C. S. Lewis: A Life–Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath
Alister McGrath has written an important and informative new biography of C.S. Lewis that offers a penetrating and lively portrait of his life 50 years after his death on November 22, 1963.
This exploration of Lewis’s life and legacy is important not just because it commemorates Lewis’s influence. It also sheds new light on Lewis’s life not found in earlier biographies. The work covers a vast amount of information, from Lewis’s birth in 1898 to his literary and religious legacy in the present. The story of his life is as enjoyable to read as ever, but now with some fresh insights. The biography also has a companion volume that explores more deeply Lewis’s intellectual life (see McGrath’s, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, 2013).
McGrath offers us a very human portrait of Lewis as a relatively normal Irish boy, even if slightly awkward, who loved books and showed signs of intellectual inclination (except in mathematics!). The death of his mother in 1908 was traumatic and contributed to his sense of isolation, unhappiness, and eventual atheism. Lewis also had few childhood friends. His brother, Warnie, was his closest companion in his early life. Lewis is portrayed as a troubled child, in many ways, and one can feel his sense of lost-ness. The years of The Great War did not help. Lewis’s turbulent experience with the military eventually landed him on the frontlines of France. As horrific as this experience must have been, McGrath notes that Lewis hardly ever spoke of this. Afterwards, when Lewis was able to return to Oxford University for his studies, his aspirations of being a poet were not met with enthusiasm, though he did win the Chancellor’s Essay Prize in 1921. McGrath notes that though Lewis may not have succeeded as a poet, his lyrical prose and accessible writing style would contribute to his eventual notoriety and fame.
Lewis spent the majority of his career as a Tutorial Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. McGrath provides interesting information about Lewis’s local literary club, the Inklings. He suggests that the group rotated around Lewis and Tolkien. The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was mutually beneficial. Tolkien contributed to Lewis’s conversion to Christianity by challenging Lewis’s use of imagination in addressing the question of God and Christ. He helped Lewis come to accept Christianity as a “true myth.” Lewis was also important for Tolkien in getting him to press on in his writing of The Lord of the Rings. McGrath calls Lewis the “midwife” of this series. Tolkien would go on to nominate Lewis for senior appointments (though Lewis was denied these at Oxford), and Lewis would eventually nominate Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961 (something not known until 2012!).
One of the major contributions of this study is McGrath’s recasting the dating of Lewis’s conversion process from atheism to eventual Christianity. By engaging the primary sources, McGrath believes that previous chronologies of Lewis’s conversion are incorrect. They are, in part, rightly based upon Lewis’s own accounts of these events in works like Surprised by Joy. However, McGrath reckons that Lewis mis-remembered these events and combined memories into single events. This argument seems to be supported by the evidence. Lewis himself noted that he stopped keeping a diary around the time of his conversion and that he always had trouble remembering dates. The five key events of Lewis’s journey towards Christianity are usually listed as follows:
- April 28 – June 22, 1929. Lewis comes to believe in God.
- September 13, 1931. Conversation with Tolkien leads Lewis to accept Christianity as a “true myth.”
- September 28, 1931. Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Jesus on trip to Whipsnade Zoo.
- October 1, 1931. Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
- August 15-29, 1932. Lewis describes his journey to faith in The Pilgrim’s Regress (See p. 142)
The newly proposed chronology accepts points 2-5 above, but revises the first point to “March – June 1930: Lewis comes to believe in God” (p. 142), making this moment in the story one year later. This adjustment is based upon Lewis’s 1929-1930 correspondence. This period included the death of his father, but no indication of any change in Lewis appears until 1930.
After several years, Lewis the “wartime apologist” became nationally famous with his popular radio talks, which were later published as Mere Christianity and propelled Lewis to international fame around 1942-45. However, this was not appreciated among his Oxford colleagues. In fact, McGrath suggest that Lewis’s popular appeal had put him so out of favor that he was passed over or rejected for at least three senior-level appointments.
If this were not bad enough, Lewis experienced a somewhat embarrassing exposure during a lecture by Elizabeth Anscombe at a meeting of the Oxford Socratic Club. McGrath notes that some biographers have overblown this event. It nonetheless may have contributed to Lewis’s doubts about his ability as a rationalist apologist. He thought that he was not up to date on the latest philosophical literature to sufficiently address the important questions of the day. Just the same, whatever Lewis may have lacked in rational argumentation, he certainly made up for in imaginative power.
This is seen most clearly in the seven Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath digs deeply into the Narnia books, especially the classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. His analysis of these books reveals their deeper meaning. He emphasizes Lewis’s gift of capturing the imagination by creating an “imaginative” world that holds the power to transform the way one sees the present world. McGrath presents the underlying themes, such as “Aslan as the heart’s desire,” and shows that the books have a deeper coherence than previously imagined. Building upon and affirming Michael Ward’s work (see Planet Narnia, 2008), McGrath discusses how Lewis seems to have crafted the Narnia stories along the lines of the medieval symbolism of the seven planets, wherein each book’s tone and feel reflect the corresponding “planet” (including the Sun and Moon). This symbolism doesn’t control the story, but rather, shapes the background of the individual books.
McGrath also gives a detailed account of Lewis’s transfer to Cambridge, where he was finally appointed to a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1954-55). It was during this time that his unique relationship (and eventual marriage) to Joy Davidman occurred. Davidman (or, “Mrs. Gresham”) was an admirer of Lewis’s, especially after her own conversion to Christianity. Evidence suggests that she came to England to woo Lewis, and the two were eventually married. Initially, this was simply a civil ceremony to provide Davidman and her sons permanent residence in the UK. Eventually, after Davidman became ill, Lewis’s affections for her seem to have become genuine, and the two were married by an Anglican clergyman (against Church law) in the hospital. The short marriage and Davidman’s eventual death provided Lewis with his most intense crisis of faith (see A Grief Observed). His theoretical musings about “the problem of pain” came home for him in dramatic and tragic fashion.
After providing an account of Lewis’s final days and eventual death on November 22, 1963, McGrath discusses Lewis’s legacy. This valuable section of the book shows how Lewis’s popularity began to fade soon after his death, only to be resurrected after a few short decades. Many assumed his writings were too time-bound to remain relevant to Christian thought. His modern rational methods would, presumably, be replaced by the rise of postmodernism. However, the American Evangelical resurgence in the later 20th century brought Lewis to a place of immense prominence. Not only have the Narnia stories continued to capture people’s imagination, his apologetic works have provided some intellectual grounding for many thinking evangelicals and converts. People have also found Lewis’s approach as a “mere Christian,” unbound to a particular denomination, to be refreshing and encouraging. Thus, interest in Lewis remains strong with no sign of letting up–even 50 years after his death. As McGrath states, “Lewis has made the most difficult transition an author can hope to make–being read by more people a generation after his death than before it” (p. 378).
This work will surely establish itself as a standard biography of C.S. Lewis. The new light it sheds on Lewis’s life and work, produced through in-depth study of primary sources (some of which have only recently become available) make McGrath’s book vital to all serious studies of Lewis’s life and literature. I highly recommend the book to any who have interest in this “eccentric genius,” especially those who wish to engage at a deep academic level.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.