I first met C. S. Lewis in primary school. I wasn’t in the habit of stealing, but I kept forgetting to return my blue-clothed copy of The Silver Chair. The librarian must have given up ever seeing it again, perhaps thinking there was magic happening when a child loved a book so much to spirit it away.
Born in Belfast, Ireland, on the 29th November 1898, and christened Clive Staples Lewis, it didn’t take long for the toddler to announce that his name was Jack. Growing up with his older brother, Warren, their view of the Belfast Lough and its ringing green hills and blue ridges formed Lewis’ passion for landscape, played out in his famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia. With Belfast overcrowded and sewerage-challenged, and with outbreaks of disease, the boys were often kept indoors. “This recurring imprisonment,” according to Warren, “gave us occasion and stimulus to develop the habit of creative imagination.”
Their mother, Flora, did not read them bedtime stories, but their nurserymaid did, and they were filled with the magic of Irish mythology. Flora died when Lewis was 10. He was sent to boarding school: it was here that he lost his childhood Christian faith.
During WW1, on his 19th birthday, Lewis was sent to the Somme. He was wounded in the Battle of Arras and sent home. He graduated from Oxford University and was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College where he served as an English Literature tutor for 29 years.
Within the arcaded porticos of Oxford University, and within the room labelled MR. C.S. LEWIS, his best friend Tollers, a lecturer in Old English, joined him for pipe- smoking and conversation. Tollers (J. R. R. Tolkien) and Lewis formed The Inklings: a literary discussion group. Although Christian values were reflected in their writing, there were atheists and occultists among the members. They met weekly, much like our writers’ groups today, drinking tea and generating a creative energy that resulted in some of the greatest literary works written.
Lewis re-embraced Christianity and became a popular broadcaster sustaining morale during WW2. Publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, came in 1950. Ironically, Tolkien found Lewis’ series intolerable with its random mix of mythologies.
In 1954, Lewis was elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. In 1956, he published the seventh and final novel in the Narnia series, The Last Battle (which received the Carnegie Medal). The same year he married poet, Joy Gresham. Jack lost his own battle in 1963. The poignant film, Shadowlands, depicts this last part of his life.
Having sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages, Lewis gave most of his royalties to the poor. Living simply, he detested displays of wealth.
And now, as I brush past the coats in my wardrobe, I yearn to feel the crunch of snow beneath my feet and find myself in Narnia. But if I can’t, I can heed Lewis’ wisdom: “You can make anything by writing.”
This post first appeared in the Book Creator section of Buzz Words, an e-zine for writers, illustrators & all interested in children’s and YA books. Compiled and edited by Di Bates.