C.S. LEWIS met Owen Barfield in 1919 when they were both undergraduates at Oxford. For the next 44 years, right up to Lewis’s death in 1963, they would remain close. In an essay he later wrote about Lewis, Barfield noted not just the quality and quantity of his friend’s amazing literary output, but also its remarkable diversity.
Barfield suggested that someone who had started reading Lewis’ works but knew nothing else about him “might be pardoned for wondering if it were not one writer, but three with whom he was becoming acquainted—three men who just happened to have the same name.”
One would have been a notable and inventive literary critic; the second, a highly successful author of fiction; and the third, a writer of best-selling Christian apologetics.
C. S. Lewis was indeed a man of paradoxes. Born in 1898 into a prominent Protestant family in Belfast, he would go on to become best friends with J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic. He would write world-famous stories for children and would also become a world-famous scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature. One of Oxford’s most popular lecturers, he hated school as a boy and begged his father to be allowed to quit.
Lewis was an intensely private man, but at the same time loved nothing better than a lively evening drinking, talking, and laughing with the Inklings, the writing group that formed around him. A confirmed bachelor for most of his life, in his 50s he fell head over heels in love with an American divorcee from the Bronx who was 16 years his junior, a former member of the Communist Party, and a recent convert to Christianity.
Her name was Joy Gresham, and the intensely moving story of their brief time together would be told in the film “Shadowlands.”
Lewis first gained prominence for “The Screwtape Letters.” Published in 1942, the series of letters from a senior devil to his young apprentice led to Lewis’ appearance on the cover of Time magazine. His talks on the BBC during the Second World War were later published as “Mere Christianity,” a book believers from all over the world often point to as having had a profound influence on their faith.
In 1951, as his first decade of celebrity began to wane somewhat, Lewis wrote to a friend, “I am going to be (if I live long enough) one of those men who was a famous writer in his forties and dies unknown.” What Lewis did not know was that the new series of books he had recently started, stories set in an imaginary land called Narnia, would come to outsell all of his other books combined.
If one measure of a great writer is how many weeks his books spend on the best-seller list, another is how many years his books remain in print after he is dead and gone. Lewis is one of the few writers today whose entire literary output remains in print over a half century following his death.
Born during the reign of Queen Victoria, Lewis’ life, work, and legacy now span three centuries.
In 2013, Lewis was honored with a memorial plaque in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. Like Shakespeare, whose own memorial stands nearby, Lewis is now well on his way to becoming an author “not of an age, but for all time.”