C.S. Lewis -- A Life

Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker.

In C.S. Lewis—A Life, Alister McGrath, prolific author and respected professor at King’s College of London, paints a definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis. After thoroughly examining recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.

You won’t want to miss this fascinating portrait of a creative genius who inspired generations.

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The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood

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 Lewis Family

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 Down

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.

1.1 Royal Avenue, one of the commercial hubs of the city of Belfast, in 1897. Albert Lewis established his solicitor’s practice at 83 Royal Avenue in 1884, and continued working from these offices until his final illness in 1929.

1.1 Royal Avenue, one of the commercial hubs of the city of Belfast, in 1897. Albert Lewis established his solicitor’s practice at 83 Royal Avenue in 1884, and continued working from these offices until his final illness in 1929.

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.

The Ambivalent Irishman: The Enigma of Irish Cultural Identity

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.

1.2 C. S. Lewis’s 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.”

Where some Irish writers found their literary inspiration in the political and cultural issues surrounding their nation’s quest for independence from Great Britain, Lewis found his primarily in the landscapes of Ireland. These, he declared, had inspired and shaped the prose and poetry of many before him—perhaps most important, Edmund Spenser’s classic The Faerie Queene, an Elizabethan work that Lewis regularly expounded in his lectures at Oxford and Cambridge. For Lewis, this classic work of “quests and wanderings and inextinguishable desires” clearly reflected Spenser’s many years spent in Ireland. Who could fail to detect “the soft, wet air, the loneliness, the muffled shapes of the hills” or “the heart-rending sunsets” of Ireland? For Lewis—who here identifies himself as someone who actually is “an Irishman”—Spenser’s subsequent period in England led to a loss of his imaginative power. “The many years in Ireland lie behind Spenser’s greatest poetry, and the few years in England behind his minor poetry.”

Lewis’s language echoes his origins. In his correspondence, Lewis regularly uses Anglo-Irish idioms or slang derived from Gaelic, without offering a translation or explanation—for example, the phrases to “make a poor mouth” (from the Gaelic an béal bocht, meaning “to complain of poverty”), or “whisht, now!” (meaning “be quiet,” derived from the Gaelic bí i do thost). Other idioms reflect local idiosyncrasies, rather than Gaelic linguistic provenance, such as the curious phrase “as long as a Lurgan spade” (meaning “looking gloomy” or “having a long face”). Although Lewis’s voice in his “broadcast talks” of the 1940s is typical of the Oxford academic culture of his day, his pronunciation of words such as friendhour, and again betrays the subtle influence of his Belfast roots.

So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C. S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century. In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. If Dublin stood at the centre of the demands for Home Rule and the reassertion of Irish culture in the early twentieth century, Lewis’s home city of Belfast was the heart of opposition to any such developments.

One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. In 1917, Lewis certainly saw himself as sympathetic to the “New Ireland School,” and was considering sending his poetry to Maunsel and Roberts, a Dublin publisher with strong links to Irish nationalism, having published the collected works of the great nationalist writer Patrick Pearse (1879–1916) that same year. Conceding that they were “only a second-rate house,” Lewis expressed the hope that this might mean they would take his submission seriously.

Yet a year later, things seemed very different to Lewis. Writing to his longtime friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis expressed his fear that the New Ireland School would end up as little more than “a sort of little by-way of the intellectual world, off the main track.” Lewis now recognised the importance of keeping “in the broad highway of thought,” writing for a broad readership rather than one narrowly defined by certain cultural and political agendas. To be published by Maunsel would, Lewis declared, be tantamount to associating himself with what was little more than a “cult.” His Irish identity, inspired by Ireland’s landscape rather than its political history, would find its expression in the literary mainstream, not one of its “side-tracks.” Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.

Surrounded by Books: Hints of a Literary Vocation

The physical landscape of Ireland was unquestionably one of the influences that shaped Lewis’s fertile imagination. Yet there is another source which did much to inspire his youthful outlook—literature itself. One of Lewis’s most persistent memories of his youth is that of a home packed with books. Albert Lewis might have worked as a police solicitor to earn his keep, but his heart lay in the reading of literature.

In April 1905, the Lewis family moved to a new and more spacious home that had just been constructed on the outskirts of the city of Belfast—“Leeborough House” on the Circular Road in Strandtown, known more informally as “Little Lea” or “Leaboro.” The Lewis brothers were free to roam this vast house, and allowed their imaginations to transform it into mysterious kingdoms and strange lands. Both brothers inhabited imaginary worlds, and committed something of these to writing. Lewis wrote about talking animals in “Animal-Land,” while Warnie wrote about “India” (later combined into the equally imaginary land of Boxen).

As Lewis later recalled, wherever he looked in this new house, he saw stacks, piles, and shelves of books. On many rainy days, he found solace and company in reading these works and roaming freely across imagined literary landscapes. The books so liberally scattered throughout the “New House” included works of romance and mythology, which opened the windows of Lewis’s young imagination. The physical landscape of County Down was seen through a literary lens, becoming a gateway to distant realms. Warren Lewis later reflected on the imaginative stimulus offered to him and his brother by wet weather and a sense of longing for something more satisfying. Might his brother’s imaginative wanderings have been prompted by his childhood “staring out to unattainable hills,” seen through rain and under grey skies?

1.3 The Lewis family at Little Lea in 1905. Back Row (left to right): Agnes Lewis (aunt), two maids, Flora Lewis (mother). Front Row (left to right): Warnie, C. S. Lewis, Leonard Lewis (cousin), Eileen Lewis (cousin), and Albert Lewis (father), holding Nero (dog).

Ireland is the “Emerald Isle” precisely on account of its high levels of rainfall and mist, which ensure moist soils and lush green grass. It was natural for Lewis to later transfer this sense of confinement by rain to four young children, trapped in an elderly professor’s house, unable to explore outside because of a “steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor even the stream in the garden.” Is the professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe modelled on Leeborough?

From Little Lea, the young Lewis could see the distant Castlereagh Hills, which seemed to speak to him of something of heartrending significance, lying tantalizingly beyond his reach. They became a symbol of liminality, of standing on the threshold of a new, deeper, and more satisfying way of thinking and living. An unutterable sense of intense longing arose within him as he contemplated them. He could not say exactly what it was that he longed for, merely that there was a sense of emptiness within him, which the mysterious hills seemed to heighten without satisfying. In The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), these hills reappear as a symbol of the heart’s unknown desire. But if Lewis was standing on the threshold of something wondrous and enticing, how could he enter this mysterious realm? Who would open the door and allow him through? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the image of a door became increasingly significant to Lewis’s later reflections on the deeper questions of life.

The low, green line of the Castlereagh Hills, though actually quite close, thus came to be a symbol of something distant and unattainable. These hills were, for Lewis, distant objects of desire, marking the end of his known world, from which the whisper of the haunting “horns of elfland” could be heard. “They taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.”

We must linger over this statement. What does Lewis mean by Sehnsucht? The German word is rich with emotional and imaginative associations, famously described by the poet Matthew Arnold as a “wistful, soft, tearful longing.” And what of the “Blue Flower”? Leading German Romantic writers, such as Novalis (1772–1801) and Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857), used the image of a “Blue Flower” as a symbol of the wanderings and yearnings of the human soul, especially as this sense of longing is evoked—though not satisfied—by the natural world.

Even at this early stage, then, Lewis was probing and questioning the limits of his world. What lay beyond its horizons? Yet Lewis could not answer the questions that these longings so provocatively raised in his youthful mind. To what did they point? Was there a doorway? And if so, where was it to be found? And what did it lead to? Finding answers to these questions would preoccupy Lewis for the next twenty-five years.

Solitude: Warnie Goes to England

Everything we know about Lewis around 1905 suggests a lonely, introverted boy with hardly any friends, who found pleasure and fulfilment in the solitary reading of books. Why solitary? Having secured a new house for his family, Albert Lewis now turned his attention to ensuring the future prospects of his sons. As a pillar of the Protestant establishment in Belfast, Albert Lewis took the view that the interests of his sons would be best advanced by sending the boys to boarding school in England. Albert’s brother William had already sent his son to an English school, seeing this as an acceptable route to social advancement. Albert decided to do the same, and took professional advice about which school would best suit his needs.

The London educational agents Gabbitas & Thring had been founded in 1873 to recruit suitable schoolmasters for leading English schools and provide guidance for parents wanting to secure the best possible education for their children. Schoolmasters whom they helped to find suitable positions included such future stars—now, it must be said, not chiefly remembered for having ever been schoolmasters—as W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Edward Elgar, Evelyn Waugh, and H. G. Wells. By 1923, when the firm celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, over 120,000 teaching vacancies had been negotiated and no fewer than 50,000 parents had sought their counsel on the best school for their children. This included Albert Lewis, who asked their advice on where to send his elder son, Warren.

Their recommendation duly came through. It turned out to be stunningly bad advice. In May 1905, without making the more critical and thorough inquiries some would have expected of a man in his position, Albert Lewis packed the nine-year-old Warren off to Wynyard School in Watford, north of London. It was perhaps the first of many mistakes that Lewis’s father would make concerning his relationship with his sons.

Jacks—as Lewis now preferred to be called—and his brother, Warnie, had lived together in Little Lea for only a month, sharing a “Little End Room” in the top floor of the rambling house as their haven. Now, they were separated. C. S. Lewis remained at home, and was taught privately by his mother and a governess, Annie Harper. But perhaps his best teachers were the burgeoning stacks of books, none of which were forbidden to him.

For two years, the solitary Lewis roamed the large house’s long, creaking corridors and roomy attics, with vast quantities of books as his companions. Lewis’s inner world began to take shape. Where other boys of his age were playing games on the streets or in the countryside around Belfast, Lewis constructed, inhabited, and explored his own private worlds. He was forced to become a loner—something that unquestionably catalysed his imaginative life. In Warnie’s absence, he had nobody as a soul mate with whom he could share his dreams and longings. The school vacations became of supreme importance to him. They were when Warnie came home.

First Encounters with Joy

At some point around this time, Lewis’s already rich imaginative life took a new turn. Lewis later recalled three early experiences which he regarded as shaping one of his life’s chief concerns. The first of these took place when the fragrance of a “flowering currant bush” in the garden at Little Lea triggered a memory of his time in the “Old House”—Dundela Villas, which Albert Lewis had then rented from a relative. Lewis speaks of experiencing a transitory, delectable sense of desire, which overwhelmed him. Before he had worked out what was happening, the experience had passed, leaving him “longing for the longing that had just ceased.” It seemed to Lewis to be of enormous importance. “Everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” But what did it mean?

The second experience came when reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin (1903). Though Lewis admired Potter’s books in general at this time, something about this work sparked an intense longing for something he clearly struggled to describe—“the Idea of Autumn.” Once more, Lewis experienced the same intoxicating sense of “intense desire.”

The third came when he read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of a few lines from the Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér (1782–1846):

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead—

Lewis found the impact of these words devastating. It was as if they opened a door that he did not know existed, allowing him to see a new realm beyond his own experience, which he longed to enter and possess. For a moment, nothing else seemed to matter. “I knew nothing of Balder,” he recalled, “but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, [and] I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote).” Yet even before Lewis had realised what was happening to him, the experience passed, and left him longing to be able to reenter it.

Looking back on these three experiences, Lewis understood that they could be seen as aspects or manifestations of the same thing: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy.” The quest for that Joy would become a central theme of Lewis’s life and writing.

So how are we to make sense of these experiences, which played such a significant role in Lewis’s development, especially the shaping of his “inner life”? Perhaps we can draw on the classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), in which the Harvard psychologist William James (1842–1910) tried to make sense of the complex, powerful experiences that lay at the heart of the lives of so many religious thinkers. Drawing extensively on a wide range of published writings and personal testimonies, James identified four characteristic features of such experiences. In the first place, such experiences are “ineffable.” They defy expression, and cannot be described adequately in words.

In the second place, James suggests that those who experience them achieve “insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” In other words, they are experienced as “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance.” They evoke an “enormous sense of inner authority and illumination,” transfiguring the understanding of those who experience them, often evoking a deep sense “of being revelations of new depths of truth.” These themes clearly underlie Lewis’s early desriptions of “Joy,” such as his statement that “everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”

Third, James goes on to emphasise that these experiences are transient; they “cannot be sustained for long.” Usually they last from a few seconds to just minutes, and their quality cannot be accurately remembered, though the experience is recognised if it recurs. “When faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory.” This aspect of James’s typology of religious experience is clearly reflected in Lewis’s prose.

Finally, James suggests that those who have had such an experience feel as if they have been “grasped and held by a superior power.” Such experiences are not created by active subjects; they come upon people, often with overwhelming power.

Lewis’s eloquent descriptions of his experience of “Joy” clearly fit into James’s characterisation. Lewis’s experiences were perceived as deeply meaningful, throwing open the doors of another world, which then shut almost immediately, leaving him exhilarated at what had happened, yet longing to recover it. They are like momentary and transient epiphanies, when things suddenly seem to come acutely and sharply into focus, only for the light to fade and the vision to recede, leaving nothing but a memory and a longing.

Lewis was left with a sense of loss, even of betrayal, in the aftermath of such experiences. Yet as frustrating and disconcerting as they may have been, they suggested to him that the visible world might be only a curtain that concealed vast, uncharted realms of mysterious oceans and islands. It was an idea that, once planted, never lost its imaginative appeal or its emotional power. Yet, as we shall see, Lewis would soon come to believe it was illusory, a childhood dream which the dawning of adult rationality exposed as a cruel delusion. Ideas of a transcendent realm or of a God might be “lies breathed through silver,” but they remained lies nevertheless.

The Death of Flora Lewis

Edward VII came to the English throne after the death of Victoria in 1901 and reigned until 1910. The Edwardian Age is now often seen as a golden period of long summer afternoons and elegant garden parties, an image which was shattered by the Great War of 1914–1918. While this highly romanticised view of the Edwardian Age largely reflects the postwar nostalgia of the 1920s, there is no doubt that many at the time saw it as a settled and secure age. There were troubling developments afoot—above all, the growing military and industrial power of Germany and the economic strength of the United States, which some realised posed significant threats to British imperial interests. Yet the dominant mood was that of an empire which was settled and strong, its trade routes protected by the greatest navy the world had ever known.

This sense of stability is evident in Lewis’s early childhood. In May 1907, Lewis wrote to Warnie, telling him that it was nearly settled that they were going to spend part of their holidays in France. Going abroad was a significant departure for the Lewis family, who normally spent up to six weeks during the summer at northern Irish resorts such as Castlerock or Portrush. Their father, preoccupied with his legal practice, was often an intermittent presence on these occasions. As things turned out, he would not join them in France at all.

1.4 Pension le Petit Vallon, Berneval-le-Grand, Pas-de-Calais, France. Postcard dating from around 1905.

In the event, Lewis enjoyed an intimate and tranquil holiday with his brother and mother. On 20 August 1907, Flora Lewis took her two sons to the Pension le Petit Vallon, a family hotel in the small town of Berneval-le-Grand in Normandy, not far from Dieppe, where they would remain until 18 September. A picture postcard of the early 1900s perhaps helps us understand Flora’s choice: the reassuring words “English spoken” feature prominently above a photograph of Edwardian families relaxing happily on its grounds. Any hopes that Lewis had of learning some French were dashed when he discovered that all the other guests were English.

It was to be an idyllic summer of the late Edwardian period, with no hints of the horrors to come. When hospitalised in France during the Great War a mere eighteen miles (29 kilometres) east of Berneval-le-Grand, Lewis found himself wistfully recalling those precious, lost golden days. Nobody had foreseen the political possibility of such a war, nor the destruction it would wreak—just as nobody in the Lewis family could have known that this would be the last holiday they would spend together. A year later, Flora Lewis was dead.

Early in 1908, it became clear that Flora was seriously ill. She had developed abdominal cancer. Albert Lewis asked his father, Richard, who had been living in Little Lea for some months, to move out. They needed the space for the nurses who would attend Flora. It was too much for Richard Lewis. He suffered a stroke in late March, and died the following month.

When it became clear that Flora was in terminal decline, Warnie was summoned home from school in England to be with his mother in her final weeks. Their mother’s illness brought the Lewis brothers even closer together. One of the most touching photographs of this period shows Warnie and C. S. Lewis standing by their bicycles, outside Glenmachan House, close to Little Lea, early in August 1908. Lewis’s world was about to change, drastically and irreversibly.

Flora died in her bed at home on 23 August 1908—Albert Lewis’s forty-fifth birthday. The somewhat funereal quotation for that day on her bedroom calendar was from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence.” For the rest of Albert Lewis’s life, Warnie later discovered, the calendar remained open at that page.

1.5 Lewis and Warnie with their bicycles in front of the Ewart family home, Glenmachan House, in August 1908.

Following the custom of the day, Lewis was obliged to view the dead body of his mother lying in an open coffin, the gruesome marks of her illness all too visible. It was a traumatic experience for him. “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory Kirke’s mother is lovingly described on her deathbed, in terms that seem to echo Lewis’s haunting memories of Flora: “There she lay, as he had seen her lie so many other times, propped up on the pillows, with a thin, pale face that would make you cry to look at.” There is little doubt that this passage recalls Lewis’s own distress at the death of his mother, especially the sight of her emaciated body in an open coffin. In allowing Digory’s mother to be cured of her terminal illness by the magic apple from Narnia, Lewis seems to be healing his own deep emotional wounds with an imaginative balm, trying to deal with what really happened by imagining what might have happened.

While Lewis was clearly distressed at his mother’s death, his memories of this dark period often focus more on its broader implications for his family. As Albert Lewis tried to come to terms with his wife’s illness, he seems to have lost an awareness of the deeper needs of his sons. C. S. Lewis depicts this period as heralding the end of his family life, as the seeds of alienation were sown. Having lost his wife, Albert Lewis was in danger of losing his sons as well. Two weeks after Flora’s death, Albert’s elder brother, Joseph, died. The Lewis family, it seemed, was in crisis. The father and his two sons were on their own. “It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”

This could have been a time for the rebuilding of paternal affection and rekindling of filial devotion. Nothing of the sort happened. That Albert’s judgement failed him at this critical time is made abundantly clear in his decision concerning the future of his sons at this crisis in their young lives. A mere two weeks after the traumatic death of his mother, C. S. Lewis found himself standing on the Belfast quayside with Warnie, preparing to board the overnight steamer to the Lancashire port of Fleetwood. An emotionally unintelligent father bade his emotionally neglected sons an emotionally inadequate farewell. Everything that gave the young Lewis his security and identity seemed to be vanishing around him. Lewis was being sent away from Ireland—from his home and from his books—to a strange place where he would live among strangers, with his brother, Warnie, as his only companion. He was being sent to Wynyard School—the “Belsen” of Surprised by Joy.




The Ugly Country of England: Schooldays

In 1962, Francine Smithline—a schoolgirl from New York—wrote to C. S. Lewis, telling him how much she had enjoyed his Narnia books and asking him for information about his own schooldays. In reply, Lewis informed her that he had attended three boarding schools, “of which two were very horrid.” In fact, Lewis continues, he “never hated anything as much, not even the front line trenches in World War I.” Even the most casual reader of Surprised by Joy is struck by both the vehemence of Lewis’s hatred for the schools he attended in England and the implausibility that they were worse than the death-laden trenches of the Great War.

One of the significant sources of tension between C. S. Lewis and his brother in the late 1950s was Warnie’s belief that Lewis had significantly misrepresented his time at Malvern College in Surprised by Joy (1955). George Sayer (1914–2005), a close friend who penned one of the most revealing and perceptive biographies of Lewis, recalls Lewis admitting later in life that his account of his time at Malvern was “lies,” reflecting the complex interaction of two strands of his identity at that time. Sayer’s recollection leaves readers of Surprised by Joy wondering about both the extent and motivation of Lewis’s reconstruction of his past.

Perhaps Lewis’s judgement here may have been clouded by his overwhelmingly negative initial impressions of England, which spilled over into his educational experience. As he later remarked, he “conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.” His aversion to English schools possibly reflects a deeper cultural dislike of England itself at this time, evident in some of his correspondence. In June 1914, for example, Lewis complained about being “cooped up in this hot, ugly country of England” when he could have been roaming the cool, lush countryside of County Down.

Yet there is clearly something deeper and more visceral here. Lewis simply does not seem to have fitted in to the public school culture of the Edwardian Age. What others saw as a necessary, if occasionally distasteful, preparation for the rigours of life in the real world was dismissed and vilified by Lewis as a “concentration camp.” What his father hoped would make him into a successful citizen came close to breaking him instead.

Lewis’s experience of British schools, following the death of his mother, can be summarised as follows:

  1. Wynyard School, Watford (“Belsen”): September 1908–June 1910
  2. Campbell College, Belfast: September–December 1910
  3. Cherbourg School, Malvern (“Chartres”): January 1911–June 1913
  4. Malvern College (“Wyvern”): September 1913–June 1914
  5. Private tuition at Great Bookham: September 1914–March 1917

The three English schools to which Lewis took exception are presumably those he chose to identify by pseudonyms: Wynyard School, Cherbourg School, and Malvern College. As we shall see, his memories of his time at Great Bookham were much more positive, as was his view of its impact on the shaping of his mind.

Wynyard School, Watford: 1908–1910

Lewis’s first educational experience in England was at Wynyard School, a converted pair of dreary yellow-brick houses on Langley Road, Watford. This small private boarding school had been established by Robert “Oldie” Capron in 1881, and appears to have enjoyed some small success in its early years. By the time Lewis arrived, however, it had fallen on hard times, having only about eight or nine boarders, and about the same number of “day-boys.” His brother had already studied there for two years, and had adjusted to its brutal regime with relative ease. Lewis, with little experience of the world outside the gentle cocoon of Little Lea, was shocked by Capron’s brutality, and later dubbed the school “Belsen” after the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

While initially hoping that things would work out well, Lewis rapidly came to hate Wynyard, and regarded his period there as an almost total waste of time. Warnie left Wynyard in the summer of 1909 and went on to Malvern College, leaving his younger brother alone to cope with an institution that was clearly in terminal decline. Lewis recalled his education at Wynyard as the forced feeding and rote learning of “a jungle of dates, battles, exports, imports and the like, forgotten as soon as learned and perfectly useless had they been remembered.” Warnie concurred in this judgement: “I cannot remember one single piece of instruction that was imparted to me at Wynyard.” Nor was there any library by which Lewis might nourish the imaginative side of his life. In the end, the school was closed down in the summer of 1910 when Capron was finally certified as being insane.

Albert Lewis was now forced to review his arrangements for his younger son’s education. While Warnie went off to resume his education at Malvern College, Lewis was sent to Campbell College, a boarding school in the city of Belfast, only a mile from Little Lea. As Lewis later remarked, Campbell had been founded to allow “Ulster boys all the advantages of a public-school education without the trouble of crossing the Irish Sea.” It is not clear whether his father intended this to be a permanent arrangement. In the event, Lewis developed a serious respiratory illness while at Campbell, and his father reluctantly withdrew him. It was not an unhappy time for Lewis. Indeed, Lewis seems to have wished that the arrangement could have been continued. His father, however, had other plans. Unfortunately, they turned out not to be very good.

Cherbourg School, Malvern: 1911–1913

After further consultation with Gabbitas & Thring, Lewis was sent to Cherbourg School (“Chartres” in Surprised by Joy) in the English Victorian spa town of Great Malvern. During the nineteenth century, Malvern became popular as a hydrotherapy spa on account of its spring waters. As spa tourism declined towards the end of the century, many former hotels and villas were converted to small boarding schools, such as Cherbourg. This small preparatory school, which had about twenty boys between the ages of eight and twelve during Lewis’s time, was located next to Malvern College, where Warnie was already ensconced as a student. The two brothers would at least be able to see each other once more.

The most important outcome of Lewis’s time at Cherbourg was that he won a scholarship to Malvern College. Yet Lewis recalls a number of developments in his inner life to which his schooling at Cherbourg was essentially a backdrop, rather than a cause or stimulus. One of the most important was his discovery of what he termed “Northernness,” which took place “fairly early” during his time at Cherbourg. Lewis regarded this discovery as utterly and gloriously transformative, comparable to a silent and barren Arctic icescape turning into “a landscape of grass and primroses and orchards in bloom, deafened with bird songs and astir with running water.”

Lewis’s recollections of this development are as imaginatively precise as they are chronologically vague. “I can lay my hand on the very moment; there is hardly any fact I know so well, though I cannot date it.” The stimulus was a “literary periodical” which had been left lying around in the schoolroom. This can be identified as the Christmas edition of The Bookman, published in December 1911. This magazine included a coloured supplement reproducing some of Arthur Rackham’s suite of thirty illustrations to an English translation by Margaret Armour of the libretto of Richard Wagner’s operas Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods, which had been published earlier that year.

Rackham’s highly evocative illustrations proved to be a powerful imaginative stimulus to Lewis, causing him to be overwhelmed by an experience of desire. He was engulfed by “pure ‘Northernness’”—by “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer.” Lewis was thrilled to be able to experience again something that he had believed he had permanently lost. This was no “wish fulfilment and fantasy”; this was a vision of standing on the threshold of another world, and peering within. Hoping to recapture something of this sense of wonder, Lewis indulged his growing passion in Wagner, spending his pocket money on recordings of Wagner’s operas, and even managing to buy a copy of the original text from which the Rackham illustrations had been extracted.

Although Lewis’s letters of his Malvern period probably conceal as much as they reveal, they nevertheless hint of some of the themes that would recur throughout his career. One of those is Lewis’s sense of being an Irishman in exile in a strange land. Lewis had not simply lost his paradise; he had been expelled from his Eden. Lewis might live in England; he did not, however, see himself as English. Even in his final days at Cherbourg, Lewis had become increasingly aware of having been “born in a race rich in literary feeling and mastery of their own tongue.” In the 1930s, Lewis found the physical geography of his native Ireland to be a stimulus to his own literary imagination, and that of others—such as the poet Edmund Spenser. The seeds of this development can be seen in his letters home in 1913.

A significant intellectual development which Lewis attributes to this period in his life was his explicit loss of any remnants of a Christian faith. Lewis’s account of this final erosion of faith in Surprised by Joy is less satisfactory than one might like, particularly given the importance of faith in his later life. While unable to give “an accurate chronology” of his “slow apostasy,” Lewis nevertheless identifies a number of factors that moved him in that direction.

Perhaps the most important of these, as judged by its lingering presence in his subsequent writings, was raised by his reading of Virgil and other classical authors. Lewis noted that their religious ideas were treated by both scholars and teachers as “sheer illusion.” So what of today’s religious ideas? Were they not simply modern illusions, the contemporary counterpart to their ancient forebears? Lewis came to the view that religion, though “utterly false,” was a natural development, “a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder.” Christianity was just one of a thousand religions, all claiming to be true. So why should he believe this one to be right, and the others wrong?

By the spring of 1913, Lewis had decided where he wished to go after Cherbourg. In a letter to his father of June 1913, he declares his time at Cherbourg—though initially something of a “leap in the dark”—to have been a “success.” He liked Great Malvern as a town, and would like to proceed to “the Coll.”—in other words, to Malvern College, where he could join his older brother, Warnie. In late May, Warnie announced that he wanted to pursue a military career, and would spend the autumn of 1913 at Malvern College, preparing for the entrance examination at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

However, things did not work out quite as expected. In June, Lewis won a scholarship to Malvern College beginning in September, despite being ill and having to take the examination in Cherbourg’s sickroom. But Warnie would no longer be there. He had been asked to leave by the headmaster after being caught smoking on school premises. (Both Lewis brothers had developed their lifelong habit of smoking by this stage.) Albert Lewis now had to work out how to prepare Warnie for the Sandhurst entrance examinations without any assistance from the masters of Malvern College. He found an answer—a brilliant answer, that would have significant and positive implications for his younger son a year later.

Albert Lewis had been a pupil at Lurgan College in Ireland’s County Armagh from 1877–1879, and had developed a great respect for his former headmaster, William Thompson Kirkpatrick (1848–1921). Kirkpatrick had arrived at Lurgan College in 1876, at which time it had only sixteen pupils. A decade later, it was regarded as one of the premier schools in Ireland. Kirkpatrick retired in 1899, and moved with his wife to Sharston House in Northenden, Cheshire, to be near their son, George, who was then working for Browett, Lindley & Co., Engine Makers of Patricroft, Manchester. However, it seems that Kirkpatrick’s wife had little enthusiasm for the industrialised Northwest of England, and the couple soon moved to Great Bookham in the “Stockbroker Belt” of the southern county of Surrey, where Kirkpatrick set himself up as a private tutor.

Albert Lewis acted as Kirkpatrick’s solicitor, and the two had occasion to correspond over what should be done with parents who refused to pay their sons’ school fees. Albert Lewis had asked Kirkpatrick’s advice on educational matters in the past, and he now asked for something more specific and personal: would Kirkpatrick prepare Warnie for the entrance examination to Sandhurst? The deal was done, and Warnie began his studies at Great Bookham on 10 September 1913. Eight days later, his younger brother started at Malvern College—the “Wyvern” of Surprised by Joy—without his older brother as his mentor and friend. Lewis was on his own.

Malvern College: 1913–1914

Lewis presents Malvern College as a disaster. Surprised by Joy devotes three of its fifteen chapters to railing against his experiences at “the Coll,” faulting it at point after point. Yet this accumulation of Lewis’s vivid and harsh memories curiously fails to advance his narrative of the pursuit of Joy. Why spend so much time recounting such painful and subjective memories, which others who knew the college at that time (including Warnie) criticised as distorted and unrepresentative? Perhaps Lewis saw the writing of these sections of Surprised by Joy as a cathartic exercise, allowing him to purge his painful memories by writing about them at greater length than required. Yet even a sympathetic reader of this work cannot fail to see that the pace of the book slackens in the three chapters devoted to Malvern, where the narrative detail obscures the plotline.

2.1 William Thompson Kirkpatrick (1848–1921), at his home in Great Bookham in 1920, photographed by Warren Lewis during his visit when on leave from the British army. This is the only known photograph of Kirkpatrick.

Lewis declares that he became a victim of the “fagging” system, by which younger pupils were expected to act as errand boys for the older pupils (the “Bloods”). The more a boy was disliked by his peers and elders, the more he would be picked on and exploited in this way. This was customary in English public schools of this age. What most boys accepted as part of a traditional initiation rite into adulthood was seen by Lewis as a form of forced labour. Lewis suggested that the forms of service that younger boys were expected to provide to their seniors were rumoured (but never proved) to include sexual favours—something which Lewis found horrifying.

Perhaps more significantly, Lewis found himself excluded from the value system of Malvern College, which was heavily influenced by the then dominant educational philosophy of the English public school system—athleticism. By the end of the Edwardian era, the “games cult” had assumed an almost unassailable position as the centrepiece of an English public school education. Athleticism was an ideology with a darker side. Boys who were not good at games were ridiculed and bullied by their peers. Athleticism devalued intellectual and artistic achievement and turned many schools into little more than training camps for the glorification of physicality. Yet the cultivation of “manliness” was seen as integral to the development of “character”—an essential trait that dominated the educational theories of this period in British culture. In all these respects, Malvern was typical of the Edwardian age. It provided what it believed was needed, and what parents clearly wanted.

But it was not what Lewis wanted. His “native clumsiness,” partly arising from having only one joint in his thumbs, made excelling in anything physical a total impossibility. Lewis seems to have made little attempt to fit into the school’s culture. His refusal to conform simply created the impression that Lewis was socially withdrawn and academically arrogant. As Lewis wryly remarked in a letter, Malvern helped him discover what he did not want to be: “If I had never seen the horrible spectacle which these coarse, brainless English schoolboys present, there might be a danger of my sometimes becoming like that myself.” To many, these remarks simply sound arrogant and condescending. Yet Lewis was clear that one of Malvern’s relatively few positive achievements was to help him realise that he was arrogant. It was an aspect of his character that he would have to deal with in the coming years.

Lewis frequently sought refuge in the school library, finding solace in books. He also developed a friendship with the classics master, Harry Wakelyn Smith (“Smewgy”). Smith worked with Lewis on his Latin and helped him begin his serious study of Greek. Perhaps more important, he taught Lewis how to analyse poetry properly, allowing its aesthetic qualities to be appreciated. Furthermore, he helped Lewis realise that poetry was to be read in such a way that its rhythm and musical qualities could be appreciated. Lewis later expressed his gratitude in a poem explaining how Smith—an “old man with a honey-sweet and singing voice”—taught him to love the “Mediterranean metres” of classical poetry.

Important though such positive encounters may have been for Lewis’s later scholarly and critical development, at the time they were ultimately intellectual diversions, designed to take Lewis’s mind off what he regarded as an insufferable school culture. Warnie took the view that his brother was simply a “square peg in a round hole.” With the benefit of hindsight, he believed that Lewis ought not to have been sent to a public school at all. Lewis’s lack of athletic prowess and his strong intellectual leanings immediately identified him as a “misfit, a heretic, an object of suspicion within the collective-minded and standardizing Public School system.” But at the time, Warnie was clear that the fault, if fault there were, lay in Lewis himself, not in the school.

It remains unclear why Lewis spends so much of Surprised by Joy dealing with his time at Malvern. It is true that he was invited to be a governor of the college in 1929, an invitation which caused him some amusement. Yet there is no doubt of Lewis’s despair at the time concerning his circumstances there, and his desperate attempts to persuade his father to move him to a more congenial place. “Please take me out of this as soon as possible,” he wrote imploringly to his father in March 1914, as he prepared to return to Belfast for the school holidays.

Albert Lewis finally realised things were not working out for his younger son. He consulted with Warnie, who was by then in his second month of training as a British army officer at Sandhurst. Warnie took the view that his younger brother had contributed significantly to his own deteriorating situation. He had hoped, he told his father, that Malvern would provide his brother with the same “happy years and memories and friendships that he would carry with him to the grave.” But it hadn’t worked out like that. Lewis had made Malvern “too hot to hold him.” A radical rethink was required. Since Warnie had benefitted from personal tuition from Kirkpatrick, Lewis should be offered the same. It is not difficult to discern Warnie’s irritation with his brother when he tells his father that “he could amuse himself by detonating his cheap little stock of intellectual fireworks under old K[irkpatrick]’s nose.”

Albert Lewis then wrote to Kirkpatrick, asking him for his advice. Kirkpatrick initially suggested that Lewis should resume his studies at Campbell College. But as the two men wrestled with the problem, another solution began to emerge. Albert persuaded Kirkpatrick to become Lewis’s personal tutor effective September 1914. Kirkpatrick professed himself overwhelmed by this compliment: “To have been the teacher of the father and his two sons is surely a unique experience.” It was still risky. Warnie had loved Malvern, yet Lewis had detested it. What would Lewis make of Kirkpatrick, who had been so good for Warnie? Kirkpatrick’s efforts had led to Warnie’s being ranked twenty-second out of more than two hundred successful candidates in the highly competitive entrance examination. Warnie’s military record shows that he entered Sandhurst on 4 February 1914 as a “Gentleman Cadet,” being awarded a “Prize Cadetship with emoluments.” His military career was off to a flying start.

Meanwhile, Lewis had returned home to Belfast for the vacation. In mid-April 1914, shortly before he was due to return for his final term at Malvern College, he received a message. Arthur Greeves (1895–1966) was in bed recovering from an illness and would welcome a visit. Greeves, who was the same age as Warnie, was the youngest son of Joseph Greeves, one of Belfast’s most wealthy flax-spinners. The family lived at “Bernagh,” a large house just over the road from Little Lea.

2.2 A tennis party at Glenmachan House, the Ewart family home, close to Little Lea, in the summer of 1910. Arthur Greeves is on the far left in the back row, with C. S. Lewis to the far right. Lily Greeves, Arthur’s sister, is seated second from the right, in front of Lewis

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalls that Greeves had been trying to initiate a friendship with him for some time, but that they had never met. Yet there is evidence that Lewis’s memory may not be entirely correct here. In one of his earliest surviving letters of May 1907, Lewis informed Warnie that a telephone had just been installed at Little Lea. He had used this new piece of technology to call Arthur Greeves, but had not been able to speak to him. This hints at a childhood acquaintance of some sort. If Lewis and Greeves had been friends around this time, it seems likely that Lewis’s enforced absence from Belfast at English schools had caused the existing relationship to wither.

Lewis agreed to visit Greeves with some reluctance. He found him sitting up in bed, with a book beside him: H. M. A. Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen (1908). Lewis, whose love of “Northernness” now knew few bounds, looked at the book in astonishment: “Do you like that?” he asked—only to receive the same excited reply from Greeves. Lewis had finally found a soul mate. They would remain in touch regularly until Lewis’s death, nearly fifty years later.

As his final term at Malvern drew to an end, Lewis wrote his first letter to Greeves, planning a walk together. Though he was “cooped up” in the “hot, ugly country of England,” they could watch the sun rise over the Holywood Hills and see Belfast Lough and Cave Hill. Yet a month later, Lewis’s view of England had changed. “Smewgy” had invited him and another boy to drive into the country, leaving behind the “flat, plain, and ugly hills of Malvern.” In their place, Lewis discovered an “enchanted ground” of “rolling hills and valleys,” with “mysterious woods and cornfields.” Perhaps England was not so bad; maybe he might stay there after all.

Bookham and the “Great Knock”: 1914–1917

On 19 September 1914, Lewis arrived at Great Bookham to begin his studies with Kirkpatrick—the “Great Knock.” Yet the world around Lewis had changed irreversibly since he had left Malvern. On 28 June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, creating ripples of tension and instability which gradually escalated. Grand alliances were formed. If one great nation went to war, all would follow. A month later, on 28 July, Austria launched an attack against Serbia. Germany immediately launched an attack against France. It was inevitable that Britain would be drawn into the conflict. Britain eventually declared war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 4 August.

It was Warnie who was affected most immediately by this development. His period of training was reduced from eighteen months to nine, to allow him to enter active military service as soon as possible. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps on 29 September 1914, and was on active service in France with the British Expeditionary Force by 4 November. Meanwhile, Lord Kitchener (1850–1916), Secretary of State for War, set out to organise the recruitment of the largest volunteer army that the nation had ever seen. His famous recruiting poster declaring “Your country needs you!” became one of the most familiar images of the war. Lewis could hardly have failed to feel this pressure to enlist.

2.3 “Your country needs you!” The front cover of the magazine London Opinion, published on 5 September 1914, shortly after Britain’s declaration of war. This image of Lord Kitchener, designed by the artist Alfred Leete (1882–1933), quickly achieved iconic significance, and featured prominently in British military recruitment campaigns from 1915 onwards.

While England lurched into a state of war for which it was not properly prepared, Lewis was settling in at Kirkpatrick’s house, “Gastons,” in Great Bookham. His relationship with Kirkpatrick would be of central importance, especially since his relationships with both his brother and father were by now somewhat strained and distant. Lewis travelled by steamer from Belfast to Liverpool, then by train to London. There he picked up a train from Waterloo Station to Great Bookham, where Kirkpatrick awaited him. As they walked together from the station to Kirkpatrick’s house, Lewis remarked casually, as a way of breaking the conversational ice, that the scenery in Surrey was somewhat wilder than he had anticipated.

2.4 Station Road, Great Bookham, in 1924. C. S. Lewis and Kirkpatrick would have walked along this road on their way from the railway station to Kirkpatrick’s home, Gastons.

Lewis had intended merely to begin a conversation; Kirkpatrick seized the opportunity to begin an aggressive, interactive discussion demonstrating the virtues of the Socratic method. Kirkpatrick demanded that he stop immediately. What did Lewis mean by “wildness,” and what grounds had he for not expecting it? Had he studied some maps of the area? Had he read some books about it? Had he seen photographs of the landscape? Lewis conceded he had done none of these things. His views were not based on anything. Kirkpatrick duly informed him that he had no right to have any opinion on this matter.

Some would have found this approach intimidating; others might think it to lack good manners or pastoral concern. Yet Lewis quickly realised that he was being forced to develop his critical thinking, based on evidence and reason rather than his personal intuitions. This approach was, he remarked, like “red beef and strong beer.” Lewis thrived on this diet of critical thinking.

Kirkpatrick was a remarkable man, and must be given credit for much of Lewis’s intellectual development, particularly in fostering a highly critical approach to ideas and sources. Kirkpatrick had a distinguished academic career at Queen’s College, Belfast, from which he graduated in July 1868 with First Class Honours in English, History, and Metaphysics. In his final year at Queen’s College, he had won the English Prize Essay under the nom de plume Tamerlaine. He was also awarded a Double Gold Medal by the Royal University of Ireland, the only student to gain this distinction that year. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of headmaster of Lurgan College when the college opened in 1873. There were twenty-two applications for the prestigious position. In the end, the school’s governors had to choose between Kirkpatrick and E. Vaughan Boulger of Dublin. They chose Boulger.

Undeterred, Kirkpatrick looked elsewhere for employment. He was seriously considered for the Chair of English at University College, Cork. His opportunity came, however, late in 1875, when Boulger was appointed to the Chair of Greek at University College, Cork. Kirkpatrick applied again for headmaster of Lurgan College, and was appointed to the position effective 1 January 1876. His ability to encourage and inspire his students became the substance of legend. Albert Lewis may have made many mistakes in arranging for his younger son’s education in England. But his biggest decision—based on his own judgement, rather than the flawed professional advice of Gabbitas & Thring—turned out to be his best.

Lewis’s highly condensed summary of his most significant tutors merits consideration: “Smewgy taught me Grammar and Rhetoric and Kirk taught me Dialectic.” For Lewis, he was gradually learning how to use words and develop arguments. Yet Kirkpatrick’s influence was not limited to Lewis’s dialectical skills. The old headmaster forced Lewis to learn languages, living and dead, by the simple expedient of making him use them. Two days after Lewis’s arrival, Kirkpatrick sat down with him and opened a copy of Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek. He read aloud the first twenty lines in a Belfast accent (which might have puzzled Homer), offered a translation, and invited Lewis to continue. Before long, Lewis was confident enough to read fluently in the original language. Kirkpatrick extended the approach, first to Latin, and then to living languages, including German and Italian.

To some, such educational methods will seem archaic, even ridiculous. For many students, they would have resulted in humiliating failure and loss of confidence. Lewis, however, saw them as a challenge, causing him to set his sights higher and raise his game. It was precisely the educational method that was best adapted to his abilities and his needs. In one of his most famous sermons, “The Weight of Glory” (1941), Lewis asks us to imagine a young boy who learned Greek in order to experience the joy of studying Sophocles. Lewis was that young boy, and Kirkpatrick was his teacher. In February 1917, Lewis wrote with great excitement to his father, telling him that he had been able to read the first two hundred lines of Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian “with much success.”

Yet there were other outcomes of Kirkpatrick’s rationalism that Lewis was less keen to share with his father. One of them was his increasing commitment to atheism. Lewis was clear that his atheism was “fully formed” before he went to Bookham; Kirkpatrick’s contribution was to provide him with additional arguments for his position. In December 1914, Lewis was confirmed at St. Mark’s, Dundela, the church where he had been baptised in January 1899. His relationship with his father was so poor that he felt unable to tell him that he did not wish to go through with the service, having ceased to believe in God. Lewis later used Kirkpatrick as the model for the character of MacPhee, who appears in That Hideous Strength—an articulate, intelligent, and highly opinionated Scots-Irishman, with distinctly skeptical views on matters of religious belief.

Was Lewis inclined to agree with Kirkpatrick on this matter? The only person to whom Lewis appears to have felt able to open his heart regarding his religious beliefs was Arthur Greeves, who had by now completely displaced Warnie as Lewis’s soul mate and confidant. In October 1916, Lewis provided Greeves with a full statement of his (lack of) religious beliefs. “I believe in no religion.” All religions, he wrote, are simply mythologies invented by human beings, usually in response to natural events or emotional needs. This, he declared, “is the recognised scientific account of the growth of religions.” Religion was irrelevant to questions of morality.

This letter stimulated an intense debate with Greeves, who was then both a committed and reflective Christian. They exchanged at least six letters on the topic in a period of less than a month, before declaring that their views were so far apart that there was little point in continuing the discussion. Lewis later recalled that he “bombarded [Greeves] with all the thin artillery of a seventeen year old rationalist”—but to little effect. For Lewis, there was simply no good reason to believe in God. No intelligent person would want to believe in “a bogey who is prepared to torture me for ever and ever.” The rational case for religion was, in Lewis’s view, totally bankrupt.

Yet Lewis found his imagination and reason pulling him in totally different directions. He continued to find himself experiencing deep feelings of desire, to which he had attached the name “Joy.” The most important of these took place early in March 1916, when he happened to pick up a copy of George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Phantastes. As he read, without realising it, Lewis was led across a frontier of the imagination. Everything was changed for him as a result of reading the book. He had discovered a “new quality,” a “bright shadow,” which seemed to him like a voice calling him from the ends of the earth. “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” A new dimension to his life began to emerge. “I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” It would be some time before Lewis made a connection between MacDonald’s Christianity and his works of imagination. Yet a seed had been planted, and it was only a matter of time before it began to germinate.

The Threat of Conscription

A somewhat darker shadow was falling on Lewis’s life, as it was on so many others. The ravages of the first year of war meant that the British army required more recruits—more than could be secured by voluntary enlistment. In May 1915, Lewis wrote to his father, outlining how he then saw his situation. He would just have to hope that the war would come to an end before he was eighteen, or that he would be able to volunteer before he was forcibly conscripted. As time passed, Lewis came to realise that he probably would be going to war. It was just a matter of time. The war showed no sign of an early victory, and Lewis’s eighteenth birthday was fast approaching.

On 27 January 1916, the Military Service Act came into force, ending voluntary enlistment. All men aged between eighteen and forty-one were deemed to have enlisted with effect from 2 March 1916, and would be called up as needed. However, the provisions of the Act did not apply to Ireland, and it included an important exemption: all men of this age who were “resident in Britain only for the purpose of their education” were exempt from its provisions. Yet Lewis was aware that this exemption might only be temporary. His correspondence suggests he came to the conclusion that his military service was inevitable.

Shortly after the March deadline, Lewis wrote to Greeves, borrowing Shakespeare’s imagery from the prologue to Henry V: “In November comes my 18th birthday, military age, and the ‘vasty fields’ of France, which I have no ambition to face.” In July, Lewis received a letter from Donald Hardman, who had shared a study with him at Malvern College. Hardman informed Lewis that he was to be conscripted at Christmas. What, he asked, was happening to Lewis? Lewis replied that he didn’t yet know. Yet in a letter to Kirkpatrick dated May 1916, Albert Lewis declared that Lewis had already made the decision to serve voluntarily—but wanted to try to get into Oxford first.

But events in Ireland opened up another possibility for Lewis. In April 1916, Ireland was convulsed with the news of the Easter Rising—an uprising in Dublin organised by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, aimed at ending British rule in Ireland and establishing an independent Irish Republic. The Easter Rising lasted from 24 to 30 April 1916. It was suppressed by the British army after seven days of fighting, and its leaders were court-martialled and executed. It was now clear that more troops would need to be sent to Ireland to maintain order. Might Lewis be sent to Ireland, rather than France, if he enlisted?

Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick had been pondering Lewis’s future. Taking his role as Lewis’s mentor very seriously, Kirkpatrick reflected on what he had discovered about his charge’s character and ability. He wrote to Albert Lewis expressing his view that Lewis had been born with a “literary temperament,” and showed a remarkable maturity in his literary judgements. He was clearly destined for a significant career. However, lacking any serious competency in science or mathematics, he might have difficulty in getting into Sandhurst. Kirkpatrick’s personal opinion was that Lewis should take up a legal career. Yet Lewis had no interest in following his father’s footsteps. He had set his sights on Oxford. He would try for a place at New College, Oxford University, to study classics.

Lewis’s Application to Oxford University

It is not clear why Lewis chose Oxford University in general, or New College in particular. Neither Kirkpatrick nor any of Lewis’s family had connections with either the university or the college. Lewis’s concerns about conscription had eased by this stage, and no longer preoccupied him as they once had. At Kirkpatrick’s suggestion, Lewis had consulted a solicitor about the complexities of the Military Service Act. The solicitor had advised him to write to the chief recruiting officer for the local area, based in Guildford. On 1 December, he wrote to his father to tell him that he was formally exempt from the Act, provided he register immediately. Lewis wasted no time in complying with this requirement.

On 4 December 1916, the matter of conscription having been resolved, Lewis travelled to Oxford to sit for the college entrance examinations. Confused by the directions he had been given, he took the wrong exit on leaving the railway station and ended up in the Oxford suburb of Botley. Only when he saw the open countryside ahead of him did he turn back and finally catch a glimpse of “the fabled cluster of spires and towers.” (The image of taking a wrong turn in life would remain with him.) He returned to the railway station and took a hansom cab to a guest house run by a Mrs. Etheridge at 1 Mansfield Road, just across the street from New College. There, he shared a sitting room with another hopeful candidate.

The next morning, it snowed. The entrance examinations took place in the Hall of Oriel College. Even during daylight hours, Oriel Hall was so cold that Lewis and his fellow candidates wrapped up in greatcoats and scarves, some even wearing gloves as they wrote their answers to the exam questions. Lewis had been so engrossed in his preparations that he had forgotten to tell his father exactly when they were taking place. He found time to write to him halfway through the exams, telling him of his delight in Oxford: it “has surpassed my wildest dreams: I never saw anything so beautiful, especially on these frosty moonlight nights.” After completing the examinations, Lewis returned to Belfast on 11 December, telling his father that he believed he had failed to gain a place.

He was right—but only partially so. He had failed to gain a place at New College. But his examination papers had impressed the dons at another college. Two days later, Lewis received a letter from Reginald Macan (1848–1941), the master of University College, informing him that, since New College had decided not to offer him a place, he had been elected to a scholarship at University College instead. Would he get in touch to confirm the arrangements? Lewis’s joy knew no bounds.

Yet there was a cloud in the sky. Shortly afterwards, Macan wrote again to Lewis, making it clear that the changing situation concerning conscription would now make it a “moral impossibility” for any fit man over the age of eighteen to pursue studies at Oxford. Everyone in that category was now expected to enlist in the forces. Albert Lewis was anxious. If his younger son did not voluntarily enlist, he might be conscripted—and that would mean becoming a private soldier, rather than being an officer. What should they do?

In January 1917, Lewis returned to Oxford to discuss the situation further with Macan. Afterwards, he wrote to his father. A solution to their difficulty seemed to have been found. Lewis’s best chance of securing an officer’s commission in the British army was to join the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps and apply for a commission on the basis of this training. Officers’ Training Corps had been established at Oxford and other leading British universities in 1908 as a means of providing “a standardized degree of elementary military training with a view to providing candidates for commissions” in the British army. By joining the Officers’ Training Corps immediately on his arrival at Oxford, Lewis would be fast-tracked towards an officer’s commission.

Yet only members of Oxford University could join the university’s Officers’ Training Corps. The admission process to Oxford University at this time involved two stages. First, a candidate had to secure a place at one of Oxford’s colleges. Lewis, having failed to gain a position at New College, had been awarded a scholarship to University College. This element of the process was thus completed. Yet admission to an Oxford college did not automatically mean acceptance by Oxford University. In order to ensure uniformly high standards across the colleges, the university authorities required new students to pass an additional examination—known as “Responsions”—in order to ensure they met its fundamental requirements. Unfortunately for Lewis, Responsions included a paper in basic mathematics—a subject in which he had virtually no talent.

Once more, Albert Lewis decided to draw on Kirkpatrick’s experience. If Kirkpatrick could help Lewis learn ancient Greek, surely he could teach him elementary mathematics. So Lewis returned to Great Bookham to complete his education. On 20 March, Lewis went back to Oxford to sit for this additional examination in the expectation that his military career would begin shortly afterwards. He then received a letter from University College informing him he could begin his studies on 26 April. The door to Oxford had been opened. But only partially.

Before Lewis would be able to complete his studies at Oxford, he would first have to go to war.




The Vasty Fields of France: War

The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) once quipped that the best way of making sense of people is to find out what was happening in the world when they were twenty years old. A few weeks before 29 November 1918—the day that Lewis turned twenty—the Great War finally came to an end. Many felt guilty for surviving while their comrades had fallen. Those who served in trench warfare were permanently marked by the violence, destruction, and horrors they had experienced. Lewis’s twentieth year was shaped by his firsthand experience of armed conflict. He arrived in the trenches near Arras in northwestern France on his nineteenth birthday, and on his twentieth was still recuperating from the war wounds he had suffered.

The Curious Case of the Unimportant War

If Napoleon was right, Lewis’s world of thought and experience would have been irreparably and irreversibly shaped by war, trauma, and loss. We might therefore expect Lewis’s inner being to be deeply moulded by the impact of conflict and close brushes with death. Yet Lewis himself tells us otherwise. His experience of war was, he informs us, “in a way unimportant.” He seemed to view his experience at English boarding schools as much more unpleasant than the time he spent in the trenches of France.

While Lewis served on the battlefields of France in 1917 and 1918, experiencing the horrors of modern warfare, Surprised by Joy makes only scant reference to it. Lewis clearly believed that his woes during his year at Malvern College were of greater importance than his entire wartime experience—and, even then, seems to prefer to concentrate his narrative on the books he read and people he met. The unspeakable suffering and devastation around him had been filtered out. It had, Lewis tells us, been more than adequately written about by other people; he had nothing to add to it. His voluminous later writings make little mention of the war.

Some readers will feel there is a certain sense of imbalance and disproportion here. Why did Lewis spend three chapters of Surprised by Joy detailing his relatively minor woes at Malvern College and pay so little attention to the vastly more significant violence, trauma, and horror of the Great War? This sense of imbalance is only reinforced by a reading of Lewis’s works as a whole, in which the Great War is largely passed over—or, when mentioned, is treated as something that happened to someone else. It is as if Lewis was seeking to distance or dissociate himself from his memories of conflict. Why?

The simplest explanation is also the most plausible: Lewis could not bear to remember the trauma of his wartime experiences, whose irrationality called into question whether there was any meaning in the universe at large or in Lewis’s personal existence in particular. The literature concerning the Great War and its aftermath emphasises the physical and psychological damage it wreaked on soldiers at the time, and on their return home. Many students returning to study at Oxford University after the war experienced considerable difficulty adjusting to normal life, leading to frequent nervous breakdowns. Lewis appears to have “partitioned” or “compartmentalised” his life as a means of retaining his sanity. The potentially devastating memories of his traumatic experiences were carefully controlled so that they had a minimal impact on other areas of his life. Literature—above all, poetry—was Lewis’s firewall, keeping the chaotic and meaningless external world at a safe distance, and shielding him from the existential devastation it wreaked on others.

We can see this process in Surprised by Joy, where we find Lewis distancing himself from the prospect of war. His thoughts about the future possibility of the horrors of conflict seem to mirror his later attitudes towards the past actuality.

I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier.

Lewis was prepared to allow his country to have his body—but not his mind. A border was fixed and patrolled in his mental world, which certain intrusive and disturbing thoughts were not permitted to cross. Lewis would not run away from reality. Instead, he would negotiate a “treaty” by which reality could be tamed, adapted, and constrained. It would be a “frontier” that certain thoughts would not be allowed to penetrate.

This “treaty with reality” would play a critical role in Lewis’s development, and we shall have cause to consider it further in later chapters. Lewis’s mental map of reality had difficulty accommodating the trauma of the Great War. Like so many, he found the settled way of looking at the world, taken for granted by many in the Edwardian age, to have been shattered by the most brutal and devastating war yet known. Lewis’s immediate postwar years were dominated by a search for meaning—not simply in terms of finding personal fulfilment and stability, but in terms of making sense of both his inner and outer worlds in a way that satisified his restless and probing mind.

Arrival at Oxford: April 1917

To make sense of Lewis’s attitude towards the Great War, we must first explore how he went into battle. Having spent the first few months of 1917 at Great Bookham, trying (somewhat unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to master mathematics, Lewis went up to University College, Oxford, on 29 April. For the first time since the English Civil War, when Charles I had made his military headquarters in the city in 1643, Oxford had become a military camp. The University Parks were turned into a parade ground and training area for new recruits. Many of the younger dons and college servants had gone to war. Lectures, if given at all, were sparsely attended. The Oxford University Gazette, normally given over to announcements of lectures and University appointments, published depressingly long lists of the fallen. These black-bordered lists spoke ominously of the carnage of the conflict.

Having virtually no students by 1917, Oxford’s colleges had to find ways of coping with a drastic reduction in their income. University College, normally bustling, had only a handful of students in residence. In 1914, the college boasted 148 undergraduates in residence; this plummeted to seven in 1917. A rare group photograph of college members taken in Trinity Term 1917 shows only ten people. Under the emergency statutes introduced in May 1915, University College relieved seven of its nine tutorial fellows of their duties; there was little for them to do.

Faced with a collapse in student numbers, University College needed funds urgently. Its internal sources of income slumped from £8,755 in 1913 to £925 in 1918. Like many other colleges, it came to depend on the War Office as a source of income. University College rented out college rooms and facilities for use as troop barracks and military hospitals. Other colleges provided accommodation for refugees from war-torn Europe, especially Belgium and Serbia.

At this stage, much of University College was given over to use as a military hospital. Lewis was allocated room 5 on staircase XII in Radcliffe Quad. While Lewis may have been physically present in an Oxford college, he cannot really be said to have begun his Oxford education at this time. There was hardly anyone available to tutor him, and few lectures were being given anywhere in the university. Lewis’s early impressions of the college were dominated by its “vast solitude.” One evening in July 1917, he wandered through silent staircases and empty passages, marvelling at its “strange poetry.”

3.1 The undergraduates of University College, Trinity Term 1917. Lewis is standing on the right-hand side of the back row. The college don in the centre of the photograph is John Behan, Stowell Law Fellow from 1909–1918, whose contract of employment was “continued for the emergency period.”

Lewis’s main object in coming into residence in the summer term of 1917 was to join the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps. He submitted his application on 25 April, before arriving in Oxford. His application was accepted without difficulty five days later, this positive response partly reflecting the fact that Lewis had already served in the Combined Cadet Force at Malvern School. The college dean refused to arrange any academic tuition for him, on the grounds that his courses with the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps would take up all his time. Undeterred, Lewis made a private arrangement to be taught algebra under John Edward Campbell (1862–1924) of Hertford College, who refused to accept any fee for his services.

Why this sudden concern to become proficient at mathematics, not normally seen as relevant to the study of the life and thought of the classical world? The answer lies partly in Lewis’s desire to pass Responsions, but mainly in Albert Lewis’s essentially correct perception that his son would stand a much better chance of surviving the war if he were to become an artillery officer. Much better to be bombarding the Germans from well behind the front lines than to engage in the lethal trench warfare that had already claimed so many lives. However, the Royal Artillery required a knowledge of mathematics on the part of its officers, especially trigonometry, that Lewis simply did not have at this stage. It soon became painfully clear to Lewis that he would never master this field. He gloomily informed his father that his “chances of getting into the gunners” were low, as they recruited only officers “who can be shown to have some special knowledge of mathematics.”

Lewis’s brief time at University College made a deep impression on him. He shared some of his feelings and experiences with Arthur Greeves, and rather fewer of them with his father and brother. He wrote to Greeves about the delights of bathing “without the tiresome convention of bathing things,” and the wonderfully atmospheric library of the Oxford Union Society. “I never was happier in my life.” He seems to have invented other experiences for his father’s benefit, being particularly anxious to conceal his increasingly trenchant atheism. He wrote to Albert Lewis about church and churches, but did not actually attend them.

Lewis was left in no doubt that he was being trained for trench warfare. His letters to his father towards the end of his time with the Officers’ Training Corps deal with the preparations for war in France, including his description of model trenches, complete with “dug outs, shell holes and—graves.” After appraising Lewis’s record, Lieutenant G. H. Claypole, the adjutant of the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps, reported that Lewis was “likely to make a useful officer, but will not have had sufficient training for admission to an O[fficer] T[raining] U[unit] before the end of June. INFANTRY.” Lewis’s fate was sealed. He would be sent to an infantry unit—almost certainly to fight in the trenches of France.

The Officer Cadet at Keble College

The Great War ruined lives and shattered dreams, forcing many to abandon their hopes for the future in order to serve their country. Lewis is a classic example of the reluctant soldier—a young man with literary and scholarly ideals and ambitions, who found his life redirected and reshaped by forces over which he had no control, and which he ultimately could not resist. University College saw 770 students serve in the Great War; 175 of these were killed in battle. Even in his short time at University College in the summer of 1917, Lewis would have been aware of how many of the College’s undergraduates had gone to war, never to return. The fate of so many is captured in the sombre lines of the 1916 poem “The Spires of Oxford,” by Winifred Mary Letts (1882–1972):

I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The grey spires of Oxford
Against a pearl-grey sky;
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.

Lewis would train alongside other young men of ideals and ambition, many seeing their enforced wartime service as “doing their bit” for their country, hoping to pick up their lives and start all over again once the war was over. Space allows us to note only one such example—the adjutant of the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps, who fatefully recommended that Lewis serve in the infantry.

Gerald Henry Claypole (1894–1961) served as lieutenant in the 5th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He resigned his commission on 8 February 1919 due to ill health. Jerry Claypole had a love of English literature, which eventually led him to become Senior English Master at King Edward VII School in Sheffield in 1941. He retired in 1958, and died in January 1961. His obituary in the school magazine commented on his strong belief “that literature was to be experienced and enjoyed, not to be made the subject of theorising and argument”—precisely the views that Lewis himself would later develop and champion. It is highly likely that Claypole would have read some of Lewis’s writings, not least his introduction to Paradise Lost. Would Claypole have realised that he had played such a significant role in the subsequent twistings and turnings of Lewis’s life? We shall never know.

What we do know is that on 7 May 1917, Lewis began training as a potential infantry officer in the British army. He was now irreversibly committed to active military service. By a welcome quirk of fate, this did not mean leaving Oxford and transferring to one of the many training camps then scattered throughout Britain. Lewis was transferred from the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps and posted to E Company, No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion, stationed at Keble College, Oxford.

A “School of Instruction” for Oxford students who were potential officers was established in January 1915. Some three thousand officer cadets passed through the school. In February 1916, with the needs of the war effort in mind, the British army altered its regulations concerning officer cadets. Potential officers would have to be trained at an Officer Cadet Battalion. Only those aged over eighteen years and six months, and who were already serving in the ranks or had attended an Officers’ Training Corps, were eligible to apply. Even though Lewis had been a member of the Officers’ Training Corps for only a few weeks, this was enough to allow him to train as a future officer at one of the Officer Cadet Battalions.

Two such units were based at Oxford: No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion and No. 6 Officer Cadet Battalion. Each of these maintained a nominal strength of 750, and were billeted in otherwise empty Oxford colleges. No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion consisted of five companies of cadets, from A through E. Lewis was assigned to E Company, and billeted in Keble College. Lewis was relieved to remain in Oxford. Having to live at Keble College was, however, another matter.

3.2 Keble College, Oxford, as photographed by Henry W. Taunt (1860–1922) in 1907. The characteristic brickwork of the college, which contrasted sharply with the stone of other Oxford colleges of this period, is clearly visible.

Keble was one of Oxford’s more recent collegiate foundations, with a grim reputation for its High Church Anglicanism and its somewhat Spartan living conditions. In founding Keble College in 1870, its sponsors had aimed to create an institution where an Oxford education could be made available for “gentlemen wishing to live economically.” As a result, living conditions in the college were frugal and austere at the best of times. The additional privations caused by the war meant that the college offered only the most basic of comforts to its unfortunate occupants.

Lewis had to leave a rather comfortable set of rooms at University College for “a carpetless little cell with two beds (minus sheets or pillows) at Keble.” Lewis shared this miserable room with Edward Francis Courtenay (“Paddy”) Moore, an officer cadet of almost exactly his own age, who had also been assigned to E Company of No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion, joining the same day as Lewis himself: 7 May 1917. The majority of cadets who passed through Oxford on this course were not members of Oxford University. Some came from Cambridge; others—such as Moore—had little or no background in higher education. Although Moore had come to Oxford from Bristol, he had been born in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), County Dublin. We see here an early example of Lewis’s tendency to become close to people of Irish extraction—such as Theobold Butler and Nevill Coghill—while in England.

Along with Moore, Lewis formed friendships with four other young men in E Company: Thomas Kerrison Dawey, Denis Howard de Pass, Martin Ashworth Somerville, and Alexander Gordon Sutton. Lewis could not have known it, but eighteen months later he would mourn his colleagues. “I remember five of us at Keble, and I am the only survivor.”

From his correspondence of this period, it seems that Lewis was initially drawn to Somerville, rather than to his roommate, Moore. Somerville, he tells his father in a letter written a few days after joining the battalion, is his “chief friend,” who, though quiet, is “very booky and interesting”; Moore, however, was a “little too childish for real companionship.” Yet Lewis had little time for reading now; days of trench digging and forced marches put an end to that. Only his weekends were free; these he spent back in his rooms at University College, catching up on his correspondence.

Yet as time passed, Lewis seems to have formed an increasingly close friendship with Moore. Lewis and his small group of friends went frequently to the nearby lodgings of Paddy’s mother, Mrs. Jane King Moore. Mrs. Moore, originally from County Louth in Ireland, had separated from her husband, a civil engineer in Dublin, and had temporarily moved to Oxford from Bristol with her twelve-year-old daughter, Maureen, to be close to Paddy. At that time, she had taken rooms in Wellington Square, not far from Keble College. When Lewis first met Mrs. Moore, she was forty-five years old—almost exactly the same age as Lewis’s mother, Flora, when she had died in 1908.

3.3 C. S. Lewis (left) and Paddy Moore (right) in Oxford during the summer of 1917. The figure to the back of the photograph is now known to be Alexander Gordon Sutton.

It is clear from correspondence that Lewis and Mrs. Moore found each other attractive and engaging. Lewis first mentioned this “Irish lady” in a letter to his father of 18 June. Mrs. Moore later wrote to Albert Lewis in October of that year, remarking that his son, who was her son’s roommate, was “very charming and most likeable and won golden opinions from everyone he met.”

The wartime Battalion Orders for No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. Stenning, have survived in the form of a yellowing set of duplicated foolscap sheets. These documents, covering the years 1916–1918, are clearly incomplete and do not give a full picture of the identity or activities of this training unit. Not all of the officer cadets are mentioned specifically by name, and some names are incorrectly entered. For example, Paddy Moore was initially registered as “E. M. C. Moore”—an error corrected a week later to “E. F. C. Moore.” Nevertheless, despite their incompleteness and errors, these records give us a good picture of the training Lewis would have received—courses in the use of the “Lewis gun” (as the Lewis Automatic Machine Gun was popularly known) and how to survive a gas attack, compulsory church parades on Sunday, rules about discussing military matters with civilians, arrangements for intercollegiate cricket matches, and physical training exercises. Other records give us a good idea of the sort of training Lewis would have had in using weapons, especially rifles.

The records also reveal the surprising fact that there were two C. S. Lewises in training at Keble College in the summer of 1917. The C. S. Lewis on which our narrative focusses joined E Company on 7 May 1917. On 5 July 1917, another C. S. Lewis, assigned to the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, joined C Company. Three months later, this Lewis was “discharged to commission” in the 6th Middlesex Regiment.

It is clear from his correspondence of July 1917 that Lewis himself had become aware that another C. S. Lewis was also in training at Keble College at that time. He emphasised the importance of including “E Company” on any letters addressed to him, in order to keep correspondence intended for him from being delivered to the other C. S. Lewis, attached to C Company. So who was this second C. S. Lewis? Happily, the records are good enough to allow an answer to this question.

Shortly after the end of the war, a complete list of every cadet who trained in C Company of No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion was drawn up by their company commander, Captain F. W. Matheson, and checked against the official British army list of December 1918. Matheson then wrote to every known member of the company, and—where he received a reply—published their most recent address. This rare document, published privately by Keble College in 1920, includes the following reference:

  1. Lewis, C. S. 2nd Lt., 6th Middlesex Regt.
  2. Brynawel, Pentala, Aberavon.

The annotation clearly indicates that Matheson was able to establish contact with this Lewis from C Company after the war and confirm his address—in South Wales. It is possible that confusion over these two C. S. Lewises may account for the War Office’s failure to pay Lewis some salary he was owed around this time.

Lewis’s Wartime Experiences at Oxford

On 24 October 1922, Lewis returned to University College for a meeting of the Martlets, a college literary society that he had been instrumental in reestablishing after the Great War. The group, Lewis discovered, were meeting on this occasion in the set of rooms that he himself had occupied in 1917. His diary entry for that day in 1922 is of interest, as it relates three memories of significance to him dating from five years earlier:

Here I first was brought home drunk: here I wrote some of the poems in Spirits in Bondage. D had been in this room.

Each of these memories alerts us to key aspects of Lewis’s personal development during his time at Oxford in the summer of 1917. Only one of them was literary in character.

The first such memory concerns a dinner party in June 1917, when Lewis became “royally drunk.” Lewis recalls the dinner as being at Exeter College; the evidence suggests it may actually have been at nearby Brasenose College, which itself points to Lewis’s state of drunkenness on the evening in question. Disinhibited under the influence of what were clearly substantial quantities of alcohol, Lewis unwisely let slip his growing interest in sadomasochism, which he had already confided a little shamefully to Arthur Greeves. Lewis recalls that he went around imploring everyone to let him “whip them for the sum of 1s. a lash.” Lewis had no other memory of that debauched evening, other than waking up on the floor of his own room in University College the next morning.

This intriguing streak in the young Lewis’s character seems to have emerged earlier that year, and led him to investigate the erotic writings of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). Lewis also took pleasure around this time in reading the sections of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1770) dealing with the pleasures of beating, and compared himself to William Morris (1834–1896) as “a special devotee of the rod.” He apologised to Greeves at one point for writing a letter “across his knee,” only to find that this phrase triggered distracting erotic associations in his mind:

“Across my knee” of course makes one think of positions for Whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes. This position, with its childish, nursery associations wd. have something beautifully intimate and also very humiliating for the victim.

Although Lewis’s flagellant fantasies generally concerned beautiful women (possibly including Greeves’s sister Lily), his Oxford letters suggest he was also prepared to extend these to young men.

Three of his letters to Arthur Greeves of early 1917 are signed “Philomastix” (Greek, “lover of the whip”). In these letters, Lewis tries to explain something of his growing fascination with the “sensuality of cruelty,” in the knowledge that Greeves did not share it and would not condone it. “Very, very few,” Lewis conceded, were “affected in this strange way”—and Greeves was certainly not one of them. Indeed, Lewis used a nickname for Greeves from about the spring of 1915 to the summer of 1918—“Galahad,” a reference to his confidant’s purity and ability to withstand the temptations to which Lewis himself clearly felt drawn.

Lewis’s teasing of Greeves on this point is clearly grounded in fact. Greeves’s personal diary around this time does indeed show a marked concern for his personal purity, especially after his confirmation into the Church of Ireland on 10 June 1917. This church service marked Greeves’s religious “coming of age,” which Greeves clearly regarded as a spiritual landmark. Perhaps unknown to Lewis, his friend seems to have been passing through some kind of crisis around this time. His diary mingles prayer that he may “keep pure minded” with darker concerns about the meaninglessness of life. “What a terrible life! What is it all for? Trust in Him.” The diaries reveal a lonely young man, who saw his friendship with Lewis and his faith in God as fixed stars in a gloomy and unstable firmament.

The second memory relates to Lewis’s growing aspiration to be remembered as a poet. By this stage, there was increasing recognition of the category of the “war poet,” which included writers such as Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), Robert Graves (1895–1985), and Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), the last of which achieved particular fame for three lines from “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

Brooke died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite on 23 April 1915, on his way to fight in the Gallipoli campaign. He was buried in a “corner of a foreign field” in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros.

Inspired by such examples, Lewis began to write his own war poetry during his time at Oxford, while preparing for conflict. These poems, published in March 1919 under the pseudonym “Clive Hamilton” (Hamilton was his mother’s maiden name), have never been well regarded, and are rarely reprinted. Lewis initially titled the poems Spirits in Prison: A Cycle of Lyrical Poems. Albert Lewis, who was more widely read than many appreciated, pointed out that a novel by this name had been published by Robert Hitchens in 1908. Lewis took the point, and changed the title to Spirits in Bondage.

Yet it is questionable whether Spirits in Bondage can properly be classified as war poetry. By my reckoning, over half of the poems in this collection were written before Lewis actually went to France and saw active service. These earlier poems are somewhat intellectualised reflections on war from a safe distance, untainted by the passions, despair, and brutality of the killing fields of France. The poems are often intellectually interesting, yet fail to sustain the poetic vision of a Sassoon or a Brooke.

So what do these poems tell us about Lewis? They are, after all, the first significant published works from his pen. Stylistically, they perhaps show that Lewis’s voice had some way to go before it would achieve its mature authority. At this stage in his career, however, the poems are of particular interest on account of their witness to his trenchant atheism. The most interesting parts of the cycle are its protests against a silent, uncaring heaven. The “Ode for New Year’s Day,” written when under fire near the French town of Arras in January 1918, declares the final death of a God who was in any case a human fabrication. Any idea that the “red God” might “lend an ear” to human cries of misery lay discredited and abandoned in the mud, a disgraced “Power who slays and puts aside the beauty that has been.”

These lines are important, as they express two themes that were clearly deeply impressed upon Lewis’s mind at this time: his contempt for a God he did not believe to exist, yet wished to blame for the carnage and destruction that lay around him; and his deep longing for the safety and security of the past—a past he clearly believed to have been destroyed forever. This note of wistfulness over the irretrievability of a loved past is a recurrent theme in Lewis’s later writings.

Perhaps the most important thing that Spirits in Bondage tells us about Lewis is aspirational—namely, that Lewis wanted to be remembered as a poet, and believed that he had the talent necessary to achieve this calling. Although Lewis is today remembered as a literary critic, apologist, and novelist, none of these corresponds to his own youthful dreams and hopes of his future. Lewis is a failed poet who found greatness in other spheres of writing. Yet some would say that, having failed as a writer of poetry, Lewis succeeded as a writer of prose—a prose saturated with the powerful rhythms and melodious phrasing of a natural poet.

But what of the third memory? Who is “D”? And why does Lewis attach such importance to D’s visit to his room in 1917? As the later diary makes clear, the reference is to Mrs. Moore, with whom Lewis was then living. This complex relationship, of which we shall have much more to say in due course, began during Lewis’s time as an officer cadet at Keble College. Paddy Moore may have been the original occasion for Lewis’s intimacy with Moore’s mother, but the relationship rapidly developed independently of him.

There is no doubt that Lewis was close to Paddy Moore. Indeed, the relationship may have been closer than most biographers realise. A personal bond appears to have developed between Lewis and Moore during the time they shared a room together at Keble College. To explore this point, let us reflect on the question of the regiment of the British army in which Lewis would serve. On 26 September 1917, Lewis received a temporary commission as second lieutenant in the 3rd Somerset Light Infantry and was given a month’s leave before being sent for further training in South Devon. Paddy Moore was given a commission in the Rifle Brigade and was posted to the Somme.

But why did Lewis join the Somerset Light Infantry, when he had no family connections whatsoever with the county of Somerset? Most biographies fail to appreciate the importance of this question. There were certainly alternatives open to Lewis. One of the most obvious was the Oxford-based Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, to which many of the cadets of No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion were assigned. His Belfast origins meant that Lewis would also have had the option of being posted to one of the Irish regiments. So why did he end up with a commission in the Somerset Light Infantry?

Perhaps the Battalion Orders of No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion contain a vital clue allowing us to answer this question. When an officer cadet is referred to in these documents, he is identified by the regiment to which he was provisionally assigned at the time of his recruitment, in which he would serve unless posted elsewhere—for example, as a result of technical skills he might demonstrate in training. The Battalion Orders indicate that the “other” C. S. Lewis, for example, was initially assigned to the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, but ended up being commissioned into the 6th Middlesex Regiment. Those same Battalion Orders record Paddy Moore’s date of arrival at the course on 7 May 1917 in the following manner:

37072   Moore, E. M. C.   Som L. I.   7.5.17

The vital clue to Lewis’s choice of regiment lies here: Moore’s assigned regiment was the Somerset Light Infantry. This makes perfect sense, since the Moores’ home was in Redland, a suburb of the city of Bristol, which was treated as lying within the county of Somerset for military recruitment purposes. The corresponding entry in the Battalion Orders for Lewis makes it clear that he was initially assigned to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

We therefore must take very seriously the possibility that Lewis requested a commission in the Somerset Light Infantry in the belief that this would allow him to serve alongside his close friend Paddy Moore. Was there some kind of pact between the two men, by which they would look after each other in the war? This possibility is strongly supported by Jane Moore’s letter to Albert Lewis of 17 October 1917, in which she expresses Paddy’s deep sorrow that he and Lewis would not be serving alongside each other in the Somersets. The tone of this letter makes perfect sense if there had been an expectation that the two men would both be posted to the Somerset Light Infantry, allowing them to face the challenges of conflict together.

As it turned out, Moore was notified that he had been given a temporary commission in the Rifle Brigade a few days after Lewis received his commission in the Somerset Light Infantry. If our speculative line of exploration is correct, Lewis would have been devastated when he learned that he would not be serving alongside his new friend. He would have to go to war alone, without any close friends to support him.

It was during this visit to Bristol that Maureen Moore overheard Lewis and her brother enter into a pact. If either of them should die during conflict, the other would look after the deceased’s remaining parent. It is not clear whether this pact was devised before or after Moore learned that he had been posted to the Rifle Brigade. Yet this development can easily be seen as an expression of a deeper bond between the two men, which developed at Oxford.

Lewis’s relationship with his own family went into tailspin around this time. Albert Lewis expected that Lewis would spend his leave with him at Little Lea in Belfast. In fact, Lewis went to stay with the Moores in Bristol for three weeks, paying only a somewhat reluctant and perfunctory visit to his father (12–18 October) before joining his regiment at Crownhill, a “village of wooden huts” near Plymouth. A slightly furtive letter to his father, written from Bristol, told Albert Lewis only part of the story. Lewis had developed “a cold,” and Mrs. Moore had sent him to bed.

For things had clearly moved on. On his return to Crownhill, Lewis wrote a hasty letter to Arthur Greeves, asking him to disregard certain things he had unwisely said about “a certain person.” Although the circumstantial evidence is strong that this is a reference to his growing intimacy with Mrs. Moore, it is not absolutely conclusive. Still, it fits a growing picture of deception and intrigue, by which Lewis sought to conceal this problematic yet special relationship from his father. Lewis was perfectly aware that if Albert Lewis were ever to learn the truth, their own relationship—already strained—could be totally ruptured. What if his father were to see Lewis’s letter to Greeves of 14 December 1917, in which he explicitly referred to Greeves and Mrs. Moore as “the two people who matter most . . . in the world”?

Deployment to France: November 1917

Paddy Moore was sent to France with the Rifle Brigade in October. Both Lewis and his father feared that Lewis would also be deployed to fight in France. Yet suddenly, everything changed. Lewis wrote to his father in “great excitement” on 5 November: he had just heard that his battalion was to be deployed to Ireland! Political tensions in Ireland were high, partly on account of the simmering aftermath of the Easter Rising. While this posting would not be without its dangers, Albert Lewis could hardly have failed to recognise that an Irish posting would be far less hazardous than the front line in France. In the end, the 3rd Somerset moved to the Irish city of Londonderry in November 1917, and then to Belfast in April 1918.

But Lewis did not move with them after all. He had been transferred to the 1st Somerset, a combat regiment which had been stationed in France since August 1914. The expectation was that the new recruits would be undergoing extensive further training before going into action. But again, things began to move very quickly. In the early evening of Thursday, 15 November, Lewis urgently telegraphed his father. He had been given forty-eight hours’ leave before he had to report to Southampton for disembarkation to France. He was now in Bristol, staying with Mrs. Moore. Could his father come and visit him? Albert Lewis wired back: he didn’t understand what Lewis meant. Could he write and explain?

Lewis frantically wired his father again on the morning of Friday, 16 November. He had been ordered to France and was due to sail the following afternoon. He needed to know if his father could visit him before he left. Yet like the silent heaven against which Lewis protested in his poetry, Albert Lewis failed to reply. In the end, Lewis sailed for France without being able to say farewell to his father. The casualty rates among inexperienced junior officers were appallingly high. Lewis might never return. Albert Lewis’s failure to appreciate the importance of that critical moment did nothing to mend his troubled relationship with his son. Some would say it ruptured it completely.

On 17 November, Lewis sailed from Southampton to Le Havre in Normandy to join his regiment. On his nineteenth birthday, Lewis was transferred, friendless, to the trenches near Monchy-le-Preux, east of the French town of Arras, close to the border with Belgium. Albert Lewis, meanwhile, tried yet again to get Lewis transferred to an artillery regiment. However, he was advised that only Lewis himself could request such a transfer, and this would require Lewis’s commanding officer’s permission in writing. In a letter written from what Lewis describes as “a certain rather battered town somewhere behind the line,” he rejected this possibility. He would rather stay with his infantry regiment.

Although Lewis’s letter of 13 December suggests that he was safely behind the front line, this was not the case. In fact, Lewis was already in the trenches, although he withheld this information in his correspondence with his father until 4 January 1918, presumably to shield him from anxiety. Even then, Lewis played down the danger of his situation. He reported that he was in danger only once —a shell had fallen near him, and that was when he was using the latrines.

Lewis’s scant references to the horrors of trench warfare confirm both its objective realities (“the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass”) and his own subjective distancing of himself from this experience (it “shows rarely and faintly in memory” and is “cut off from the rest of my experience”). This is perhaps the most distinctive feature of Lewis’s “treaty with reality”—the construction of a frontier, a barrier, which protected Lewis from such shocking images as “horribly smashed men,” and allowed him to continue his life as if these horrors had been experienced by someone else. Lewis spun a cocoon around himself, insulating his thoughts from rotting corpses and the technology of destruction. The world could be kept at bay—and this was best done by reading, and allowing the words and thoughts of others to shield him from what was going on around him.

Lewis’s experience of this most technological and impersonal of wars was filtered and tempered through a literary prism. For Lewis, books were both a link to the remembered—if sentimentally exaggerated—bliss of a lost past and a balm for the trauma and hopelessness of the present. As he wrote to Arthur Greeves several months later, he looked back wistfully to happier days, in which he sat surrounded by his “little library and browsed from book to book.” Those days, he reflected with obvious sadness, were gone.

Clement Attlee, a University College undergraduate who later became British prime minister, calmed his nerves under shell fire in the Great War by imagining himself taking a walk through Oxford. Lewis preferred to read books to achieve the same outcome. Yet Lewis did more than read—though he read voraciously—while on active service in France. He also wrote poems. His cycle Spirits in Bondage includes a group of poems that clearly are a response to the directly experienced realities of war—such as “French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux).” Lewis had discovered the calming and coping impact, not merely of reading literature, but of putting his feelings into his own words. It was as if the mental process of forging sentences tempered and tamed the emotions that originally inspired them. As he once advised his confidant Arthur Greeves, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.”

For most of February 1918, Lewis was hospitalised in No. 10 British Red Cross Hospital at Le Tréport, not far from Dieppe on the French coast. Like so many others, he was suffering from “trench fever,” often referred to as P. O. U. (“pyrexia origin unknown”), a condition widely believed to be spread by lice. Lewis wrote home to his father, recalling a happier time spent with his mother and brother at Berneval-le-Grand near Dieppe, only eighteen miles (29 kilometres) away, in 1907. His letters to Greeves from around this time are packed with news of books he had been reading, or intended to read—such as Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography. If the gods were kind to him, he remarked, he might have a relapse and have to stay in the hospital longer. But, he wryly remarked, the gods hated him. And who could blame them, given the way he felt about them? A week later, Lewis was out of the hospital. His company was moved out of the battle zone for further training at Wanquetin, practising the technique of “section rushes” in preparation for a major assault that was being planned, before moving back to the front line at Fampoux near Arras on 19 March.

Wounded in Battle: The Assault on Riez du Vinage, April 1918

Arthur Greeves’s diary for the months of March and April makes frequent reference to his own loneliness and his anxieties for Lewis. “I pray God to preserve my boy. I don’t know what I should do without him.” On 11 April 1918, Greeves recorded the contents of a letter he had just received from Mrs. Moore: her “dear son” had been “killed.” Greeves was distraught with grief over Paddy Moore and growing fears for the safety of his closest friend. Two days later, he confided his hope for Lewis: “If only Jack could get wounded. He is in God’s hands and I trust in Him to keep him safe.” Greeves’s deepest hope was that Lewis would be wounded severely enough to be taken out of the front lines, or possibly even brought home to England. In the end, that was precisely what happened.

The Somerset Light Infantry began their assault on the small, German-held village of Riez du Vinage at 6.30 p.m. on 14 April. The British heavy artillery laid down a creeping barrage, behind which the infantry advanced. The barrage was not sufficiently intense to suppress German resistance, and the advancing infantry came under heavy machine-gun fire. One of those wounded was Second Lieutenant Laurence Johnson, who died the following morning. Johnson, a scholar of Queen’s College, Oxford, had joined up on 17 April 1917 and had become one of Lewis’s few friends in the army.

Lewis, however, reached Riez du Vinage safely with his company. “I ‘took’ about sixty prisoners—that is, discovered to my great relief that the crowd of field-gray figures who suddenly appeared from nowhere, all had their hands up.” By 7.15 p.m., the action was over. Riez du Vinage was in the hands of the Somerset Light Infantry.

The Germans immediately mounted a counterattack, initially by shelling the village, and then by launching an infantry assault, which was repelled. A German shell exploded close to Lewis, wounding him and killing Sergeant Harry Ayres, who was standing next to him at the time. Lewis was taken to No. 6 British Red Cross Hospital near Etaples. A letter, presumably written by a nurse, was sent immediately to Albert Lewis, informing him that his son was “slightly wounded.” This was followed by a similar telegram from the War Office: “2nd Lt. C. S. Lewis Somerset Light Infantry wounded April fifteenth.”

Albert Lewis, however, seems to have persuaded himself that his son was severely wounded, and wrote to Warnie—by then promoted to the rank of captain—expressing his distress. Warnie, alarmed that his seriously wounded brother might not survive for long, set out to visit him immediately. But how was he to get there? His brother was fifty miles (80 kilometres) away.

Warnie’s military record helps us understand what happened next. An examining officer responsible for assessing Warnie’s promotion prospects around this time declared that he was “NOT a good horseman,” but he was nevertheless “a keen motor-cyclist.” In a move that was at one and the same time predictable and imaginative, Warnie borrowed a motorbike and drove nonstop over rough terrain to see his brother in the field hospital. He was reassured to find that his brother was not in danger.

In fact, Lewis had suffered a shrapnel wound that was sufficiently serious to merit his being sent back to England, but not life threatening—what many in the army then termed a “Blighty wound.” Lewis had suffered lightly in comparison with others; shortly afterwards, he finally learned that his friend Paddy Moore was missing, believed dead.

It was at this time that Greeves wrote to Lewis, confiding that he realised he was probably homosexual, something Lewis had most likely already guessed. Lewis’s response to Greeves’s confession shows a surprising tolerance towards this development, linked with a suspicion of traditional moral values: “Congratulations old man. I am delighted that you have had the moral courage to form your own opinions <independently,> in defiance of the old taboos.” While probably relieved that his friendship with Lewis had survived this disclosure, Greeves nevertheless confided to his diary that he felt “rather sad” on receiving Lewis’s letter. It is possible that a close reading of this letter led Greeves to realise that Lewis had subtly indicated that he did not share this sexuality.

So did Greeves have hopes that Lewis might share his sexual orientation? It is important to realise that Greeves’s diary around this time indicates a deep emotional attachment to Lewis, which is without parallel elsewhere in Greeves’s life. To judge by his diary entries, no other figure—male or female—plays such a significant role in his life, even though Lewis is physically absent for most of the time. When Lewis fails to write to him, Greeves sinks into despair. “Feel so unhappy regarding Jack, is he sick of me? Never a word from him.” His final entry for 1918 is particularly revealing: “What would I do without J[ack]?” The evidence clearly suggests—but does not prove—that the chief object of Greeves’s affections was Lewis himself.

This could easily have become a serious problem for the two young men. In the end, Greeves appears to have accepted the realities of the situation. Any awkwardness between the two on this point appears to have evaporated with relative ease, and did not become an issue of contention between them. Lewis continued to regard Greeves as his confidant and closest friend at this time, and remained in touch with him until weeks before his death in 1963. Yet Lewis’s complex relationship with Greeves clearly had an impact on Lewis’s reflections on the focus and limits of friendship. It is important for readers of The Four Loves (1960) to appreciate that Lewis is here exploring, among other matters, the boundaries of intimacy, affection, and respect within male relationships.

Meanwhile, Lewis returned to England and became a patient at the Endsleigh Palace Hospital for Officers on 25 May 1918. This building was originally a London hotel, which had been requisitioned by the War Office to cope with the stream of wounded officers returning home from France. Lewis was well enough to be able to go to the opera (he tells Arthur Greeves of his delight at a performance of Wagner’s Valkyrie), and to travel to Great Bookham to visit the “Great Knock.” Lewis penned a long and affectionate letter to his father, describing this “pilgrimage,” and inviting him to come and visit him in London. Albert Lewis, however, never visited his son during his convalescence. But Mrs. Moore did. In fact, she moved out of Bristol to be with him.

Lewis and Mrs. Moore: An Emerging Relationship

So what was going on between Lewis and Mrs. Moore? Several factors must be taken into account in trying to reach some kind of understanding about the situation. First, we have no documents, including records of personal testimony, which allow us to reach reliable conclusions. Late in life Mrs. Moore destroyed her letters from Lewis. The only other person Lewis would have confided in about his relationship would have been Arthur Greeves. Again, we have no evidence from this source casting unambiguous light on this question.

We do, however, understand something of the context against which this relationship developed. We know that Lewis had lost his mother, and thus needed maternal affection and understanding at a difficult time in his life, when he was away from home and friends. Furthermore, he was preparing to go to war, facing possible death. Studies of the Great War emphasise its subversive impact on British social and moral conventions around this time. Young men about to go to the Front were the object of sympathy for women, old and young, which often led to passionate—yet generally ephemeral—affairs. Lewis, as his letters to Arthur Greeves indicate, was a sexually inquisitive young man. We are perfectly entitled to wonder what Mrs. Moore was doing in Lewis’s rooms in University College in 1917—a memory that Lewis so clearly cherished, to judge by his diary entry of 1922.

It is possible that Mrs. Moore fused Lewis’s idealised notions of women as the caring, supportive, empathetic mother on the one hand, and the exciting lover on the other. I have often been struck by what many regard as the most haunting of C. S. Lewis’s poems—the sonnet titled “Reason,” probably written in the early 1920s. Lewis here contrasts the clarity and strength of reason (symbolised by Athene, the “maid” of the poem) with the warm darkness and creativity of the imagination (Demeter, the earth-mother). For Lewis, the big question is this: Is there anyone who can be “both maid and mother” to him?

Who indeed could achieve such a fusion, reconciling what many would see as polar opposites? At the intellectual level, Lewis was searching for a true marriage of reason and imagination—something that eluded him totally as a young man. It seemed to him then that his life of the mind was split into two disconnected hemispheres. “On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’” Lewis’s later discovery of the Christian faith offered him a synthesis of reason and imagination which he found persuasive and authentic till the end of his life.

Might there be a deeper meaning to Lewis’s imagery and words here, whether Lewis intended them or not? Might there be a hint at Lewis’s desire for a woman who would nourish both his mind and his body? Was Mrs. Moore both the “mother” that Lewis had lost and the “maid” for whom he yearned?

What can be said with some confidence is that the circumstantial evidence suggests that Lewis developed a complex relationship with Mrs. Moore in the summer of 1917. George Sayer (1914–2005), a close friend of Lewis’s who is widely regarded as one of his most insightful biographers, initially regarded their relationship as ambivalent but ultimately platonic. Older studies sympathetic to Lewis—including Sayer’s important and relatively recent study Jack (1988)—considered and rejected the possibility that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers. Yet the tide of opinion has changed. Sayer himself illustrates this shifting consensus. In a revised introduction to later editions of this work, written in 1996, Sayer stated that he was now “quite certain” that Lewis and Mrs. Moore had been lovers, and furthermore argued that this development was “not surprising,” given Lewis’s deep and unresolved emotional needs and conflicts at this time. Yet their relationship cannot really be described as merely “sexual,” if this is understood to define its focus and limits. Rather, it appears to have been strongly shaped by both maternal and romantic factors.

What is difficult to understand is perhaps not why such a relationship developed immediately before Lewis went to the Front, possibly never to return, but why this relationship continued for so long afterwards. Most wartime affairs of this kind were short lived (often because of the death of the departing soldier in battle), and were generally based on sympathy and expediency, rather than being more deeply rooted in personal affection and trust. It seems likely that the “pact” between Lewis and Paddy Moore is important in understanding the nature of this relationship. This established a context within which this relationship could be rationalised to outsiders, and likely gave some form of moral justification to Lewis himself. Lewis had no Christian beliefs at this stage, and clearly regarded himself as free to establish such values and practices as he saw fit. We shall return to this matter in the following chapter.

On 25 June 1918, Lewis was moved to Ashton Court, a convalescent hospital in Clifton, Bristol, close to Mrs. Moore’s home. Lewis wrote to his father, explaining that he had tried to find a suitable hospital in Ireland, but none had been available. It was here that he initially learned that his Spirits in Prison (as it was then titled) had been refused for publication by Macmillan, and subsequently that it had been accepted by Heinemann. At this stage, Lewis proposed to publish under the pen name “Clive Staples.” On 18 November, he changed this to “Clive Hamilton,” drawing on his mother’s maiden name to conceal his identity. The book would be published in March 1919.

In the meantime, Lewis was transferred to Perham Downs Camp on Salisbury Plain on 4 October. Mrs. Moore duly followed him, renting rooms in a nearby cottage. Lewis here enjoyed the unusual luxury of having a room to himself. On 11 November, the Great War finally came to an end. Lewis was transferred again—this time to an Officers Command Depot in Eastbourne, in Sussex. Again, Mrs. Moore followed him. Lewis informed his father of this arrangement—it was no longer a matter he regarded as secret—and announced that he was due some leave from 10 to 22 January, when he would come over to Belfast. Warnie, who was also due some leave from soldiering in France, arrived in Belfast on 23 December 1918, in time to celebrate Christmas with his father.

Then things moved with unexpected pace. Lewis was discharged from the hospital and demobilised on 24 December. Unable to alert his family in advance to his changed circumstances, he made his way home to Belfast unannounced. Warnie’s diary entry for 27 December takes up the story:

A red letter day today. We were sitting in the study about 11 o’clock this morning when we saw a cab coming up the avenue. It was Jacks! He has been demobilized. . . . We had lunch and then all three went for a walk. It was as if the evil dream of four years had passed away and we were still in 1915.

On 13 January 1919, Lewis returned to Oxford to resume his studies at Oxford University, so cruelly interrupted by the Great War. He would remain there for the next thirty-five years.