C. S. Lewis was truly one of the greatest Christian authors, but few know his story. It’s darker and more painful and lonesome than you may expect, but it’s wonderful and filled with beauty, insight, and adventure. One time Macmillan publishing requested a bio from him for a new book he was publishing, and so he sent them this—a rough draft which he scribbled down almost on a napkin. It is frank and wonderfully concise, so I’ve included the whole thing here:
I was a younger son, and we lost my mother when I was a child. That meant very long days alone when my father was at work and my brother at boarding school. Alone in a big house full of books. I suppose that fixed a literary bent. I drew a lot, but soon began to write more. My first stories were mostly about mice (influence of Beatrix Potter), but mice usually in armor killing gigantic cats (influence of fairy stories). That is, I wrote the books I should have liked to read if only I could have got them. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself: no rot about “self-expression.” I loathed school. Being an infantry soldier in the last war would have been nicer if one had known one was going to survive. I was wounded—by an English shell. (Hence the greetings of an aunt who said, with obvious relief, “Oh, so that’s why you were wounded in the back!”) I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. An almost purely philosophical conversion. I didn’t want to. I’m not the religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed to be the opposite I had to give in. My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs—or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.
Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963) was born in Belfast, Ireland, and claimed the name Jack (or “Jacksie”) for himself when his dog by that name died. Jack was very sure of himself in that way:
…It was only a few years later that Jack interrupted his father in his study in order to announce, “I have a prejudice against the French.” When his father asked him why, he replied, “If I knew why it would not be a prejudice.”
As his later writings show, Lewis was an incredible author—not just due to his intellect, but also—and more importantly—due to his imagination. Jacobs says,
And here I would like to suggest something that is the keynote of this book: my belief that Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by a willingness to be enchanted and that it was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life—his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story, whether written by an Italian poet of the sixteenth century, by Beatrix Potter, or by himself. (emphasis mine)
At age 15 Lewis went through a crisis of faith: he became an atheist, though he later described his young self as being paradoxically “angry with God for not existing.”
Oxford and World War 1
He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford college but was drafted into the first World War before he could attend. There he saw two of his friends killed. He himself was wounded, sent home, brought back, then decommissioned when the war was over.
Before going to war, he and his friend, Edward Courtnay Francis "Paddy" Moore (1898–1918) made an agreement that whoever came back alive would take care of the other’s parents. Lewis came back but Paddy didn’t, so Jack took care of Jane Moore until her death in 1940, a burden he would always underestimate, especially before others.
Lewis's faith grew as he studied, particularly while reading the works of George MacDonald, while arguing with his Oxford colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, and while reading the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.
Lewis passionately believed that education is not about providing information so much as cultivating “habits of the heart”—producing “men with chests,” as he puts it in his book The Abolition of Man, that is, people who not only think as they should but respond as they should, instinctively and emotionally, to the challenges and blessings the world offers to them.
World War 2 and Radio Broadcasts
When World War 2 erupted, Jack tried to enlist but was refused. But from 1941 to 1943 he spoke on a radio broadcast by the BBC from London while the city was under periodic air raids. These speeches became his most famous book, Mere Christianity.
Lewis’s life was far from easy, even after college. He was constantly needed to take care of Jane Moore, which eventually led to his collapse:
In early April Lewis wrote to a friend who had reproached him for not replying promptly to a letter, “Dog’s stools and human vomit have made my day today: one of those days when you feel at 11 A.M. that it really must be 3 P.M.” Two months later he collapsed at his home and had to be taken to the hospital. He was diagnosed with strep throat, but his deeper complaint was simply exhaustion, and his doctor was concerned about stress to his heart.
Later on Jack met Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer of Jewish background, a former Communist, and a convert from atheism to Christianity. In 1956, they were married (he was 58); she died of cancer four years later at the age of 45. His grief here was at its height, and that is when he wrote A Grief Observed.
This book describes his experience of suffering in such a raw and personal way that Lewis originally released it under the pseudonym—N. W. Clerk—to keep readers from associating the book with him. Ironically, many friends recommended the book to Lewis as a method for dealing with his own grief. After Lewis's death, his authorship was made public.
At the end of his life, Lewis was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. On November 22, exactly one week before his 65th birthday, Lewis collapsed in his bedroom at 5:30 pm and died a few minutes later. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford.
Media coverage of his death was almost completely overshadowed by news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on the same day (approximately 55 minutes following Lewis' collapse), as did the death of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.
Shaped by Trial
If there’s one lesson to take away, for me, it’s the power of trials in refining Jack into who God wanted him to be. The full beauty and power of his pen came from pain, and that is a trend in artists of his caliber. Out of that true pain came a true knowledge of self and mission which far surpassed what modern artists call as art:
It’s clear that the foundational elements are the early death of his mother and his subsequent aloneness—not necessarily loneliness, but a kind of personal and intellectual independence forged in solitude. The last thing he wants is to achieve “self-expression”; he’s not interested in sharing his “self” with others.
Lewis mourned that he never read many children’s books when he was a child, because later in life he came to rely on them. Ironically, it was from his darkest days that the Narnia series came.
He had written fiction too, but of a highly intellectual character; a bachelor with no children of his own, he had relatively few friends whose children he knew. He would not seem to be a likely candidate to be writing a children’s book. Moreover, he was never an aficionado of children’s books—even in the year before his death, he could tell a correspondent, “My knowledge of children’s literature is really very limited…. My own range is about exhausted by Macdonald, Tolkien, E. Nesbit, and Kenneth Grahame”—and he never read The Wind in the Willows or Nesbit’s stories of the Bastable family until he was in his twenties. Yet he never outgrew the love of the children’s stories he did know. Once he discovered The Wind in the Willows, it was forever precious to him, both for the sheer charm of its story and for the main characters, whom he considered beautifully drawn examples of certain distinctively English “types.” (He told a friend that he always read Grahame’s masterpiece when he was in bed with the flu.)
Alan Jacobs. The Narnian. Kindle Edition.