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CS Lewis

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The Belfast statue of CS Lewis, sculpted by Ross Wilson.

CS Lewis was a literary genius of the 20th Century. Best remembered for his Narnia series of books, he wrote and contributed so much more.

The Early Years

Clive Staples Lewis (known as Jack to all who loved him) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 29 November, 1898. In 1917, he went up to Oxford, having attended four different schools in Belfast and England, as well as receiving private tuition. However, with the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the army. He reached the front line at the Somme Valley on his nineteenth birthday. He was wounded but recuperated and was finally discharged in December, 1918. In February the following year, Reveille published Lewis's first piece to see print outside of a school publication - Death in Battle, inspired by the death in action of his room-mate from Officer Training, Paddy Moore, in the final months of the war.

Lewis at Oxford

In January, 1919, Lewis returned to Oxford, where he continued his studies until 1924 at University College. He received a first1 in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin Literature) in 1920, a first in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) in 1922, and a first in English in 1923. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor. The following year he was elected a Fellow at Magdalen College, where he would serve as tutor in English Language for 29 years until 1954.

As a young man, Lewis was an atheist. In 1929, in his own words, 'I gave in, and admitted that God was God... perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England'. At Oxford, he was friends with JRR Tolkien and Hugo Tyson. In September of 1931, he began a long conversation with these two devout men about Christianity. Lewis records in Surprised by Joy a trip the next day to Whipsnade Zoo - 'When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.' This event was to affect his outlook on life and subsequently his most famous writings.

In 1954, Lewis became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He lived in Cambridge during the week but returned home to Oxford at weekends. He retained this chair for the rest of his life, retiring due to ill health just a few months before he died.


Lewis's marriage was an unusual one (its story is told in the film Shadowlands). In 1955, Lewis was approached by a casual acquaintance, an American woman, Joy Davidman Gresham, who had outstayed her visa in England and was being forced to return to America. She asked Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, would he wed her in a 'marriage of convenience', in order that she could remain in England. There was no question of her living with him. Lewis agreed and they were married in a Registry Office in April, 1956. This was to be the start of a beautiful relationship. Very quickly, Lewis grew close to Gresham and eventually came to love her. When it was diagnosed later that year that she was suffering from terminal cancer, he was heartbroken: for the first time, he came face to face with real pain. Pain was a subject that Lewis considered himself somewhat an expert on, having written a book about it and its relationship to God (The Problem of Pain), but the reality was quite different. Lewis renewed his marriage vows to Gresham at her hospital bedside in the presence of a clergyman in March, 1957. She then moved into Lewis's house, where she survived for three years, until 1960. Lewis himself died on 22 November, 19632.

The Writings

Throughout Lewis's life, he wrote novels, essays and letters. He was a master of explaining difficult concepts with simple examples. Almost all of his work expounds the theories of Christianity, but in a gentle way. The works of fiction are enjoyable in their own right.

The Narnia Books

The Narnia Books are adventure stories for children, set in a magical land called Narnia, where the animals talk and are ruled over by a god-like lion called Aslan.

They are wonderful stories but carry a strong moral message: the books are thinly-disguised explanations of the principles of Christianity. Aslan is none other than Jesus Christ himself, and the various characters are faced with moral dilemmas which they must overcome by 'doing the right thing'. Because these books are aimed at pre-adolescent children, the solutions to the dilemmas are usually fairly obvious. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. There is none of the confusion that a child might feel, for example, in reading Tolkien's The Hobbit, where our friends, the dwarves, suddenly become avaricious killers.

Reading Order

There are seven Narnia books. Opinions differ on the order in which they should be read. 'Publicationists' feel that they should be read in the order that they were published, as the stories unfold in the most natural way, with no prior knowledge being assumed. Much of the fun of The Magician's Nephew, for example, is that it explains events which have always been mysterious. If you hadn't already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, these would pass you by. 'Chronologists' feel that the books should be read in the order of the Chronology of the events in the stories. So The Magician's Nephew should be read first, because it deals with the creation of Narnia. To prevent this entry from being shot down in flames by one or other side of the debate, the books are presented here in both orders:

In order of publication:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair
  5. The Horse and His Boy
  6. The Magician's Nephew
  7. The Last Battle

In order of chronology:

  1. The Magician's Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and His Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)

Four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, are sent during the Second World War to stay with an old uncle living in a big house in the country. Lucy discovers a door into the magical world of Narnia at the back of a wardrobe. Here there are talking animals and mythical creatures. She meets a delightful faun. Unfortunately, Edmund also finds Narnia, but encounters a much more sinister character. Soon, all four children are involved in the adventure, the fate of Narnia is at stake and only Aslan can intervene.

Prince Caspian (1951)

The land of Narnia has been enslaved by Men and is under the control of evil Miraz. Talking animals and mythical creatures are under sentence of death. Prince Caspian, nephew of Miraz, is actually the rightful heir to the throne. He organises to bring the four children from England to help.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

Caspian, now King of Narnia, sails on a journey into the East. He is accompanied by Edmund and Lucy, as well as their obnoxious cousin, Eustace. They have numerous adventures along the way. Eustace sees the light and becomes a decent sort.

The Silver Chair (1953)

Eustace and Jill, a school friend, are called to Narnia by Aslan and are given a task. They must rescue a Prince Rillian, who has been kidnapped by an evil witch. Aslan has set a number of signs for them to follow, but they keep missing the signs due to their own pride, greed and fear. They must conquer their own faults in order to free the prince. Aslan is that sort of God.

The Horse and His Boy (1954)

This story is set entirely within the world of Narnia and doesn't involve any children from England. Shasta, a slave in the southern empire of Calormen, discovers that the horse of a passing soldier is a talking horse by the name of Bree. They decide to run away together to Narnia, but encounter lots of adventures on the way.

The Magician's Nephew (1954)

Set in Victorian times, this tells the story of the first movements between worlds. Two children, Digory and Polly, are accidentally sent to a different world by Digory's eccentric uncle, who has been messing about with magic rings. Through Digory's stubbornness, a great evil is let loose, which has a profound effect on the newly-created world of Narnia. Digory must endure much hardship to repair, to some extent, the harm he has done.

The Last Battle (1954)

All things must come to an end. The world of Narnia is disintegrating, as people lose their faith in Aslan and worship the evil god Tash. King Tirian watches the remains of his country collapse around him. It is time for the Last Trumpet to sound and Jill and Eustace have been sent to Narnia to help save the last few true believers.

Criticism of the Narnia Books

The Narnia books are often criticised because of their racism. The land of Calormen lies to the south of Narnia and is inhabited by a race of dark-skinned people, the Calormenes, who are very similar to the Arabs of the Arabian Nights. They are a cruel but sophisticated race with a tradition of good storytelling and high culture, although they are not averse to the keeping of slaves. In The Last Battle however, Lewis describes them in much less respectful terms: 'smelling of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces'. One Narnian accuses another of being a liar: 'You lie like a Calormene'.

This will unsettle some adults, particularly parents worrying about the suitability of the books for their children. Rest assured, Lewis is aware of these issues. He later explains that the Calormene who does good is as good in Aslan's (God's) eyes as a good Narnian, while a Narnian who does bad is just as repellent to Aslan as a bad Calormene.

Another complaint against Lewis is that his sniping at other lifestyles can be tiresome. Eustace is an irritating and spiteful liar. His parents are 'vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes', in other words weirdos and crackpots. They send their child to a progressive school which does not use corporal punishment. Eustace 'reads the wrong sort of books'. It is never stated, but it is strongly implied that it is the parents' fads that have made Eustace the obnoxious brat that he is. This could be hurtful to many children who are brought up (successfully) in similar surroundings. In Lewis's defence, such attitudes would have been fairly common at the time the books were written, even among educated people.

Perhaps hardest to understand is Lewis's attitude to children growing up. In The Last Battle, Susan is 'no longer a friend of Narnia', because she is growing up and is 'interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations'. Susan had put aside Aslan along with all her other childhood ideas. The message intended behind this is that we should beware the pleasures of this life because they will distract us from our search for God. Lewis is Christian and he is entitled to state his Christian belief. But a child could misinterpret it as saying that it is a bad thing to grow up at all, and expressing distaste at the increase in sexuality which is a natural part of adolescence. It should be noted that Peter, Digory and Polly all managed to grow up and remain 'friends of Narnia'.

The Ransom Trilogy

Also known as the Space Trilogy, these are sometimes described as Science Fiction, but they are more a mixture of adventure and theology.

Out of the Silent Planet (1938)

A professor of philology, Ransom, is kidnapped by scientist Professor Weston and his shady accomplice, Devine. They take him to Mars in Weston's newly-invented space ship. On the way, Ransom discovers that there are intelligent Martians, the Sorns, and that he is to be given to them to be used in a sacrifice to their gods. When the ship lands, Ransom escapes, and is befriended by another species, the peace-loving Hrossa. In the process, he learns much about the nature of Good and Evil, and also about the war between them on Earth, which is known to the Martians as the Silent Planet.

This is a beautiful book, filled with genuine joy and sadness. It has much to say on the contrast between the old slow-moving ways and the modern drive towards progress at the expense of all else.

Perelandra (1943)

Also published as Voyage to Venus

Ransom is brought by mysterious forces to Venus (Perelandra), where a Garden of Eden scene is being enacted: a Venusian Eve is being tempted by a possessed Professor Weston. Ransom must intervene, to prevent the damnation of the newly emerged race of Venusians.

This book lays on the theology with a trowel, and is very heavy going, especially to those who expected science fiction. It poses and answers the questions, could there be true Good and Evil if Eve had obeyed God's commandment, and what would have happened if an elephant had stood on the serpent?

That Hideous Strength (1943)

The last in the Ransom trilogy is set firmly on planet Earth, in Britain. The forces of Evil are launching a massive attack on the world, in the guise of the N.I.C.E. corporation, a vast conglomerate which buys land, builds factories, pollutes, carries out impact studies, but appears to achieve very little. The forces of Good led by Ransom are trying to enlist the help of the sorcerer Merlin who, according to legend, lies sleeping under Bragdon Wood. All this is seen through the eyes of a young couple, Jane and Mark Studdock, who end up one in each of the two camps. The University is an important element of the plot, and University life is something Lewis was undoubtedly well acquainted with.

This book is a good yarn, but modern readers will find some of it hard to take, particularly Ransom's (and by implication, God's) views on the relative roles of men and women.

Christian Writings

All of Lewis's writings are based on the desire to explain the principles of the Christian religion. But some are more so than others. Here is a short selection.

The Screwtape Letters (1942)

This humorous look at sin and temptation consists of a number of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is an inexperienced devil who is having problems with his assigned subject, a young Christian, who is known throughout the book only as 'the patient'.

The Problem of Pain (1940)

Lewis explains why an omnipotent and loving God should inflict pain and suffering on humans and on innocent animals. Pain is God's way of telling us that the world is off course and that the human race has fallen. It is 'God's Megaphone' to rouse a deaf world.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964)

In this much-acclaimed work, which was published posthumously, Lewis explores the value and practice of praying. This is an intellectual approach to the problems of humankind's relation to God.

1'First class is the highest division in the results of the examinations for a university degree' - Concise Oxford Dictionary.2The same day that author Aldous Huxley died and President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Coincidentally, the following day, a British TV institution began as four characters stepped into a box and ended up in another world...

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