Born in Belfast in 1898, the son of Albert Lewis, a successful lawyer, and Flora Hamilton Lewis, a writer and mathematician, Clive Staples Lewis spent his early childhood in an atmosphere of learning and imagination. His mother tutored him in French and Latin before he was seven; his nurse, Lizzie Endicott, taught him the folktales of Ireland. Clive and his brother, Warren, devoted long, often rainy afternoons to exploring the book-lined corridors of Little Lea, their home. As small children, the brothers invented their own country, Boxen, for which they wrote a four-hundred-year chronicle and which they peopled with animal characters who became subjects of individual stories. These early-childhood adventures were of incalculable influence on Lewis’s long fiction, written almost half a century later.
With his mother’s death from cancer in 1908, Lewis’s life changed drastically and irrevocably. A disconsolate, bewildered Albert Lewis sent his sons to boarding school in England, the first of several cruel experiences before age sixteen that nurtured in Lewis a hatred for public school education. At last persuading his father to place him with the demanding but kind tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick in 1914, Lewis developed his great scholarly talents and won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, two years later. Before taking his entrance exams, however, Lewis was recruited into the army and served as a second lieutenant on the front lines in France during World War I.
Surviving a wound and the mental shocks of war, Lewis happily entered Oxford life in 1919, his education financed by his father—whose support in other ways would always be lacking. Perhaps to compensate for this lack of parental affection, Lewis developed a steadfast friendship with a Mrs. Moore, the mother of a friend who had died fighting in France. With Mrs. Moore and her young daughter, Maureen, Lewis set up housekeeping, this arrangement continuing thirty years, until Mrs. Moore’s death in 1951. Lewis’s tenure at Oxford, as student, tutor, and fellow of Magdalen College, lasted even longer, ending in 1954 with his acceptance of the chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. During the Oxford years, he wrote and published most of his fifty-eight books of adult and children’s fiction, literary criticism, essays, Christian apologetics, and poetry. It was there also that Lewis, influenced by such close friends as J. R. R. Tolkien, underwent his conversion to Christianity.
Lewis’s Christian fervor led to widely read publications and to a long series of radio talks before and during World War II. His faith also inspired fictional works, including his Space Trilogy, written during the war, and his Narnia books for children. Many of his Oxford colleagues, however, were offended by his overt religiousness—and his popularity. Through these years, they thus denied Lewis the Magdalen professorship that his eminence as a literary scholar warranted.
With his rise to a more esteemed position in the more congenial atmosphere of Cambridge, Lewis completed, among other projects, the books of Narnia, the first of which had been published in 1950, and wrote perhaps his finest novel, Till We Have Faces. This last work of fiction was dedicated to Joy Davidman Gresham, an American admirer with whom he had corresponded for several years and who came to England to join him in 1955. They were married in 1956, and, according to Lewis, “feasted on love” for the four years they shared before Joy’s death from bone cancer in 1960. Despite his own worsening health, Lewis continued to produce autobiographical and critical works until suffering a heart attack in 1963. He died on November 22, the date of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and of the death of writer Aldous Huxley.
C. S. Lewis was...
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- Critical Essays