C.S. Lewis was a balding, bookish, British bachelor more accustomed to the smell of musty old manuscripts than the sound of children's laughter. But this Oxford University literature professor was able to climb down academia's ivory towers, connect with his own inner child and write delightful fantasy novels that became the world's best-selling children's series - at least until Harry Potter arrived on the scene.
A series of movies based on The Chronicles of Narnia - seven fantasy novels written by Lewis - has helped fuel his continuing literary success. "Year after year, C.S. Lewis's poetry, nonfiction, and fiction sell millions of copies around the world," Publishers Weekly reported in 2015.
Lewis also wrote thoughtful, witty, best-selling books on Christian theology and apologetics, including "Mere Christianity" and "The Screwtape Letters."
British-American actor David Payne will bring Lewis to life locally next week in "An Evening with C.S. Lewis," the one-man play he wrote in 2001 and has performed more than 700 times.
"Great writers stick around," Payne said in a phone interview Monday. "Lewis was a great writer, and his works are timeless."
Lewis, a native of Ireland, was a scholar, teacher, literary historian, critic, apologist, novelist, children's writer, science fiction author, poet and radio celebrity whose dozens of books have sold more than 100 million copies.
He became popular in America during the 1940s and '50s following the publication of "Miracles," "Mere Christianity" and The Chronicles of Narnia children's novels. A 1947 TIME magazine cover story marveled at his "heresy," which was to affirm supernatural Christianity in academia's hallowed - and secular - halls.
Payne's show is set in 1963, the year Lewis died, as Lewis talks about his life and work to a group of American writers visiting his home near Oxford. Payne says the play focuses on Lewis' journey from atheism to faith, his struggles writing the Narnia books, his late-in-life marriage to American Joy Davidman and his sorrow following her death - a crisis of faith powerfully portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the acclaimed 1993 film "Shadowlands."
"Here was this famous Christian apologist," Payne says. "His faith was as strong as it could be. But when his wife died, it really knocked him over. For a period, he was just angry with God. I love that about Lewis - his honesty."
"An Evening with C.S. Lewis" also explores Lewis' long friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellow academic, believer and best-selling author of "The Hobbit" and The Lord of the Rings series. Lewis and Tolkien were members of a literary group called the Inklings that met weekly at an Oxford pub to drink, smoke, joke, argue literature and theology, and share their writing with each other.
"Lewis has impacted so many people, and now people who read Narnia as children are reading it to their own children," Payne says.