C.S. LEWIS: A Biography

By A.N. Wilson

Norton. 334 pp. $22.50

INTELLIGENT and thorough, this life of the great Christian apologist and master of allegory and fable is written by a highly experienced biographer. A.N. Wilson is the author of lives of Tolstoy, Milton, Walter Scott and Belloc; also of 10 novels. His productivity notwithstanding, he is a painstaking scholar.

Many books about Lewis have appeared in recent years; Wilson is well acquainted with most of them, although he appears not to have encountered one of the more perceptive, Michael Aeschliman's The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (1983). Sympathetic with his subject (though disagreeing with Lewis's political views, of which he says little), Wilson admires greatly Lewis the scholar and Lewis the fabulist; he is less taken with Lewis the religious polemicist.

For such books as The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity, well argued though they are, do not move the heart half so strongly as do his Chronicles of Narnia (on which A.N. Wilson was reared), The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim's Regress (this reviewer's favorite), the Perelandra trilogy, and Till We have Faces. It was Lewis's sense of the numinous, and his moral imagination, that led him to accept Christian doctrine -- not an abstract process of right reason. So, naturally enough, Lewis led a whole generation of children toward religious conviction through fantasy, the Narnian tales, not through dry dialectics.

Wilson does not depreciate Lewis's formidable argumentative and logical powers when he praises him as the greatest fabulist of the 20th century. For what we call "fable" is an expression of truth through analogy. A fable is a "supposal," as Lewis himself put it. The fable-teller deliberately creates a fiction so that he may impart a moral. The Greek root of this term signifies "to give light": the fabulist, that is, illuminates the nature of things through a tale both he and his auditors, or readers, know to be an ingenious analogical invention. As St. Ambrose instructs us, it has not pleased God that man should be saved through logic.

At the middle of the 20th century, Lewis found himself in a foggy climate of opinion, positivistic and mechanistic, hostile to doctrines not born yesterday, and incredulous especially of anything allegedly supernatural. The idea of the holy had faded at his Oxford and his Cambridge. How might belief be restored? As Lewis found, fables roused the religious imagination as little tracts and pamphlets could not: It is more efficacious to please than to confute. One thinks here of Kipling's "The Fabulists":

When all the world would keep a matter hid,

Since Truth is seldom friend to any crowd,

Men write in fable as old Aesop did,

Jesting at that which none will name aloud,

And this they needs must do, or it will fall

Unless they please they are not heard at all.

Please Lewis's fables did, and do: Recently an American publisher paid $3 million merely for the renewal of the contract to publish the Narnian Chronicles in this country. The Screwtape Letters, and those three romances so grossly called "science fiction" (which contain no scientistic mumbo-jumbo at all), have done more in many quarters to make Christianity once again a credible body of dogmata than have all the outpourings of church presses in recent decades.

The long-run success of his 57 books (including the posthumously published ones) did not enrich Lewis. Often hard pressed for money, he lived an existence very like that of Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier. He was the foremost spirit among the Inklings (the talented circle that included J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams), lecturing much and impressively, writing his powerful English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, The Discarded Image (about medieval and renaissance literature) and The Allegory of Love. HIS PRIVATE life, like that of T.S. Eliot (no friend of Lewis), was not exciting; but there was much sadness in it, as in Eliot's. The two women he loved were repugnant to many of his friends, as they seem to this reviewer. He talked and walked much in rural England and Ireland, but traveled little otherwise -- except in the boundless realms of imagination. He took next to no thought for the morrow, or for the body -- dying, Wilson suggests, from having drunk far too much tea all his life. (Wilson's detailed account of Lewis' urinary tribulations, near the end of his life, is somewhat too strong for the stomach of this reviewer -- though it does illustrate Lewis' neglect of his body's state, his simple trust in his friends and his fortitude.)

A Grief Observed, Lewis's lamentation at the death of his wife, Joy, Wilson believes to be his most powerful work. T.S. Eliot found "the short typescript distasteful enough to be worth a second reading" -- and published it. "Outside the Psalms and the Book of Job," Wilson writes, "there is not a book quite like A Grief Observed, a book by a man who still believes in God but cannot find evidence for His goodness." This reviewer has not dared to read it: His wife instructs him that he is too much like Lewis to submit himself to that high agony.

In his concluding chapter, "Further Up and Further In," Wilson describes the modes in which Lewis, dead, is being enshrined in fable by his devotees: his apparition is beheld; he stands 8 feet high in a church window. And Wilson approves, if somewhat wryly. For beyond death, Lewis's communication, like Eliot's, "is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living."

Russell Kirk's books include "Prospects for Conservatives," the mystical romance "Lord of the Hollow Dark" and a forthcoming volume of memoirs, "The Sword of Imagination."