Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898–1963) was a scholar of medieval and renaissance English literature, a Christian apologist, essayist, and broadcaster, a novelist for adults and children, and to a lesser extent a poet. Many of his works remain extremely popular, the series of seven books set in his imagined world of Narnia having achieved the status of classics of children’s literature. His “Cosmic Trilogy” of science fiction novels for adults is also much-read, as are some of his apologetic works.
Born in Belfast, Lewis completed his studies at Oxford University after serving on the western front in World War I, eventually becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1925, where he stayed until he moved to Fellowship and Chair at Magdalene College, Cambridge University, in 1954. In Oxford he reconverted to the Protestant Christianity of his youth, and he is associated especially with a group of Christian and literary friends known as “the Inklings,” including J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.
Lewis’s numerous biographers are assisted not only by an early diary and his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), but also by the fact that he was a tireless correspondent whose letters are available in three substantial volumes. A positive industry in secondary studies (including journals and websites) has arisen since Lewis’s death, often adulatory, and subject to the law of diminishing returns.
The Literary Works.
Most of Lewis’s mature literary work is informed by Christianity and makes direct or more usually indirect use of the Bible. It can be difficult to distinguish between literary and apologetic writings. The Cosmic Trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia contain clear Christian messages, and even his last novel, Till We Have Faces (1956), though based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche, is concerned with faith and belief. Indeed, his interest in myth as such, as a story incorporating a great truth (and which in the case of the Resurrection could for him actually be true), overlaps with his interest in strictly biblical material. Beside apologetic works like The Screwtape Letters, which are literary in form and imagination, he produced many straightforward studies, essays, and addresses in which he expressed his views on the Bible.
Lewis saw the Bible as a devotional book, something with which he had been familiar in his youth and was accustomed to read regularly after his return to Christianity. In 2010 an edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) appeared with his name prominent on the cover as The C. S. Lewis Bible, with commentary passages from his writings. Possibly he might not have approved of the attempts to remove gender-biased language in that version, but he was in favor of reading modern English versions.
Lewis discussed the first major English translations of the Bible in his volume on the sixteenth century in the Oxford History of English Literature in 1954, and he commented on “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version” in a lecture in 1950, emphasizing its role as a source for literature and a literary influence. But he was also aware of the “sour paradox” that the beauty of its language might interfere with the devotional reading of the work (thus in a piece from 1947 now titled “Modern Translations of the Bible”). He knew Ronald Knox, the translator of the Vulgate, wrote a positive introduction to J. B. Phillips’s new version of the Epistles, and admired the Moffatt translation.
Lewis and Biblical Criticism.
Lewis opens the introduction to his Reflections on the Psalms with the statement that he is neither a biblical scholar nor a higher critic, and later in that introduction he warns against reading the Bible (only) as literature if that would mean missing the main point. In an important letter of 5 October 1955 to Janet Wise, he explained that he was not a fundamentalist in the sense of accepting everything in the Bible as literal truth, but that he acknowledged the composition to have been divinely directed, and that it thus contained sacred myth as well as sacred history; fundamentalists ignore the mythopoeic aspects, higher critics the truth. He admits, too, that the Bible developed and became more civilized in its storytelling, and in a letter of 19 July 1958, he noted that the historical parts of the Old Testament do not show modern attitudes to numbers, date, and so on, because it was not concerned with “that sort of truth.”
Although Lewis has been censured for not applying to the Bible the redaction-critical techniques that are regularly used with classical and medieval works, he was not particularly interested in textual criticism and was dismissive of scholarly attempts to find several authors for any ancient work. His arguments for accepting stories such as the Virgin Birth, however, are harder to defend (see his essay “Religion and Science”  and also the longer study Miracles ). While rejecting historical criticism more or less out of hand, Lewis did not shy from literary judgments in assessing the figure of Jesus, for example. He claimed that one could reject a logion from the apocryphal gospels (presumably that of Thomas) because “That wasn’t how he talked” (Fern-Seed and Elephants, originally Modern Theology and Bible Criticism, 1959).
Lewis’s use of the Bible depends upon the Bibelfestigkeit that was part of his upbringing and reinforced after his reconversion. Although he draws on images from all parts of the Bible, his interest in the problems of evil in the world and how evil came to be, and in the selfless sacrifice of the Redemption, means that his principal sources are Genesis, especially the myth of Eden, the Gospels, and also Revelation. Even in biblically themed works, literary influences play a great part, perhaps most notably that of Milton, on whom Lewis gave a series of lectures published as A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942). In Lewis’s treatment of biblical themes there are instances where a single motif has been adopted; there are others where biblical material has been recast or reimagined by testing the biblical story; and finally, the essential elements of a biblical story can be remodeled with new characters.
Fall and Redemption in the Cosmic Trilogy.
Perelandra (1943), the second novel in the Cosmic Trilogy (also known as the Space Trilogy or, after the significantly named central figure, the Ransom Trilogy), demonstrates most clearly the reimagining of a biblical myth, that of Adam and Eve. The philologist Elwin Ransom is taken by eldila (angels) to Venus, which is a new world, a paradise of floating islands, where he encounters an Eve-figure. To Venus comes another man who is possessed by the devil, the fallen angel who attempts to corrupt the woman, specifically to persuade her to break the commandment that she and the Adam-equivalent (whom we do not see until the end) should not sleep on a fixed land. Ransom argues with the devil-figure, whom he eventually has to defeat by force, and the Adam and Eve figures go on to rule and populate Venus in the way that should have happened on Earth. Ransom at one point thinks of Genesis and wonders “what would have happened.” The angelic controllers are viewed as gigantic wheels in a passage based heavily upon Ezekiel 1 and 10. Lewis does, however, even nod to Darwin by having Ransom wonder, on seeing some mermaid-like creatures, whether the woman is descended somehow from fish.
Lewis had already sent Ransom to Mars (Out of the Silent Planet, 1938), which presents for the first time the fear-inspiring angels (which is biblically accurate) and the Christ-figure of Maleldil. In the final book (That Hideous Strength, 1945) Ransom and others defeat the forces of evil—albeit temporarily—on Earth. The last volume owes much to Arthurian legend but also utilizes to powerful literary effect the story of Babel, in a scene where those who have tried to conquer heaven can suddenly no longer understand each other. Ransom is ultimately taken directly into heaven, like Enoch.
Creation, Fall, and Redemption in Narnia.
The seven Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s subcreated world for children, depend to a varying extent upon the Bible. In a letter of 5 March 1961 to Anne Jenkins, Lewis outlined the theological themes underpinning each volume, but the creation, the origins of evil, the divine sacrifice, and the apocalypse are explored in three volumes in particular.
Within the chronology of Lewis’s subcreation (the works were not written in this order), The Magician’s Nephew (1955) again reworks the creation and the fall. Aslan the lion, who represents Christ as the focus of belief in all the novels (echoing the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5), sings Narnia into existence. A boy brings evil into the newly created world in the shape of the witch Jadis, and a former cabbie and his wife are established as the first rulers of Narnia, charged with tilling the soil and naming the (talking) beasts. These two are from our world, an Adam and Eve already subject to death. A tree of life, which also demands knowledge of good and evil, is placed at the center of the land, and the temptress-figure, the witch, steals from it and is condemned to live forever (see Gen 3:22) The boy, however, is commanded to take an apple to Aslan, and from it grows a second tree, fruit from which cures the boy’s dying mother. The familiar ingredients are retained (not all genuinely biblical, such as the apple), but the myth has been reimagined for the children of Adam (a significant and regular designation), who are already fallen but who still have free will.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Redemption are the themes, as the divine lion Aslan suffers death for the sake of one sinner, one of the children who has betrayed the others to the witch. Aslan’s sacrifice and return are observed by two girls, like the Maries at the cross and at the tomb, and Aslan’s sacrifice (categorized as “deeper magic”) leads to redemption for the believers. Nonbiblical themes such as the harrowing of hell are also echoed. The Last Battle (1956) presents the end of Narnia, with the rise and defeat of the Antichrist, filtered through medieval and later interpretations of biblical passages such as 1 John 2:18, 2 John 7, 2 Thessalonians 2:3–10, and others. The Antichrist, the mouthpiece for a false Aslan, is depicted as an ape, who tries to merge Aslan with a heathen god. Revelation 6 is followed in the apocalyptic description of the death of the stars and the moon, and a new heaven and new earth are visualized. Lewis has taken the biblical economy of fall and redemption and retained essential elements within an imagined world in which the incarnation is in the form of a lion.
The use of isolated biblical or quasi-biblical motifs is not always effective: the appearance of Father Christmas (what might the name imply in Narnia?) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is culturally confusing, and at the end of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952), after Lucy has earlier eaten noneucharistic lamb provided by a magician who himself ate bread and wine, there is an uncomfortable merging of John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6 in the curious image of fish being cooked by a lamb who then turns into Aslan. Somewhat heavy-handedly, Lewis has Aslan tell the children at that point that they will know him by another name in their own world; from Lewis’s letters to children, it seems that sometimes the biblical reference went unrecognized.
Lewis’s longer poems are now not much read, but he also produced well-crafted light verse with biblical themes, notably for the humorous magazine Punch at the end of the 1940s. Thus “The Adam at Night” (1949) presents a vision of prelapsarian grandeur that echoes Perelandra, while “The Adam Unparadised” (1949) depends on Genesis 6:1–5 and the Cainite generation. “The Late Passenger” (1948) invents its own myth of Ham failing to let the unicorn onto the ark, and “The Turn of the Tide” (1948) contrasts the simplicity of the nativity with cosmic rejoicing.
In “Stephen to Lazarus,” the protomartyr regrets that Lazarus has to die twice. A “Sonnet” in the Oxford Magazine in 1936 rationalizes the accounts of the defeat of the army of Sennacherib, whose bowstrings are destroyed by angels (2 Kgs 19:32) or mice (Herodotus, Histories II, 141) by having the angels use the mice.
Lewis was especially fond of the psalms as poetry, referred to them regularly, and unusually devoted an entire study to them, Reflections on the Psalms (1958). He makes significant general comments in chapter 11, where he stresses that the psalms are scripture and again points out that biblical writings change and develop (he uses, a little reluctantly, the word “evolve”); human elements still show through, even though the writings have been raised by God to holy status—he thinks here of the cursing psalms.
Toward the end of his life Lewis served on a commission charged with the revision of the (Coverdale) Psalter for congregational use and was thus faced with technical textual questions, although his role was a literary one.
Some of Lewis’s other imaginative writings are less directly biblical. The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) is patently influenced by Bunyan, while The Great Divorce (1945) takes up the nonbiblical concept of the refrigerium, the permission granted to sinners in hell to visit heaven, which here is more like the classical Elysian Fields.
The Screwtape Letters (1942) uses the arresting conceit of two tempter-devils corresponding about a human target, and the infernal organization recalls Milton more than the shadowy biblical devil whose arrogance depends upon an interpretation of Isaiah 14:12. The human is not shown reading the Bible, though there is a reference to the importance of the Resurrection as a fact and the Redemption as a doctrine. Lewis makes his own point, however, by allowing the devils to approve the historical approach to Jesus and to the Bible.
Lewis was fascinated by myth and considered that two biblical examples in particular—that of the Creation and Fall and that of the Incarnation and Redemption—were of special value. The latter he saw as a true myth, probably the hardest of his views for the skeptic to accept.
Taking this biblical material, Lewis remodels the fall and aspects of the Gospels within his own subcreated literary worlds, be they on Venus or in the childhood fantasyland of Narnia. In these worlds he is able to set up his own rules, even when using a biblical source, and Lewis is fond of showing us characters who do not see what he has presented to the reader as actuality.
As has been pointed out, Lewis synthesizes with his Christianity a Platonist view of shadows and reality, with the reality appearing only in the eschatological sense. Whether the precepts behind his subcreated quasi-biblical world are or are not accepted, the literary effect of his lively narrative techniques can be appreciated by those who do not share his beliefs.
Works by Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Bles. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950); Prince Caspian (1951); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952); The Silver Chair (1953); The Horse and His Boy (1954); The Magician’s Nephew (1955); The Last Battle (1956); all now London: HarperCollins, 1992.
- Collected Letters. Edited by Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins, 2000–2006.
- The Cosmic Trilogy. London: Bodley Head, 1990. Contains Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943, or Voyage to Venus), and That Hideous Strength (1945, or The Tortured Planet).
- Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. Edited by Lesley Walmsley. London: HarperCollins, 2000. Contains “Religion and Science,” pp. 143–146; “Modern Translations of the Bible,” pp. 472–474; “Fern-seed and Elephants” (originally “Modern Theology and Bible Criticism”), pp. 242–253.
- “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version” . In They Asked for a Paper, pp. 26–50. London: Bles, 1962.
- Poems. Edited by Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins 1994.
- Reflections on the Psalms. London: Bles, 1958.
- Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. London: HarperCollins, 1996. A standard (also bibliographical) introduction to Lewis’s works and life.
- MacSwain, Robert, and Michael Ward, eds. The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Myers, Doris T. C. S. Lewis in Context. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. One of the most careful analyses of the relevant literary works.