A Brief Biography of C. S. Lewis

Born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898, C. S. Lewis had one elder brother, named Warren Hamilton. His parents were Albert James Lewis, who was originally from Wales, and Florence Augusta Hamilton Lewis, whose father was an Anglican priest for the Church of Ireland. Lewis was called “Jack” by his friends and family most of his life. Lewis was called “Jack” because his dog, Jacksie, was killed when Lewis was four, and Lewis insisted upon being called Jack from then on.

Lewis’ family moved to “Little Lea,” the home in which he lived from 1905 to 1930 when he was seven. This home is located in East Belfast. It was in this home that he began writing and created an imaginary world that he called “Animal Land.”

Throughout his childhood, Lewis loved the idea of anthropomorphic animals and was an avid fan of Beatrix Potter’s works. The two boys created their own animal-run world, which they dubbed Boxen. An avid reader, Lewis’ father filled the house with books, and Lewis loved the ease of finding a book to read.

When Lewis was 10, his mother died of cancer. After this, Lewis was educated by private tutors, and then at boarding schools. When the headmaster of the Wynyard School in Hertfordshire was sent to a psychiatric hospital, resulting in the school closing, Lewis switched to Campbell College, where he stayed only three months because of respiratory issues. He was then sent to Malvern, Worcestershire, which was a health-resort town. There, he attended Cherbourg House, a preparatory school that he referred to as “Chartres” when he wrote his autobiography. At this school, he turned from Christianity to atheism and dabbled in the occult and mythology.

From September 1913 to June 1914, Lewis attended the socially competitive Malvern College. He left there to study privately with a tutor – William T. Kirkpatrick, who had tutored his father and had been headmaster at Lurgan College. Lewis learned more about what he called “Northernness,” the mythology and literature of Scandinavia and Iceland, and Norse mythology. Under Kirkpatrick’s tutelage, he studied Greek mythology and literature as well. He also honed his skills in debate and reasoning.

In 1916, a scholarship to University College, Oxford was awarded to Lewis, but within months of beginning, he was sent to France by the British Army. His service during World War I confirmed his atheism, and he was sent home on April 15, 1918, due to shrapnel wounds caused by a British shell that did not quite make it to its target. He moved in with Janie Moore, whose son was killed in the war and with whom Lewis was a close friend.

His focus at Oxford was on classical philosophy and literature. England, to Lewis, was strange and unsettling. He made peace with it later, but his first impressions were much less than favorable. During his time at Oxford, he made the acquaintance of William Butler Yeats and was surprised that Yeats was ignored by the Englishmen.

He achieved a position fellowship teaching in 1925 at Magdalen College, a part of the university. While he was there, he joined The Inklings, a group of writers and thinkers that also included Lewis’ older brother and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was during discussions with members of this group that Lewis re-embraced Christianity. Many of his writings expressed the logic and philosophy of his spiritual beliefs. Lewis tended toward an inclusive form of Christianity, seeking for shared doctrines and emphasizing them rather than embracing a specific denomination.

He began publishing his works in 1926, beginning with Dymer, a work of satire. Another of his works, published in 1936, The Allegory of Love, won the Hawthornden Prize. His first work in the science fiction genre was published in 1938, titled Out of the Silent Planet, and was the beginning of a trilogy. In the late 1940s, radio speeches that Lewis gave regarding Christianity were compiled and published as Mere Christianity, which remains one of his more popular works among Christian circles.

In the 1950s, Lewis published his eminently popular series The Chronicles of Narnia. While Lewis always said that the books were not intended to be directly allegorical, many of the themes visited in them can be related to spiritual matters. The most notable of these is the lion Aslan, who appears to be a fairly direct representation of Jesus Christ, including the way the rules and a sacrifice he makes. Despite a few negative reviews, the series has been a favorite internationally ever since.

In 1951, Lewis was on George VI’s last list of honors, but he declined to be made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) because he desired to stay free of political associations.

Lewis became a literature professor at Cambridge University in 1954, and two years later he married an English teacher from America, Joy Davidman Gresham, with whom he had corresponded for some time. Gresham had also converted from atheism to Christianity. She had escaped an abusive, alcoholic husband who had fathered two sons (David and Douglas), and Lewis’ brother commented about the situation, “For Jack, the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met … who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.”

Their marriage was short, unfortunately, as bone cancer claimed his wife’s life in 1960. A devastated Lewis wrote his thoughts in notebooks, later compiled into A Grief Observed, published under the pen name N.W. Clerk. Later reprints were released under his own name, but the text retained the use of “H” in reference to his wife. This referred to her rarely-used first name, Helen. The book was recommended to Lewis by many of his friends as a way to deal with his grief because they did not know it was he who had written it.

Three years later, in 1963, Lewis experienced heart trouble, which prompted him to resign from his position at Cambridge. That November, he died in Headington, Oxford, at The Kilns, the home he shared with Mrs. Janie Moore.

In 2013, Lewis was added to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The floor stone is inscribed with a quote from one of Lewis’ speeches: “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.”