By Bruce L. Edwards*
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 29, 1898, Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis was reared in a peculiarly bookish home, one in which the reality he found on the pages of the books within his parents’ extensive library seemed as tangible and meaningful to him as anything that transpired outside their doors. As adolescents, Lewis and his older brother, Warren, were more at home in the world of ideas and books of the past, than with the material, technological world of the 20th Century. When the tranquility and sanctity of the Lewis home was shattered beyond repair by the death of his mother when he was ten, Lewis sought refuge in composing stories and excelling in scholastics. Soon thereafter he became precociously oriented toward the metaphysical and ultimate questions.
The rest of his saga and the particulars of his writing career might be seen as the melancholy search for the security he had took granted during the peace and grace of his childhood. By Lewis’s testimony, this recovery was to be had only in the "joy" he discovered in an adult conversion to Christianity. Long-time friend and literary executor of the Lewis estate, Owen Barfield has suggested that there were, in fact, three “C. S. Lewises.” That is to say, during his lifetime Lewis fulfilled three very different vocationsand fulfilled them successfully. There was, first, Lewis the distinguished Oxbridge literary scholar and critic; second, Lewis, the highly acclaimed author of science fiction and children's literature; and thirdly, Lewis, the popular writer and broadcaster of Christian apologetics. The amazing thing, Barfield notes, is that those who may have known of Lewis in any single role may not have known that he performed in the other two. In a varied and comprehensive writing career, Lewis carved out a sterling reputation as a scholar, a novelist, and a theologian for three very different audiences.
No brief summary can thus do justice to the many and varied works Lewis produced in his lifetime between 1919-1961. Indeed, more Lewis volumescollection of essays, chieflyhave appeared after his death than during his lifetime. A sampling of the range and depth of his achievements in criticism, fiction, and apologetics might begin, however, with the first books Lewis published, two volumes of poetry: Spirits in Bondage, published in 1919 when Lewis was but 23, and his long narrative poem, Dymer, published in 1926. Neither were critical successes, convincing the classically trained Lewis that he would never become an accomplished poet given the rise of modernism; subsequently he turned his attention to literary history, specifically the field of medieval and renaissance literature. Along the way, however, Lewis embraced Christianity, and in 1933, published his first theological work, The Pilgrim's Regress, a parody of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress, that details Lewis’s flight from skepticism to faith in a lively allegory.
In 1936, Lewis published the breakthrough work that earned him his reputation as a scholar, The Allegory of Love, a work of high-calibre, original scholarship that revolutionized literary understanding of the function of allegory in medieval literature, particularly Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Between 1939 and 1954, Lewis continued to publish well-received works in criticism and theory, debating E. M. W. Tillyard on the objectivity of poetry in The Personal Heresy, published in 1939, and in that same year publishing a collection of essays under the title Rehabilitationsa work whose title characterized much of Lewis's work, as he attempted to bring the fading critical reputation of authors he revered back into balance. In 1942, his A Preface to Paradise Lost attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of John Milton, while in 1954, he offered a comprehensive overview of 16th-century British poetry and narrative in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.
Lewis is best known, however, for his fiction and his Christian apologetics, two disciplines complementary to each other within his oeuvre. In 1936, Lewis completed the first book in a science-fiction space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, that introduced the hero, Edwin Ransom, a philologist modeled roughly on Lewis's friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. Perelandra, a new version of Paradise Lost set in Venus, followed in 1943, and That Hideous Strength completed the trilogy in 1945; the latter Lewis billed as “a fairy tale for adults,” treating novelistically of the themes Lewis had developed in his critique of modern education in The Abolition of Man, published two years earlier. Lewis's most notable critical and commercial success, however, is certainly his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, which he published in single volumes from 1950-56. These popular children's fantasies began with the 1950 volume, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a tale centered around Aslan the lion, a Christ-figure who creates and rules the supernatural land of Narnia, and the improbable adventures of four undaunted British schoolchildren who stumble into Narnia through a clothes closet. Lewis’s own favorite fictional work, Till We Have Faces, his last imaginative work, published in 1956, is a retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth, but has never achieved the critical recognition he hoped it would.
Lewis’s reputation as a winsome, articulate proponent of Christianity began with the publication of two important theological works: The Problem of Pain, a defense of painand the doctrine of hellas evidence of an ordered universe, published in 1940; and The Screwtape Letters, a “interception” of a senior devil's correspondence with a junior devil fighting with “the Enemy,” Christ, over the soul of an unsuspecting believer, published in 1942. Lewis emerged during the war years as a religious broadcaster who became famous as “the apostle to skeptics,” in Britain and abroad, especially in the United States. His wartime radio essays defending and explaining the Christian faith comforted the fearful and wounded, and were eventually collected and published in America as Mere Christianity in 1952. In the midst of this prolific output, Lewis took time to write his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, published in 1955. In the two decades before his death, Lewis published more than eight books that directly or indirectly served him in the task of apologetics and he is arguably the most important Christian writer of the 20th Century.
A prolific and popular author, Lewis’s criticism, fiction, and religious essays stay in print, and are continually reprinted in various bindings and new collections. Lewis’s life and work have been also the focus of countless books since his death in 1963. Ironically, though, Lewis may eventually suffer the same fate as other authors he himself “rehabilitated” during his scholarly career. Surfeited by volume after volume of analysis, paraphrase, and critique, Lewis's own canon may be dwarfed by secondary sources, an attitude he opposed all of his life in reading others. As it stands, both his fiction and theological writings have been endlessly and hyper-critically explored, creating a trail of footnotes and asides long enough to camouflage the essential viewpoints and facts about his lifethus discouraging even the most diligent student of Lewis. It must be said that Lewis’s own works remain the most reliable source and insightful interpreter of this original thinker and personality.
* Bruce L. Edwards is Professor of English and Associate Dean for Distance Education at Bowling Green State University. His books include A Rhetoric of Reading: C. S. Lewis's Defense of Western Literacy, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual World of Narnia, Further Up and Further In: Understanding C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.