I just finished listening to the ten hour reading of a C.S. Lewis biography entitled The Narnian by Alan Jacobs. Books about Lewis are a dime a dozen, and it hard to know where to begin when trying to find a concise but accurate biography that is not soaked with naive adulation or excessively absorbed detail. InterVarsity Press alone has published 10 titles in the last 5 years on various topics ranging from his philosophical arguments to his literary work to his mystical imagination. Several biographies have already been written by authoritative eye witnesses such as Walter Hooper, George Sawyer, and the son of Lewis’ late wife Douglas Gresham. Why would the world need yet another Lewis biography? A.N. Wilson gave it a try by attempting give a more “honest” account of Lewis’ defects, but was met with scorn by those who knew him best. Jacobs has the advantage of writing with a generation of time’s distance from the vantage point of a twenty-first century literary scholar, where at Wheaton College, he had access to the largest collection of original and extant copies of Lewis’ writings to date.
What I learned about the beloved Christian writer is probably common knowledge to fans of Lewis, but no less entertaining:
-He hated school with a passion. The English schools his father sent him off to were dreary and tortured with deranged headmasters and crass fraternities that ceaseless harassed the poor studious Lewis unto the point of begging his father to come home. He rejoiced in long stretches of illness because he was then free to read and absorb the worlds of fairy tales and stories he so loved to read.
-One school he enjoyed had an atheist headmaster who berated the boy’s logic upon picking him at the train station. The boy Lewis was met with a rigorous cross-examination when he remarked that the townspeople were “wilder” than he had expected. He was challenged to give a criteria to distinguish “wild” from “un-wild” (which he could not do) and was chastened for not having anything substantive to refer to when speaking of something truly wild. Lewis fostered his love for debate and logical argument from this headmaster that effectively made him an admirer of Schopenhauer.
-A lifelong friend of Lewis was a homosexual man named Arthur who was the recipient of letters for decades before and after Lewis’ conversion.
-Lewis was enormously productive considering he had a full teaching schedule that included lecturing and tutoring, taking care of a woman who was not his mother, and keeping a correspondence with almost everyone who wrote him letters–who were legion since he was an internationally known speaker and writer on morality and Christian apologetics. Nonetheless, he was able to produce a literary corpus that far exceeded those of his colleagues who ended up resenting him for it.
-The woman he took care of was a widow named Mrs. Moore, and her son Paddy was one of Lewis’ best friends during WWI. The two had a made a pact that if one survived the war and the other didn’t the one would be responsible for the other’s family. Lewis had the raw end of the deal.
-Considering the fact that Lewis was in the trenches and was wounded in WWI, he never wrote about it. The only time he did was to say that it was utterly unimportant, which was taken as a criticism of the large literary output that came from the poet-veterans of the day.
-Lewis was friends with J. R. R. Tolkien who positively hated Lewis’ Narnia books. He thought the whole idea of overlapping worlds was anathema to the idea of “fairy” and felt that Lewis generally wrote his books too hastily. He also didn’t care for Lewis’ popular writings on Christianity and thought his views on marriage were suspect.
-Lewis married Joy Davidson Gresham for utilitarian purposes at first. She was to be deported from England and Lewis saw it as a matter of Christian charity to enter into contract with her to keep her and her two sons, David and Douglas, in the country. Lewis held that there was a difference between state-sponsored civil marriage and church recognized spiritual marriage, and it would take quite a long time for him to enter into the latter while happily being in the former. Tolkien deeply resented him for this.
-David Gresham has never offered public comment about Lewis’ life and has never wanted to be associated with biographical inquiry. Nobody really likes him.
-Lewis hated TS Elliot and all that he wrote, yet for no real good reason. In fact it was based mostly on ignorance and when he met Elliot at the end of his life, he had realized he had misjudged the famous poet severely.
The most interesting part of the biography is the division of Lewis’ mind into two poles: the rational philosopher and the imaginative storyteller. Lewis often lived between this tension with some conflict, but embodied them with quite a bit of unity. He came to reject his atheism on the basis of the logical need to postulate a kind of assumption, a first cause if you will, but his conversion to Christianity was a more storied affair that was informed to a large degree by the poetry of Tolkien who argued for deep truth communicated by sacred myth.
As always with a good biography on someone you admire you find a lot to relate to. I was especially touched by the fact that Lewis found Christianity to be the most unbelievable just after he would successfully articulate it and defend it from attack. Apologetics, in other words, left his faith seemingly hallow and not worthy of adherence. It was because the validity of his beliefs were made to rest on his feeble work as an expositor, and the old adage “I believe so that I can understand” was reversed into “I understand so I can believe.” Such has been my experience, and it is dreadfully unsatisfying. I also related with Lewis’ ecumenical tendencies that labored for a “mere Christianity” believing in one God the Creator of all and His son Jesus Christ who redeemed us from sin; that adhering to doctrine was not an end unto itself, but a means to reaching out to and understanding a Person. I also enjoyed Lewis’ derision of Freudianism and materialist reductionism. I too have found myself turning on its head the naturalist understanding of “love reducing to sex” to “sex is a longing for love.”
But what is most enlightening about Lewis’ biography is his insatiable imagination and the strident belief that there is something more. That life is more than what we can see and that there is a reality that is bigger than we can perceive is fundamental to Lewis’ thought. This may be obvious to the most nominal reader, but the depth of how profound Lewis thought it to be is awe-inspiring. Delight and wonder fill the mind of the Narnian as well as reason and orthodoxy. So it should be with everyone who calls themselves Christian.