Mere Christianity. The Screwtape Letters. The Chronicles of Narnia. All classics books from the canon of 20th century English fiction and nonfiction. These works are widely read by Christians and non-Christians alike. And they are just the most well-known books written by the famous C.S. Lewis. Medieval scholar, Oxford don, beloved Children’s author, and the layman’s erudite and witty spokesman for Christianity—Lewis wore many hats during his life. Such a man is worthy of our attention, that we might know more about his professional life, personal life, thought life, faith, and legacy. Fortunately, we now have a smart popular-level biography written not by a friend of Lewis, but by an admirer with chronological and critic distance. Alister McGrath, an Oxford don nearly two generations removed from Lewis, has penned an engaging account of the life of Lewis. The book, titled C.S. Lewis (A Life): Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, utilizes the personal diary and written correspondence as the narrative backbone to analyze and recount the life of this intriguing man.
There are many things to admire in this biography. Superbly researched and endnoted, it nonetheless is readable. It is a fine piece of scholarship on Lewis without feeling overtly scholarly.
It is original, at least in two respects. McGrath is Lewis’s first biographer, as previous mentioned, to make extensive use of Lewis’s published letters and personal diary (which Lewis ceased writing in before he became a Christian). Along with McGrath ordering his research by reading Lewis’s publications in the order they were written, he concluded that the well-accepted date of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is likely wrong. McGrath proposes an alternative order of Lewis’s steps to faith.
Moreover, this book divides Lewis’s life into helpful sections that function “eras”. His childhood and early manhood concluding with his military service in World War I is the book’s Prelude section. Part 2 narrates Lewis’s Oxford years, from his becoming an Oxford don, to his rising national and then international fame during World War II, to the early postwar years of personal and professional strife. Part 3 is a bit of an aside. A two-chapter section, it explains Lewis’s creation of The Chronicles of Narnia and explores its worldview, major character (Aslan the Lion) and themes. Part 4 tells the story of Lewis’s later years as transferred from Oxford to Cambridge, and analyzes his unconventional and curious marriage to Joy Davidman. This section concludes with Lewis’s failing health and untimely death at the age of 65. The last chapter, a section of its own, seeks to make sense of Lewis’s enduring appeal, especially in America—a country he never visited. With the rediscovery of Lewis in the 1970s, C.S. Lewis the man has become a bit of a myth in the popular imagination. McGrath explores this phenomenon—how an Irishman turned Englishman, medieval scholar of classical English literature, and lay Anglican Christian apologist, became one of the most beloved and widely read authors in the 20th and 21st centuries.
This is the first biography I have read about Lewis. Years ago in college I read with keen interest his Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and a Lewis “quotebook” that I found at the local secular bookstore. Lewis fascinated me as a more-or-less orthodox Christian thinker (he styled himself a “mere Christian” and had little time or interest for denominational distinctives which he considered sectarian). Here was a paradox, a Christian allowed shelf space where more evangelical names were stricken. It is still the same. Why? I believe there are two reasons. First, England is not America. In England, being a thoughtful Christian is a more respected, if not often adopted, intellectual position. Intelligent Christianity is tolerated in England in ways it is not in American academia. And second, Lewis is not just an excellent writer. He is literary in a way that harmonizes a person’s reason and imagination. That is a rare jewel, scarcely found in authors, and prized in those authors who have it.
Some of the things I learned about Lewis from McGrath’s study:
- Lewis had a complicated nearly-lifelong relationship with the mother of his college buddy who died in the war. Possibly as a conditional of a pact he and his friend made together, Lewis adopted Mrs. Moore as his surrogate mother (Lewis’s mother had died when he was a young boy), and Mrs. Moore treated him as her son. However, many believe Mrs. Moore was also Lewis’s lover for a season, particularly early in their relationship. They eventually made a home together in Oxford with Lewis’s older brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore’s daughter.
- Lewis was a lifelong friend of Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien (the creator of the famous fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings). Although their friendship waned over the years, when they were still close Lewis played the “midwife” of Tolkien’s LOTR’s series by reading early drafts and encouraging his friend to keep writing. This writing stimulation normally occurred in the regular meetings of the Inklings, a literary stimulation group that revolved around the two stars of Lewis and Tolkien.
- Lewis’s may have kept a safe emotional distance from suffering for most of his life. He described it as a “treaty with reality” that did not completely end with his conversion to Christianity. Thus, his books and talks on apologetical subjects (The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity) have almost a rationalistic feel to them, lacking an existential experience with suffering, hardship, and mundane life outside the academy. McGrath thinks this explains why Lewis was disproportionally emotionally devastated when his wife Joy Davidman, whom he had wed primarily to legalize a civil arrangement to give her English residency benefits, died after a brief battle with cancer. To be sure, Lewis grew to love Joy as he pitied her and entered into her physical suffering. But her death deeply shook his faith in God. Only through putting his raw thoughts and emotions to paper did he process his struggles and emerge with a stronger faith and tried emotions.
- The reasons for Lewis converting to Christianity from atheism were highly unusual. Lewis was naturally a rationalist in his mind. But in his heart he loved the ancient myths and the powerful pathos they held on the human heart for longing. Longing for another world. Lewis’s journey to faith was a slow process of finding a way to live with a united mind and heart. One conversation in particular was instrumental in Lewis’s eventual conversion. His friend Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the Bible, particularly the story of the Gospels, is the true “myth” that makes sense of all the other ancient myths. Creating myths is a way that cultures attempt to tell a story that makes sense of reality and the community’s most cherished beliefs and values. Myths are a vehicle that answer the worldview questions of origins, purpose, and destiny. Tolkien convinced Lewis that the Bible was also a “myth” in this sense—just like the other myths but with one difference. That it happened to be true! Once Lewis embraced this idea, his mind and heart found the union he had longed searched for. His quest was over.
McGrath has also published a scholarly companion to this biography: The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis. The author describes its purpose:
This second book provides eight meticulously researched studies of aspects of Lewis’s thought that have not received the attention that they deserve to date. Four of them break new ground – especially the essays dealing with the literary character of Lewis’s autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, and Lewis’s extensive use of imagery based on sight and light. Although these are solid pieces of research, I have made them as accessible as possible. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis is an ideal companion to the biography. The latter tells a story; the former unpacks some core ideas in Lewis’s thought. So what will readers get out of The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis? Taken together, these eight essays will allow readers to get much more out of their engagement with Lewis. For example, the essay on Lewis’s approach to “myth” will helps readers make sense of (and appreciate) some core features of the famous “Chronicles of Narnia”. The essay on Lewis’s visual imagery helps make sense of many themes in Mere Christianity, and some of his most famous essays, especially “The Weight of Glory” and “Meditation in a Toolshed“. Lewis’s elegant style and accessible prose masks the conceptual profundity of his thinking. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis will allow Lewis’s readers to appreciate the depth of his ideas, while still enjoying the winsome way in which they are presented.
But for most readers, reading the popular-level biographical account of Lewis’ life as an eccentric genius and reluctant prophet will be sufficient to understand this unique man and prod us to read (and even reread) his classic works.
If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis, by Louis Markos