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29th November 2014

Profile: The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis

Books Editor Leonie Dunn looks over the life of the prolific author C.S. Lewis

This week marks the 116th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ birth on the 29th November 1898. Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, where the account of his younger life reads like a list of books that are the foundations for his later work. He first drew inspiration for writing and illustration from Beatrix Potter’s stories with their focus on anthropomorphic animals.  Yet Lewis’ fascination with legends of the Icelandic sagas and Norse Mythology with its strong connection to the natural world are an evident factor in his notorious work The Chronicles of Narnia. His extensive knowledge of the literary world and keen readings of his youth sharpened his skills in debate and reasoning leading to a scholarship at University College Oxford. However, his scholarship arrived at a time of war and although Lewis was an Irishman living in Britain he wanted to serve his part and thus he signed up months after his arrival at university.

Not long into his subsequent conscription in the First World War, Lewis, now 20 years old, was wounded and two of his colleagues were killed on 15th April 1918 by a British shell falling short of its target. Upon his recovery he was demobilised and returned to Oxford for his studies. His time as an army officer affected him profoundly, as it did many soldiers; the horror of the events confirmed his already present atheism which is a feature in a lot of his work.

However, there was one friendship that changed his life. Edward Moore, a fellow Irishman, was one of the colleagues killed by the shelling. The two young men seem to have made an agreement that if either were to die in war the other would support their family. Thus, Lewis returned to Oxford, and true to his word, he lived with Mrs Moore until her death. It is not known whether the two were lovers but Mrs Moore was willing to be a paternal figure to Lewis who was struggling as an Irishman in Britain. For Lewis the move to Britain was a cultural shock and as he wrote in Surprised by Joy, “the strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons.” In this he developed a particular fondness for W.B. Yeats, the Irishman rewriting Ireland through the language of his oppressors. It is in and through Yeats that Lewis developed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek prejudice towards the Anglo-Saxon race, as he often referred to it.

Lewis is best known for his fictional works The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. Following his death, Lewis’ fictional works gathered much acclaim and the books that made up The Chronicles of Narnia have gone on to reach the highest sales figures after being polarised on stage, TV, radio and cinema. However, Lewis’ work was prolific and outstretches that of his renowned novels as he was equally a poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist. Lewis’ work in the academic field led on from his studies after obtaining three individual first class degrees from Oxford. He was eventually elected as a Fellow and tutor of English Literature at Oxford Universities Magdalene College, where he served for 29 years.

In Lewis’ later life he met Joy Gresham, an American writer, whom Lewis regarded as an agreeable intellectual companion and it is at this level that he agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with Gresham in order for her to have a permanent home in the UK. However, after only a year of civil marriage Gresham was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and at that point their relationship had developed to the point of them seeking a Christian marriage. After only four years of marriage Gresham passed away in 1960. In what is possibly one of Lewis’ most raw and personal works, A Grief Observed describes his experiences of bereavement and it gives an intimate and personal look into Lewis’ life.

Exactly a week before Lewis’ 65th birthday he collapsed in his bedroom and passed away just minutes later from renal failure. While the media coverage of his death was almost completely overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on the same day, Lewis was and still is commemorated on the 22nd November in the Church calendar of the Episcopal Church. Furthermore, on the 50th anniversary of his death in 2013, Lewis was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

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