I’ll be the first to admit that C.S. Lewis is beyond my personal expertise. Although I’ve found myself to be in love with the “classics” and have a vast collection of vintage and antique books within my study, I haven’t ever really looked deep into the works of Narnia nor have I paid too much attention to his philosophy. Before researching this post, all I knew about the man was that he was a Christian apologetic that struggled with finding his faith. I had a friend several years ago who loved C.S. Lewis, but I’ll get back to that later in this post.
I must be clear: I have never read any of the Narnia books (nor have I watched any of the movies), and I only have limited experience with his other short stories and philosophies. As for the other members of the series…I’m fairly well-versed when it comes to their literature. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit rest on a shelf close to my desk; Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is considered a must-read (and his short stories are enlightening as they could be); and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an age-old American classic. But, for C.S. Lewis? I know more of the man’s history than I do his literary worlds.
But, for now, I suppose it’s time to wrap up with the story of C.S. Lewis and how his experiences in World War I allowed him to reach such a beloved position in not only literature, but world history as well.
C.S. Lewis and The First World War
C.S. Lewis was born in Ireland in November of 1898 to an incredibly religious family. His father, Richard, was a solicitor and his mother, Florence, was a daughter of a priest. He lived a relatively normal childhood, one that started his infatuation with writing to begin with. He, somewhere in his early stages of life, picked up a set of Beatrix Potter’s stories; and he began to think very positively of stories filled with anthropomorphic animals like Potter’s Peter Rabbit. His father’s house was a safe-haven filled with books, and he began rip snorting through classics and contemporaries in an attempt to immerse himself in fantasy worlds – not for a way out of the real world, but as a way to enrich his mind.
In 1908, his mother died after a losing battle with cancer. His family was suddenly unable to afford private tutors, and he was sent away to study in Watford, Hertfordshire. He found himself at Wynyard School, where his brother Warren, graduated three years prior. Just about as soon as he arrived to Wynyard School, the establishment shut down. The official documents stated it was because the incoming class was too small to combat the costs of staying open; however, the headmaster – a man by the name of Robert Capron – was swiftly sent to a psychiatric hospital shortly before the school’s closing. Apparently, Capron assaulted several students. This incident might have been the true reason as to why Lewis’s first school shut down. Lewis would later note that he learned nothing from the Wynyard School during his short time there.
He later found himself at Campbell College, but found himself forced to drop out due to respiratory problems. He attended Cherbourg House Preparatory School during his treatment, where he abandoned his religious upbringings in favor of atheism, mythology, and strange occults. When his lungs were fully functioning again, he found himself transferring schools once again – this time to Malvern College, and from there he went to Oxford University.
In 1917, C.S. Lewis joined the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford, as he saw it as a promising route into employment by the British army. He drafted into a Cadet Battalion and survived his training regiments. During training, he shared a room with a man by the name of Edward Moore – who went by the nickname “Paddy”. The two chitchatted and became relatively close, to the point where they made a promise to each other. The “pact” was simple: if either men happened to die, the survivor would take care of the other man’s family.
Lewis happily commissioned himself into the Third Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant, and he fell into the front line of Somme Valley in France on his nineteenth birthday. This would be Lewis’s first experience of trench warfare.
Lewis would stay in the army, fighting trench warfare style in France for most of it, until April 1918. On the fifteenth of that month, Lewis was wounded by a British shell that malfunctioned and fell short of its initial target. He was the “lucky” one, as two of his closer colleagues were killed by the incident. He suffered from severe depression, homesickness, and struggled with his thoughts. He was sent back to England upon his recovery and was demobilized in the same year. Haunted by his experiences and traumatized by his injury, he returned to his studies at Oxford, where he would focus on Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, Ancient History, and the English language. The war, and his interest in his studies, would heavily influence his war-torn Narnia books and several personal beliefs.
Recall that Lewis was raised in an incredible religious family. His mother was the semi-typical “priest’s daughter” persona, and he frequently attended services at the Church of Ireland until his mid-teens. He, in later writing, would identify his initial fallout with religion somewhere around his fifteenth birthday. He described his younger self as “angry with God for not existing”, and perceiving religion as nothing more than a “chore” to deal with. His studies in the humanities eventually pushed him further down the atheistic trail, and his memories from the Great War seemed to “cement” them for quite some time. No atheists in foxholes seems to be incorrect, to some extent. Sometimes the war setting can be so violent that it can trigger the most atheistic mindsets of them all.
Lewis would quote Lucretius, the infamous Roman poet and philosopher, as to how he managed to drop God from his life:
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.
I smirk, thinking back, knowing that the specific friend that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, as theocratic as they were, had no clue about how – for several years of his life – their absolute favorite author (for Narnia alone, I’d imagine) was a die-hard atheist traumatized by childhood angst and experiences in the Great War. Experiences are oftentimes lost into the “statistics” of history, but it’s important to understand what exactly influenced the great writing that has changed the literary world.
Of course, Lewis would eventually return to his faith – mostly after being influenced by his fellow colleague and Christian friend J.R.R. Tolkien. He loosened up on his stance against theism in 1929, and found himself converting to Christianity only three years later. He joined the Church of England – which was a disappointment to Tolkien, a devout Catholic. From then on, Lewis formulated himself into the Christian apologist that he is known as today.
I should return back to Lewis’s promise to Paddy. He kept it. Paddy was killed; and Lewis returned to take care of his mother, a forty-five year woman by the name of Jane King Moore. C.S. Lewis lived with Moore, whom he considered a close friend, until she was hospitalized in the late 1940’s. There is some controversy debated among historians as to whether Lewis had romantic relations with the woman twenty-six years his senior.
In 1939, the Second World War (which was supposed to be unheard of, as the Great War was still firmly implanted on the memories of those who lived through it) began. Lewis, at age 40, felt a rage inside him that led to him attempting to re-join the British military. He didn’t care if he had to fight; and when he was told he was too old, he begged to be able to instruct cadets. Ultimately, he wasn’t allowed to do anything. They told him that if he wanted to help in the war effort, he should write columns for the Ministry of Information. He firmly refused, informing he didn’t want to “write lies” as a career. He later wormed himself into being able to serve in a local Home Guard near Oxford. Throughout the war, he appeared on religious broadcasts to encourage the faiths and morals of citizens and servicemen in action.
He would go on to live a rather full life, holding positions in both Oxford and Cambridge. Unlike Fitzgerald, Lewis was able to enjoy any amount of extraordinary popularity and recognition. He would die in 1963 after a two year battle with nephritis, which plagued him with severe blood poisoning and ultimately led to a heart attack (which he miraculously survived).
One week before his 65th birthday, on November 22nd of 1963, the famous author collapsed in his personal bedroom and died of renal failure. Although he would be missed, coverage of his death would have to come later. Fifty-five minutes after Lewis’s time of death, the world would be shook by the assassination of 35th United States President John F. Kennedy.
This is the fourth (and currently the last planned) installment of Writers of The First World War.