Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. C.S. Lewis, a Life by Alister McGrath

I have read a number of books by Alister McGrath and found them all to be highly interesting and intellectually stimulating.  C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors so when I saw that McGrath had written a biography of Lewis I put it on my Amazon wish list and got it for my last birthday.

The only other biography I had read of Lewis was his own account of his life.  It is interesting what we have to say about ourselves compared to what others say about us.  Sometimes I wonder how someone would describe me.  Would it be a fair and accurate picture?  I suppose from the other person's viewpoint it would be.

The good thing is that McGrath is a fellow Irishman also from Belfast and he likes C.S. Lewis.  That's important.  He is not   fawning but neither is he sardonic as was one biography I started to read (I didn't get very far.  Who has time for snark?).  One has to wonder why a person would write about someone they so obviously dislike.  Are they trying to get even?

This is not McGrath's problem and he gives us a fair account of who is considered not only one of the greatest children's writers of the twentieth century but also the greatest apologist of that century as well.

As far as chronological facts go, McGrath doesn't offer anything new.  We know where Lewis was born, where he went to school, serving in WWI, his ultimate conversion to Christianity, career at Oxford and ultimately at Cambridge.

What new information he provides  is to me a bit superfluous if not gratuitous.  While Lewis describes his times at boarding school in Dickensian terms, McGrath suggests that much of Lewis' suffering was due to his own inability to socialize.  He exposits that this was Lewis' brother Warnie's view as well as his father's.

He also feels the need to fill in the blanks left by previous biographies concerning Lewis' mysterious relationship with Mrs. Moore.  For those of you that aren't familiar with Lewis' life, when Lewis was in France during WWI he struck up a friendship with a fellow soldier, Paddy Moore.  Lewis promised Moore that if Moore should not survive the war, he would care for his mother.

Lewis fulfilled this promise and Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen lived with the young Lewis for several years, until Maureen married and Mrs. Moore died, in fact. 

What has always been in the grey was what Lewis' actual relationship with Mrs. Moore was.  Was it simply maternal?  She was, after all, old enough to be his mother.  Or was it more?  Because of the time and culture, previous biographers such as George Sayers, an old friend of Lewis, delicately ignored the subject. McGrath has no compunction.  He plainly tells us the relationship was a combination of mother/son/ lovers.

I suppose in this day and age, who cares.  Lewis hadn't become a Christian yet anyway, so no hypocrisy there, but are we really better for knowing?

The other part of the book that I really didn't care for was McGrath's account of Lewis' relationship with Joy Davidson.  According to McGrath, Joy was a gold digging shrew that used poor Jack (the name Lewis went by) and he really didn't even marry her because he wanted to, although he discovered he did love her after all in the end.  This vastly differs from Lewis' own description of his relationship with Joy in his autobiography.

And I, for one, don't buy it for one bit.  No other account, including Lewis' own give any reason to think that Lewis was bulldozed into marrying a woman he didn't love.  McGrath definitely comes across as having an ax to grind against Joy.

But according to McGrath, Lewis got the dates of his conversion wrong as well, something that he spends way too much paper on explaining.  I couldn't care less when Lewis became saved, I'm just glad he did.

Other than the "new insights" to Lewis conversion and adultery, McGrath didn't have much to offer in the way of new facts so a good chunk of the middle of the book is involved in analysis of Lewis' books, primarily the Narnia Chronicles.  Since I love these books I enjoyed hearing a fellow devotee talk about why he loves them as well.

All in all, I don't know how valuable this biography will be considered in the scheme of things.  I don't get any of Lewis' joy that his own biography (aptly titled "Surprised by Joy") is suffused with.

On that topic, however, one thing McGrath does talk about that I had forgotten when I read Lewis' autobiography is what lead Lewis to Christ.  It was exactly that: joy.  When Lewis read the books and stories, even myths and legends by followers of Jesus Christ, there was an ever present joy that beckoned him and filled him with longing.  It was that joy that ultimately drew him to Christ. 

McGrath states:
The poets George Herbert and Thomas Traherne did not persuade Lewis to believe in God: rather, they led him to think that such a belief offered a rich and robust vision of human life..(pg. 134)

McGrath writes of other writers of the time period that experienced the same thing:  Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot all converted to Christianity. 

I appreciated what Graham Greene said about Virginia Woolf especially since I find her writing bloated with arrogance.

Graham Greene criticized modernist writers such as Virgina Woolf and E.M. Forster for creating characters who 'wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin." lose sight of the 'religious  sense' as they had so clearly done, was also to lose any 'sense of the importance of the human act." (pg. 133)

 How very true.  Virginia Woolf must have also arrived at that conclusion since she ended her life by filling her pockets with rocks and jumping off a bridge.

In conclusion, this Lewis biography has a lot of merit and I'm glad I read it, but don't let it be the only one you read.  George Sayers, a close friend of Lewis wrote a highly recommended biography which is in my TBR pile.  I also recommend what Lewis has to say about his own life in Surprised by Joy.  Joy is what radiates throughout his autobiography, something that is a little lacking in this latest biography. 

The Guardian review of McGrath's book


  1. C.S. Lewis was an intriguing writer and a this sounds very informative as a balanced biography.

    As to the very negative one that you mentioned, I can see how someone would write about certain figures whom they dislike. I am not sure that such a treatment would be warranted in Lewis's case.

    1. Hello Brian! If you've never read Lewis, I strongly recommend him. You should start with Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy. If you like Sci Fi wrote a trilogy that is one of my favorites. Take care!

  2. Great review, Sharon, and very much what I felt when I read this biography. The Mrs. Moore thing is ridiculous. First, she was old enough to be his mother, second, she was known for being shrewish and difficult to get along with. There is no evidence for a relationship between them and the focus on it is simply people digging for dirt because there is nothing else they can smear him with. As for Lewis' experiences in boarding school, if you read other accounts from this time, most men relate awful school experiences as boys, so I don't necessarily think that Lewis' experience was unusual. He didn't have any trouble making friends as a man, so why should we think he did as a child? McGrath's reasoning really falls short. And about Joy, I wonder if McGrath every read A Grief Observed? I can't imagine that he did if he could say that Lewis didn't really love her. Sheesh! I did not like this biography.

    I have the Sayers biography on my radar and am looking forward to reading it.

    1. I have also read and reviewed the Sayers biography:

      I think that McGrath very much wanted to write a biography on C.S. Lewis but because there was so little material to provide he ventured into speculation and even the salacious. I don't believe it will go down as an enduring biography.

      I have not read A Grief Observed yet, though I have the book. I need to pull it out soon and do so.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.