C.S. Lewis: A Life – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, by Alister McGratb
Hodder & Stoughton (2013), Paperback, 448 pages
I can’t honestly say that the writings of C.S. Lewis have had a great impact on me, simply because I haven’t actually read too many of his works. I was introduced to Narnia in my 20’s, in the context of being a leader on a Christian children’s camp, I hadn’t previously ever heard of it, and when I started reading, it made little impression on me. Compared to Tolkien’s work, to which I remain devoted, I found it somewhat childish, shallow, and its overt Christian message (I was still struggling with finding my own faith at the time) was obvious to the point of irritation. I dismissed it as a children’s book pure and simple and have never gone back to it since. In the course of my Christian life, I also read the Screwtape Letters (wickedly funny, it remains by far my favourite Lewis work) and of course Mere Christianity, which was interesting, but I found largely irrelevant to my own experience. That’s the sum total of my knowledge of Lewis’ work. However, of late Lewis the man rather than his writings per se, has become of some interest to me. This was partly precipitated by discovering how big a part Lewis played in the creation of Lord of the Rings, which is detailed quite well in this book. McGrath describes Lewis as the “literary midwife” who assisted in the birth of LOTR. His intercession was apparently necessary because as a chronic perfectionist Tolkien was hopeless at finishing writing projects once started. I remain not entirely convinced by this, but am nevertheless intrigued by Lewis’ role in the production of a book that I hold very dear. Then there is Lewis’ equally intriguing personal life, which I saw depicted in a documentary some months ago, particularly concerning the two women in his life, Mrs Moore, the mother of his adolescent friend killed in WWI, and with whom he shared a house for most of his life, and Joy Davidman, the pushy American writer who more or less forced her way late into Lewis’ life, and was briefly married to him, before dying of cancer. McGrath deals with both of these relationships at length, although by its nature the Davidman relationship becomes somewhat of an afterthought because it was so brief and occurred so late in Lewis’ life. I found the description of Lewis’ battles with university politics and personalities fascinating, McGrath does a great a job of recreating the flavour of Oxbridge academic life in the mid 20th century. Less interesting to me personally was McGrath’s obvious fascination with Lewis’ Christianity and his role as an apologist, including in-depth analysis of Lewis’ Christian beliefs and writing, but this is understandable when you read the back-cover biography and see that McGrath himself is a Christian apologist. Thankfully, perhaps, there is no real Christian polemic in this book, McGrath lets Lewis’ story unfold at its own pace and does not seek to gloss over any of Lewis’ flaws. This is close to the perfect biography, meaty enough to feel it’s worth reading and is adding to your knowledge, yet not getting bogged down in minutiae so that you feel you will never get to the end. McGrath’s picture of Lewis is finally a wonderful portrait of an idiosyncratic genius, a man curiously at odds with the 20th century, yet whose writings remain hugely popular into the 21st. This is a great book, a wonderful, fascinating, engaging read, and I heartily recommend it.