literary discussion group called the Inklings, which Lewis began hosting at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. The group included several other writers and offered a forum for discussing the members’ narrative and fantasy fiction.

Lewis’s newfound faith had a transformational effect on his writing, which was increasingly popular. He also began a wartime radio broadcast on Christianity (later compiled into the book Mere Christianity) that brought him wide acclaim.

And while his fictional works, such as The Screwtape Letters, The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia made him a recognizable name, he continued to publish profound nonfiction as well as award-winning books and scholarly papers on medievalism. Today, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold copies in the millions.

Q: What do you think is at the root of people’s inability to get along well with others?

A: “This year or this month or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people.”

In 1952, Lewis’s Mere Christianity was published, introducing a new audience to his concept of a common morality. Lewis believed that everyone had an innate sense of right and wrong, a set of universal laws by which we create relationships and run society. This common morality, Lewis proposed, was also at the core of all Christian beliefs.

The basic premise of his theory was borne out in the biblical injunction to treat others as we would treat ourselves, implying that we ought not to have one standard for ourselves and another for our neighbors. Lewis practiced what he preached, developing a reputation for his willingness to speak with anyone about anything. Despite his intellectual credentials, Lewis believed he was equal to his neighbors and could learn something from everyone.

Lewis put a lifetime of research into the mythologies of his Narnia series, which he published from 1950 to 1956. He understood that by putting his philosophies into a children’s book that featured anthropomorphic animal characters, he could encourage readers to confront ideas about race, gender and morality in a nonthreatening manner. “The value of myth,” he said, “is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” In Narnia, universal morality is known as the “deep magic,” which everyone knows and only the villains try to disobey.

Q: Did the deaths of the women in your life—first your mother, then your dear friend Jane and then your wife—impact your willingness to love?

A: “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.”

In 1952, Lewis met American writer Joy Davidman, who was nearing divorce from her first husband. The pair developed a relationship, and when Davidman was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1956, Lewis was at her side. The following year, they were married as Davidman lay in a hospital bed. Although she recovered briefly, she relapsed and died in 1960.

As he had done throughout his life, Lewis turned to his writing to cope with his feelings and explore the philosophical and spiritual ramifications of his wife’s passing. His subsequent book, A Grief Observed, was deeply personal and published under a pseudonym to protect his privacy. Friends began to recommend the book to help Lewis deal with his grief.

Though critics sometimes characterize Lewis as a cold intellectual, those who knew him well described him as a man of great substance who had intense and intimate relationships.

Lewis died of renal failure three years after Davidman on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and author Aldous Huxley died.

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