In fact, Lewis’s literary scholarship, as generations of graduate students know, is just as readable and exciting as his more popular work. “The Allegory of Love,” “A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ ” and “English Literature of the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)” — this last an installment in “The Oxford History of English Literature” — are, for all their academic character, remarkably personal books, the products of passionate engagement with great works of the poetic imagination, of real love for the literature of the past. “The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature” remains unrivaled as a precis of how people before the modern era thought about nature and the cosmos. (My own copy, one of the treasures of my library, once belonged to the great Johns Hopkins Dante scholar Charles Singleton.)
That it scants Lewis the literary scholar is nearly my only complaint about Alister McGrath’s “C.S. Lewis: A Life.” McGrath, a professor of theology at King’s College London, writes in the light — or shadow — of several previous biographies of Lewis, in particular those by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, George Sayer and A.N. Wilson. But he bases his new life on a recently completed multivolume edition of Lewis’s letters and his own reading, in chronological order, of the complete works. Most of all, though, his biography of Lewis isn’t “another rehearsal of the vast army of facts and figures concerning his life, but an attempt to identify its deeper themes and concerns, and assess its significance. This is not a work of synopsis, but of analysis.”
That word “analysis” may sound off-putting, but McGrath is a sprightly writer, quite colloquial in tone, speeding over many aspects of his subject’s life, but slowing down to reflect on those he finds significant. What are some of these key elements and turning points? McGrath stresses young Lewis’s Protestant Irish background, the early death of his beloved mother, the disastrously unhappy years at school in England and the trauma of trench warfare in World War I. He speculates, as many have done before, on Lewis’s relationship with Janie Moore, the mother of one of his friends killed in battle. The young scholar supported the woman throughout his life, eventually establishing a household with her and her daughter at Oxford. While the bond with Mrs. Moore might have been initially sexual, she seems to have provided Lewis with an instant family and home. He remained reticent about their relationship, however, and many people thought she was his rather demanding mother or housekeeper.
What chiefly interests McGrath is Lewis’s religious writing, and in this category he includes “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Lewis lost his faith as a young man but rediscovered it in 1929, according to his own account in “Surprised by Joy.” McGrath argues from a study of the letters, however, that this should be early 1930. A long night-time talk in 1931 with J.R.R. Tolkien — a devout Catholic — further cemented Lewis’s conviction that Christianity was a “true myth.” That friendship with Tolkien eventually led to the founding of the now famous literary club known as the Inklings. Over beer at the Eagle and Child pub, its members would gossip, discuss their research and read early drafts of their books (including Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”).
Lewis started to become famous in the early 1940s through his wartime broadcasts devoted to what one might call popular theology, talks later reworked into “Mere Christianity.” The BBC initially invited him to discuss religion because of his 1940 book, “The Problem of Pain,” a somewhat over-intellectualized explanation of the great conundrum at the heart of the Christian religion: If God is good and all powerful, why does He allow so much suffering in the world? In 1942, Lewis then brought out a bestseller, “The Screwtape Letters,” the amusing correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew Wormwood on how best to lead men and women into sin. And then he capped an exceptionally creative decade by publishing “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 1950. In 2008 it was voted, by the educational charity Booktrust, “the best children’s book of all time.”
McGrath stresses that the seven Narnia books shouldn’t be viewed as a strict allegory but rather as a “supposal.” As Lewis himself wrote to a fifth-grade class in Maryland: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.” McGrath devotes three chapters to exploring the creation and theological implications of the lion Aslan, the White Witch and the four children — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — who transform the destiny of Narnia.
McGrath ends his fine book with an extended account of Lewis’s last years. He dismisses the sentimentalized version of the writer’s relationship with Joy Davidman, largely known through the play and movie “Shadowlands.” An American divorcee with two small children, Davidman seems to have been, at least initially, little more than a gold digger who contrived to make Lewis her rather willing “sugar daddy.” But when Davidman grew seriously ill, the relationship deepened into real love, and the two were married by an Anglican priest. There followed a short period of happiness, before Lewis was utterly traumatized by Davidman’s death at age 45. “A Grief Observed” was his attempt to deal with the resulting emotional devastation.
Lewis himself died, after much suffering from “renal failure, prostate obstruction, and cardiac degeneration,” at the age of 64, on the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot. During the 1960s his books fell temporarily out of favor, but through the efforts of his admirers, in particular Walter Hooper, they were kept in print, awaiting rediscovery. By the 1970s the Narnia Chronicles were children’s classics, even as Lewis’s religious works were becoming mainstays of Christian bookstores.
Since then an immense amount has been written about C.S. Lewis, but if you’re looking for a lively, general introduction to this multitalented thinker and writer, Alister McGrath’s new biography is a good place to start.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.