Lewis, Clive Staples

views updated May 21 2018


Literary historian, Christian apologist, scholar, critic, writer of science fiction and children's books; b. Belfast, Ireland, Nov. 29, 1898; d. the Kilns, Headington, England, Nov. 22, 1963. His father was Albert James Lewis, a solicitor; his mother Florence Augusta Hamilton. They had two sons, Warren and Clive, who at an early age changed his name to "Jack." Before he was 10 his mother died of cancer, and the two boys were on their own, being somewhat estranged from their father. In 1917 Lewis prepared for entrance into Oxford University but World War I found him commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry. He arrived at the front line trenches on his 19th birthday Nov. 29, 1917, soon afterwards seeing service at Fampoux and Monchy, and was wounded at Mt. Bemechon, near Lillers, in April 1918.

He returned to Oxford in January 1919 and on June 25, 1925, was elected to official fellowship in Magdalen College as tutor in English Language and Literature. He remained at Oxford until 1954. Passed over for the Merton Chair of English Literature in 1947 and defeated in 1951 for the Professorship of Poetry, he finally accepted in 1954 the Professorship of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College in Cambridge. Soon after, Oxford awarded him an honorary fellowship.

In 1956 Lewis married Joy Gresham Davidman, who died in 1960 of bone cancer. Lewis described this most difficult experience in A Grief Observed (1961).

Prior to 1929 Lewis had considered himself an atheist or at least an agnostic, and had published two books of poetry in that vein, but his conversion to theism in 1929 and to Christianity in 1931 resulted in his first book on apologetics: The Pilgrim's Regress (1933). Using John Bunyan's classic as a model, Lewis enucleated one of his major themes: the idea of longing, disquietude, yearning, Sehnsucht, for the eternal which no earthly thing can satisfy since our hearts are restless for the Eternal. Following Saint augustine, the pseudo-dionysius, and Pascal, Lewis asserts that earthly pleasures, being unsatisfactory, can only point to an everlasting heavenly pleasure. This theme is repeated in the Chronicles of Narnia (195056), a series of children's books treating traditional topics but translating them into an imaginary kingdom of people and animals. Aslan, the lion and king of beasts, represents a Christ figure.

Lewis's two most popular works are The Screwtape Letters (1942), a series of letters from the devil to his undersecretary in hell, Wormwood, on how to win a Christian from the fold, and Mere Christianity (1952), a summation of talks from the British Broadcasting Series that made Lewis famous during World War II.

Elsewhere, Lewis deals with the imperatives of the moral law, and in The Abolition of Man (1943) asserts that ethical commands (the Tao) are not merely written in the heart, but into the very structure of the universe itself. The Great Divorce (1945) records a series of conversations between various visitors from hell who are allowed to make an excursion to heaven, and for the most part decide not to remain there. The Problem of Pain (1940) contains some interesting analyses of evolution, primitive societies, animal pain, and the existence of hell. Various kinds of love (The Four Loves 1960), prayer (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 1964), insights into the Psalms (Reflections on the Psalms 1958), and theological questions on sin and redemption arising on other planets not yet or about to be tempted (Out of the Silent Planet 1938; Perelandra 1943; and That Hideous Strength 1945), are just a few of the many topics which Lewis dealt with. Some consider his best work to be the novel Till We Have Faces (1956), a story of the soul based on the Greek legend of Psyche.

Lewis is widely remembered not so much for his scholarly expertise in medieval and Renaissance English literature (brilliantly demonstrated in the Oxford History of English Literature 1966), but for his popular writings in defense of traditional Christianity, and in this he is not infrequently compared to G. K. chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Quite orthodox in content but very original in style it is their direct "ad hominem" approach which has helped to make his books so lasting in their appeal.

Bibliography: h. carpenter, The Inklings (London 1978). m.j. christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture (Waco, Tex. 1979). j. r. christopher and j. k. ostling, An Annotated Checklist of Writings About Him and His Works (Kent, Ohio 1974). j. t. como, ed., C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and other Reminiscences (New York 1979). c. derrick, C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome (San Francisco 1981). w. griffin, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life (San Francisco 1986). w. hooper, Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis (New York 1979). c. c. kilby, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1964). g. meilaender, The Taste for the Other. The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1978). r. l. purtill, C. S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith (New York 1981). c. walsh, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (New York 1949); The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis (New York 1979). w. l. white, The Image of Man in C. S. Lewis (Nashville 1969). j. r. willis, Pleasures Forevermore. The Theology of C. S. Lewis (Chicago 1983).

[j. r. willis]

Clive Staples Lewis

views updated May 23 2018

Clive Staples Lewis

The British novelist and essayist Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was an established literary figure whose impact is increasingly recognized by scholars and teachers.

On November 29, 1898, Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland. He was the son of A. J. Lewis, a solicitor, and Flora August Hamilton Lewis, whose father was a clergyman. The death of his mother occurred when he was a child. After spending a year in studies at Malvern College, he continued his education privately under the tutelage of W. T. Kirkpatrick, formerly headmaster of Lurgan College.

During World War I he served as a second lieutenant in the infantry, interrupting his career as scholar begun in 1918 at University College, Oxford. Wounded in the war, he returned to Oxford, where in 1924 he was appointed lecturer at University College. In 1925 he was appointed fellow and tutor at Magdalen College, England, where he lectured on English literature.

Lewis early grew disillusioned with religion and only later "converted" to Christianity, joining the Anglican Church. Taciturn about the details of his early life, his autobiography, Surprised by joy: The Shape of My Early Life, fails to provide enlightenment and leaves the Lewis scholar to speculations about his childhood and early disenchantment with emotional Christianity. Perhaps his headmaster, a clergyman who urged him to "think" by application of the rod, contributed to his dissuasion.

His autobiography does reveal, however, that he had little interest in sports as a boy and that he was a voracious reader. Among his early favorite authors was G. K. Chesterton who was himself a paradoxical and religious writer.

Widely read as an adult, his knowledge of literature was prodigious and made of him a superb conversationalist much sought after for his company. Lewis thoroughly enjoyed sitting up into the wee hours in college rooms" … talking nonsense, poetry, theology, and metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes."

His subjects at Oxford were medieval and Renaissance English literature, in which he became a scholar, lecturer, and tutor of renown. His reputation was made secure by his English Literature in the 16th Century (1954) and Experiment in Criticism (1961). Aside from scholarly writings, his output included science-fiction, children's stories, and religious apology.

In 1926 his first publication, Dymer, a narrative versification in Rime Royal, appeared under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Dymer revealed something of his satirical gift. The Pilgrims' Regress, an allegory published in 1933, presented an apology for Christianity. It was not until the appearance of his second allegorical work, The Allegory of Love (1936), however, that Lewis received acclaim by winning the coveted Hawthornden prize.

His Pilgrims' Regress is a work of allegorical science fiction, in which a philologist is kidnapped by evil scientists. The Screwtape Letters (1942), for which he is perhaps best known, is a satire in which the devil, here known as Screwtape, writes letters instructing his young nephew, Wormwood, how to tempt souls to damnation.

Of his seven religious allegories for children titled Chronicles of Narnia (1955) he commented that, "stories of this kind could steal past … inhibitions which had dissuaded him from his own religion." … "An obligation to feel can freeze feeling." His later rejoining of Christianity was philosophical, not emotional.

Lewis was married, rather late in life, in 1956, to Joy Davidman Gresham, the daughter of a New York Jewish couple. She was a graduate of Hunter College and for a time belonged to the Communist Party. She had previously been married twice. When her first husband suffered a heart attack, she turned to prayer. Reading the writings of Lewis, she began to attend Presbyterian services. Later, led by his writings to Lewis himself, she divorced her second husband, Williams Gresham, left the Communist Party, and married Lewis. Her death proceeded her husband's by some three years. C. S. Lewis died, at his home in Headington, Oxford, on November 24, 1963. A major collection of his works is held by Wheaton College in Illinois.

Further Reading

Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955) was written at age 57. Later biographical information is contained in Letters of C. S. Lewis (1966) as edited by W. H. Lewis. Further insights to the artist's life are provided in C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and other Reminiscences (1979), edited by James T. Como. C. S. Lewis's works include: "Out of the Silent Planet" (1938); "Rehabilitations" (1939); "The Personal Heresy" with E. M. W. Tillyard (1939); "A Preface to Paradise Lost" (1942); "The Case for Christianity" (1942); "Perelandra" (1943); "Christian Behavior" (1943); "Abolition of Man" (1943); "Beyond Personality" (1944); "That Hideous Strength" (1945); "Miracles" (1947); "Weight of Glory" (1949); "Mere Christianity" (1952); and "Studies in Words" (1960). □

Lewis, Clive Staples

views updated Jun 08 2018

Lewis, Clive Staples (1898–1963). British scholar of English literature, writer and Christian apologist. As an Oxford don in the 1920s, C. S. Lewis moved from atheism to committed Christianity, specifically to an evangelical Anglicanism. His most popular Christian works are The Screwtape Letters (1942), relating the advice given by a senior devil to his subordinate in luring a human subject away from salvation; Mere Christianity (1952, but originally a series of radio talks begun in 1941); and his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. A science-fiction trilogy (1938–45) and the seven children's books known as the Chronicles of Narnia (1950–6) incorporate Christian themes allegorically. The death of his wife, Joy Davidson, evoked the searching record of his grief, A Grief Observed (first publ. under the name N. W. Clerk).