Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland (now in Northern Ireland), on November 29, 1898, the younger son of Albert and Flora Hamilton Lewis. His pleasant childhood with his brother Warren ended at age ten when his mother died. Already Lewis had begun to compose stories of imaginary worlds, featuring talking animals. After their mother’s death, both boys were sent to English boarding schools, a separation that permanently estranged Lewis emotionally from his father. The next six years were the worst of his life, as Lewis makes clear in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955). Finally, in 1914, Albert sent him to a tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick, who had instructed Albert himself, to prepare for college. Kirkpatrick strengthened Lewis’s atheism and his skills in language and debate.

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In 1916, Lewis won a scholarship to University College, Oxford; he failed the university entrance examination, however, because of weakness in mathematics. He was permitted to attend in 1917 so that he could join the army through enlistment in the University Officers’ Training Corps. He left for France in November, 1917, was wounded in April, 1918, and returned to England.

While he convalesced, Lewis maintained a friendship with the mother of an Oxford companion, Paddy Moore. Both had promised to care for the other’s family should his friend be killed, and Moore’s death led Lewis to fulfill his promise. He supported Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen until Maureen reached adulthood; Mrs. Moore lived in his home until her death in 1951. Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore is unclear; he may have found a mother figure in her that replaced the loss of his own mother. She was not apparently sympathetic either to his academic work or to his later conversion to Christianity. During his convalescence, Spirits in Bondage (1919), a book of poems, was published.

Lewis returned to Oxford in 1919, graduating in 1922 with a B.A. while earning highest honors in classics and philosophy. Unable to find work, he continued his studies in English literature, completing the standard two-year program in less than a year with highest honors. A temporary teaching position led in 1925 to a post as tutor in English at Magdalen College, which he held until his election to Cambridge in 1954. His position involved weekly meetings with students to discuss readings and essays and college-wide lectures. In 1926, his poem Dymer was published. His friends in these years included fellow scholars such as J. R. R. Tolkien, who shared his love of Norse literature.

In 1929, Lewis’s father died in Ireland. After selling the family home, the brothers purchased property in Headington, a suburb of Oxford, and moved there with Mrs. Moore and her daughter. Although they had never been close, his father’s death struck Lewis very deeply. Over a number of months, Lewis was led to reflect on religious issues, and his friends Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson all discussed Christianity with him. His atheism, representing fifteen years of his life, he abandoned by 1929. He described himself only as a theist, however, believing in a God, until in 1931 he became a convert to Christianity. Central to his conversion, as he wrote in Surprised by Joy, was his pursuit of “Joy,” a longing for something wonderful that this world cannot supply. He illustrated this quest in his allegorical narrative The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933). His scholarly reputation was made with The Allegory of Love (1936), although he was professionally active throughout his career. Other scholarly publications included A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942). Nineteen years of study resulted in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954), a volume in the Oxford History of English Literature series.

He found support from a group of colleagues, known as The Inklings, who met twice a week to discuss works in progress. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) was first read in this context. The group also heard Lewis’s first theological essay The Problem of Pain (1940); The Space Trilogy, three science-fiction novels (1938-1945); The Screwtape Letters (1942); and The Great Divorce (1945).

The Screwtape Letters established his popular audience. Originally serialized weekly in the newspaper The Guardian, when the letters were published together Lewis had a best seller. Subsequent speaking engagements produced the famous wartime radio addresses collected as Mere Christianity (1952). Later, his lectures linked teaching with values in The Abolition of Man (1943). From 1947 to 1960, he wrote three more works on Christian doctrine. In the same period, his children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), appeared.

Lewis’s life changed dramatically in the mid-1950’s. Professionally, his election in 1954 as professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge permitted him freedom to lecture on topics of his choosing. Personally, it meant marriage. In the early 1950’s, he had met Helen Joy Davidman, the wife of William Gresham. The Gresham marriage was failing, and after her divorce, she and her sons moved from the United States to Oxford in 1955. Their friendship influenced his most mature novel, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956). In 1956, they were married in a civil ceremony, in part to secure British citizenship for Joy and for her sons. Joy was shortly afterward diagnosed with bone cancer, and in March, 1957, while Joy was hospitalized, they were formally married by an Anglican priest. Her almost miraculous recovery permitted them a honeymoon, and the next two years were the happiest of Lewis’s life. Her cancer returned, however, and she died in July, 1960. Lewis recorded his loss in A Grief Observed (1961).

In his last years, he published little original material beyond An Experiment in Criticism (1961). He remained active at Cambridge until, in 1963, in failing health, he resigned his position. He died at his home in Oxford on November 22, 1963.

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