If like me, you are too young to remember where you were when he died,
you may remember him for other reasons. C.S Lewis seems to have featured
in my life from a very early age. I was six when I first encountered “
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and the “ The Magician’s Nephew”,
and I find I have never quite grown out of them. By the age of about eight,
I was able to read the Chronicles of Narnia for myself. Often my mother,
having scoured the house and failed to find me anywhere, would stand at
the foot of the stairs and shout, “Put that book away and come here!” When
I could no longer maintain the pretence of not bearing her I would emerge,
Narnia book in hand, from under a bed, or behind an armchair. Last Christmas,
my favourite aunt gave me the set of the Chronicles of Narnia, and I have
re-read them with no less pleasure than when I was a child.
As a serious-minded teenager, having abandoned the Christian faith, I filled my leisure hours with reading religion and philosophy of every hue. In my adolescent arrogance, I regarded myself at one time as a pantheist, and later an existentialist. But finally it was the cold, relentless logic and the warm passion of conviction in C.S Lewis’s “ Mere Christianity”, which led me to bow in surrender to Jesus Christ. Later as a student of English Literature, Lewis’s “ The Allegory of Love” and his “Preface to Paradise Lost” informed and delighted my passion for English poetry far more than any prescribed reading on the syllabus.
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ulster on 29th November 1898, the younger by three years, of two boys. His father was a melancholy, emotional man, and Jack ( as C.S.Lewis always preferred to be called) had a very difficult relationship with him, a lifelong source of regret. At an early age, Jack and his brother, who had turned increasingly to one another for friendship, were inventing “other worlds”, each with its own elaborate history and geography.
When he was nine, Jack’s mother died of cancer, and only a year later he was sent to boarding school in England. He subsequently referred to the school as “concentration camp” and the town, “Belsen”. Within two years the school was closed and the headmaster certified insane. The one good thing about Lewis’s time in this dreadful place was that the Christian faith became real to him, being taught in the local Anglo-catholic church by clergy who took its doctrines very seriously.
From there he was sent to Cherbourg School in Malvern, where, in his
own blunt words, “ I Ceased to be a Christian.” This was partly due to
his passion for the occult, engendered by the school matron whom he nonetheless
recalls with affection. After this he went to Malvern College, at the time
a terrifying place with a culture of sadism and homosexuality. Lewis’s
life was dominated by the older boys, whose fagging system gave him no
leisure. He spent his scant free time in its excellent library, receiving
his education more in spite of the school than because of it.
Finally, he was sent to the home of a tutor in Surrey, who told his father that Lewis could be a writer or a scholar, but he would never be able to make anything else of him. He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford, eventually becoming a don, first there and then at Cambridge, although his studies were interrupted by a spell in the trenches in France in 1917-18. For many years he lived with and looked after a Mrs.Moore, the cantankerous old mother of a fellow Ulsterman with whom he had served, and who had died in the front-line.
Lewis’s materialistic faith began to weaken as he started to notice that his favourite poets were not materialists, and many were Christians. W.B.Yeats was not a Christian, yet nevertheless believed in “other beings” beyond the material world. In the end Lewis’s search for joy led him to Christ, the Source of all joy. The story is told in “Surprised By Joy” and “The Pilgrim’s Regress”.
At he age of 58, Lewis married an American divorcee in a secret ceremony in a registry office, purely as a matter of friendship and expediency so that she and her sons Douglas and David could remain in England. By the time, shortly after, that she was diagnosed as having bone cancer, they were very much in love and a clergyman conducted a “proper” marriage ceremony at her hospital bedside.
The same clergyman offered prayers for her healing, and the advanced cancer went into an unexpected period of remission, giving Jack and Joy four very happy years together. After her death in 1960, Lewis continued to care for her sons, growing very close to Douglas - Jack remembering only too vividly the pain losing his own mother as a small boy.
C.S.Lewis was a consummate scholar - this century has probably not seen his equal for erudition in the field of literature. He was a kind and generous private citizen, who felt obliged to answer politely and fully every letter he received from fans and cranks alike. He came to dread the arrival of the postman, but his sense of duty in this matter remained unabated. He was also a theologian with the unique gift of making the depths of Christian doctrine accessible to the educated and the unlearned alike. But it is for his Narnia Chronicles that he is best loved.
When he began writing the Narnia stories, he had no intention of moralising or instructing, or surely the books would not have succeeded. He said it began with a picture, which he first conceived at the age of about sixteen, of a fawn carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. When he was around forty, a story, and then another world and then a whole history began to weave themselves around that little picture. he never intended them to have any “Christian” content, but that part crept in on its own accord, being by then so much of his life. The Narnian landscape owes much to the Castlreagh Hills which he saw through his nursery window, and to the mountains of the Antrim Coast with Belfast Lough in the foreground, which belonged to his later childhood years.
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