Review: C S Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath

lewisWhen I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis.  After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis.  Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.

However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.

I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons.  Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before.  Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.

Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character.  McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War.  Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action.  An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.

Lewis’s father was very concerned about this relationship, particularly the fact that Lewis was using much of his allowance in supporting Mrs Moore, a matter over which he deceived his father, admitting to a friend that he (Lewis) was a habitual liar.  By 1942, Mrs Moore suffered failing health, even dementia, and Lewis continued to care for her throughout her declining years, showing perhaps the depth of his relationship with her and her family.

In 1926 Lewis met J R R Tolkien and eventually formed a relationship which was to be perhaps “the most important of his personal and professional life”.  Tolkien on his part, was delighted to have Lewis as a sounding-board, someone who would critique his work and help him bring it to completion.  This relationship became a stepping stone to Lewis’s conversion to  Christianity during 1930/32.  Until then Lewis had been an atheist, but his love of literature drove him to realise that there was perhaps something more to life than was immediately visible.  McGrath quotes Lewis from his book Surprised by Joy, in which Lewis wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.  There are traps everywhere”.  Lewis agreed with Graham Greene that “to lose sight of the religious sense was also to lose any sense of the importance of the human act”, views shared by other writers of the time such as T S Eliot and Evelyn Waugh.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

Lewis found Christianity to be an escape from narcissism even to the point where he ceased keeping a diary.  His conversion gave him freedom from “the fussy attentiveness . . . to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind”. McGrath places the key date in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity as 19th September 1931 when he stayed up most of the night talking to his two friends J R R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, after which he wrote to a friend, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity – my long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it”.

Lewis soon became the most well-known Oxford lecturer of the time and delivered whole series of lectures without notes.  He also launched on a career as a writer publishing books of popular theology and also of course, his most well-known work, the Narnia Chronicles.  His fame soared when he gave a series of wartime radio talks and his voice became one of the most recognised in Britain. His 1942 book The Screwtape Letters appeared firstly in a church magazine but went on to become a world-wide best-seller, its publication in America bringing him international fame.  His great, and immensely readable Mere Christianity continues to inspire countless people to this day and is a classic of Christian apologetics.

mereIn his biography, Alister McGrath discusses all these works in the context of the times, but also brings out their lasting value.  No work of theology exists without a context and a time and this book helped me understand quite where these books fit in the history of the last century.  McGrath’s chapter on Narnia is particularly helpful, pointing out the mediaeval symbolism of the work, the deeply embedded social attitudes of the time of its authorship and its theological basis.

It was fascinating to read of Lewis’s relationship with the American Joy Davidman.  Davidman was a writer and poet who converted to Christianity from a strident atheism and then began to explore her new faith with the aid of Lewis’s books. She travelled to England with the express intention of “seducing Lewis” and after an initial correspondence was invited to lunch with him. This led to further meetings with Lewis being drawn to her because of her sense of humour and her intellectual gifts. They soon entered into a controversial civil marriage in April 1956, not really understood by Lewis’s friends.  Within a very short time Joy developed a malignant tumour in her breast and began a rapid decline leading to her death in 1960.

With Joy’s death Lewis lost a wife, “a personal Muse, a source of literary encouragement and inspiration”.  The impact on his life was huge, as is shown in his “most distressing and disturbing book, A Grief Observed”, which “engages emotions with a passion and intensity unlike anything else in Lewis’s body of work”.  Some have suggested that this book shows that Lewis lost his faith through the intense sense of bereavement left by Joy’s death but Lewis himself denied this, saying that A Grief Observed “ends with faith” but “raises all the blackest doubts en route”.  Lewis’s health soon failed after Joy’s death and in 1963 he himself  died through kidney failure.

In his final chapter, Alister McGrath writes of the “Lewis Phenomenon” which reminds us of quite how far Lewis’s influence has gone and how for how long it has lasted, with no signs of it abating.  Obviously the Narnia books will go on for as long as stories are told, but Lewis’s theological works are all still in print and still sell very well indeed.

McGrath perhaps controversially reports that even the atheist Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy “implicitly recognises  (the Narnia books) as representing the definitive statements of the position he wishes to reject.  The more Pullman criticises Lewis, the more he affirms Lewis’s cultural significance.  In the end Pullman’s appeal is parasitic, depending precisely upon the cultural impact of Narnia that he wishes to subvert”. While many will disagree with this statement McGrath’s evident mastery of his subject at least qualifies him to make it.

This is altogether a very fine book and a welcome addition to the many books written by and about C S Lewis.

11 comments to Review: C S Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath

  • I have not read Narnia but I really need to read and explore more of Lewis’s thinking. Though his worldview was clearly different from mine he clearly has had a big impact on many things and seems to have had a lively mind.

  • This sounds like a fascinating read. I’ve read Narnia, but haven’t really read much else by Lewis. Not sure that I will, but he does indeed sound like he was quite an interesting individual. Great post!

  • I ve read narnia books ,I have the screwhead tapes on my tbr pile ,he grew up near where my family lives and where I was born in northern Ireland ,I seen the film shadowlands as well so may look out for this at the library ,all the best stu

  • I see that both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on November 22, 1963, the same day Kennedy was assassinated. Loved The Dawn Treader” and the Silver Chair, but otherwise not too familiar with C.S. Lewis’ work.

  • Great, the post delivered this biography this morning and I am really looking forward to reading it. I am always fascinated by Lewis, his willingness to think. And thank you for your thoughtful review which seems to show that I was right to buy the book. Anna

  • Hi Anna – I really hope you enjoy this book. You must have ordered it days before I published this review!

  • Hi Tony – a funny set of conincidental anniversaries there. Thanks for pointing it out

  • Hi Nadia – sorry for the delay in replying. Thanks for visting

  • Brian – yes, a remarkable man indeed. I think he was noted for his complete grasp of his subject, particularly in his special area- mediaevalism

  • Whispering Gums

    Fascinating review Tom of an interesting man … It’s interesting how some people inspire multiple biographies. It’s a measure of their significance when they do isn’t it … Though of course the availability of additional material helps.

  • Hi Sue – Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away. I’ve not read C S Lewis for years so it was an interesting read for me and brought back how I enjoyed his books so long ago

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