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.
A human life is unable to be tidied into convenient little categories. Here we meet CS Lewis at his messy, brilliant and complicated best.
McGrath's account of Lewis offers much that is fresh and new. It captures him in his eccentricities, abilities, strengths and perplexities! Fifty years after his death there is meaning and helpfulness in this great new biography.
A communicant in the Church of England, Lewis was playfully orthodox but not specifically evangelical in theological or spiritual emphasis. His closest lifelong friends were a homosexual Unitarian, Greeves and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, Tolkien. His formation, thought-life and legacy were accompanied by many a tankard of beer and prolific smoking. So for some legalists, Lewis is regrettably considered a heretic.
His undeniable Christological apologetic and literary imagination rooted in humanity's struggles and brilliance, are wonderfully described here. The detail, drama, depth and discretion of Lewis' marriage to Joy Davidman are some of my many unexpectedly favourite parts of this work. Edgy perspectives about Irish nuns, alcohol consumption and unresolved thinking previously undeclared, all get airtime here. There is meaning, wisdom, beauty and much understanding made possible throughout. There is a wholeness, complexity and delight to the Lewis that we meet in this majestic work. Maverick, gutsy talent ooze from this title.
Whatever you may think of CS Lewis as a children's author or a scholar, his importance to contemporary Christianity is undeniable. The wisdom of Lewis is clear, his apologetics are searing and his fiction a powerful glimpse of another world. The thread of Jesus is clear, the talents of Lewis undeniable and an invitation to live distinctively is winsomely understated throughout.
Alistair McGrath's biography of C. S. Lewis is one of the most beautiful volumes ever held. Photos, research, insight and challenge are all powerfully combined. You'll feel yourself to be all the more in the company of the legend. This is a memorable 400-page masterpiece. Stunning five-star stuff!
In his Preface McGrath writes that this biography is based in the first instance on what Lewis himself has written, with the intention of making the development of his ideas the main concern of the book. Fortunately that has not precluded an excellent narrative of many other aspects of the life of this "eccentric genius": this is by no means a purely intellectual history.
Lewis, a voracious reader since early childhood, describes short mystical experiences at the age of about six - one triggered by reading Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin! But he lost his Christian faith by the age of 17.
There follow fine chapters about Lewis' service in the trenches, his cool relationship with his father, and his unusual one with Mrs Moore (mother figure - and probably more - to replace his own beloved mother who had died when Lewis was nine years old), his studies (Classics and English, winning Firsts in both) at Oxford, his eventual appointment at the age of 26 as a Fellow of Magdalen College to teach English Literature. He was making a name for himself as an academic, but during these years there was no significant development in his attitude to religion. His outlook was rationalistic and he had come to dismiss his childhood glimpses of the ineffable as meaningless.
And then, a third of the way through the book, comes Lewis' conversion. The stimulus for him was the reading of the great writers of the Middle Ages, whose imaginative sense of a unified and cosmic world order was so different from the vision of the essential meaninglessness that had been reinforced by the Great War.
His conversion began with a belief in God in 1930. That was still Theism. But by the autumn of 1931 he had come to accept Christianity. An evening's discussion with his friend J.R.R.Tolkien had made him realize that myths embodied deep meanings; and the myth of Christianity then appeared to Lewis to embody the deepest meaning of all, one that corresponded most closely to reality. By the following summer he had come to accept the divinity of Christ. As secular humanist I have problems with this: valuing myths is one thing, but accepting a myth as a literal truth is quite another.
During the Second World War Lewis became an exponent of Christian belief: in "The Problem of Pain" (1940) he aimed to give a Christian context to human suffering, and its success led to him being invited to be the "voice of faith" in four series of talks for the BBC, and he was also invited to give talks about Christianity at RAF stations. In these talks he found a simple way of talking about religion that could be understood by people who were not academics. The BBC talks were eventually reworked to become in 1952 his famous book "Mere Christianity". In it he produced Christian teaching free of all denominational issues, though the denominations will are necessary to give various elaborations to a common basis and to provide structures which are essential for Christian living. McGrath is good on the strengths and weaknesses of that book.
Before "Mere Christianity" Lewis had published the witty and immensely popular "Screwtape Letters" in which a senior devil advises a junior devil how to lead his patient to our father below. The book brought him fame in the United States. His imaginative approach broadened out into conveying some of his ideas in the form of fiction about other worlds.
Fiction about other worlds was already being written by, for example H.G.Wells, who had used it to promote science as a secular religion. Lewis would use his own novels - beginning with the Ransom Trilogy (1938 to 1945) - to convey a fundamentally religious vision and indeed to show up the some of the dangerously materialist ideas of his time.
As he turned to writing popular books of this kind, he met with much hostility in the English Department at Oxford and Lewis was passed over three times for professorships. (This would contribute to his acceptance in 1955 of a Professorship of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.) Even his friendship with Tolkien cooled: the latter felt that Lewis' creation of other worlds were unacknowledged borrowings from Tolkien's own work. An encounter with the Christian philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948 made him lose confidence in the reasoning of his academic apologetics for Christianity, and reinforced the turn to conveying his religious ideas in fiction.
And so to the seven "Chronicles of Narnia" novels, written for children, which were published between 1950 and 1956. In "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", four children cross a threshold into another world which "you cannot forget once you have gone", which helps us "to imagine our world differently". The world of Narnia is only temporarily ruled by the White Witch, but it expects the return of the noble lion Aslan. The theme of the Chronicles, like that of Christianity, is Creation, Fall, Redemption and Final Consummation. Lewis' deep knowledge of medieval and Renaissance literature, of Plato and neo-Platonism, also helped to shape the books.
In 1956, at the age of 57, Lewis married the American Jewish-born ex-atheist, ex-communist and divorcee, Joy Davidson. In 1946 she had been influenced by Lewis' writings to embrace religion and had travelled to England in 1952 with the explicit purpose of establishing a close relationship with him. He found in her an intellectual companion, but it seems that he married her to enable her to stay in England and be allowed to earn a living there. Six months later she was diagnosed with cancer, of which she died four years later. What had begun as a marriage of convenience had become one of love, and Lewis was devastated by her death.
In "A Grief Observed" (1961), he showed how severely his faith was tested, but how he came through it in the end. His own health deteriorated severely in 1961 and he died in 1963.
When 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 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, not 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 and also the darker sides of his relationsip with his father.
McGrath describes Lewis's relationship with J R R Tolkien 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 something more to life than was immediately visible. Lewis found Christianity to be an escape from narcissism even to the point where he ceased keeping a diary. McGrath places the a 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 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, as a member of the Inklings, 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 apologetic.
In his biography, Alister McGrath discusses all these works in the context of the times, but also brought out for me 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 a delight 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.
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.
This is altogether a very fine book and a welcome addition to the many books written by and about C S Lewis.
on 2 May 2013
An excellent, albeit realistic and honest, assessment of the continuing appeal of C S Lewis on both sides of the Atlantic. Why, today, despite the slightly dated feel to the books, do the Narnia tales remain one of the best loved series of children's books ? McGrath sets the books in the cultural contexts, both then when they were written, and now. He also looks at the various attempts to identify the binding motif behind the books and reviews recent fascinating ( and persuasive ) theories relating them to themes found in medieval literature.
The driving motif behind all his 'popular' writings, both his children's stories and his apologetic books, was of course his Christian faith.
McGrath's book helps us to understand how that faith lay behind and fed his various writings, including of course his so-called apologetic essays, books and radio talks. Lewis' genius lay not in his academic prowess ( even though of course he was a leading authority in his field of medieval and renaissance English literature ) but in his remarkable ability to communicate at a popular level. Not that his academic life was an uneventful backdrop to the life of one of the country's better known broadcasters and writers. We are also taken through the frustrations in his academic career, set against the detailed background of life in mid century Oxford ( and latterly Cambridge ) academia. The biography also tracks his home life which was far from conventional and brought Lewis of course much grief.
Lewis remains a good read for Christians today. This biography is a worthy new and insightful assessment and appraisal of his continuing appeal and relevance.
on 22 February 2014
I belong to a rare breed: I was in Cambridge in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and privileged to correspond with Lewis, hear him lecture, meet him in person and indeed spend a whole (academic) evening with him as his wife was dying. All of that is told in my spiritual autobiography O Love How Deep published just over two years ago. This new ‘Life’ is written by someone who experienced none of these things. It does therefore strike me as ‘thin’ and bloodless emotionally compared with some earlier efforts. While it is mercifully more or less free of amateur psychoanalysis, as of falsehoods about how many undergraduate degrees Lewis earned reading Classical Mods., Greats and the English School (he no more had multiple degrees than I had after four Parts of the Tripos), the approach is on the cold side. I find it for instance perfectly natural that he chose not to dwell on the horrors of First World War trench-warfare after it was over, and that his memory of the date of his conversion to theism was ‘out’ by a calendar year. Yes, Joy Davidman was acquisitive, as was to be expected in a Jewish lady from the Bronx, and yes, she did decide to marry Lewis before he had even heard of her; but it was still a perfect love-match in the end, and made each of them deeply happy until she died.
This book will work well for those who know several of the earlier biographical studies. It includes some genuinely new and significant information, supplementing and correcting at certain points. The illustrations are a pleasant touch. It is still not something which does the trick as a free-standing contribution, in other words it should not be the first or only such study that one reads.
I have been a reader of Lewis's works for forty years and thus am also interested in his own life as this obviously has a bearing on understanding his writings. For example I have often wondered how many evangelicals who so readily espouse him realise that he was a high Anglican? This is something McGrath does cover.
This account I found fascinating and sets out the background and is one of the most open about his domestic arrangements. As you read C S Lewis's life story it is intriguing that despite all his erudition and ability to debate topics he was not a saint and had his flaws.
If you are interested in Lewis, whether because of his Narnia books, his science fiction, his theology or his english literature - then this is a book for you.
on 14 February 2014
The book is an excellent life of C,S, Lewis as well as an analysis of his thought. He does not present Lewis as a plaster saint, but pulls no punches as to what he thinks of Lewis' relationship to Joy Davidman, the American divorcee who successfully seduced Lewis. It is clear that he has done painstaking research research in combing through Lewis' correspondence which throws valuable light on many aspects of Lewis' life and thought. All in all, an excellent book, not too technical and very clear.
on 28 April 2014
Of various autobiographies of C.S.Lewis i have read, this is perhaps the best, and also perhaps the most difficult, especially if you haven't studied English Literature in any depth.The difficulties between the Lewis boys and their father shows the boys in a very poor light. This is in contrast to the letters in Warnie's published collection. Over tseveral pages, in commenting on the views of lewis's Oxford colleagues he is rather repetitive.
on 20 January 2014
I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ambiguous ways of describing it: ostrich prose, for example, (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off).
Unfortunately, I can't do it. I shameless and unapolegiticly absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a professor at my old college. He's a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.
I don't know if it's a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath's work. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.