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From Oxford to Narnia: The Literary World of C.S. Lewis

Academics and Fiction

C.S. Lewis Professor

Though famous for his popular writings, Lewis’ main occupation was that of English literature don and professor, first in the faculty as a fellow in Magdalen College at Oxford from 1925 to 1954. In 1954, feeling passed over for a professorship at Oxford and happy to leave behind the constant work of tutoring, he accepted the offer the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. Students at Oxford remember him as a conscientious tutor and a spellbinding lecturer; some students became lifelong friends. One remembers of his lectures “…it was easy to enjoy his wide and deep learning, his ability to express himself clearly in words well-chosen and well-used made it easy to be grateful for the chance to listen to him making his own loved subject refreshingly interesting to many unexpecting students.”

Douglas Gilbert.

C. S. Lewis: images of his world. Grand Rapids, Mich., W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1973.

Photography by Douglas Gilbert. Text by Clyde S. Kilby.

The Inklings

A lover of books, inquiry, debate and male camaraderie, Lewis was part of the informal literary society The Inklings. Other regular members included J.R.R. Tolkein, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and Lewis’ brother Warren. Members met in Lewis’ rooms or in a pub for wide ranging talk, and often read their works in progress for feedback. Lewis loved Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books; however, Tolkein, who painstakingly created his mythological world, did not like the mixed mythology of Lewis’ Narnia series. Lewis had a deep appreciation and love for Williams and his writing. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength, last novel in the space trilogy, was greatly influenced by Williams’ mix of the supernatural and the commonplace in books such as The Place of the Lion.

C.S. Lewis

De Descriptione Temporum : An Inaugural Lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

In his inaugural lecture as professor at Cambridge in 1954, Lewis famously called himself a “dinosaur” at odds with the modern world and thus more able to understand older texts. “Speaking not only for myself but for all other old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimen while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”

C.S. Lewis.

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1954.

A volume in the Oxford History of English Literature series, this ranks as one of Lewis’s major critical works.

C.S. Lewis.

Preface to Paradise Lost. New York : Oxford University Press, 1961.

Lewis dedicated this book to Williams for inspiration found in Williams’ lectures on the poem. Lewis believed much of his job as a teacher was to lead students to an understanding of the beliefs and assumptions of the times in which medieval and renaissance English literature was written, as he does here.

C.S. Lewis Fiction Writer and Poet

C.S. Lewis.

The Pilgrim’s Regress. Toronto: Bantom Books, 1981.

Written after the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress, Jack allegorically treats his own spiritual journey in this first book published after his conversion. In his introduction to an edition ten years after he wrote it, Lewis faults the book with “needless obscurity” as his own path was not a common one.

C.S. Lewis.

Perelandra. New York : Macmillan, 1944. First American edition.

This second book in the space trilogy was Lewis’s personal favorite of his books. Dr. Ransom, a philologist, is transported to “Perelandra”(the planet Venus) to prevent that planet’s “Eve” from falling to temptation.

C.S. Lewis.

The Great Divorce. New York: Macmillan, 1946. First American edition.

Imaginative story of a bus with passengers from hell who are taken to heaven and given the choice to stay. Lewis, as narrator, observes the process. One of his great spiritual influences, George Macdonald, appears as one of his guides in heaven. Here and elsewhere he states Macdonald’s novel Phantastes which he read at age 16 “baptized” his imagination. In his preface to George Macdonald An Anthology, Lewis says Macdonald, while not a first-rate writer, exhibits in his spiritual observations “Christ-like union of tenderness and severity.”

C.S. Lewis

Poems. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1977.

Lewis’s early ambition was to a great poet. He published two books of verse under the name Clive Hamilton, Sprits in Bondage and Dymer, and had poems printed in several publications. This collection of published and unpublished poetry came out after his death. In “A Confession” he expresses his dislike of modern trends in poetry, such as T.S. Eliot’s line in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” comparing evening to an etherized patient.

C.S. Lewis.

Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

One of Lewis’s least successful books in sales and still relatively unknown, this retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is considered by some as his best work of fiction; Lewis himself considered this and Perelandra his best novels. Dedicated to Joy Davidman at a time when they were getting closer, some see her influence in Orual, the older sister of Psyche and narrator.

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