The Writing Career of C. S. Lewis


Overview of the writing career of C.S. Lewis,
theologian and novelist, and a summary of
books by and about the author.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was an enigmatic literature professor at Oxford University. He became known to kids as an author of a series of children's fantasy novels, known to science fiction readers as the author of a sci-fi trilogy, known to philosophers as a theologian to claimed to have used logic to prove the existence of God, and the subject of biographers who were interested in his love for a woman.

The fantasy fiction for children

The most popular fiction by C.S. Lewis is The Chronicles of Narnia. In addition to talking animals, the magic world of Narnia features good and evil forces. Like interpreters of an ink blot test who see what they expect to see, some readers say that his fantasy fiction is purely adventurous, in the same genre as The Wizard of Oz, while some other readers find in it metaphors for such Christian topics as forgiveness of sin, and describe it as "children's Christian literature."

Clive Staples Lewis made a transition in two decades from atheism to Christianity. Before, during and after this transition, his fiction used symbolism and allegory to represent moral strength and virtue. This was carried out to such an extent that some readers and critics simply described his fiction as Christian teaching encoded in the guise of entertainment.

The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven novels, of which the first to be published, and to this day the only one that some people have ever heard of, is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

All seven books in the series were first assembled as a boxed set in 1994, illustrated by artist Pauline Baynes. Soon after that publication, the boxed set moved periodically on and off the New York Times bestsellers list for children's books. The seven titles in order of publication are: (1) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ; (2) Prince Caspian ; (3) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ; (4) The Silver Chair ; (5) The Horse and His Boy ; (6) The Magician's Nephew ; (7) The Last Battle .

Audio book editions have also been made of all seven titles. A few famous actors, including Michael York and Ian Richardson, were recruited to give their voices to the audiobooks.

As of this writing (2019), the first three of these have been made into movies, for which more than a billion dollars in revenue is claimed.

The science fiction works

Many readers who are somewhat older than children, particularly science fiction enthusiasts, may say that Lewis's best work was his Space Trilogy. This series consists of three volumes. Their titles are: (1) Out of the Silent Planet ; (2) Perelandra : A Novel ; (3) That Hideous Strength : A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. A binding of all three of the sci-fi novels was also published.

The religious philosophy

To philosophers and scholars, C. S. Lewis was primarily a theologian. In 1952 he compiled his material from several of his 1940s BBC radio lectures on the subject of religion to write his most famous nonfiction book, Mere Christianity.

(The publication date establishes that this book in still under copyright in the U.S., but is in the public domain in Canada.)

In Mere Christianity, Lewis sets out, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas and others, to show that certain religious principles can be proven with logic. His reasoning proceeds as follows:

He says that morality must be objective because that which is good can only be good relative to an absolute reference -- the objective morality. Morality is known to be objective, he argues, because the consequences of it not being objective would be unacceptable, for example, the inability to say that a terrible tyrant has done something wrong in the objective sense.

(There I think Lewis commits the logical fallacy that we call argument from consequences -- believing that a proposition must be true if the consequences of it being false are felt to be unbearable.)

Morality, Lewis says, is a "law" which "we find pressing on us", implying that there exists one who is doing the pressing, namely, God. He readily admits that this argument points only to a "something", and the specifically Christian version of God is not thereby established.

He says that morality is an observable "natural law", in the sense that people are observed to be instinctively attracted to it. It differs from other "natural" laws (laws of physics) in that people can choose to disobey the moral law. God wants people to make the choice to follow the path that is good; he does not compel them.

How do we know that the words of Jesus are the truth? Lewis argues that the personality of Jesus as depicted historically shows that this man, who claimed to be divine, was neither a "lunatic" nor a "fiend", which leaves us with the sole possibility that he was being accurate when presenting himself as "God." Some later philosophers have called this argument, citing exactly three possibilities, of which two have been summarily eliminated, Lewis's "trilemma."

(This argument reminds me of the claim made by the fictitious detective Sherlock Holmes that he could reach a conclusion that is not in evidence by having listed and logically eliminated all other possibiities.)

Having once reached the conclusion that Jesus was divine, Lewis says, this carries the usual implications: the ability to perform miracles and forgive sins, the resurrection, and the expectation of a second coming.

Lewis referred to moral relativism, and the public school education which he believed promotes it, as "the abolition of man". This phrase became the title of one of his essays in 1943. The essay was included in an anthology entited C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium : Six Essays on the Abolition of Man, edited by Peter Kreeft.

Lewis also used humorous fiction to as a medium for serious theological discourse. In The Screwtape Letters, written in 1942, the character Screwtape, a devil in hell, writes a series of letters to a fellow devil, Wormwood, offering advice on how Wormwood should proceed with his new assignment to subvert the soul of a World War II pilot.

The more serious works were not the first books Lewis wrote after his religious conversion. The first book he wrote after his religious conversion, and his first novel, was The Pilgrim's Regress : An Allegorical Apology for Christianity. (Lewis welcomed the description of himself as a "Christian apologist.") This book is an answer to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. It takes the form of a trip to an enchanted island, and a satire of popular philosophies.

The literature textbook

After teaching at Oxford University since 1925, in 1954 Lewis was offered, and he accepted, the position of Chairman of the Department of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. It was shortly thereafter that he wrote his college textbook Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

The autobiography and the biographies

In 1955 C.S. Lewis wrote his autobiography, Surprised by Joy : The Shape of My Early Life. Joy was his wife. In this autobiography, he covered his childhood and his later religious conversion.

C.S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Davidman Gresham, who had met in 1952, were married in 1956. She died in 1960. In 1961 he expressed, in terms of his faith, his feelings about the loss of his wife, in a book entitled A Grief Observed.

The story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was told in the play Shadowlands, written in 1991 by William Nicholson. The play was later performed theatrically on stage and TV. In 1994 it was made into a movie, also entitled Shadowlands, where Anthony Hopkins played the part of C. S. Lewis, and Debra Winger played the part of Joy Gresham. It was produced by HBO, and directed by Richard Attenborough.

To most readers, the definitive biography of Lewis is Jack : A Life of C.S. Lewis, by George Sayer. (Many of Lewis's friends called him Jack). Lewis and Sayer were friends for 29 years, which makes the personal observations genuine. It was a 457-page paperback.

Somewhat less popular than Sayer's book is was C.S. Lewis : A Biography, by Roger Lancelyn Green (Paperback, 320 pages). The strength of Green's book is that, in addition to the fact that Lewis and Green were friends, Green wrote it with access to all the family papers and records. The book includes some photographs not available elsewhere.

Generally, Lewis's biographers have taken great interest in the his relationship with Joy Davidman Gresham. The converse is true as well -- Lewis is a main character in the biography of Gresham, entitled A Love Observed : Joy Davidman's Life and Marriage to C.S. Lewis, by Lyle W. Dorsett.

Other books

C. S. Lewis died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and philosopher Aldous Huxley -- November 22, 1963. Making use of this coincidental timing, Peter Kreeft wrote a book of fiction entitled Between Heaven and Hell, wherein these three gentlemen meet in purgatory and have a lively conversation.

- - - - - - Commentary by Mike Lepore for, February 18, 2019