A Google search for C. S. Lewis will produce nearly 58 million hits. If a person were to look at each site for 30 seconds, then go on to the next one, and do this without stopping to eat or sleep or take any kind of a break, it would take over 50 years. But by then there may be an additional 50 million hits, and so one would have to start over.
The celebrated Oxford don is more popular today, 53 years after his death, than ever before. Over a hundred million Lewis books have been sold. His Narnia fantasies have been made into major motion pictures, and Lewis’s story has been told on television and in theaters. Scholarly papers subject his work to academic scrutiny at colloquiums and conferences all over the world. C. S. Lewis has become an industry.
What would he think of all this? The answer, I think, is that he would try not to think of it. Once, when Walter Hooper asked Lewis if he ever gave thought to his bourgeoning reputation, Lewis answered in a “low, still voice, and with the deepest and most complete humility I’ve ever observed in anyone, ‘One cannot be too careful not to think of it.’”
I have been a student of C. S. Lewis for many years. I’ve read his fiction, his Christian non-fiction, his academic books on literary criticism, his essays and even his collected letters. Lewis has been one of the two or three most important teachers in my life. So when I recently was asked to be guest instructor for a home school co-op class on Great Christians, with the assignment of introducing students to C. S. Lewis, I jumped at the chance.
Students were impressed by the fact that the celebrated scholar suffered painful loss and ongoing trials, just like all the rest of us. The “joyful Christian,” as he has been called, endured great hardships, beginning with his childhood in Belfast, Ireland, and continuing until his premature death, one week before his 65th birthday.
Lewis’s mother died when he was nine. A short time later his attorney father sent him to a boarding school, the first of several disastrous school experiences to which he was subjected. The relationship with his father was always distant, and frequently trying.
Lewis succeeded in winning a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but within a few months of his arrival was inducted into the army and sent to fight in France in the First World War. The young Lewis, now an avowed atheist, was wounded at Somme. His friend, “Paddy” Moore, was killed. Lewis had promised Moore that he would take care of his mother, which he did until her death, but it was a complicated relationship that became very vexing.
Lewis was a man with many friends, but his “dearest and closest friend” was his brother Warren. Warren (or Warnie, as he was called) was a career military man, but when he was in England the brothers shared a house. Lewis was deeply devoted to his brother, but his brother’s ongoing battle with alcoholism was a painful trial that sometimes left him at a complete loss.
There were other losses and trials. Lewis grieved deeply the sudden and unexpected death of his “great friend, friend of friends…Charles Williams.” At Oxford Lewis was continually passed over for a professorship because of his very public Christian faith. His friend J.R.R. Tolkien complained that “Oxford has not…treated [Lewis] very well.”
Lewis faced grief, relationship problems, and professional disappointments, but his greatest hardship was the death of his wife Joy. Lewis didn’t marry until the last decade of his life, but he developed a profound love for his wife. She was diagnosed with cancer, went briefly into remission (in what may have been the happiest time in Lewis’s life), and then suddenly died.
The brilliant thinker, remarkable scholar, engaging writer, and influential Christian was also a man who suffered trial and loss. Yet he remained joyfully hopeful. It was this Lewis who impressed my students, and who has impressed me. It is this Lewis I hold in highest esteem.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/26/2016