C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

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by Alister McGrath

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In honor of the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis' death, celebrated Oxford don Dr. Alister McGrath presents us with a compelling and definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis, the author of the well-known Narnia series.  See more details below


In honor of the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis' death, celebrated Oxford don Dr. Alister McGrath presents us with a compelling and definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis, the author of the well-known Narnia series.

Editorial Reviews

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a genius polymath whose sheer versatility might have actually diluted his posthumous reputation. Today, he is mostly remembered as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity; or, by some, only as the friend of J.R. Tolkien. This authoritative biography places him where he belongs: as an intellectual central to the life of his time. C.S. Lewis, A Life excels in evaluating evidence and presentation, providing us with our clearest view yet of its subject's gradual evolution toward Christian belief. A valuable narrative about a major figure.

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Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Alister McGrath
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-3935-1

Chapter One



"I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of a solicitor and of a clergyman's daughter." On 29 November 1898, Clive Staples Lewis was plunged into a world that was simmering with political and social resentment and clamouring for change. The partition of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was still two decades away. Yet the tensions that would lead to this artificial political division of the island were obvious to all. Lewis was born into the heart of the Protestant establishment of Ireland (the "Ascendancy") at a time when every one of its aspects—political, social, religious, and cultural—was under threat.

Ireland was colonised by English and Scottish settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, leading to deep political and social resentment on the part of the dispossessed native Irish towards the incomers. The Protestant colonists were linguistically and religiously distinct from the native Catholic Irish. Under Oliver Cromwell, "Protestant plantations" developed during the seventeenth century—English Protestant islands in an Irish Catholic sea. The native Irish ruling classes were quickly displaced by a new Protestant establishment. The 1800 Act of Union saw Ireland become part of the United Kingdom, ruled directly from London. Despite being a numerical minority, located primarily in the northern counties of Down and Antrim, including the industrial city of Belfast, Protestants dominated the cultural, economic, and political life of Ireland.

Yet all this was about to change. In the 1880s, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891) and others began to agitate for "Home Rule" for Ireland. In the 1890s, Irish nationalism began to gain momentum, creating a sense of Irish cultural identity that gave new energy to the Home Rule movement. This was strongly shaped by Catholicism, and was vigorously opposed to all forms of English influence in Ireland, including games such as rugby and cricket. More significantly, it came to consider the English language as an agent of cultural oppression. In 1893 the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was founded to promote the study and use of the Irish language. Once more, this was seen as an assertion of Irish identity over and against what were increasingly regarded as alien English cultural norms.

As demands for Home Rule for Ireland became increasingly forceful and credible, many Protestants felt threatened, fearing the erosion of privilege and the possibility of civil strife. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Protestant community in Belfast in the early 1900s was strongly insular, avoiding social and professional contact with their Catholic neighbours wherever possible. (C. S. Lewis's older brother, Warren ["Warnie"], later recalled that he never spoke to a Catholic from his own social background until he entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1914.) Catholicism was "the Other"—something that was strange, incomprehensible, and above all threatening. Lewis absorbed such hostility towards—and isolation from—Catholicism with his mother's milk. When the young Lewis was being toilet trained, his Protestant nanny used to call his stools "wee popes." Many regarded, and still regard, Lewis as lying outside the pale of true Irish cultural identity on account of his Ulster Protestant roots.


The 1901 Census of Ireland recorded the names of everyone who "slept or abode" at the Lewis household in East Belfast on the night of Sunday, 31 March 1901. The record included a mass of personal details—relationship to one another, religion, level of education, age, sex, rank or occupation, and place of birth. Although most biographies refer to the Lewis household as then residing at "47 Dundela Avenue," the Census records them as living at "House 21 in Dundella [sic] Avenue (Victoria, Down)." The entry for the Lewis household provides an accurate snapshot of the family at the opening of the twentieth century:

Albert James Lewis, Head of Family, Church of Ireland, Read & Write, 37, M, Solicitor, Married, City of Cork

Florence Augusta Lewis, Wife, Church of Ireland, Read & Write, 38, F, Married, County Cork

Warren Hamilton Lewis, Son, Church of Ireland, Read, 5, M, Scholar, City of Belfast

Clive Staples Lewis, Son, Church of Ireland, Cannot Read, 2, M, City of Belfast

Martha Barber, Servant, Presbyterian, Read & Write, 28, F, Nurse—Domestic Servant, Not Married, County Monaghan

Sarah Ann Conlon, Servant, Roman Catholic, Read & Write, 22, F, Cook—Domestic Servant, Not Married, County Down3

As the Census entry indicates, Lewis's father, Albert James Lewis (1863–1929), was born in the city and county of Cork, in the south of Ireland. Lewis's paternal grandfather, Richard Lewis, was a Welsh boilermaker who had immigrated to Cork with his Liverpudlian wife in the early 1850s. Soon after Albert's birth, the Lewis family moved to the northern industrial city of Belfast, so that Richard could go into partnership with John H. MacIlwaine to form the successful firm MacIlwaine, Lewis & Co., Engineers and Iron Ship Builders. Perhaps the most interesting ship to be built by this small company was the original Titanic—a small steel freight steamer built in 1888, weighing a mere 1,608 tons.

Yet the Belfast shipbuilding industry was undergoing change in the 1880s, with the larger yards of Harland and Wolff and Workman Clark achieving commercial dominance. It became increasingly difficult for the "wee yards" to survive economically. In 1894, Workman Clark took over MacIlwaine, Lewis & Co. The rather more famous version of the Titanic—also built in Belfast—was launched in 1911 from the shipyard of Harland and Wolff, weighing 26,000 tons. Yet while Harland and Wolff's liner famously sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, MacIlwaine and Lewis's much smaller ship continued to ply its trade in South American waters under other names until 1928.

Albert showed little interest in the shipbuilding business, and made it clear to his parents that he wanted to pursue a legal career. Richard Lewis, knowing of the excellent reputation of Lurgan College under its headmaster, William Thompson Kirkpatrick (1848–1921), decided to enrol Albert there as a boarding pupil. Albert formed a lasting impression of Kirkpatrick's teaching skills during his year there. After Albert graduated in 1880, he moved to Dublin, the capital city of Ireland, where he worked for five years for the firm of Maclean, Boyle, and Maclean. Having gained the necessary experience and professional accreditation as a solicitor, he moved back to Belfast in 1884 to establish his own practice with offices on Belfast's prestigious Royal Avenue.

The Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act of 1877 followed the English practice of making a clear distinction between the legal role of "solicitors" and "barristers," so that aspiring Irish lawyers were required to decide which professional position they wished to pursue. Albert Lewis chose to become a solicitor, acting directly on behalf of clients, including representing them in the lower courts. A barrister specialised in courtroom advocacy, and would be hired by a solicitor to represent a client in the higher courts.

Lewis's mother, Florence ("Flora") Augusta Lewis (1862–1908), was born in Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork. Lewis's maternal grandfather, Thomas Hamilton (1826–1905), was a Church of Ireland clergyman—a classic representative of the Protestant Ascendancy that came under threat as Irish nationalism became an increasingly significant and cultural force in the early twentieth century. The Church of Ireland had been the established church throughout Ireland, despite being a minority faith in at least twenty-two of the twenty-six Irish counties. When Flora was eight, her father accepted the post of chaplain to Holy Trinity Church in Rome, where the family lived from 1870 to 1874.

In 1874, Thomas Hamilton returned to Ireland to take up the position of curate-in-charge of Dundela Church in the Ballyhackamore area of East Belfast. The same temporary building served as a church on Sundays and a school during weekdays. It soon became clear that a more permanent arrangement was required. Work soon began on a new, purpose-built church, designed by the famous English ecclesiastical architect William Butterfield. Hamilton was installed as rector of the newly built parish church of St. Mark's, Dundela, in May 1879.

Irish historians now regularly point to Flora Hamilton as illustrating the increasingly significant role of women in Irish academic and cultural life in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. She was enrolled as a day pupil at the Methodist College, Belfast—an all-boys school, founded in 1865, at which "Ladies' Classes" had been established in response to popular demand in 1869. She attended for one term in 1881, and went on to study at the Royal University of Ireland in Belfast (now Queen's University, Belfast), gaining First Class Honours in Logic and Second Class Honours in Mathematics in 1886. (As will become clear, Lewis failed to inherit anything of his mother's gift for mathematics.)

When Albert Lewis began to attend St. Mark's, Dundela, his eye was caught by the rector's daughter. Slowly but surely, Flora appears to have been drawn to Albert, partly on account of his obvious literary interests. Albert had joined the Belmont Literary Society in 1881, and was soon considered one of its best speakers. His reputation as a man of literary inclinations would remain with him for the rest of his life. In 1921, at the height of Albert Lewis's career as a solicitor, Ireland's Saturday Night newspaper featured him in a cartoon. Dressed in the garb of a court solicitor of the period, he is depicted as holding a mortarboard under one arm and a volume of English literature under the other. Years later, Albert Lewis's obituary in the Belfast Telegraph described him as a "well read and erudite man," noted for literary allusions in his presentations in court, and who "found his chief recreation away from the courts of law in reading."

After a suitably decorous and extended courtship, Albert and Flora were married on 29 August 1894 at St. Mark's Church, Dundela. Their first child, Warren Hamilton Lewis, was born on 16 June 1895 at their home, "Dundela Villas," in East Belfast. Clive was their second and final child. The Census return of 1901 indicates that the Lewis household then had two servants. Unusual for a Protestant family, the Lewises employed a Catholic housemaid, Sarah Ann Conlon. Lewis's long-standing aversion to religious sectarianism—evident in his notion of "mere Christianity"—may have received a stimulus from memories of his childhood.

From the outset, Lewis developed a close relationship with his elder brother, Warren, which was reflected in their nicknames for each other. C.S. Lewis was "Smallpigiebotham" (SPB) and Warnie "Archpigiebotham" (APB), affectionate names inspired by their childhood nurse's frequent (and apparently real) threats to smack their "piggybottoms" unless they behaved properly. The brothers referred to their father as the "Pudaitabird" or "P'dayta" (because of his Belfast pronunciation of potato). These childhood nicknames would become important once more as the brothers reconnected and reestablished their intimacy in the late 1920s.

Lewis himself was known as "Jack" to his family and friends. Warnie dates his brother's rejection of the name Clive to a summer holiday in 1903 or 1904, when Lewis suddenly declared that he now wished to be known as "Jacksie." This was gradually abbreviated to "Jacks," and finally to "Jack." The reason for this choice of name remains obscure. Although some sources suggest that the name "Jacksie" was taken from a family dog that died in an accident, there is no documentary evidence in support of this.


Lewis was Irish—something that some Irish seem to have forgotten, if they knew it at all. While I myself was growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1960s, my recollection is that when Lewis was referred to at all, it was as an "English" writer. Yet Lewis never lost sight of his Irish roots. The sights, sounds, and fragrances—not, on the whole, the people—of his native Ireland evoked nostalgia for the later Lewis, just as they subtly but powerfully moulded his descriptive prose. In a letter of 1915, Lewis fondly recalls his memories of Belfast: "the distant murmuring of the 'yards,'" the broad sweep of Belfast Lough, the Cave Hill Mountain, and the little glens, meadows, and hills around the city.

Yet there is more to Lewis's Ireland than its "soft hills." Its culture was marked by a passion for storytelling, evident both in its mythology and its historical narratives, and in its love of language. Yet Lewis never made his Irish roots into a fetish. They were simply part of who he was, not his defining feature. As late as the 1950s, Lewis regularly spoke of Ireland as his "home," calling it "my country," even choosing to spend his belated honeymoon with Joy Davidman there in April 1958. Lewis had inhaled the soft, moist air of his homeland, and never forgot its natural beauty.

Few who know County Down can fail to recognise the veiled Irish originals which may have inspired some of Lewis's beautifully crafted literary landscapes. Lewis's depiction of heaven in The Great Divorce as an "emerald green" land echoes his native country, just as the dolmens at Legananny in County Down, Belfast's Cave Hill Mountain, and the Giant's Causeway all seem to have their Narnian equivalents—perhaps softer and brighter than their originals, but still bearing something of their imprint.

Lewis frequently referred to Ireland as a source of literary inspiration, noting how its landscapes were a powerful stimulus to the imagination. Lewis disliked Irish politics and was prone to imagine a pastoral Ireland composed solely of soft hills, mists, loughs, and woods. Ulster, he once confided to his diary, "is very beautiful and if only I could deport the Ulstermen and fill their land with a populace of my own choosing, I should ask for no better place to live in." (In certain ways, Narnia can be seen as an imaginary and idealised Ulster, populated with creatures of Lewis's imagination, rather than Ulstermen.)

The term Ulster needs further explanation. Just as the English county of Yorkshire was divided into three parts (the "Ridings," from the Old Norse word for "a third part," thrithjungr), the island of Ireland was originally divided into five regions (Gaelic cúigí, from cóiced, "a fifth part"). After the Norman conquest of 1066, these were reduced to four: Connaught, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster. The term province now came to be preferred to the Gaelic cúige. The Protestant minority in Ireland was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster, which consisted of nine counties. When Ireland was partitioned, six of these nine counties formed the new political entity of Northern Ireland. The term Ulster is today often used as synonymous with Northern Ireland, with the term Ulsterman tending to be used—though not consistently—to designate "a Protestant inhabitant of Northern Ireland." This is done despite the fact that the original cúige of Ulster also included the three counties of Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, now part of the Republic of Ireland.

Lewis returned to Ireland for his annual vacation almost every year of his life, except when prevented by war or illness. He invariably visited the counties of Antrim, Derry, Down (his favourite), and Donegal—all within the province of Ulster, in its classic sense. At one point, Lewis even considered permanently renting a cottage in Cloghy, County Down, as the base for his annual walking holidays, which often included strenuous hikes in the Mountains of Mourne. (In the end, he decided that his finances would not stretch to this luxury.) Although Lewis worked in England, his heart was firmly fixed in the northern counties of Ireland, especially County Down. As he once remarked to his Irish student David Bleakley, "Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down."


Excerpted from C. S. LEWIS A LIFE by ALISTER McGRATH Copyright © 2013 by Alister McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Lyle W. Dorsett
For people who might wonder if we need another biography of C. S. Lewis, McGrath’s crisp, insightful, and at times quite original portrait of the celebrated Oxford Christian will change their minds.
Alan Jacobs
Alister McGrath has written a meticulously researched, insightful, fair-minded, and honest account of a fascinating man’s life. His book is especially distinctive in its placing of Lewis in his vocational and social contexts, but it also provides a compelling account of the development of Lewis’s Christian mind. This will be an indispensable resource for fans and scholars of Lewis.
N. T. Wright
Many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C. S. Lewis. Alister McGrath’s new biography makes use of archives and other material that clarify, deepen, and further explain the many sides of one of Christianity’s most remarkable apologists. This is a penetrating and illuminating study.
Timothy Keller
Alister McGrath’s new biography of C. S. Lewis is excellent. It’s filled with information based on extensive scholarship but is nonetheless extremely readable. It not only devotes great attention to the formation and character of Lewis the man, it offers incisive and balanced analyses of all his main literary works. I was one of those newly converted American evangelicals who hungrily devoured Lewis’s works in the late 1960s and early ’70s. His impact on me was profound and lasting, and Dr. McGrath clearly explains why so many believers and Christian leaders today can say the same thing.
Eric Metaxas
Alister McGrath sheds new light on the life of the incomparable C. S. Lewis. This is an important book.
Michael Ward
A welcome addition to the biographical literature on C. S. Lewis, which includes several valuable new perspectives. McGrath’s book will gain a permanent position in Lewis scholarship for his brilliant and, to my mind, undeniable re-dating of Lewis’s conversion to Theism. How we all missed this for so long is astonishing!
N.T. Wright
Many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C. S. Lewis. Alister McGrath’s new biography makes use of archives and other material that clarify, deepen, and further explain the many sides of one of Christianity’s most remarkable apologists. This is a penetrating and illuminating study.

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C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Nicnac63 More than 1 year ago
Fascinating! Unique! Informative! And ultimately—engaging. I haven’t finished this book yet, but what I have read, I love. What an interesting legacy. Most of us know who C.S. Lewis was—an author, intellectual, and (most importantly) Christian. I’m enjoying every moment (okay, well, there’s a slow moment or two…but it’s easy enough to skim over those few places…) of learning about this man’s life. Alister McGrath celebrates the 50th anniversary of this eccentric, revered, and unforgettable author’s death in an informative and captivating biography. Kudos.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best biography I have read on Lewis by far.
kristen4mk More than 1 year ago
This is an extensive, thoroughly-researched book on the life of C.S. Lewis. Published in honor of the 50th anniversary year of his passing, Alister McGrath's book takes a chronological view. Combining known information, personal correspondence, literary works, and more, Mr. McGrath provides an extremely detail-oriented book that seems light on speculation and heavy on documented research. My opinion? I'm a fiction girl - light on the details, give me a story! This was truthfully a challenging book for me to "get into" and finish. However, in the end I am glad I started and did complete it, as I now have a much better understanding of this author as well as the time period and geography that are discussed. I have long enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia books and was excited to pass them on to my daughter this past year. It was so interesting to learn more about the background and thought process behind that series, as well as his other works. I recommend this book.
J4Life5 More than 1 year ago
I thought this was an interesting book. I have read many books by C.S. Lewis and enjoy his writing. Before reading this book, I was not aware of his close friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, or that Lewis actually nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I was also not aware of the differing views on his relationship with his wife and the speculation on her motivation in their relationship. The author offered an entire chapter on the Narnia books, and I enjoyed his take on the back story of Narnia and the possible reasons behind the seven books. I also enjoyed this book because of the pictures of buildings in Oxford and Cambridge that I recognized from my travels in England. Overall an interesting book, but a little dry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a readable and well-researched biography of one of our most important thinkers teachers and writers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alister McGrath covered the life and works of C.S. Lewis in great detail, including his flaws and controversial points as well as his superb visionary works that defend the faith and point to the art of communicating ideas and truth to all generations. The books discusses where he grew up, how his father hurt him, what happened in 1917 that added to the hurt, where he went in 1919, who became his cornerstone, and who supported him but died alone in a nursing home. It told what gave him financial security, what caused him to move from atheism to Christianity, what happened when his brother Warnie moved to Oxford, whom he encouraged in his writings who would help him rediscover his Christian faith, how knowing God helps an author, what two worlds Lewis saw, and who also moved significantly on a faith journey. What did the Inklings have in common and what did they do, how was Lewis a literary midwife, what role did Lewis play for BBC in World War II, what caused America to love Lewis, what other books would add to his devotees, what caused him heartbreak in his late 40's, what caused hostility to him at Oxford, and why did he feel isolated there? Why did he invent Narnia, what gave the Chronicles of Narnia such appeal, what happened in 1956 that was strange, when Joy became seriously ill, what did he do, what do Reflections on the Psalms and the Four Loves reflect, and what caused him major legal problems? All these questions and more are answered in this book. If you love Lewis' books, this book will help you understand the man behind the stories. It is so deep however that it is too long to be a fun read.
Anonymous 6 months ago
This is not a play by play of C.S. Lewis's life from beginning to end. It is not a topographical accounting of Lewis either, but takes a somewhat in depth view of some of the more particular and peculiar events in Lewis's life and his works and the contraversies that accompanied his rise in world wide fame in just about every aspect of his life. I.e. personal, professional, and historical. I have just now started to look into knowing more about Lewis himself even though I think the best indicator of any author is the literary works themselves. I was born in 1956 and knew of C.S. Lewis from my oldest brother in the early to mid 1960's when the British invasion of the Beatles and C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and many other notables took place in America. But I did not read him until 1979. The author in his final summations rings very true for me. This is not the book I would recommend for someone who is looking for a storied insight into Lewis life and works, this would be for more of the connesuer than the neophyte. But I am very glad that I bought it and consider it a good read! No regrets!
SophiesMindset More than 1 year ago
Readable, but not gripping I was concerned that this biography of Lewis would be too technical and border on unintelligible for the average reader. I was wrong, but neither is it a gripping biography (few are). The book methodically covers Lewis' life in detail, but unfortunately McGrath lacks Lewis' knack for being a master story-teller. A good resource for Lewis' life, but nothing extraordinary in the telling thereof. 
Lizzy970 More than 1 year ago
C. S. Lewis grew up in Ireland until his mother passed away and his father sent him to England to boarding school. He hated the schools until he went to a private tutor. Then he went to the college he wanted to. He wanted to be a poet, but found his calling in writing books. Books about his life and a special series called the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe. He also became a University professor in England at a university he loved. He got married to an American woman who came to England to meet him because she was a writer, too. They got married and although she did pass away from cancer, they still had a good life together, leaving him her son from a previous marriage to take care of. After many books and papers written he passed away also with many honors. Today he is still idolized from many who still read and watch the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe series of movies and books.
pinkgirlLS More than 1 year ago
CS Lewis: A Life was an in-depth look at CS Lewis’ life and writings. I enjoyed reading about his friendship with Tolkien. The book actually spends a lot of time comparing Tolkien and Lewis, which was interesting. However, the book is pretty dry and full of more details than I cared to know. I could have enjoyed a biography of Lewis ¼ the length of this one. This is a book for the hard-core historian.
Virginia76 More than 1 year ago
This is the biography of C.S. Lewis, published for the 50th anniversary of this death in 1963. C.S. Lewis was a professor and an author of popular books such as the Narnia series. Wow, there was a lot of information in this book, which is to be expected in a book about a person's life. While it was somewhat interesting, there are so many places, dates and people mentioned that at times it got tedious to read. Certain parts seemed repetitive, such as Lewis' conversion to Christianity, and the footnotes in the back are extensive. Other readers might find all the information fascinating, but I thought the book was just okay.