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The Great Divorce | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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C.S. Lewis | Biography


Early Life

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis was born on November 29, 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When he was three or four years old, his beloved dog Jacksie died, and Clive insisted on taking the name as his own. He was known as Jack from then on.

Jack Lewis and his older brother Warren had a rich fantasy life, making up stories about an imaginary land called "Boxen." Boxen was the product of both boys' imaginations, combining Warren's stories about India with Jack's stories about "Animal-Land." The stories were influenced by Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), who was famous for her animal characters like Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin.

The Lewis family attended church regularly. Jack's parents were both "Ulster Protestants," meaning that they practiced English Protestantism instead of Irish Catholicism. Lewis was uninterested in the church and only attended because that was what he was told to do.

Education and World War I

Lewis was educated at home by private tutors until 1908, when his mother died of cancer. At that time, his father sent him to join his older brother at boarding school in England, which Lewis describes as a "concentration camp." There Lewis experienced both cruelty and academic neglect, as well as his first attempts to practice true Christianity. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis notes, "Life at a vile boarding-school is [in this way] a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith ... " Happily (for Lewis and the other students), the school closed down because of a lack of pupils two years after Lewis's arrival.

After attending several other boarding schools, Lewis was able to realize his academic potential. He grew fascinated with Norse mythology and abandoned Christianity for atheism (a disbelief in the existence of God). He listened to the operas of Richard Wagner (1813–1883), whose Ring sequence of four operas told epic tales based on Norse myths. Soon, he was composing his own epic poems and stories. He graduated from secondary school, and one of his examiners (academic test-givers) suggested that Lewis might be a candidate for a scholarship to Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in England. Lewis's father sent him to his own former tutor, William Kirkpatrick, to learn Latin, Greek, and debating skills.

Lewis matriculated (enrolled) at Oxford in the summer of 1916. He quickly put his studies on hold, however, to fight with the British army in World War I (1914–18). He fought against the Germans at the front line in the Somme Valley, where he was injured from a shell. His close friend in the army, Edward Moore, was killed in battle, and during Lewis's convalescence, he stayed with Moore's mother Jane and sister Maureen. Lewis and Jane formed a strong friendship, with the older woman taking a maternal role in Lewis's life. Lewis remained with the Moores while he finished his degrees at Oxford, graduating with highest honors in Greek and Latin literature, classical philosophy, and English language and literature.


In 1925, Lewis received a fellowship to teach and tutor English at Magdalen College—one of the schools within Oxford University—where he remained for the next 29 years. During his tenure there, Lewis was a member of an informal literary society called the Inklings. Composed of writers like himself, his brother, and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the Inklings met weekly to discuss each other's writing, as well as philosophy, history, and religion.

Lewis wrote prolifically while at Magdalen College. He wrote scholarly books such as The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, and in 1926, J.M. Dent published Lewis's epic narrative poem, Dymer, to great critical acclaim. Lewis's perspective was also changing during this time. Throughout his reading and his conversations with the Inklings and other friends, Lewis was beginning to question the atheism that he had embraced in his younger years. The conversion was complete during a trip to the zoo one morning in 1931. Lewis's 1955 memoir Surprised by Joy describes this experience: "When we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did."

Lewis's conversion prompted him to write a flurry of Christian essays called apologetics: writings in defense of a religion. Lewis's Christian apologetics are considered among the most influential of the modern era. Some of the most famous of these include The Problem of Pain (1940), The Case for Christianity (1942), and Mere Christianity (1952). This latter volume is a collection of live radio talks on Christianity that Lewis gave on the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) during World War II (1929-1945). During this period, Lewis also wrote fictional stories that explore the nature of Christianity, including The Screwtape Letters (1942), in which an older demon gives advice to his young nephew on the best way to corrupt a particular human, and The Great Divorce (1945), in which humans have the free will to choose Heaven or Purgatory.

During World War II, many London families sent their children out to the countryside to avoid the heavy bombing that London was experiencing. The Kilns, Lewis's home that he shared with the Moores, hosted three war refugees during this period. This event provided the setting for Lewis's most famous novel: a children's book called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). Set in a large country house, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells the story of four London war refugees who find a door to another land in a wardrobe. Over the next six years, Lewis would write six more books about this magical land, called The Chronicles of Narnia. Although the books are not overtly religious, Lewis's Christianity permeates the series, with various events and characters paralleling Christian themes and figures.

1955 saw the publication of Lewis's autobiographical story of his conversion, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. In his preface to the book, Lewis writes, "This book is written ... in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity ... How far the story matters to anyone but myself depends on the degree to which others have experienced what I call 'joy.'" 1955 was also the year Lewis left Oxford University for Cambridge University, where he accepted the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College. Note the coincidental names; Magdalen College at Oxford University is a completely different institution from Magdalene College at Cambridge University. He continued to write about Christianity, publishing such works as Reflections on the Psalms (1958) and The World's Last Night and Other Essays (1960). He also continued his scholarly writing with such works as Studies in Words (1960) and An Experiment in Criticism (1962).


Lewis passed away suddenly on November 22, 1963, from kidney failure. Since his death, his works have remained popular among the general public and within Christian thought. His books have been translated into 30 languages and continue to sell over one million copies per year, with particularly large sales in the United States. His prolific body of work, the accessibility of his writing, and his books' subject matter have all been cited as reasons for his continued influence.

His Chronicles of Narnia series has been adapted for stage and screen, including as a film trilogy released between 2005 and 2010 that grossed over $1.5 billion at the box office. Other works, such as The Screwtape Letters, have been adapted as plays, as have biographical retellings of Lewis' life.

Lewis is the namesake of Christian organizations that continue his work in theological teaching, such as the C.S. Lewis Foundation, which manages study centers and seminar series at Oxford and Oxbridge, Lewis' former schools and places of employment. The C.S. Lewis Institute offers events and fellowships in its locations around the United States, Canada, and Northern Ireland. In 2013, the United Kingdom marked the 50th anniversary of Lewis's death by revealing a memorial in Poets' Corner, a space in Westminster Abbey where the country's most influential writers are honored.

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