Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963), commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis, and by his friends as Jack, was an Irish author and scholar of mixed Irish, English, and Welsh ancestry. Born into a Church of Ireland family in Belfast, he was resident in England throughout his adult life. Lewis is known for his work on medieval literature, Christian apologetics and fiction, especially the children’s series entitled The Chronicles of Narnia and his science fiction Space Trilogy. He was also a leading figure in an Oxford literary group called the Inklings.
Lewis taught as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for nearly thirty years, from 1925 to 1954, and later was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Using this position, he argued that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance. Much of his scholarly work concentrated on the later Middle Ages, especially its use of allegory. His The Allegory of Love (1936) helped reinvigorate the serious study of late medieval narratives like the Roman de la Rose. Lewis wrote several prefaces to old works of literature and poetry, like Layamon's Brut. His preface to John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost is still one of the most important criticisms of that work. His last academic work, The Discarded Image, an Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964), is a summary of the medieval world view, the "discarded image" of the cosmos in his title.
Lewis was a prolific writer and a member of the literary discussion society The Inklings with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. At Oxford he was the tutor of, among other undergraduates, poet John Betjeman and critic Kenneth Tynan. Curiously, the religious and conservative Betjeman detested Lewis, whereas the anti-Establishment Tynan retained a life-long admiration for him.
Of J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy (chapter X1V, p173):
"When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H. V. V. Dyson ... and J. R. R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both."
In addition to his scholarly work, Lewis wrote a number of popular novels, including his science-fiction Space Trilogy, his fantasy Narnia books, and various other novels, most containing allegories on Christian themes such as sin, the Fall, and redemption. (For more information about those works, see their individual articles.)
The Pilgrim's Regress
His first novel after becoming a Christian was The Pilgrim's Regress, his take on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress which depicted his own experience with Christianity. The book was critically panned at the time, particularly for its esoteric nature - as to merely read it requires a familiarity with classical sources far beyond the capabilities of the typical reader or reviewer.
His Space Trilogy or "Ransom Trilogy" novels dealt with what Lewis saw as the then-current dehumanizing trends in modern science fiction. The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, was apparently written following a conversation with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien about these trends. Lewis agreed to write a "space travel" story and Tolkien a "time travel" one. Tolkien’s story, "The Lost Road", a tale connecting his Middle-earth mythology and the modern world, was never completed. Lewis’s character of Ransom is generally agreed to be based, in part, on Tolkien, a fact that Tolkien himself alludes to in his Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. The last novel in the Trilogy also contains numerous references to Tolkien's fictional universe, and can be seen as partially as a homage to Tolkien. The minor character Jules, from That Hideous Strength, is an obvious caricature of H. G. Wells. Many of the ideas presented in the books, particularly in That Hideous Strength, are dramatizations of arguments made more formally in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia are a series of seven fantasy novels for children that are by far the most popular of Lewis's works. The books have many Christian themes and describe the adventures of a group of children who visit a magical land called Narnia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was the first published and the most popular book of the series, has been adapted for both stage and screen. Published between 1950 and 1956, the Chronicles of Narnia borrow from Greek, Roman, and Celtic mythology as well as from traditional English and Irish fairy tales. Lewis reportedly based his depiction of Narnia on the geography and scenery of the Mourne Mountains and "that part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough", both in Lewis' native County Down, Northern Ireland. Downhill House was his inspiration for the Witch's Castle. Lewis cited George MacDonald's Christian fairy tales as an influence in writing the series.
Lewis wrote quite a few works on Heaven and Hell. The Great Divorce is a short but entertaining novel. Those in Hell can take a bus ride to Heaven, where they meet some of those they had known on earth. The deal is that they can stay (in which case they can call the place where they had come from Purgatory, not Hell): but many find it not to their taste. The title is a reference to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a concept that Lewis found repugnant. This work deliberately echoes two other more famous works with a similar theme: the Divine Comedy of Dante Aligheri, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Another short novel, The Screwtape Letters, consists of letters of advice from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, on the best ways to tempt a particular human and secure his damnation. Lewis’s last novel was Till We Have Faces — many believe (as he did) that it is his most mature and masterful work of fiction, but it was never a popular success. It is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the unusual perspective of Psyche's sister. It is deeply concerned with religious ideas, but the setting is entirely pagan, and the connections with specific Christian beliefs are left implicit.
Before Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, he published two books: Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems, and Dymer, a single narrative poem. Both were published under the pen name Clive Hamilton.
The Christian apologist
In addition to his career as an English professor and an author of fiction, Lewis also wrote a number of books about Christianity — perhaps most famously, Mere Christianity, which was voted best book of the twentieth century by Christianity Today magazine in 2000. Lewis was very much interested in presenting a reasonable case for the truth of Christianity. Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles were all concerned, to one degree or another, with refuting popular objections to Christianity. He also became known as a popular lecturer and broadcaster, and some of his writing (including much of Mere Christianity) originated as scripts for radio talks or lectures.
Due to Lewis' approach to religious belief as a skeptic, and his following conversion by the evidence, he has become popularly known as The Apostle to the Skeptics. Consequently, his books on Christianity examine common difficulties in accepting Christianity, such as "How could a good God allow pain to exist in the world?", which he examined in detail in The Problem of Pain.
Lewis also wrote an autobiography entitled Surprised by Joy, which describes his conversion. (It was written before he met his wife, Joy Gresham; the title of the book came from the first line of a poem by William Wordsworth.) His essays and public speeches on Christian belief, many of which were collected in God in the Dock and The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, remain popular today.
His most famous works, the Chronicles of Narnia, contain many strong Christian messages. These are often mistaken for allegory but, as Lewis himself said, are certainly not. Lewis is said to have stated that he wrote the novels when he wondered what it would be like if Jesus Christ was incarnated on another world or planet to save the souls of those inhabitants.
In the book Mere Christianity, Lewis famously criticized the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher whose claims to divinity were false:
- "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
According to the argument, most people are willing to accept Jesus Christ as a great moral teacher, but the Gospels record that Jesus made many claims to divinity, either explicitly — ("I and the father are one." John 10:30; when asked by the High priest whether he was the Son of God, Jesus replied "It is as you said" Matthew 26:64) — or implicitly, by assuming authority only God could have ("the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" Matthew 9:6). Lewis said there are three options:
- Jesus was telling falsehoods and knew it, and so he was a liar.
- Jesus was telling falsehoods but believed he was telling the truth, and so he was insane.
- Jesus was telling the truth, and so he was divine.
Lewis’s argument, which stems from the medieval aut deus aut malus homo ("either God or an evil man"), was later expanded by the Christian apologist Josh McDowell (in his book More than a Carpenter) to serve as a logical proof to Jesus’s divinity. It is from this latter development that the term "trilemma" actually comes. The term is often used to refer to both arguments, assuming that in fact they are one and the same. Various versions of both Lewis’s argument and McDowell’s have been extensively debated and frequently attacked by atheists for their importance to much accessible and orthodox Christian apologia. Atheists have attempted to dispute the truth of their premises as well as the validity of their structure. Nonetheless, for many people they remain significantly more logically compelling than attempted objections.