On This Day

C.S. Lewis: Moral Fantasist

Today would have been C.S. Lewis’ 116th birthday.

C.S. Lewis had three different lives professionally. He was an academic, a medievalist who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge and published extensively in his field. (His book Allegory of Love still considered a classic). He was also a Christian Apologist and lay-theologian, with works like Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Screwtape Letters exploring faith and doubt. Finally, the career that made him famous and became his lasting legacy was that of a fantasy and science fiction author. His Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s literature, and have sparked devotion and serious exploration from authors like Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and Lev Grossman.

Lewis was a member of one of the most famous literary societies of the 20th century, The Inklings, whose members would gather to read their works aloud for critique. His close friend, and one of the people who convinced him to convert to Christianity, was JRR Tolkien. He and Tolkien didn’t always like each others’ work, but he did give The Hobbit a favorable review.

His life was full of weird moments and incongruous facts. When he served in the First World War, he and his friend, Edward Courtnay Francis “Paddy” Moore, promised to care for each others’ mothers if one of them died in battle. When Moore was killed, Lewis kept his promise; he and his brother Warnie, Jane Moore, and Moore’s daughter Maureen all lived together in Lewis’ home, called The Kilns, for decades after the war. Mrs. Moore nursed Lewis through his war wounds, and in the late 1940s, when Mrs. Moore had to go into a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until her death.

Years later he married a younger woman, the writer Joy Davidman, and after her death was so consumed by sorrow that he kept a journal to help him order his thoughts. He edited the journal into a book, A Grief Observed, and published it under a pseudonym—he expressed such doubt that he chose not to publish it under his real name. The book was hailed for its honesty, and Lewis then had to endure what must have been a terribly ironic experience: his friends recommended his own book to him as they watched him struggle with Davidman’s death.

Obviously Lewis’ greatest legacy is the Chronicles of Narnia, in which Lewis synthesized his love of Irish lore, Greek mythology, and Christian allegory into a 7-book epic published between 1950 and 1956. Narnia’s kingdoms function similarly to old Celtic society, creatures like fauns and nymphs mix with talking horses and the occasional witch, and spiritual guidance comes from a rampant Lion. In the midst of that are smaller stories about a family’s response to World War II, sibling rivalries, and the moral choices of children. It has been hugely influential since, as has his other large work, the Space Trilogy, which combined mythology and science fiction to examine morality. But his greatest impact can be felt each time a child looks into a wardrobe with a little more wonder than necessary.

We’re still not sold on Turkish Delight, but thank you for Puddleglum and Mr. Tumnus, Mr. Lewis!

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