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Professor McGrath's Professor Lewis
on 14 June 2013
There are already three canonical full length biographies of C. S. Lewis, as well as many shorter accounts of the famous writer's life. This absorbing new book by the academic theologian the Reverend Alister McGrath wisely seeks to do something more ambitious than merely echoing the work of his predecessors.
Firstly, Alister uses the new resources now available to Lewis scholars - not least Father Walter Hooper's mammoth compendium of CSL's letters - to correct some misapprehensions in previous books, and also to bring some particular aspects of CSL into unprecedentedly sharp focus. Thus we learn that CSL came to his faith a year later than he himself reported in his memoir - CSL was never very good with numbers! - and we get an appreciably clearer picture of his military service, of the hostility that he elicited from some of his peers at Oxford University and of just how determinedly he was courted by the redoubtable Joy Davidman. (Joy emerges from these pages as a character very different from that played by Debra Winger in the biopic movie Shadowlands.)
Secondly, Alister avoids needlessly plodding along well-trodden biographical high roads in order to leave room for a meticulously detailed analysis of CSL's thought and influence. Narnia, for example, is discussed in considerable depth, and Alister tells us much about the ups and downs and ups of CSL's reputation in Christian circles in the United States. I can perhaps illustrate Alister's distinctive approach by observing that he devotes a mere nine lines to CSL's nursing of his dying father, but a page and three quarters to Michael Ward's thesis that the structure of the Narnian series was partly shaped by mediaeval astrology.
Hodder and Stoughton have brought Alister's work to us as a stout hardback which is reasonably handsome, although not, I think, what a bibliophile would call unequivocally beautiful. A modest four page index is accompanied by an eleven page bibliography and twenty-five pages of suitably professorial notes. Forty-two black and white illustrations supplement images that CSL lovers will remember from earlier biographies with many that'll be less familiar: a few are disfigured by moire patterning - Pauline Baynes's gorgeous map of Narnia not least - but most are reproduced satisfactorily. (I hope I'm not being pernickety, but then I am a printer's grandson!)
To sum up, someone curious about what kind of fellow CSL was should not, in my opinion, put this book right at the top of his shopping list. There are, I feel, more detailed, more colourful, more rounded, more stylish portraits of CSL in George Sayer's Jack A Life Of C S Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green's and Walter Hooper's C. S. Lewis: A Biography and, especially, A. N. Wilson's witty C.S.Lewis: A Biography. But a Lewis enthusiast who already knows one or all of these books would profit greatly from adding Alister's book to his collection. Lucid, scrupulous, perceptive and fair, Alister's tome has made a substantial contribution to Lewisian scholarship. I'm glad that I didn't miss it.