Like many American Christians, I’ve long been fascinated by the writings of CS Lewis. I’ve visited the Wade Collection at Wheaton College in Chicago to see the famous wardrobe and Lewis’s writing desk. I’ve enjoyed his haunts in Oxford such as the Trout and the “Bird and Baby” (the Eagle and Child pub). I even worked for his publisher for a time (Fount, part of HarperCollins). But only after reading Alister McGrath’s magisterial biography do I now feel I know the man behind the books. McGrath has produced a highly readable, engaging account of Lewis’s life as focused on his writings and what shaped them. I recommend it highly.
In writing the biography, published for the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, McGrath read everything he could find penned by Lewis. McGrath then situates the various pieces of Lewis’s writing in the overall historical context as well as the goings-on in Lewis’s life. I found this grand sweep fascinating; it helped me understand why, for instance, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy. Or why he first engaged in apologetics during the war, but afterward turned to more imaginative writings (including the Chronicles of Narnia and Till We Have Faces).
McGrath uncovered some new revelations, one of which might be shocking, namely the affair between Lewis and the mother of his mate who died in the trenches in France. He wasn’t yet a Christian when he moved in with her, yet he stayed living in her family home (she was estranged with her husband) after his conversion. It seems an odd domestic arrangement, and one that he kept secret from his father.
I was intrigued to learn how throughout his life Lewis portioned off parts of his emotions and memories. He never called up memories of World War I, saying that concerning the war he had a clear line of demarcation that he didn’t cross – maybe following a partitioning of his emotions when his mother died when he was a boy? Or how he never identified as an Irish writer. Although the scenery and beauty of his native land informed his writing, it wasn’t marked by nationalism.
And I found the whole story of Joy Davidman fascinating. An American, she moved to the UK with her sons to be near him. When her visa expired, she persuaded Lewis to marry her in a civil ceremony. He did, not thinking that the marriage was anything more than procedural. But she moved into the Kilns and then when they found out that she had terminal cancer, Lewis fell in love with her.
I could go on and on! If you only read one or two books this year, choose this one. From it I’m inspired to go back and read and reread Lewis’s books.
C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath (Hodder, ISBN 978-1444745528)