Ruben Laguna's blog

Dec 9, 2012 - 6 minute read - lua

Accessing C++ objects from Lua

Continuing the post about lua integration with C++. Now to more serious stuff. Let’s try to write a wrapper for a std::list<int>. Imagine that you have a std::list<int> in your C++ that you want to share with the Lua enviroment. So both C++ and Lua can access the list.

Keep in mind, that I’m going to use a std::list<int> as an example but you could apply the same idea to any other type: user-defined or builtin.


First, let’s get the Makefile in place


all: sampleluahost

sampleluahost: sampleluahost.cpp
	g++ -g sampleluahost.cpp -llua -L$(LUAHOME) -I$(LUAHOME) -o sampleluahost

Lua script

function entries(arg) -- iterator
	return function()
	       return arg:pop();

for i in entries(the_list) do
  io.write("From LUA:  ", i, "\n")

for i=1,10 do

This script when executed will empty the_list printing its contents and will fill it again with new content. That will illuestrate that Lua can access the underlyint std::list<int> backing up the_list.

Note that we use the colon notation to call methods on the_list. So when I write arg:pop() it’s tranlated to arg.pop(arg). The first argument to the function will be the object itself (Think on that argument like the implicit *this in C++ methods or self argument in python).

Note: that I wrote an iterator for the list in lua. That is a function that returns a closure. the for will call this returned function over and over until it returns nil.

The arg:pop() will pop a element from the front of the std::list<int> and will return nil when the list is empty.

The C++ host application

#include <lua.hpp>
#include <iostream>
#include <list>
#include <assert.h>

extern "C" {
  static int l_list_push(lua_State *L) { // Push elements from LUA
    assert(lua_gettop(L) == 2); // check that the number of args is exactly 2
    std::list<int> **ud = static_cast<std::list<int> **>(luaL_checkudata(L,1, "ListMT")); // first arg is the list
    int v =luaL_checkint(L,2); // seconds argument is the integer to be pushed to the std::list<int>
    (*ud)->push_back(v); // perform the push on C++ object through the pointer stored in user data
    return 0; // we return 0 values in the lua stack
  static int l_list_pop(lua_State *L) {
    assert(lua_gettop(L) == 1); // check that the number of args is exactly 1
    std::list<int> **ud = static_cast<std::list<int> **>(luaL_checkudata(L, 1, "ListMT")); // first arg is the userdata
    if ((*ud)->empty()) {
      return 1; // if list is empty the function will return nil
    lua_pushnumber(L,(*ud)->front()); // push the value to pop in the lua stack
                                      // it will be the return value of the function in lua
    (*ud)->pop_front(); // remove the value from the list
    return 1; //we return 1 value in the stack
class Main
  void run();

  /* data */
  lua_State *L;
  std::list<int> theList;
  void registerListType();
  void runScript();

Main::Main() {
  L = luaL_newstate();

Main::~Main() {

void Main::runScript() {
  lua_settop(L,0); //empty the lua stack
  if(luaL_dofile(L, "./samplescript.lua")) {
    fprintf(stderr, "error: %s\n", lua_tostring(L,-1));
  assert(lua_gettop(L) = 0); //empty the lua stack

void Main::registerListType() {
  std::cout << "Set the list object in lua" << std::endl;
  luaL_newmetatable(L, "ListMT");
  lua_setfield(L,-2, "__index"); // ListMT .__index = ListMT
  lua_pushcfunction(L, l_list_push);
  lua_setfield(L,-2, "push"); // push in lua will call l_list_push in C++
  lua_pushcfunction(L, l_list_pop);
  lua_setfield(L,-2, "pop"); // pop in lua will call l_list_pop in C++

void Main::run() {
  for(unsigned int i = 0; i<10; i++) // add some input data to the list
  std::cout << "creating an instance of std::list in lua" << std::endl;
  std::list<int> **ud = static_cast<std::list<int> **>(lua_newuserdata(L, sizeof(std::list<int> *)));
  *(ud) = &theList;
  luaL_setmetatable(L, "ListMT"); // set userdata metatable
  lua_setglobal(L, "the_list"); // the_list in lua points to the new userdata


  while(!theList.empty()) { // read the data that lua left in the list
    std::cout << "from C++: pop value " << theList.front() << std::endl;


int main(int argc, char const *argv[])
  Main m;;
  return 0;

The idea is to set up the basic lua enviroment thought the luaL_newstate and luaL_openlibs.

Then we create a metatable with luaL_newmetatable. A metatable is just a regular table that can be associated with lua values such as userdata. The metatable is where Lua goes to search for metamethods. You can see the list of available metamethods in Lua Reference. In this case we define the metamethod __index, which is the metamethod used by Lua when in cannot find a given index in a table or userdata. So imagine that a is a userdata and we type a.elem. a has no elem in it so it invokes __index on a’s metatable to see what to do. It’s kind of method_missing in Ruby if you are familiar with Ruby. Now the __index metamethod it’s a little bit special in the sense that I doesn’t need to be a method/function at all. If Lua finds out that the __index field of the metatable is actually a table and not a function it will just use that table to find the key. So going back to a.elem example, that will be translated to getmetatable(a)["__index"].elem.

We will use the "ListMT" metatable to hold the methods for lists. We associate the metatable entries for push and pop with two static C functions l_list_push and l_list_pop. This functions must be of type lua_CFunction. that is they should take a lua_State * as paramter and return an integer. That’s how the Lua communicates with C++, via the lua_State and its stack.

The functions themselves are quite straighforward. They must be defined as extern "C" because Lua is compiled as a C library and it will call all the lua_CFunction with a C linkage (that determines the order in which the function parameters will be pushed into the machine’s stack, etc.) so we need to make sure that the function that we are generating here can be called from C.

The function are designed so that the first parameters is always the “object” in this case a userdata of type “ListMT”. The lua function luaL_checkudata will check that the metatable of the userdata matches and it will provide the pointer to the userdata. When Lua call the funciton the arguments to the functions are always pushed into the stack so that the first parameter lands on the stack position 1. So arguments are easy to address.

Finally the Lua resources are freed with lua_close.


Set the list object in lua
creating an instance of std::list in lua
From LUA:  0
From LUA:  100
From LUA:  200
From LUA:  300
From LUA:  400
From LUA:  500
From LUA:  600
From LUA:  700
From LUA:  800
From LUA:  900
from C++: pop value 150
from C++: pop value 250
from C++: pop value 350
from C++: pop value 450
from C++: pop value 550
from C++: pop value 650
from C++: pop value 750
from C++: pop value 850
from C++: pop value 950
from C++: pop value 1050

Things to remember

  • Understand userdata, metatables and metamethods
  • Lua and C++ communicate though the Lua stack
  • check the number of arguments with `assert(lua_gettop(L) == x);
  • empty the lua stack or assert that it’s empty where do you know that the stack should be empty