This is a book written by someone who discovered Lewis through his writings, for others who have come to know Lewis in the same way. …
Why so? As Lewis emphasized throughout the 1930s, the important thing about authors is the texts that they write. What really matters is what those texts themselves say. Authors should not themselves be a “spectacle”; they are rather the “set of spectacles” through which we as readers see ourselves, the world, and the greater scheme of things of which we are a part. Lewis thus had surprisingly little interest in the personal history of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674), or the political and social context within which he wrote. What really mattered were Milton’s writings–his ideas. The way Lewis believed we should approach Milton must be allowed to shape the way we in turn approach Lewis. Throughout this work, wherever possible, I have tried to engage with his writings, exploring what they say, and assessing their significance.
Unfortunately, since I rarely read biographies, I was hoping that Dr. Alister McGrath would follow that approach much more than he actually did in C.S. Lewis–A Life. There were long swathes of the book where Lewis’s life was the only story told and, honestly, I cared little for unvarnished biography without some concurrent literary engagement.
I realize this particular complaint is largely my own fault. To be fair, McGrath also says in his introduction that this is a critical biography and it is called “A Life” so I should have been expecting a lot of biographical material. Unfortunately, McGrath was often more interested in setting chronology straight or identifying vague sources from letters or notes than in engaging with Lewis’ writing.
I was interested in C.S. Lewis, like many Americans as it turns out, because my love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing led to an interest in his famous friend and fellow Inkling. (The Inklings were an informal literary discussion group in which both took an active part when professors at Oxford University.) I have long been fascinated by Lewis’s versatility as an author. Anyone who could write The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, ‘Til We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed had not only popular appeal but amazing range.
What I found revealed in C.S. Lewis–A Life was a complex person who was both an accomplished liar and a sincere Truth seeker, someone who was downcast upon discovering God was a real person and yet wrote inspiringly about the joy of faith, a man who carried on scandalous romances but whose commitments were sincere. In other words, Lewis was thoroughly human.
I recognized myself in him more than I care to admit, largely in the contradictions between my faults and my aspirations, somewhat in my blind spots, but most of all in my love of the way that story tells us Truth in a way that facts cannot.
Lewis fits into a broader pattern at this tie–the conversion of literary scholars and writers through and because of their literary interests. Lewis’s love of literature is not a backdrop to his conversion; it is integral to his discovery of the rational and imaginative appeal of Christianity. … Lewis’s reading of the classics of English literature forced him to encounter and evaluate the ideas and attitudes that they embodied and expressed. And to his chagrin, Lewis began to realize that those who were grounded on a Christian outlook seemed to offer the most resilient and persuasive “treaty with reality.”
I wasn’t converted by literature but once that conversion took place I gradually began to see the layering of Truth within story in ways I couldn’t before. McGrath is at great pains to point out how Lewis’s fiction reflects Truth, albeit in a different way than Tolkien, of course.
The contrast with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is important here. The complex and dark narrative of The Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring that rules the other rings–and then destroying it, because it turns out to be so dangerous and destructive. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story that makes sense of all other stories–and then embracing that story with delight because of its power to give meaning and value to life. Yet Lewis’s narrative nevertheless subtly raises darker questions. Which story is the true story? Which stories are merely its shadows and echoes? And which are mere fabrications–tales spun to entrap and deceive?
As someone who came to the Chronicles of Narnia as an adult and also before my conversion, I find McGrath’s commentary upon Lewis’s fiction particularly helpful. I haven’t yet tried the Ransom Trilogy which is science fiction, but this will undoubtedly help when I do.
Anyone interested in Lewis’s writing will find fascinating information in sections of this book. Those also coming to it with an interest in Lewis’s actual life will probably really love it. That I didn’t was, as I mentioned, due to my own interests and is no fault of the authors.
NOTE: I wrote this for the Patheos Book Club. Publishers pay for the Patheos Book Club to feature their books … and I received a review copy free. However, my opinions are my own and I love or hate a book on its own merits.