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Author Study: C.S. Lewis Curated by Natasha Sung '23: Historical, Political, Social and Cultural Context


Historical, Political, Social and Cultural Context 


Historical Context 

World War I (July 28, 1914 – November 1, 1918)

          Britain was not prepared to go to war until shortly after World War I began, when they declared war on Germany in August 1914. At this point in time, C.S. Lewis, a young teenager, was still being tutored by William T. Kirkpatrick and preparing for university admissions. After setting his hopes on Oxford and completing Oxford’s admissions testing, he was drafted into an Officer’s Training Corps cadet battalion at Kelbe College on June 10th, 1917, which was being used as a barracks. By this time, Great Britain was deep into the war and its army was growing exponentially. C.S. Lewis was one of the young men who eagerly joined the army at this tumultuous time, although he could have avoided it because he was an Irishman. Lewis was sent to France with the Third Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, on November 17th 1917, and arrived in Somme Valley, France on his 19th birthday.

     In the months that passed, Lewis went from a naïve schoolboy to a soldier well acquainted with death. During these times, Lewis found himself being drawn to reflection on good and evil. However, he “never sank so low as to pray”, despite the dangers he was facing. As a staunch atheist at the time, Lewis never attached any sort of deep meaning to his experience in the war and was determined to start afresh after he was dispatched from the war following an injury. Many of Lewis’ insights from the war are recorded in his early works, such as Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics (1919) and Dymer (1926), which were both written in the light of WWI. Many of the lyrics reflect his anger at God and the horrors of war which had exacerbated the cynicism he had developed during his teenage years.

World War II (September 1, 1939 – September 2, 1945)

            C.S. Lewis’s World War II experience differed vastly from his World War I experience. For starters, Lewis did not fight in the war. By this time, Lewis had already converted to Christianity for a few years, and had already developed a very different perspective on war. Colin Duriez, a C.S. Lewis expert, described this transformation on worldview in one of his books:

          “During the First World War years and immediately after it, he conceived the struggle in terms of a battle between nature and spirit, nature being evil unless touched by beauty and spirit. After Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and to Christian belief in 1931, in stark contrast, he accepted an orthodox Christian view of the essential goodness of nature, in which evil is a despoiling and privation of good…Lewis’s war experience effectively became internalized firstly as a materialistic vision of the war of nature and spirit, and then as a cosmic battle between good and evil in Judeo-Christian theistic terms.”

            Lewis remarked in his letters to close friends that his faith remained steadfast throughout World War II. Three of his most famous works – The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), and Mere Christianity (1952) – had their contexts and settings taken from the miraculous Dunkirk evacuation and the aerial bombardment of British cities during the Battle of Britain. Lewis also actively participated in the war effort by opening his home to evacuee children, serving in the Home Guard (an armed citizen militia), giving broadcast talks on the BBC, and volunteer lecturing for the Royal Air Force. As C.S. Lewis expert James Como argued, during World War II in Great Britain, Lewis’ voice became more recognized over the wireless than any public figure, with the exception of Winston Churchill. He gave compelling speeches using wartime imagery to describe theological concepts of Christianity. For example, on one of his BBC Broadcast talks titled What Christians Believe – The Invasion”, he remarked, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Political Context

          C.S. Lewis was someone who, in his adult years, saw politics from a Christian lens. From a young age, he was already invested in politics: at age 10, he wrote an essay “about the future relationship of Ireland and the British crown”, because when Lewis was still 10, the Kingdom of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, annexed to Great Britain under the Act of Union, and did not officially become independent until 1919, when Lewis was 21. As he got older, Lewis’ exposure to numerous political philosophers grew, and he began developing his own political worldview.

          In 1951, Lewis received an offer from Winston Churchill, prime minister at the time, to bestow on him the honorary title of “Commander of the British Empire”. This title was awarded to individuals who made significant contributions to the nation. However, Lewis declined this offer because he did not want to be identified with any particular political party of ideology. Nonetheless, Lewis still had strong beliefs when it came to politics, though he did not often make them known loud and clear. Lewis made references to current events in his works, such as references to the Cuban Missile Crisis, communism in China and Hungary, and British elections. As a theist, he rejected the idea of subjectivism, deeming it a threat to civilization. He was a strong Conservative and often wrote about his political leaning towards the Conservative party over the Labour Party, who was in power for most of Lewis’ later life. In letters to his American readers in the early 1960’s, Lewis described his cynicism towards the Labour Party for how they rationed food after the war, and that food shortages were expected in the coming years. Though he was a strong theist, he also did not believe it was the duty of the government to promote Christian values. In Mere Christianity (1952), he wrote: “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone… My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”

Social/Cultural Context 

C.S. Lewis was alive during pre-war, war time, and post-war Britain. He witnessed the dominance of England, the turmoil that came with the war, and the globalization that swept through post-war Britain. However, he was most active during Post-World War I Britain and World War II Britain.

Lewis was exposed to a high-class England, having been born in a very well-educated family. Both his father and mother were highly educated, intelligent beings, which was not very common given the limited women’s rights at the time. For example, women were mainly involved in the industrial workforce during the Industrial Revolution instead of pursuing high degrees of education, and there were no female police officers up until World War I.

Lewis’s most formational years were during the war, and he only officially entered society after World War I. During this time, Britain’s brith rate was slowly decreasing as a sign on national prosperity increasing, and women gained voting rights for the first time. Britain was trying to get on its feet again after World War I. The Education Act of 1918 enforced a compulsory school-leaving age of 14 for the first time (it was previously 12), special educational needs were formally recognized, and school meals and health-checks were introduced. The Education Act tells us that Lewis’ educational endeavours were rare during that time, and only limited to families who could afford it. The Ministry of Health Act of 1919 made citizen’s health a government responsibility by establishing its minister of health for the very first time.

            Post-World War II Britain also welcomed a wealth of new changes in its social context, while some things stayed the same. Britain’s post-war society reinforced the idea of traditional marriage and the “nuclear family”, the traditional archetypical family structure of husband, wife, and children living as one single unit. The media of the 1950’s also continued to reinforce this ideology – women’s magazines were saturated with negative opinions on women’s employment, books were published as educational tools for becoming a good housewife, and TV shows mainly centered on cooking and baking. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain would not occur until the late 1960s, after Lewis had passed.

            Post-war Britain also saw the decline of traditional English culture. Historian Ronald Quinault wrote: “Evelyn Waugh lamented the decline of the aristocratic country house, while John Betjeman mourned the loss of regional individuality in the face of modernisation and mechanisation.” While this was the case, regional differences in culture were still evidently seen. Working men were seen in caps and clothes suitable for manual labor while middle-class men were seen in modest suits. Northerners and Southerners retained their differences in speech and humor. Northerners had their own distinct charm, which was rarely heard on the BBC, which stuck to its standard southern version of pronounciation.

Somme Valley, France, where Lewis fought in World War I.

British army soldiers during World War I.

The Home Guard during World War II, in which Lewis served.

Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom.

The Commander of the British Empire (CBE) medal.

The Education Act of 1918.

The typical 1950's "nuclear family".