The Essence of C.S. Lewis
It all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.— C.S. Lewis
If you recognize C.S. Lewis as the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you no doubt know that the faun was Mr. Tumnus, he who introduced Lucy Pevensie to Narnia, the enchanted land of talking animals and valiant battles.
Since the publication of this first Narnia book in 1950, more than 100 million copies have been sold and translated into 30 languages, and countless children have followed the tales of the world that Lucy found behind the wardrobe.
Think back to those moments in your childhood when you read those magical tales. C.S. Lewis was a master of creating stories for children; stories that would allow their imaginations to soar, and explore, and to hope.
But, if "Narnia" is all that you know of C.S. Lewis...you are missing so much of him, so much of his feelings, his thoughts, his beliefs--the essence of Jack (C.S.) Lewis.
In 1905 a devout Protestant family--father, mother, and their two young sons--moved into a large gabled house in Belfast, Ireland. This enchanting place, with narrow, dark passageways and overgrown gardens was the perfect environment for a brilliant and imaginative little boy, Clive Staples, nicknamed Jack.
Days were spent in play with his brother Warren; evenings were spent in the family library of timeworn books. It has been said that two of Jack's favorites were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
"I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks in a field has of finding a new blade of grass."
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Jack Lewis recalled early memories of 'endless books.'
“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,” he remembered.
On rainy days—and there were many in northern Ireland—he pulled volumes off the shelves and entered into worlds created by authors such as Conan Doyle, E. Nesbit, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
It was in this home that Jack Lewis made up stories of his own--“Animal Land”, a magical place inhabited by “chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."
A heroic mouse named Peter was a central figure in the tales. Jack wrote a series of adventures chronicling the inhabitants of Animal-Land, and even created detailed maps. He shared these stories with his brother as they sat among the coats in their grandfather's old wardrobe.
The Loss of Childhood
But unlike Peter Pan, little boys must grow up; Jack’s journey from childhood to maturity came quickly and painfully. In 1908 he and his brother were sent to Wynyard, a boarding school in Watford, Hertfordshire, England. Soon thereafter, their mother died of cancer.
But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?'
Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and… great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears…that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. My son, my son, said Aslan. I know. Grief is great.
― C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew
Brief Biography of C.S. Lewis
- Given Name – Clive Staples Lewis
- Nickname – Jack
- Date of Birth – November 29, 1898
- Place of Birth – Belfast, Ireland
- Occupations – British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer
- Academic positions – Oxford University (1925-54) and Cambridge University (1954-63).
- Died – November 22, 1963
- Place of Death – Oxfordshire, England
The Loss of Belief
Jack was miserable and complained about the vindictive, sadistic headmaster of the school, Robert Capron. One might assume that Jack’s complaints were those of a little boy who was both homesick and deeply wounded by the loss of his mother. But in retrospect, it appears that Jack’s objections were justified; within two years Capron was committed to an insane asylum and the school was closed. Is it any wonder that bad teachers and poor schools are frequently mentioned in C.S. (Jack) Lewis’s writings?
Jack returned to Belfast for a brief time after the closure of Wynyard, but home was no longer the place of his childhood memories. Jack’s father, immersed in grief over his wife’s death, sent his sons away to another preparatory school—this time enrolling them in Malvern.
Estranged from his father and without the loving protection of his mother, Jack eventually lost the one last part of his childhood on which he could rely. Convinced that the God he had been introduced to by his devout family was nothing more than an abstraction, Jack forsook Christianity and became an atheist.
The Gain of Analysis, Thought, and Reasoning
In 1914, at the age of 16, Jack was sent to Great Brookham, Surrey, to be privately tutored by W.T. Kirkpatrick, a brilliant teacher and a friend of Jack’s father.
“The Great Knock,” as the Lewis family called Mr. Kirkpatrick, had a profound effect upon Jack Lewis. He introduced him to the classics in Greek, Latin, and Italian literature. Kirkpatrick was a demanding tutor; not only introducing Jack to classic literature but also pushing him to learn and understand the original languages. He helped Jack learn how to criticize and analyze, and how to think, speak, and write logically.
My debt to him is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished.”
–C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
There is no doubt that it was the tutelage of Mr. Kirkpatrick that prepared Jack for acceptance at University College, Oxford. Jack was not only accepted, but excelled at Oxford, receiving highest honors in “honour moderations, greats, and English” in 1920, 1922, and 1923.
And the critical thinking skills of Mr. Kirkpatrick also brought to being another change in Jack—he began to re-examine his belief in a world without God.
If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis Thoughts on Friendship
…is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.
…is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
…is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.
Life and Living at Oxford
Some have said that in 1917 Jack Lewis entered Oxford as a student…and never, ever left. He fought in the 1st World War, and enjoyed a professorship at Cambridge, but always maintained a home in Oxford—commuting on weekends.
It was in Oxford that he was able to satisfy his never-ending thirst for knowledge—reading, writing, lecturing, and debating. In 1919 he published his first book, a cycle of lyrics titled Spirits in Bondage, which he wrote under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor at University College, then in 1925 was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, where he tutored in English language and literature. The next year his second volume of poetry, Dymer, was published, again under the name Clive Hamilton.
It was also at Oxford that Jack Lewis met fellow faculty members J.R.R.Tolkein and Owen Barfield. They were active in the Oxford literary group known as the “Inklings” and soon became great friends, a friendship that would ultimately change the course of Jack Lewis’ life.
A Life Outside of Oxford
When a college roommate was killed in the 1st World War, Jack befriended the grieving mother, Janie King Moore, and her daughter Maureen. In 1920 they merged households and began to live together. Historians have said that this act of benevolence did more for Lewis than it did for the Moore family. It brought Lewis to (finally) look outside of himself, and consider the life of those around him. He became acquainted with Mrs. Moore’s brother Doc, a 1st World War combat survivor who was horribly tormented with what is now known as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Doc lived in the Lewis household for several weeks and then was hospitalized—he died a few days later from heart failure. Lewis wrote to a friend that Doc was “unconscious at the end, thank God” and concluded his observation by suggesting it is
a damned world—and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!
C.S. Lewis Thoughts on Christianity
- You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.
- If we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival?
- The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God.
- Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.
- I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
- To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
- A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.
- There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.
- God can't give us peace and happiness apart from Himself because there is no such thing.
Jack’s spiritual struggle continued as he absorbed books by George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. One MacDonald volume, Phantastes, had a powerful impact on Jack’s thinking. “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize…my imagination.” Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, also raised serious questions in Jack’s mind about his materialism.
While MacDonald and Chesterton were stirring Lewis’s thoughts, Owen Barfield began to talk at length with Jack about the logic (or lack thereof) of his atheism. And then there was Tolkein—a devout Roman Catholic. Jack admired their brilliance and their logic. In time Jack recognized that most of his friends, as his favorite authors, held a Christian perspective which was entirely different from his world view.
Gradually during the 1920s, two paths were converging in Lewis’s mind: one was reason, the other intuition. In 1929 these roads met, and C.S. Lewis surrendered and admitted that “God was God, and knelt and prayed. Two years later the reluctant convert admitted that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—God Incarnate. With this revelation the Oxford scholar became a member of the Church of England.
A New Direction
Lewis’ rediscovery of God changed not only his heart, but his focus and his purpose in life. He put aside poetry and began to devote his time and talent to writings that reflected his new-found faith. In 1933 The Pilgrim’s Regress was published which told the story of his journey back to Christianity. In the next 30 years Lewis wrote prolifically on topics that would challenge the reasoning of atheists and agnostics and encourage and nuture those who were already believers. Some of his greatest works during this time are the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and Mere Christianity.
He also continued his academic writings. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, Rehabilitations and Other Essays (1936), which is still considered a masterpiece today, was a history of love literature from the early Middle Ages to Shakespeare's time; Out of the Silent Planet (1938) was the first of a trilogy of science fiction novels, the hero of which is loosely modeled on Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the children's classic The Hobbit.
"I never appreciated children till the war brought them to me." --C.S. Lewis
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them.
This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.
At first there wasn't anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.
The War and the Wardrobe
I would be remiss if I did not spend a few moments in discussing the genesis of the Narnia series. Like the Pevensie children, many London children were sent to live in the country during the air raids of the World War II. Three young girls, Margaret, Mary and Katherine stayed at the Lewis house; to entertain them, Jack began to formulate a story; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was born.
According to Lewis the initial inspiration came when one of the little girls asked what lay behind an old wardrobe he kept upstairs. Nearly ten years later, Lucy Pevensie walked through that wardrobe and into Narnia.
Love in the Final Years
In 1950 C.S. Lewis was a world renowned author, having successfully published two books of poetry, countless academic papers, The Pilgrims Regress, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the first of the seven-volume series of Narnia—and he had never been involved in a serious romantic relationship.
That changed when in January 1950 he began to correspond with an American woman, Joy Davidman Gresham—one simple letter became another, and another and…a decade-long relationship. Some who have written about their romance refer to her letters as “fan mail” which, I feel, marginalizes Joy’s own skills and wisdom, branding her as nothing more than a star-struck admirer.
Joy was a brilliant woman, born in New York City to well-educated Jewish parents in 1915. She graduated from high school at age 14 and then went earned a B.A. at the age of 19 at Hunter College (English major and French Literature minor). While teaching her first year out of college, she earned a master's degree from Columbia—it took her three semesters.
She had a passion for writing and had published some poetry as an undergraduate. In 1936 Poetry, a prestigious magazine, bought several of her poems. Not long afterward she was asked to serve as a reader and editor for the magazine. She resigned from her teaching position after one year and was able to devote full time to writing and editing.
Joy’s work caught the attention of Stephen Vincent Benet and her career ignited. Benet published a volume of her work, Letters to a Comrade which then introduced her to Macmillan Press under whom, in 1940, she published Anya, her first novel.
Intelligent, liberal, and disillusioned with American capitalism, she briefly toyed with membership in the Communist Party, but found the meetings (and attendees) rather dull and boring. Joy did net two assets from her flirtation with the Party—part-time employment as a book reviewer and poetry editor for the Communist paper New Masses, and the acquaintance of another writer, the man who would become her husband and father of her two sons.
In August 1942, Joy married William Lindsay Gresham, novelist, journalist, Spanish Civil War veteran, charming story teller, and man with a serious drinking problem. His alcoholism resulted in frequent absences, binges, lost earnings, and several extra-marital affairs. One night in 1946 William telephoned saying that he would not be coming home and did not know if he would ever return.
The conversation ended and Joy walked into the bedroom where her babies slept. Isolated from friends and family because of Gresham’s drinking she felt adrift and defenseless. The God she had turned away from entered her life.
"It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. . . .Those who have known God will understand me. . . . There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness - a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute." --Joy Gresham
Joy recognized that if God did indeed exist, she needed to learn as much as she could about Him. She devoured books and spirituality, including three books by C.S. Lewis. Those books (The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Screwtape Letters), caused her to read the Bible. When she got to the four Gospels, she once again felt the present of God. In 1948 she and her sons were baptized and she became a member of the Presbyterian Church.
C. S. Lewis Thoughts on Love
- Why love if losing hurts too much? We love to know that we are not alone.
- 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.
- Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
- You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.
At the urging of a friend she wrote to Jack Lewis. When she did, in January 1950, Lewis's brother noted in his journal that Jack had received a fascinating letter from a most interesting American woman, Mrs. Gresham. They carried on a cross-Atlantic correspondence for the next two and one-half years, intellectually challenging and spiritually encouraging each other. It was then that Joy’s cousin needed a place from which to escape her own alcoholic husband. She ran to Joy’s home and cared for David and Douglas while Joy travelled to England to meet Jack Lewis in person.
For four months Joy took an apartment in London, but travelled often to Oxford to visit Jack and his brother Warren. In the meantime, Joy’s cousin and husband William began an affair; William sued for divorce. Joy returned to the States, gathered her two sons, and returned to England with them before Christmas.
For the next two years Joy worked as a free-lance writer. She and her sons David and Douglas lived in London but they visited Jack regularly. This arrangement might have gone on indefinitely if not for the British Government. In April 1956 Joy learned that her visa would not be renewed. Jack could not imagine a life apart from Joy Davidman, and so they were wed in a civil ceremony on April 23, 1956.
In early 1957 Joy was diagnosed with cancer—malignant tumors in her breast and bones. Jack was told to prepare for her death, perhaps in just weeks. Jack phoned a dear friend, an Anglican priest who anointed Joy, prayed with her, and granted her dying wish to be married in the Church. She and Jack Lewis were given the sacrament of Holy Matrimony on March 21, 1957…and then Joy began to recover. Instead of being sent home to die she came into remission. She and Jack travelled to Ireland and Wales, and made a honeymoon trip to Greece.
The relationship of C.S. Lewis and Joy lasted only a decade. She first wrote to Jack in January 1950, and the cancer returned with a vengeance in spring 1960. Joy died in July of that year. Jack resigned from his post at Cambridge in August 1963 and died on November 22, 1963.
One wonders if Joy Davidman would have come to faith without the writings of Jack Lewis. And, how different would the last decade of Jack Lewis’ work have been without the influence and love of Joy Davidman? Lewis believed his best book was Till We Have Faces, and most students of his books agree. He unabashedly dedicated this classic to Joy Davidman and many saw her in the novel's character Orual. But the clearest evidence of her impact on his thinking and writing is in The Four Loves and A Grief Observed.
We should be grateful that Joy Davidman came into Jack Lewis’ life. Without her, his writings would be smaller, and none the richer.
© 2015 Linda Lum