Lewis, Clive Staples (‘Jack’) (1898–1963), writer, scholar, and Christian apologist, was born 29 November 1898 in Dundela Villas, Belfast, the younger son of Albert James Lewis, police solicitor and unionist activist, and his wife, Florence (Flora) Augusta, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Hamilton, who was the first female mathematics graduate from QUB.
Family background and early life The Hamilton family was related to the Staples of Lissan House, Co. Tyrone (hence Lewis's middle name). He had one elder brother, Warren Hamilton Lewis (1895–1973), known as ‘Warnie’; from the age of four Lewis himself was known as ‘Jack’. Lewis was initially tutored at home by his mother and a governess. The two boys grew up at the centre of a large extended family, including Lewises, Hamiltons, and Ewarts (Flora's sister had married the linen industrialist Sir William Quartus Ewart). This clan provided Lewis with his first insights into the foibles of human nature; he retained contact (attenuated by English education and residence) with the family network for the rest of his life.
Flora Lewis died of cancer on 23 August 1908. Albert's frightening emotional outbursts under the pressure of grief, and subsequent clumsy attempts to befriend his sons without realising that their interests might be different from his own, alienated the boys. They withdrew into literature and an intensely felt play world centred on ‘the little end room’ in the family home on the Holywood Road. This also became a refuge from school life. Shortly after his mother's death, Lewis was dispatched to Wynyard preparatory school, Hertfordshire, which Warnie had attended since 1905. Their parents, encouraged by Albert's old headmaster W. T. Kirkpatrick, had decided that an English boarding-school education would benefit their children. Wynyard, which Lewis calls ‘Belsen’ in his autobiography, Surprised by joy, was disintegrating as the headmaster grew violently insane; the boys were cruelly treated and learned little.
After Wynyard closed in 1910 Lewis spent one term at Campbell College, Belfast, then went to Cherbourg House, the preparatory school for Malvern College, Worcestershire. Here Lewis's intellectual promise became apparent, but he was deeply antagonised by the school's homosexual subculture, games cult, and tyrannical rule by the older boys; he also became an atheist after a period of spiritual confusion. Lewis won a scholarship to Malvern in 1913, but withdrew after a year and was sent to receive tuition from W. T. Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham, Surrey (1914–17). Kirkpatrick fostered Lewis's taste for logical argument, laid the foundations of his scholarly prowess, and advised Albert that his son's talent was literary and academic. The Lewis brothers developed a love of the English countryside and a sense of the provinciality of their own background, which further divided them from their father (now nicknamed ‘Pudaitabird’ from his pronunciation of ‘potato’).
In 1914 Lewis befriended Arthur Greeves, the sickly son of a long-established Belfast linen family, who shared his fondness for ‘northern’ literature, such as the librettos of Wagner's operas and the works of William Morris; Lewis's letters to Greeves provide important evidence of his intellectual development (including a conscious sadism). Like Forrest Reid (qv), rival guru of Arthur Greeves, and a possible influence on Lewis's The magician's nephew, 1955), Lewis is most of all a product of Edwardian Belfast, in his reaction against its cultural limitations and in his quest for imaginative escape.
The mature Lewis loved the Down countryside and retained many ties of family and friendship with Northern Ireland, but he spoke of Orangemen as representing a political deformity of religion (though at a crucial moment in That hideous strength, a good character hums an Orange ballad). His letters home in the 1914–21 period often referred to the political situation and he praised the Ulster division's charge at the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, perhaps because it would please his father. In the mature Lewis suspicions of Irish catholic ‘bograts’ and ‘papists’ combined with uneasy awareness of historic wrongs. His defence in The allegory of love of the protestant sensibility of Edmund Spenser (qv) notes that the cruelties in which the poet participated in Ireland corrupted his moral sense and his literary responsiveness. His moral outrage at the prospect that space travel might spread the cruelties of empire to the stars reflects early modern studies, as well as reaction against jingoism. Prince Caspian's discovery that he is the descendant of pirates who conquered Narnia, massacred the native population, and pretended that they never existed is not simply a critique of ahistoric rationalism. It is occasionally suggested that a Hibernocentric Lewis seeking the ‘Celtic twilight’ instead of the Nordic myths might have been a greater artist, but he might also have been a provincial crank, as were several of his intellectually frustrated relatives.
In April 1917 Lewis was admitted to University College, Oxford, to read classics, but put off taking up his studies to join the British army on 8 June 1917. Although as an Irishman he was exempt from conscription, he felt a sense of obligation, and his decision involved a slight possibility that he might help to suppress another Irish rising. While billeted in Keble College, Lewis made the acquaintance of E. F. C. (‘Paddy’) Moore, and his mother Jane King Moore (née Atkins, 1872–1951), who had separated from her husband; Mrs Moore came from a Church of Ireland clerical family. Lewis and Moore promised each other that if one of them died the other would look after the survivor's parent; Lewis became infatuated with Mrs Moore, whom he later treated as a substitute mother. On 25 September 1917 Lewis became a second lieutenant in the 3rd Somerset light infantry and went to France on 17 November. In February 1918 he was hospitalised with trench fever; at the battle of Arras on 15 April he was wounded in the leg, arm, and chest by shrapnel and spent the rest of the war as a convalescent. Paddy Moore had died in action on 24 March.
Oxford as student and fellow As an ex-serviceman Lewis was excused several matriculation requirements on his return to Oxford. He took a first in classical honour moderations in 1920, a first in greats (classics and philosophy) in 1922, and a first in English language and literature in 1923. He was appointed a lecturer in philosophy at University College in 1924, before being elected the following May to a fellowship in English at Magdalen College. From 1919 he had shared a household with Mrs Moore and her daughter, Maureen. Albert Lewis, whose financial support had made it possible for Lewis to remain at Oxford, was deliberately deceived about his son's domestic circumstances. After Lewis achieved financial independence their relationship mellowed. Albert Lewis died of cancer on 25 September 1929; in later life Lewis expressed deep remorse for his neglect of the old man.
After the sale of the Belfast house Lewis and Warnie joined Mrs Moore in acquiring a house, The Kilns, at Headington, on the eastern outskirts of Oxford; Lewis and the Moores took up residence there in October 1930, joined by Warnie in December 1932 after his retirement from the Royal Army Service Corps. The arrangement continued until 1951. Lewis's relationship with Mrs Moore has provoked much speculation; Lewis refused to discuss it with anyone. Some acquaintances (including Warnie Lewis) saw her as selfish and exploitative; others saw her as a kind and motherly figure whose efforts were frequently misdirected. All agree that when Lewis rediscovered his faith she resented it; she blamed God for the death of her son and had become a bitter atheist. In her last years she underwent severe physical (possibly mental) deterioration; Lewis nursed her devotedly. She clearly inspired Screwtape's account of the patient's relationship with his mother (which, Lewis remarks, may be distorted by diabolic wishful thinking), and may have been behind Orual, the central figure of Lewis's retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, Till we have faces (1956), whose possessive love of her sister Psyche turns to resentment of Psyche's relationship with the god. Mrs Moore has been plausibly identified both as the vengeful mother in The great divorce, who comes up from hell to blame heaven for denying her access to her son, and as the ‘great lady’ in the same book, whose love extends even to the self-dramatising husband who tormented her and damned himself.
During the 1920s Lewis abandoned atheism for a form of philosophical idealism, influenced by the English neo-Hegelian school and expressing what became a key point of his apologetics – the view that the statement ‘Life is meaningless’ is self-refuting as it presents all statements (itself included) as meaningless. As he engaged imaginatively with the Christian world view through his medieval studies, his favourite authors such as George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and his discussions with Christian friends such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis found it growing uncomfortably plausible. In 1929 Lewis reverted to belief in a personal God, and on 28 September 1931 accepted Christianity.
In his thirties Lewis acquired a significant reputation as a scholar with the publication of The allegory of love (1936), and established himself as a teacher. He was commissioned to write English literature in the sixteenth century (published 1954) for the Oxford History of English Literature series. He developed a persona as a ‘plain, blunt man’ asking awkward questions, which drew on Kirkpatrick's forceful dialectic and his father's police-court manner. He dressed shabbily and presented the general appearance of a short, chubby countryman (he was fond of walking tours). He showed no aptitude for administration, and his resistance to any reorientation of the English syllabus at Oxford towards more modern literature added to the enemies he made by his increasingly outspoken Christianity and his hectoring, sometimes vindictive, manner of debate. The rivalries of the Magdalen common room found their way into That hideous strength (1945).
From 1933 Lewis became the dominant figure in a literary group, the Inklings, which met in the Eagle and Child pub to read and discuss members' literary work in progress. Lewis's role in electing a fellow Inkling to the Oxford chair of poetry over better-qualified opponents in 1938 further enraged his critics. This was a time of literary maturation; his ambition to become a major Romantic poet had collapsed, though he continued writing verse. His poetic tastes were late Victorian or Georgian; he was hostile to literary modernism. Of his prose fictions only The pilgrim's regress (1933) and Out of the silent planet (1938) appeared in this decade. Some of his friends attributed this relative lack of literary productivity to the demands of Mrs Moore, who frequently called him away from his work to perform menial domestic tasks.
Christian apologetics The second world war was the backdrop to Lewis's most intense period of apologetics. In 1940 he published The problem of pain and in 1941 a journal called the Guardian serialised The Screwtape letters which were published as a book in 1942. He became nationally known through four series of radio talks on Christian subjects in 1941, 1942, and 1944; they were published as separate books, and later revised and combined as Mere Christianity (1952). He also published A preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (1942), The abolition of man (1943), the planetary romances Perelandra (1943) and That hideous strength (1945), and The great divorce (serialised 1944–5, published 1946). Lewis also travelled the country giving talks on Christianity to RAF personnel; he played an important role in the wartime Christian revival. He saw the royalties from his apologetic works as a gift from God and distributed them in his generous and secretive personal charities. In 1946 he received an honorary DD from the University of St Andrews.
Lewis's apologetics reflected an acute awareness that the majority of the British public were neither orthodox believers nor practising Christians; he felt that (in contrast to the politicised religion of Ulster) this left the ground fallow for the Christian message to be heard afresh. He opposed talk of a Christian political party and denounced any form of compulsion in religion (friends such as Tolkien thought he took this too far in suggesting that in matters such as divorce the state should have one law for Christians and another for non-Christians). He expressed robust distrust for liberal theologians, neo-Calvinists, and anglo-catholic ritualists as self-validating cliques, dismissive or contemptuous towards the ordinary folk for whom Christ died – he suggested that no preacher should be licensed without being able to ‘translate’ theological discourse into colloquial English. Lewis remarked that when speaking about specific sins he preferred to focus on one with which he himself had had difficulty in the previous week. He believed that faith could not be induced by argument alone, but that the apologist could clear away obstacles to belief by showing that Christianity was intellectually plausible. His theological position is recognisably that of a conservative exponent of the anglican via media. Despite his lifelong rejection of the form of puritanism found in Ulster, his sacramentalism, belief in theistic evolution, and rejection of belief in the literal inerrancy of the Old Testament accounts of the pre-Davidic era, Lewis won an abiding popularity among evangelicals, perhaps accounted for by his ‘plain speech’. His wartime references also appealed to evangelical apocalypticism.
Some catholic friends were disappointed by Lewis's preference for anglicanism (leavened with auricular confession, and belief in purgatory and in the Real Presence). Tolkien thought the title The pilgrim's regress sadly appropriate, and attributed Lewis's views to residual Ulster prejudices that were also detectable in his conversation. (These did not stop him establishing a warm friendship with Mother Mary Martin (qv), whose Drogheda hospital became Warnie's refuge during frequent bouts of alcoholism.) Lewis also drew on medieval criticisms of the corruptions to which clerical and conventual life are prone, and whose force he felt through his own latent sadism; he feared that catholicism elevated peripheral doctrines to matters of obligation and, by formalising and bureaucratising ascetic practices that should be matters of discretion, encouraged spiritual pride and cruelty towards those who assumed obligations they could not fulfil.
Lewis's apologetics decreased in intensity after 1945 because of post-war teaching pressure, a desire to strike out new lines of enquiry, and his own philosophical difficulties symbolised by his encounter on 2 February 1948 with G. E. M. Anscombe, the catholic Wittgensteinian philosopher, at the Oxford Socratic Club. Anscombe challenged Lewis's argument in Miracles (1947) that naturalism was self-refuting as it rested on a confused view of causation. Lewis subsequently revised the book to address her criticisms.
Chronicles of Narnia Between 1948 and 1953 Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, seven works of fantasy for children, which were published between 1950 and 1956: The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), The silver chair (1953), The horse and his boy (1954), The magician's nephew (1955), and The last battle (1956). Critical views of the stories have not always been favourable: Tolkien regarded them as flimsy pastiche in comparison to his own work, and later critics attacked their occasionally patronising tone and conservative view of gender roles, disliked their Christian allegory (which attracts others), and found unacceptable racial and religious undertones in the portrayal of the devil-worshipping pseudo-Islamic Calormenes. But for generations of readers their childlike gusto and eidetic imagery (Lewis composed his romances by forming visual images in his head, waiting for them to form series, and filling the gaps by conscious effort) have made them classics.
Marriage Lewis's broadcasts and books brought him correspondence from a wide range of people seeking spiritual advice, which he answered conscientiously. (Helen) Joy Gresham (née Davidman; 1915–60), an American Jewish convert to Christianity, began writing to him in 1950 and met him on a long visit to England in 1952. When her marriage broke up owing to her husband's infidelity, she moved to England in 1953 with her two sons. On 23 April 1956 Lewis married Joy Davidman in a registry office; it was a marriage of convenience to enable her to remain in Britain. In October she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer which had spread to her bones, and this changed the nature of their relationship. Lewis approached the bishop of Oxford seeking permission for a church wedding on the grounds that her husband had been divorced before marrying her, but his appeal was rejected as incompatible with anglican church discipline. An unofficial religious wedding was performed at Joy's hospital bed on 21 March 1957. Shortly afterwards her cancer went into remission; Lewis saw this as a miracle. A period of intense happiness followed, during which Lewis published Reflections on the psalms (1958), assisted by Joy and partly inspired by her Jewish heritage. In October 1959 Joy's cancer recurred; she died at Oxford on 13 July 1960.
Lewis saw his relationship with Joy as the central happiness of his life, which God gave and then took away; his attempts to make sense of her sufferings and his sorrow (including a recurrence of his old suspicion about a cosmic sadist) are examined in A grief observed (published under the pseudonym ‘N. W. Clerk’ in 1961). Some of Lewis's friends and admirers were lukewarm about Joy; they disliked her American forthrightness and suspected her of manipulating Lewis and leading him to claim divine exemption from the marital indissolubility he advocated for others. The story of Lewis's marriage to Joy is commemorated in William Nicholson's play Shadowlands, televised with Joss Ackland as Lewis and Clare Bloom as Joy, and released as a film in 1993, directed by Richard Attenborough, with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy.
Cambridge and final years Lewis's activities as a fervent Christian apologist, together with his public prominence during the war, may have antagonised academic colleagues in Oxford. Whatever the reasons, he failed to win appointment to the Merton chair of English literature in 1946, and was defeated by Cecil Day Lewis (qv) for the professorship of poetry in 1950. In 1954, the year he published English literature in the sixteenth century (which was commissioned in the 1930s and eventually based on his Clark lectures delivered in Cambridge in 1944), he was appointed to the newly established chair of English medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge and elected to a fellowship at Magdalene College. Despite a counter-offer from Oxford he took up the chair in Cambridge, which he held until 1963 and which released him from undergraduate tutorials and allowed him time to write. But he returned to his home outside Oxford at weekends and during vacations.
In 1961 Lewis was diagnosed with an enlarged prostate, which exacerbated an existing bladder problem, leading to a kidney condition; this in turn affected his heart. Despite declining health and the loss of the image-forming ability through which he had created fiction, Lewis continued to write literary criticism – An experiment in criticism (1961) and The discarded image (1964) (work based on his lecture notes on Spenser was published posthumously) – and devotional material – The four loves (1960) and Letters to Malcolm: chiefly on prayer (1964). He resigned his professorship in August 1963 and died of a heart attack at his Oxford home on 22 November 1963.
Assessment There are collections of Lewis's papers at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and Wheaton College, Illinois. His works have been constantly reprinted and his occasional writings have appeared in various collections. A consolidated edition of his non-literary essays appeared for his centenary in 1998; in that year a series of events took place in Belfast to mark the anniversary and a statue was erected on the Newtownards Road depicting Lewis entering a wardrobe. Numerous appreciation societies have been formed and specialist newsletters published. In 2000 it was estimated that 1,000,000 copies of his work were sold every year; in December 2003 there were approximately 407,000 websites containing references to him.
Admirers often find it difficult to admit that Lewis had any shortcomings or held views differing from their own. Opponents often engage in what Lewis called ‘Bulverism’ – attributing his expressed views to real or supposed psychological flaws, thereby dismissing the possibility of taking them seriously. He is accused – with some justification – of brash anti-intellectualism, of misogyny, of social and political conservatism. Some orthodox Christians accuse him of stressing the otherness of God to an extent that diminishes the Incarnation; atheists claim his Platonizing Christianity defames this world.