March 22, 2006
A Man Unlike Any
Clive Staples Lewis, a
man unlike any other and once again the topic of discussion. The Narnian,
written by Alan Jacobs, is one of the most recent books published on the life
of C.S. Lewis. I believe that this book can be more fully enjoyed by those
with some foreknowledge about Lewis and authors that may have influenced
Lewis. Nonetheless The Narnian can be enjoyed by anyone with a desire
to learn about this influential British author. Jacobs lays out the facts and
gives some honest speculations. I found there to be some slow parts in the
book, especially at the beginning, but overall I had a wonderful experience
with the book. Jacobs presents certain aspects in an utterly delightful
C.S. Lewis was
born the second son of Albert Lewis and Florence Hamilton. When he was only
four years old, he proclaimed to his family that he would now be called by the
name of “Jacksie.” This ultimately evolved into Jack. His father was
“sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical” (3). He was an attorney and became a
very prominent figure in Belfast. Florence Hamilton was the educated daughter
of an Anglican priest. Warren or Warnie was Lewis’s older brother, childhood
playmate and life-long friend, despite some seasons of less affection than
Lewis it seems had a
wonderful relationship with his mother. She kept their home and lives in a
manner of happiness and bliss for the children. When she became ill, Lewis’s
world would never be the same. The security of his early childhood was taken
from this nine year old boy with his mother’s death. Lewis does not attribute
her death as his first spiritual experience although he did pray for his mother
to live and then to be brought back to life. Lewis claims that he was praying
to a magician type god and that the answer to those prayers depended upon
Lewis’s will and faith.
Albert Lewis was rocked
by the death of his wife. Life for his sons became unstable and unreliable.
Albert, it seems, was not very good at consoling his sons in their fears and
anxieties. Among other things, Albert’s temper and habit of dominating
conversation drove his sons away from him. Albert very faithfully supported
Jack through school and was a regular correspondent. Their relationship was
very strained at times but seemed to end on a good note. Albert lived into his
fifties but then, like his wife, died of cancer.
The Lewis brothers were
very creative playmates and in many ways equals. They both had imaginary lands
that eventually were combined into one imaginary land with talking animals.
Warnie and then Lewis’s schooling separated them as they grew older but they
always enjoyed each others company during the holidays. Warnie played a big
role in Lewis life, especially in the early and later years.
Lewis had a life-long
love and passion for reading, his childhood was no exception. He would steel
away to his own quiet refuges and get lost in the world of literature. The
home he was raised in was full of books of all types and Lewis was well read in
many of them.
School was never
Lewis’s favorite thing. He was sent to attend Wynyard School right after his
mother’s death. Warnie had started at Wynyard a few years prior. This was an
unpleasant place with a crazy headmaster called “Oldie” by the students. The
intellectual rigor offered by this institution was also found wanting and Lewis
felt his time at Wynyard was “almost entirely wasted” (24). Jack ended up
attending Campbell College after Wynyard closed. Campbell College was only a
mile from their home, Little Lea. Lewis liked Campbell better than Wynyard, in
part because of an English master named Lewis Alden, whom Lewis called Octie.
Octie reminded Lewis about the joy and beauty of good literature. Shortly
after beginning at Campbell, Lewis fell ill and never returned to Campbell.
All through his life Lewis talked of the enjoyment of mild illness because it
allowed him to stay home and do those things he liked best. He next attended
Cherbourg and then Malvern College, which he did not like very much and plead
with his father to remove him from. Lewis did have one teacher at Malvern he
very much respected. The man whose opinion was valued went by the name of
Smith. Smith had a positive influence on Lewis and later Lewis modeled some of
his teaching after Smith. Lewis was eventually sent to study with Mr.
Kirkpatrick, a former teacher of Albert’s.
demanded a lot of Lewis and many others would not have survived the training
but Lewis seems to have flourished under the tutelage of this man. Kirk had a
large influence on Lewis in education and religion. Kirk was a devout
atheist. Lewis was a devoted Christian for some of his school years but he
eventually gravitated towards atheism. In addition he was one to always have a
fascination for paganism and mythology.
that developed during Lewis’s youth was that with Arthur Greeves. Arthur was
Warnie’s age and the boys had not been much more than acquaintances until Lewis
and Arthur discovered a mutual love for Norse Myths. The two would become life
long friends and pen pals. Much of what we know about Lewis comes from his
letters to Arthur Greeves.
Lewis was an
interesting adolescent and I think that Jacobs sums him up well for this time
period. “In short, Jack Lewis in his middle teens was a thoroughly obnoxious,
arrogant, condescending intellectual prig. (But then, so was I at the same
age, and with much less justification for my self-confidence)” (58).
There came a time
during the first World War that Lewis decided to enlist and after doing so he
put the war out of his mind completely until he would be called to actual
service. In March of 1917, Lewis arrived at Oxford University and would remain
there in a limbo like state until June when he was called to action.
While in the battalion,
Lewis made a close friend by the name of Paddy Moore. Lewis would spend a lot
of time with Paddy and his family, which consisted of Mrs. Janie Moore and her
daughter Maureen. When Lewis received his formal commission he did not
immediately go home to his anxious father but first spent time with the Moore
family. At this time, a life-changing pact was made between the two young
soldiers that if only one of them lived, the man still living would care for
the deceased’s parent. This time spent with the Moore family and other
contributing factors put additional strain on the relationship between Albert
This time of war would
have greater effect on Lewis than perhaps he himself acknowledged. After the
war Lewis was known to have nightmares but during the war Lewis’s letters to
his father hardly acknowledge where he was writing from. He would tell his
father about things he had been reading or things he could see outside his
hospital window. Not long after being sent to the front, Lewis contracted
“trench fever” and was sent to a military hospital. This was one of those
times that he loved as being a “convalescent from some small illness” (70).
After returning to the front, Lewis was wounded and out of the war for good.
This was a time of great strain between Lewis and his father and in some ways
between Jack and Warnie. Part of these tensions arose from his father’s
absence or neglect of Jack during Jack’s hospitalization and the developing
relationship with Mrs. Moore. Paddy Moore died in the war and Lewis followed
through on his promise to take care of Mrs. Moore, also known as Minto. After
being demobilized, Lewis returned to Oxford. Janie Moore and Maureen moved to
Oxford at this time.
The next few decades,
Mrs. Moore would be a source of great strain between Lewis and his family.
Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore is one of the great mysteries in the life
of Lewis. There was never really a lengthy period of time that Lewis went
without seeing Mrs. Moore until her death many years later. Lewis became a
part of an unusual family situation. He once wrote to Arthur telling him about
the difficulties “when you have a nominal home in one place and a real home
somewhere else” (97). Lewis was under the pressure of juggling loyalties,
finances and other family obligations pertinent to his situation.
definitely atheist by this point, much to the dismay of Arthur Greeves. Other
new friendships developed at the time of Lewis’s studies at Oxford including
his friendship with Owen Barfield, who would later be one of the Inklings.
This time of study and family relations is an extremely complex situation of
strain but Lewis excelled in his studies at Oxford despite all factors.
Lewis finished his
education and indeed had “two strings to his bow” (119), one being philosophy
and the other English. Having these two strings seemed to get Lewis his first
job but then philosophy faded and never really played an obvious role in
Lewis’s future. English became the main focus for the rest of Lewis’s life.
Albert financially supported Lewis throughout his education even when Lewis was
using the money to support Mrs. Moore and Maureen. Lewis had jobs as a tutor
and looked around for jobs. In the fall of 1924, he became a don by taking a
one year job in place of one of his old tutors.
In the spring of
1925, Lewis applied for a Fellowship in English at Magdalen and was offered the
job which he of course took. He now could become financially independent of
his father after six years. This relieved some of the strain on this father
and son’s relationship. He wrote a very grateful letter to his father
Over the next few
years several changes would come about in Lewis’s life including the illness
and death of his father but perhaps the largest and most significant change can
be found in Lewis’s confessed beliefs. Around the time of his father’s death,
there were mentions of more than an abstract Absolute in Lewis letters, there
was mention of a more traditional belief in Someone called God” (128). There
were several Atheist influences in his early life, including Professor Kirk and
Mrs. Moore but there were also many theist influences in his college associates
and other friends. I think that the following quote sheds important light onto
the transformation of Lewis’s beliefs.
You must picture
me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind
lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him
Whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had come
upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God,
and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant
convert in all England…The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men,
and His compulsion is our liberation. (129)
Although this change
had come about, Lewis was only accepting God at this time and his acceptance of
Christ would come later. Around this time of his life, Lewis also began to
keep company with another Oxford graduate and writer by the name of Tolkien.
Lewis and Tolkien, both young dons spent hundred of hours meditating on questions
arising from study of different myths especially Norse myths.
In September of 1931,
Lewis had Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dinner at Magdalen. Afterwards they all
went on a walk and talked for hours into the middle of the night. This event
was later recounted by Lewis to Arthur.
Now what Dyson
and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan
story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god
sacrificing himself to himself…I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved
by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving God (Balder, Adonis,
Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.
The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as
profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say
in cold prose “what it meant.”
Now the story of
Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the
others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened: and one
must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’ myth
where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing
himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while
Christianity is God expressing himself through “real things.” (149)
Lewis also wrote Arthur
that “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in
Christ—Christianity” (150). Lewis seems to continue to be converted to
Christianity more and more over time and part of this culminates into his many
Christian writings that peaked during World War II, when he seemed to know that
the people needed assurances and something to hold on to. Much of what Lewis
is famous for was written during a relatively short period of time and was
really what he considered just his part of the war efforts.
With the death of
Albert, Lewis’s inheritance made it possible for Lewis and Mrs. Moore to buy a
home. Warnie later moved in with them when he retired from the Army. They
bought a house called the Kilns that had a beautiful eight acres which Jack
absolutely loved. Jack, Warnie and Minto would live their for the rest of
their lives. At this point there was a certain amount of stability in Lewis’s
life. “He had a profession, a house, a family (of sorts), and a clear set of
religious commitments. For the next seventeen years or so—until Minto’s
physical and psychological condition began seriously to deteriorate—the outward
circumstances of his life would change little” (154).
During this time
of stability, Lewis began some serious writing. He wrote The Pilgrims
Regress and The Allegory of Love. His The Problem of Pain
was followed by one of his first truly popular books called Screwtape
Letters. The Abolition of Man came and on and on they come. There
was a twenty year period, which occurred simultaneously with much of Lewis’s
writing, that Lewis met weekly and sometimes more with a group of his friends
and colleagues. The group called themselves the Inklings. They would often
read parts of their writings together and then receive criticism. They often
met in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen and other times at pubs. Lewis is known to
have said that “There’s no sound I like better than adult make laughter”
(194). There were many influential friends among this group, one of the most
prominent being Charles Williams, who took Tolkien’s place in Lewis’s life for
a while. A great rift came between Lewis and Tolkien for reasons that are not
completely understood but part of the matter would be a result of Tolkiens
disproval for Lewis and his works. Tolkien also appears to have been a very
During World War II,
Lewis was asked to do a series of lectures that were broadcasted live over the
radio by BBC. This created many inconveniences not the least of which being
the huge influx of correspondence which Lewis personally answered. I find it
worth mentioning that much of Lewis’s profits from his books were given to
charities. He was also very charitable by being patient with so many people
that wrote him. Lewis once told a friend of a certain American woman that he
wrote 138 letters to in response to her complaints about her family’s sins and
foibles. “Lewis knew…that she was ‘a very silly, tiresome, and probably
disagreeable woman,’ but he also knew that she was ‘old, poor, sick, lonely,
and miserable” (225). Paper was scarce and postage expensive at this time but
Lewis made due. Warnie became an invaluable help at this time as he gave aid
with the correspondence.
During this period of
great demands on Lewis’s time and increasing difficulty resulting from Mrs.
Moores declining health, there was a breath of fresh air. There were several
evacuated children over the period of the Second World War but one in
particular named June Flewett was loved by all at the Kilns and was described
by Warnie as “a perfectly saintly girl” (227).
During this period of
time Lewis helped put together a Socratic Club and there were many debating
events. From my reading, it seems to me that Lewis was a very respected and
influential component of almost everything he was involved in. This Socratic
Club was no exception and someone once said that “Nobody could put Lewis down”
I find Lewis’s
activities and many accomplishments during the latter end of his life with
Minto amazing, considering the circumstances and the things he dealt with on a
daily basis. I think these circumstances are of importance to mention. Lewis
was generally overworking himself, there were ongoing and relentless demands
placed on him by Minto, there were disputes between Minto and the lunatic
housemaids that needed sorting out, there was Warnie’s drinking, and also
Minto’s aging old dog that she demanded be walked several times a day.
It was during this time
of great trial that Lewis began to seriously consider and eventually wrote a
children’s story. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was finished
in the spring of 1949, at about the same time that Lewis told Barfield that his
day was chiefly occupied with ‘dog’s stools and human vomit’” (248). The other
books in the Chronicles of Narnia followed shortly thereafter. This had been a
time of much publication and trial. The strain caused Lewis to have a major
breakdown that he never fully recovered from. About this time his meetings
with the Inklings ceased but he took up correspondence with in Italian priest
named Don Giovanni Clalbria. There correspondence was in Latin and was a great
blessing to Lewis and continued until Don Giovanni’s death in 1953.
Minto was ever
becoming more dependant on Lewis and had been semi-invalid for several years.
She eventually was moved to a nursing home out of necessity and Lewis
faithfully visited her even when she had completely lost her mind. Mrs. Moore
passed away in 1951, much to Warnie’s relief. As to Lewis’s feelings we know
very little. He had lived with this woman for more than 30 years; she had been
a great burden at times especially towards the end. With her death, Lewis’s
life became much less strained but he had cared for this woman and we will
never know all of the emotions he went through at her passing.
perhaps less major, that came about during this time was in Lewis’s academic
position. There were several reasons of tension at Oxford and ultimately we
will just say that Lewis accepted a newly created chair at Cambridge
University. At first Lewis refused. He then accepted as a result of the
urging of Tolkien, a friend that had long been silent because of disagreement.
Prior to accepting
the chair at Cambridge in 1954, Lewis received his first letter from Joy
Davidman Gresham. Many of Lewis’s admirers were American women and this
particular correspondent was from New York. She was a published writer and her
letter’s reflected her experience and witty personality. Lewis and Joy met for
the first time in 1952 and in 1953 Joy brought her sons to England and they
made England their home. Lewis and Joy would see each other sporadically at
first but when Joy moved near the Kilns, Lewis began to go to see her every
day. For legal purposes, Lewis and Joy signed a legal form for a type of civil
marriage in order to allow Joy and her sons to stay in England. A short time
later, arrangements were being made for Joy and her boys to move into the
kilns. Around this time Joy discovered she had a sever case of cancer. Joy
and Lewis were then married in a Christian ceremony, after some difficulty.
Joy’s cancer went into remission for a time. For the brief three and a half
years they were married, Joy and Lewis led a very happy life. They took a late
honeymoon to Ireland and after Joy’s cancer returned they also made a trip to
Greece. This time was perhaps some of the happiest time of Lewis’s life.
With the return of
Joy’s cancer and then death, Lewis too declined. He busied himself with his
work, some writing, and care for David and Doug but in November of 1963, after
many health problems including a heart attack, Lewis passed away at the Kilns
under the care of his brother Warnie.